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Curriculum ‘shouldn’t be a mile wide but only inch deep,’ says Mr Smith, who also comes up with own three Rs – ‘richness, relevance and rigour’. Thus subject list doesn’t bulge with the outré or unusual - French is only language taught, for example - but concentrates on core range done well, and given more time. Mr Smith is also bumping up recruitment of subject specialists. With around 60 prep and pre-prep pupils learning instruments (beginners to grade 5), a choir, orchestra and wind band and several scholarships in recent years, performing arts are good, think parents...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2015, Tim Smith, BA, MBA (40s). Previously deputy head academic, The Hall School Hampstead, for five years, originally joining in 1994 as games and French teacher, becoming head of learning support and then head of middle school. Also deputy chair of governors in Camden state primary.

Full of the joys of spring. Actually, make that all seasons. ‘I love coming into this wonderful place every day,’ he exults on the website.

A linguist, he’s arty (a regular at the Barbican; partner is head of exhibitions at the Royal Academy) but has only ever wanted to teach. ‘Always wanted to play schools,’ he says of childhood in New Zealand. Years of wrestling with nervy North Londoners haven’t dimmed enthusiasm for career he describes as ‘exciting, rewarding, engaging, motivating, joyful and hilarious.’

A shrewd operator, choice of SW London school with less toxic parental vibe – at least for now – compared with NW London is deliberate. Ditto prep finishing at 11 rather than traditional 13, as many senior schools up year 7 intake at the expense of common entrance places. Keen to avoid ivory tower complacency, an occupational hazard for preps, he thinks (state schools often do it better) and keep the innovations coming to improve quality of teaching - ‘the light at the heart of school’.

His emphatic approach has come as a bit of a shock to parents though (largely) in a good way. ‘Quirky,’ was a description we heard more than once. ‘Eloquent,’ ditto. Felt to have made real effort to get to know pupils. ‘Had the measure of our son quite quickly,’ said mother. Excitement of the job? Like other heads, says no two days are the same (we’re dying to find the first school where they are). Unlike them, explains how. Easy to forget you’re dealing with children, he says, who ‘do lots of extraordinary and enlightening and motivating things no matter how hard you try or how much you want them to … go in a certain direction.’

Doesn’t pull his punches, particularly when it comes to nervy parents who tell him they only ‘want the best’ for their child. Do they imagine teachers ‘munching on breakfast of baby seals and endangered penguins [and thinking] “I can’t wait to come into school and be mean to children?”’ he wonders.

Short shrift also given to their fears that strengthened links with Hampton mean school door, as one expressed it, ‘no longer open for all boys’. Stresses that nothing is set in stone, academic standards largely going to be determined by intake and any change will be gradual – with no wholesale notices to quit. ‘Won’t be gathering children up by their ankles, and flinging them into park because they’re not clever enough.’ A relief all round, then.

Entrance

In a crowded part of the world where limitless parental aspiration meets finite school places, school’s willingness to go extra mile a real help for parents - one family wrestling with decision was given mobile number to call during hols for extra reassurance.

Main intake at age 3 into co-ed nursery (20-22 places) and into boys only prep in year 3, when between 14-17 places on offer depending on how many boys leave at end of year 2 (some lured away by well-regarded state primaries). Screen for learning needs in kindergarten, then it’s assessments for reception, and years 1 and 2, plus reports. Entry to prep currently automatic-ish for existing pre-prep pupils. Others have tests plus interview with head and report from previous school.

Exit

Girls at end of year 2 to local all-through schools such as Surbiton, LEH, preps (Newland House, Twickenham Prep) and state sector.

In year 6, over half to the senior school. A few to Reed’s School and St James’ Senior Boys’ School. Assured places scheme available from year 2 to year 5 based on combination of assessments, teacher reports, exam results and in-depth discussions by admissions committee unsurprisingly a huge parental incentive. Other boys welcome to sit 11+ on equal footing with external candidates.

Our view

Relationship with big brother Hampton School wasn’t exactly a secret even before change of name (from Denmead) in early 2016. Part of Hampton School Trust since 1999, founded in 1924 by one of English masters in own dining room after own son’s left-handedness made him an educational pariah.

Pre-prep, just a hop, skip and jump away across pretty public park, is where it all starts. ‘The jewel in the crown,’ thought one parent. Housed in original school buildings with grassed front garden and miniature lych gate entrance, home-like feel and nurturing ethos makes it a popular standalone option for daughters as well as sons.

Long-serving pre-prep head, Mrs Murphy, gets star ratings from all for ability to get the best from pupils, effortlessly wrapping up fun and learning together with cross-curricular approach felt to be particularly successful (pirates covered by coordinates in maths, on board rules in English and top marauding destinations in geography). Lots of experienced teachers who make connections but ensure pupils ‘make the vital links for themselves.’

Attractive two-storey building houses eight airy classrooms, brace of IT suites, art and music rooms and efficient-looking library, all under nature and neighbour friendly living roof, angled to blend in with residential surroundings.

Plenty of greenery courtesy of allotment with raised beds and that horticultural essential, a potting shed, part of revamped outside space that also includes playing fields (shaping up nicely on day of visit) and all-weather area. Back gate on to Carlisle Park provides extra overspill games space, senior school’s 27 acres and theatre also coming in handy for large scale events.

