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No chance to snooze at the back of the class here – the whole place is a hotbed of interaction and debates. ‘What was the main reason the English civil war happened? Money, power or something else? Discuss,’ we heard – and discuss they did. Another classroom door opened into a dispute around why it was considered so controversial that MacBeth engaged in the supernatural. Caters for the whole shebang when it comes to ability – ‘my daughter has...

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What the school says...

Whatever the starting point at Ashford School we have high aspirations for your child. Through our adventurous approach to learning our aim is to ensure your son or daughter is articulate, confident and fluent with excellent social skills and a secure moral framework and, at the end of their school career, gains a place at one of the world's leading universities.

Our parents choose us because of our welcoming, inclusive ethos and happy children; focus on helping each child make progress with high quality, expert teaching leading to excellent results; excellent full and weekly boarding; strong leadership which sets out to delight; rich programme of music and drama; huge range of visits and expeditions, and extensive co-curricular activities that help to develop key personal characteristics; strong team sports for boys and girls and value for money. We are just 37 minutes from London by train and benefit from rapid access to the continent via Eurostar. The London airports are all within 90 minutes and we run a bus service to the surrounding towns and villages.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2018, Michael Hall (40s). Previously CEO and principal of GEMS Wellington Academy in Dubai (possibly the largest British school in the world, with 4,100 pupils). Economics degree from Liverpool and a master's in education management. ‘Who are you trying to kid?’ he asked himself after applying for a career in the City – ‘In my mind, I thought I’d earn a lot of money but the truth is my heart wasn’t in it,’ he admits. Reverted instead to plan A – teaching. Having felt some of his own teachers ‘could have tried harder’ and experienced co-curricular that was ‘very hit and miss’, he’d long thought to himself, ‘Surely it could be better than this.’ Started as a boarding master and economics, geography and sport teacher at AKS Lytham, ending up as head of sixth form; deputy head at Kingston Grammar, then eight years as head of Bedford Modern where he’d ‘happily have stayed for 20 years, but it wouldn’t have been good for me or the school’.

Tall, temperate and compassionate, he struck us as a gentle giant – though make no mistake, he has a core of iron and is a man with a plan. Top of his list is building developments, with ambitious new sixth form centre first in the queue (due summer 2021) then a new pool (they have two already, one on the prep site, but are determined to become world class in this area). Keen to blow the school’s trumpet harder too – ‘About time, because even some people who live in Ashford don’t even know we are here,’ pointed out a parent. We particularly warmed to his focus on forging new community links, which already includes sixth formers helping with maths and mindsets in local primaries – in shared foreign language where relevant, eg Eastern European.

Says he’s ‘very visual and present in all parts of the school’, though some students we met would like to see a bit more of him. Seems well liked enough, with parents saying he’s ‘always around for the concerts’ and ‘really approachable – you’d have no hesitation going up to him’.

Lives onsite at the prep with his wife – a choral director, teacher and singer – and their three sons, all at the school. Enjoys trekking and cycling, though admits to working more hours than he should – ‘I’m the person who always says to staff and pupils take time for yourself and for wellbeing but I’m not so good at doing it myself.’

Academic matters

Broad intake, results improving year on year. In 2019, at GCSE, 32 per cent A*-A/7-9 grades. At A level, 66 per cent A*-B grades and 38 per cent A*/A grades. Particularly good results in science, maths and art.

No chance to snooze at the back of the class here – the whole place is a hotbed of interaction and debates. ‘What was the main reason the English civil war happened? Money, power or something else? Discuss,’ we heard – and discuss they did. Another classroom door opened into a dispute around why it was considered so controversial that Macbeth engaged in the supernatural. And if you think that’s controversial, you should have been in the class where we spotted two fingers stuck up at the front – but don’t panic, it was just a slide of an incensed trade unionist in the 1960s, forming the backdrop to a discussion about unions v government back in the day. Plenty of opportunity to learn kinaesthetically too – we watched young biologists dissecting lamb hearts, while wannabe chemists dissolved jelly cubes in different temperatures of water to learn how to control variables. Lovely library, in muted tones, forms the centrepiece of the school and its welcoming vibe pays off – students fill every corner.

