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Tellingly, teachers hail boys by their nicknames. They are their friends on the corridors but certainly have them on task in class. ‘They push you quite hard but they’re really kind,’ summarised one pupil. We observed lively lessons expertly managed by accomplished, energetic staff with classes of only seven to 14, and parents agree the teaching is of the first order. The tongue and groove dining room is painted (deliberately?) Eton blue, and as at Eton and Harrow, this place its own vocab — ‘going across’ means visiting the loo; the Tuppy is...

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What the school says...

Sunningdale is a small school with a unique family atmosphere which means the boys feel happy and secure and as a result are able to achieve their full potential. Our aim is to find each boy's strengths and give him the opportunity to shine in different areas of school life. Our academic record speaks for itself, with scholarships won on a regular basis. The structure of our forms means that boys move through the school at their own pace, challenged or supported where necessary. Three quarters of boys play at least one musical instrument; the chapel choir sings on Sundays and occasionally at Old Boys' weddings. There is a pipe band which plays on Sports Day and at other events. We produce a musical each year in which every boy takes part. The art department puts on a large annual exhibition and regularly wins awards at senior schools. We have a good reputation on the sports field and one of the benefits of being a small school is that almost all the boys get to represent the school in a team. This does wonders for their self confidence. Weekends are packed with activities to keep the boys stimulated and entertained. ...Read more

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Sports

Polo

Fencing

Shooting

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2005, Tom Dawson (40s). Sunningdale may be a family heirloom but he could, one suspects, land a job anywhere. Educated here (naturally), then at Eton and Edinburgh (French and Spanish), he took himself off for a PGCE to Bristol to ‘check that I really wanted to do it’ before following the family profession. During a teaching post in a special measures school, he was rapidly hooked by ‘the magic of connecting and making a difference to the kids’ despite having to break up fist fights on day one. An enjoyable spell at Harrow preceded his return to the Dawson-owned Sunningdale where he undertook a range of roles under his father and uncle (identical twins who famously shared the headship) before taking the helm himself. Audible within minutes of anyone arriving, he is a tall man with a strong voice and kindly man-to-man demeanour with his charges.

Since leaving would presumably be treachery, how does he stay motivated? ‘I just love it,’ he replies. ‘Staff come and go — though not very often — and I encourage them to challenge me. There’s always a part of me that sees big jobs come up but I’d be miserable anywhere else.’

As at all great schools, there are new initiatives, ideas and building programmes perpetually afoot (of which more anon), and parents rave about his leadership: ‘Tom’s just delightful — he’s a good friend as well as a headmaster. You really do feel part of an ongoing family.’ ‘He’s enthusiastic and dedicated.’ ‘Very good at getting to know boys and what schools would suit them.’ No longer teaching French himself — ‘but I miss it like mad’ — he is ever present on match days, and loves teaching and playing cricket.

A couple of parents queried whether the school needed to raise the stakes on year 6 preparation and it turns out Mr D is already on it. A new director of studies has been charged with making this aspect of learning more strategic and the results are already evident. Study skills (AKA pre-test preparation) using ATOM learning starts in year 3, with Mr D teaching it.

The retired Dawsons still help spruce up the property and help with school trips to the school’s manoir, La Vacquerie, in Normandy (‘close to Bayeux so excellent for teaching history as well as French’). Mr Dawson’s sister Amy also teaches here, as does his French wife Elisabeth who is in charge of the year 8 scholarship set, and with whom he lives in the main building.

Entrance

In contrast to many prep schools which shrink after year 6, Sunningdale is crammed for years 7 and 8. 'We have quite a lot of applications for year 7 — it’s hard to fit them in but we always take a few.’ Year 4 sees the biggest intake but boys enter in most other year groups, bar year 8. As a rule, apply early. Boys typically join from Eaton House, Garden House and other London schools and some migrate here from rival Berkshire prep schools — never the other way round. Roughly 90 per cent board with a very small number of day boys. Around 20 per cent are from overseas — ‘the demand is phenomenal internationally and we have to manage it carefully’. Method of entry has changed for younger boys — families now bring their son for a tour with the head in lieu of a formal interview, plus a report from current school. 'I’m looking at what makes their eyes light up - all I really want to see is that they’re a boy who will take part.’ Older boys sit computerised tests in maths, reading, NVR etc.

