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In the art department, bursting with eclectic and accomplished creations, large picture windows revealed breathtaking patchwork pastures of Gloucestershire countryside. What inspiration! Pupils we met were all exceptionally well mannered and utterly charming. A little too steadfastly loyal and positive about their school? We were amused as ... 

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Head

Since 2013, Susan McLean BSc, MA (50s). Born and educated in Michigan, USA. Awarded sports scholarship to Central Michigan University for BSc in special education. Father English, mother Canadian, piquing a lifelong interest in travel. Keen to discover British heritage she crossed the Atlantic for a teaching exchange programme in Winchester. Further academia followed with degrees in elementary education and psychology, plus a master’s in administrative leadership. Taught at The American International School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, staying on in Saudi to establish the early years and pre-prep British International School. A desire to return to the UK saw her take proprietorial headship of The Old Vicarage, Derby, from 2002-2007.

Perpetually seeking new challenges Mrs McLean decided to leave education for the world of business but at the eleventh hour her gambit was halted when the CEO of The Cothill Trust asked her to become headmistress of Kitebrook. She seized the opportunity to take on and turn around this small ‘tired’ school in urgent need of renovation and restructure. Coming across as much the CEO of a dynamic business as headmistress, she has done just that. Clearly both the head and the heart of Kitebrook. One parent captured it perfectly, ‘She leads from the front with a no-nonsense approach and always a smile.’

Mrs McLean welcomed us warmly into her office which, with its high ceilings, sumptuous sofas and floor to ceiling windows, felt more like a drawing room. Over coffee and cake we enjoyed an animated conversation after which we were left in no doubt as to her determination to communicate the burgeoning success of Kitebrook.

Described by parents as, ‘a force of nature, professional, a stickler for good manners, an enormous heart for the children and a smile no matter what’. Children say she’s ‘quite friendly’ and, ‘likes to talk a lot’. Both, however, would like to see more of her. According to pupils, ‘She doesn’t come to see us much’ and parents comment, ‘We don’t see her around the school’. As the non-teaching headmistress of a school undergoing significant restructuring this is something of which Mrs McLean is very aware. ‘I know I need to get out and about more. The demands of growing and regenerating our school make it difficult but we are reaching the point when I can, once again.’ This doesn’t stop the children seeking out the approachable headmistress. A parent relayed that her son had no compunction in making an appointment when he found himself in a conundrum. Mrs McLean guided him to a propitious resolution, demonstrating her resolve that children should be, ‘independent, confident to ask for help, and use resources to achieve their ends.’

Married with two adult children, her go-getting, globe-trotting approach to life seems to have rubbed off on her offspring who, in 2019, rowed the Atlantic together to promote gender equality, achieving two world records.

Entrance

Non-selective. Headmistress meets parents informally. Children attend taster day or visit school to confirm ‘readiness’ of child.

Exit

Early conversations and guidance given for ongoing education. Recent destinations include Kingham Hill, Cheltenham College, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Bloxham, St Edward’s Oxford, Radley, Oundle, Tudor Hall, Downe House and Warwick. Five scholarships in 2021.

Our view

Stately and welcoming, Kitebrook’s Cotswold stone residence surveys a generous sweep of formal lawn, canopied woodlands, meadows and hills that stretch as far as the eye can see. Established in 1959 by Anne McDermott, the school has stayed true to its founder’s aim of providing academic rigour in a familial setting with individual holistic care. During our interview Mrs McLean eschewed any notion that this style of education is outdated, insisting McDermott was progessive, visionary even, and that her core principles remain fundamental to learning and personal development, ‘never more so than now.’ Adding, ‘children only have one childhood, they should be nurtured whilst being gently pushed out of their comfort zone to seek their own limits and take risks.’

Kitebrook has flourished in size and stature under this headmistress who clearly knows her market. Public speaking, tree climbing, manners and prayers are tabs under the ‘Tradition’ heading on its polished website. Numbers are healthy at 300 pupils and the boy/girl ratio is all but equal in this historically all-girls institution. Once considered a pre-prep for other establishments it is now a serious contender up to 13+.

