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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. 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, events and performances – as well as DofE and CCF - are mainly joint) and then together again in sixth form. Recently ranked third in the country for sport by School Sport magazine. ‘Why?’ we asked, mindful that…

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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

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

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 the six schools in the Berkhamsted group, he is more chief executive than managing director these days, seeing parents ‘if they’re unhappy about something the heads haven’t resolved – a rarity’ and pupils ‘when I do the rounds and speak in assemblies.’ Despite ivory tower nature of his role, is also frequently pitch side on match days, at concerts and other school events. ‘Inspirational’ and ‘good on communications,’ say parents. ‘Gravitas is the word I’d use,’ voiced another. Lives on Castle Campus with wife Debbie and has two adult children. Loves skiing, sailing, gadgets and Southampton FC.

Since September 2014, head of the girls’ school (years 7-11) is Liz Richardson. Previously deputy head. Bubbly and savvy, she teaches English and PSHE to all year 7s. Since September 2018, head of the boys’ school is Mary-Clare Startin (also years 7-11). Previously deputy head of sixth form, she teaches English to year 8s and 9s. Since September 2017, head of the mixed sixth form is Martin Walker. Previously house master at Harrow, he combines straight talking with compassion. Keen to ensure sixth form is a bridge between school and university, he has created a more independent vibe in this part of the school, but with excellent pastoral scaffolding. Teaches French and German.

Entrance

No longer a safe bet for those who didn’t quite make the grammar school grade at 11. Oversubscribed at both major entry points (11+ and 13+), with 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. Around 80 move up from prep each year.

Around 100 external applicants for the 30 girls’ places in year 7 and around 120 for the 40 boys’ places; all take the ISEB (English, maths and VR), plus interview. Around 30 per cent from state primaries. Siblings largely accommodated provided they reach minimum academic standard. Same application process for year 9 entrance (when a minimum of 40 boys’ places become available), girls places at year 9 are subject to availability as it is not a main entrance point for girls, but these hopefuls take the school’s own exam (similar to ISEB plus NVR and a language paper), plus interview. Around 60 new students admitted into sixth form, who join similar numbers from the girls’ school and 100 from the boys’. Entry requirement is 43 points including at least a six in the A level subjects to be studied (in some cases a 7 and, for maths, an 8).

Exit

A handful leaves after GCSE and despite local coffee shop chatter, school assures us that anyone not expected to make the cut for sixth form is advised to seek alternative options well in advance – ‘it should never come as a shock.’. Vast majority to university – around half to Russell Group. Durham, Warwick, Nottingham, Birmingham, UCL and LSE popular. Seven to Oxbridge in 2020, plus five medics. Wide range of courses, with economics and business studies increasingly popular. Degree apprenticeships valued by school – recent blip in applications, though, which they are looking into.

Latest results

In 2020, 72 per cent 9/7 at GCSE; 53 per cent A*/A at A level (84 per cent A*/B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 65 per cent 9/7 at GCSE; 47 per cent A*/A at A level (79 per cent at A*/B).

Teaching and learning

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 half of the 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. Grammar school results with a mixed ability intake - impressive. ‘The first term is quite a shock to the system,’ reported one parent, ‘but there is support.’

The other thing you won’t find here is complacency, as their latest inspection attests. There are no weaker subjects and parents, pupils and staff talk about a constant redirection of energy to keep everyone on their toes. Online learning, when in place, is regularly surveyed by both parents and pupils – meant that the fun and collaborative work which got squeezed out of learning in the early days was quickly reinstated thanks to eg break-out rooms and more social experiences. The online history, drama and English classes that we dropped in on were entertaining and absorbing – pupils, many in their beanies, were right on task, without a monotone response to be found.

