Just twenty miles and a sub thirty minute overground ride from London, nestled neatly in the apex of the M40 and the M25, lies commuterland at its finest in the guise of leafy Beaconsfield and neighbouring town Gerrards Cross.
Home to an affluent mix of senior city types, entrepreneurs and self-made business people, with the odd footballer and celeb thrown in for good measure, you couldn’t mistake it in any way for The Country (frankly, the hunting, shooting and fishing set probably speed up past the turn off on their way up the M40 to the Costwolds) but if ‘countryside lite’ existed this would be it. And jolly civilised it is too. Handy high streets mix all the usual chain store and supermarket suspects with independent retailers and if you’re in need of a coffee, haircut or manicure you’re spoilt for choice.
London escapees will love the ease with which they can drive everywhere – and even park. Fashion fans will flock to nearby Old Amersham - the best place to curate the designer labels freely available on London high streets. And, wait for it, they’ve even got the Tube there. With Marylebone High Street just a quick train ride away, surrounding villages such as Seer Green, Fulmer and Chalfont St Giles offering quaint country pubs in which to wind up the dog walk, and everything else you could ever need, from arthouse cinema to cricket pitches, tennis clubs and sports centres in the towns, why live anywhere else? Oh – and did we mention how close it is to Heathrow?
Although the local housing market’s not for the faint of heart (or light of wallet), it does offer great value on a per square foot basis in comparison to London. If you’re ready to stop watching the value of your zone 2 London terrace inching up and opt for quality of life instead, you could easily swap 2,000 sqft and a postage stamp yard for more than double the space inside and a proper garden, without breaking sweat. And you won’t have to park down the street from your house. Or spend weekends schlepping the kids to the park (there’ll be swings, slide and trampoline in the garden, natch). Non character four bed family homes – likely in need of some modernisation – start at around £600K in Amersham, £700K in Gerrards Cross and £900k in Beaconsfield, rising to around £1.5m plus for those with more curb appeal. Detached five beds trade at anything from £1.7m upwards and from thereon, the sky’s the limit. There’s no abundance of family rental properties in the area though if you do fancy hedging your bets and hanging on to your London real estate, and although there are occasional bargains, what’s on offer comes with a hefty price tag.
Unsurprisingly in this well-heeled corner of suburbia it’s hard to go wrong when it comes to schooling and nigh on impossible to find an Ofsted rating that isn’t at least Good, particularly at primary level. The area is well served with state primaries, village infant schools (often with private school sized classes), faith schools – and that holy grail of state maintained secondary education, the selective grammar school. On the independent front, excellent preps which cater, in the main, for all academic abilities, feed children into either state grammars or private secondary schools, so mixing and matching between state and private is a genuine option.
Few children fail to get their first choice of primary school and as the population has a transient element, in-year applications are often feasible even in the most popular of primaries. Likewise, although it’s wise to put names down for preps earlier rather than later to maximise optionality, you can leave the ‘name down at birth’ problem along with its friend ‘academic selection’ at the beginning of the A40 in West London.
State secondaries fall into two distinct camps – selective and non. Fortunate to be one of the only counties still to have state maintained grammar schools, this corner of South Bucks boasts some of the top ranking state schools in the country.
Hopefuls take the Secondary Transfer Test (that’s the 11+ in old money) in the September of year 6 – with testing taking place at their primary or prep school as long as they are in-county applicants. The test’s a toughie, covering verbal, non-verbal and numerical reasoning in timed sections, and can make or break the educational fate of a 10 year old in the space of two 50 minute exams.
The majority of pupils are tutored for around a year in advance by either tuition companies such as Marie Redmond or Teach It Right who offer classes across the area six days a week, or one-to-one tutors, best found by word of mouth and booked years ahead.
A score of 121 or above provides the golden ticket to grammar glory, but if you’re moving into the area with your heart set on following this path, do your research carefully regarding which grammar schools children in your chosen locality have been offered in recent years. Although you may officially be in catchment, proximity is the main admission criteria so you may not get your first choice if you’re too far away.
That said, there’s very little to disappoint at any of them. For boys, Dr Challoner’s Grammar in Amersham tops academic league tables year after year – achieving a record 21 Oxbridge offers in 2015. The Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe is generally considered ‘the sporty one’, but it’s very much a rugby school so footie lovers may not be keen. There’s also a boarding house here, taking small numbers across all year groups, which can be a good means of securing a place if you’re out of catchment, and gives the school a slightly international feel. John Hampden Grammar School, also in High Wycombe, is one to watch. Although a less shiny example of a state grammar than the other all-boys options, with its more diverse demographic, it’s a truer example of what grammar schools should be all about and has one of the top value added scores in the country.
For girls, Wycombe High is the top of the academic pile, followed by Dr Challoner’s High School - as starry as its brother school and typically churning out intellectually robust, sassy girls who match their male counterparts grade for grade at A level, particularly in maths and sciences. Beaconsfield High School has a slightly less edgy, more creative feel than DCHS – although scores almost as well when it comes to exams and for those keen on co-education, Chesham Grammar School, having formerly been seen as an also-ran, has gone from strength to strength in recent years and achieved Ofsted Outstanding status in 2014.
