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What says..

Many parents told us of the ‘friendly atmosphere’ and ‘happy looking kids’ being the clincher in their decision. It’s one of those schools where even the receptionists know every child, smiling warmly as they pass by – and the morning car park welcome party includes not staff but some year 6s (regularly swapped) who offer to bring the younger ones’ bags in. All very civilised. The school caters for ‘all types – from the bookish to the sporty’, as one parent put it. The former are encouraged by the superb library (complete with a display of pupil-made book covers when we visited), lots of reading time, author visits aplenty and some cosy outside reading areas that make breaktime reading ‘cool’. Meanwhile, the sporty lot (which in reality includes nearly everyone here) told us...

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What the school says...

Monmouth Prep School is part of the Haberdashers’ Monmouth family of schools (Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools). Monmouth Prep School became fully co-educational in September 2021.

It is located on two separate sites in Monmouth - Nursery to Year 2 at our Agincourt site; Year 3-6 at The Grange site.

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headteacher

Since 2016, Neil Shaw MA PGCE, previously head at Westonbirt Prep and before that, head at Kingswood School in Solihull. Studied geography at Exeter, master’s from Nottingham. Focused and businesslike, yet friendly and positive; parents like him, saying he’s ‘an enabler, allowing other people to shine’, including encouraging teachers ‘to come up with some really great ideas’. Pupils say he is ‘kind’, ‘often pops into lessons’ and ‘can be strict if he needs to be’.

The merging of the girls’ and boys’ preps and pre-prep has kept him busy, and now it’s all go again with the move to the existing senior girls’ school site in September 2024. But he appears to be relishing the challenge, particularly now that the initial parent scepticism (mainly around ‘lack of consultation’ and school ‘not admitting it was a financial decision’) has largely been replaced by appreciation of the practicality of having ages 3-11 on one site for the first time.

His wife is a receptionist at another local school, and their son and daughter are at Monmouth. Loves walking, canoeing and paddleboarding.

From September 2024, Simon Dorman, current head of the boys’ senior school, will take over as overarching head of the whole school (co-ed prep and seniors), with Neil Shaw remaining head of prep.

Entrance

First come, first served into nursery at 3+. From reception, children spend a morning at the school, then from year 3 there are assessments in reading, story writing, maths and reasoning. School says it looks for ‘average ability and above’ and is ‘more interested in potential than raw test results’. Growing numbers of mid-year entries from local primaries, especially in years 5 and 6. Two-form entry throughout, with 22 max per class (although 17 is largest currently). In September 2024, both pre-prep and prep are on the move to the current senior girls’ school site.

Exit

All but one or two move up to the senior school (automatic entry). Conversations start early if school feels a child won’t cope there. In 2023, 14 scholarships.

Our view

Considered by parents to be both more academic and more sporty than the local competition, Monmouth Prep also benefits from boarding and a linked senior school. ‘It’s the obvious choice,’ they told us, although they admit to using the words ‘local’ and ‘choice’ loosely – there simply aren’t many other independents nearby, the closest being Dean Close St John’s Chepstow (much smaller, prep only), Rougemont and Hereford Cathedral Juniors (both all-through, less sporty and no boarding).

Many parents told us of the ‘friendly atmosphere’ and ‘happy-looking kids’ being the clincher in their decision. It’s one of those schools where even the receptionists know every child, smiling warmly as they pass by – and the morning car park welcome party includes not staff but some year 6s (regularly swapped) who offer to bring the younger ones’ bags in. All very civilised.

The school caters for ‘all types – from the bookish to the sporty’, as one parent put it. The former are encouraged by the superb library (complete with a display of pupil-made book covers when we visited), lots of reading time, author visits aplenty and some cosy outside reading areas that make breaktime reading ‘cool’. We heard of some year 6s have a reading age of 17+, and not just the top cream. Meanwhile, the sporty lot (which in reality includes nearly everyone here) told us they’re ‘so lucky’ to have ‘such great sports teachers’, ‘so much games and PE time’ and ‘amazing facilities’ (more of which later).

