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A well-established forest school is clearly popular — even year 8s remember setting cardboard Tudor houses ablaze there in the annual recreation of the great fire of London — and there was no danger of the drizzle damping a good fire and re-enactment of The Scarecrow’s Wedding on our visit. One of Heath Mount’s best attributes is its art department, housed in a network of bright basement rooms. Another stand out feature is a commitment to the…

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What the school says...

Heath Mount is one of the oldest Prep Schools in the country located in the Grade I listed mansion of the Woodhall Park Estate.

This unique 40 acre setting is the perfect environment for children to explore, imagine, grow, create and be happy. Our outstanding teachers are dedicated to keeping children joyful whilst fostering a love of learning.

Children flourish in the beautiful woodland environment, with academic excellence being only a part of what an education at Heath Mount provides. Our expansive curriculum is designed to allow children to explore and create. It is underpinned by outstanding pastoral care that encourages them to take risks and challenge themselves by engaging with new pursuits, people and experiences.

We were delighted when our outstanding pastoral provision was recognised at the annual Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) Conference where we were judged winners of the BSA Mental Health and Wellbeing Award 2018.

Our pupils leave Heath Mount happy, confident and ready to realise their full potential. Our tailored scholar program for Years 7 and 8 pupils offers them the opportunity to explore and develop their talents. In the 2019/20 academic year, 63% of our Year 8 pupils gained at least one scholarship to their Senior School.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2014, Chris Gillam (40s). With his spiky hair style and ready grin, it’s easier to picture Mr Gillam playing bass in a band than behind the headmaster’s desk. Nonetheless, he is in top gear at Heath Mount, rolling out numerous fascinating innovations and reaping the rewards in pupil numbers: the school is full, with a waiting list.

The son of two teachers (so far, so familiar), his father was headmaster of a state school in South Yorkshire. Mr Gillam studied a BEd at Plymouth University, supplementing his income with tennis coaching on the side (a game he still loves). His affinity with his pupils caught the eye of a young player’s dad (himself a deputy head) who swiftly headhunted him upon graduating.

He rose to deputy head of Bishopsgate School in Windsor via posts in three other prep schools before joining Heath Mount as head. Mr Gillam now enjoys one of the grandest headmaster’s offices in the country — Heath Mount occupies the main house of the Woodhall Estate, owned by the Abel Smith family.

Since this is a large prep (over 500 pupils) and Mr Gillam shows every prospective family round himself — ‘so I get to know them, and they get to know me; I’ve always believed in that’ — he doesn’t teach as much as he would like, but headmaster’s teas each Friday (and regular year group assemblies) ensure he really gets to know the pupils. Tea attendance is granted by presentation of a headmaster’s commendation bookmark awarded by teachers.

Clearly an ideas man, he is proud of the team he’s built: ‘It’s taken six years to get to this point, but the staff are superb. I’ve quite a young, dynamic SMT, and we’re roughly 50/50 men and women teaching year 3 and above.’

Parents see him every day at drop off and pick up, and agree he has put the place on the map: ‘I’ve been impressed by the standard of teaching and Mr Gillam has been behind that,’ and ‘He’s confident to delegate to his heads of year and department — he trusts them, and they are fantastic.’

Underpinning this is an in-house graduate teacher trainee programme Heath Mount has developed in partnership with Hertford University, through which promising graduates are invited to train at the school, with the best offered a job there afterwards (vacancies permitting).

The headmaster’s house is elsewhere on the estate (not within the school grounds) and Mr Gillam has a son and daughter currently at the school.

Entrance

Register early, certainly before two-and-a-half. Most pupils join in nursery or reception. If there is space for a child to join later, they will be assessed in English and maths and invited for a taster day, mainly for setting purposes.

The school is non selective, and a child is only likely be turned away if they require constant one-to-one assistance. Some pupils do join the school for the final two years, partly because few other preps in the area go to year 8.

Exit

Haileybury hoovers up roughly a third of leavers each year, with Felsted, Bishop’s Stortford College and The Leys pretty popular after that. The school’s somewhat frustrating practice of listing a whole raft of forward schools rather than detailing precisely how many go to each may be due to the fact that this is a list with a very long tail. The fact that leavers typically disperse to 15 or more different secondary schools, including some very well-regarded state boarding schools in the region, certainly points to a lack of typecasting, and each pupil’s plan of attack is drawn up in a meeting with the head and future schools manager.

Scholarship successes are detailed in full on the school’s website, and testify to the success of year 7 and 8 scholarship programmes. A 100 per cent success rate in art, drama and music awards is not uncommon.

