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Tucked away in the corner of the vast Bedford School campus, one of the biggest plusses of this prep is unfettered access to the wealth of facilities of its big brother school. Parents report that boys are ‘pushed’ academically, ‘but never at the cost of a more all-rounded education’ and that ‘learning is brought alive’ at every opportunity. The well-equipped science labs are packed with so many creatures (animal care is one of the most popular clubs) that it was almost another ...  

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2013, Ian Silk (40s). Previously deputy head of Bishop's Stortford Prep School and former housemaster at Ardingly College. An English and drama specialist, brims with enthusiasm about all aspects of the school – most particularly the spectacular theatre shared with the upper school and the town.

There aren’t too many heads we meet who kicked off their career in Buckingham Palace (he was in the office that organised the re-opening after the fire); also unusually, he had a marketing stint with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But it was teaching (which he’d done briefly in Greece) and his love of English that really floated his boat, leading him to top up his English degree from Lancaster with a PGCE at Worcester.

Quite the biggest ears we’ve ever seen. ‘I am supposed to be able to hear for 25 miles with them, but the truth is they’re just blocking my hearing,’ he confessed, removing them from his head and placing them on the desk. This was World Book Day and he was the BFG. Always a treat to find prep school heads that don’t take themselves too seriously, even more so when they add a big dollop of humility into the mix (‘That’s very kind because I don’t feel I get out enough,’ he replied when we told him parents we’d spoken to were impressed with how ‘present’ he is). Knows most boys by name – lots of heads do but this is a large prep – and has lunch with all new joiners in small groups. Familiar with parents too, helped by the fact that he does all prospective parent tours (an hour-and-a-quarter each) himself. ‘Easy to talk to’, ‘friendly and open’, ‘very measured and not a bit flashy’, they told us.

Three favourite words of the moment? Future skills curriculum. Might sound like yawn-worthy edu-jargon, but apparently there are 30 skills – from productivity to resilience – that school believes are key to boys’ futures and it’s Mr Silk's job to embed them into assembly, classes, prizes etc. ‘Not rocket science, but having a major impact,’ he claims and parents concur.

We’re guessing there’s a lot of shop talk at home as he’s married to Sarah, who teaches at the school; they also have two sons there. Was training for a marathon when we met him; also enjoys walking the dog and skiing.

Entrance

Mainly at 7+, 8+ and 11+. A little more oversubscribed than at our last visit, though still not heavily. Looking for the right fit, ability to keep up and fully participate in school life. ‘If a boy isn’t there by 7, it’s absolutely fine to try again later,’ says head. Assessments in English, maths, NVR, creative writing, an in-school day – and that all-important report from current head. Large contingent from nearby pre-prep and fellow Harpur Trust member Pilgrims and around 30 per cent from local state schools. Buses from Luton, Milton Keynes, Hitchin broaden catchment.

Exit

Almost all (92 per cent in 2021) transfer to Bedford School with the odd exception departing for the state sector or, for international boarders, their mother country. No prep for CE or formal advice on other destination schools, but existing pupils sit the same test as external candidates for setting purposes. Parents report a seamless transition to upper school, with boys better prepared for workload than those joining from other preps.

Our view

Tucked away in the corner of the vast Bedford School campus, one of the biggest pluses of this prep is unfettered access to the wealth of facilities of its big brother school. Boys rave about the ‘rec’ (huge sports hall and swimming pool with additional squash courts, gym, table tennis area etc) and the theatre is among the most stunning we’ve seen, shared with the town and able to seat over 280. The immense modern dining hall serves popular, plentiful food with lots of choice (we enjoyed delicious sticky ribs and were even shown to our table by suited and booted maître d’). Fields, as you’d expect with the school’s sporting kudos, are immaculate and vast. The prep’s own amenities are noteworthy too, including a mix of traditional and modern purpose-built classrooms centred around an Astro play area where boys let off steam at break. A separate adventure playground adds to the fun. All feels surprisingly cosy despite the scale of the wider surroundings. The well-equipped science labs are packed with so many creatures (animal care is one of the most popular clubs) that it was almost another school tour for the science technician to take us round them all: gerbils (they breed them), snakes (one recently hatched), guinea pigs and geckos. All in all, simultaneously feels separate from and integral to the upper school and offers everything young boys could hope for, whatever their interests.

Parents report that boys are ‘pushed’ academically, ‘but never at the cost of a more all-rounded education’ and that ‘learning is brought alive’ (literally, with those animals in the science lab) at every opportunity. We saw boys constructing rivers out of modelling dough to learn about eg drainage basins and years 4, 5 and 6 hanging on the every word of a visiting author. Even doing past science papers (potentially the dullest of dull activities) was made into a game – each boy had to run to the front of class and rip off a piece of kitchen roll exam paper after completing each one. Twice-yearly testing enables school to keep a beady eye on progress and one parent reported that ‘they’re very good at explaining to the boys that their homework doesn’t benefit anyone except them – has helped with my son’s motivation hugely.’ Teachers (‘nearly all good, with the odd exception,’ said a parent) are praised for their ‘commitment’ – all run a club in addition to their academic duties. Tons of sharing of good practice, with head reporting that ‘the best inset days are the internal ones because we love learning from each other.’ Streaming from year 6, with two top sets and two mixed-ability classes; another mixed-ability class added from year 7; setting for maths – not all keen on this system, though, with one parent saying, ‘I’m not sure they’ve got the streaming and setting 100 per cent right.’ French from year 3; Latin (new) from year 6; half a term each of German and Spanish from year 7, from which boys choose two to learn in year 8. ‘Particularly towards the upper end of the school, they bring out the intellectual curiosity – you can really see them getting ready for what’s coming in the upper school,’ reported a parent.

