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Somerhill is a terrifically sporty school, with over 500 fixtures annually. Hardly surprising given the sport-loving heads and extensive parkland that enables it to host large-scale events. ‘Provision is great if you’re into it, not so good for the non-sporty’, says one parent, meaning there’s little escape and regular compulsory Saturday fixtures from year 5 for the boys. Parents say the school doesn’t wrap children up in cotton wool, and while ‘sporty kids would be in their element, it’s also good for wall-flowers … the art room is open for all at break times as is the library’.

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Heads

Headmaster of Yardley Court and principal of The Schools at Somerhill since 1998, John Coakley BA MA PGCE (50s). Educated at Bishop Wordsworth’s Grammar School in Salisbury, read English at York, followed by a PGCE at Oxford and an MA in English at New Brunswick University, Canada. Previously headmaster of Ryde School on the Isle of Wight and of Saltus Grammar School in Bermuda.

He is warm and welcoming, straight-talking and fizzing with enthusiasm. Known affectionately as Mr C by children and parents, his modest office in the eaves suggests a deliberate lack of grandeur. He lives in a house in the grounds, with his chocolate labrador, Stanley, and holidays in France.

A pupil describes him to us with genuine enthusiasm as ‘fantastic, he’s always there to help us’ and a parent sums him up: 'First class – he knows the names and characters of every boy within Yardley Court. He is highly visible, attends (and coaches) sports matches, runs clubs and the boys hold him in extremely high regard’. His aim for the school begins with the happy child: ‘If they are happy, everything else falls into place’.

He will retire as head of Yardley Court in July 2017, remaining as principal of The Schools at Somerhill until July 2018. His successor will be Duncan Sinclair MA HDE, currently head of Taunton Prep. Born in Zimbabwe, he moved to South Africa at the age of 7. Read English and environmental science at the University of Cape Town before completing a higher diploma in education. Began his teaching career in Cape Town, also coaching cricket, rugby and athletics. At the same time, he enjoyed a secondary career as a semi-professional rugby player representing Western Province as a second row forward. Moved to St Michael’s Preparatory School, Kent, in 2002 where he was year 4 teacher, head of geography and PSHE and deputy head and completed his MA in educational leadership and management. In addition to taking part in competitive cricket and hockey, he plays the clarinet, trombone and tuba and is a keen chorister. Married to Georgina, a primary teacher with a PE specialisation; they have three young sons.

Headteacher of Derwent Lodge since September 2016, Helen Hoffman, BA MA Lit PGCE, previously director of studies at Vinehall. In her mid 40s, Helen has worked in independent education for over 15 years and in management roles for over nine. Creative and dynamic, she is a literacy specialist with a passion for developing a growth mindset in those she teaches.

Head of Somerhill Pre-Prep since September 2014, Miss Zoë Humm BA Ed from Goldsmith's; previously taught KS1 and KS2 in south east London state primary schools; was year 2 and ICT coordinator at JAPPS; deputy head at DUCKS.

Entrance

The schools describe themselves as mixed ability and the majority of children join Somerhill via the co-educational pre-prep (main entry points at pre-school and reception). Transfer to Yardley Court (boys) and Derwent Lodge (girls) is automatic at year 3. Those wishing to squeeze in at 7+ may sit a brief assessment. Prospective parents could get lucky with a place beyond year 3, but the numbers say if this is the school for you, you’d be wise to get in early. The principal pragmatically supports some applicants in the final pre-exam years, space permitting. Discounts for siblings: five per cent for a second child, 10 per cent for three or more.

Exit

Girls are prepared to leave at 11+ for Tonbridge Grammar, Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar, Walthamstow Hall and Kent College. High number of boys, around 40 per cent, also exit at this stage for the Kent grammars, principally The Judd and Skinners. Principal is clear that Somerhill is ‘not an 11+ factory’, neatly illustrated by the pupil we met who was unfazed by having sat the exam the previous day. Nonetheless, results are strong with a 90 per cent success rate. Tutoring does go on – a sore point – but both heads see it as unnecessary and generally to be discouraged. Of the rest who stay on for common entrance, most go to Tonbridge, Sutton Valence or Cranbrook, many with scholarships and exhibitions (22 in 2016).

Our view

Traditional curriculum with plenty of active learning eg times table shoot-outs for the boys. At Yardley Court maths is particularly strong and the most successful subject at CE. English comes in for praise too: ‘teaching has made the boys truly love this subject.’ Latin from year 5.

For the girls in Derwent Lodge maths setting based on pace not ability starts in year 3 (it’s from year 4 for the boys) and extends to English and sometimes science by year 5. Memorable highlights for the girls are cross-curricular theme days such as outdoor learning when every lesson takes place outside.

Plenty of long-serving staff and both heads have made new appointments, with young male teachers significantly visible at Yardley Court. The principal expects all to go the extra mile, such as those we saw on the day of our visit, cheerily preparing to take part in a school camp out. Parents describe the quality of teaching as excellent, with the inevitable few exceptions. Reports graded for effort as well as achievement, individual targets identified and timed so that parents have an opportunity to follow up quickly at consultations – not always a given.

Just over 10 per cent identified with special educational needs, mainly dyspraxia and dyslexia. Two full-time and three part-time staff across both preps, offering mostly in-class support. Dyslexic children using laptops during lessons were less visible on our visit than in some preps, but the principal assured us that this is supported where beneficial.

