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Intriguing range of reward systems - golden leaves, superstars, as well as ‘showups’ and ‘showdowns’ for older pupils with the requisite number of showdowns leading to a detention (‘I had one once,’ confessed our guide. ‘I’m not getting another one’). Music and drama is ‘about to explode’ under the direction of the new head of department, predicts Mr Mitchell. Matilda being rehearsed with years 6 and 7 throughout our visit and, recently Pirates of the Curry Bean. Art room described (accurately) as ‘humongous’ by our guide...

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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

Headmaster

Alexander Mitchell, 50s. Originally from Perthshire, though he worries the burr is fading, having spent more of his life down south than north of the border (not to Essex ears, it isn’t). Educated at Napier in Edinburgh, with a degree in music from Colchester and PGCE from Reading. Has taught in the state and public, single-sex and co-ed, day and boarding sectors, most recently for three years as head of the music school at Loughborough Endowed Schools and 10 years as director of music at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls. ISI inspector for 10 years. He’s only the fifth Holmwood head in its 90-year history and the first ever not to have any past association with the school. ‘Underneath his friendly, easy-going exterior there is a respected, efficient, deep-thinking workaholic,’ notes a perceptive parent. Lives on-site (‘handy for fire drills,’ approved a pupil) with his wife Helen - head of PSHCE and registrar - and their two children, all in the school and ranging from year 4 to year 6. Conducting was his love, but he says he doesn’t miss the music – ‘I have plenty to be getting on with here as headmaster and our head of music and drama is outstanding; I’m very lucky to be doing what I feel I was meant to be doing, it’s the best job in the world.’ Still finds time to play bass guitar in the school’s jazz band. ‘Happiness is the key to progress,’ he says. ‘I can’t promise a perfect school but I can promise a happy one.’ Chimes with Holmwood’s Latin motto, which translates as ‘I was glad’.

Entrance

A third from the school’s own nursery, which takes 53 children from 6 months and is set in an attractive rural building a few miles from the main school. The rest go off to good local primaries. Usual entry point to the main school is at age 4, straight into the dedicated reception, which takes two classes of 18 in each year. A handful more pupils arrive at throughout each year. Boys in the majority.

Exit

Year 8 children largely depart for Felsted, Framlingham, Ipswich or Oundle. One or two to Uppingham and Rugby and a similar number to Royal Hospital School, Culford, New Hall and Greshams. School proud of range of scholarships won. Occasional places at eg Eton, Harrow, King’s Canterbury, Benenden, Ampleforth, Brighton College, Millfield, Stowe.

Our view

The principles of the school have remained the same since it was founded on this very site, two miles from Colchester, in 1922 by a Mr and Mrs Duggan, whose aim was ‘to develop the individuality and abilities of each child, to make him self-reliant and adaptable and to help him face reality.’ A collection of semi-rural buildings punctuated by courtyards and outside spaces that cleverly maximise the opportunities for outdoor education (we’ve never seen so many woodland classrooms, play areas and nature trails in one prep school). Garden Block arranged around a tranquil garden in memory of a former pupil and treated by all with respect.

The Holmwood day is divided into lessons until tea at 4pm and then prep and activities until supper for boarders and more activities until lights-out. Flexi-boarding – minimum one night – is popular and most take advantage by year 8 (‘I tell parents their children will let them know when they want to board,’ says head). Houses are named after the elements and there are competitions and challenges all year round. Intriguing range of reward systems - golden leaves, superstars, as well as ‘showups’ and ‘showdowns’ for older pupils with the requisite number of showdowns leading to a detention (‘I had one once,’ confessed our guide. ‘I’m not getting another one’). There’s ‘a week for everything’ - English, Maths, Mental Health and Well-being, and when we visited a celebrated scientist was setting up ready to give a demonstration as part of Science Week.

Reception children have their own little world, across a path from the main school. Cavernous for the two classes of 18 in the early years department - with airy classrooms and intriguing corners tailored to computer play and dress-up – it also has a lovely outside play area with a patch of age-appropriate, safe woodland to explore. The main pre-prep department houses years 1, 2 and 3 in spacious, modern, purpose-built accommodation. Moving into the prep, pupils are arranged by ability in English, maths, French and science and in years 7 and 8 into a scholarship and three further sets. A few new arrivals, but the head points out ‘as the year group gets larger, the sets get smaller’. The scholarship set is made up not just of the brightest but those who have the ‘emotional maturity to cope with the stretch and challenge’. Pupils from year 4 begin to move to specialist classrooms – ‘you’re exhausted for the first few days but you soon get used to it,’ reassured our guides. Year 6s learn Latin. French in reception then a carousel of French, Spanish and Mandarin. A few drift off into the strong local state selective system at 11+ but the vast majority press on to 13.

Music and drama is ‘about to explode’ under the direction of the new head of department, predicts Mr Mitchell. Matilda being rehearsed with years 6 and 7 throughout our visit and, recently Pirates of the Curry Bean. Art room described (accurately) as ‘humongous’ by our guide, and full of unusual projects including animation installations by year 8s, who all received a still turned into a souvenir picture. DT is offered as an activity in a fully-equipped studio. Sport every day for those who want it. Rugby, hockey and cricket are major for boys, while girls play netball, hockey and rounders. Some 20 acres of the 34 are given over to sport, plus a vast newish sports hall and indoor swimming pool. On-site Lexden Rackets Club - financed by compulsory purchase of school land for the A12 decades ago - is heaving with fit young retirees on a dreary Wednesday morning, but also a superb resource for the school at other times. School has its own tennis and squash coaches.

Library with 12,000 books and an intriguing colour-coded filing system, presided over by the school librarian. Red sofas for the exclusive use of year 8 are as close as they come to a common room. Science labs in converted stables. Jubilee Hall with tiered seating for nearly 200, backed by professional-looking exhibition space – self-portraits when we visited. Dyslexia unit recently renamed learning support (although the sign-maker hasn’t yet caught up). Excellent provision for SEN. ‘We make progress here,’ says the head. ‘That might be a scholarship for one child, or an improvement in reading for another. We nurture strengths and support weaknesses and develop young people who are confident, and above all comfortable with whom they are.’

Boarding house open from Monday evenings to Saturday mornings - no full boarding. As well as using school sports, art, music and cooking facilities, boarders have a games room with pool, table football, table tennis etc in the main building cellar for evening recreation. Currently Saturday school for years 4-8, but this will be abolished in September 2018.

Courtesy and respect are still ingrained at an early age and children here are at ease with anyone (the head swears by the ‘train to Norwich test’ – in a parallel universe as the proprietor of his own company, he would be sufficiently confident to put any Holmwood pupil on a two-hour train journey with his best client). 'Every child is well mannered and friendly,’ agrees a parent. ‘Even on the sporting field - win or lose, the children are always gracious.’

Surrounded by its own playing fields, Holmwood has the feel of a much larger school, but at its heart it’s a small community of some 300 pupils which extends to embrace their families too.

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