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Diamond structure appears to be a winning formula as boys and girls are free to concentrate on their educations ‘without distractions’ (their words) until sixth form and yet have sufficient exposure to the opposite sex to forge good social skills via extracurricular activities, trips, etc. Parents and pupils applaud vertical house system which brings all year groups together on a regular basis, with parents of girls in particular reporting...

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What the school says...

Berkhamsted's academic success is skilfully balanced by an all-round education encouraging pupils' talents in sport, music, drama and the arts and offering Duke of Edinburgh's Awards at all levels and a well-supported Combined Cadet Force. The successful mix of single-sex teaching and co-education, together with flexible boarding arrangements, suits the needs of modern families. Inspectors commended the 'relaxed, happy yet purposeful working environment creating a positive attitude.' ...Read more

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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.

Sports

Rowing

Shooting

What The Good Schools Guide says

Principal

Since January 2016, Richard Backhouse, educated at Cheam and Marlborough followed by Selwyn College Cambridge, where he read economics. From there, took a gap year teaching sailing in Dorset and skiing in the Alps, and was promptly bitten by the teaching bug: ‘I was fizzing after my first morning with the feeling you get when you take a child from "I can’t" to "I just did".’ Decided at that point to teach ‘just for a year or two’, which led to six years at Oundle teaching economics and ultimately becoming head of year 9, followed by a stint at Bradfield as head of economics and politics, director of pastoral and extracurricular and head of a ‘difficult’ boarding house which, under his watch, became oversubscribed. From there he moved as principal to Monkton Combe School in Bath where he spent 10 years before joining Berkhamsted.

As principal overseeing both the boys’ and girls’ schools, is ably supported in day to day running by Liz Richardson, head of the girls’ school (years 7-11), Richard Thompson, head of the boys’ school (also years 7-11) and Martin Walker, head of the mixed sixth form. So more chief executive than managing director, days are less ‘punctuated by parents’ and more focused on ‘getting on with strategy and innovation’. Despite the ‘ivory tower’ nature of his role, is frequently pitch side on match days, at concerts and other school events (‘charming,’ according to parents) and keeps finger on pulse of school life with celebratory soirées for winning sports teams and production casts at his house.

A holistic educator at heart, believes strongly in ‘educating the non-cognitive areas of the brain as well as the cognitive’ and wholeheartedly supports school’s reasonably mixed ability cohort remaining just that: ‘we want to deliver higher grades by improving teaching and learning, not by selecting brighter pupils.’ Believes that ‘a great school gives you the skills not just to get your first job, but to win that first promotion.’ Inherited school with ‘plenty of innovation and an energetic and interesting staff’, but with his predecessor having acquired Heatherton House School, integrated a nearby competing prep, brought the whole lot together under a (somewhat corporate) umbrella brand, and reached a stage of considerable oversubscription at all entry levels, what comes next? ‘Change for the sake of it is pointless’, he says but aspires to ‘continue reading the future clearly enough so that other schools continue to emulate us.’

Lives on Castle Campus with wife Debbie and has two adult children. Loves skiing, sailing, gadgets and Southampton FC.

Academic matters

You won’t find Berko showboating at the top of league tables but head and parents alike are totally fine with that, all focused on broader offering. With around 70 per cent of senior cohort joining from the prep – many having been there since nursery – and a host of hungry grammar schools in surrounding area snapping up many of the most academic 11 year olds, value added is king. Succeeds in delivering excellent results for pupils across the academic spectrum with parents saying it looks after both brainboxes and less stellar siblings equally well. In 2018, 68 per cent of all GCSEs graded A*-A/9-7. At A level, 42 per cent were graded A*/A, with 76 per cent at A*/B – that’s grammar school results with a mixed ability intake; impressive. With 27 subjects to choose from at A level (all the usuals, plus sociology, media studies and photography), plus the option of either EPQ or school’s own mini MBA, designed in conjunction with Ashridge Business School, it’s clear to see that school is really walking the walk when it comes to providing the breadth expected by its parent cohort. The mini MBA covers not just business performance, marketing and strategy, but also places a focus on personal impact and presence, ‘recognising a demand for business related education,’ according to head.

Consistently good results from all departments, despite a few grumbles from parents about ‘patchy’ teaching in one or two. IGCSEs in English, maths, sciences and RS (compulsory) ensure pupils are challenged. Setting in maths from year 7, languages from year 8 and science and English from year 9 – parents say pupils are ‘assessed correctly’ and moved up and down as necessary. It’s a traditional offering of French, Spanish or Latin in the languages department, plus Mandarin, with pupils advised – although not compelled – to take at least one modern language to GCSE. Those joining in year 9 may not take up a new language. Aside from trad academic subjects, food technology popular at GCSE, thanks to outstanding facilities on both campuses, and we were thrilled on our visit not only to find eight boys diligently preparing a caramelised goats cheese and red onion tart as part of their GCSE coursework but also a male teacher in the food tech lab.

