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What says..

Girls are taught it’s ok to fail – that failure is how you learn – and accountability is encouraged, with pupils choosing their own level of challenge from mild, spicy or hot.  Cross-curricular looms large eg girls learn about biodegradability in science and art and even get a junk orchestra together in music. The small size of the school allows for flexibility and spontaneity – teachers had recently whisked off a class to the design museum at short notice. ‘They do their best,’ said a parent about sport. On the plus side is the connection with the Berkhamsted schools and breadth. On the downside… 

 

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What the school says...

Heatherton is a girls’ independent prep school with co-educational nursery for pupils aged rising 3-11 in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. It has a family environment and is within easy reach of London. It is an IAPS school with a kitemark for excellence and an enviable record for success.

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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.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2020, Nicola Nicoll (40s), previously deputy head at Badminton Junior School, Bristol, and before that head of science and head of middle school at Westminster Under. BSc in biomedical sciences and PGCE, both from Liverpool; MEd in educational leadership from Buckingham.

State educated in Norfolk, she initially resisted the inevitable pull of teaching (both parents were teachers), with her love of Agatha Christie novels responsible for sights set on forensic science. Until, that is, she found herself so traumatised by being handed bits of brain during a post-mortem she observed at the tender age of 21 that she switched career choice to teaching. It was, she explains, the ‘interacting with and enabling of others’ that really put fire in her belly. Cut teeth as science teacher at Thomas’ Prep, Clapham, and has since clocked up over 20 years' experience in independent primaries and preps. Still teaches ‘a little’ but doesn’t really miss it as ‘effecting change across the whole school as the head means I get to influence even more lives.’ On the gates every morning and afternoon and rarely misses break duty.

Took the helm between lockdowns. ‘Means it’s been hard getting to know her,’ we heard, though parents and pupils agree she is ‘kind’ and ‘calm,’ ‘but can lay down the law when needed.’ Won instant brownie points for upping the ante on STEM (school now has Bunsen burners, runs big bang workshops and invites in speakers from industry) as well as reinstating parent coffee mornings. We found her polished and poised, with a burst of youthfulness.

Lives in Amersham with husband George who hails from Zambia (the couple spent two years living and working on his family farming estate). They both enjoy travelling, especially if it involves exploring wildlife on safari or snorkelling. She is also keen on reading, art and sculpture.

Entrance

Key entry points are nursery and reception, followed by years 2 and 3. They do accept mid-year applications into any year group (but good luck with that in year 3 where there is always a waiting list). Academically non-selective but a taster day allows school to ‘learn more about each child’s interests and hobbies, whether they’re a good fit for the school and to assess their maths and English.’

Exit

A satellite prep for the Berkhamsted group of schools, with around a third of girls going on to the senior school. Similar numbers head off to local grammars (mostly Dr Challoner’s High and Chesham Grammar) and the remaining third to local independents (eg Pipers Corner, St Mary’s, Royal Masonic and Wycombe Abbey). With the phasing out of the entrance exam to Berko senior (applies to current year 3s downwards), it will be interesting to see if more head there, though location (it’s over six miles away) will doubtless remain a barrier to some. Usually a couple each year to Amersham School.

Our view

Not a school with sweeping grounds or extensive facilities, but not blink-and-you-miss-it either. In fact, as you drive through Amersham towards leafy Chesham Bois, you’ll likely spot the long red-brick building by its large signage and proximity to the road. Word has it that founders Miss Edith Harrison and Miss Ysolde Walters walked up from the station in 1912 and were won over by the original country cottage of eight rooms ‘with a garden large enough for a school to be built alongside his tennis court.’ That autumn, it opened with 20 boys and girls, later becoming single-sex and – in 2011 – part of the Berko group of schools. Most recently, it has re-acquired a neighbouring house which was originally the staff cottage.

Parents say they got an instant gut feeling about the school. Dig a bit deeper and you find the main crowd-pullers are the size (small), single sex, single site and that it’s ‘not a pressure cooker – they place as much emphasis on areas of personal development like confidence building and collaboration,’ as one put it.

Classrooms are cheerfully decorated, with our smiley tour guides itching to show us every nook and cranny. ‘Look at our new white lab coats!’ ‘Here’s our class pet, Zappy, the bearded dragon!’ ‘I’m a library monitor – here’s the book I use!’ A younger class had just made Roman shields; an older one was captivated by their teacher reading a story. Hands shot up to quick-fire questions in science, while in maths it was heads down working on sums. Outside, we watched pupils run around the tarmacked and grassy play area (doubles up as a sports space) and use the adventure equipment from the warmth of a snazzy glass-fronted outdoor classroom.

