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Perhaps not a destination for the single minded scholar, although pupils say they are strongly encouraged to hit their own personal best; ‘the natural spread of ability makes for breadth and roundedness,’ according to head. School known for its footie prowess, with a handful of boys training with top academies, and also embryonic links with Southgate Hockey Club, but parents say it suits students less inclined towards team pursuits well too. Two compulsory activities a week, ranging from bell ringing, horse riding and film club to a very popular CCF...

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What the school says...

Established over 420 years ago, Aldenham School still occupies the same site of more than 110 acres of beautiful Hertfordshire countryside. Aldenham offers uninterrupted co-education for 3-18 year olds. Boarders (from age 11) and day pupils benefit from individual attention in small classes, with a personal tutor for each pupil.

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2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Boys taking History at an English Independent School (Cambridge Int Certificate Level 1/Level 2)

Other features

All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2006, Mr James Fowler MA PGCE (50s). Educated at Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood and New College, Oxford where he was a choral scholar. Previously head of sixth form at Brentwood School and deputy head at Highgate. Permeates every facet of school with his relaxed charisma and understanding of what makes parents and pupils tick. Unusually, interviews every candidate with their parents before admission. Is he interviewing the parents as well as the child, we asked? ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘I spend a lot of time helping people understand what we are and are not.’ And it’s to this level of mutual soul searching that he attributes the happy, enthusiastic nature of his cohort in evidence all over the school, almost all of whom he knows by name and who claim that their voice is ‘genuinely heard’ by him. It’s not just the children who are happy with their leader, either. Parents describe head as ‘always available’, and ‘very good at resolving issues in the right way,’ adding that ‘his attitude filters down to all the staff.’

Definitely not a head chasing glory in the league tables – and one totally at ease with this status; a breath of fresh air in the ferociously competitive north London landscape. Keen to provide a totally different experience to his urban competitors as applications from London families increase, and determined that his charges feel ‘secure and safe’. Single-mindedly focused on school providing ‘the best possible pathways’ for each student, regardless of academic prowess. ‘We celebrate successful entry to art school in the same way as entry to Oxbridge,’ he says.

Lives on site with wife and two sons.

Academic matters

Situated in the heart of UK’s spiritual home of secondary academia (Habs, Merchant Taylors’, North London Collegiate et al), Aldenham stands apart with its unpressurised vibe and mixed ability cohort. Perhaps not a destination for the single minded scholar, although pupils say they are strongly encouraged to hit their own personal best; ‘the natural spread of ability makes for breadth and roundedness,’ according to head. Although those bright enough to get to Russell Group universities – and occasionally Oxbridge – will do, it’s immediately evident that it’s the journey that defines Aldenham rather than the destination.

A respectable 27 per cent of A*/A grades at A level in 2017 with 44 per cent of GCSE examinations at A*-A/7-9 grades. Many subjects have now moved to IGCSE to stretch brighter students, who are also recruited into small study and discussion groups such as Les Philosophes with visiting speakers, including Anthony Grayling, enabling them to exchange ideas and broaden horizons. ‘Parents trust us with children of all abilities,’ says head.

Small class sizes of maximum 22 and often down to 10 in sixth form, with setting from year 7 in maths and science. Eleven GCSEs the norm with a broad range of subjects available, from the traditional (‘the brighter students tend to gravitate towards sciences,’ says head) to dance, textiles and DT. French, Spanish and Latin on offer in the languages department. Non-traditional subjects on offer at A level include psychology, media studies, government and politics and computing. Parents and pupils appreciate extra revision lessons at lunch times, after school and even on Saturdays laid on in the run up to public exams. University conversations start in year 12, with a series of events including visiting professionals brought in to ‘give insights’ into the world of work. Pupils feel well supported and guided through uni application process, although one or two parents felt that school could secure more top level places for the brightest if things were slightly slicker.

Good provision for SEN run in dedicated area by full time SENCo, with around 10 per cent on the register – mainly catering for mild dyslexia or dyscalculia although can deal with mild Asperger’s and recently sent one such child to Cambridge. One-to-one teaching rooms well used by overseas pupils requiring EAL support.

Games, options, the arts

In a setting that needs to be seen to be believed – over 110 acres encompassing woodland, playing fields plus full-sized Astro hockey pitch, tennis courts, dance studio, well-utilised weights room and an enormous sports hall (recently resurfaced) plus manicured cricket pitch that lies literally at the heart of the school (‘the pavilion is one of my favourite spots,’ says head) – sport is integral to life at Aldenham and thrives at all levels, from the most elite to the ‘just for fun’. It’s football, hockey and cricket for the boys, no rugby, while girls focus on netball, hockey and rounders. School known for its footie prowess, with a handful of boys training with top academies, and also embryonic links with Southgate Hockey Club, but parents say it suits students less inclined towards team pursuits well too. Options include zumba, archery, sailing, tennis, athletics, Eton fives, judo and climbing on its climbing wall – in the words of one parent: ‘all that’s missing is a swimming pool.’

