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A day school channelling a boarding school, Littlegarth is far from small when it comes to the scale of its buildings and the aspirations of its young pupils. Set off a country lane a 10-minute drive from bustling Colchester, in 28 acres of glorious ‘Constable country’ on the Essex-Suffolk border, it is one of only a handful of rural prep schools in this patch of East Anglia. There is a sense of energy and interaction in the classrooms, with teachers leading the lessons by...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2003, Peter Jones BEd. Attended Ysgol Dyffryn Conwy, Llanrwst and then trained as a PE teacher at Carnegie College, Leeds. Began his career at Holmwood House School, a boarding prep in nearby Colchester, rising to deputy head and has taught in the area for, he says, ‘donkeys years’, with the consequence that he now teaches his former pupils’ children. ‘When I arrived at Littlegarth in September 2003 it had been open at its new site for just eight years, having moved from its original home in Dedham. The school had a strong academic and pastoral reputation but needed lots of structures to be put in place,’ he says. He re-named the departments according to the established prep school model, further increased the level of specialist teaching, put a rocket behind sport and generally lifted all-round expectations.

Parents speak very highly. ‘His mixture of care, enthusiasm and encouragement for pupils to make the most of their potential sets the scene for the rest of the staff,’ sums up one. Indeed, Mr Jones was oft-quoted by his pupils throughout our visit and it’s clear that they look up to him but are not in the least intimidated by him – a tricky tightrope to walk – as they chat easily and naturally to him in the corridors. One parent explains it: ‘I feel that he is very conscious of the pressures on children these days and is constantly thinking about and acting to preserve their mental and emotional wellbeing as well as helping them to strive in their education.’

Entrance

Non-selective, though a baseline assessment in reception ‘to see where the gaps are’. Most join in nursery and continue all the way through. Families typically live within a 20-mile radius and are brought to school by parents.

Exit

Between 20 and 30 per cent to Colchester’s top-performing state grammar schools. Other to local independent senior schools, with favourites including Ipswich, Woodbridge, Norwich, St Mary’s Colchester and Royal Hospital School - more than half with a scholarship (and that with most top potential scholars out of the equation due to 11+ success).

Our view

A day school channelling a boarding school, Littlegarth is far from small when it comes to the scale of its buildings and the aspirations of its young pupils. Set off a country lane a 10-minute drive from bustling Colchester, in 28 acres of glorious ‘Constable country’ on the Essex-Suffolk border, it is one of only a handful of rural prep schools in this patch of East Anglia. ‘All the local senior independent schools take from 11 and most of the parents in this area are happy to keep their children at home with them until that age anyway. We’re the nearest thing to a boarding school without having to take that leap,’ says head.

With its main building a former family home and then probation hostel, surrounded by a collection of teaching buildings of various ages, indoor sports facilities and a cavernously contemporary new block incorporating classrooms as well as the library and bespoke arts facilities, it’s easy to see why Littlegarth is the most expensive standalone prep school that’s not a boarding school in the vicinity. But parents are satisfied that the fees are more than justified by the generously proportioned and totally spotless learning environment and the high-quality specialist teaching (some even in nursery and all subjects from year 4 on). More to the point, says head, the school’s raison d’etre is to ‘teach the basics very solidly and to develop the children’s passions and take them to new heights’. This is not lost on parents: ‘Each child is made to feel that they are really good at something and, with that, the confidence just blossoms,’ reports one.

There is a sense of energy and interaction in the classrooms, with teachers leading the lessons by, as one parent puts it, ‘moving everyone along at their own pace and having different methods to engage our very different children.’ ‘Warm and friendly too,’ reports another. Nursery (lower and upper) has its own gated playground and building with two spacious inter-connected classrooms for no more than 16 children at any one time in lower nursery and 24 in upper nursery in morning or whole-day sessions. Learning journeys are ‘memory books’ in hard copy which can be leafed through any time by parents, who also appreciate the continually open lines of communication: ‘The teachers spend time each afternoon to let you know how your child’s day has been, if they ate lunch, any upsets etc,’ approves one. The little ones use the school’s super facilities for PE, music, drama and French, all with specialist teachers. Around 95 per cent continue to reception - twin forms which are accommodated in huge classrooms set in one corner of the super new building, with their own outdoor learning and play areas and even a kitchen for cookery lessons. The star of the room, according to our year 6 guides anyway, is a (presumably geriatric) goldfish – the very same one they cared for when they were in reception themselves seven years ago, they say. Some setting from reception, then streaming in years 5 and 6.

