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Wood panelling, winding and creaking staircases and cobbled stable blocks bring Hogwarts to mind. Meanwhile, the rosy cheeked, windswept and slightly dishevelled children walking, running and skipping through the grassy play areas give an overall impression of an idyllic country school – worlds apart from the London tarmac many of its commuter families have left behind. ‘The children are like free-range chickens – able to explore, climb trees and have real freedom,’ said one parent. Probably not the place for those who expect dazzling ...

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What the school says...

Ashfold is a leading co-educational prep school for children aged 3 - 13 years, set in 30 stunning acres in the Buckinghamshire countryside. It offers weekly and flexi boarding from age 9. Ashfold is a small school with a Christian ethos and a reputation as a friendly, family-orientated place. It has a strong academic record and offers an excellent all-round education with an amazing array of academic, extra-curricular and pastoral opportunities. ...Read more

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Sports

Equestrian centre or equestrian team - school has own equestrian centre or an equestrian team.

Shooting

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2018, Colin MacIntosh (40s), previously deputy head of Beaudesert Park School and before that a 15-year run teaching English in various preps. English degree from St Andrews. Warm, unassuming and quite reserved, he admits he felt ‘slightly nervous’ about his first headship, not to mention superseding an extrovert predecessor with a 21-year reign. ‘Definitely not gregarious or a schmoozer – in fact, I get the impression he finds group settings quite awkward and intimidating – but he’s incredibly personable one-to-one and most importantly he is exceptionally child-centred,’ summed up one parent. Others raved about how he’s injected a whole new level of empathy into school life, ‘It’s not just the predictable kids that get celebrated,’ ‘You can see how much he cares about the kids’ etc. ‘In many ways, I’m an overgrown prep school boy and so I always start with the child’s point of view,’ he told us (one of his fondest memories was how he was encouraged to speak publicly despite his stammer). Pupils lap it up, with ‘kind’ the winner word from those we asked to describe him, albeit with the caveat that he ‘can be strict when needed’.

Particularly popular (besides his sports coaching, of which he does a fair whack) was his commitment to carrying out 50 Ashfold-centred challenges thought up by pupils during his first year – taking part in the annual pancake race, dressing up on World Book Day etc. Number 50, he told us with a twinge of cringe, was singing Bohemian Rhapsody with the choir on speech day. For the few remaining parents still on the cusp of being won over by him, this (coupled with his reportedly ‘amazing’ speech day address) was the clincher.

Married to Anna, who teaches science at the school, they have two children – a son at Ashfold and a daughter at boarding school. Their home (‘a monstrosity from the outside, but lovely inside’) is smack bang in the middle of the site – handy, at least, for his regular dinner parties for selected members of year 8s ‘to help increase social skills’. A keen sportsman (‘though I watch more than play these days’) and something of a theatre buff (‘I used to act’), he is also involved with the church.

Entrance

Non-selective, with most joining reception from nursery. Prospective pupils for all year groups are invited to an assessment day. Most join at reception, with spaces harder to come by later on, although there was only a waiting list for one year group when we visited.

Exit

Leavers to a wide variety of schools including Stowe, Bloxham, Harrow, Rugby, St Edward’s, Headington and increasingly Marlborough and Abingdon. Plus the odd one to Eton. Around half head off to board. Generally over 40 per cent of leavers win scholarships or awards to their senior schools. Parents praise the effort that goes into finding the right destination, including for the less academic. Around 10 to 15 leave aged 11, usually for financial reasons, and although not considered ideal this isn’t the kind of school to blank such parents at the next sports day – ‘we want parents to be open with us’.

Our view

The cross-country drive through rolling hills and farmland and rising fear that the satnav is playing tricks on you is well worth it for the first sight of Ashfold’s stunning Jacobean mansion set in 33 acres of fields and woodland. But don’t be fooled by the grandeur (it’s really not pretentious) or the magnificent rugby pitches in the foreground. It's not a traditional prep in the sense that it’s rugger all the way – just take a peek behind the magnificent building where you’ll find three hard tennis courts, a heated outdoor pool, full size Astroturf, netball courts and lovely adventure playground.

Wood panelling, winding and creaking staircases and cobbled stable blocks bring Hogwarts to mind. Meanwhile, the rosy-cheeked, windswept and slightly dishevelled children walking, running and skipping through the grassy play areas give an overall impression of an idyllic country school – worlds apart from the London tarmac many of its commuter families have left behind. ‘The children are like free-range chickens – able to explore, climb trees and have real freedom,’ said one parent.

Purpose-built pre-prep houses nursery to year 2, who are taught in a light, spacious and colourful setting with its own well-equipped playground and large field, complete with bug hotel. Junior department housed in main wing of house, while most senior lessons take place in the courtyard classrooms. Newest addition is the swish art and design centre for DT, cookery, art, ceramics and textiles.

This last building aside, it’s probably not the place for those who expect dazzling showcase features and a preoccupation with neatness. Fortunately, for most parents, that’s part of the pull: ‘this is an unaffected school where everyone getting stuck in matters more.’ The result is an inspiring, functional and nurturing environment which puts children first.

