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Academic depth is balanced with plenty of time for more creative pursuits. School good at identifying those who show a predisposition towards music from a young age, say parents. Lots of class assemblies and concerts to perform in – ‘Some are a bit sore on the ears if I’m honest, but all the better for being inclusive,’ said parent. Drama also prioritised from day one. ‘You don’t have to be brilliant at sport to enjoy it,’ said parent. This – and the fact that everyone gets a match now despite what team you’re in - is a far cry from…

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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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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

Headmaster

Since 2013, Jamie Hornshaw BEd MEd NPQH FInstLM (40s). Previously head of the British School of Paris Junior School. Educated at Plymouth University, where he took his primary teaching degree; more recently, he completed an MEd in education leadership at Buckingham. Cut teeth as year 3 teacher at St Peter’s Prep in Devon, followed by Hazelwood School in Surrey, teaching years 3 and 4 as well as running sports teams and directing plays. Joined Grove Place Prep in Hampshire as deputy head and head of English and drama before moving to Brentwood Prep as deputy head. Was drawn to the ‘family and community ethos’ of Berko, inheriting it after a shaky period following merger with Haresfoot Prep. Comes across as the soft and cuddly type, even via Zoom – grounded, friendly, playful; pupils love him. Perhaps not quite what you’d expect given that he is widely recognised for taking the school by scruff of neck and moved it up a division – no longer seen as an easy shoo-in to the increasingly competitive senior school. ‘Status Quo’s a great name for a band but not an ethos for a running a school,’ he told us on our last visit and parents feel he’s well and truly put the school on the map since then. ‘Very good at taking on board feedback, especially during Covid,’ said parent. ‘Not above getting on his hi-vis jacket to help direct the traffic at drop off and pick up,’ we also heard. Seems there’s nothing he can’t teach - over the years, everything from English, Spanish, French and maths to PSHE, all to year 6s. 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, NPQH (40s). Formerly acting head of The Rosary Roman Catholic School in Camden. This is her first role as a pre-prep specialist and she has lapped up the balance you can offer at this young age – ‘They’re no going to find their passion by the age of 6, which means our job is to give them a really sold base in everything.’ Affable and smiley, she is very much a public face, meeting and greeting parents and pupils daily. 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 entry into pre-prep at 3+ and 4+. Entry into prep is more selective, particularly as senior school places are becoming harder fought for. Standardised testing in English and maths, plus classroom time spent with year 2s. Occasional places in year 4, with the same assessment process. A whole extra class in year 5 means another 15 places become available at this stage although be warned there are often around 50 applicants.

Exit

No longer guaranteed entry to senior school at 11+, though around 90 per cent do make it. Others guided to best school for them. Some to local grammars (Aylesbury, Chesham and Dr Challoner’s) or other independents that have traditionally been seen as more academic. ‘I’m not an estate agent for the senior school,’ says head.

Our view

School is split between pre-prep, for children from nursery to year 2, and prep, across two different sites, about a five minute drive apart. School has worked hard to ensure more cohesion than in the past, but while the pre-prep is a dreamy country prep environment, prep is a much larger school that feels so urban it could almost be London.

Pre-prep, housed on the former Haresfoot site, can’t fail to charm, with its picturesque setting and seemingly endless acres of land. Superb facilities and spacious classrooms sit amongst walled gardens tipping off into woodlands, home to the adventure playground and high wires course. And what could make spelling tests any sweeter than taking them in a 20 acre meadow? Huge sports hall dwarfed the tiny tots we saw rehearsing their show. All in all, a gentle and nurturing start to school life in an idyllic setting. Pupils continue to enjoy excellent facilities in the smart looking prep too – as well as occasionally those shared with the Berkhamsted senior school, including theatre, pool and playing fields. Slight wistfulness about lack of prep fields to run on at playtimes.

Academically, the emphasis is on value added. Most enter the nursery at national standard, but by year 6 the vast majority are well above it, with many of them significantly above. Subject specialists in French, music and PE from nursery (more are added until year 3 when everything is taught by specialists), with all teachers even at that early stage having experience of teaching right up to A level (not a TA in sight). But while there’s academic rigour and a largely traditional curriculum, lessons are practical, fun, varied and innovative – the tiny tots in pre-prep barely realise they’re learning at all. Ribbon dancing to learn about China, performances to act out stories etc. Lots of outdoor education too, including making houses then setting them on fire (with help from the fire brigade) as part of learning about the Great Fire of London. Things step up in prep, of course, with parents reporting a particularly steep jump from year 4 to 5 – but, said parent, ‘it’s not unmanageable as they are ready for it and it’s good practice for when they move up to senior school.’ History top choice with the children due to ‘inspirational’ department head, whose room is ‘like a museum.’ Tasters of Mandarin and Latin in year 6. Setting in maths from year 3.

