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Hugely well-to-do Wilmslow has a reputation for glitz, but despite Wilmslow Preparatory School’s location at the very heart of this leafy South-Mancunian suburb, there’s little of that here. Instead it’s refreshingly unpretentious, a small, happy prep of well-mannered, busy, confident, green-clad girls and boys. Dazzling wall displays suggest it is a crucible for creativity. But before we get to the learning, let’s look at the tools available because this school boasts some excellent facilities: an up-to-date…

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headteacher

Since 2014, Helen Rigby BEd NPQH, previously of Offley Infant School. Has a natural empathy with parents whose children attend her small but perfectly formed co-educational non-selective prep school. And so she should, having started out as one. It fact, so impressed was she as a parent with this warm and welcoming school that she made a successful application to join the teaching staff in 2001.

Fast forward several years and she’s headteacher. It is seemingly impossible for parents to describe her or her school without using words like nurturing or caring because that’s what this little school – which the head says (and with good cause) punches well above its weight - is all about. That and, ahem, really top notch academic achievement which means all pupils consistently achieve entry into the secondary school of their first choice (with several offers under their belt).

Yet while the academic bar is set high, what Helen Rigby most wants for her pupils is for them simply to have a go, keep persevering. An approach which she hopes will imbue them with the spirit of the Olympians (a theme picked up in their 2016 school play). A keen horse riding fan, she cheered loudly when, during the 2016 Olympics, veteran rider Nick Skelton finally achieved individual gold in his seventh Olympics. It’s that spirit of determination she wants to foster in her pupils. Always try, never give up, you will succeed.

Entrance

Most children join the kindergarten at 3; the rest enter the school between 3-5 with a taster day and an informal assessment with literacy and numeracy.

Exit

Parents tend to choose small preps like this to give their children options. Here, they sit exams for all the usual suspects: Cheadle Hulme, Manchester High School for Girls, Withington Girls, Stockport Grammar, Alderley Girls, Kings’ Macclesfield. All great schools. In 2016, WPS garnered two sports scholarships and one music scholarship. Largely due to relocations, pupil numbers in year 6 for 2016 were down to eight but they had offers of 23 places between them. (The year before, 15 pupils got 36 offers.)

Our view

The school used to be girls-only; boys joined the kindergarten in 2013. In 2017, every year up to and including year 3 is mixed and broadly 50:50 between genders. While the infant years have always had a teaching assistant assigned, the junior years now also benefit from this (those assistants have a higher qualification) so individual attention is available at every age level. Class sizes are around 15.

But before we get to the learning, let’s look at the tools available because this school boasts some excellent facilities: an up-to-date IT room (with a suite of iPads), an art room with kiln (and specialist art teacher), a music room, a science lab (age-appropriate - no bunsen burners - charts of minerals and Tim Peake’s space seeds). We particularly liked the library for the juniors offering free reading while subtly steering pupils to good choices. All this along with a sports hall (secured via inspired fundraising) and a small playing field with long jump pit, big enough for a decent game of rounders and infant sports day. Punch above its weight indeed it does. It also has some imaginative play areas with Astroturf and an outdoor ‘learning environment’ worthy of the National Trust. Head is keen that children learn to manage risks in safe spaces.

So on to the learning; small classes mean individual attention across a broad curriculum. As one parent put it, every task and challenge is tailored to a child’s individual needs. Along with the core subjects, languages, computer work and science are integrated at a basic level from day one in infants. French for the infants, Spanish for the juniors. Having a broad curriculum really matters to the head; while she appreciates year 6 exams are crucial, she also considers arts, science and sport to be essential for development. At junior level, there is a shift in emphasis to specialist science, maths and English, along with verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Collaboration across the curriculum means a particular reading book, for example, might also be picked up in drama or art. The latter, a new initiative - the Power of Reading - is an open sesame for minds. Everything is taught in a modern way too, each class having an interactive whiteboard.

About five per cent of pupils are on the SEN register but a larger number receive extra support to ensure they are on target to reach high academic goals. This may involve booster activities in English or maths with a teaching assistant. The small classes mean any required extra help can happen immediately. One parent said her child had been performing below the expected level at a state primary but following a move to WPS is now above expectations. Pupils who want to leap ahead are likewise stretched. A parent whose child happened to have a SEN statement spoke glowingly about this (he had a reading ability well beyond his years), and about his increased confidence (he was encouraged to take lead roles in school plays). One parent, however, struck a note of caution, saying she thought that whilst children who were struggling or excelling fared incredibly well in the school, those in the middle of the class were overlooked.

Even so, a recent inspection report asserted that 'children’s achievements and progress exceed age-related expectations in all areas of learning'. The same report also alluded to imaginative learning: Welly Wednesdays, where children observe the changing of the seasons or do mini-beast hunts and Thinking Thursdays for problem solving.