One class per year group, maximum of 22 in each. Specialist teaching across all subjects from year 3, with science, French, music, art and sport taught by specialists in the earlier years too. Teacher and TA in all core lessons and some others too. ‘The teachers do an amazing job of really knowing the girls,’ reported a parent. ‘They support them in the things they do well in and encourage them in the things they struggle with,’ remarked another. Interests are boosted - recently, a girl with a thing for telescopes got to incorporate her hobby in a space-themed class assembly; another who was mad about elephants got to come in and raise money for a relevant conservation charity. ‘Teachers can be quite different in strictness, though – one might really tell you off for something that another doesn’t really mind about,’ said one girl.

Girls are taught it’s ok to fail – that failure is how you learn – and accountability is encouraged, with pupils choosing their own level of challenge from mild, spicy or hot. Cross-curricular looms large eg girls learn about biodegradability in science and art and even get a junk orchestra together in music. The small size of the school allows for flexibility and spontaneity – teachers recently whisked off a class to the design museum at short notice.

A system of ‘focus pupils’ helps prevent any falling between cracks – this involves every child getting extra attention from every teacher for one half term every academic year. A girl might get a bit of extra teaching in French, more challenge in maths or a bit more nurturing at break times, for example.

A SENCo (shared with senior school) and learning support teacher support the seven per cent of girls on the SEN register. One-to-ones and booster groups (included in fees) take place in the learning support room. One EHCP when we visited. ‘They spotted our daughter’s issue as early as year 1 which was really impressive, and they’ve been fantastic in supporting her,’ lauded one parent.

Plenty of tech, with all year 5s and 6s using Surface Gos (parents can breathe a sigh of relief that you can rent them from the school), while in younger years school has class sets. ‘They use them for everything from digital art challenges to setting homework, it’s brilliant,’ said a parent, with all agreeing the school went above and beyond during lockdowns. ‘There was a full timetable and my daughter was getting her flute lessons and learning support all online, as well as one-to-one wellbeing meetings and small group meet-ups so they didn’t miss out on friendship time,’ said one. A few girls were participating in lessons online during our visit.

Music, drama and art get a good slice of the curriculum cake – an hour per week in each for all. Plus more if you want it by way of eg before-school choir and ensembles. Two-thirds learn an instrument and all get the chance to perform in assembly, the orchestra and concerts with cheers and clap forthcoming regardless of your level. Girls told us about hip-hop routines they’d recently done and recording their own song for the radio. Drama and LAMDA popular, with class assemblies, nativity and plays providing a chance to perform. During Covid, a performance was recorded in the 500-seat theatre at the girls’ senior school, with every year group performing. Outstanding art/DT studio with working mini merry-go-rounds, papier mache nightlights, Georgia O’Keefe flower inspired pictures all a feast for the eyes. Super food tech room where girls have made hummus, cookies and smoothies.

‘They do their best,’ said a parent about sport. On the plus side is the connection with the Berkhamsted schools (which have an indoor pool, pitches, Astro, fives courts etc) and breadth of choice (netball, tennis, athletics, hockey, football, cross-country, lacrosse, gymnastics, ballet and yoga). On the downside, ‘they’re a small school which is always going to mean fewer opportunities.’ ‘Maybe not the first choice for anyone elite,’ cautioned one parent.

Clubs include Arabic, eco council, rugby, cricket, jigsaw, ballet, sports and masses of arts and crafts. Nothing at lunchtimes though – ‘free play is important for imagination and social development, especially since Covid,’ insists head. Wrapround care (costs extra) available from 7.30am to 6pm welcomed by the increasingly dual income families. Trips range from a visit to the local Amersham Museum to a week’s residential in France.

Most families live in Amersham, some a few miles further out. Largely professional and business backgrounds; most dual income. Ethnically, around a quarter Asian, rest European. Active PTA – everything from coffee mornings to curry nights to fundraising. ‘There’s a real feeling of togetherness,’ said a parent.

Every morning, teachers assess each girl’s mood via plickers (cards chosen by pupils for sad, happy, tired, hungry etc). Worry boxes and teachers on break duty also help ensure strong pastoral backup. One parent felt ‘some cliquey year groups can be potentially problematic from a friendship point of view although the school is good at keeping an eye on that.’ Another warned that it’s not for girls ‘who like masses of space – it can feel a little cramped.’ Green uniform with Berkhamsted branding – sensible and comfy but smart; trousers recently introduced as an option.

Dedicated dining room where girls said we lucked out coming on Fish Friday (though we opted for halloumi kebabs, still delicious). One girl told us she loved the school’s spag bol so much that she and her friends had made up a dance about it.

The last word

Forward thinking and outward looking enough not to be a bubble, but there’s a lovely innocence about this small girls’ school nonetheless. Few choose it for the academics alone – the school focuses on the bigger picture of child development, with girls gaining a can-do attitude and huge loyalty for their close-knit community along the way. If the distance of Berkhamsted senior school doesn’t put you off, it has the added bonus of being all-through.

Special Education Needs

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Genetic Y
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 Y
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 Y
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment

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