Other changes are less root and branch than nip and tuck and made only where demonstrably better than what’s gone before (we liked the lesson bell, lifted from French educational system and featuring mellifluous four-note leitmotif).

‘What we do is based on substantiated, evidence-based, peer reviewed, professional practice,’ says Mr Smith. ‘We’re not pulling mad ideas out of a hat.’ (Harvard University, no less, called in to help with review of pastoral care).) Far more emphasis on tracking – no doubting where your child is and what they’re capable of achieving, while assessments are regular without being excessive and can’t be prepared for (and don’t get Mr Smith started on tutors - ‘A racket’). Formal exams limited to maths and English, with verbal reasoning added to English and NVR to maths from year 4.

Team of 20 academic staff in the prep (around equal numbers of men and women), 12 in the pre-prep (all female) and just under 30 non-teaching staff, including three gap year students.

Two sets for maths and English from year 4, three in years 5 and 6. Will often double up on teachers to support and challenge (school’s headline staff to pupil ratio of 1:18 doesn’t reflect this) while three-strong learning support team (same again for pre-prep) help small numbers (around seven) with ADD, ADHD and mild SpLD. Their highlight is the ‘ladder of success’ - top rung winners who successfully complete daily tasks acknowledged in assembly with ‘huge, noisy fuss…’ and edible prize. Individual support for EAL pupils (around 35 across whole school) in pre-prep and in class in prep.

Curriculum ‘shouldn’t be a mile wide but only inch deep,’ says Mr Smith, who also comes up with own three Rs – ‘richness, relevance and rigour’. Thus subject list doesn’t bulge with the outré or unusual - French is only language taught, for example - but concentrates on core range done well, and given more time. Mr Smith is also bumping up recruitment of subject specialists – like parents, feels currently too many generalists, particularly in top years.

With staff training and appraisals also being revamped, teachers ‘go the extra mile,’ said parent, encouraged to go exploring if lesson takes a different tack. Universal praise for English, boys learning to ‘critique their own work and improve it,’ said approving parent. Love of books reinforced all the way through –school will set reading as only holiday homework, for example.

Maths felt to be improving, online resources used increasingly to advantage. Results in all-through confidence – year 3 boys eager to explain division by four (‘divide by two and by two again’), others in year 6 yomping through hinterlands of mean and mode. ‘Teachers aren’t going to blow you out of the window if you get it wrong,’ reported one. ‘Make teaching fun.’

Exam pressure – which pupils agreed could be tough - similarly well handled, focus on preparation without panic. Boys able to rattle off practical techniques that help. ‘Make the point, use a quote and explain,’ said one.

Ad hoc prizes (including sweets and – from one teacher – even more popular tennis balls) are popular incentives, though discipline felt by parents to be excellent - ‘Only takes a look for boys to be quiet.’ Masses of reinforcement, from weekly award of courtesy cup in prep to flowers, cloth and special pud for best behaved pre-prep lunchtime table. Easily understood golden rules for younger pupils, though slightly tortuous house point system for year 4 upwards (fine detail runs to several pages) is being revamped. ‘Too complex,’ agrees head.

Trips range from creative writing workshops to suitably bloodthirsty Saxons vs. Viking experience – firmly linked to curriculum, while clubs span debating to cooking, changing by season. Otherwise, sport’s the big thing, with three sessions a week and easily the highlight for majority of pupils. Biggest stars can, thought one parent, get the 'c-leb' treatment (the eternal problem) though another praised numbers of teams (A to D for rugby and football) and regular swapsies so Bs get at least second dibs on training and attention. Means that while truly uninterested might struggle, anyone who’s keen but with a modicum of talent is felt on the whole to have a good time. Results justify the effort with frequent successes, school handicapped only by size (some larger Richmond-based opponents can choose from bigger pool of talent).

Swimming has been major casualty of timetable rejigging, axed in the prep (though still offered for years 1 and 2). Not everyone’s happy about this – ‘focus is on football and rugby to the detriment of any other sport,’ said parent, but Mr Smith isn’t budging. ‘We’re not going to use valuable curriculum time to teach them to splash around in some grubby pool when parents can do that themselves on a Saturday.’

Art, however, has had a reprieve. Initially pared back and rotated in 10-week blocks with drama and DT, has regained weekly slot on the timetable after fears that talented weren’t getting enough time to hone work to scholarship standard.

With around 60 prep and pre-prep pupils learning instruments (beginners to grade 5), a choir, orchestra and wind band and several scholarships in recent years, performing arts are good, think parents, though anticipate better things to come. ‘Don’t have enough children scratching, blowing, tweeting and trumpeting,’ agrees Mr Smith. Added space for more of everything – instruments, informal as well as class-based concerts plus whole school annual production all on the way, activity across the octave and decibel range should increase.

Parents very sociable, newcomers quickly brought into the fold. While the many working parents can inevitably end up missing out on coffee mornings, ‘Always someone who’ll scoop up your child.’ Helped by before and after-school care – 7.45am start (8.00am in the pre-prep), 5.30pm finish – more activities after school would make life even easier, felt one parent.

Mr Smith stresses (and will probably have to keep on stressing) that ethos of school won’t change ‘simply because … we apply tenets of the admissions policy ever more carefully as time goes by.’ Some current parents have yet to be convinced. Prospective parents eye up growing numbers gaining places at Hampton and make up their own minds.

Special Education Needs

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