Pupils effusive about support given during university application process and familiarisation trips to universities available to some from as early as year 10. Weekly careers lunches for year 12 pupils with visiting speakers from all walks of professional life, many of them old Berkhamstedians.

School clear that SEN pupils must be sufficiently able to access curriculum but good proactive learning support department assists pupils with additional needs (mainly dyslexia or slow processing) with years 7 to 9 withdrawn from a language class to attend targeted sessions with the SENCo if required and one-to-one specialist sessions from year 10. Wheelchair access ‘not an issue’ with majority of campus accessible and timetables tweaked to ensure inclusivity if necessary.

Games, options, the arts

Sport for all, and we’re not just talking rugby, netball and lacrosse (although they play all of these – and jolly well too). Over and above the all-round excellent offering for sporty types, there exists (uniquely in the area as far as we know) a dedicated, three strong outdoor education department poised to scoop up not only the gung ho pupils who want to have a go at everything, but also those who, on arrival, purportedly ‘hate’ sport – and thrust them into the great outdoors. From high ropes to Nordic walking (‘will they still be playing rugby when they’re 50?’ asks the head of outdoor ed. ‘Unlikely, but they may well still be doing this’) via kayaking and bushcraft, it’s all here, with a genuine focus on getting absolutely everyone to find something they enjoy. Parents report ‘outstanding’ coaching for the traditional sports, although a few grumble about early morning training sessions for squads – and trophy cabinets groan with silverware. Pupils earnestly assured us that ‘if you want to get into a team, you will,’ with commitment reportedly as important as talent when it comes to making it onto the team sheet.

Flexibility offered to outstanding (county, club and national) sportsmen and women who may need time out from timetable to pursue their training – with some allowed to take fewer GCSEs. And school isn’t above poaching talented girls to supplement the boys’ teams where necessary. A recent former female pupil played A team and first XI cricket with the boys for the duration of her time at school. From year 10 pupils can choose from activities such as zumba or pilates to keep in shape if competition isn’t their thing. Super facilities abound – a vast sports complex houses huge multi-purpose sports hall, well equipped gym and pool – sports fields, including Astro, that are slightly out of the way the only downside.

Strong music and drama with as many as half the cohort taking peripatetic music lessons and bands, choirs and orchestras galore (we love the idea of a barbershop choir for boys), and drama a popular GCSE option. Highlight of the performing arts year is talent show where all comers can sing, dance or play their way to school superstardom all in the name of charity. Senior productions are ‘amazing’ and for those who prefer to stay backstage, opportunities abound in set design and backstage technology.

Endless extracurricular opportunities, with CCF and DofE, both run in house, at heart of school and strong uptake of both. D of E happily non-selective, with a 99 per cent take up for the bronze award in year 9 and one of the UK’s highest number of gold awards achieved year after year. Compulsory lunch time clubs in years 7 and 8 ensure newcomers are making the most of opportunities and last period on Monday is dedicated ‘clubs and societies’ time. Multitudinous trips, both curriculum and enrichment based, punctuate pupils’ time at school. ‘Just great,’ say parents.

Boarders

Less a boarding school and more a school with boarding. Two large, comfortable boarding houses, indistinguishable from residential properties, are situated a stone’s throw from either campus. Houses boast large and beautifully furnished common rooms, mainly single rooms (lots of ensuite bathrooms in girls’ house) and a well-equipped games room for the boys, plus kitchens where boarders can prepare meals at weekends. Occupied almost exclusively by international boarders (Chinese or Nigerian) who tend to join in year 12 for A levels (though can now join in year 10), often to prepare for British university. Best suited to older, independent pupils – and a good steppingstone to university life – as there is no separate schedule of activities, and organised weekend outings are sporadic, although sixth formers are allowed to venture as far afield as London on Saturdays.

Pupils can flexi or occasionally board from year 7 – the latter sometimes used by pupils staying late for an activity or rehearsal and applauded by parents for being ‘flexible in the truest sense of the word – you don’t even need to give 24 hours’ notice’. Weekly boarding from year 9 and full time from year 12 (year 10 for international students), but at the time of our visit houses were occupied exclusively by sixth formers.

Background and atmosphere

Very much integral to the smart commuter town of Berkhamsted, the two campuses sit astride the pretty high street and the boarding houses and principal’s office are dotted around town, yet in its entirety, school has a totally cohesive, integrated feel. The Castle Campus, which houses the boys and the sixth form, dates back to 1541 and has all the hallmarks – in scaled down version – of a traditional public school. The main school building is built around a grassy quad with cloisters at the side leading to house rooms where pupils from years 7 to 11 congregate for a spot of table tennis, pool or just to chat at break times. A tour of this part of the school will also take in the beautiful, two floor vaulted library and possibly the archive room where the historic green baize door referred to by Graham Greene in his writing (Greene was a pupil and his father a former head) leads you into an archive space dedicated to all things Berkhamstedian, from old uniforms and sports kit to books. The Kings Campus, a brisk 10-minute walk from Castle and base camp for girls from years 7 to 11, is a far more modern affair, boasting a fabulous modern double height dining room (we can vouch for the fish and chips) and sports centre. Both campuses have all-singing all-dancing classrooms and super art rooms – although it’s a pity none of it is displayed on the rather sterile walls at Kings.

