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This is a school with an atmosphere,'where children feel safe and valued,' a parent said, and there is praise all round for the, 'buddy,' system. Houses named after the elements and there are challenges and competitions all year round notably the 'songfest' in the first term. Parents appreciate the flexibilityof the school's offer,'We are essentially a day school , with knobs on,'says the head. Boarding is occasional, Special nights are my favourite, all my friends stay then too.' An acceptance that many pupils need extra help or perhaps ...

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What the school says...

Holmwood House School aims to provide an excellent education for a wide range of pupils. A high emphasis is placed on pastoral care to produce happy, well-rounded individuals.

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What The Good Schools Guide says


Since 2009, Alexander Mitchell, BA, PGCE (50s). Though born and raised in Perthshire (a slight burr still in evidence) he has spent his adult life in England. He was educated at Napier college, Edinburgh, then took a music degree in Colchester and his PGCE in Reading. Since qualifying he has taught in every possible type of school, state and independent, day and boarding, senior and junior, single sex and co-ed. He was head of music at the Loughborough Endowed schools and spent 10 years as director of music at Haberdashers’ Aske’s school for girls. He has been an ISI inspector for 18 years. In the 98-year history of Holmwood, he is, remarkably, only the fifth head and the first with no family or previous connection with the founder.

Has the relaxed, at times almost playful, manner of an experienced head, at ease with his position. His competence and likeability are fully recognised by parents who comment he is ‘confident in the way he runs things and very approachable,’ and, ‘he knows everybody and has the best interests of the children at heart.' Though genial, he is not one for soft soap and parents trust his judgements. He believes the close relationship between home and school underpins successful education; ‘it’s a shared job so good communication and relationships are vital.’ Following parental consultation he has brought in changes to the school day (and the fee structure) which mean parents pay lower fees for the compulsory ‘core’ teaching day and extra for staying late, arriving early, and meals. ‘We try to accommodate parents and leave it to them to decide what suits their family arrangements.’

Married to Helen, who teaches year 5, PSHE and music in the school, they have three children, the youngest currently a pupil at Holmwood. Music remains an abiding interest and one way he relaxes at the weekend is by cooking but ‘I’m no Masterchef, it’s homemade pizza on a Saturday night or a roast.’ The family summer holiday is ‘planned and greatly looked forward to by us all. We usually travel in Europe.’ He is a happy head, ‘I am lucky to be doing what I feel suits me and what I enjoy.’

Leaving summer 2021.


Majority join reception at age 4. The school nursery, on a separate site, admits from 6 months old and a good clutch move straight up to reception while others leave for local primaries. Non-selective admissions policy and no formal tests. Spaces usually available for the higher forms; numbers in years 7 and 8 hold up well.


Most of year 8s depart for the nearby day and boarding schools: Uppingham, Framlingham, Felsted, Royal Hospital School, Ipswich School, Ipswich High, Culford and Gresham’s. Occasional places further afield at eg King’s Canterbury, Ampleforth, Benenden, Eton, Stowe and Gordonstoun. About half win awards to senior schools.

Our view

Set in a semi-rural pocket of north Essex (or ‘south Suffolk’) handily close to the A12 and two miles from Colchester. It is the only prep school in the area that offers both day and boarding options. ’We are essentially a day school, with knobs on,’ says the head. On the same site for nearly a hundred years (2022 is the centenary), the school remains academically broad and prides itself on adapting to and understanding children’s needs. ’We are not a sausage machine,’ the head states.

Extensive wooded grounds are pleasant rather than idyllic. Main building, used largely for administration, boarding and school meals, stands amid a sequence of functional one- and two-storey buildings, set around courtyards and play areas. Much is made of the natural surroundings with well maintained forest trails, outdoor classrooms (tree surgery in operation during our visit) and games pitches and running tracks as far as the eye can see.

The day starts at 8.25 (breakfast club from 7.30) with teaching until 3.25pm or 4pm for all years. Pre-prep and years 4 to 6 can either go home then or opt for tea, prep and activities at school until 6.15pm, and this is popular with many on at least some days of the week. The later time is compulsory for years 7 and 8. Saturday morning school was recently abandoned, after consultation with parents.

Houses are named after the elements and there are challenges and competitions, mostly charitable or sporting, all year round, notably the ’Songfest’ in the first term when everyone spends an hour learning a new song and an outside adjudicator is invited. Rewards system of golden leaves and super stars for younger pupils and show-ups and show-downs (sounds more drastic than it is) for older pupils. Behaviour is very good and pupils are well mannered, opening doors and so on, in a relaxed, unforced way. Though the school is completely co-ed, boys do still outnumber girls, especially in the top forms, but this does not appear to be an issue with the girls themselves: ‘We like it and have made such good friends with each other.’