French from nursery, while year 5s add German and Latin and year 6 adds Spanish, Latin and ‘a bit of’ Greek as a taster for senior school (plus an after school club). Every half term English and maths schemes of work are sent home to parents and they’re invited in for termly explainers of teaching methods. Library is spacious and stuffed with titles for all ages. Lovely themed table – Roald Dahl when we passed it – and an innovative spin-the-wheel feature makes some suggestions. The upshot is that our year 6 guides are extremely knowledgeable about junior literature, reeling off best sellers by the last three children’s laureates with ease. Very much a reading school – ‘lying out on the grass on their tummies in summer, reading to each other’ is encouraged, says a teacher. Computer room hanging with tech – when we visited year 5 were learning spreadsheets by costing packed lunches, including buying the lunchbox. Real-world skills. Recently repurposed science labs are a hive of activity with inspiration on every wall and a science teacher who ‘gets inside your head really well’, say our guides. Multiple cupboards stuffed full of equipment (big budget, he beams). Plenty of space for pair work, which is favoured over group work, to make sure children have better hands-on experience of experiments. Resources bespoke. Year 4 to Flatford Mill and science workshops annually – years 5 and 6 band together for science Lego (build a village to include an electric railway and lit-up buildings) one year and rocks, fossils and dinosaurs the next. Half an hour a week lesson in verbal reasoning from year 4 plus after school club from year 5 (some may be doing a little extra tuition at home too, whispers head). Contemporary – even futuristic – classrooms dedicated to their subjects are light and spacious and create quite a mature environment for a prep school. Unfussy and non-distracting with ample storage space concealed behind sliding doors (all teachers keen to demonstrate). Formal assessments twice a year in years 2 to 6 including an end-of-year ‘assessment fortnight’ for each subject.

Friendly learning support room has a staff of three to help with SPLD or just confidence boosting (no extra charge), small groups, one-to-one and in-class support with a no-fuss approach. ‘My son has never been made to feel he is not keeping up with the class,’ says a parent. ‘He knows his strengths and works to those and is a very happy, confident child thanks to the excellent support he receives.’ At least half of maths lessons have a learning support assistant in the classroom. An entirely different curriculum can be drawn up for individuals who would benefit.

Parents applaud the ‘new dimension’ that has been added to the school and particularly arts provision, by the 2018-built block, which incorporates bespoke spaces for music, art and drama, as well as classrooms and the library. A simply enormous music room accommodates a whole class at a time with plenty of room for year 6 to learn samba music with all the instruments (and the decibels) – one of our guides gave an impromptu demonstration of a rhythm, extremely ably. Instrumental lessons are popular, including xylophone and saxophone, explained one of our guides (grade 6 drums). Orchestra, senior choir, percussion, chamber choir and ‘tons of’ ensembles in which to learn to play together. Professional-looking drama space has floor-to-ceiling mirrors, movable staging, ceiling tracks for lighting (yet to be installed), curtains and even doors opening to an outdoor amphitheatre and is the venue for weekly drama lesson for all years. Annual year 6 drama production, recently Peter Pan, but also an annual play by Year 3 (all take part). Two-day drama workshop every year for year 4 - BFG and Dr Seuss recently. Musical theatre club after school and lunchtime drama and music performances on Tuesdays and Fridays for all-comers to practise performance to an informal audience. Echoey first-floor art room has gargantuan windows and high ceilings that make the children seem even smaller. Air dry clay, plasterwork, woodwork, all on display around the school from time to time. STEM is offered as an option since arrival of an art teacher keen to spark an early interest in engineering.

