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Pre-prep, housed on the former Haresfoot site, is accessed via an ancient tree lined avenue and – especially if you head, as we did, straight though the Secret Garden like entrance into the vast walled garden – cannot fail to enchant. Transition into year 3 is eased by children already being used to the prep facilities (comprising two main teaching buildings with four floors on each, plus sports facilities). Academically, it’s a big step up though as with pre-prep value added is the name of the game. ‘There’s no wrong in art,’ is the mantra in pre-prep – a far cry from in prep where a shift towards a…

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What the school says...

A family of leading independent schools based in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, offering high quality education and care for boys and girls aged 5 months to 18 years.
Berkhamsted Pre-Prep - Co-educational independent day school for pupils aged 3-7. We place each child at the centre of everything we do. Wellbeing is our first priority, and providing a high level of nurture and care is our primary focus
Berkhamsted Prep - Co-educational independent day school for pupils aged 7-11. We are a supportive, family community which fosters a strong sense of belonging. Being a pupil here is a unique experience; every one of our pupils is treated as an individual.
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Other features

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.

Sports

Equestrian centre or equestrian team - school has own equestrian centre or an equestrian team.

Rowing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2013, Jamie Hornshaw BEd MEd NPQH FInstLM (40s). Previously head of the British School of Paris Junior School. Primary teaching degree from Plymouth; MEd in education leadership from Buckingham. Kicked off his career at St Peter’s Prep in Devon, thence to Hazelwood School in Surrey, where he added running sports teams and directing plays as strings to his bow which no doubt assisted in him bagging deputy headship (and head of English and drama) at Grove Place Prep in Hampshire and subsequently deputy head at Brentwood Prep.

Wasted no time in taking the school by scruff of neck and moving it up a division academically – a journey which he says ‘is not over yet’. All feels strangely at odds with the fun, playful, easy-going head we met although this has had the added bonus of winning hearts and minds on the pupil front (though one confided that he ‘can be very strict when needed’). Great at taking feedback, ‘especially during Covid,’ say parents, who also appreciate that he’s ‘not above getting on his hi-vis jacket to help direct the traffic at drop off and pick up.’ Has taught English, Spanish, French and maths to PSHE over the years – you can’t keep him out of the classroom, it seems. Lives on site with wife and two daughters, both Berkhamsted pupils. A drama buff, his real passion is musical theatre and he likes watching ‘most sports’ (he was a hockey umpire at national level back in the day).

Head of pre-prep since 2015 is Karen O’Connor BA, PGCE, MA (40s). Previously acting head of The Rosary Roman Catholic School in Camden. Again, has ramped up the academics, particularly English and phonics. Meets and greets daily, so parents have ‘a real sense of her.’ ‘Has the right balance of approachability and commanding automatic respect,’ reckoned one. ‘Has a very professional veneer when talking to groups, but on an individual level is warmer,’ felt another, though one cautioned that ‘you need to brace yourself for some very frank talking if your child is not keeping up’ (school says it’s always for the child’s welfare). Lives in London with husband and daughter, at Berkhamsted. Heads off to the west coast of Ireland when time allows – ‘that’s my heritage.’ Loves tennis and dance.

Entrance

Non-selective into pre-prep at 3+ and 4+. Entry via taster day with 20-minute play session while parents meet head – ‘more a case of them being able to ask me questions than vice versa,’ she insists, ‘as we take the approach of “are we right for your child?” not “is your child right for us?”’ School says the environment is best suited to ‘active learners who can cope with busy days.’ Entry into prep at 7+ is described by school as ‘semi selective’ with testing in English and maths, plus classroom time spent with peers. Occasional places in year 4 via same process. An extra class in year 5 means another 15 places but that will not be the case from 2023 entry onwards.

Exit

Almost all move seamlessly from pre-prep to prep though the first boy we met told us he was off to The Beacon – ‘because of geography,’ explained head (location, not subject). From September 2022, children coming in at year 3 or younger will not have to sit the tests for the senior school, and the current year 5 entry point will be removed. Any doubtful runners will have been identified in year 4 or 5 and helped to find more suitable options. Some to local grammars (Aylesbury, Chesham and Dr Challoner’s) or other independents that have traditionally been seen as more academic. Between 10-15 per cent of leavers gain scholarships to senior school (academic, music, drama, sport) per year.

Our view

Pre-prep, for children from nursery to year 2, and prep, are based on separate sites and could not feel more different if they tried. As dreamy country schools go, the pre-prep is right up there, while the prep – a five minute drive away – is much bigger and so urban it could almost be London. Yet parents say the school feels ‘much more unified than it once was.’ All credit, they say, to greater cohesion between the heads.

Pre-prep, housed on the former Haresfoot site, is accessed via an ancient tree lined avenue and if you head, as we did, straight though the Secret Garden like entrance into the vast walled garden, cannot fail to enchant. We arrived at break time on Music Friday, where children were (quite literally) dancing their socks off to Everything is Awesome – the weekly ritual allows them ‘to let rip a bit more than in the more structured music lessons,’ said the teacher. In another corner, under the shadow of the mammoth zip wire of the senior school just over the wall (surely the best child marketing strategy ever) children were playing on wooden adventure equipment. Others made use of the woodland area, mud kitchen, outside stage and seemingly infinite grass. And that’s not all. Over in the free-flow area between the three teaching blocks, we dodged tinies navigating brightly coloured roads on their trikes and bikes and there’s also a huge outdoor classroom that doubles up as Santa’s grotto at Christmas. ‘They come home muddy most days,’ beamed a parent.

