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What says..

Non-selective at 3 – first come first served and increasingly over-booked, almost reaching London frenzy levels (including occasional pre-pregnant enquiries). Big on purposeful technology – Wifi up and running, iPads for all children in years 4 to 6; deliberate mix of Macs and PCs ‘so children bi-lingual’ and Kodu so widely used that ‘should be official foreign language.’ Sport broadly split along trad gender lines, but it’s permeable – current year 5 rugby and football star player is a girl, while Zumba and gymnastics…

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What the school says...

We are a thriving, contemporary prep school providing outstanding academic development across a diverse curriculum. Our ‘Excellent’ rating (ISI 2016) reflects an emphasis on each child reaching their potential, a Growth Mind-set ethos which ensures a determination to succeed through hard work and resilience.
Our excellent pastoral care and impressive provision of sport, drama and IT ensures a stimulating and nurturing environment where children can gain confidence and develop potential. School life is further enhanced through a wide range of exciting extra-curricular activities. ...Read more

What the parents say...

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All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

Choir school - substantial scholarships and bursaries usually available for choristers.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2005, Mr Marcus Culverwell (40s). Previously deputy head (joined school in 2003). Before that, head of science, then director of studies, then deputy head at Lancing College Junior. A local boy, he was educated first at Caterham, then Archbishop Tenison’s sixth form after squeeze on family finances. Sporty, science-y and spiritual. ‘Very Christian,’ says a parent.

Teenage years dominated by dreams of joining Aviation Mission Fellowship – dashed when failed final stage of commercial pilot training. Studied aeronautical engineering at Hertford followed by MA at Brunel. With dearth of jobs in industry, teaching was originally intended as stopgap career but rapidly became something far more. He realised that he wanted to work with younger children when, while combining teacher training with spell on staff at Cardiff FE college, he was unable to comfort weeping student encountered in corridor.

Personable, child-friendly (has three of his own, two at the senior school, one here) and pupils rush to talk to him, clearly confident of sympathetic hearing. No wonder, given approach to playground duties (takes guitar and sings – though ‘not a musician’) as well as breaking out into the occasional assembly rap. Keeps staff on their toes and though ‘we never sit still’, potentially exhausting pace is tempered with generous dollops of non-teaching time to regroup for the next big think.A committed eco school, Green Flag status was achieved two years ago and renewed in January 2017. It’s a work in progress that started with Mr Culverwell’s first inspection, five weeks into the job, when he produced rationale of planned curriculum development, now on overhaul number three, each marked by progressively closer ties to senior school.

Desire to make a difference is manifest – has just completed book on educating children for social responsibility. The school embraces a growth mind-set ethos which promotes resilience amongst the children and a desire to seek new challenges in an atmosphere where hard work and determination to succeed are rewarded. The aim is that the children develop ‘can do’ attitudes and the ability to bounce back from failure enabling them to reach ever-higher levels of achievement. Parents acknowledge value of approach but aren’t always receptive to newsletter homilies exhorting them to ‘down tools and cuddle the children – hard when you’re trying to pay the school fees,’ said one.

Academic robe on one side of study, Captain Considerate outfit (worn by pupils to deliver hi-tech homilies on behaviour) on the other sums up approach – relaxed gravitas. Ultimately perception is that it’s Mr Fenton down at the big school who rules the roost and makes the big decisions. Thumbs up, however, for being well intentioned – and, overall, ‘a nice man.'

Entrance

Non-selective at 3 – first come first served and increasingly over-booked, almost reaching London frenzy levels (including occasional pre-pregnant enquiries). Sympathetic attitude to SEN, permeating from knowledgeable head and increasing resources – SENCo, until recently an add-on responsibility for class teacher, now a separate post. Covers the works, including EBSD, ASD, ADHD, severe dyslexia and those with physical disabilities – rated ‘brilliant’ by senior school specialist on recent visit.

Gets our vote for recently revised curriculum and brilliantly humane transitions between stages. ‘Our ethos is that happy children learn,’ says nursery manager. One and 2-year-olds have regular playdates with parents, getting to know big, bright nursery up to two years before they start.

Atmosphere ‘moves from buzzing to calm classroom by end of reception so ready for change in pace in year 1,’ says staff member. Class sizes rise from maximum 15 in reception and below to maximum 22 in years 1-6.

Choristers, original reason for school’s foundation, have voice trials at 6 or 7 and, if successful, become probationers. Boys only currently, but new girl choristers will join from autumn 2017.