Pupils in reception now enjoy the benefits of brand new premises, close by but separate from the main building. Lovely, large and well equipped spaces for work and play are set within partly wooded grounds. The main pre-prep department (years 1-3) occupies a new(ish) two-storey building that includes a decent sized hall as well as a series of light, airy classrooms, though ‘we like being upstairs best,’ admitted our guides. Two forms in each year and no formal setting at this stage, though pupils are taken out of class in groups either for extra ‘stretch and challenge’ or consolidation of recent work. Pupils with further difficulties will be offered one-to-one support (extra charge). A foreign languages carousel operates, giving pupils a ‘taster’ term in French, Spanish and Mandarin, after which ‘most of us stick with French,’ we were told. Latin starts in year 6.

Once in the prep, setting is in place for maths, English and science. Years 7 and 8 are divided along the lines of future exam and scholarship requirements. ‘We find that those doing special entrance exams or entering for awards need a particular focus in the final years, but the division is not rigid.’ Great enthusiasm for global studies, an amalgam of history, geography and RS: ‘We do all about life and death, battles, medicine, Joan of Arc, religions, everything!’ DT and art are very popular and taught in adjoining workshop-cum-studios, equipped to a high standard and with plenty of space for pupils to each have their own workstation (fretsaws in action when we called). Amongst other skills, by the end of year 8 pupils have mastered electronic circuits, animation and food wrapping projects and designed a building.

Learning support unit is at the heart of provision for SEN, though most help is offered in class rather than through withdrawing pupils. There is an acceptance at the school that many pupils, from time to time, need extra help or perhaps a bit of a push to improve if they are coasting, or hoping to win a scholarship. The individual approach is praised by parents: ‘It’s about how can we help you be your best.’

Sport is played on most days, rugby, hockey and cricket for boys, hockey, netball and cricket for girls, and all get plenty of match experience. ‘It’s often the same people in the As but we all get a chance in matches as there aren’t that many of us.' Twenty acres of the school’s extensive grounds are given over to sport, plus a vast sports hall and an indoor swimming pool. The school has the use of the on-site Lexdon rackets club with its tennis and squash coaches. Drama is a timetabled subject and several productions are staged annually by combined year groups. ‘We rehearse the play for a whole week when it’s our turn,’ a pupil explained. ‘We’re doing Mary Poppins this year.’ Year 8, befitting their status, have a play all to themselves. Music is taken seriously with everyone having the chance to learn a stringed instrument in class as a ’try out’, with the consequence that some continue learning. There are several choirs. ‘I joined the chamber choir because it goes on tour,’ we were told. There are orchestras for all abilities and everyone gets to perform in concerts throughout the year. Parents feel these opportunities boost all-round confidence. ‘They learn to stand up in front of people and perform from an early age, so it feels natural.’ Enormous library with thousands of books and a balcony that seats 60 at least, and is well used. Pupils have library lessons in the lower forms and it is used for supervised prep for all years. It is a year 8 privilege to sit on the red sofas in a corner of the balcony. The Jubilee Hall, used for daily assemblies and staging school plays, has tiered seating for 200, a foyer and exhibition space.

This is a school with an atmosphere. ‘Children feel safe and valued,’ a parent said and there is praise all round for the ‘buddy’ system where older pupils act as a friend and guide to a younger pupil. ‘It’s a relationship that can mean a great deal on both sides.’ Form tutors, then the relevant head of ‘phase’, are the main points of contact for parents and in addition the school arranges regular consultation sessions. The emphasis is on keeping in close touch so that any emerging difficulties can be tackled early on. There is a variety of ways the school keeps in touch with parents (and vice versa): the weekly bulletin (need to know), newsletter (nice to know), email for particular information concerning subjects or year groups, as well as Facebook and Twitter. If all else fails, or there is a serious personal problem to be discussed, ‘pick the phone up,’ says the head.


Boarding is occasional, no one boards all week here, three nights is the maximum as certain nights are reserved for particular year groups or for a ‘themed’ night (Burns Night was a recent jolly). Demands to board (by pupils) increase as they progress up the school. ‘Special nights are my favourite, all my friends stay then too,’ said a year 8 pupil. Parents appreciate the flexibility of the school’s offer, ‘especially when you have several children.’ Boarders have their own games room with pool and ping pong tables etc, but also use the sports hall and art and music facilities.

The last word

Despite being set in extensive grounds and with facilities that rival some secondary schools, this is a small school where close relationships are formed and pupils learn and grow in confidence at their own rate.

Special Education Needs

We have a specialist dyslexia unit comprising three full-time teachers and three part-timers. The children can be withdrawn from class for individual lessons and the staff also provide in-class support where necessary. Other members of the teaching staff have qualifications for teaching dyslexic children and the school, in general, offers full support.

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