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Nestled in a picture postcard village, yet just a stone’s throw from the M25 in the grounds of Aldenham School, location is a draw especially for urban families who describe the setting as ‘fantastic’. Historically, the feel has been of a village school though the newly built teaching block gives a more contemporary vibe. Corridors, classrooms, windows – they all give a feeling of space and scale, with plenty of room to run around, though in reality these well-mannered children in their immaculate traditional blazers tend to save that for outdoors where there’s a…

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What the school says...

Aldenham Prep School is set in the same glorious site of over 110 acres of Hertfordshire countryside on which the senior school was established in 1597, Aldenham Prep School is dedicated to ensuring the flexibility for each boy and girl to develop their own individual abilities, whether they are academic, creative or sporting. An excellent all round education is available offering exceptional opportunities in outstanding facilities from enthusiastic, motivated and caring staff. ...Read more

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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.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2011, Vicky Gocher BA BEd MA (50s). Previously deputy head at Caterham Prep and before that taught at Downsend School, Leatherhead. Educated at Gwernyfed High School in Powys, Wales followed by University of Hull (English) and a PGCE at Roehampton. Also has masters in educational leadership and innovation (Warwick). Can’t remember a time when teaching didn’t beckon and has always been drawn to primary age – ‘I love my subject of English, but it’s much more rewarding getting to teach a bit of everything, including skills for life.’

We met her in her large but no-frills (she is not a fan of ‘over decorating walls,’ also noticeable across the rest of the school) office at the front of the school. Earnest and business-like, she is widely recognised as having cemented the school’s reputation and brought things on academically without moving into the pressure cooker territory inhabited by some other local preps. ‘A wide range of abilities mirrors life,’ she says. Parents approve, saying she’s ‘well liked’, ‘easy to get a response from’ and ‘knows all the children.’ ‘Down to earth – you always see photos of her in the weekly newsletter with her wellies on in the field or in the woods doing activities with the children.’ Still keeps a hand in with the troops in the classroom too, currently teaching geography.

Bribery, corruption, whistle-blowing … No eventuality was left unaddressed in the unprecedented avalanche of policy admin we were asked to sign before our visit (which we didn’t), followed by yet more red tape on the actual day (which we did). A highly professional, almost corporate ambience fills the shiny new corridors but parents were unanimous in saying Aldenham’s USP (particularly in comparison with local rivals) is its nurturing ethos.

Lives on site with husband, a fundraiser at King’s College London, with whom she has two adult daughters, both teachers. Out of school you’ll often find her walking in the local countryside, enjoying opera and visiting her ‘well scattered’ family. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett currently tops her pile of bedside reading.

Entrance

Oversubscribed, with around four applicants for each place. More academically selective than it used to be (‘they need to be above average to access the faster pace of the curriculum’), but still relatively broad by North London bubble standards. School also looks for ‘someone who will grab every opportunity beyond the classroom.’ Entry at 3+ and 4+ by gentle ‘playgroup style’ assessment to ascertain readiness and sociability. Applicants for occasional places thereafter assessed in maths, English and reasoning, and by interview. Waiting lists in some year groups.

Exit

Three quarters move into the senior school, parents increasingly taking the long-term view thereby avoiding the pressure of multiple 11+ entrance tests. Entry is not guaranteed, however, with conversations regarding next steps carefully timetabled 18 months in advance, kicking off with a session with head of senior school. School fully supports and prepares for entry to other destinations, with pupils heading off in small numbers to a range of schools including Haberdashers’ Boys’ School, St Albans High Girls, St Helen’s, Northwood, Queen Elizabeth Boys, Barnet, Watford Grammar. No more than a few each year move into the state system, though school is happy to support Herts and Beds 11+ hopefuls (no tailored tuition however). ‘For some, a more academic environment will suit them better for the next step but for most the focus on the all-rounded education makes the senior school a great fit,’ says head.

Our view

‘My child is allowed to grow and be themselves’ might sound like a schmaltzy cliché, but judging from the number of parents who uttered variations on these words it’s a major pull of Aldenham Prep. It’s relative, of course, this is the North London bubble where parents want the academic results too (good numbers go on to highly selective schools) and they’re not disappointed on this front either. ‘It’s not a hot house but nor is it an easy option – the children are challenged and stretched with a high quality of teaching, but they’re also nurtured and encouraged to take away much more besides classroom learning,’ summed up one.

Nestled in a picture postcard village, yet just a stone’s throw from the M25 in the grounds of Aldenham School, location is a further draw especially for urban families who describe the setting as ‘fantastic’. Historically, the feel has been of a village school though the newly built teaching block gives a more contemporary vibe. ‘I was a bit worried the school might lose its charm, but it really hasn’t,’ a teacher confided. Parents too are eloquent about how ‘caring’ the atmosphere is from day one, while also praising the bijoux headcount of single form entry – ‘keeps the family feel,’ said one, arguably even more so with pre-prep and prep now in the same building.

‘Wow’ is the word the head says she hears most often about the new build; ‘big’ is the word that sprung to our minds. Corridors, classrooms, windows – they all give a feeling of space and scale, with plenty of room to run around, though in reality these well-mannered children in their immaculate traditional blazers tend to save that for outdoors where there’s a stunning sports field, Astro, colourful playground and wildlife pond (a woodland area with tipi and fire pit is also under development). ‘I took one glance at the outside area and thought, this is the school for us,’ said one parent.