Exit

Vast majority to senior school, but not all. Other destinations include Box Hill, Dunottar, Ardingly and Worth. Parental anxiety following decision to offer firm places to many in year 5 considerable but misplaced, thinks school, as around three-quarters will end up going on to the senior school while those without guarantee can still sit the exam in year 6 and take chances with other outsiders. Much better this way as avoids previous misery of sitting and failing entrance exam, says school, when children can be guided to a better place instead. Some playground gossip means pupils aren’t as blissfully unaware as parents would want and ‘if you’re just one of a handful not to go through to the senior school it can be hard on the individual,’ thought one.

Our view

Originally founded as choir school by Godfrey Searle, canny chartered stockbroker and musician who calculated (accurately) that selling off small area to council for municipal bowls green would avert desire to run bypass through grounds.

Unusually, a cathedral choir without portfolio, though makes up for it with regular appearances at Chichester and occasional visits to St Paul’s, tradition starting in the Second World War when regular choir was evacuated. Commercially in demand, too, for Disney amongst others. Choristers’ robes line corridor, atmospheric practice room, low-tech shelves bursting with music-stuffed folders, fruit and biscuits laid out for after-school rehearsal – a bit like a time capsule (laptop apologetically to one side the only modern note).

Acquisition by senior school in 2005 was a relative no-brainer, once established that decline in pupil numbers was reversible. Now healthy enough to justify recent £4.5 million investment on impressive glass and brick main teaching block for years 1 to 3, which rears up behind original building, partially concealed on far side by man-made hill, demanded by planners to avoid upsetting locals’ sensibilities and incorporating splendiferous downstairs sports hall. Years 4 to 6 are quartered in less plush but perfectly acceptable older-style block. Bright kindergarten (corridor a cheerful clutter of wellies) taking up the ground floor.

Hard-surfaced games area close to school. Attractive, undulating grounds beyond, partially wooded (lots of den building in warmer months) and with beautifully planted memorial garden where head boy and girl lay wreaths in front of school. Assorted pitches (four football, two multi-surface) plus athletics track and cricket pavilion are attractively set in the greenery, all well used and supplemented with additional sessions at senior school and trips to playing fields a short coach ride away.

Though there’s some parental moaning if children don’t make top teams, school makes efforts to secure fixtures for Bs and Cs as well ‘so there are games for all.' Sport broadly split along trad gender lines, but it’s permeable – current year 5 rugby and football star player is a girl (while Zumba and gymnastics clubs also attract small numbers of boys).

Staff work hard, lessons supported by what head describes as ‘phenomenal’ planning. All expected to run a popular club two terms in three (free unless run by outside experts). Start in modest way from year 1 (reception parents clamour for share but ‘they’ve had a busy day and need to go home,’ thinks head). Really gets going in year 3 with waiting lists ‘for everything’ and impressively wide ranging, from a thriving Lego League team who compete at national level, to a popular Outside Club making good use of the school grounds. Good range of popular trips, too, from bushcraft – a current fave rave – to even more rugged Snowdonia and Mont Blanc.

Ever closer links with senior school sees growing number of specialist teachers (maths the most recent addition, as well as music, games, art, IT) making short walk over. Curriculum consistency between two schools means not just singing from same song sheet but with barber shop harmonies, too.

Impressive signs of expansion in scope and success, with non-selective intake making excellent progress – Sats scores, internally assessed, put 100 per cent of pupils at level 4 and above, 30 per cent hitting a level 6.

Academic focus on continuous assessment is seen as quite intense by parents – though doesn’t necessarily permeate through to children – with charismatic staff implementing sensible rewards system (golden time is king) that helps to produce confident, courteous children. ‘I hope you have a lovely afternoon,’ was heard from one 6-year-old. Smart too – dress code is nostalgic (caps and trad hats for younger pupils, grime-management grey shirts for boys).

Innovative language teaching keeps French as the big one with Spanish and German each taught for a term in year 6. Though maths only subject with formal sets, year 1 has informal streaming, while differentiation is ‘part and parcel of lessons’ aided by excellent staffing ratios – younger children have full time TA as well as teacher. Classes notably calm though not at expense of fun, reception children listening, rapt, to end of day story, year 1 pupils falling over themselves to show delights of science lessons – leaves ‘that were crispy and brown if didn’t have enough water,’ flowers with ink-dyed petals. Favourite subject? ‘It is now,’ said one.

Big on purposeful technology – Wifi up and running, iPads for all children in years 4 to 6, ‘a tool we use everywhere,’ says head; deliberate mix of Macs and PCs ‘so children bi-lingual’ and Kodu so widely used that ‘should be official foreign language.’

Lots of pride in past and at least one eye on the future. Parents of the vast majority of RSM pupils (not just the dead certs) will find passage to senior school eased. For a small number aim is managed and failure-free exit elsewhere. Being a pupil here ‘makes it much easier to get to the grammar school, not for the few but, in the future, for almost every St Mary’s child,’ says school. Means you know what you’re buying into. ‘You have to live with it or move on,’ says parent.

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