Somerhill is a terrifically sporty school, with over 500 fixtures annually. Hardly surprising given the sport-loving heads and extensive parkland that enables it to host large-scale events. ‘Provision is great if you’re into it, not so good for the non-sporty’, said one parent, meaning there’s little escape and regular compulsory Saturday fixtures from year 5 for the boys. But it’s not just about the A and B teams – boys and girls play in at least one inter-school match a term, whatever their ability. The school is particularly strong in athletics, notably cross-country, winning a haul of medals at the Kent IAPS, and bounced its way to gold-medal success in the British national schools finals in trampolining. As befits the locale, the school has a new equestrian team for pupils who compete on their own ponies. Inspirational sporting figures pop by – Rebecca Stephens, mountaineer and the first British woman to reach the summit of Everest, recently talked to Derwent Lodge pupils. Paralympian swimmers Stephanie Millward and Claire Cashmore have visited, while Yardley Court pupils heard from Kenton Cool, who has scaled Everest 11 times.

There is weekly homework in years 3 and year 4, moving to 40 minutes per night from year 5 – a slower ramp up than in many other schools. Holiday homework can be bothersome, sometimes requiring advanced levels of skill and organisation – as one parent observed, it 'appears to be a project for parents’.

Music teaching is singled out for praise, as inspirational, inclusive and fun (new music centre) The summer concert involves more than 300 pupils in both junior and senior choirs, as likely to include pop songs as the classics and recently featuring songs from Les Misérables. Pupils can choose from more than 22 instruments for individual tuition and roughly two thirds do. In year 5 Yardley Court boys can take choral auditions for Tonbridge School’s Chapel Choir.

The two preps share good size art facilities, high up in the attics, including two new pottery kilns. Art on display is of a very high standard. ‘Some amazing work produced,’ said one parent and we agree – we saw year 6 pupils animatedly discussing with their teacher how they were to build a life-size wire animal sculpture .

Clubs are squeezed into every moment. For the girls, active options include ballet, tennis, hockey and netball, or they might try knitting, ceramics, jazz and modern art. Boys can start the day with a spot of Samba Band, and end it with sport of every kind or, for the non-sporty, camp-building, gardening, or Cubs. Creative minds can try camera, animation or cookery clubs. We wondered whether the girls might like a few more of the boys’ outside larks? The school assures us there are plenty of outdoor clubs for girls over the year, though apparently no camp-building.

All three parts of the school are housed in a large Jacobean stone mansion – formerly a boarding school – set in 150 acres: part manicured lawns, part playing fields and extensive woodland. The school perches at the highest point, giving it great views over the Kent countryside. With the Derwent Lodge houses named after the Lake District, a dipping pond, den-building and sledging on snowy days and not one but two proper adventure playgrounds (which will sell the school in an instant to children) there is a definite whiff of Swallows and Amazons. Inside is a confusing maze of staircases and classrooms, some rather utilitarian, others all stained glass windows and polished wood. And, while there is a bit of chipped paint like any lived-in family home (the family feel is frequently mentioned by old boys and girls), the wood gleams and there’s not a leaf out of place.

The preps seem right for parents and children wanting a single-sex environment – there are very different uniforms and separate play-times in addition to tailored teaching – but there is also a bit of mixing. Shared activities include taekwando and indoor athletics, choirs, cake sales, orchestras, theme days and trips such as ski-ing and sailing. Some parents would like the boys and girls to mix more; it’s a balance the principal strives to get right. Parents agree the school is hot on anti-bullying.

Somerhill seems particularly well-suited to the working parent. Not only does the single site mean a life-saving single drop off for most families, but the school day begins at 8am, and pupils can remain in school until 6pm. After-school clubs run until 5.30pm (some additional fees) and then co-ordinate with tea if necessary and late supervision (small fee). Younger children can be supervised for free as they wait for their siblings.

Highly popular pre-prep: more than 250 children, with three classes (20 max) in most of the years. It neatly slots into the former coach-houses, providing spacious classrooms with plenty of natural light. Younger children play in the soft-surface central courtyard, but also benefit from their own adventure playground and time in the grounds. The atmosphere is warm, calm and caring and there’s a team of plentiful, long-serving staff. The twin focus on both academic achievement (SEN assistance where needed) and teaching of good behaviour was in evidence during our visit when children worked diligently in small groups, greeting us politely.

Pupils travel from Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and surrounding villages. A school minibus service operates most usefully from Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge both morning and afternoon, with mornings only from a range of other localities. Mostly children with English as their first language, with no EAL requirements. Parents come here from all walks of life but are a well-heeled bunch in the main – plenty of takers for a £1,000 school trip to Bermuda in year 8, for instance. They describe their peers as friendly and supportive, ‘very, very rare to hear any school gate carping’.

What kind of child would thrive at Somerhill? According to the principal, there is ‘No set mould, you don’t have to be a certain type, or to conform. A child who is happy in his or her own skin’. Parents say the school doesn’t wrap children up in cotton wool, and while ‘sporty kids would be in their element, it’s also good for wallflowers … the art room is open for all at break times as is the library’.

Special Education Needs

We have four specialists working in the SEN department. Pupils are normally seen by withdrawal either in one to one situations or in small groups. Support is provided primarily for pupils with dyslexia and dyscalculia but we also have experience helping boys and girls with elements of mild Aspergers and ADD/ADHD. Nov 09.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Aspergers Syndrome [archived]
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders [archived]
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Delicate Medical Problems [archived]
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Epilepsy [archived]
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
Not Applicable
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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