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Aldwickbury Mansion, a character Victorian house just a stone’s throw up the hill from Harpenden’s second high street in Southdown, became the school’s home in 1948. Now surrounded by a collection of sympathetically designed more modern buildings as well as playing fields, an astro and 25-metre indoor pool, this leafy 20-acre site makes for a friendly and well-functioning school campus of the ideal scale for prep school age children – big enough to stretch your legs in but small enough to know your way around. Planning application in for a new-build sports hall on-site...

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What the school says...

Aldwickbury School is a vibrant and dynamic community, linking consistency and tradition with all that is best about modern educational practice. We understand how boys think, grow and learn, eventually becoming fine young men displaying a confident approach toward all that life may hold and a determination to carve out their own future.

The curriculum at Aldwickbury equips the boys with skills to succeed in future schooling and beyond. As a Christian school we pay due regard to the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of the boys. There is a daily programme of physical education and games, making full use of the extensive grounds surrounding the school.

The Pre-Prep Department is a happy, purposeful and friendly place where boys experience the joy of learning. Self expression linked to self discipline is encouraged, as well as a caring attitude and respect for others.

Our boys are polite, caring young men who enjoy being free to be boys. We are serious about the boys academic progress and they leave us able to be independent learners. From Year 6 flexible boarding is available, providing a happy and safe environment in which boarders are well cared for.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2003, Vernon Hales BEd (50s). Educated at Langley Park Grammar School and Exeter University, where his education degree majored in PE. After a year in the state system, he started his prep school career at Papplewick before heading off to New Zealand, becoming deputy head in its then largest boarding prep school. Returned as deputy head and boarding housemaster at Elstree School, then joined Aldwickbury as the school’s fourth head. Partnered through entire professional journey by wife Claire, also a trained teacher and now the school’s head of marketing. Two sons educated at Aldwickbury, then The Leys.

Personable and relaxed; pleasingly jovial manner with the boys. When asked what he has improved during his tenure so far, he has trouble answering - ‘I don’t want to sound arrogant’ - but parents are quick to praise his instant insistence on boys being called by their first names and snacks being offered at break-times – ‘made me instantly popular,’ he quips, but more importantly shows he knows how boys operate. ‘I am a big fan,’ one parent corroborated. ‘I enjoy the sheer enthusiasm and care that the school shows.’ Doesn’t teach but supervises years 7 and 8 prep and is in the car park to welcome every morning. ‘We try to be as available to parents as we can – it’s important that we know the little things that matter to the boys in case they need support’. Parents appreciative: ‘He clearly guides the ethos of the school with his calmly confident and very human approach, which percolates the whole place,’ said one. ‘The values and morals of the school definitely hark back to a bygone age, but they are delivered in a way that is relevant to today’s world.’

Entrance

Boys join from a range of local nurseries in St Albans, Harpenden, Wheathampsted – staff go out and visit before joining to smooth the process. Twins are generally separated, following discussion with parents – Aldwickbury’s reception classrooms are inter-connected so twins can peek at each other for reassurance. Three-form entry, no more than 16 to a class. Head is happy with the roll of around 380 – ‘we fit well on the site’. A few spaces at the bottom of the school but otherwise full. Non-selective at 4+ but boys joining higher up the school are invited in for an informal assessment (English, maths, reading - not a test) with relevant year group staff to ensure they can cope with the curriculum. Means-tested bursaries available; no scholarships. Boys’ sisters often at Wheathampsted House, St Albans High School for Girls Prep, St Hilda’s.

Exit

A handful of boys leave for state system at end of year 6 but – unlike many other preps - the intention is to reduce in numbers slightly for years 7 and 8 to allow for more individual focus and positions of responsibility; ‘more elbow room,’ says head. St Albans is a key year 9 destination - ‘good local school which ticks lots of boxes for our pupils’ – Haileybury and Bedford also popular. St Columba’s, Brighton, Stowe, Shrewsbury, Berkhamsted also considerations. Most want day or the opportunity to grow into boarding. Majority of academic scholarship candidates aim for St Albans; music, art, drama and all-rounders an even spread. Head invites in parents to discuss next steps; ‘alternatives are politely suggested’ to those aiming unrealistically high. Noted a parent, ‘He believes that if your son needs excessive coaching to get into a particular secondary school, then that probably isn’t the right school for him - not a message that every parent in Harpenden wants to hear.’