Caters for the whole shebang when it comes to ability – ‘my daughter has friends who are really high achievers, those that need learning support and those like her who are middle of the road,’ said one parent. ‘My daughter isn’t particularly academic, but she’s flying here,’ voiced another. Setting in maths and English from year 7; banding in most subjects (except the arts) and setting in science from year 9. French, German and Spanish taught on a carousel from year 7; students pick their two strongest from year 8 and take one (possibly two) at GCSE. Students from abroad can also take GCSE in their own language eg Chinese – popular as virtually all the 180 boarders have EAL (often a strength – it’s not unusual for students to speak several languages fluently). Art, DT and history popular at GCSE and there’s a 50:50 split of students taking double or triple science. A good range of 20+ A levels includes business studies, psychology and Chinese, plus a BTEC in sports studies. Most take three, with about 20 per cent take up for EPQ. Russian, German and Spanish also offered as a business language (mostly conversational) to sixth formers – this is a truly global school. Very accommodating timetable – ‘I only had a couple of other people in my music A level,’ said our guide.

Low staff turnover – this is a loyal bunch who love the challenge and freedom to innovate and use their initiative. But there’s no shortage of new blood – school runs a leading and innovative graduate teacher training programme. A very tech savvy school – all children have a device and we saw them in (supervised) use to enhance the curriculum in almost every other classroom. IT-based pedagogy is particularly strong (school’s mantra is that ‘IT should support not lead’) eg lots of digital analysis of sports performance. Lots of language exchanges and trips that help bring learning to life. Popular Adventurous Learning programme gets staff and students out of their comfort zone, personally as well as academically, eg speaking in front of the whole class and then the whole school. The Oxbridge Club provides extra coaching in problem solving and analytical and critical thinking.

Vast majority of the 20 per cent with SEN have mild dyslexia, dyscalculia or dyspraxia, though some have more complex needs and school can support children with physical disabilities. ‘You get regular updates and they really customise the support they give,’ one parent told us. International students in year 9 have access to a one-year intensive English language course, plus transition into the British system.

Games, options, the arts

‘My daughter isn’t very sporty but does lots of sport out of choice, so it must be good,’ said a parent. Some told us they’d chosen the school on the back of the sports offering alone – ‘it’s not just the facilities, they also get to pick from this ridiculously long list of every sport you can think of,’ raved one. Hockey, netball and cricket are core sports for girls, while for boys it’s rugby, hockey and cricket, and in addition there’s swimming (to a high level), climbing, fencing, yoga and table tennis, to name a few. Lavish sports centre, two (not so lavish) gyms, as well as a fitness centre and dance suite, indoor swimming pool and all-weather basketball court. Pitches, including AstroTurf are few minutes' walk away. ‘Fantastic team of sports staff.’ School has national strength in pentathlon and swimming and does well regionally in rugby, show jumping, netball and cricket, but school’s baseline position is very much sport for all, which has head’s full backing: ‘I was that boy in the B team that only got good when I was 15 – you should never give up on a child because you never know when they’ll develop and grow,’ he believes. And it’s clearly not just lip service, with D teams for hockey and F for netball and school has policy of not just putting strongest coaching with the top teams, eg director of sport takes the U13 C hockey team. Plus – and this has to be a first – the trophies were displayed not in some well lit, dutifully dusted glass cabinet but stuffed on shelves in the sports staff room. ‘My son gets frustrated because sport is his thing and he wants to win, but the school insists on mixing different levels of children so everyone has a go, which I think is excellent,’ said one generous-spirited parent.

