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What says..

Vast space, with super indoor and outdoor play areas – we loved the mud kitchen (full waterproof jumpsuits required) and yoga room. Science (despite the somewhat rickety appearance of the labs) impressed on the basis of the departmental head’s enthusiastic description of a recent ‘dunkability of biscuits’ experiment alone. We genuinely cannot think of a better use for the former wine cellar of the main house than a pottery studio...

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What the school says...

Located just minutes from Harpenden, St Albans and Berkhamsted and set in stunning rural parkland, Beechwood Park successfully blends the old with the new; innovation with tradition. Boys and girls create ceramics in the pottery room located in the old wine cellar and fabulous music compositions in the dedicated Apple music technology suite situated in a former coach house.

Raspberry Pi, Micro Bits and 3D Printers inspire Computer Science studies, whilst outside, pupils swing from the trees and hunt for bugs in Forest School and the extensive woodlands. From Greek or Russian Club to Cheerleading or Chess, there is something to captivate every curious mind from the youngest pupils in the School’s “Woodlands Nursery” through to 13+ candidates who head off to a range of excellent Independent day and boarding secondary schools.

The Capability Brown sculpted grounds provide orienteering trails, an indoor swimming pool complex, outdoor classrooms and eleven football pitches where a multitude of matches play out under the supervision of the neighbouring sheep.

At the end of the jam-packed day, School buses depart and boarders’ tea commences, then homework, music practice and entertaining games, including the ever-popular “Colditz” - a Beechwood Park tradition.
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What the parents say...

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Fencing

Sailing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2015, Edward Balfour (40s), Winchester born and educated at Pilgrim’s Prep (‘extremely strict’) and King Edward VI School Southampton, followed by Cardiff University where he read English literature. After a summer as a Camp America counsellor, followed his heart into teaching at the Royal Grammar School, Worcester, then gained a PGCE at Homerton College Cambridge. Secured teaching placement as English teacher at Uppingham, followed by Whitgift, then 13 years at Bradfield (‘where I was educated most’), taking over as head of drama aged just 27, before turning around an ‘unruly’ boarding house, transforming it into school’s ‘most successful and desirable’ (he can fight it out with Berkhamsted’s Richard Backhouse who makes the same claim). Entered prep school stratosphere with first headship at Northbourne Park School in east Kent, attracted by its strength in languages and largely bilingual (French) cohort.

A skilled marketer with soundbites to rival top politicos (but don’t let that put you off), says ‘fluidity and progressiveness’ are key strengths of school. Self-proclaimed ‘evangelist’ on the modernisation of prep school education. Asks ‘what does preparatory actually mean? It certainly doesn’t mean pushing children.’ Wants to remove ‘useless formality’. We approve. As does the parent cohort who, in the main, are big fans and say he’s ‘exactly what the school needed.’ So, what’s changed since his arrival? We loved the overhauled reporting structure (unique, to our knowledge) with all reports now written to children rather than their parents: ‘it makes school reports empowering not didactic’, he says.

In practical terms, the pool is now covered by a dome, allowing year-round usage, and any school run veteran will understand the importance of the creation of 100 new parent parking spaces. Happy days.

Married to Emma, a Cambridge linguist, who teaches at Beechwood, with three children, the youngest of whom attends Beechwood, the others at school in Canterbury and St Albans.

Entrance

Only ‘slightly’ selective, according to head. Now oversubscribed at 3+ thanks to the opening in 2015 of the all singing, dancing and yoga-ing on site Woodlands Nursery, which has 40 children, all of whom typically move up to the reception class in the main school. Nursery places given on first come, first served basis. A further 20 places in reception, with a gentle assessment during the year prior to entry to ensure suitability. Small intake each year into year 7, often for those who have missed out on an 11+ place at the school of their choice, with suitability assessed from applicant’s InCAS scores.

Exit

Around a third of total cohort (the majority of girls plus a handful of boys) leave at the end of year 6, heading to a broad mix of private and state schools (including some of Harpenden’s excellent comprehensives, eg Sir John Lawes, St George’s and Roundwood). Girls also to St Albans High and Berkhamsted in numbers and ones and twos to Queenswood, Abbot’s Hill and Habs’ Girls most years.