Chatting to parents, Kitebrook is overwhelmingly seen as, ‘such a happy school’, ‘fun and full of energy’, with, ‘space and freedom to play and be a child’. Describing their preliminary tour on a scorching hot day, a parent recalled coming across a, ‘whole school water fight on the front lawn to cool the children off. It was very Enid Blyton.’

Kitebrook’s acres are a playground come wellies or sunscreen where children are encouraged to climb trees, take risks, test resolve and hone independence. Outside learning across all subjects is undertaken wherever possible. For many parents this is ‘part of the draw’.

Our visit was seamlessly coordinated with the same businesslike efficiency that propels this school forward. A relay of enthusiastic, immaculate and engaging pupils dotted the route awaiting handover, prompt cards at the ready. First stop, a wintry Wake and Shake on the front lawn. Wellies and raincoats donned for a quick work-out to music with teachers and pupils alike enthusiastically flinging themselves in all directions, smiles aplenty.

Mrs McLean declares one of Kitebrook’s greatest strengths is its teachers, whose style is described by parents as ‘creative, practical, interactive and fun’, a sentiment echoed by children who enthusiastically told us of ‘amazing teachers’, ‘exciting’ lessons and ‘awesome’ classrooms. Classes of around 14 are shuffled termly to propagate new friendships and encourage personal development.

On our tour we were swept along in a re-enactment by pupils and teacher, at the ready in steel helmets, gas masks round necks. An air raid siren was enthusiastically (and ear-splittingly) cranked into action and all descended to an underground cellar turned WW2 air raid shelter. Lights extinguished, utterly inspired pupils spoke animatedly of hearing recordings of overhead bombings and wartime singalongs. One pupil, totally immersed, endearingly pointed to an area of damaged bricks suggesting that could have been caused by a bomb blast! Cross discipline learning included ‘dig for victory’ in outdoor education and wartime literature in English.

Our next guide was bursting to show us the Harry Potter themed classroom. We were charmed when with total awe, a ‘real’ snitch was proffered for viewing her outstretched hands. On through passageways peppered with artwork and projects to more creative handiwork - the magnificent castle ramparts of the history room. We were impressed by a ‘collaboration’ room with rolling tables to facilitate flexible groupings and a ‘white’ room where pupils can write up maths problems on the walls. IT suite furnished with computers for each class member.

At lesson changeover the corridors were bustling with happy, smiling faces and chirpy hellos. This merry confidence continued undiminished during our chat with pupils, all of whom were exceptionally well mannered and utterly charming. A little too steadfastly loyal and positive about their school? We were amused as gasps rang out when any of their number suggested even the most mildly negative viewpoint. Well prepped or not, they certainly seemed genuine.

We noted throughout the day that pupils are actively encouraged to innovate; whether ideas for new badges, masterminding engineering projects or initiating social events. ‘It is what we are all about’, a member of staff commented. Badges to fill the uniform blazer’s moss tweed lapel are keenly sought, but pupils must earn their stripes. Each candidate stands before school assembly to be challenged in their endeavours. When asked if that presented a pressure to some, Mrs McLean declared that ‘failing is merely an opportunity to try again’. Inquiring whether one pupil felt nervous at impending test we were met with a smiling, confident response ‘not really, I know it off by heart’. Later, said pupil was proud to seek out this reviewer to communicate fresh victory, delightedly displaying a shiny new badge on a blazer already festooned with awards.

Kitebrook runs a ‘baccalaureate’ programme alongside Common Entrance and assessed growth mindset skills. Mrs McLean believes this is a unique and holistic approach. In her opinion, while the baccalaureate model suits many children, Common Entrance can be a better indicator of academic ability while growth mindset allows for continued individual assessment.

'Following 'excellent' academic provision during first lockdown, school canvassed parental opinion, increasing remote provision to include after school clubs and social links for pupils A parent complimented the school's 'outstanding achievement to deliver as much of the whole school experience as possible.'

Staff are experienced in assisting children with additional needs: audio processing, visual impairment, dyslexia. While wheelchair access is limited to ground floor in upper school, if necessary timetables are swiftly adjusted to move whole classes downstairs to accommodate.

