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A dedicated teacher runs sessions on den-making; stick-whittling and toasting marshmallows over a fire-pit. Each class, from nursery to leavers, get to sit in the tree stump classrooms or climb on the felled oaks, in all weathers. ‘My son loves Forest School’, said a parent, ‘He started off a little business selling logs and sticks for stone currency'...

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What The Good Schools Guide says


Since 2016 Douglas Brown BA Hons (mid 40s). Originally from North London, where he took a degree in Primary Education at Middlesex University, before embarking on a teaching career at a local Enfield primary school. Then defected to the independent sector as head of sport at Duncombe School before moving to Berkhamsted Prep School, as deputy head. A fast-talking, fast-paced football fan, who played for the county in his glory days and whose office shows off signed photos of players, which engage the children, ‘My son’s a Spurs fan, and so is he’, said one mum, ‘So they often have a quick chat about it’. Married to the school’s registrar, with two young children. He and his assistant have improved the school’s assessment methods to apply more rigour, and it’s beginning to score goals, with increasing numbers of scholarships in the back of the net. ‘I want to break down the perceptions of independent education’ he told us, ’there is a perception that these schools are stuffy, unapproachable… we welcome all’ he says. Parents agree, ‘Mr Brown is really open to suggestions that benefit the school’, said one, ‘he welcomed my suggestion of Black History Week with open arms’. Others added, ‘He listens’, ‘Inspirational’ and ‘Not a scary head’.


A non-selective school. Entry by taster day to the younger years; from Key Stage Two, formal assessment in maths and English, ‘It’s not just about the academics, it’s about the whole child’. More arrive in year 3 for the Woodlands base. One mum told how she had been shown around by the head boy, and thought, ‘Yeah, I want one of those’


‘The proof of the pudding is year 6’, a parent told us, in reference to the increasing numbers of places to Haileybury, Bishop’s Stortford School, Queenswood and St Edmund’s College (Ware), with a few to state secondaries, including Richard Hale and Presdales. A few scholarships most years.

Our view

Petite school with small numbers, sixteen to a class in the early years, then one class of twenty per year group, until year 4, when the group splits for English and maths. A single class teacher with a teaching assistant in most years, who take a range of subjects on a topic-based approach. Specialist teachers for science, music, French language, Forest-school and PE. A previous art specialist left, which has inspired class teachers to get creative, with some colourful results, we saw displays of North American Indians in one room, and ‘All about Me’ T shirt designs in another, while Olympic Games poems decorated the stairs. All children have a reading session after lunch and library sessions are timetabled which encourage older children to share books with younger ones. One child we spoke to was a maths convert, having started at the school with maths phobia, another disliked double science, ‘I like short lessons, if you have a lesson over an hour, you get a bit drained’ he explained. Homework is via Google Classroom, which was a blessing for lockdown, ‘I was really pleased how quickly the school responded to lockdown’ said a mum, ‘It wasn’t all about education, it was about wellbeing so the children could share stories on Zoom’.

‘We do really well for sports for a small school’ boasts the head, as the display cabinets of silverware confirm. Teams compete against other independent schools in football as well as cricket (boys and girls), netball, athletics and hockey, which is played on Haileybury’s pitches. In addition there are snorkelling lessons and scuba diving in the school’s heated outdoor pool, ‘We encourage competition’ says the head, ‘but not to a level where other children are left out’. The children agreed, ‘Sports days are quite fun. If you don’t want to be competitive, you can just beat your own record’. One parent summed it up, ‘I think it’s a benefit that it’s so small…you have a chance of having a go at everything’.

A dedicated music hall with practice rooms named after musicians gives vent to an orchestra, ensembles and choirs, who sing at the local church, as well as the annual nativity and open-air concerts in the grounds – ‘always wonderful’ said a mum. Each summer, performers of all levels find their voice on an outdoor platform, in Mini-Glyndebourne, to an audience of Pimms-sipping parents. Speech–gym and Lamda exams in speech and drama boost children’s public speaking skills. We witnessed a group of seven young thespians in rehearsal, reciting poems. ‘My son was a very shy child when he joined the school’, confided one mum, ‘and has developed into a really confident young man through the Lamda classes’.

Tucked away in winding lanes to the west of Hertford, is charming Hertfordingbury, a venerable medieval village, whose mention in the Domesday Book includes extensive woodland pasture (still visible) as well as several ploughs, villans and cotters (now superseded by genteel commuters). The Sisters of Mercy in Hertford relocated their convent boarding school here on the site of a medieval manor house, taking advantage of the lush water meadows and shady oak trees of Hertfordingbury Park before upping-sticks in the 1980s and leaving the primary school in independent hands, to enjoy the park, without the Catholicism or boarding. The school is now part of the Mill Hill Education Group.

