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 Less than four miles to Sevenoaks and once you have arrived at the school, the 90 acres of grounds, which swoop up and down before the main house are stunning. Wooded hills for bushcraft, camping and fitness runs, plus games fields and pitches. In the modern science labs we watched white-coated children experiment with the boiling point of water and our enthusiastic guides (‘science is really fun here’) were keen to tell us all about explosions, trips and their participation in the national CREST competition (they designed a games console)...

 

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headteacher

Since 2013, Jill Aisher BA PGCE MCIL (50s). Read modern languages at Oxford. With 25 years of teaching experience, her career falls into two parts – working in a selective state grammar as a teacher of Latin, French, Spanish and English, followed by senior leadership in the independent sector. Deputy head at Newton Prep for six years, then three years as head at St Nicholas Prep, Hyde Park, prior to taking up a Kent headship (fulfilling a long-held plan to return to where her husband grew up and her children went to school).

Says she was drawn to the ‘strong sense of emotional well-being’ at St Michael’s, as well as its stable population, where she can prove herself. Pupils tend to stay from 2+ to year 8. Now installed in her palatial office, with splendid views and a Hogwarts-type turret for her desk, she couldn’t be more delighted.

Warm and friendly, a fast-thinker and talker, highly articulate in her vision for the school. Priorities will be a more outward-looking view – both injecting a global perspective into the curriculum, often via ICT and connecting locally, and enabling children to master learning by understanding their own learning style and giving children more of a voice, as equals. Myriad ways for children to do just that – take part in the newly energised school council, put a note for head in her red postbox, put themselves forwards to be head boy or girl, librarian, or prefect, or most radically, helping the head interview new staff.

Parents say that head is ‘very efficient and pro-active.’ ‘My children say she is strict, but also sometimes very funny,’ one told us, while another said: ‘She’s made a strong, convincing start.’

Married for 30 years to Johnny, a senior employee of our nation’s favourite department store, with three children. One son is studying for a second masters at the RCM, another a music producer and her youngest daughter is at King’s Canterbury.

Entrance

The majority (intake of 40) enter the pre-prep at 2+, with 14 additional places at transition to the prep at year 3. Prospective parents need to get on the waiting list as early as possible. Some sibling priority and an informal assessment day, but entry is not selective and places are offered to those heading the list in the June, 15 months prior to entry. The majority of pupils come from within a seven-mile radius.

Entry at 7+ is via a standard maths test, together with a school reading and English test. Entry into year 7 is via maths and English test and being observed participating in a normal school day. Bursaries from year 3 and scholarships and bursaries for year 7 entry.

Exit

Head stresses that school prepares children for either the 11+ or CE. Parents agree. ‘I have total confidence in preparation for their next school,’ one told us. Of those who exit at 11+, almost all will be successful in achieving their first (guided) choice of school. It’s a strong list of destinations, headed by Tonbridge Grammar, then The Judd, Skinners' and Sevenoaks, with others dispersed across the long list of local grammars and independents. ‘We have all abilities,’ says the head. ‘We set out to prepare for a broad range of schools that will encourage and affirm. For some a slower pace is appropriate.’ Between 40 and 60 per cent continue into years 7 and 8. Popular destinations at 13+ include Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Caterham, King’s Rochester, and Sutton Valence. A handful or so of scholarships each year – often sporting, some academic.

Our view

St Michael’s was founded in 1872 as a school and home for orphaned boys. In the 1980s the pre-prep was added and girls welcomed, and in the 1990s it became a day rather than boarding school. Prep is housed in a large red-brick Victorian gothic mansion, with an adjoining sports building. Inside, modern, bright spaces, smart purpose-built science labs and dining hall mix in a homely jumble with the chipped paint, Gothic panelling and stained glass of the old building.

This isn’t the prettiest part of Kent, cheek by jowl with the M25, but the gain is swift commuting to central London. Less than four miles to Sevenoaks and once you have arrived at the school, the 90 acres of grounds, which swoop up and down before the main house are stunning. Wooded hills for bushcraft, camping and fitness runs, plus games fields and pitches.

The curriculum does not surprise, but ticks every box. The head singles out science and English, sport and art as particularly strong – and parents agree. In the modern science labs we watched white-coated children experiment with the boiling point of water and our enthusiastic guides (‘science is really fun here’) were keen to tell us all about explosions, trips and their participation in the national CREST competition (they designed a games console).

Despite the head’s modern languages background, nothing too ‘bold’ on the horizon for languages. Focus is on consolidating current provision, with a Mandarin club set up in response to parental requests. A wonderful moment as the French teacher invited one of the boys to share his work with this editor – they were discussing which school subjects they preferred. ‘Je déteste le Français,’ he had written in immaculate French.