Our view

The splendid Grade 1 listed grounds and main school building — with magnificent staircases and plasterwork, and the finest print room in Europe — provide a fitting home for a school with a rich history and starry alumnae, including novelist Evelyn Waugh, photographer Sir Cecil Beaton and actor Sir Gerald du Maurier. Dating back to 1796, it began as a boys’ boarding school in Hampstead, the Heath part of its name deriving from its then home on Heath Street. As the region developed, the school (its name also evolving over time) eventually outgrew London and moved to its present Hertfordshire home in 1934. Girls were admitted in 1976 and only in the 1980s did the school expand its buildings beyond the main house. The site does appear a little crowded with parked vehicles, one downside being that (served by a busy road) it’s really only viable to come by car.

The nursery has its own building, with the pre-prep in another next door, an attractive, bright space with a central hall (perfumed with freshly baked croissants on our visit), and a cracking outdoor play area. The lower school (years 3 and 4) are in yet another building adjacent to those — one can see why London emigre parents’ eyes shine at space here. While the parent body includes a lot of ‘own business, City worker’ professionals, people who might not fall into those categories have also felt warmly welcomed. They’re also excellent fundraisers; they financed a pirate ship playground behind the pre-prep, and the parent-run Du Maurier society organises all kinds of social events in support of the school and charities with which it has close links.

A well-established forest school is clearly popular — even year 8s remember setting cardboard Tudor houses ablaze there in the annual recreation of the great fire of London — and there was no danger of the drizzle damping a good fire and re-enactment of The Scarecrow’s Wedding on our visit.

From the middle school (years 5 and 6), children spend most of their time in the main building, and parents are attracted by the transition between different buildings as you progress through what is a pretty large school.

One of Heath Mount’s best attributes is its art department, housed in a network of bright basement rooms. If it charged to tour the Modigliani-inspired self portraits, ceramic collections and textile homages to Zandra Rhodes exhibited on our visit, you’d think it money well spent. One full-time head of department (who’s been at the school over 20 years) is supported by part-time specialists, ‘so we’ve a wonderful team of professional artists’. How many prep schools have an animation suite or textile room, staffed by specialists in those fields? ‘My philosophy is variety — they are lucky little children,’ adds the head of art, with no small degree of understatement. The school regularly has pieces accepted by the Junior Royal Academy and was even offered £3,000 for one recent exhibit by a visitor (gently declined).

Another stand out feature is a commitment to the ‘learning power’ ethos developed by learning sciences Professor Guy Claxton who has trained the SMT and addressed parents and pupils about it. ‘It’s a language we use to help give children skills beyond the classroom — particularly collaboration, reflection, respect and resilience,’ explains one teacher. Children are all paired with ‘learning buddies’ with whom they must collaborate, and a regular catchphrase is ‘Try three before me’ to urge them to solve things with their brain, book, or buddy before having to ask a teacher.

Streaming starts (amusingly) with swimming in reception, followed by maths in year 1, English from year 3, with languages and science from year 5.

The head places much emphasis on the fact that years 7 and 8 are treated as very distinct members of the school, and are at once recognisable by their navy jumpers (the rest of the school has green), ‘which seems to mean the world to them, for some reason’. They also have their own gym and hang-out space in the basement.

A definite incentive to stay to year 8 are the scholarship programmes run in sport, academics, art, drama and music. Pupils apply in year 6, and they involve extension classes and special projects, with music lessons provided for free for music scholars. We watched year 7 sports scholars pumping weights to pumping music in a lunchtime conditioning workout, but they’re also given free sports kit and extra training in relevant topics like nutrition. Their fitness is documented as it improves and used in secondary school sports scholarships applications, alongside details of their sporting achievements in and outside school.

Facilities include an indoor pool and an astroturf pitch, and professional coaches and international players from cricket, rugby, hockey and netball are brought in for guest training sessions periodically. Girls’ cricket is growing, and from year 5, anyone who really doesn’t like team sports may opt for a largely off-site alternative sports programme including anything from high rope courses to canoeing.


With ever more secondary schools making unconditional offers, Heath Mount invites pupils to study a broader syllabus in history, geography and TPR (philosophy, theology and religion) than that offered by CE. Called the Libellum (meaning bill or certificate in Latin), this is examined (and externally moderated) through coursework and projects, with only 30 per cent determined by a final exam. Heath Mount has persuaded public schools which still mark these subjects at CE to accept it as an alternative, and year 8s we met seemed very engaged with it.

As befits a school which boasts composer Sir Arnold Bax as an old boy, music is another school focus. Year 1s are all given six weeks of violin instruction and around 75 per cent study an instrument (with many learning two or three), with the option of joining the junior or senior orchestras (the former performed the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth recently), a concert band, wind band, guitar group, jazz group, junior or senior strings group or a string quartet. Ticket demand for the two annual headline summer concerts is such, pupils must do a matinee and evening show. There’s also an ensembles and orchestras concert each Lent term, year group production and informal ‘rush hour concerts’ at pick up time for parents.

