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What says..

The founder, Julia Huxley, was related by blood, marriage and proximity to the intellectual and educationally passionate giants of the Edwardian age. You could not dream up someone more suitable to start a school. The art rooms are designed for people taking it seriously, with sixth formers each having their own space that fills up with imaginative work during the year. The result is that several girls go on to art college and a high proportion of alumnae make it a career. They even run a tennis academy, with the first tennis scholar having her pick of American universities...

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What the school says...

Prior’s Field offers a distinctive route to high achievement. It’s a school where girls are encouraged to grasp the opportunities created for them – from taking the floor in national debating competitions, adopting leading roles in a West End calibre cast, designing electric guitars at lunchtime, creating artwork worthy of a public exhibition, scaling a glacier or rising to the challenge of young chemist of the year. It’s where they can be happy and inspired by talented teachers and enjoy positive, engaging relationships.

The conclusion of independent school inspectors in 2016 was that Prior’s Field pupils are 'extremely well educated'. The school received the highest accolade, ‘excellent’, in all nine areas of inspection – an exemplary standard, similarly achieved in its previous inspection five years ago.

Prior’s Field offers 26 subjects at A-Level. Girls go on to a wide range of universities, including Oxbridge, to study courses as diverse as medicine, philosophy, law and music.

Excellent facilities include an all-weather sports pitch, on-site tennis academy, superb Creative Arts centre and separate Sixth Form House. Boarding is at the heart of the school; the Junior Boarding House includes ‘extra bouncy’ carpets in bedrooms and sparkly bathroom floors, at girls’ request. A new combined Science, Music and Technology centre opened in autumn 2016: named The Arnold Building, after the acclaimed, intellectual Victorian family into which Julia was born – she was a niece of the poet Matthew Arnold and granddaughter of Dr Thomas Arnold, legendary headmaster of Rugby School – the new centre provides 8 additional laboratories and 2 prep rooms fitted to the highest standards, for Science; an 80-seat recital hall, recording studio, dedicated classrooms and practice rooms, all furnished to deliver optimal acoustics, for Music; a purpose-built suite of rooms for Food Technology and an additional 5 general classrooms to benefit other departments and the entire school.

Forces discount of 20% applies.
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What the parents say...

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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking Art & Design (Photography) at an English Independent School (GCE AS level)
  • Best performance by Girls taking Art & Design (Textiles) at an English Independent School (GCE AS level)
  • Best performance by Girls taking Design & Technology Textiles Technology at an English Independent School (GCSE)

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2015, Tracy Kirnig, 50s. Born and brought up in London, she ventured to university in Aberystwyth, reading RE and philosophy. Ms Kirnig was never in doubt about a teaching career and returned nearer to her roots to take a masters in education at King’s London and then a PGCE at Lancaster before working in both the state and private sector. Her interests in music and travel are re-enforced by the scaling of Mount Kilimanjaro last year, particularly impressive as she admits to being a late-comer to the joys of climbing. Moving here from her last job as deputy head of co-ed Caterham school, she is noticeably happy in her own skin with a firm belief in the worth of her school and in particular of the girls in her care. Married to a geo-technological engineer with a side-line in potting.

Academic matters

An academically selective school, although not in the high-flying category; in 2017 grades at GCSE were 54 per cent A*-A/9-7 and at A level 22 per cent A*-A and 59 per cent A*-B. There has been a noticeable, recent, attempt to redress the balance away from the arts, with around half the year taking one or more maths and science subjects at A level. Languages are not an obviously strong point, but they make a great effort to find outside teachers if pupils voice sufficient interest in a language outside the fairly narrow choice on the core curriculum of French, Spanish and Latin at GCSE. Everyone takes one or two of these at this stage and recently up to 20 per cent have taken at least one language at A level.

The average class size in the early years is 18, reducing to 15 as they move up the school and six in the sixth form. Setting takes place on arrival at both 11+ and 13+ for English and maths and later in the first term for science, MFL and sport. The girls speak of flexibility and are confident that they will be moved up or down rapidly if it appears necessary.

The staff, with a ratio of one teacher to eight girls, have a relatively high average age but, as the head says, 'this brings a wealth of experience,' 22 of them having been at the school for more than 10 years. Despite this statistic, she feels that there are plenty of younger members and promotes them on the basis that 'they are old enough if they are good enough'. Certainly, on our visit, the enthusiasm and interaction with the pupils was noticeable with plenty of young faces and absolutely no stuffed shirts in evidence. It may be a smallish school but the determination to help each girl reach her academic potential is clearly evident.

