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For a school that used to be known for its air of elitism and rather scary parent cohort, we were pleasantly surprised to find a different reality - inclusive, buzzy and busy, with friendly, likeable people. Previously frowned upon when kids took the 11+ and left for grammar school, but school now supports any child, with around 12-15 heading off at the end of year 6. Teaching is excellent; the children learn a lot and are pushed quite hard, parents told us, while pupils told us, ‘they’re very good at making sure you’re not left behind’. We saw faces so attentive that they barely noticed us. Not that these kids don’t have fun – there’s a reassuring...

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What the school says...

Set in thirty acres of beautiful grounds just outside Tunbridge Wells in Kent, Holmewood House School is a happy busy environment, where smiles prevail and children flourish. The breadth of curriculum, specialist teaching in all subjects, superb facilities, a vast range of afternoon activities, in an outstanding family atmosphere, all combine to make Holmewood one of the leading prep schools in the country. Holmewood is described by a current parent as a happy and vibrant school full of opportunites. Come and visit us in Tunbridge Wells and see for yourself what an inspiring place for children Holmewood truly is. ...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since September 2017, Scott Carnochan, previously head of Sedbergh Prep in Cumbria. Degree from Heriot-Watt University and postgrad from Nottingham. Has taught at Hillcrest Prep in Nairobi, been housemaster at St John’s College School, Cambridge and head of boarding at Repton Prep. Boarded from the age of 11 while his parents were abroad and says his ‘inspirational housemaster had a huge part in shaping my career choice’. Played international rugby, representing Scotland at U18 and student level.

Enthusiastic and affable, he has made the school more transparent and sees parents’ input as part of the school’s ‘triangulated approach’ although parents tell us he’s also clear when they need to step back – a good job, it seems, as ‘it used to be a case of the tail wagging the dog,’ according to one, with practically every parent we spoke to making reference to the significant cohort of ‘very pushy parents’. ‘When I arrived, I thought, “You’re kidding me” and I’m from London! Some even contradict the referees on the pitch,’ a parent told us, while another said, ‘Some of them used to look through me as a working parent’. ‘Based on feedback we heard before we arrived, it felt like the parents came with a health warning,’ laughs the head, but insists he’s found them ‘lovely’ and parents agree there’s a more laid-back attitude taking hold.

Parents say it’s helped that the ‘school communications, which we’d been moaning about for years, were up and running within his first month’ and that ‘he acts on what he says and promptly’. Parents also like the way he ‘stood back and watched what was going on, changing things slowly but effectively’ and in a ‘really forward thinking way’ – including a five-year strategic vision focusing on the likes of well-being, a full curriculum review (‘to include not just knowledge but skills like collaboration, research and resilience’) and a reputational shift (‘the perception was that the school is more academic than pastoral’). Has also introduced three school values – self-belief, aspiration and kindness. Pupils say he ‘runs a tight ship’ but ‘you can have a laugh with him’.

Married to Kate, a youthful, energetic woman who heads up the school’s marketing; they live on site with their two young children. Together, they enjoy travelling and sport plays a big part in the family too.

Entrance

For nursery and reception, it’s first come first served and entry into the pre-prep is non-selective, although informal assessments will ensure the child ‘can keep up and be happy here’. Around 15 children join at year 3, when prospective pupils take tests in maths, reading and spelling, plus there’s an interview, and reports from the previous school are considered. Ditto for year 7 in terms of numbers joining and the entrance process (these children replace those who leave for grammar schools). Academic scholarships, which can be topped up with bursaries, are available from year 3.

Exit

Previously frowned upon when kids took the 11+ and left for grammar school, but school now supports any child, with around 12-15 heading off at the end of year 6. No bespoke 11+ tuition (not allowed to under Kent policy), but school says the preparation all children receive for secondary school entrance and common entrance pre-tests is relevant (and many are tutored at home too, according to parents). Parents say school has become less ‘tunnel visioned’ about Tonbridge and Sevenoaks to include Eastbourne and sometimes Eton, Benenden, King's Canterbury, Charterhouse, Ardingly, Brighton College, Wellington, Hurst etc. But some feel the school still has ‘a way to go in promoting a wider range of schools, as well as managing parents’ expectations, as some still feel only Tonbridge and Sevenoaks count’. A roadshow with 20 senior schools held every two years helps. School harvests a good crop of academic scholarships, as well as in music, sport and drama.

Our view

Tucked away in a leafy residential area of Tonbridge Wells, the main house (rebuilt after the original burned down in 1837) first belonged to Sir Charles Locock, gynaecologist and physician to Queen Victoria. School opened here in 1945 with just eight boys. In 1990, it became co-ed and is now 55:45 boy:girl.

The main house (where headmaster's swish office and staff rooms are downstairs and boarding is upstairs) aside, it couldn’t be said to be the prettiest prep, with a hodgepodge of buildings, a few a little tired and poky. But everything is fit for purpose and a £4.5m building project has added some superb facilities including spacious contemporary new classrooms in the Collings and Cloisters buildings, with the money also going on new learning hub, digital library and enrichment centre, plus three refurbished science labs. Sensational new pre-prep playground and a dedicated parents’ area with free wifi. With three different pick-up times, parents will be able to ‘go and get a decent cup of coffee and socialise, catch up on emails or do spellings etc’ – a novel idea, if ever we heard one. Both pre-prep and prep libraries could be more inspiring aesthetically and pupils told us there is no dedicated librarian (English teacher does it). Nobody was in either when we visited (not unusual, say pupils).