Yet it’s for singing that this school is really on the musical map. There are five choirs, with the Bax choir (selected by audition, competition is hot) chief among them. The Bax choir rehearses for two to three hours a week under the director of music (herself a classically trained soprano) and have a remarkable record in competitions. In 2019 they reached the finals of the Songs of Praise Young Choir of the Year (a title they won in 2012) and became Children’s Choir of the World at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, becoming only the second English choir to do so.

Dance is an interest here too, thanks in part to ties with a local dance school and the fact Heath Mount has a smart dance studio. In addition to after school ballet classes, there’s a popular commercial dance club (boys are well represented) and an annual dance show.

Completing the deck on the arts front is drama. Everyone from years 3 to 8 has a weekly drama lesson, with supplementary sessions on offer to anyone applying for a drama scholarship. The main annual school production (featuring year 6s and 7s) in the very handsome school theatre is supplemented by a musical from the year 4s and a less formal drama show for year 5s. A school podcast instigated during lockdown to offer distanced performance opportunities is doing well too.

The school surveys pupils twice a year about wellbeing to help them identify pressure points and year group trends, and ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’ involve things like mindfulness and nature walks. The school even has two trained nurture dogs (owned by one of the learning support team) which may be walked or read to by any child who’s finding the going a bit heavy.

There’s a full-time counsellor at Heath Mount (one parent we interviewed was very impressed with the support given to their child through a family crisis) a nurse, an occupational therapist plus two learning support assistants to support all kinds of issues such as processing problems, dyslexia etc. There is also a visiting educational psychologist and speech therapist.

There are separate, sizeable ICT suites for the junior and senior parts of the school, and we came across one parent who had jettisoned plans for their child to move schools in year 7, based on the quality of the online learning provision during lockdown.

Boarders

Heath Mount offers boarding or flexi-boarding between Monday and Thursday from year 3, ‘a fundamental part of the school and so useful for secondary school preparation,’ says the head. The boys’ dorms are high within the main building while the girls are in the smart — and very pink — River House a short distance away, from where they are bussed to the main building each morning.

Bright and inviting, the rooms have the slightly impersonal character of all dorms used flexibly but the boys certainly have fabulous views over the park. Roughly one third of pupils board to some degree, with evening activities ranging from swimming to the intriguing sounding ‘real life hungry hippos’. Many parents sign up just to let their children make the most of the many resources and space — the best dens built in the grounds may be awarded with a golden pinecone award (produced by the DT department).

Money matters

Some bursaries available from year 3, of up to 100 per cent of fees.

The last word

Heath Mount is a place buzzing with innovation, and scoring notable national achievements in more than one area. ‘Every year, it gets better and better,’ attests one parent. Though it may feel dauntingly large on arrival, our feeling was that no one could fail to love it, with its confident, sparky pupils the best advertisement of all.

Special Education Needs

The needs of the majority of pupils at Heath Mount are met through quality teaching in the classroom, which responds to children’s diverse learning needs and encourages high aspirations. Within the classroom, teachers make the relevant provision to support individuals or groups of children to enable all pupils to participate effectively in curriculum and assessment activities. Children are screened in the early years to help identify any speech and language difficulties and later, any key literacy deficits. Alongside this, teachers regularly monitor progress and attainment of all pupils and in cases where children do not make the expected progress, the learning support department works with colleagues to tailor additional support to best meet the needs of individuals within the classroom. The learning support department has a base in both parts of the school, and plays a key role in supporting pupils with SEND. Children with identified needs have a pupil passport which ensures that all staff, children and families are aware of how best to support the child’s learning in the classroom and at home. Small group interventions are put in place in the early years to provide additional support and facilitate the development of key skills. These carefully structured sessions take place several times a week and are highly effective in helping children bridge any attainment gap. We do not remove children from the core curriculum for learning support sessions. In the middle and upper school, groups of children requiring support have a modified curriculum in which core skills lessons reinforce key concepts for maths, English, science and humanities. A few children are withdrawn for more specific interventions, such as for speech and language therapy, social skills or literacy interventions. Within the learning support department we have three specialist teachers, and a specialist learning support assistant, who are qualified to assess and support children with specific learning difficulties and more complex needs. We also have Doodle, our nurture dog, who has a variety of roles in school including supporting the emotional needs of children and staff, both individually and in the classroom. The learning support department also works in close conjunction with outside agencies and is able to draw on the expertise of other professionals where appropriate. The views, wishes, aspirations and feelings of pupils and their parents are central in all that we do and we recognise that the knowledge and experience of parents and pupils are vital in helping us to tailor the best possible provision. Our most important role is to foster a high level of self-esteem in our pupils. We aim to ensure that children know that their strengths are recognised, drawn upon and celebrated. We strive to help develop resilient children who are confident, optimistic, aspirational and well equipped to achieve the best possible outcomes in their future.


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