The staff and pupils are confident about the SEND provision; it appears to be handled efficiently and sensitively, although they admit that they might dissuade a parent from sending a child with problems that would prevent her from coping fairly easily with the school's academic expectations. However, one parent told us that they were 'great about accepting my very dyslexic daughter' and that the SENCo was 'fantastic'. One-on-one help is available, if necessary, at an hourly rate.

Games, options, the arts

A surprisingly sporty school despite its size. Netball, hockey and athletics tick the most boxes and teams compete locally and nationally. Tennis is huge; they even run to a tennis academy (started in 2012 complete with a permanent coach), which paid off this year in the Surrey U15 championship and with their first tennis scholar having her pick of American universities. At a more achievable, if slightly wacky, level the inter-house cross-country competition last year had an underwater theme, with the girls sporting mermaid tails; it may not have increased their speed but it was good for a laugh.

Clubs and activities are a big deal, meriting their own brochure, and are often free, although if you’re into creating Funky Food, not surprisingly, you have to pay for the ingredients as well as persuading your parents to eat the results. Rugby and cricket now available, the latter becoming popular after the success of the England women’s team in 2017. In a nod to the country, you can go riding after school or if you’re a home bod, you can get into knitting and crochet, of which we saw an imaginative, if eccentric, example in the making.

Completely unsurprisingly given the school's arts and crafts heritage, there is a major emphasis on art, music and drama. The art rooms are designed for people taking it seriously, with sixth formers each having their own space that fills up with imaginative work during the year. The result is that several girls go on to art college and a high proportion of alumnae make it a career. They mean what they say about encouraging talent, as one girl with a natural bent for photography persuaded them to add the course to the GCSE curriculum. New music rooms encourage even the less musical to give an instrument a go, whilst the more gifted are nurtured carefully. Drama is definitely front stage with brave large cast musical productions, entry in the Shakespeare Schools Festival and popular LAMDA and RADA classes.

Boarders

About a quarter of the girls board but increasingly this is on a weekly or flexible basis rather than full time. At weekends the school can seem a little empty lower down as only around seven to eight board full time in the first two years, but further up the school the percentage increases to 50 per cent in the fifth year and up to 60 per cent in the sixth form. One parent was a bit unhappy and thought that her daughter lacked supervision, but this was contradicted by several of the present cohort.

The younger girls are up in the attics in cosy if slightly cramped quarters of up to four in a room, but it feels cheerful and there was no griping when asked if they had enough space. You wouldn’t want to be a budding fashionista with a lot of frocks as the hanging space is strictly limited, but there are lots of drawers for 'stuff' and you are encouraged to make it as personal as possible. The bathrooms looked newish and were pretty spotless, a nice cleaning lady telling us they had a 'really good go twice a week'. The sixth formers all have larger rooms with good work space, the upper sixth even having their own bathrooms - a much appreciated luxury. The general consensus was that there was plenty to do out of school hours and some of the day girls would love their parents to come up with the cash so that they could board.

Background and atmosphere

Prior’s Field nestles in a hidden corner of leafy Surrey, just out of sight of the London hubbub. A rather surprising unicorn- themed advertisement for the school is squished on a small roundabout off the A3, but the tree-lined road leading off it soon reveals a pebble-dashed, beetle-browed arts and crafts set of buildings. The original 1900 house, designed by CFA Voysey, has grown since through the addition of convincing fakes and the whole ensemble fits happily into its surrounding acres.

The founder, Julia Huxley, was related by blood, marriage and proximity to the intellectual and educationally passionate giants of the Edwardian age. You could not dream up someone more suitable to start a school than the granddaughter of Dr Thomas Arnold (the Rugby legend), niece of Matthew Arnold (the poet), wife of Leonard Huxley (a Charterhouse schoolmaster himself before becoming an important literary figure) and friend of Conan Doyle. Her children, Julian, a scientist and director of UNESCO, and Aldous, author of Brave New World, provide further evidence of why she was the perfect person to run a school based on moral philosophy and forward thinking. There is a brilliant photograph of her in the hall, hand on chin, glasses slightly skew whiff, with her ample successor, Ethel Burton-Brown, sitting at her feet, made more touching by the fact that she died a year later aged only 46. Conan Doyle sent his daughter here and the germ of the idea for a short story entitled The Adventure of Priory School must surely have come from his knowledge of Prior’s Field, although the plot is not exactly an advertisement for pupil care.

