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‘Don’t change the culture!’ was the cry from existing parents, and head is at pains to build on, rather than change, the school ethos. The core values are ‘Be kind' and 'Aim high,' and these are unequivocally in evidence. A residential Bear Grylls-type trip to Scotland is hugely popular. Held at the beginning of September to allow life skills to be put into practice during the final year, year 8 pupils climb mountains, build fires and forage, before spending a night ‘on their own’ (presumably with staff camouflaged behind hedges). Sports department wants for....

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2019, Christian Saenger (30s), previously deputy head (academic) at York House School in Herts. Studied English at UCL and enrolled on TeachFirst programme. First assignment was to a challenging London secondary school before falling into the prep sector ‘by accident.’ He was hooked within days. ‘Children at this age are a joy.’ Sees the influence that school can have in the first years of a child’s life as both ‘a privilege and a responsibility.’ Still dips his toe in the teaching pool via year 8 English lessons.

Taking the helm months before the pandemic struck proved interesting. Although conceding it to be one of the most challenging periods of his life (particularly as a sleep deprived father of a new-born child), it was a baptism by fire and helped accelerate the settling in process. With no precedent, there was no ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mindset to combat. Changes in personnel have included a new bursar and two deputy heads with experience of state and private sector. Head has also moved forward on an IT agenda that might otherwise have taken a while. When Storm Eunice blew into town, forcing the school gates shut, all children could access a full day’s learning from home starting with a live assembly. Thankfully, the fun police have not taken over and dispensations will still be made for snow days.

Extremely personable and brimming with enthusiasm, he has made great efforts to communicate with parents. ‘He’s constantly asking for feedback and opinions. His email door is always open.’ Evidence of responsiveness includes the appointment of a new director of performing arts, a department which parent feedback had suggested was not up to the standard of other extracurricular offerings. Similarly, following a parent survey, learning support provision has been bolstered.

Sees his role as evolution not revolution, and building on the school’s existing strengths. Parents recognise his particular affinity with the younger year groups, perhaps not surprising given his own young family. Changes to date have been well received, with reports of ‘a clear direction’ of travel, driven by a strong senior team.

Entrance

Just under 130 pupils in pre-prep and 200 in prep, with most continuing through. No entry exams but informal assessment before a place is offered.

Exit

Between 10-20 per cent leave at the end of year 6, mainly to local grammars. Vast majority stay to sit 13+ exams, and new joiners mean that the last two years are only slightly smaller. Most to Canford, also to Bryanston and Clayesmore. One or two to other boarding options, and a few to local independent day schools.

Our view

Previously the headquarters of the Dalgety piggery, the main redbrick building that the school has inhabited since 1986 presents an attractive and homely front to the hive of activity behind. School has inhabited this 26-acre site since 1986, with a sensible layout that leads parents straight into pre-prep, separated with its own magnificent play areas nestled in the woodland. ‘It’s all very well organised and if you have a baby in a car seat it’s not far to go,’ said one appreciative parent, before adding, ‘they’ve got it down to a tee. I couldn’t fault it.’

The school is non-selective and results are strong. Scholarship boards dotted around the school are a quiet but confident acknowledgment of continued success. In the year we visited, the school picked up half the academic scholarships on offer at Canford. Classes are mixed ability bar maths and English (and occasionally other subjects), for which there are sets in year 8. Two classes of between 13 to 19 in the earlier years, moving to three smaller classes in years 7 and 8. A scholars’ programme is provided in prep time in the months leading up to exams. Latin from year 6, Spanish from year 4, and French from year 1, although pre-prep has been known to blast out a song with the odd French word. Atom learning practice is introduced in year 5 for those considering CE. All leavers take the Dumpton Certificate, described as ‘common entrance lite’. Art, DT, and food tech complete a comprehensive academic programme, the latter highly praised for its quality of output. The cinnamon buns are, apparently, ‘legend.’

Additional learning support is provided through the EdX department, but the first port of call is teachers in class. Staff meet termly to identify pupils not making the progress expected of them at whatever level and agree minor in-class interventions that might help. Small group support is also available to those needing a boost, though numbers of children registered for such educational support are low. Art Hub is open every break time for those having a wobble. One parent of a child receiving learning support says her child has ‘blossomed.’

