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The destination schools tell you all you need to know about the high academic standards, and what fortunate girls to reach them via such an inspired, fun and unpressured learning journey. Its strength lies in its small size. Not physically, as it has a good deal more space than its frontage suggests, but because the one-form entry and small class sizes (average 16, max 22) means a teacher can – when teaching about habitats, for example – tell the girls to put down their pens, jump in the minibus and head off to Chorleywood common to see the real deal. The vibe, as you walk round the school, is unquestionably happy – the girls have a skip in their step, a healthy dose of giggles and a seemingly endless flow of cheerful ‘hello’s. But there’s an underlying sense of

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What the school says...

Charlotte House Prep School is a forward thinking school built on traditional values. Our girls learn through discovery, are aware of the world around them and experience the very best in science, art, music and literature. They are offered every opportunity to shine in this secure and unthreatening environment.

Our school motto 'I am, I can, I ought, I will' has been central to our ethos for over 80 years. This teaches our girls a sense of self worth, an understanding of right and wrong and the confidence to succeed.

Our school emblem is the skylark. It reminds our girls to fly high, and always be confident in themselves and their abilities.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 2015, Penny Woodcock BA QTS (King Alfred’s University Winchester), previously deputy head for four years. Grew up just round the corner and attended St Clement Danes, although she caught the teaching bug long before that: ‘I had this probably slightly mad, really fun, teacher in primary school and that was it!’ Cut teeth at co-ed state school, Eastbury Farm, in Northwood, then moved to The Beacon in Amersham, a large boys’ prep, where she was housemistress and assistant to the head of middle school, before joining Charlotte House in 2010.

Has taught the whole curriculum from nursery up to year 8, although it’s English and drama that really float her boat – we watched her in action, enthusiastically directing the year 6 rehearsal of a modern Midsummer Night’s Dream. A hands-on head, you’ll also regularly find her covering lessons and getting stuck into playtime with the girls. Apart from anything else, she believes it directly impacts on the girls’ behaviour, impeccable by all accounts: ‘If they didn’t know me and I told them they’d just disappointed me, why would they care?’ She has been a SENCo, promotes British sign language in prep schools and is an ISI inspector.

A world away from the more puritanical heads we meet, she is warm, laid back, only too willing to admit her imperfections and anxieties (including to the girls) and laps up the inevitable comical side of prep school life. She is also savvy, progressive and not afraid of having difficult conversations. Parents adore her: ‘If I could take her with us when we go to secondary school, I would.’ ‘I don’t like her, I love her – she is so involved with the children, dressing up as the queen on historic day, going on all the residentials and is basically their school mum.’ Staff: ‘The best head I’ve ever worked with.’ Pupils: ‘Easily the kindest person I know.’

In her spare time, she enjoys Pilates, walking her dog and – you guessed it – going to the theatre.

Entrance

Academically non-selective, with main entrance points into nursery, reception and increasingly year 3. Younger ones come in for 30 minutes, with school looking for ‘inquisitive girls with good social and verbal skills’ to keep up with the ‘busy, hands-on curriculum’. From year 1, hopefuls come in for the whole day, including assessments in English and maths, ‘so we can gauge where they would fit within our present cohort’. Always worth asking about spaces in other years, although some years have waiting lists.

Exit

A varied and impressive list of destinations, as befits a small mixed-ability school where the head knows each child and has good relationships with local heads. Around a third into the state sector, notably St Clement Danes and local grammars such as Dr Challoner’s; the rest to independents including Habs, Northwood College, Royal Masonic School, St Mary’s Gerrards Cross, St Margaret’s Bushey and St Helen’s. Nine scholarships in 2024 (five academic, two drama, one art, one music).

Our view

The only truly standalone girls’ prep in the area, Charlotte House (originally known as PNEU until a survey found that local parents were more likely to think the initials stood for a French tyre company than a school) is nestled is a quiet, upscale residential area between Chorleywood and Rickmansworth. Its strength lies in its small size. Not physically, as it has a good deal more space than its frontage suggests, but because the one-form entry and small class sizes (average 16, max 22) means a teacher can – when teaching about habitats, for example – tell the girls to put down their pens, jump in the minibus and head off to Chorleywood common to see the real deal. There are other benefits too. Girls are proud that they ‘know everyone in the school’ and parents say teachers never miss a trick – even just that a child is tired. It allows for lots of whole school activities – singing, gymnastics etc – and for the curriculum to factor in girls’ passions (eg this year’s reception class are dinosaur mad).

The vibe, as you walk round the school, is unquestionably happy – the girls have a skip in their step, a healthy dose of giggles and a seemingly endless flow of cheerful ‘hello’s. But there’s an underlying sense of calm too. Parents think the lack of boys helps – some even took their daughters out of co-ed due to the ‘disruption of boys’. We wondered if the result of such an intimate all-girls environment might be precious – but while you certainly get the pink, frilly girls, others look like they’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards by mid-morning, and no girl we met was remotely precocious. If anything, they seem to hang on to their childhood longer.

Our day kicked off with the weekly Friday celebration assembly. Cue Kool & the Gang on the sound system and some great dance moves from the children (not to mention the head) before they settled down for prizegiving for everything from sporting and academic accolades to simply being a good friend. There’s a theme each week – this time, independence – and each class teacher picks out a girl who has best demonstrated it. We liked how one girl got it for ‘not just sitting there but being willing to ask for help’, evidencing the culture – which we saw throughout our visit – of girls being able to speak out and say, ‘I don’t understand.’

