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The Enid Blyton-esque, what’s-not-to-love campus is the perfect setting for this school that sees fun, adventure and creativity as the best way to achieve strong results and create enviable childhood memories. The emphasis is on old-fashioned, wholesome fun, making full use of this natural playground, including bushcraft and mountain biking, as well as forest school, in the 100 acre wood. The Tempest was in rehearsal when we visited, with the audience cycling to the different scenes around the school (‘a bit bonkers, but that’s Saint Ronans’). Teachers need not apply unless they get the job done with humour, compassion and love and prioritise energy, enthusiasm and the example they set. ‘It wouldn’t suit parents who like...

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What the school says...

Saint Ronans was founded in 1883 and is set in the 250 acre Tongswood estate. Children, teachers and parents are attracted to the school for its endearing family ethos, its old fashioned charm as well as its modern outlook. We aim to blend the best of 'ancient and modern'. Investment in the last five years has seen the opening of a new Nursery, Pre Prep, Music School, Art studio, Sports Hall, DT Department and School Farm. ...Read more

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Fencing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2003, William Trelawny-Vernon (50s), only the seventh headmaster in the school’s 13+ decades. Very much a joint enterprise with wife Emma (she's the Trelawny, he’s the Vernon), who is both registrar and teaches PSHE. They are known as Mr and Mrs TV to pupils and parents, who describe them as ‘fun’, ‘kind’ and ‘an open book’, with one mother beside herself that ‘he was the first head to look me in the eye instead of automatically turning to my husband’. The couple – who we found relaxed, down-to-earth, straight-talking and broadminded - met at Exeter, where Mr TV read biology. Previously at Stowe School for 12 years, including posts as a biology teacher, and seven years as housemaster of Chatham House. Teaches year 5 history - ‘largely in preparation for ‘the chat’ (senior school choices).

The business is in the blood – his father was head of Hordle House (now Walhampton) in Hampshire – and the oldest of their four children is teaching at Stowe, making her the fifth generation of teachers in the family (the other three are at university). Both grew up in a four-child family, and with their own gang of four have that deep respect for fairness and equality of treatment which comes from big families – as well as that willingness, or in their case eagerness, to get stuck in. ‘There’s no sitting in an ivory tower here – you get the sense that they can’t wait to get away from the office and be involved with the children who they see as members of the community rather than people to go through an academic treadmill,’ said one parent - and we noted that they made our tea rather than (as at so many preps) getting their minions to do it (served in chipped mug with posh teabag – like the school, grounded with no airs and graces but first-rate results).

The couple, who moved off site in 2005, eschew the parental dinner party circuit, believing it’s important to maintain a distance – parents think they get it ‘just right’. In their spare time, both are content with home and hearth and socialising with the wider family, while holidays take them to the West Country, home of Emma’s ancestral seat (her brother John inherited the Salusbury-Trelawny baronetcy).

Many preps claim a family feel but this is the real deal, with the head’s secretary Mrs TV’s sister, known as Aunty Amanda. Even in these admin offices, say parents, there’s the ‘sense of happy chaos that is the Saint Ronan’s way’ – ‘it wouldn’t suit parents who like everything neatly diarised,’ said one. ‘It looks disorganised, but it works.’

Entrance

No open days – head shows parents round personally. All children attend a taster day, and from year 3 are assessed by the class teacher and do a free writing exercise. Intake covers wide-ranging abilities, but all are expected to behave in the free-range learning environment and pass common entrance or the Cranbrook grammar tests, so school is honest when they believe child’s needs are not going to be met. Scholarships available for academic, music, art and sporting talents, and there are means-tested bursaries.

Exit

Forget it if you have your sights on the local grammars, with the exception of Cranbrook which has recently dropped entrance from 13 to 11. Also popular are Bethany, King’s Canterbury, Hurstpierpoint, Lancing and Tonbridge. ‘Since I’ve been head we have fed into over 60 different schools,’ says head. Parents say they are good at helping you choose - the TVs visit a clutch of senior schools each term so they are well informed. Generally a good number of scholarships (35 in 2019, across all six scholarship disciplines).