At 13+ boys move to St Albans School in droves plus small numbers to eg Bedford, Berkhamsted and Merchant Taylors’ – parents report extremely favourably on preparation at this stage (a few grumbles that it could be better at 11+, although school says it has been tackling this): each child is given a study plan and, for potential scholars, extra classes are put on – sometimes even at weekends. Not an obvious choice if Eton, Harrow et al are top of your wish list (you’d be in the minority – parental aspirations tend to err on the side of quality day schools) but small numbers of pupils do head off to board at eg Millfield, Oundle, Uppingham and, occasionally, Harrow – so school can deliver the goodies for these destinations if it needs to. Decent clutch of scholarships most years – 12 for 2017 entry, including four art, three music, one sport and one drama as well as academics.

Our view

Approached down a seemingly endless winding driveway redolent of entering a fairy tale, steeped in history, the main school building is an immaculately restored Tudor manor house nestled amongst fields and woodland as far as the eye can see. Walled gardens and wrought iron gates surround the main building as constant reminder of the grand history of the house as, most notably, the family seat of the aristocratic Sebright family. The school in its current guise was founded in 1964 by Group Captain Peter Stewart OBE who bought the house in a near derelict state, saving it from demolition. And thank goodness he did, as it now boasts a wealth of idyllic space and facilities, likely the envy of most visiting schools.

At 3, pupils enter the Woodlands Nursery, a standalone wood-clad, purpose built structure on the edge of the school’s enchanting woodland. Vast space, with super indoor and outdoor play areas – we loved the mud kitchen (full waterproof jumpsuits required) and yoga room. A true haven to introduce littlies to the school world without the rough and tumble of their older peers, and parents love the almost daily online feedback on their child’s progress. From there, pupils progress to the less picturesque but heartily practical junior block where they join one of four reception classes of 15 pupils, changing to three classes of 20 in years 1 and 2. Compact and colourful with its own gardens, although mobile library in makeshift area not the most inspiring for young readers. This, however, is more than compensated for by the stunning senior school library in the main school building, with its panelled walls and seemingly endless bookshelves. We were assured by the head before our visit that we would be ‘blown away’ by the wealth of space and facilities – the fabulous covered pool, the enchanting forest school and woodlands where pupils are now allowed to run free at break times, vast grounds, brand new all-weather cricket nets and breathtaking buildings – we certainly couldn’t fail to be.

Teaching far from the talk and chalk variety – French taught from the get-go by a specialist teacher; reception were playing French fruit bingo when we visited and at the top of the school pupils write and perform their own French play. Parents report their Beechwood alumni children experiencing resentment by senior school peers due to their proficiency in French, with one St Albans School French teacher telling a parent that all he could do was ‘paper over the cracks’ with her son who was almost GCSE standard on arrival. History equally engaging: what’s not to love about a year 2 class setting fire in the playground to paper houses they have made to bring the Great Fire of London to life? Pupils split into four sets for maths in year 4 and for English in year 5. From year 6 onwards, all are split into tutor groups of around 10, with whom they stay for the remainder of their time at school, and are specialist taught for all subjects. Staff mature enough to be experienced but not over the hill, and across the board seem to ooze passion for their subject; science (despite the somewhat rickety appearance of the labs) impressed on the basis of the departmental head’s enthusiastic description of a recent ‘dunkability of biscuits’ experiment alone (‘we keep it very practical; it has to be’) as did the year 6 pupils rehearsing for the Latin play, Cinderella. Beats reciting verbs, that’s for sure, and parents describe the Latin teaching as ‘phenomenal’.

All children screened for mild specific learning difficulties and around 60 on register. Three full-time staff offer one-to-one sessions in a dedicated space (mainly either before school in the morning or during library lessons to avoid withdrawal) as well as in-class support to those that need it. Whole school monitored for progress in reading and spelling and children referred for a booster if they need it. Touch typing offered as early morning club and those who satisfy the criteria are allowed to use laptops in class and in exams from year 6. But support is very much dyslexia focused, and we've heard complaints about a lack of expertise here in autism; probably best to look elsewhere for anything other than mild SpLDs.

