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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, though all pupils are strongly encouraged to hit their personal best and that includes those bright enough (of which there are more than ever) to get into Russell Group universities and occasionally Oxford. Bottom line is it’s the…

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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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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. Now head of the whole Aldenham Foundation (which includes Aldenham Prep School and St Hilda’s Bushey), he has moved into a more CEO type role (no longer teaching, for example) but it is still a school that takes its cultural tone from the top and he 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 not just by name but all about them – ‘their families, what subjects they’re doing, what motivates them and their interests,’ said parent. ‘He is a phenomenal head and I can’t imagine a better one,’ said another, though she will have to as he is retiring in summer 2022. ‘We’ll miss him – he’s at every event and I’ve never met a single parent that doesn’t like him,’ remarked one parent, with more than a hint of emotion in her voice.

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 and 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.’ Trust in the model has, it seems, increased, with school having witnessed a steep hike in applications from the more academically able in recent years.

Lives on site with wife, with whom he has two adult sons. A sailing, skiing and golf man, he also has a penchant for classical music and has dabbled in conducting over the years.

Entrance

Main entry point now at 11+, when there are four applicants for each of the 85 places available, 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 (up to half) and local 11+ preps (over 130 schools in total). About a third are girls. Another 20 to 25 join in year 9, when there are three applications for every place, from a vast array of preps, notably Lochinver House, Orley Farm, St Martin’s, St John’s, York House, Lockers Park 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+.

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. Around 30 places available in sixth form, when applicants need 6s (or 7s in the case of maths, sciences and economics) in the subjects they want to study at A levels.

Exit

No clearing of the decks after GCSEs – this school commits to an 11-18 education, though around a quarter leaves 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 a third to Russell Group. Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Durham, KCL, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, UCL and Warwick all popular. Around a third do a STEM degree. A couple each year to art schools (often Central St Martins) and regular success with applications to top drama schools. No medics or students to Oxbridge in 2020, but four heading off to study overseas, all to USA, including scholarships for golf and football.

Latest results

In 2020, 47 per cent 9/7 at I/GCSE; 98 per cent 9/4 in both maths and English. At A level, 32 per cent A*/A (57 per cent A*/B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 30 per cent 9/7 at I/GCSE; 21 per cent A*/A at A level (49 per cent of A*-B).

Teaching and learning

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, though all pupils are strongly encouraged to hit their personal best and that includes those bright enough (of which there are more than ever) to get into Russell Group universities and occasionally Oxbridge. Bottom line is it’s the journey that defines Aldenham rather than the destination.

Nice balance of gender, age (average age 36) and ethnicity among the teachers who really buy into the school’s ethos – you won’t get the best teachers allocated the top sets here; it’s often quite the opposite with the head of maths, for instance, insisting on taking bottom set maths in year 7 to give them the best start (there’s also setting in sciences and English from year 9). Small class sizes of maximum 22 and often down to 10 in sixth form. French and Spanish taught in year 7, from which students elect one to take them through to GCSE from year 8. Latin and classical civilisation taught in year 7, with an option to continue in year 8, and a handful of the brightest take ancient Greek too. Ten (11 for the half that take triple science) GCSEs the norm with a broad range of subjects including drama (particularly popular), textiles and DT. Brighter students 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. In sixth form, most choose three A levels from the usual traditional fare, with psychology, media studies, government and politics, and computing also on the menu. Parents and pupils appreciate extra revision lessons at lunchtimes, 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.

Impressively comprehensive training for teachers in the pandemic – ‘Teaching online is a world away to teaching in the classroom if it’s done properly,’ says head. ‘Aldenhome’, as it’s affectionately become known, has continued to go from strength to strength during times of online schooling, with eg interhouse drama, music and sporting events all continuing.

Learning support and SEN

Like many mainstream schools that offer outstanding SEN provision, Aldenham has become something of a victim of its own success, having landed itself the (incorrect) reputation of having a specialism. In reality, around 10 per cent are on the register – mainly mild dyslexia, dyscalculia and ASD – who are catered for via one-to-one and group lessons by full-time SENCo who meets all children with their families before they join ‘to both get a flavour of whether school can cope and work out best ways to support them’. Conditions rarely stand in the way of students reaching their potential here, with one such child recently heading off to Cambridge. Parents gush and gush about this department, with some having taken their children out of other schools where they felt ‘desperate’ only to find they ‘thrived here.’ ‘They look at your child and think, what does this kid really need? How can we get her confidence up? How can we pinpoint the areas of need? She’s gifted in this subject but struggling with certain aspects of others.’ No TAs, which some parents griped about, ‘but they are honest with you about what they can provide and you’re never off the SENCo’s radar.’