Our view

Aldwickbury Mansion, a character Victorian house just a stone’s throw up the hill from Harpenden’s second high street in Southdown, became the school’s home in 1948. Now surrounded by a collection of sympathetically designed more modern buildings as well as playing fields, an Astro and 25-metre indoor pool, this leafy 20-acre site makes for a friendly and well-functioning school campus of the ideal scale for prep school age children – big enough to stretch your legs in but small enough to know your way around. Planning application in for a new-build sports hall on-site.

Pre-prep has its own little world – a self-contained, purpose-built base secured with a large, squeaky gate. Three classes of 12 to 14 per year in reception, years 1 and 2. Pre-prep day is 8.30am-3.15pm, though 3pm finish for reception. Wraparound care morning and afternoon. Head of pre-prep welcomes all in the morning and answers questions to nip any misunderstandings in the bud, and reception parents have their own parents’ evenings. Exempt from early years curriculum, children go at their own pace, some on a play-based regime. Each class has a teacher and dedicated teaching assistant. Large classrooms well suited to the age of the children and with plenty of storage (teachers’ delight). Much recent investment in the pre-prep outdoor learning environment and adventure playground with outdoor areas differentiated by age stuffed with bikes, trikes etc for engaged play and fewer incidents. Little distinction in reception between learning time and playtime. Swimming from reception, all year round, plus drama and music taught by specialists. Instrumentalists on the rise from year 1, particularly piano and violin, though some take on cellos, guitars, drums; later woodwind and brass. French from year 1 with popular annual Languages Day, focusing on pupils’ mother tongues. Year 2s use school art room, DT studio and library and have clubs for choir, recorders, drama, football, tennis, eco. Regular Celebrations of Learning showcase children’s work for the admiration of parents and family.

Junior department for years 3 and 4 has a year per floor in three classrooms. Class teacher for all subjects, bar specialist ICT, art, DT, music and drama in dedicated rooms. ‘They’re taught to walk sensibly between lessons by the teacher,’ explains head. ‘Then in years 5 and 6 they know how to do it on their own and take all the relevant equipment with them.’ Fifteen to 18 per class, which our guides judged just right - ‘You don’t want too many but enough that you can choose your friends’. Good point.
Subject classrooms for seniors (years 5 to 8). Tasters in Spanish and German added to the mix in year 5 and Latin from year 6. Individual needs met in mixed ability classes until end of year 5 and plenty of small group work; teaching assistants dotted around the timetable and gappers help with reading, as do year 8 boys who support year 5s and 6s through the Reading Lab programme (those who have benefited from help are often keenest to repay later). Setting and streaming introduced from year 6, with two or three classes and a scholarship class in year 8. SEN all in a day’s work – full provision within the classroom and also one-to-one, ranging from a few weeks to constant. ‘The right support helps them to flourish but we might find a passion as a trumpeter, or an artist, to give them self-esteem,’ says head. Early discussions with parents of strugglers.

Clocktower clock recently stopped ticking and needed repair, so head seized the moment to refurb the upper floor of main school building to create a new music room, now hanging with computers for Mixcraft and traditional instruments. Whole of year 3 learn the violin and all in year 4 and 5 may try out a brass instrument with the aim of keeping up the flow of trumpeters and euphonium (really) players. Practice rooms well used for individual lessons with visiting peris. Ambitions of dynamic music teacher with choral background being realised - 14 music ensembles, from choir and orchestra to school rock and samba bands, some for all-comers, some auditioned. ‘I don’t expect them to be able to play a Mozart piano concerto when they leave here,’ he says rationally, ‘but I do want them to be able to tell me why they do or don’t like it.’

DT studio well-equipped – strict rules re which year groups are entrusted with which tools (hacksaws from year 3). Art department on two floors – year 5s intently recreating Gaudi’s mosaics when we visited – concentration etched on young faces. At least an hour of art on the timetable every week and popular art club. New kiln.

Hall named for a former headmaster with raked seating, the venue for assemblies for years 3 to 8 and chapel on Friday afternoons, school plays – this year the Wizard of Oz. Auditions open to all, and also opportunities for essential behind-the-scenes involvement. Well-used library stocked with ‘every book you could possibly think of,’ confirmed our guide sagely. Large dining hall - pre-prep eat lunch first, followed by years 3 and 4, and 5 to 8. Rotating menu, now with the popular introduction of soup in the winter. ‘Breakfast and supper are the best’ – unlimited eggs, bacon, sausages, toast for the largest of appetites.