School follows a ‘diamond’ structure with a fully co-educational preparatory section, boys and girls taught separately from years 7 to 11 (although trips, productions and performances are mainly joint) and then together again in sixth form. Male and female sixth formers move freely between the two campuses and can choose to use either library (books can be withdrawn in one and returned to the other) and eat in either dining room. Coffee and tea is served at break times in a stylish and comfy sixth form common room on Castle campus with rooms for quiet study above. The very embodiment of leafy suburbia, school has a safe, sociable and happy feel – pupils are chatty, smiley and conventional and its diversity lies far more in the breadth of its academic and co-curricular offering than in the ethnicity of its pupils.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Diamond structure appears to be a winning formula as boys and girls are free to concentrate on their educations ‘without distractions’ (their words) until sixth form and yet have sufficient exposure to the opposite sex to forge good social skills via extracurricular activities, trips, etc. Parents and pupils applaud vertical house system which brings all year groups together on a regular basis, with parents of girls in particular reporting older pupils ‘scooping up’ their younger peers when the going gets tough and boys saying they see the older boys in their houses as ‘role models’. Pupils clear on protocol to follow should a problem arise – ‘there are people on so many levels to help you’ – starting with selected year 10 peer mentors wearing smiley badges, there to support younger pupils through the highs and lows of settling in, whether it’s friendship issues or not being selected for a sports team that’s troubling them.

Expectations regarding behaviour are ‘black and white’ according to head, but ‘we like to encourage a culture of acknowledging that mistakes will be made and we just have to learn from them.’ Despite generally conservative feel of school – our search for hard edges was fruitless – head adamant that ‘we want pupils to feel they can be who they want to be’ and parents concur that quirkiness is definitely embraced and, in the main, differences in terms of sexuality, race or religion accepted as par for the course. ‘There is definitely no complacency around such issues,’ says head.

Pupils and parents

Pupils arrive on a fleet of coaches coming from areas mainly within a 40-minute radius of school. Healthy mix of first time buyers alongside more comfortably affluent – but has a grounded feel and is definitely in the ‘private’ rather than ‘public’ school bracket. With such a huge cohort moving up from the prep, are there cliques to worry about? Apparently not – ‘even the most institutionalised mix well,’ according to one happy parent.

Thriving OB association with regular sporting fixtures against the school, meetings with fellow professionals, reunion dinners and charitable events, and busy Friends' association, that organises well attended balls, quiz nights and Christmas bazaars.

Entrance

No longer a safe bet for those who didn’t quite make the grammar school grade at 11+, school oversubscribed at both major entry points (11+ and 13+) and places sought after by bright and talented pupils from far and wide, looking for more breadth than the local grammars can offer, without the hothouse feel of some schools closer to London. Places even fewer and further between now there is an official year 5 intake (a whole extra class and well worth a look if you don’t fancy taking your chances at 11+), with around 80 moving up from prep each year.

There are around 25 to 30 places for boys and about 40 for girls up for grabs in year 7 with a further 45 to 50 into year 9 for boys and ‘just a handful’ for girls. Hopefuls take the school’s own exam (English, maths and VR plus an interview at 11+; the same plus NVR and a language at 13+). Around 30 per cent of applicants for year 7 places are from state primaries. Siblings largely accommodated provided they reach minimum academic standard. Around 45 new students admitted into sixth form.

Exit

A handful leaves after GCSE. Entry requirement for sixth form is 43 points and despite local coffee shop chatter, school assures us that anyone not expected to reach these grades is advised to seek alternative options ‘well in advance – it should never come as a shock.’ Majority leave after year 13 to higher education. A solid clutch of Oxbridge places in recent years – five in 2018, plus one medic – with Nottingham, Nottingham Trent, Birmingham, Bristol, Reading, Leeds and Oxford Brookes currently popular.

Money matters

Cost of extras considered reasonable – particularly outdoor pursuits, expeditions and D of E which are startlingly good value as run in-house. Academic, drama, art, music and sports scholarships available at 11+ and 13+, usually representing a 10 per cent reduction in fees, although means-tested bursaries also available.

Our view

In the words of one parent: ‘without a doubt, 100 per cent solid and safe.’ Parents send their children here hoping that not only will they thoroughly enjoy their educational journey but that the final destination will justify the fees. And in the majority of cases, that’s exactly what they get.

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

The school provides for pupils with specific learning difficulties through individual support lessons, some in class support and a "whole school" awareness of an individual's needs. The Learning Support department can offer lessons with specialist tutors who will follow an Individual Education Plan for each pupil. The department also offers specialist advice to teachers within the school and parents on the most effective methods of supporting their children. Pupils are closely monitored and assessed by the Learning Support Department and referral to external specialists may be suggested for further advice and recommendations. A specialist teacher supports pupils with English as a second language through individual lessons and in class support if necessary. The school will ensure that access arrangements for public examinations are in place at the appropriate times.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
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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