In pre-prep, work is topic-based – under the sea, people who help us, etc. There is specialist teaching in Spanish, music and PE from nursery, with French added in year 1. By year 3, maths, English, drama, art, science, DT and French are all taught by specialists, with girls moving round to different classrooms – water off a duck’s back by the time they get to senior school. No setting – ‘studies suggest every ability does better in mixed ability sets,’ insists head – although there are booster groups where needed, plus an extra teacher in maths classes. The school is an ambassador for the Accelerated Reading programme – and we spotted several girls with ‘word millionaire’ gold badges weighing down their cardigans.

In every classroom, we saw busy, active learners. Well, except for reception, perhaps, where a newly hatched gosling was keeping girls still as rocks – ‘We don’t want to make him nervous!’ In geography, girls were using maps to explore how people earn a living in other parts of the world, while younger ones were learning about story telling via animation. Skylark sessions are part of a new enrichment programme, providing girls with the likes of an Olympic hockey player workshop and careers fair – ‘things they wouldn’t otherwise get’. Teachers are, according to parents, ‘all totally lovely’. ‘When you go to parents’ evening, it’s like they know your kids better than you!’ Shame there’s not more gender diversity, however, and that the ethnic mix doesn’t reflect that of the girls – but it’s not for want of trying, points out school.

Around a fifth of girls are on the SEN register but this includes those who are undiagnosed or simply need a boost in a certain subject. Parents value this lower threshold and rave about the support from the SENCo (also a class teacher and English teacher) and her full-time assistant. The school uses dyslexia-friendly teaching, ‘which benefits all the girls’, and they have expertise in autism, ADHD, hearing difficulties, delayed language issues and have coped well with school refusers. Some girls are withdrawn from lessons (or go in early) for 25 minutes three or four times a week (included in fees) – one mother said this had been ‘life-changing’ for her daughter, ‘and I get a new support plan every term.’

Music is terrific. Our jaws practically dropped to the floor upon hearing one girl sing in the play rehearsal – no wonder her classmates cheered for so long afterwards. There are three choirs, as well as a chamber choir, and girls enjoy writing and performing their own songs in house music. Around a third of girls learn an instrument (offered from year 2), with plenty of concerts and productions in which the orchestra and wind band can perform. Beginner pupils are encouraged to get stuck in, with parents resisting any wincing. ‘My daughter couldn’t play her instrument at all, they still invited her.’

Some girls told us they’d like drama lessons, rather than it being part of English, but all get to perform in class assemblies, regular plays, including that big Shakespeare number for years 5 and 6 in the summer. Blag, a local theatre group, runs an after-school club.

Artwork and DT creations are dotted around the school – some stunning, some less so, again evidencing the value of doing things because you enjoy them, not just because you’re a natural. For one parent, seeing this ethos in action was the clincher on her initial school tour. The artwork is clearly fuelled by the girls’ imaginations – no cookie-cutter style here. Popular projects include Phillip Treacy inspired hats, designing Fabergé eggs and exploring colour theory.

There are sportier local preps – and some parents feel the school could do better on this front – but all agree there’s good variety for a small school, and they praise the inclusive, stimulating environment. Swimming is fantastic – not bad for a school with no pool (they borrow others’), and cricket, tennis, rugby and football all feature – not to mention quidditch and skateboarding! School has a sports hall, courts and small outside field, and uses local schools such as Merchant Taylor’s for eg long jump and sports day.

Clubs change termly to encourage the girls to try their hand at different activities. Sign language, chess, computing, yoga and gardening all popular and free, with only those that bring in outside experts (eg ballet, drama, gymnastics and taekwondo) costing extra. Wraparound care, from 7.35am to 6pm, is well-used, not least because so many parents are dual income. Great excitement among the girls about trips – Sky Studios, Roald Dahl Museum, field study centre etc – plus the much-anticipated residentials, kicking off with bushcraft day and camp on school grounds in year 4, Suffolk for year 5 and Hampshire for year 6.

The original schoolhouse – the only facility when the school was founded by Miss Kitching in 1931 – is still in full use, now with additional school hall, gym, dining room, science lab, ICT suite and libraries – plus large outside area with swings, adventure equipment, benches, huts etc. The educational principles devised by Charlotte Mason, the founder member of the PNEU movement, still hold strong – principally, that education should be a positive extension from home life and that learning should be fun. As such, many of the parents are heavily involved – several were beavering away in preparation for the summer fair during our visit.

Food tasty and popular – burgers (meat or beetroot) were being wolfed down when we visited, and we should absolutely come back for the burritos and fridge cake, said the girls. Pupils also give uniform – including boaters and felt hats for the tinies – the thumbs-up. Anything they don’t like, the girls can, and do, bring up at the school council or pop in the suggestions box.

Pastoral support is ‘phenomenal’, say parents. Pupils stick their names against a feelings chart every day – ‘feeling fab’, ‘good to go’, ‘just about ok’, ‘a bit down’, ‘can I have a check-in?’ etc. Two staff members (one being the SENCo) are mental health leads, and there’s a visiting counsellor and play therapist. Communication is informal but effective, girls know each other, and kind behaviour is role modelled. One girl told us how she recently approached the teacher after an argument with her friend – ‘She talked me through how my friend might be feeling and that really helped. I know I can talk to anyone here.’

The last word

The destination schools tell you all you need to know about the high academic standards, and what fortunate girls to reach them via such an inspired, fun and unpressured learning journey. For girls in danger of feeling lost in the bigger, harder-nosed local schools – and for parents who aren’t fussed about status schools with sweeping drives – we say this is a must-see school. The whole place fizzes with energy and happiness and the only real criticism is that there isn’t a secondary school.

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