Five SEN experts - all dyslexia specialists – work across all Berkhamsted schools, with up to 10 per cent needing their help for eg dyslexia, dyspraxia and ASD. All children screened in year 3 with a mixed programme of in-class and one-to-one help, and those with the greatest needs removed from French. One parent said her child wasn’t eligible for extra support despite a diagnosis, ‘but it transpired that it was only because they felt the teacher could adapt within the classroom and he’s flying now because of that approach.’ Pace is fast so this is not the school for children with greater needs. Counsellors and chaplains available for mental health needs, and there’s play therapy available too. Emotional literacy is an oft used buzz phrase here, with all children having specific coaching on how to recognise and regulate their emotions – came into its own during the pandemic, say parents.

Academic depth is balanced with plenty of time for more creative pursuits. Music starts in nursery when children learn about rhythm beats. School good at identifying those who show a predisposition towards music from a young age, say parents. Lots of class assemblies and concerts to perform in – ‘Some are a bit sore on the ears if I’m honest, but all the better for being inclusive,’ said parent. As part of a ‘try before you buy’ initiative, everyone has a taster of violin in year 2, with many more instruments introduced in year 4. By prep, at least half the pupils learn one instrument in school, and 10 per cent learn at least two. 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. Alongside the orchestra and ensembles, there are 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.

Drama also prioritised from day one, with pre-prep offering opportunities for performance and public speaking and full-blown productions from reception upwards, the quality increasing year on year. Mary Poppins a recent success. ‘We’re not talking about a makeshift stage in a tatty old hall but a full working stage with lights and sounds – it’s off the scale and has brought my daughter’s confidence up no end,’ raved parent. Drama is on the curriculum with a subject specialist teacher from year 3 and everyone does Lamda as part of the curriculum, with 90 per cent distinctions across the prep.

Art taken seriously. From clay to drawing, core skills are introduced and imaginations are revved. ‘I love the art – they’ve made masks, necklaces, you name it,’ said parent. Increasingly cross-curricular – pupils learning how to make felt from raw wool, ready to make Lowry figures to link with their work on the Victorians, for example. Annual arts week enables parents and grandparents to feast their eyes on latest exhibits and hats off to the school for making art more visible around the school since our last visit. DT taught from year 3 in well-equipped lab, complete with dye sublimation machine to provide greater links with the art department. Food tech taught in specialist classroom.

‘You don’t have to be brilliant at sport to enjoy it,’ said parent, who was over the moon that his child had just had a ‘special mention’ of her outstanding contribution ‘despite not being in any team – means a lot in terms of motivation.’ This – and the fact that everyone gets a match now despite what team you’re in - is a far cry from the more elitist approach of days gone by, though excellence is celebrated too, including on honours boards around the school. National finalists in swimming relay, national champions at Eton fives and county tennis players and cricketers all feature in the cohort. Sheer breadth of sport widely praised – ‘my son has only been there a few weeks and he’s done gym, fundamentals, football, fives and swimming,’ said parent, with football, rugby and cricket for boys and lacrosse, netball and cricket for the girls the major sports. But with two games sessions and one PE lesson a week, there’s not as much coaching as at some preps.

Over 50 clubs on offer from reception – fishing and Eton fives popular and, during lockdown, mindfulness and yoga. Lots of trips, with pupils going further afield as they move up the school, culminating in a year 6 outdoor pursuits trip to Skern Lodge. Wrap-around care a major selling point for the hard-working middle class parent cohort. Pupils can be looked after from 7.30am to 6.30pm up to 50 weeks a year, including the provision of breakfast and tea – a facility used by around 30 per cent of families.

Most live within two or three miles, but increasing numbers from further afield eg Leighton Buzzard, Beaconsfield, Rickmansworth and the Chalfonts. Growing numbers move to the area for the school. Very little ethnic mix but demographically diverse – plenty of first-time buyers with a bit of old money thrown in for good measure.

‘Excellent around online learning – a good balance of live teaching and social interaction,’ said parent. ‘Creative too,’ added another – ‘For instance, my child had to write a postcard to the teacher and write a brochure using different writing styles.’

Not the school for more disruptive children, say parents, nor those unwilling to make the most of all the extracurricular options.

The last word

As with the senior school, a solid, traditional choice for those after a thoroughly rounded education – in a leafy suburban setting. Prep and pre-prep have the added bonus of (probable but not guaranteed) immunity to the local 11+ frenzy, with most families taking the long-haul view. Without the universal favourite topic of ‘next schools’ on the dinner party agenda, we wonder what on earth Berkhamsted parents talk about…

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