Dedicated SEN department is located at the centre of school. Approximately 50 pupils have some learning support, meeting with staff before and after school or at break times. Approximately 35 attend an enrichment scheme for more able pupils in English and STEM. One parent commented on the school’s provision in this area, ‘it’s all wholly positive, there’s no difference in the way catch up or extension is presented. Everyone’s special and everyone’s individual.’

‘We hold no boundaries in any age group’, head stressed during our interview, ‘if a child needs stretching it is made available to them’. Although not official until higher in upper school, children streamed in maths and English from year three with scholarship sets for those demonstrating particular ability.

Art and performing arts seen by head as two of Kitebrook’s strongest areas. In the art department, bursting with eclectic and accomplished creations, large picture windows revealed breathtaking patchwork pastures of Gloucestershire countryside. What inspiration!

‘Drama is amazing!’ a parent enthused. Each child treads the boards in at least one production a year. ‘It offers such important life skills’ headmistress attested. Pupils build sets, help backstage, organise costumes and make-up. Year 5s devise own pieces and pen scripts. LAMDA exams garner stellar results and school was among the first to take up the English Speaking Board exams (Oral English).

Sport is flourishing under Kitebrook’s renovation plan. Parents bemoan the ‘slightly shabby’ facilities; school assures us upgrades are in pipeline. Keen to challenge every child to represent school, Kitebrook now fields A and B teams in rugby, hockey, football, tennis and cricket. Opponent schools selected to challenge and build confidence. Handful of county players in cricket and tennis. Represented in IAPS. Sporting pathway with individual coaching for those keen to excel.

Suitably bucolic house names: Ash, Beech, Cedar and Oak. Rewards for personal development and traditional competition. We loved the innovation of the ‘welly tally’, four primary-coloured wellies representing each house - boots move up and down a staggered podium, to the delight of pupils.

Educational trip to Iceland, tour of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and visit to Battlefields in recent years. More locally, team building residential trips - notably one for potential prefects who undergo stringent interview process, having first proposed themselves in writing to headmistress. A plethora of after school clubs: ecology, languages, music, jewellery making, debating, sport, drama, kit car making. All well attended.

Mixed year upper school tutor groups meet twice a day. We saw benefit as younger children gain insight from senior cohort’s experience and older children encourage those yet to tread their path. Tutors constantly monitor the development and well-being of pupils and any issues are dealt with ‘swiftly’. One child quipped, ‘If you have a problem you know the tutor will help you.’ Parents talk of raising concerns with headmistress who is, ‘amazingly reassuring and helps to put things right’.

Academically, Kitebrook, ‘push to do well but aren’t pushy’ said one parent. Head says results speak for themselves and that a full school, healthy waiting list and exit pupil achievement demonstrate that scholastic rigour and a nurturing approach go, ‘hand in hand’.

School’s location in Moreton-in-Marsh puts it well within range of well-heeled London escapees in Oxfordshire’s nearby Chippings (Norton and Campden). Parents describe themselves as, ‘a real mix’ of London commuters, farming and local families. An active parents committee ‘PECK’ stages events and fundraisers. Socials organised via year What’s App groups. For some, the comment was that parents can be, ‘a little cliquey’. Culturally school mix is, as a parent carefully put it, ‘one dimensional’, reflecting local demographic.

Boarders

A mix of weekly and flexi from year 3 upwards, who are housed in main school. Cosy dorm-style bedrooms, a common room and kitchenette offer homely experience. Short-notice flexi boarding option is popular with parents and enjoyed as a ‘fun sleepover’ by children. One parent commented that boarding is seen by many as an opportunity for older pupils to have taster experience before senior boarding. Boarders have popcorn and film nights and occasional camp outs.

Money matters

Fees set to be retained currently. No formal bursary or scholarship programmes.

The last word

Over the last eight years Kitebrook’s profile and reputation have blossomed under the determined leadership of its dynamic headmistress. This ‘extremely friendly, supportive school’, promises a challenging, nurturing and creative education, imbued with ‘fundamental’ life skills. Parents love its traditional values and evocation of a healthy, ‘old fashioned’ tree climbing childhood in an idyllic setting.

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