Outside, the 32 acres are spectacular, including fields, pitches, walled garden, beehive (school sells its own honey – money goes into the PA pot) and a soon-to-be orchard and pond. No accredited forest school, but they do have their own similar Discoverers. It’s one of very few prep schools with its own 20 metre rifle range and the pupils are champion shooters among English schools. There’s also a 25m indoor pool (open to the local community and primary schools), squash courts, a climbing wall, and a snazzy sports hall. Lots of sporting success at county and national level, especially in netball, rugby and hockey. Also in swimming, judo and squash. Some parent niggles (‘If a child is in the A team for football, they tend to be in the A team for everything’ etc) but school says ‘participation rates are up’. We like the fact that the non-sporty don’t get it rammed down their throats as much as in some other prep schools – whilst there are three afternoons of compulsory team games, on the other two they can choose drama, music or craft activities, or individual sports instead.

Drama is popular – the impressive stage set in the 350-seat theatre was all ready for the upcoming Bugsy Malone production when we visited, one of many big productions. Treading these boards launched the careers of old boys actors Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and Tristan Gemmell (Casualty and Coronation Street). More remarkably, perhaps, Shane McGowan of The Pogues was also here.

Art is head and shoulders above most preps, with history of art embedded into lessons. We saw children in the throes of creating mosaic-decorated clay pots and there are fabulous displays throughout the school including abstract artwork that we’d have gladly hung on our walls. DT also a hive of activity, where we saw pupils making wooden iPhones, name boards for their horses (yes, many have them) and a lovely bird box (‘for Mother’s Day’, said pupil), with all the whizzy equipment such as 3D printer and laser cutter in full use. Music also strong. Parents consider the concerts a ‘real treat’ and the school boasts two orchestras (one for pre-prep alone), a swing band, jazz ensembles and three choirs (junior, senior, chamber).

This is a high-achieving, ambitious school, with an academically full-on timetable, but most prep is done in school, which parents appreciate. In the junior school, years 3 and 4 are classroom-based with a form teacher, although they go to music, art, DT and science in dedicated classrooms and they have subject specialist teachers for music, French, ICT and sport. From year 5, all subjects are taught by subject specialists. At this point, children can expect two periods a week of Latin, and scholars (a scholarship class is introduced in year 6 for the brightest sparks) can also do ancient Greek. There’s also Mandarin in year 6 and critical thinking, problem solving and reasoning (taught by the head) in years 5 and 6, a Spanish option from year 6, and French from nursery. Setting in maths from year 3 and in French from year 6. The seniors get Christmas and summer term exams in every subject, although only in English and maths for year 5s. CE in geography, history and RS now scrapped, with pupils producing projects instead.

Teaching is excellent; the children learn a lot and are pushed quite hard, parents told us, while pupils told us, ‘they’re very good at making sure you’re not left behind’. We saw faces so attentive that they barely noticed us and weren’t surprised at the head’s story of having a similar reaction even when he walked into classrooms dressed as Miss Trunchbull on World Book Day. Not that these kids don’t have fun – there’s a reassuring playfulness about them, despite their impeccable manners. Pre-prep have a separate block, which parents report has improved – ‘there was a need for it to be brought up to speed as there was inconsistency among teachers, with some pushing the children a lot more than others,’ said one.

The tone for SEN support is refreshing, with learning support now called ‘learning strategies’ in recognition of ‘the fact that some of the most able children have learning barriers’. Parents praise the school’s move towards more classroom-based support and are generally impressed with, for example, ‘the work they’ve done on self-esteem and encouraging children to be able to articulate what they need’.

Boarding from year 3. Majority flexi, with some weekly; rest are full (half from London, the rest from overseas). Cosy, refurbished dorms are six or eight bedded and there’s a combined games room. The two houseparents are ‘really kind’, say pupils, with activities including swimming, drama, baking and – the favourite – dodgeball on a Thursday night, run by the head. Sunday trips to Go Ape, London museums, ice skating, local castles etc.

Ninety per cent of parents live locally. Working parents (once a rare breed here) are grateful for the seven minibuses and wrap-around care from 7.30am-6pm, including plenty of after-school clubs. There is also a health centre staffed by nurses between 8am and 7pm, which can manage complicated medical regimes.

Weekly pastoral staff meetings, values-led assemblies and drop-in sessions with the well-being lead (no stigma, say pupils) all make for strong pastoral scaffolding. Major focus on treating others as you’d want to be treated – result is very little bullying, claim pupils. Self-reflection document brought out for misdemeanours so children ‘learn from their mistakes’. Food gets mixed views – ‘it’s not to everyone’s liking,’ admitted a pupil. Strong parent community – the 230 tickets for the ball were hotter than Coldplay tickets, selling out in just 21 minutes. Fees around £1,000 a term higher than neighbouring preps, but school has deliberately narrowed the gap in recent years.

For a school that used to be known for its air of elitism and rather scary parent cohort, we were pleasantly surprised to find a different reality - inclusive, buzzy and busy, with friendly, likeable people. ‘The school has got its mojo back’, said one parent.

Special Education Needs

We have an excellent Learning Support Department with one specialist teacher and four learning support assistants who provide monitoring, evaluation and specific teaching for children throughout the school. To ensure that every child reaches his or her academic potential, the Learning Support Department administers nationally standardised assessment tests to all pupils. This screening process starts in Year 1 and continues until Year 8. Learning support is all-inclusive in the Pre-Prep unless a specialist tutor or individual learning support assistant is specifically required. In the Prep School, pupils are charged pro rata for learning support and detailed assessments. We are proud of the achievements of our pupils who may have experienced some difficulties in their primary years. The majority of these children succeed in gaining places, through the Common Entrance exam, to a variety of schools. 09-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
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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