The slightly labyrinthine layout of a turn-of-the-century house is not ideal for a modern school, but a newbie told us that despite getting lost frequently for the first two weeks she had quickly learnt the necessary shortcuts to make it everywhere on time. Again surprisingly, the interior, whilst a tad scruffy, is not as dark as you would expect and is greatly improved by art on every available wall as well as impressive displays of textile work for which the school is justifiably famous. Amongst the newer buildings, they are proudest of their pristine science, technology and music centre, which manages to be light and attractive inside despite its folksy exterior. The area at the front of the school is cramped, but the back opens up to a wide green space, a new all-purpose Astroturf pitch, several tennis courts and woodland beyond.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

This side of the school was high on the head’s agenda when she took over and she has changed the structure so that now there is one person responsible for the emotional development of each individual, separate from the person in charge of checking whether they’ve got the right tights on. PSHE is not just an acronym here but built into the whole workings of the school, and the result hits you straight on, all the girls we talked to genuinely appearing to put helping each other above being competitive. The school has definitely got across their belief in moral welfare but it is not heavy handed; common sense rather than a set of rules is the order of the day. With her philosophical background, the head also wants to broaden awareness and a series of talks on mindfulness are scheduled, the first one being given by a Buddhist nun. Zero evidence of wrongdoing: the head girl sounded puzzled when we asked her if she had to discipline the younger ones.

The beautifully presented food (think huge Moroccan bowls of salad and a bread offering that would challenge a trendy London bakery) is seriously yummy, one girl giggling that it was much better than her mum’s. Being allergic or just fussy is not a problem, a non-gluten pupil telling us that there was masses of choice and they were 'really helpful about it', and teachers seem very aware of any potential problems.

Not the smartest of schools in terms of uniform, but this is being remedied with major input from the pupils who, slightly to our surprise, actually want to wear blazers with badges to show off where they come from.

Pupils and parents

Majority of day girls bussed in from all points of the compass, increasingly from nearer London as parents turn away from the capital’s pressure-cookers and look for an academically competent school with an individual flavour. Some 10 per cent from a wide range of foreign countries; these, when asked, said that they had settled in straight away, and certainly all had smiley faces. Parents’ backgrounds are as diverse as the children’s ambitions but they say that they feel fully involved with the school via personal contact and email communication as well as the PSA.

Entrance

An open morning or a pre-arranged 'Meet the head' coffee morning plus school tour are followed by a taster day in November and an exam in January. The school is oversubscribed at 11 and 13 but they don’t just go on exam results. Rather, they try to find girls who are 'sparky, curious about life and learning and want to get involved with everything on offer'. A genuine effort is made to determine whether this is the right place for each individual and they’re pretty good at it, judging by the great attitude of the present lot.

Exit

In this tough financial climate and due to the school's location, it is hardly surprising that a large number leave after GCSEs, a percentage of which are replaced from outside. We suspect that affordability is the major reason, but the assumption that life is more 'real' in a co-ed still attracts a proportion to either private school sixth forms or state colleges with good A level results. No Oxbridge entrants in 2017 but 11 straight to Russell Group universities, 14 to other UK universities, several to sought after direct (no foundation year) places on a fine art or fashion degree course, one to acting school, one to university in the USA and the rest onto a gap year. Grandparents will be thrilled that Enid Bagnold (National Velvet) was an old girl, watchers of Netflix will know of Victoria Hamilton (the queen mother in The Crown), and others will be encouraged that Baroness Mary Warnock was at the school.

Money matters

Plenty of scholarships and bursaries; academic, sporting, musical, artistic and dramatic abilities are recognised by an award which equates to between £250 and £1,000 per term. One or two exceptional tennis players are awarded a place in the tennis academy, with coaching costs fully funded by the school. A handful of foundation awards (100 per cent bursaries funded by parents, alumnae and friends of the school) are awarded each year and a 20 per cent discount on the fees is given to the daughters of parents in the Forces.

Our view

A century may have passed but the aim to turn out resilient young women, capable of achieving the maximum possible in the outside world, remains the same. It is still a school where 'it is cool to try out new things', and the head is confident that the well-equipped young adults that leave are recognisable as the children that arrived five or seven years earlier. The school is also long on charm and good at detail, winning us over immediately by giving us a car parking space with our name on it.

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Special Education Needs

Prior's Field School has a whole-school approach to special needs provision. The majority of our special needs pupils have mild dyslexia/dyspraxia and typically, provision will include a session each week with a specialist teacher as well as sympathetic help in class.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers
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
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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