Academically, a solid option but much to parents’ delight there is considerably less pressure than there once was, eg less testing, more time for other activities. The two (occasionally three) forms per year group are taught in classes no bigger than 20 (usually 18 max), with specialist teachers introduced from the off, then from year 6 children move around the school for all their subjects. Setting in English from year 2, all other core subjects from year 6. Top two year groups all get their own iPads. Parents say pupils have a ‘real rapport’ with the teachers, who they describe as ‘enthusiastic’ – many have children at the school, which ‘all adds to the family feel’, according to one parent. Many lessons are outside, including forest school.

All children screened for dyslexia aged 7 or whenever they join the school. Currently around 12 per cent of pupils under the SENCo for mild needs (SpLD, dyslexia or dyspraxia). Pupils receive in-class support, small group work and/or one-to-one lessons with the school’s SEN specialist, but you won’t see the same children getting the same help for years on end – ‘idea is to only give as much as is needed, not to create a culture of dependency,’ says school.

Children produce a huge amount of both 2D and 3D artwork using just about every material imaginable (coffee filters when we visited; but never oil paints – ‘have you ever tried getting them off uniforms?’), with head randomly selecting art from across the year groups to display periodically in his office (not always the best – we like that). We were wowed by a display of photography from across all year groups, while pupils we met unanimously agreed their best ever project was pop art in year 4 (‘I liked mine so much I put it on my bedroom wall,’ said one; ‘me too,’ piped up another). Lots of cross-curricular – eg one class was learning about WWII bombing of Warsaw in history and painted scenes in art.

Over half of pupils learn a musical instrument, with pre-prep children all taught the violin and ukulele while year 1s learn the recorder; instrument fairs encourage pupils to try out some of the less mainstream instruments. Music masterclasses and workshops with senior schools also popular. There’s a junior choir and two senior choirs (one auditioned), with the spring concert (held at a church in Thame) a highlight of the school calendar. Music department collaborates with drama teacher to produce some exciting musical theatre – recently The Lion King. Lots going on in the drama department too, with Lamda seen as ‘transformational’ at bringing shyer pupils out of their shells. ‘There’s never any negative energy in drama and everyone is seen as equal,’ lauded one pupil, although all agree there’s a need for a better performing space (now in planning stage).

Once children reach prep, there’s an extended day, ending at either 5 or 6pm, depending on age (a sticking point for some parents – ‘challenging if you have three different pick-up times,’ explained one). The idea is for the curriculum to include daily sport for all, which although applauded by most is ‘a struggle’ for some of the less sporty ones, according to parents. Not, however, a school to shout about its trophy cabinet (‘there’s not a lot in it, mainly because other schools are so much bigger,’ says head) although rugby had an exceptional year prior to our visit and gymnastics, triathlon and clay pigeon shooting often do well. ‘Top notch’ (say parents) specialist coaches for rugby, hockey, netball and football, but head also calls on teachers who happen to be sporty (himself included) because ‘it’s no good encouraging the children to be all-rounders, then not modelling the same.’ Good sized, if a little tired, sports hall.

School has a Christian ethos (we saw tiny tots chanting the traditional grace, ‘for what we are about to receive...’ with hands firmly clasped, drooling over their plates of roast beef) but accepts other denominations and pupils told us ‘it’s fine not to be religious’. Mantra here is ‘everything is pastoral’ and the devil is in the detail, right down to spelling tests (‘we don’t administer them in that classic way that makes children fear it all week, then feel wretched afterwards’). Three houses compete in eagerly contested competitions (not just sports) with each term culminating in a house cup. Pre-prep pupils presented with star of the week awards for effort and attainment in weekly assemblies.

Largely rural catchment from surrounding villages, with majority of children from middle-class families, many dual income, who travel up to 30 minutes to school (most live east of the M40). Be prepared to get involved, parents told us – ‘this is not a drop and run school.’

Boarders

The part-time (not flexi) boarding is considered ‘an opportunity not an ideology’. Seventy per cent of year 5s and over have a go, picking a regular day of the week, sometimes upping that to three or even four as they get older. After supper, activities range from rifle shooting or fishing to robotics and cookery. Dorms, all with up to eight beds, are basic but cosy, but gender stereotyping is alive and well with bright blue for boys and powder pink for girls. Common rooms well kitted out and snug, opening onto the houseparents’ accommodation. Cooked breakfasts a huge hit. Parents say ‘it’s on the expensive side’ but praise how ‘the kids get to see teachers in a different light’.

Money matters

Small number of scholarships, including the Stowe-Ashfold scholarship which covers up to 100 per cent of fees. Other awards up to 30 per cent, available for pupils ‘who show outstanding academic, artistic, sporting, musical or all-round ability’ for the last two years at the school.

The last word

A happy, vibrant and unstuffy prep that’s ideally suited to outdoorsy types and where children who are middle-of-the-road academically are as likely to shine as the very bright. Extremely nurturing too – ‘Like one, big warm hug,’ said a parent.

Special Education Needs

Learning Support is available to all children who have identified Specific Learning Difficulties. However, Ashfold is a main stream school and not a special needs school. For a child to thrive at Ashfold in addition to limited classroom LSA support, no more than 1 hour of individual tuition per week should be needed. Consequently, Ashfold would not be suitable for children with more than a mild level of learning difficulty. All children are screened for dyslexia when they are 7 years old, or if they wish to join the school when they are 7+. Where a number of dyslexic indicators are identified, an educational psychologists report is commissioned and where possible, support provided. 09-09

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
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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