Our view

The Enid Blyton-esque, what’s-not-to-love campus is the perfect setting for this school that sees fun, adventure and creativity as the best way to achieve strong results and create enviable childhood memories. The spectacular 249 acres include ancient, spreading trees, inspiring views, fishing lake, roaming peacocks, meditative garden, pupil allotments, Treetops adventure playground (opened by staff dressed as monkeys) and wonderfully non-PC swings. There’s even a farm with pigs, alpacas, chickens and (handy for the Nativity plays) donkeys. The emphasis is on old-fashioned, wholesome fun, making full use of this natural playground, including bushcraft and mountain biking, as well as forest school, in the 100 acre wood. The Tempest was in rehearsal when we visited, with the audience cycling to the different scenes around the school (‘a bit bonkers, but that’s Saint Ronans’).

Even the parents get a generous slice of this rural cake, thanks to the Walled Garden coffee shop that many pile into after drop-off and we saw parents walking their dogs in the grounds (they all rave about the school’s close interaction with the parent body – ‘it’s more come hither-ish than the other local preps,’ we were told). Everything is named for Boy’s Own adventures – there’s the Gulch, an area around a stream ideal for making mud pies, the Saltmines, an overgrown area with secret pathways, and even the pitches have names, such as Timbuktoo (because it’s a long journey to reach it). A classroom on the edge of the woods is the Hobbit House and a converted horsebox called Doris is the grub (tuck) shop for pupils, doubling up as a prosecco bar for parent events. Thank goodness for the uniform, among the most relaxed we’ve seen – corduroy trousers, skirts or pinafores, topped with school sweatshirts in a choice of pink, green, red, purple, light blue and navy. There’s a formal uniform for Fridays, key days and trips out.

Main building is Tongswood House, a grand Victorian mansion built by an Oxo magnate, with original features including a sprung floor ballroom (now the main hall which head’s study overlooks through an interior window), where frescoes of semi-naked nymphs on the ceiling liven up assemblies. A wood fire burns in the reception hearth and parents can buy free range eggs from the basket (you can also pick up school produced pork and apple juice). There’s wood panelling and grand staircases aplenty, but it all feels lived-in and every room, from classrooms to loos, are eccentrically named, such as Drury Lane, 10 Downing Street, The Zoo and Windsor Castle. Children scrape to their feet as adults enter – initially it seems at odds with this otherwise laidback environment but manners are hot, hot, hot here, along with being kind and honest. And that goes for the staff too. ‘If we heard a teacher shouting at a child, they would have to come into the office and explain why.’ Prefects are elected by the children in a secret ballot ‘which means they go for someone who is kind in the changing rooms, not necessarily just one of the first XV’.

The pre-prep is in a separate bright and modern building (where a corridor poster advises on 20 things to do before leaving pre-prep, such as dam a stream, make a mud pie and hold an animal), shared with music, and there’s a cosy nursery in the former headmaster’s house. By 2020, there will be a new building for computer science, art and DT (‘so pupils can make a beetle in art, put an engine underneath it in DT and programme it to work robotically in computing’) – aim is to be leading prep for STEAM. Large nirvana of a library complete with cheery-looking jars of book suggestions and a book tree. Delightful chapel.

Three-form entry, with maximum class sizes of 18 and four-way setting in English and maths from year 4 (‘deliciously small groups’); setting also in French from year 5 and science and Latin from year 6 (‘we used to have the scholarship class, but it just produces a sense of entitlement’). Subject specialists from reception in music and sport, from year 3 in computer science, art and DT and sciences, and from year 4 in everything. Teachers need not apply unless they get the job done with humour, compassion and love and prioritise energy, enthusiasm and the example they set; many had previous careers eg deputy head was a former hot shot in the Met police. ‘Time after time, I’ve seen teachers getting down on their knees to talk to a child – there’s a real connection,’ said one parent. Long school day - 8.30am to 5.15pm, with prep afterwards at home or at school from year 5 until 6.00pm (6.30pm for years 7 and 8). Homework selected from ‘walk, jog, run’ levels, with most choosing ‘run’ – ‘psychologically clever as you hook them into the most challenging without forcing it on them’. ‘I don’t think you realise quite how strong the academics are until you leave because the children never feel pushed,’ said one parent.