Head asserts that children in year 6 take their exams in their stride; everything pupils have assimilated equips them for this point. One parent alluded to year 6 pupils being incredibly confident individuals, though another said she had still expected the children in year 6 to be in a ‘better place’ and felt it was all a bit stressful for them.

Generally, though, the tone and register in the school is one of bursting, bubbling happiness. Dazzling wall displays suggest it is a crucible for creativity. Every child recently had an opportunity to create a picture, frame it and display it in a ‘gallery’ where it was on sale to parents. The entire school is crammed with wonderful art displays: Egyptian masks, self-portraits (painted by each year of the school showing evolution in maturity and style) and truly impressive pieces ‘in the style of’ an artist, such as Henry Moore. A quick look around the art room showed that the juniors were studying artists like Matisse seriously. Unsurprisingly, in a recent ISA Art Competition, the school scooped six first prizes. And there it goes again, you see, this little upstart school punching above its weight. (On the flip side, one parent thought there was too much art. You say Tomaito, I say Tomarto.)

Music is part of the curriculum; the school has choirs, along with junior and chamber orchestras. A large proportion of pupils also takes individual lessons at an extra cost. The school is a regular participant in the Alderley Edge Music Festival; in 2016 it won first prize for both the chamber choir and year 2-3 choir. All pupils are encouraged to enter and thrive on the buzz, parents say.

As for the performing arts, all children take the ESB (Communication with Drama) Awards where distinctions are vacuumed up. Parents felt this was terrific for confidence. In addition, school productions are bold and imaginative – in 2016, they staged Go for Gold, the history of the Olympics, starting with Zeus.

All the usual sports – football, hockey, athletics, netball, cross-country, badminton - are played locally and nationally. There are also offbeat extras, like judo and fencing. When bigger playing fields are required, they jump on the WPS minibus to a local sports club. One parent said the sports teacher was quick to identify potential talent; her daughter, selected for an exacting cross-country challenge, had done so well she was now a member of Stockport Harriers. Another parent felt the school was not as well equipped sports-wise for boys as it might be. This sentiment was echoed by others. Here, perhaps, the school is transitioning.

Extracurricular trips happen in a steady stream: infant favourites like fire stations and farms; the juniors to more cerebral or outdoorsy destinations such as York and coastal trips. In addition, lots of wonderful clubs like mad science and book clubs are on hand for those with a flair for something extra (or needing after-school care).

The behaviour of pupils is exemplary; they stand when an adult enters the room, and when they leave each day, the teachers shake each pupil’s hand. (These children will not be looking at their feet, mumbling, if a secondary school interviewer wishes to converse.) The school rules are consistently applied and consist of lovely directions to be kind, give a helpful hand. A merit and courtesy system is applied; children are awarded a sticker for a card (merit for improving something about oneself, courtesy for acts of good manners). This is celebrated weekly in assemblies, and on completion of their first merit/courtesy card they get a bronze badge (then silver, then gold). They also get a mention in the weekly newsletter. Children love it. As indeed they love inclusion in the ‘stars of the week’ photo in the entrance hall. Well, who wouldn’t – fame and notoriety for being the best version of yourself. A winner.

A team ethos is encouraged via the house system. Each house competes in various charming competitions (never underestimate the power of a conker on a string to galvanize) and charitable initiatives organised by the school council, such as the harvest food appeal. As for responsibilities, each child in year 6 is an ‘ambassador’ for a discrete area, such as learning or sport (a title which is more outward looking than ‘prefect’). Each ambassador has a job description of what is expected. A nice touch to prepare them for that giant lunar step to secondary education.

Though small and cosy, this school is no bubble: interactive assemblies cover important issues like festivals across faiths and crucially, with iPads more ubiquitous than colouring books, internet safety. In other words, it continues to evolve with the times. No surprise, then, that it recently celebrated its 107th birthday (which every year is marked, rather sweetly, with a cake). It is a nurturing environment where academic growth occurs by osmosis.

The school, established in 1909, moved to these premises in 1912.The buildings cluster round the play area and banks of windows and skylights give it a real sense of lightness and zip. Rooms are large and colourful, evidencing projects simmering away, an explosion of nascent knowledge. From around 11am each day, the smell of cooking permeates from the school kitchen. All children have to eat school meals – it looked good and healthy nosh to us (it also clocks in as an extra £225 smackers per term).

Communication with parents is via three parents’ evenings per year, reports and regular emails. Helen Rigby has open door policy. Parents are local (Hale, Prestbury, Wilmslow, Alderley Edge), professional – grounded – many of whom had to do the maths before committing to school fees. The size of the school necessarily lends it a familial feel, complete with a Whatsapp group. The parents’ committee seems something of a tour de force.

We agree with the headteacher: this terrific little school does indeed punch above its weight. You remember the Andrew Murray fist punch? The victorious, happy air punch when he knows he’s done well? Well, it’s that.

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