Choose your area carefully if you don’t think your child is grammar school fodder and don’t want to pay for private. Non-selective state secondaries are a mixed bag: the Chalfonts Community College has a reasonable reputation and outstanding sixth form but with 1700 pupils is not everyone’s cup of tea. The Amersham School is also solid, but The Beaconsfield School far less highly thought of.
With such high quality state schools on offer for the brightest, private day options within a reasonable commuting distance tend (with a couple of notable exceptions) to cater for pupils not deemed suitable for grammar school. Gerrards Cross has two small independents: tiny Thorpe House for boys and St Mary’s for girls, the latter quietly stealing a march on the academic front and a solid choice for girls who want to keep a local network of friends.
Fleets of buses transport pupils far and wide on a daily basis to schools including Shiplake College in Henley, The Royal Masonic School in Rickmansworth, Queen Anne’s School in Caversham and Claire’s Court in Maidenhead. Berkhamsted School is a popular secondary choice for girls and boys seeking an all-round school with a reasonably mixed ability intake, although with the expansion of its prep school, places at 11+ and 13+, particularly for boys, are becoming harder fought for.
Brainboxes head to Merchant Taylors’ School in Northwood (boys) or Wycombe Abbey (girls), which not only exceed the grammar schools in terms of academic achievement, but also tick the boxes for class size and pastoral support as well as offering world class facilities, sports and extra-curricular options sadly off limits in the poorly funded state sector.
With around 75 per cent of all grammar school pupils hailing from state primary schools, it’s no surprise to find quality teaching at every turn and if you’re moving into the area, chances are you’ll find yourself smack bang in the catchment for an excellent state primary from which to launch your child’s academic career. Almost half of all infant and junior schools in the area are currently rated Outstanding by Ofsted, with a Good rating par for the course.
Somewhat unusually, smaller villages frequently have infant schools for 4-7 year olds, offering all the benefits of a small school, often with tiny class sizes and a lovely nurturing, country feel. Fulmer Infant School, Jordans School and Chalfont St Peter Infant School are considered to be amongst the best and are often used by parents as a free pre-prep before spring boarding their child to the independent sector in year 3.
The majority from these tiny treasures, though, move up to the equally superb Chalfont St Peter Academy, which along with its neighbouring Gerrards Cross Church of England School, has a first class track record of transitioning a good number of pupils to local grammars. Amersham boasts even greater riches when it comes to state primaries, with the ever popular Elangeni and Chestnut Lane Schools helping to keep local house prices at a premium. Other popular choices include Woodside Junior School and St Mary’s Church of England School as well as the Roman Catholic Our Lady’s RC School. For such a large town, Beaconsfield is less well served, with parents holding their breath and crossing fingers for a place in either Butler’s Court or Holtspur Schools.
Admission, typically, is the usual combination of sibling preference and proximity within catchment to school, although some schools – typically those with a faith bias – don’t have an official catchment, so check the school admissions pages of the Bucks County Council website carefully to check specifics for your chosen school.
On the prep side, there’s a good selection of single sex and co-ed spread across the area, each with its own specific culture – none are too far away from any given spot and they’re all so different that you’re bound to know within moments of arrival which one will suit your family.
For boys, The Beacon on the Amersham / Chesham borders is a super all-round school which takes boys from age 3-13 and feeds the full spectrum of secondaries from grammars at 11+ to independent day schools, as well as top boarding schools including Eton, Harrow and Radley. Down to earth and purposeful with a fearsome sporting reputation, especially on the rugby field. You’ll find slightly more tweeds pitch-side at Davenies in Beaconsfield and a greater inclination towards independent secondaries in preference to grammar schools – pupils do take the 11+ and head off to the state sector but the school sweeps them under the marketing carpet and focuses on promoting its 13+ destinations, a good mix of day and boarding, to all comers. Conversely, newly co-ed Gayhurst in Gerrards Cross has now done away with years 7 and 8 altogether, with around 60 per cent of the cohort heading off to grammars and the remainder to 11+ day schools.
Girls are equally well provided for with the thoroughly uber Maltman’s Green School in Gerrards Cross (purple felt coats, boaters and curtsies abound – need we say more?) at one end of the pushy spectrum and the more laid back St Mary’s with its fantastic art room and outstanding SEN department at the other. High March in Beaconsfield is a major feeder to Beaconsfield High School. Families firmly fixed on the boarding route should look at Caldicott in Farnham Royal for boys and High Wycombe’s Godstowe – the school on which Mallory Towers was based – for girls.
There are a handful of state maintained schools offering outstanding provision for children with special educational needs, although these tend to be typically very small and heavily oversubscribed. These include Alfriston School in Amersham for girls aged 11-18, Westfield School in Bourne End for children aged 4-11 and Stony Dean in Amersham, which was the first ever UK school to achieve SEN college status.