The arts and extracurricular

Two compulsory activities a week, ranging from bell ringing, horse riding and film club to a 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. Lockdown, then, has taken its toll. ‘Just before the first lockdown, we had students in three continents - Cape Town on a cricket and hockey tour, a junior ski trip in France and senior ski trip in USA – yet a month later we couldn’t go to the end of the drive, and that has taken its toll,’ admits head.

Outstanding art department, unanimously acclaimed by everyone from head to parents and pupils, with superb art cabin accommodating the bulging 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.

‘The reason we chose the school,’ said a parent of the music department, which has 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 (‘you can’t get more than one ticket even if you beg, borrow and steal,’ said parent). 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.

Drama department drives excellence and pushes boundaries both on and off curriculum. 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 ‘mind blowingly good,’ according to parents. ‘One of my daughters has been in every play there is and the other loves getting stuck in back stage – it’s West End standard stuff.’ 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.

Sport

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’ (‘You can have two left feet and they’ll still include you,’ said parent). 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 – U15s have been the independent schools national champions for two years running and the U13s would have played in the final in 2020, had it gone ahead. A handful of boys train with top academies and there are links with Southgate Hockey Club. ‘What I like is that they think of centre, so if you’re not good at the main sports, you can ski at Hemel or, if you’re not sporty at all like my daughter, you can go to the gym.’ Other options include zumba, archery, sailing, tennis, athletics, Eton fives, judo and climbing on its climbing wall. Some groans that they don’t have enough numbers for a second netball team and about the lack of swimming pool (but school still manages to have among its cohort national swimming champions).

Boarders

Around 30 per cent of the school community (some two-thirds boys) 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. ‘On day two, my daughter told me she wanted to try boarding and by day four she didn’t want to come home – I hated the idea of it but it’s really homely and they really do have so much fun,’ said parent. Enough rules and regulations to reassure parents in the younger years, ‘with things getting a bit more relaxed in year 9’ when they move into one of the four main single-sex boarding houses – three for boys and one for girls. ’ ‘I think the students push the boundaries a bit at bedtimes, but they deal with it well,’ said parent.

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 all recently renovated and 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.

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’.

Ethos and heritage

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. We loved the 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. Newest addition is the former prep school building, providing useful additional classrooms.

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 altarpieces 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).

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Pastoral care is a USP, including throughout Covid when everything from after school meditation, chapel services and assemblies were heavily promoted - appreciated not just by students but parents too (‘gives us a window we wouldn’t usually get’). All students belong to a vertical house (day or boarding), with staff keeping a close eye on everyone’s well-being. Good sign that many boarders we spoke to live locally and board ‘because we love it’. Good teamwork between health centre, counsellor, chaplain and safeguarding team mean few things get missed. Over half of staff have mental health first aid training. LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter are discussed regularly and openly – in the case of the latter, black parents and students appreciated being asked their opinion about how school should respond (‘thoughtfully and sensitively, not just jumping in with knee-jerk reaction’). Curriculum regularly reviewed from diversity perspective - black history is more than just a month here. The usual disciplinary issues but in the main very few incidents. Suspensions for major breaches of rules (eg boarders driving off campus) and exclusions for worse (a few youngsters were asked to leave recently due to drugs) but in the main little need to transgress as students given sufficient freedom to spread their wings.

Pupils and parents

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, again making lockdown so much more than an inconvenience. Majority from a 20-mile radius, with two extra coach roots meaning that most can be transported without the need for parents to sit in traffic. 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. ‘Really good community – everything from daily Whatsapp chatting to amazing balls and quiz nights,’ said parent.

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.

Money matters

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

The last word

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. If it’s a rounded and happy child you’re after, then Aldenham’s definitely one to consider.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

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
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
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

Who came from where


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