Academically, the early years offer a gentle start in a home-from-home environment, with an emphasis on maths, phonics, reading and handwriting. We saw tiny tots having great fun in a play kitchen, with year 2s engrossed in drawing and illustrating the Easter story. From year 3, there’s a topic-based approach – it was volcanoes for year 4, so they studied texts based in countries with volcanic activities then lava-themed sums, all to be topped off by a museum trip. Throughout the year groups, we were impressed by the hands-on learning – slicing up Battenberg cake for fractions and acting out scenes of Romeo and Juliet in costumes etc. Year 6s had recently dissected a sheep’s heart and even made their own poo (food waste with tights as the large intestine). ‘I’m an early years teacher and have been blown away – they got my son catching up within two weeks and completely turned around his attitude to learning,’ said one parent. Lots of competitions – pupils reached the national finals in a recent science quiz, and an art competition saw practically every child enter.

The school has Microsoft Incubator School status, and we saw their large bank of Surface Go’s being well used. Plus, children learn about coding, programming, online safety etc in computing, as well as making their own podcasts, PowerPoint presentations and videos with animation.

Specialist teaching from reception in French, science, music and computing, with drama added from year 4 and everything else from year 5. Latin introduced from year 6; Spanish also available as a club. Setting only in maths in year 6, with some fluid groupings for phonics earlier on – attracts ‘quite a lot of competition among parents’, apparently. Quite heavy on homework. Outdoor learning is big – there’s both forest school and an outside classroom, with science experiments in the pond and studying of flowering and non-flowering plants in the woods. Reading and library sessions often outside in the summer.

‘Did you know Elon Musk is autistic?’ asks a poster in the library – all part of the inclusive approach to SEN. Fun-filled too (yes, really), largely thanks to the SENCo and three part-time SEN teachers’ clever use of number and letter based board games incorporated into the learning support (and pupils are encouraged to create their own board games too). Around 10 per cent are on the SEN register, mainly dyslexia, some dyspraxia and a few speech and language issues, though not masses of diagnosed ADHD and autism. The pupils ‘love getting a go’ in the colourfully decorated learning support room – mainly for group sessions or one-to-ones (latter cost extra). Parents say they’re ‘brilliant’ at liaising with teachers, and that the school’s ongoing assessments ‘pick things up’. The department’s ‘pastoral approach’ is also appreciated, with SEN staff trained in listening, as well as offering advice on sleep patterns, diet etc.

No visitor can escape the sound of music. Unusually, there are four timetabled lessons a week, with teaching via the Hungarian Kodály method, which means pupils using their whole bodies, eg to re-enact music notes or to play games to learn rhythm. ‘The director of music leads singing sessions using hand signals alone and they’re all pitch perfect, it’s extraordinary.’ Music theory taught from the off, with the school offering bronze, silver and gold grades (gold being equivalent to grade 5 music theory) – something usually offered only at music colleges. All year 3s learn the violin or cello, and all year 6s learn the ukulele. Two-thirds of pupils learn an instrument privately, many learning two or three, and singing is massive with a thriving choir that was heading off to the National Choirs final. Ensembles and orchestra both popular, and there are masses of concerts, including with other local primary schools. Year 6 compose all their own songs for an annual show.

‘A really punchy drama crew,’ say parents, who rave about the ‘great rehearsal and theatre spaces’. Drama incorporated into English lessons in the younger years, then on curriculum from year 4 – a shame it’s not sooner, say some parents, although budding thespians can always join drama club or do LAMDA. Early years do a nativity, year 3s present a poem and older ones perform an annual play or musical – Wizard of Oz up next.

Large, bright art studio a real boon. Some pupils took a moment from sketching feathers to show us their sketchbooks with some great copies of famous artists’ styles. Clay and ceramics, as well as printing (linocut and screen printing) feature, and year 5’s junk modelling caught our eye. Every year group gets an art trip, recently to the Holbourne Museum in Bath, where children did batik and outdoor modelling, although spray painting street art in Bristol gets the top vote – ‘really edgy’. DT takes place in large, well-resourced workshops, where pupils were making wooden ducks on wheels. Jewellery making popular. Food tech from year 5 – pizzas a firm favourite.