Similar ethos in art. ‘I’m not very good, but I love it,’ beamed one student, listing the Photoshop, lino and ceramic projects she’d recently got her teeth into. ‘You can really express yourself and the department is always open to all at lunchtimes.’ And what a department it is, with two large, motivational spaces where we’d have gladly have grabbed a few paints and brushes and got stuck in ourselves. In one, GCSE students were refining their sketch book skills, while in the other we were captivated by an A level student marching round a carriage clock, egg timer and tape machine - ‘I’m going to do a piece focusing on the rearrangement of time,’ he explained. In a separate project area space, two students were making a film about lights and shadows. Nothing is deemed too adventurous or indeed too big – students here have created installation art including a lift to a mirror maze. Staff are all working artists and hold their exhibitions here ‘to help enthuse students’ (‘very nerve wracking actually – probably more so than exhibiting anywhere else,’ confided one) and there’s always an artist in resident, currently a digital artist.

Lots going on in the drama department from house plays and speech and drama recitals, lower school productions and the much awaited whole school summer musical (next up, Beauty and the Beast). National Youth Theatre was in doing auditions when we visited, and there are plenty of workshops by eg Paper Birds, Frantic Assembly. We watched year 9s critically analysing their own scenes from Daisy Pulls it Off on iPads and heard all about the active junior drama club, plus technical club for ‘those who prefer to stay out of the spotlight’. Loads take LAMDA and drama GCSE and drama is run as an A level too. ‘I spend half my life watching my kids perform,’ said one parent.

Head of music is a colourful character who won’t let any tuneful talent lie dormant. You name it, you can learn it (about half do) – organ, bassoon, harp, and the school has only Steinway pianos as part of the Steinway schools programme (one of only 17 schools in the UK to be all Steinway). ‘Pretty much the only instrument we don’t teach is the banjo.’ Lots going on: concert band, chamber music groups, string quartet, rock bands, string ensembles, an 18-piece orchestra – not bad for a smallish school. We saw posters for newcomers’ concert, harvest festival, cello teatime tootles (in the atrium), guitar showcase and keyboard kavekade, although head of music confided that ‘Beauty and the Beast is my big sweat of the moment’. Visiting orchestras too – Whitehall Symphony Orchestra were due in the month our visit.

Mammoth range of extracurricular activities – from debating (school regularly represented at competitions) and cooking to Lego robotics and Scrabble, though disappointing absence of student-led ones even in sixth form (school says it’s onto it). While not exactly compulsory, they might as well be, reported younger students – not that they mind. CCF popular and each year about 12 pupils complete their DofE gold.

Boarders

Boarding from year 7 (with the very occasional year 6, bused over from junior school). Four houses – Brooke for junior boys, Alfred for senior boys, Brabourne for girls and Judith Webb House for sixth formers – all very close to main school facilities, although students are not allowed back there during the day, which means plenty of interaction with non-boarding majority. Judith Webb House, the newest, has a corporate feel in reception and is upmarket youth hostel-esque elsewhere. The others, especially Brook, could do with some TLC (especially the bathrooms – yikes) but school has pledged to prioritise. Each house has a computer room but presumably rules around tidiness are devolved – could play ‘spot the carpet’ in Asic, yet military neatness in Brook. Children from abroad spend the first weekend of term with a day pupil – helps integration, although we heard of cliques among the international students – ‘definitely needs addressing, especially with the Chinese and Russians,’ said a parent.

Birthdays always celebrated and activities include fishing, shopping, go-karting, Thorpe Park, though one parent felt ‘they’re a bit hit and miss in terms of regularity’. Lots of leadership opportunities running house events and activities, from community work to the house play. Day children always happy to come in and it means the boarders are kept busy. ‘I was quite scared in year 7 when I came in, but they make it really welcoming,’ one boarder told us, while older ones appreciate ‘the freedom to go into town if you show you are responsible enough’. ‘Food is a bit naff – that’s the number one complaint I get,’ said a parent.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1898 with the aim that the pupils should play an active role in the life of the town and with an emphasis on ‘training and development of character’, the school moved to its present site in 1913 and became part of United Learning in 1999 (a group of state primary and secondary as well as independent schools). This brought a welcome injection of cash resulting in new buildings springing up all over the place, though some are now starting to look tired. Senior school is at the foot of the High Street, approached by a narrow lane and enclosed by high red-brick walls with lawns and greenery stretching down the hill. It’s a green oasis in the middle of busy Ashford but tricky to find if you don’t know where to look.