All the usual sports – the newish director of sport has ‘transformed’ the offering at Beechwood, say parents, and happily now year 3s get to play fixtures against other schools, with a match for everyone regardless of ability in years 3 and 4. Things get a bit more selective from year 5 upwards but those who don’t make it onto the match day minibus can choose from a plethora of activities under the new ‘sport for all’ banner which encompasses sailing, table tennis, martial arts and fencing. And there are always those all-important house matches where everyone can get stuck in.

The super performance hall with its flexible seating plays host to productions such as Around the World in 80 Days and The Lion King – often cross-curricular productions – and we are assured that everyone who auditions gets a role. A whopping 80 to 90 per cent of pupils take peripatetic music lessons, with groups and ensembles galore playing everything from percussion and harp groups to rock and big band (movie theme tunes a favourite) at the weekly lunch time recitals. Choirs are non-selective to year 5, when the elite are creamed off to join the chamber choir (‘we work them hard,’ says the popular head of music) and taken on tour to perform in European countries, recently Belgium. Minor parental grumbles that they should jazz up the formal repertoire a little. New music technology suite, ensemble room and recording studio.

And there’s no need for multi-talented pupils to have to choose between music and sport – the two departments make a point of working harmoniously together to ensure that ‘there’s no tussle’ when it comes to commitments. Art and DT equally well resourced and a high standard of work on show. The latter is taught in a charming former stable block – and we genuinely cannot think of a better use for the former wine cellar of the main house than a pottery studio. Pupils in years 7 and 8 can claim their own space in the mezzanine area of the art block – many do and come and while away any spare time there. No surprise that there is a good handful of art scholars most years.

With almost all pupils living within 10 miles of school, boarding for most is all about enhancing their overall prep school experience rather than necessity or rigid preparation for a future at public school. Pupils can choose to board for two nights from year 5 under the watchful eye of the popular houseparent couple, building up to a maximum of four nights – no remainers at weekends – and around 60 boarders take advantage of this flexible arrangement. Despite that, it is very much representative of any full boarding school, with absolutely no ‘hot bedding’ and all the warmth and character of any boarding prep.

A warren of spacious boys’ rooms takes over the upper floor of the main school building, with between seven and 17 pupils in a room, depending on year group. The girls are up in the eaves in a haven of pinkness and unicorns and have their own areas to chill out and ‘do hair’ away from their raucous male counterparts, should they wish to. Communal areas, like all things Beechwood, are spacious and well resourced – we can’t imagine an 11 year old who wouldn’t want to give boarding a try with such a heady mix of pool, table hockey, table tennis and a tuck shop on offer – and that’s on top of a full schedule of boarders’ after-school activities with intriguingly named games including Colditz and Murder in the Dark. What’s more, they are ‘fed every hour’ with fruit and veg on offer after school, tuck, tea and sandwiches and milk before bed. Special events such as the Harry Potter evening, complete with dry ice, and parent and child golf competitions and barbecues, are the icing on the boarding cake.

On the pastoral side, head says, ‘we try to catch and reward good behaviour’ and school definitely has an overall feel of carrot rather than stick. Pupils say they feel ‘safe and at home’ and can be given a house credit simply for making a staff member smile, with parents glowingly describing ‘a very caring community’. Badges galore are sported proudly on lapels by a cohort of smiley, individual and thoroughly charming children. Parents optimistic that bullying will be dealt with more effectively under new head than previously. With many pupils from dual income families, a fleet of coaches brings pupils from Harpenden, St Albans, Dunstable and Redbourn.

Going places. With its dynamic new head and, in the words of one happy parent, ‘feel good factor’, Beechwood should definitely be on the list of parents who want the certainty of a quality end destination for their child without compromising the joy of the journey.

Special Education Needs

The school has some learning support provision run by one full-time and two part time members of staff. The staff are responsible for assessing and identifying children throughout the school who might not be achieving their potential or who are finding some aspects of the curriculum difficult. In order to help these children the staff offer advice to the teachers on how to make provision for them and in some cases will teach pupils individually or in small groups for between one and four short sessions per week. The staff also provide in-class support, particularly in the Junior Department.

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
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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