Two compulsory activities a week, ranging from bell ringing, horse riding and film club to a very popular CCF, make for a long school day which for most ends at 5.30pm. This gives school a unique boarding atmosphere, even for those who do not take advantage of the marvellously flexible boarding on offer. Aldenham is ‘synonymous with trips,’ according to pupils, who enthuse about the ‘amazing experiences’ they have had on CCF trips to Holland, language trips including a Spanish trip to Cuba, cricket tour to Barbados, geography to Iceland, choir to Rome and a three week charity volunteering trip to Malawi.

Outstanding art department, unanimously acclaimed by everyone from head to parents and pupils, and so popular that school recently built a superb new art cabin to accommodate the large numbers electing to pursue art A level. Fabulous work on display: huge canvasses, three dimensional installations and sculpture with as much rigorous preparation and development of concepts on show as final works. Pupils say that head of art won’t accept anything less than excellence and parents report offspring joining school ‘unable to draw’ and emerging with A grades. Dedicated textiles room also displays high quality fashion design and DT labs are hives of industry, complete with 3D printers in motion.

Music thrives, with bands, orchestras and choirs galore, run by ‘fantastic’ and ‘passionate’ musicians, according to pupils. As with sport, there are opportunities for musicians of all levels to participate, with pupils enthusing that the fiercely competitive annual house music event (compulsory participation for all) is one of the highlights of the year. All year 7s offered opportunity of one term’s free music lessons on the orchestral instrument of their choice, leading to many taking it up more seriously. Futuristic music technology equipment puts department very much in the 21st century.

‘Really strong’ drama on and off curriculum, headed by ‘inspirational’ head of department who clearly drives excellence and pushes boundaries. ‘We’re into serious drama,’ she says – school refreshingly veers away from the usual hackneyed shows and rarely produces musicals, mainly delivering productions of the Sophocles and Brechtian variety, oft performed in the purpose built 150 seat theatre, but sometimes out in the grounds or as a promenade, which are ‘just fantastic,’ according to parents. A handful of students are members of the National Youth Theatre, some take part in the Edinburgh Fringe and it’s not unusual for one or two each year to head off to destinations including Central School of Speech and Drama or LAMDA, and these applications are taken seriously – head says that in the year school sent three students off to drama school and three to med school, both were supported and celebrated in equal measure.

Boarders

Around 30 per cent of the school community participates in boarding life at some level – enough to lend it a ‘proper’ boarding ethos without any trace of ‘them and us’ between boarders and day pupils. Boarding starts in year 7 in a small co-educational junior boarding house with 25 beds. No full boarding at this stage, meaning that cohort tends to be exclusively UK based with vast majority never having boarded before. Pupils enjoy a ‘home from home’ environment here – but still relish having a ‘lot more freedom’ when they move into one of the four main single sex boarding houses (three for boys and one for girls), each with its own strong identity, that shape the school.

Head keen that students ‘experience boarding as part of their overall education,’ hence provides excellent flexibility with boarders able to stay from just one night to, for a minority of mainly older, overseas students (some 25 per cent of boarders), full time. Up to sixth form, majority are reasonably local though, with boarders heading home at weekends to homes in north London, Herts and Bucks. ‘Terrific’ live-in houseparents supervise their charges in spacious houses – not the most luxurious we’ve seen, but functional (well-equipped kitchens and study spaces) and welcoming with plenty of nooks and crannies for down time and socialising. Boys dorm in fours until year 11 when they double up, with girls mostly in twos and threes then single rooms in sixth form. An ongoing programme of renovations is brightening things up.

Evenings see boarders participate in the clubs or activities of their choice, or gather in the art block, library, media suite or gym. Most popular nights to board in sixth form are Tuesdays and Thursdays when the bar opens and pizza is served in the wonderful sixth form centre. Sunday brunch is ‘the best meal of the week’, attended by most staff who live on site, plus their families as well as weekend boarders, and whilst there are weekend outings, trips and activities on offer, quite often students, having had a long week and sports fixtures on Saturdays, just ‘want to chill.’

Background and atmosphere

Founded by brewer, Richard Platt, in 1597 after Queen Elizabeth I granted him letters patent to build ‘the Free Grammar School and Almshouses’ at Aldenham for elementary children. The Brewers’ Company then had a controlling interest in the school and links remain strong. Original Tudor buildings demolished in the 19th century to make place for two new schools – one providing an elementary education for the local population, the second a grammar school for fee-paying boarders. School now occupies a prime position in protected green belt, attracting pupils from affluent local villages like Radlett and Sarratt, London suburbs such as Edgware and Stanmore and increasingly north London, with parents attracted by the fabulous country campus, handy coach services and inclusive ethos.