Brightly painted Atrium café a popular meeting place, also open to parents at pick up and drop off time, with larger refectory – bog standard fodder, say students, fish and chips gets a thumbs up while the mere mention the paella invites some contorted expressions. Strict on uniform (instant detention for an untucked shirt), but school perhaps needs a reminder that it’s the 21st century as trousers are still not allowed for girls.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

The beating heart of the school. Strong vertical house system ensures mixing of year groups, including peer mentoring of year 7s by sixth formers. All new joiners have a specialist tutor – high praise from parents. There’s a whole raft of training for students around mental health, including visiting speakers and workshops; ditto for staff so they can spot early signs; parents are invited to attend talks too. Frequently used health centre – note not just medical as also encompasses mental health and wellbeing, including well used counsellor. ‘My daughter is quite anxious, but she’s really blossomed here,’ said one parent.

Soft touch discipline – forgetting homework and being late is about the size of the behavioural problems here. Very occasional temporary exclusions, usually relating to social media, and permanent ones once in a blue moon. Prepared to do random drug tests if and when necessary. Students appreciate their freedoms here – ‘we get to go on our phones at break times, which I don’t think they do at other schools,’ said one, excitedly.

Pupils and parents

About 70 per cent day pupils, with catchment forming a perfect circle around the school, incorporating up to an hour’s travel (minibus service available). That said, families are increasingly from Ashford itself, where 7,000 new houses are currently being built. Boarders (all full) nearly all international, over 30 nationalities and particularly popular with Chinese, Eastern Europeans and Nigerians. Most parents are hard working, grounded peeps, many dual income, for whom a big selling point of the school is that it is ‘not snobby’ and that it ‘lacks grandeur’. Families are sociable – lots of WhatsApp messages likely to ping up on your phone to the tune of ‘Fancy a curry?’ but ‘absolutely no pressure to go if you don’t want to’. No airs and graces among the student body either – just nice, polite, easygoing youngsters. ‘They know they’re lucky to be educated privately – you don’t get the sense they grow up thinking the world owes them anything,’ said a parent.

Entrance

Sixty to 70 per cent come up from the prep school, others from local primaries and prep schools eg Dulwich and Spring Grove. Intake set to increase from 1,000 to 1,300 over the next five years. Wide ability range – some very bright, others who struggle, but all must have the ability to pass at least six GCSEs. Almost automatic entry from prep school but must be within the academic range. Children joining from other schools sit assessment tests in English, maths (and science from year 10) and non-verbal reasoning and take part in a team-building exercise. Preference given to siblings where possible. A further 15-20 per cent join at 13+ via school’s own tests, and there’s an influx of 15-20 students in year 10, predominantly international students. Sixth form entry tested in proposed A level subjects and must have six GCSEs at 6+, plus English proficiency test if appropriate. Lots of foreign nationals come for sixth form as well as several each year from local state schools.

Exit

Around a quarter depart after GCSEs, mostly to local colleges. One Oxbridge place in 2019, plus one medic. Others to eg Manchester, Durham, and Surrey; London unis including UCL and LSE increasingly popular too. Two off overseas: Nemo Academy, Italy and Tufts University, Massachusetts. Breadth of courses is huge, sciences currently popular. Broad-minded higher education and careers adviser takes huge trouble to guide right student to right course.

Money matters

Academic, music, art, drama and sports scholarships offered – usually up to 30 per cent of day fee. Means-tested bursaries available, including short-term emergency ones.

Our view

A forward-looking, unstuffy school with a strong international contingent and increasing links with the fast-growing community of Ashford. Pastorally, it’s moved forward leaps and bounds in recent years and we loved watching them gently encourage kids out of their comfort zones, whether in the classroom or on the sports fields.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Learning support is provided to pupils on the basis of individual assessment and need by our own Learning Support Teacher. Where additional support is required, private lessons are arranged with one of our peripatetic teachers. These lessons are charged as an extra.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health Y
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability Y
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health Y
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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