Performing arts have been given a new lease of life following a departmental shake-up and now match the very shiny new facilities, with practice and recital rooms galore. The spring spectacular involves every child, whether performing on stage or re-enacting scenes at varying locations on the ‘Shakespeare promenade’ for parents wandering around site. With a double cast school production (most recently, Oliver!), house music festival and competition, weekly performing assemblies and various choirs and orchestras, there are plenty of opportunities to participate. There’s even a mother and baby singalong for parents in pre-prep.

Sports department wants for nothing. An amazing new sports hall is big enough to hold four badminton courts, overlooked by a viewing gallery. Parents can enjoy tea from the first floor terrace providing views of the surrounding sports fields. Slightly shivery towel-clad pupils emerging from the covered swimming pool bear testament to its constant usage, alongside an all-weather pitch, tennis courts and multiple grass pitches. Main sports are football, rugby, hockey, netball, cricket, athletics and swimming. But other sports, including tennis and cross country, also feature. Moves afoot to make sport less gender-specific. Results are impressive, with latest headlines including the senior boys coming eighth at the national IPS hockey championships and the girls reaching the SW region netball finals. School, however, maintains that success is measured more by getting every child capable of pulling on socks and shoes playing, and it can and does field D and E teams to ensure maximum participation.

‘Don’t change the culture!’ was the cry from existing parents, and head is at pains to build on, rather than change, the school ethos. The core values are ‘Be kind’ and ‘Aim high’, and these are unequivocally in evidence. Head is passionate about emotional literacy and has backed up, in his words, his ‘over communication’ of values with the adoption of RULER, a whole school approach to building emotional literacy based on Yale University research. Each pre-prep classroom has a class charter and mood meter, where children are invited to post their feelings (colour-coordinated) on a mood board. ‘If they can verbalise how they’re feeling, they can manage emotions and manage conflict,’ says head. It's hard to imagine any form of conflict in the pre-prep where it’s all smiles and giggles, despite the child who chose red on the mood meter – it was her favourite colour.

Older children are taught to be ambassadors and take a leadership approach in modelling desired behaviours of kindness and empathy. The message has been received loud and clear. In fact, ‘nurturing,’ ‘happy,’ and ‘friendly,’ are words commonly used by parents to describe the ethos. The mixed year group of pupils we met couldn’t think of an instance of unkindness or a serious disciplinary intervention, with one child adding for the avoidance of doubt, that ‘they don’t whip us.’ Phew. Head is keen for senior years to further act as role models and take on greater responsibility. A prefect system, when bedded in, should help.

School day runs until 5.45pm, with wraparound care for pre-prep. For the older children, the last hour is dedicated to prep, sport on Wednesday or hobbies on Friday. But clubs could be more imaginative, according to some parents. Staff and pupils share the communal dining room which serves up a tasty selection of hot and cold options.

A residential Bear Grylls-type trip to Scotland is hugely popular. Held at the beginning of September to allow life skills to be put into practice during the final year, year 8 pupils climb mountains, build fires and forage, before spending a night ‘on their own’ (presumably with staff camouflaged behind hedges). ‘Best experience of my life,’ reports one Bear-ette.

Making the most of its rural location, the school places emphasis on outdoor learning and has its own eco trail, complete with two ponds dredged by pupils and now hosting newts, plus BBQ and camping site for summer sleepovers. There’s also an allotment tended by pupils, staff, and a couple of ducks. Head of outdoor learning, whose dog is also a frequent site visitor, takes outdoor pursuit classes for the senior years which have – according to parents - included plucking and roasting a partridge over an open fire. To mark Earthshot day, the school went off timetable and focused on activities including building bee hotels, rewilding and planting saplings.

Money matters

No scholarships, but some means tested bursaries available from year 3.

The last word

A relatively small but perfectly-formed prep with a strong academic record, competitive but inclusive sports programme, impressive facilities and emphasis on emotional resilience. Parents say they made the right choice. ‘We’ll be sad to leave,’ mused one. We can see why.

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