Today, woodland pasture is a distinctive feature, with the school’s own forest accessible via a gate in the playground. A dedicated teacher runs sessions on den-making; stick-whittling and toasting marshmallows over a fire-pit. Each class, from nursery to leavers, get to sit in the tree stump classrooms or climb on the felled oaks, in all weathers. ‘My son loves Forest School’, said a parent, ‘He started off a little business selling logs and sticks for stone currency’.

When we arrived children were happily roaming over the neatly mown lawns or tending the school chickens in their coop. The playground has been turned into a fantasy land, where alongside the usual climbing frames and netball hoops, you discover a giant yurt, a picnic bench of jumbo coloured pencils and a life-size family of stick men.

A row of cottages is used as staff room and office space while the younger classes occupy the lower floor of a vintage 1950s block, with direct access to the playground from individual classrooms. Nursery and Reception have their own playground generously stocked with play tables, climbing equipment and easels. As children move up the school, the desk formation changes from groups of shared tables to rows of front-facing traditional desks, with levered lids, ‘When you are new to desks’, said one girl with glee, ‘The teacher lets everyone slam their desk once; it’s really fun’.

Woodlands is also the name of the school’s own learning support base. A dedicated staff and educational psychologist provide tailored support to small groups in maths, English and French, using a multi-sensory approach. Children with identified dyslexia or dyscalculia work in combined year groups using a range of additional programmes e.g. Nessy Reading and Spelling, Times Table Rock Stars and touch typing, as well as extra trips out for hands-on learning. ‘Year 5 maths is cooking’ we were told, with hands-on experience in weights and measures. No speech and language therapist or OT, but the base is able to support some hearing impairment. Some children succeed with a year’s extra boost, others arrive specifically for the Woodlands experience; all join the main cohort in the afternoons. Parents were delighted, ‘The way our education system is, you have to work in one way, but Woodlands work individually. My son found different ways of doing things. There’s no stigma about Woodlands’.

Every class has the Learning Leaf reward system with detachable leaves added for achievements, under identified learning habits: reflectiveness, perseverance etc. Grow 15 leaves and you get a gold award which contributes to a book token. Parents are invited to Friday assembly to celebrate academic and sporting success, ’It’s not all about having to be the cleverest or the quickest. It’s about other things, all the skills for life’ we were told. The system appears to work, ‘Hand on heart, we have no behavioural problems’ said the head, which he puts down to the staff’s high expectations of the pupils. ‘The staff are very comforting, said one boy, ‘Everyone knows everyone and are friends with everyone’. A school counsellor is on hand for the children’s day to day upsets, ‘She understands you and gets to the bottom of it’, one child explained. More structured pastoral care involves the parents, ‘They regularly hold internet safety sessions for children and parents’ said one mum and we heard general satisfaction with the contact system, ‘Communication is brilliant…I’ve contacted them many a time’ and ‘The school office responds really quickly to emails…if there’s an issue, it’s dealt with straight away’.

Mainly a local cohort from east Herts, who are able to take advantage of breakfast and after-school clubs, like chess, sports or gardening club, which had planted runner beans in their rubber boots, we noticed. Uniform is practical: brown trousers or shorts and jumper with yellow shirt, with a tie (gingham dress for girls in the summer) topped with a jaunty yellow sunhat. We stayed for lunch and enjoyed a home-made chicken pie and vegetables, cooked fresh on site, and heard praise for the showstopper chocolate brownie. Parents are a sociable bunch, either joining the adult choir or organising themselves through the PTA to put on a school disco or fireworks display. ‘Before we lived in London where it was drop your kid off and pick them up. At St Joe’s all parents get involved’ said one; another added, ‘I’ve got friends for life’.

Money matters

Increasing fees as children move up the school, with discounts for siblings and some bursaries. Extra for Woodlands pupils.

The last word

A pocket sized school bulging with good things. Sport, music, drama, outdoor education and an inspiring academic curriculum is provided by a dynamic head and his team, with nurturing at the Woodlands centre. As one parent put it, ‘They are happy, and happy children learn’.

Special Education Needs

We aim to meet the needs of children at either end of the special educational needs spectrum. We withdraw individuals and small groups of children for both extension work and for consolidation and over learning. Our Woodlands class accomodates up to twelve Key Stage 2 children who are dyslexic or have other specific learning difficulties. These children are taught, with a ratio of one trained member of staff to four children, every morning for English and Maths. They are fully integrated into the main school for all other subjects.

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