Pupils say you ask what musical instrument someone plays rather than if they play one, such is the popularity of the peripatetic teaching. There are oodles of choirs (year groups, chapel and chamber), a 40-piece orchestra and 19 ensembles, with performance opportunities ranging from musical breakfasts to Rye Festival. Drama part of the curriculum until year 5, with senior productions thereafter, including backstage opportunities. School was first prep to put on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Art has breadth but heavy on ceramics, the teacher’s specialism.

Core sports are hockey, lacrosse, rounders, cricket, netball (girls) and football, rugby and cricket (girls and boys), but tennis, athletics, swimming and cross-country also strong and fencing, golf and sailing on offer too. Plenty of silverware – unbeaten first 13s in rugby in the season we visited (‘and it’s not a Micky Mouse circuit down here’) and finalists for IAPS national cricket (mixed set team), although some parents say it’s less easy to get matches since the school’s got bigger and one reckoned ‘if you’ve got a really, really sporty child, they might struggle as they have such a rainbow of children’ (school disagrees). There are other options on extras afternoon for the non-sporty, including farming, funky dance, fishing, beekeeping and touch typing. ‘The school excels at finding strengths – not just academic,’ said parent.

Pupils are friendly, spirited and chatty with a twinkle in their eye. They’re supportive of one another too - as likely to pat others on the back as punch their own fists in the air at exam results time. Lots of mixing of year groups. Mental health a priority, with an online tracking system giving staff an insight into, for example, how much each child is prepared to disclose about themselves and how much they trust others.

Parents are a mixture of City and media types, doctors and farmers - all very inclusive and friendly with no social divides, say parents. All describe the school as ‘magical’, with many claiming an immediate ‘gut feeling’ that this was ‘the one’: ‘I thought it would be quite stuffy, but straightaway it reminded me of St Trinians,’ said one. Not the anarchy, she was at pains to add, but ‘the eccentricity and fun’. Some grumbles around school’s recent growth, but all agree ‘the family feel has remained’. Minibuses bring children in from Staplehurst, High Halden, Burwash, Wittersham and the villages en route. Alumni read like a fantasy dinner party guest list: BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, spy Donald Maclean, MP Airey Neave, Olympic rower Matthew Parrish, and the late Mark Shand, travel writer (and brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall).

This is the biggest boarding school in Kent, with around a third of prep pupils sleeping over at least one day a week (maximum four nights) from year 4. ‘Really fun – like one big sleepover,’ reckon pupils. Rooms are up in the eaves, and again you wouldn’t be surprised to find the Famous Five up there having lashings of hot chocolate. Boarders do supervised prep for up to an hour, followed by supper then options such as swimming, singing and playing outside. ‘Motherly’ matron Julie (‘Me Julie’) a big pull (‘when my eldest, who has left, goes back she always goes to see her’) as is food (although school lunch gets mixed views).

Roald Dahl, eat your heart out. This quirky rural prep encourages kids to be kids, without trying to squash their imaginations or sense of the absurd and mischief. A far cry from PR-led schools where everyone stands on ceremony, this place fizzes with warmth, gusto and authenticity. A joy for curious, energetic kids and parents for whom education is about more than just grades.

Special Education Needs

Saint Ronan's is justly proud of its academic record. We believe that we should, and do, cater for the educational needs and aspirations of the brightest children; but we believe also that those who have any academic problems and weaknesses should be enabled to deal with the challenges of the mainstream academic programme. To the latter end, we have a team of three specialist SEN teachers, who assess any children who are encountering difficulties within their class and, if necessary, refer them to an Educational Psychologist for a formal diagnosis of any specific learning difficulty. Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADD, ADHD, and dyscalculia are well-catered for. The school SENCO liaises with parents on a regular basis and, if it is felt necessary, and in agreement with the parents, individual tuition can be arranged with one of the specialist SEN teachers. All Pre-prep classes have their own learning support assistant, to assist with those children who are less able, and group work is carried out on a weekly basis, under the supervision of the SENCO for such children.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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