Ask any pupil the single best thing about the school and they’ll almost certainly say sport. Specialist teaching in games, PE and swimming from nursery, then from prep it’s rugby, football and cricket for the boys and hockey, netball and cricket for the girls (only the latter is taught co-ed). Fixtures from year 5, albeit with a few parent grumbles that the same old faces make the teams (and that girls’ sport isn’t pushed enough). Rugby does really well, as does swimming – there was a whole-day gala during our visit. As in seniors, dance features heavily. Impressive facilities include sports hall with climbing wall, swimming pool, floodlit Astro, eight courts and acres of pitches.

Clubs mainly after school – sports most popular, followed by crafts, Lego, science, ballet, bushcraft, computing etc. Residentials from year 4, culminating in a year 6 French trip, and there’s skiing to Italy with years 7 and 8. Super food, including salad bar, although the school might want to check what goes on plates – some children we dined with had 15 or so potato croquets and little (or nothing, in one case) else.

The prep is the result of a merger of separate boys’ and girls’ schools in 2021 – and it remains boy heavy (two-thirds). From September 2024 – when the senior schools also become co-ed – the prep (and pre-prep, currently half a mile away) will move to the existing senior girls’ site. Pre-prep will have its own light-filled single-storey building with central kitchen area and a vast playground, plus some additional zoned, themed areas, including pond with fish and frogs. Meanwhile, prep will be spread over two floors of the main building with separate spaces for performing arts (including dance studio), art and DT. Lucky things, given that all these, plus the considerable sports facilities, were created with older children in mind.

Top-notch pastoral care, say parents. One family, who’d suffered a bereavement, said the school ‘completely had our back, we even got handwritten cards’. A deputy head (academic) role has been introduced and there’s a weekly pastoral meeting so staff know who to keep an eye on. Pupils do their bit too – noticeable in the corridors in the way they greet one another. The ‘be kind’ posters are doing the trick, along with the buddy system. Drawing and talking sessions ‘help you explore your feelings’, said a pupil.

A culture of good role modelling, high expectations (and reflection time when needed) keeps behaviour on track. Pupils told us the worst they’d seen was someone stuffing crisps down the loo – ‘they got in a lot of trouble,’ said one child firmly. We had to ask some pupils to stop talking over each other and dominating the conversation a few times when we were chatting to them – but it was less a case of rudeness than exuberance and a few alpha personalities. All were chirpy company and clearly love their school.

Parents are aspirational, but this is not the tiger set. Lots of farmers, medics and other professionals, plus those who have moved (sometimes back) from the south east. Many attended the school themselves. ‘You get the classic Monmouthshire estate wielding families’ but ‘it’s not all noses in the air or pashminas galore – just a nice mix,’ they told us. Ethnic diversity thin on the ground, but reflective of the area. Wide catchment extends to Cardiff, Chepstow, Ross-on-Wye and Hereford, plus plenty of locals – school buses appreciated.

Boarders

Flexi, weekly and full boarding from year 3, with the 20 or so children accommodated (from September 2024) in dorms of up to three with year 7s and 8s in a wing of Monnow House in the heart of the new prep site. Parents speak of a ‘really cosy, homely environment – they really look out for each other’. One year 5 girl didn’t want to have her hair brushed, but an older one saved the day with glowsticks. Boarders love having the whole site to roam in and highlight Saturday morning swimming and trips into town to spend their pocket money. There’s a cinema trip every other week, plus visits the trampoline parks and shopping in Bristol etc. Barely any girl boarders – parents hope this will increase. ‘Day boarding’ options from year 3 allow children to stay until 9pm.

The last word

An integral part of the local community, this caring and energetic town centre school offers imaginative, hands-on learning and plenty of extracurricular, shining particularly bright in sport and music.

Special Education Needs

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