Downstairs is home to pre-prep, from where children literally move up to years 3 and beyond whose classrooms span the upper floors. STEM (not STEAM ‘because art is kept separate here’) is a focus: ‘I don’t like to jump on bandwagons because sometimes they run out of steam,’ says head (no pun intended), ‘but bringing DT, IT, engineering, science and maths together absolutely makes sense.’ As such, expect university-standard IT suite with computers hidden in the desks, plus super science lab and a ‘creative space’ (though no evidence of anything very creative as yet). Fabulous music room with inspiring rural views and hall with retractable seating where we saw the year 6 play rehearsal in full flow - this culmination of annual year group productions is performed in the senior school theatre. School now has its own dining room where we enjoyed a Japanese beef stew and noodles with delightful nursery children who we thought did jolly well to meet no-nonsense expectations of finishing such grown-up food (‘Fridays are best as it’s usually something to do with chips,’ they told us). Library colourful and roomy but perhaps a missed opportunity for more innovative detail. Red ‘snugs’ (built in sofas) dotted around are a nice touch. School still benefits from sharing some of the senior school’s facilities including sports hall and theatre.

We saw the pupils engaged in everything from carpet time in nursery to writing about caterpillars in reception (lovely handwriting for such tiny tots) through to more formal learning such as year 2s’ material properties quiz. Bar specialist teachers for music, drama, French and sport (and sets for maths and English), everything is taught by the class teacher - ‘means they can really get to know you,’ says head. Maximum of 23 per class. Popular ‘help wanted’ board if you get stuck, say pupils.

There’s a misconception that the school specialises in SEN. Reality is that the head of learning support assists a handful of children across the school (mainly mild dyslexia or dyspraxia, occasionally mild ASD) with one-to-one sessions held in the aptly named Launch Pad and joins classrooms to provide booster groups where required. ‘Plugs gaps before they fly solo,’ explains head who adds that, ‘Often, the biggest job lies in improving self-esteem.’ Perhaps not the fastest at responding to the pandemic say parents, but got act together for second lockdown, with break-out rooms and lessons that went well beyond the academics.

No orchestra or bands but there are ensembles and all learn recorder in year 3, ukulele in year 5 and keyboard in year 6; about a third have peripatetic music lessons. Singing is big, with a choir and chamber choir. Young Voices at the O2 every other year.

Drama was the most popular online lesson during the pandemic – ‘felt surprisingly cohesive,’ we heard. Popular the rest of the time too - ‘It’s a lesson where they relax and probably don’t realise how much they’re learning.’ Large proportion do LAMDA and pupils regularly take part in the Watford and North London festivals, not just for the predictable mime and small group performances but debating too. ‘Some people are quite shy, but in drama they’re a completely different person,’ mused one pupil.

Budding artists get the chance to learn about the great and the good of the art world, as well as dovetailing pastel, chalk or charcoal work (among others) with history or geography projects. Large scale projects feature too – all pupils recently submitted a piece of work for a single collage that went down a storm, though art yet to be displayed on any walls.

Sport, under new leadership, three times a week, comprising games, PE and swimming (at a nearby leisure centre). The usuals - football, hockey, cricket, netball and athletics - take centre stage. ‘It’s not just about those who are best, but not so all-encompassing that those who hate sport have to be in a team,’ said parent.

Long list of extracurricular activities to broaden horizons includes yoga, LEGO (taken by head), coding club and sewing. A few parent grumbles about cost – means the more expensive external clubs can be subsidised by the internal ones, explains school. Trips galore, including residentials from year 3 kicking off with camping in the field and culminating with an outward bound camp in the Lake District in year 6. Bi-annual trip to France for years 5 and 6.

All around the school (and on personal rulers) are squares quartered in red, blue, yellow and green – pupils use these to recognise, understand, label, express and manage their emotions. Inspiring results, with pupils notably advanced for their age when it comes to emotional intelligence.

Unlike senior school where there are more boys than girls, there is an equal gender split here. Excellent cultural mix reflects the local community. Diversity group for year 6, 7 and 8 explores how to make the school ever more inclusive. Plenty of London commuters among parents who are helped with their long days by before- and after-school care, starting at 8am and ending at 5.30pm. Lots of City types and medics, also military families (it’s close to Northwood MoD headquarters), plus a sprinkling from showbiz. ‘Because there’s a range of children you do get some pushy parents, but they don’t dominate,’ said parent. Comms could be better, reckon some.

The biggest rule here is be kind, though we overheard a few sharp tongues and whispering in corridors and it took some effort to steer the discussion away from complaining about classmates when pupils were talking to us – ‘There are quite a lot of arguments,’ said one. Parents feel the ‘do as you would be done to’ ethos prevails and pastoral care certainly comes in for high praise. ‘It’s the little things like writing a message to us when our youngest was born and giving our child all the extra nurturing she needed when her grandparents were poorly. And it’s the practical things too like getting a quick reply to emails and offering extra wrap-around care at short notice if needed. These are what make Aldenham,’ said one. Misbehaviour leads to soft touch sanctions for littluns and detentions for years 3-6 – ‘doesn’t happen much,’ say pupils. Lots of accolades and rewards for achievements from badges for eg house point excellence and commitment to sports. ‘My daughter was very shy and they were really able to bring her out of her shell through their confidence boosting – she’s come on leaps and bounds,’ said one parent.

The last word

For parents looking for balance, roundedness and a school where their child will have the space – physically and mentally – to grow, look no further. Allows its charges a childhood while keeping plenty of options open for the future if the call of the North London academic hothouses proves too loud to ignore.

Special Education Needs

Aldenham Prep School provides a broad and balanced curriculum for all children. When planning, teachers set suitable learning challenges and respond to children's diverse learning needs. Teachers take account of requirements and make provision, where necessary, to support individuals or groups of children and thus enable them to participate effectively in curriculum and assessment activities. Nov 09.

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