The year 2020 had a subtle irony for Mander Portman Woodward (MPW). As schooling took place in students’ homes, the schools group was celebrating its unlikely roots in the front room of somebody’s house.
Picture the scene, 1973, and Messers Mander, Portman and Woodward (three Cambridge graduates of differing disciplines), were tutoring students in the front room of Rodney Portman’s house. They were helping those students who did not fit the mould of traditional schools gain entrance into prestigious institutions around the UK. Now with three colleges (London, Cambridge and Birmingham) and an eviable overseas reputation, MPW has come a long way.
For a long time, MPW has been the guilty secret of the education world, too often known as a “crammer”, a by-line that far from does the work of the college justice. It sends shivers through the ranks of those who have worked hard to give the brand a 21st century regeneration.
Nowadays, it is a college in its own right, bridging a gap between school and university; far more people’s first choice than the safety choice. It has never lost its South Kensington roots and now occupies prime position on Queen’s Gate, equidistant between South Kensington and Gloucester Road tube stations.
“The college was too often known as a ‘crammer’, a by-line that far from does the work of the college justice.”
Whilst the physical premises have changed, the ethos and aims of the school have not, with the focus being very much on individualised attention and close value-added pastoral support. Living up to its tagline “Tailored not Uniform”, MPW still strives to ensure that every student through the door is assessed and guided as an individual and not a product of a generic system. It is that emphasis which James Barton (MPW’s longstanding director of recruitment), highlights as being MPW’s unique selling point.
“What I think sets the college group apart from the Madding Crowd, is not just its ability to focus in on each individual who walks through the door but, its ability to realise that education, as in life, is not linear and more often than not needs a slightly abstract approach to reach the same end goal.”
“Our job is to draw out the confidence in a student, but it is not ideally set up for a shrinking violet.”
Indeed, this gives you a sense as to the student body. There may be a well-trodden path to the college (the independent boarding sector) however, there is no one typical student. Comprised of 75 per cent UK and 25 per cent international students , MPW is in line with the sector average for nationality quotas and places an enormous emphasis on diversity and inclusion. With a 50/50 ratio of boys to girls, (not by design), it is a well-balanced student community. It might be better to consider not who the typical MPW student might be, but who generally tends to thrive at MPW. Quite simply, it is those who are willing to play a part in the life of the school and not be distracted by a less regimented system (an ambiguous notion we will clear up in a moment).
Our style is very interactive and it promotes a healthy exchange of ideas, opinions, debate against the backdrop of tolerance and diversity. Therefore, whilst our job is to draw out the confidence in a student, it is not ideally set up for a shrinking violet.
The school is not steeped in traditions like most venerable institutions in the independent sector though we would argue, that is what makes us unique. We have a no uniform (within reason) operate on a first name basis, and offer a bespoke menu choice from 43 subjects. There are no evenings or Saturday school; we are a more grown up approach to education.
Those are our quirks but rest assured, there have been many quirky individuals who have been through the revered MPW doors, from royalty to Russian oligarchs, sporting stars (tennis player Katie Boulter) to reality TV stars (the cast of Made in Chelsea), without leaving out of course the actors (Rupert Everett) and the pop stars (Lily Allen).
“There have been many quirky individuals who have been through the revered MPW doors.”
As with most schools, the pandemic created scenarios unique to the tenure of any headmaster, even one with the pedigree of MPW London. John Southworth (principal and vice-chair of the ISA) saw it as a challenge to rise to: “This past year has given unique challenges in unprecedented times. However, whilst Covid-19 forced our hand, we had been pioneering an online product for some time and therefore were ready for it. In fact, MPW’s teaching style migrated very nicely online as it is a system that relies upon interaction, arguably (and undeniably less desirably) something that works just as well online.
“Like all schools, we were defined and judged by our ability to respond to these challenges and I have to say, I am proud of the response we delivered and its success rate.”
The future is a focus for any institution but for MPW, our focus is to continue to lead from the front.
As Barton says” “We are also fortunate to be able to have some of the finest tutors in the market working for us, specifically working at this level, not just because they do not want to be stood out on a games field in the middle of winter but because they are enthusiastic and driven to teach solely at this level.
“The majority are examiners, some reaching heights in the examing world, and this feeds into MPW’s teaching approach which is a focus on exam technique from the beginning of term. This is an acknowledgement that the current system benefits you if you know how to pass it.
“However, and here is the enormous caveat which is all too often missed elsewhere, what defines us as different from a ‘crammer’, is that our responsibility is not as a grades factory, it is to help students reach their potential and more importantly, ensure they are ready to be a student at university.”
A place best seen to be understood, MPW welcomes students at any stage to visit the college and to spend time within the environment to fully understand what makes the college, to us, a special and unique place to study.