Inside, the emphasis on teaching and learning, as well as cross-curricular, is evident from the glass-covered noticeboards alone – among the largest and most comprehensive we’ve seen. A nature themed one contained everything from seeds to stories in neat handwriting, plus top tips for learning and dazzling artwork. Classrooms too indulge the senses, we saw children in the thick of shaping play dough, cutting paper and learning phonics.

Transition into year 3 is eased by children already being used to the prep facilities (comprising two main teaching buildings with four floors on each, plus sports facilities) and occasionally the Berkhamsted senior school, including theatre, pool and playing fields. Academically, it’s a big step up though as with pre-prep value added is the name of the game: most enter the nursery at national standard, but by year 6 the vast majority are well beyond it, with many of them significantly above. Having been used to subject specialists in French, music and PE from nursery (with other subjects added year on year) year 3s are taught everything by specialists, all of whom have experience of teaching up to A level. Maths is set from year 3; tasters of Mandarin and Latin offered in year 6.

But while there’s academic rigour and a largely traditional curriculum, lessons can be practical and fun – we watched a year 6 science project being set for which pupils were to use anything from LEGO to Marble Run to make a model of the aorta. Not much by way of outdoor learning in prep, say pupils, though some year 6s could recall an outside shadow experiment in science (and they head over to prep for bushcraft sessions). Parents say there ‘could be more changing of the guard with teachers so you get more energy and inspiration coming in.’

‘Fantastic’ with SEN, say parents. ‘Teachers are knowledgeable and they’ve put all our ed psych’s recommendations into practice – wobble cushion, laptop, putting him at the front, reiterating the tasks etc.’ One SENCo for pre-prep and prep who regularly observes children at all stages and all children are screened in year 3 and offered additional help instead of French from year 5 if required. TAs in pre-prep and learning support teachers in prep. No EHCPs.

Music in pre-prep is intuitive and creative, focusing mainly on rhythm and beat. Keyboard club is popular and all learn the violin in year 2 (sorry, parents), as well as doing music tech. In prep, all year 4s get to learn three musical instruments and many continue them. The connection with senior school helps – means there are 15 peripatetic staff available to cover a wide range of instruments including harp and double bass. There’s an orchestra, ensembles and five choirs – ‘including one just for boys which I think is brilliant as it can be so hard to get boys into singing,’ said parent. We observed a year 6 class practising for their end of year play, Seussical the Musical – parents are in for a treat.

No drama teacher in pre-prep – ‘it’s better integrated through English,’ reckons head, but they do performances and it’s on curriculum from year 3, with no inhibitions from the youngsters we saw acting out Robin Hood scenes. Everyone in prep does LAMDA, often with 100 per cent distinctions.

‘There’s no wrong in art,’ is the mantra in pre-prep – a far cry from in prep where a shift towards a more skills-based curriculum (albeit incorporating clay, printing, 3D, observational drawing etc) makes for some beautiful displays of practically identical creations. Judging from the excitable (and breathless - the art studio is in the eaves) pupils ready to embark on creating illuminated letters, it’s a popular subject. DT has its own well-equipped lab and textiles work was in full flow during our visit, with a class quietly weaving their own bags. Food tech taught in specialist classroom – our tour guides told of making soda bread, spag bol, omelettes and cakes.

Younger years sport focuses mainly on core stability, balance and co-ordination. We were impressed with some decent tennis moves by tinies despite looking dwarfed by the nets that external coaches had brought into the pre-prep sports hall. A focus on being less worried about results and more about participation – as well as the investment in coaching - carries through to prep too. ‘Much less elitist than I expected,’ said a parent, though school still celebrates success – the first thing the head told us was that the school had just reached national finals in netball. Praise from parents for sheer breadth - ‘my son has only been there a few weeks and he’s done gym, fundamentals, football, fives and swimming,’ said one, with football, rugby and cricket for boys and lacrosse, netball and cricket for the girls the major sports. Some grumbles that boys get more fixtures than girls. Over 50 clubs from reception – fishing and Eton fives popular and, during lockdown, mindfulness and yoga. All the pupils we spoke to do at least one. Wrap-around care (costs extra) from 7.30am-6pm up to 50 weeks a year, including breakfast and tea.

School rules deemed fair by pupils, though one was miffed about why his Match Attax cards were whisked away without explanation. Detentions are rare, ‘mainly because the warning system works so well,’ reckoned a pupil. ‘Better suited to the more resilient, academic child,’ thought one parent; another that, ‘you get some schools that are all about nurture whereas this one is all about energy – that’s what my son loved about it.’ Still, all agree it’s pastorally robust, with nurses, two part-time counsellors, chaplain and head of pastoral all doing their bit. Wellbeing prioritised – school very mindful that social skills and mental health have been affected by Covid. We liked how all pupils get coaching on how to recognise and regulate their emotions – ‘came into its own during the pandemic,’ said a parent. School was mentioned on Everyone’s Invited – relevant issues since escalated as part of PSHE. Some parents grumble that the same old pupils get picked for leadership roles. Food gets the thumbs up, with clean plates all round from the fish and chips lunch on our visit.

Parents come from further afield than they used to, now stretching to eg Leighton Buzzard, Beaconsfield, Rickmansworth and the Chalfonts. Ethnic diversity on the up, reflecting the local area. Lots of professionals and a fair share of nannies.

Money matters

Means-tested bursaries available in prep.

The last word

A solid, traditional choice with ever growing academic rigour, although it’s the approach to an all-rounded education that tends to float parents’ boats as much as the more scholarly pursuits. The icing on the cake for some, and raison d'être for others, is freedom from the local 11+ frenzy.

Special Education Needs

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia Y
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
HI - Hearing Impairment Y
Hospital School
Mental health Y
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability Y
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
PD - Physical Disability Y
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health Y
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication Y
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment Y

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