Main school building is Hogwarts-esque Victorian gothic with gables, tower and turrets, with additions – some more appealing than others – from subsequent decades. Most notable new facility is fabulous sixth form centre – all white walls, squidgy sofas and sliding glass doors offering panoramic view of cricket pitch – complete with its own coffee shop and bar where years 12 and 13 can socialise, study and generally commune outside of school hours. A few tatty corners in other areas, but plenty of up to date Mac technology and a luxurious feeling of abundant space.

An extraordinary chapel (the largest consecrated building in Hertfordshire after St Albans Abbey) which can host entire school – and frequently does – lies across the road that bisects the school. Surprisingly welcoming, the Stanley Spencer altar pieces of yesteryear are but a part of school history now (sold to raise funds during the desperate 1990s) and an attractive ironwork cross and dove now dominates the altar. Despite the diverse religions of the school community (about 60 per cent Christian, 20 per cent Jewish and all other main religions represented) all attend chapel twice weekly to underscore the ‘feeling of one community’ that’s so integral to the school. Beautiful panelled library complete with mezzanine level, spiral staircase and view of cricket pitch and miniature replica statue of old boy Alfred Gilbert’s Eros. There’s an annual run on the last day of term for those brave enough, from Eros in Piccadilly to the school’s statue, just one of the many traditions that pupils say are ‘a huge part of the school’.

Break times see pupils congregate en masse on the field with cross year group socialising in evidence everywhere (‘we’re like a family – everyone knows everyone,’ said one happy pupil). Although not the most polished cohort we’ve ever seen, pupils without exception seem totally at ease with the school and are arguably one of the most sociable and understatedly confident bunches we’ve met. Quite possibly one of the happiest too. Girls now make up around one-third of the school – many join in sixth form – and school is content with this balance – ‘we’d ideally like 35 to 40 per cent,’ says head.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Parents report excellent pastoral care, thanks mainly to the system that places all children in a boarding house, even if they don’t board, so staff have a close eye on everyone’s well-being. Good sign that many boarders we spoke to live locally and board ‘because we love it.’ Food has been a small bone of contention although pupils say it is ‘getting better’.

The usual disciplinary issues but in the main very few incidents. Suspensions for major breaches of rules (eg boarders driving off campus) but in the main little need to transgress as students given sufficient freedom to spread their wings.

Pupils and parents

Majority of pupils from a 20 mile radius. Lots of busy, professional commuters and London parents attracted by the flexible boarding uniquely on offer here – as well as the atmosphere that they say gives their children ‘space to breathe’, both literally and metaphorically. Mixed financial demographic – plenty of first time buyers and parents stretching themselves to afford Aldenham – with these children fitting comfortably in with those who can easily cover the fees.

Overseas boarders tend to be in higher year groups. Of these, around 30 per cent from Germany, then handfuls from China, Hong Kong and ones and twos from elsewhere. All are well respected and well integrated – boarding pupils embrace and relish the diversity of their peers. Around 40 boarders stay in school at weekends.

Entrance

Around 60 places in year 7 with between 15 and 20 of these taken by children coming up from on-site prep school and the rest made up of children joining from the state sector (40 per cent) and local 11+ preps. About 30 per cent of year 7 are girls. Another 25 to 30 join in year 9 from a vast array of preps, notably Lochinver House, Orley Farm, Northwood Prep, St Martin’s and St John’s and further afield The Beacon, The Hall and Davenies. Applicants at 11+ take papers in maths, English and reasoning with the addition of science and a language at 13+. Scholars are interviewed away from their parents.

Late arrivals come from other, more pressured, local schools – not always because they can’t cut the mustard but mainly because they are looking for a school that’s about more than exam results. And that, here, is what they find. Around 30 places available in sixth form.

Exit

Approximately 30 per cent leave after GCSE to follow vocational courses or A levels elsewhere (mainly state schools or colleges) or to employment. A broad spectrum of destination universities reflects mixed academic intake, with about 20 per cent to Russell Group, a couple each year to art schools (often Central St Martins) and regular success with applications to top drama schools. Other degree courses tend to veer towards the vocational, many with a business/management focus. One or two to Oxbridge some years.

Money matters

Scholarships at 11+ and 13+ in music, art, sport, DT as well as academic, with a maximum of 15 per cent off fees awarded. Means-tested bursaries available.

Our view

Head describes Aldenham as ‘an extraordinary school for ordinary children’ and we concur. An unpressurised environment such as this makes for some of the most contented pupils we have met, and self-motivated children can fare well academically too. Tread carefully if scholarly accolades are top of your wish list or if your offspring need stick rather than carrot, but if it’s a rounded and happy child you’re after, then Aldenham’s definitely one to consider.

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Special Education Needs

We have an extremely good SEN Department. However, pupils do need to be able to cope in the normal classroom situation; they are not taught separately, but have extra individual tuition as and when necessary with qualified SEN teachers. Study skills support is provided in small groups. 10-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Aspergers Syndrome [archived]
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders [archived]
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Delicate Medical Problems [archived]
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Epilepsy [archived]
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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