Nearly a third of staff have been at the school for more than 10 years. Parents say they are ‘very caring and accommodating’ and that there are ‘some outstanding teachers,’ though a couple would like more of an open door policy. Maximum class size is 20 in pre-prep and 18 in prep and setting is gradually introduced – for English, maths, science and French by year 7. One pupil we met told us the ‘teachers are really supportive,’ describing how they always have time to sit down with pupils if they don’t understand something. Another parent said of her child: ‘She’s gone from feeling unnoticed and swimming in knowledge gaps from her last school experience to feeling totally included and valued in class.’

School says there are plenty of opportunities for gifted children to excel. Full-time SENCo, known as head of learning development here, who provides in-class and one-to-one support. Thirteen per cent with SEN and 13 pupils with EAL needs. Laptops can be used in classrooms. ‘My son is still struggling with literacy, reading and spelling but he feels supported and not alone in his battles,’ a parent told us.

Head is keen on the power of technology to ‘transform and personalise learning,’ so tablets and mobile devices are on their way. As always, the debate on homework rages but there is a feeling that it is quite intense in the upper years, with up to two hours a night by year 6. But a parent told us: ‘When I feel that they are overloaded and not managing, the school immediately reviewed and reduced their homework.’

School has a strong reputation for its sporting talent and success. On the day we visited the school gates were being painted gold in honour of the school’s golden girl, former head girl Lizzy Yarnold, team GB skeleton Olympic gold medallist. Swimmers compete in IAPS national finals, rugby teams punch above their weight against bigger preps, netball teams compete well and a year 8 pupil recently represented the UK at wakeboarding. Two games afternoons a week – all of the usual things on offer. One parent praised the excellent standard of coaching, another pointed out that if children are interested in something more unusual they will still need to find it elsewhere.

All pupils are given the opportunity to represent the school in major games every term. This seems transformative, at least to the children who had recently joined the school and described themselves as not particularly sporty. One said: ‘I feel I can try my best, and I don’t get shouted at.’ Sports day is enjoyed as much for sitting around on blankets with friends between races as the competition itself. ‘The school has a happy atmosphere, not too laid back but certainly not fiercely competitive,’ said a parent.

Every pupil has a class music lesson every week. Around half receive individual instrument tuition, with pupils currently studying 11 different instruments. If a child has a musical whim (‘anything other than the bagpipes’) the school will strive to find a good teacher. Four choirs, two concerts per term, instrumental groups. Children also take part in the Sevenoaks and Royal Tunbridge Wells International Music Festival. New head of music taking things up another notch.

Much high quality art and design work on show – children had just completed their own take on Keith Haring canvases and were keen to show us their post-it note animation to rap music. Parents agree that drama is a relatively weak spot. No dedicated theatre, but new head of drama has big plans.

A wealth of arty, sporty, and musical pre- and post-school clubs including extreme collage, golf, Lego, dance and scratch programming. Currently consulting parents about their thoughts on extending the school day to support working parents.

Pre-prep is housed in a spacious, light, purpose-built building, entered via a suspended walkway. Parents with a love of Grand Designs will adore it. Every class has outdoor access, wellies hang in little wooden houses ready for muddy play, Astroturf for wet weather and bulb-planting just getting under way. Maximum class size is 20, with two staff. Far higher ratios in the nursery and kindergarten years.

Whilst the children are meticulously prepared for every new experience, parents may need a little hand-holding in their transition to the (as yet) less swankily designed prep. As, one satisfied parent put it: ‘The pre-prep is second to none.’

Parents speak very highly of pastoral care. Bullying not unheard of, but staff very quick to take action and empower children to handle it themselves. The children we met said they found the school ‘cosy’ and that they knew everyone because it wasn’t too large. Many schools talk of ‘the individual child’ but St Michael’s truly delivers on this. At every turn parents and pupils fell over themselves to paint a picture of inclusivity. One said: ‘We’ve had four children at the school at various times over the past four years – all very different in abilities and personalities. The school has suited them all.’ Parents said the school suits ‘self-starters, those with special needs, the academic and less academic.’ ‘It is quite a big, bouncy school,’ one added, ‘but the staff take care of the less confident ones and help them come out of their shell.’

A huge mix of families. Parents with children higher up the school likely to be Kent families, but new families coming up the school comprise working parents, relocators (from London and internationally). Car of choice in the car park very definitely a shiny black Range Rover. Particularly glowing reviews from those arriving from or returning from abroad who remark on the warm welcome from other parents. Such are their numbers that they’ve recently set up their own international club (sounds a bit ‘gin-slings and elephant polo’ but is more about helping each other to settle into Kent life).

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