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Head affable and so unassuming that when we ask him to describe his leadership style he calls in his PA, settles her in an armchair and closes the door on his way out. ‘Approachable and informal,’ she smiles, as soon as the latch clicks...

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What the school says...

A thriving co-educational, boarding and day school providing a first class, all round education for children aged 4 to 13 years on a shared campus with the Senior School (13-18 years). The school is large enough to provide an exceptional range of opportunities, yet small enough for students to be known and valued. The core strength of Bishops Stortford College lies in an ability to discover and nurture the talent within each individual student, wherever his or her talent lies. ...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since September 2013, Bill Toleman BA MSc FRGS (40s), previously head of Yarm Prep School. Before that, deputy head at King’s Worcester. Read geography at Nottingham University and has since added an MSc in educational management and leadership and fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. Affable and so unassuming that when we ask him to describe his leadership style he calls in his PA, settles her in an armchair and closes the door on his way out. ‘Approachable and informal,’ she smiles, as soon as the latch clicks; adjectives bandied about by parents include ‘child-centred’, ‘fair’ and ‘proactive’. Certainly in his short tenure to date he has systematically swept away all signs of stuffiness – entrance exams are now sat in a multiplicity of cosy classrooms rather than in serried rows in one huge daunting sports hall, for example, and parents and pupils alike pop in at all hours, keen for a chat. ‘If people want to come and see me I’m very happy to see them,’ he says, although when the queue becomes too long or other matters are too pressing his PA honours visitors with an appointment in the head’s diary. ‘The children love that,’ she laughs. To his regret, no longer has time to teach his beloved geography, although helps out with fieldwork (most recently accompanying lower third to Walton-on-the-Naze). Enjoys surfing in North Devon and still plays occasional cricket and Sunday rugby. Married, with three grown-up sons.

Entrance

Entrance to the pre-prep is by an informal group assessment session and there is a long lead-in for tinies registered to start reception (‘messy play’ session in progress when we visited). External candidates for the additional 20 places made available at 7+ must sit the entrance exam to the prep school (English, maths and reading), spend a morning in school and are encouraged to meet the head with parents; no assessment required of existing pupils. A further 20 places offered at 10+ and 20 more at 11+ (academic and music scholarships available) to give a total of 100 pupils per year group by lower third (year 7). No sibling discount or preference given.

Exit

Some 97 per cent plus straight to senior school. Remaining handful to other, further-flung boarding schools (in recent years Harrow, Stowe, Millfield, Uppingham, Shrewsbury, Benenden) and a few to state at 11+. As Bishop’s Stortford College is selective, prep parents are given plenty of advance warning if their child’s ability to keep up after transfer is in question. Other, suitable schools, recommended. Fairly rare occurrence as school prefers to tackle underachievement to keep pupils under its wing.

Our view

Stunning green and leafy setting right on the edge of town extending in all to 130 acres of rolling Hertfordshire. Accessed via a lane of warm, red-brick Victorian houses and school buildings, some sensitively modernised, others waiting. Nearly all with privet hedges and ancient roses. Prep and senior pupils co-exist harmoniously on the site. Main prep building now all sparkling glass and purple carpet, thanks to £3m extension and refurb. Super reception area, hall with stage and roomy classrooms. Art rooms, including kiln, plus science labs across the attractive brick courtyard (complete with happy preppies chatting on steps, idyllically). Wonderful new library with floor-to-ceiling vistas. Shares with seniors music facilities, super 50-metre indoor pool in own timber-clad edifice, sports hall and hard courts, plus pitches as far as the eye can see. No wonder prep children look relaxed, contented – and well-exercised.

‘This is a purposeful, happy place to come to school – it has to be,’ says head, ‘because we’re here for a long time.’ Pre-prep for age 4 to 7, prep for 7 to 13s. While pre-prep makes use of national curriculum year group terminology, traditional names still charmingly in use in the prep – so lower and upper shell are followed by forms 1 and 2, then lower and upper third (continuing into the senior). Although less than 20 per cent of prep pupils board, school operates a boarding school week for its pupils aged over 7, with long weekdays until 5pm for the eldest and Saturday morning school for all, afternoons for form 1 and above.

‘Children work hard here because they want to, not because we make them,’ says head; said a parent, ‘My son has been coaxed, encouraged and inspired to push himself and achieve the best he could.’ Academic streaming begins in year 4, plus setting for maths. Classical civ for years 5 and 6, Latin to add to Spanish, German and French for years 7 and 8. DT and drama on the curriculum from year 3 up. Lots of visits and trips, as well as speakers in – curricular activities included in fees. Bring Your Own Device recently introduced for top two years – prep pupils say they use iPads and equivalent in 80 per cent of lessons and that they really help with self-organisation. Wifi all over.

Sport serious here and all involved. National finalists in pretty much everything – rugby, hockey, cricket, netball, even football, although only an after-school club. Standout individuals too, notably swimming and tennis. Lots of music - choirs, groups and tours.

‘Have-a-go’ culture is alive and well. One afternoon each week devoted to a ‘wheel’ of activities which changes with the term (street dance and yoga to survival skills). All pupils allocated to a house (either at random or according to family connection) – fierce competition through all manner of contests and quizzes. Highest achieving house wins supper with the headmaster. Fundraising through teddy bears’ picnics, film nights, doughnut sales and auctions in aid of the annual chosen charity - £10,000 plus donated every year. Head meets prefects for ‘biscuits and a chat’ half-termly, and drops into lessons and activities unannounced.

Strong pastoral care network begins with form tutor as first port of call for parents, then heads of year. Pyramid above of senior teacher (pastoral), director of studies, operations, then deputy head and head. ‘Compassionate’ teaching and learning support for those with mild SEN much praised by parents of children who have benefited – IEPS, one-to-ones, additional time in exams.

Own comfortable boarding house for prep pupils. Few full boarders but 50+ stay a minimum of two nights a week – most popular Wednesdays (sport after school) and Friday (Saturday morning lie-in for mum and dad). Vast majority of pupils throughout school very local and only half a dozen international students in the prep – EAL support offered.

Parents in the main professionals or city, some farmers – same as in senior as pupils grow up through the school with few additions. ‘There really is not a type of child or parent,’ said a parent. ‘Plenty of commuters as London is so close, but there are farmers and scientists and just about all professions going.’

Prep head’s relationship with college head ‘mutually supportive’ and clearly on the same page.

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