Every pupil has their own tutor to help them develop as an individual and understand how they best learn – they spend daily group time with them, plus regular one-to-ones. Pupils write their own reports and set their own targets, reflecting on the skills they’ve picked up, as well as the new ones they need; they’re also in the driving seat at parents’ evening. ‘Research shows young people are much more likely to do better if they’re in control of their own learning and we’ve seen the benefits of that,’ says school. Leadership theory taught in year 10.

Setting in maths and some languages from year 8. Pupils choose two out of French, Spanish, Latin and Mandarin to study from years 7 to 9, with a language at GCSE ‘strongly advised.’ Newcomers in year 9 may not take up a new language. Nine is the default number of GCSEs, with these pupils also taking the school’s ‘learning pathway’ or HPQ; triple science and further maths can take total up to 11. History and drama popular at GCSE, as is food technology, thanks to outstanding facilities on both campuses - we were thrilled on our visit to find eight boys diligently preparing a caramelised goats cheese and red onion tart as part of their GCSE coursework. With 28 subjects to choose from at A level (all the usuals, plus sociology, media studies, photography and most recently computer science), plus the option of EPQ, it’s clear to see that school is really walking the walk when it comes to providing the breadth expected by its parent cohort. 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.

Learning support and SEN

Caters for hearing impairments right through to dyslexia, processing needs and ASD, though all must be able to access curriculum. Various drop-ins for help with core subjects available, as well as one-to-one specialist sessions from year 10 at no additional cost. Some pupils drop a language for timetabled support. Main emphasis, though, is on differentiated classroom teaching. Each year group has an SEN co-ordinator who has significant input to wider staff meetings. Very little EAL outside boarding, and even then most have a good grasp of English. ‘Good at spotting learning problems,’ reckoned parent. Wheelchair access not an issue, with majority of campus accessible and timetables tweaked to ensure inclusivity if necessary.

The arts and extracurricular

Music on the up – ‘better than five years ago,’ thought parent. Word on the street is that it’s all credit to new teachers, plus a new structure so that there’s now one staff member each for solo, academic music and ensembles. Almost half take peripatetic music lessons and there are bands, choirs and orchestras galore. ‘Music online has been one of the best things about Covid – listening to my son tap out beats on the table on Monday mornings has been really nice,’ said parent. Strong links with the drama department – few events evoke quite such excitement as the annual whole school musical. ‘Every single person who sings does so with real confidence and with a wonderful big band to back them up,’ we heard. Every year group does its own annual production and – as with music – there’s a lot of mentoring by the older ones of the younger ones. Big take-up for Lamda (including during online learning) – many sail through the grades, reaching grade 8 by year 10. Sixth formers head off to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every other year. For those who prefer to stay backstage, opportunities abound in set design and backstage technology.

You won’t find a definitive Berko style when it comes to art – everyone is encouraged to go off in their own direction and the results are all the richer for it. Plenty of mediums, from meticulous fine detail in textiles through to whopping great installations.

Endless extracurricular opportunities, with CCF and DofE, both run in house, at heart of school and strong uptake of both. DofE 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. Monday afternoon includes a slot for everyone to do something extra-curricular, with the rest of the clubs taking place before and after school and at lunchtimes. Multitudinous trips punctuate pupils’ time at school. Football tour to Bolton and Liverpool right through to lacrosse tour to the West Indies – near and far, there’s something for everyone, including curriculum based. Even managed (unusually) to squeeze in an expedition in the summer following the first lockdown.

Sport

Recently ranked third in the country for sport by School Sport magazine. ‘Why?’ we asked, mindful that the trophy cabinets that groan with silverware probably provided the obvious answer. ‘We’d won a lot,’ confirmed head, though other staff members interjected that actually it was down to sport for all approach too, with school boasting A-J teams in football in some years (though some parents told us the exceptional standard of coaching means that competition for the top teams, which get most of the matches, is ‘very hot indeed’). We wondered if the sheer breadth might also have helped nail the award – we’re not just talking rugby, netball and lacrosse (although pupils play all of these – and jolly well too) but skiing, equestrian and climbing are part of the enormous array. Eton fives stands out – ‘We win an almost embarrassing number of matches,’ says head.