‘Sport’ was the quick reply when our guides were asked the best thing about school. Football, rugby, hockey, basketball in winter; cricket, athletics, volleyball, tennis, swimming in summer. Specialist teaching twice weekly from year 1 and boys from year 3 up have a daily games lesson (what a lot of boys crave - clever). School ski teams and squads compete in English Schools events and around 90 boys involved in the school’s ski programme. Fencing now major with 70 or 80 boys regularly en garde (old boy in national team). Some 12 to 15 teams from years 5 to 8 regularly represent the school in Wednesday fixtures. Everybody in years 3 and 4 plays for the school; more selective higher up but by the end of term all who want to have played. Boys not in teams may opt for photography, climbing or sailing. Cyclo-cross added recently. Two nights a week after supper in summer boys may play on the nine-hole par 3 course which surrounds the school.

Colours system recently overhauled - boys awarded Half, Full or Headmaster’s Colours when they have earned enough Wheatsheafs, which are awarded for notable deeds in any areas of school life including sports, arts, academics and citizenship. Prize-giving in a marquee at the end of term kept under the hour – ‘it’s important that every boy in the school is there and that’s as long as it is reasonable to expect the youngest to engage,’ says head.

Huge choice of clubs and activities - ‘busy boys are happy boys,’ says head. Chess, tech club, general knowledge, debating, skiing and fencing top the bill. School makes full use of being on the capital’s doorstep, with trips to art galleries and theatres. Curriculum-related trips all year round with the more fun visits saved until the end. Annual ski trip run by head of maths, year 7 to France, year 8 football tour to (exotic) Eastbourne, year 4 camping on-site. Year 7s throw themselves into a two-day on-site camp as part of their leadership programme which also comprises team events such as crossing the river blindfold and talks from professionals about leadership in later life. ‘In seven years I’ve never had any of my three boys not wanting to go to school,’ declared a parent. ‘I put that down to the stimulating environment they find themselves in. That can be in the academic work or in the extracurricular activities, that are legion and legendary - there is something for everyone to grab and enjoy and the breadth is quite remarkable. In sports, the desire to win is always finely balanced with the Corinthian spirit of gentlemanliness and amateurism.’

World of Work talks for years 7 and 8 – doctors, airline pilots etc – and informative parent talks throughout the year too, recently ‘why 13+ is better than 11+’ for those with children in years 5 and 6. Great loyalty to ‘sections’ (houses) – Highlands, Midlands, Uplands, Lowlands. Competitions ranging from the sporty (eg football) to the silly (eg foam rocket launching and ‘tunnelball’ – passing the ball through a tunnel of everyone’s legs). Plus points for good work and behaviour. Sanctions not really a thing here. ‘Boys want to please,’ says head; ‘you tell them off and you move on.’

A day school run along boarding school lines, but no full boarders currently or recently. Flexi boarding best suits local families - a good chance for boys heading off to senior day schools to experience boarding, or a run-in for those boarding full-time from year 9. Boarding starts at year 5, with taster nights beforehand. Thirty beds with 50 boys currently booked in to board once a week. ‘Boarding is really fun – you can stay when you want,’ grinning boarders told us. Popularity of the boarding week night tends to be dictated by the activity laid on after supper - Superhero Night and Nerf Night fully booked. A fun sleepover in reality. Matron is on hand in the bright and welcoming boarders’ house, along with two New World gappers. Lounge has TV and Wii; several large and comfy four- to seven-bed rooms - bring your own own duvet or sleeping bag. Boarders usually sleep in the same bed whenever they stay. Large windows with lovely views across the school fields and woods, to which boarders have privileged access.

Day boys may join boarders for breakfast and supper for a small cost – handy for commuting parents. All boys from year 5 up may stay after school for prep and there is an after-school club for pupils of any age which runs until supper time at 5.50pm. Post-supper activity until 7.30pm.

A local school – half the boys in the school have the same home postcode, within a 20-minute drive. School buses not needed – mum or dad’s taxi does the job; carpools are common. Parents ‘invested in and engaged with their children’s education,’ says head. Accountants and other professionals, many with offices in London thanks to easy commuting and family-friendly semi-rural environs. School recently moved breakfast forward 10 minutes to 7.30am to help parents make the 7.50 to St Pancras. A sociable bunch, by all accounts, many are committed members of the Aldwickbury Friends Association - ‘a real force for good,’ says head – committee meetings ‘fun’; parties ‘late and loud’. Money raised through events and social occasions split between charity and school wish list purchases, eg adventure playground equipment - school presents ideas but AFA also suggests in line with its remit to ‘raise friends and make memories’.

Certainly, those lucky enough to be educated here will look back on a golden childhood few today experience. A warm, well thought-out school, genuinely for and about boys, producing good eggs of the modern variety.

Special Education Needs

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