Small-group lessons and one-to-ones on offer from dedicated SENCo and two supporting specialists. And not just for those with (generally mild) SEN (about 10 per cent) as school prefers a wider approach, offering booster classes to eg anyone who finds punctuation or a particular area of maths tricky. Strong emphasis on training whole staff to support individual needs. Close communication with upper school a great strength and leads to nobody slipping through gaps in the transition. Strong ESOL team caters for overseas students.

Prepare to be buying washing powder in bulk for seriously muddy games kits – rugby, hockey and cricket (‘huge’ according to head) top the sporting agenda, with one parent telling us, ‘everyone gets to regularly go out and get covered in mud and they absolutely love it.’ An inclusive approach means school puts up as many as 18 competitive teams for fixtures, so everyone gets a ride on the bus and a post-match tea at least once a term, whatever their ability. School has some really good tennis and badminton players, plus swimmers, and cross-country does well too. Breadth is huge as we learned when we asked a large group of boys to shout out the favourite sport they do at school and practically every one was different. School pushing for even more bottom-up opportunities in future tournaments – ‘we want the boys to play these sports when they’re in their mid 20s just purely because they love it,’ says head. ‘They managed to produce a swimmer out of my very nervous son in just one term,’ raved one parent, while another told us, ‘If you’d have asked me before my son started the school who it wouldn’t suit, I’d have said the non-sporty, but I’ve changed my attitude completely.’ But you might want to give parents of boys who are moved into lower teams a wide berth – ‘some show more disappointment than the boys, and certainly shout louder about it,’ one of our contacts observed.

Not a macho culture – boys are just as likely to wield a bow and play the violin as run around a freezing cold field, indeed some do both. Sometimes they find it hard to fit it all in, though school says it helps the boys prioritise. Tons of music, all hugely popular, includes the (crucially, non-selective) junior choir, plus chapel choir for years 5 and up, and there are instrumental lessons on curriculum for years 3 and 4 with around half going on to learn an instrument after that (everything from bagpipes to sax). Positive, energetic and fun. ‘They encourage performance even if you’re a real beginner so you have everything from the slick and confident to those who can only play a few notes,’ said a parent. Best event of the year is the house singing, said another – ‘The boys look immaculate and amazing in their white shirts and ties and sing really complicated notes absolutely beautifully, all conducted by a year 8 boy and properly judged externally.’

Great excitement on the dramatic front too (especially for the forthcoming Wind in the Willows performance when we visited – whole choir was to be included) as all major performances now take place in the £7m theatre (thanks to a legacy donation). ‘My boys are naturally shy and definitely not extrovert, but drama has really helped them come out of their shell in a way I’d never have imagined a few years ago,’ told one parent. Musician in residence must surely be an insomniac – he’s just written his fourth school musical; last one was a Western, this one is based in space. Year 6 boys get chance to learn backstage skills.

Fabulous art space, where we watched youngsters finalising landscapes to show contrast, although head of art keen ‘not to get boys to see art as just the ability to draw,’ telling us about one boy ‘who would have struggled on paper but made the most wonderful sculpture’. Boys told us about favourite projects including ‘bending wire into Olympian stances such as Javelin throwing’ and self-portraits.

Over 100 activities a term and upper school boys help run the weekly activities programme eg coding club. Lots of trips – some of the boys had just been to South Africa – and there are bi-annual trips to Ickwell, a nature reserve owned by the school.

Bullying rare – a no-nonsense policy and zero tolerance attitude helps, but most of the work is preventative, teaching boys how to eg be ‘an upstander not a bystander’. Strict on kindness, uniform, politeness etc – ‘means bigger things take care of themselves’. Gold coins given out for conduct merits – put in house ‘tubes’ ready for big weekly count-up which leads to house flag flying outside head’s office. Parents a relatively grounded bunch, many OBs themselves.

Boarders

Boarders inhabit the purpose-built Eagle House, a quick skip (and many of them do) across the playground. Sleeps up to 32 boys (though never more than 26 at one time) from year 3 and up, although most start after year 5 as either flexi, full or weekly boarders and the vast majority are from years 7 and 8. All very homely with nicely furnished, comfy spaces including separate areas for chilling, games, prep and kitchen (where they’d been making banana cake the night before) with lots of personal touches for boys to hang out after school hours. Wicket, the house dog, laps up all the fuss bestowed on him. Spacious (and exceptionally tidy) dorms sleep between four and eight boys, some of whom make them their own with pictures, posters and duvet covers from home, while others keep them surprisingly bare. Around half the boarders are from overseas (mainly Russia and China), so there are plenty around at weekends once Saturday school (compulsory for all from year 6) and Sunday chapel are out of the way. Enjoyable outings such as go-karting, escape room, high ropes and bowling are often followed by a takeaway or one of the housemaster’s legendary barbecues. Year 7s and 8s can go into town, just 200 yards away – ‘gives them a real world feel as you can get isolated in boarding houses.’ ‘The boys really look out for each other,’ said a parent.

The last word

Parents here are signing up for the long haul, happily waving goodbye to the stress of the 11+ or CE in favour of a seamless transition into the reputable senior school. A happy, thriving start on this journey where, as one parent put it, ‘they find whatever is your thing and then fly with it.’

Special Education Needs


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