‘We are a sporty school,’ our guides chorus. ‘This is our lovely sports hall,’ they echo to the very high rafters of their 2006-built indoor facility, opened by Karen Pickering and supported by parents’ buy-a-brick campaign. Hockey and rugby in winter, netball and football in spring, cricket, rounders and athletics in summer; PE all year round is fitness and skills. ISA and IAPS fixtures. ‘Everyone gets to take part,’ we’re told, and despite this, Littlegarth is rarely beaten in any sport (not only due to the home advantage of the school’s own sloping pitches). Well known as a strong school for swimmers, Littlegarth’s swim team recently included many who represented East Anglia successfully in the national swimming finals.

Curriculum trips for every year group (year 6 have a three-night visit to Shropshire, which includes Cadbury World on the way and safari park on the way back). The school’s own delightful woodland environment (2,000+ trees planted by the children over the past 10 years) is ideal for forest school and there is a general sense that the children own their surroundings. A keen eco school, well-illustrated by a beautiful wall display of individually crafted bees.

After school, there are no fewer than five clubs every evening, sports and lots of other activities and interests (eg sports, ballet, gardening, baking, puppet making, IT coding, Lego, African drumming, mindfulness…) for years 1 to 6. Names out of the hat if oversubscribed (eg chocolate club and Littlegarth Bakeoff which recently whipped up Danish pastries and cheese and bacon straws). Much-loved Lizzie’s Kitchen, dedicated to the memory of a former pupil, is a cookery room for lessons and clubs, laid out MasterChef style.

Three houses - Constable, Gainsborough, Munnings of course – make for lots of inter-house competition. (Staff) heads of houses focus on wellbeing and there is plenty of yoga but children are encouraged to take responsibility for their own wellbeing by reading, socialising and relaxing in quieter moments. ‘Our children enjoy their school,’ beams a parent. ‘They go to, and return, happy, curious, interested and challenged.’ Daily hot lunches served – faves include macaroni cheese and steak pie. ‘The chef has rave reviews from my two,’ says a parent.

Pupils are chatty and sparkly, proud of their school and keen to explain every detail. All of year 6 are prefects and have duties, such as juice distribution. Parents are welcomed and encouraged to be part of the school, helping with eg school trips, while grandparents are also encouraged to attend events. ‘This all creates a strong bond amongst the families at the school and makes you feel that everyone knows your children and is looking out for them,’ says a parent. Wraparound care (until 5.45pm) is appreciated by busy families. ‘It just takes the pressure off and the hours really suit us,’ says one.

Communication with parents is on the right side of bombardment. Parents can expect to hear from the head if their child’s behaviour is particularly impressive - or indeed otherwise. System of merits and demerits works well and there are rewards for positive examples to peers on a daily basis - a highlight is a trip to the head’s office to be recognised or a mention in assembly, or a congratulatory call home to parents. Talents outside of school are genuinely celebrated too – photos of pupils doing their thing on every classroom wall (a particularly heavy emphasis on sports, note some parents). School ski team are girls’ British downhill champions and a year 6 is number one in the country and in the national ski development squad. Equestrian team - no horses on site, all at weekends - is coming on in leaps and bounds and a Littlegarth year 4 recently came fifth in the horse of the year show. Former pupil Alex Albon was British Karting Champion and now drives Formula One for Red Bull.

Head admits that ‘sometimes we have to help them avoid being caught up in the parental competitiveness, particularly concerning grammar school places.’ The 11+ is not overtly promoted - ‘a senior school that can teach a child to be ambitious at his or her own level is the right school,’ says head sagely. He has a half-hour individual meeting with each set of parents to discuss their child’s next steps, runs information evenings and offers step-by-step guidance. ‘I am often in the situation of interviewing senior school heads to see if their school is suitable for our pupils, rather than the other way around,’ he says. Preparation for an easy transfer to senior school is underlying throughout at Littlegarth, he says – ‘we help the children to develop good habits and to sometimes explore their learning by themselves which can be unusual at prep school age.’

The only gripe we repeatedly heard from parents was that their children were compelled to leave at the end of year 6. ‘For us, the school has been nothing but a pleasure to be involved with,’ says one. Children agree: ‘It is sometimes hard to get up in the morning but you’re always glad you did because when you get to school you have the time of your life!’ as one put it. ‘We’ll definitely be sad to leave Littlegarth,’ says one of our guides, though safe in the knowledge that ‘the memories will be everlasting.’


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