Sports facilities definitely worth writing home about, including most recently six repurposed netball courts, 3G lacrosse practice e area and two additional grass pitches. Jewel in the crown is vast sports complex housing a huge multi-purpose sports hall, well equipped gym and pool. Shame the sports fields, including Astro, are slightly out of the way, though. There also 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 to kayaking and bushcraft, it’s all here, with a genuine focus on getting absolutely everyone to find something they enjoy.

For year 10s, activities include the likes of Zumba and pilates to keep in shape if competition isn’t their thing. At the other end of the scale, elite young sportspeople get time out from timetable to pursue training if required, with some allowed to take fewer GCSEs. During lockdown, the whole school (pre-prep to sixth form) collectively ran the entire aggregate circumference of the world in an ‘around the world’ event aimed at keeping everyone fit and healthy during lockdown – a huge success. ‘Sport has been the making of my child,’ said more than one parent, although one warned that ‘if you muck about in your team, you’re dropped like a hot potato – it’s about attitude, not just ability.’

Boarders

Less a boarding school than 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 (from Hong Kong, China and increasingly Eastern Europe, with a smattering of British sports professionals) 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 stepping stone 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 – 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 they are usually almost exclusively used by sixth formers. Some parents feel more could be done around integration of boarders.

Ethos and heritage

Very much integral to the smart commuter town of Berkhamsted, its 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 (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 well-equipped classrooms and super art rooms.


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, events and performances – as well as DofE and CCF - are mainly joint) and then together again in sixth form. Male and female sixth formers move freely between the two campuses and choose to use either library (books can be withdrawn in one and returned to the other) and eat in either dining room (where a few parents said the quality of food could be improved). Coffee and tea is served at break times in sixth form common room on Castle Campus with rooms for quiet study above (a new sixth form centre is in the planning). 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 (although this is on the up).

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Relationships with tutors, formed as part of the vertical house system, are highly praised both for their ‘coach-like qualities’ and the ‘sheer amount of interaction’. Pupils also appreciate the way it mixes up the year groups, with older ones acting as role models and helping out with younger ones informally when needed; everyone is expected to be a mentor here. ‘Very much a family feel,’ we heard a lot. Mental health prioritised – came into its own during the pandemic, with pupils expected to have cameras on for online lessons and the counsellors, nurses and chaplains working round the clock to make sure nobody slips through the cracks.

Restorative approach to misdemeanours means fewer detentions than in the past. ‘We want pupils to develop empathy and prevent resentment,’ says school. Around four temporary exclusions a term and one permanent a year – ‘reasons are reflective of the endless inventiveness of teenagers,’ says head, with raised eyebrow. School takes strong anti-drugs stance (while not a common sight, sniffer dogs are not unheard of), for which parents, who talk of a thriving party scene, are grateful. Pupils expected to toe the line with uniform, haircuts and time keeping. Quirkiness is embraced and, in the main, differences in terms of sexuality, race or religion accepted as par for the course.

Pupils and parents

Pupils travel in literally by the coach load, mainly from within a 40-minute radius of school. Healthy mix of first-time buyers alongside more affluent – but is definitely in the ‘private’ rather than ‘public’ school bracket. Parents report a ‘strong community feel.’

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.

Money matters

Cost of extras considered reasonable – particularly outdoor pursuits, expeditions and DofE which are startlingly good value as run in-house. Academic, drama, music and sports scholarships available at 11+ and 13+, usually representing a 10 per cent reduction in fees, although means-tested bursaries also available. School has links with Denbigh High School, taking on eight leavers into sixth form on full bursaries every year.

The last word

Solid, safe and exceptionally well-rounded in its offering. Diamond structure at its best - 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 and trips.

Please note: 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
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
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
PD - Physical Disability Y
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 Y
VI - Visual Impairment Y

Who came from where


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