Exit

Sunningdale specialises in preparing boys for CE to top public schools though the head will happily put his shoulder to the wheel if you change tack (as some have). Boys apply to at least three or four. Sherborne and Eton most popular recently, with Charterhouse, Stowe, Harrow and Winchester hard on their heels (though full details of offers received would be welcome on school website rather than a pie chart overview). As you’d expect the head has brilliant relationships with the admissions directors and housemasters at his target public schools, whom he regularly invites to preach in chapel. Five scholarships in 2022 (three sporting, one music, one academic).

Our view

A family treasure, home and workplace for the Dawsons (yes, including the black Lab), Sunningdale soon feels the same for the boys. Its size is its strength — any latent talent will be spotted here, say parents, ‘perhaps because it’s tiny and everyone has to try everything’.

The school’s wonderful history is nowhere more evident than in the old library — complete with timber panelling and club fender — hung with photographs of every past pupil including Sir Henry Cecil and the late Duke of Westminster. But it is rarely quiet these days, with someone usually going hammer and tongues on the grand piano or (on our visit) drums. Books are now housed in the fantastic newer curved glass library and reading room which greets visitors as they approach, complete with a balcony from which boys line up sometimes to applaud conquering sports teams on their return. The tongue and groove dining room is painted (deliberately?) Eton blue, and as at Eton and Harrow, this place its own vocab — ‘going across’ means visiting the loo; the Tuppy is a board displaying good work and compliments; the lunch queue corridor is ‘the Pipe’ etc.

Tellingly, teachers hail boys by their nicknames. They are their friends on the corridors but certainly have them on task in class. ‘They push you quite hard but they’re really kind,’ summarised one pupil. We observed lively lessons expertly managed by accomplished, energetic staff with classes of only seven to 14, and parents agree the teaching is of the first order. Helping to attract really good, subject-specialist staff has been some new staff accommodation in what is a pricey area to buy or rent — roughly half now live on site.

With year groups small, boys are streamed by ability and not necessarily age. Anyone who finds themselves effectively repeating a year just has their work personalised next time around. In place of form teachers, boys therefore have a tutor allocated for their whole Sunningdale career, who sees them weekly unless invited to join Elisabeth Dawson’s scholarship set in year 8. ‘It’s sad if you lose them to that but also a huge achievement,’ reasoned one teacher. Top public schools test children rigorously and often, and boys are well prepared for that here — an honours board listing fortnightly ‘orders’ tells boys (and parents) who’s shining academically.

Learning support is offered by two staff members — one is an experienced qualified SEN specialist, the other is being trained. Not included within the fees. The school can support dyslexia, dyslexia, ADHD etc but there were no pupils with diagnosed autism at the time of our visit and, perhaps logically, Sunningdale is less able to support children with more pronounced needs than some larger schools, and is open about that.

Rival prep schools quake when they face Sunningdale’s firsts — especially in rugby and cricket — though nobody can quite fathom why such a small school packs such a sporting punch. Match stats are impressive, as is the turnout for old boys’ football each November. There’s an astonishingly large gym for a small school (complete with cricket and badminton nets etc), another nod to Eton with fives courts, an indoor pool and on-site clay pigeon shooting. Other sports including fencing, squash and judo are offered through clubs, and some — eg golf and polo — run off-site on Thursdays. A new floodlit Astro allows for more winter football and some hockey, and for sport in miniature there is table football and pool in the old Apple Store, a hang out space for senior boys.

Curiously, school clubs are not listed on the website but include many perennial favourites (Lego, board games, chess) plus some less typical ones that are ideal for boys such as motor maintenance and the reptile club (they’ve a great collection of corn snakes, pythons and bearded dragons). Some are wonderfully old school — eg organised runs in Windsor Great Park and camping in the school grounds — and the school’s pigs (absent for a time) are back. A new kitchen garden is under development which fits well with the boys’ increased interest in sustainability (they’ve proudly moved away from plastic milk bottles).

Sustainability also forms part of a new Sunningdale programme, the Prince Michael of Kent award, named after and enthusiastically supported by another celebrated old boy. Internal award programmes are much in vogue these days and this one was partly inspired, says the head, by Bradfield’s diploma with points awarded to boys at the end of term, and participation the central ethos.

Visitors always arrive here to a musical backdrop. It’s on the timetable for every year group and there are more private lessons given each week than boys in the school. There are two school choirs, a concert band, rock band, three different string groups and a popular annual musical. This is a central focus of dramatic life at the school, with a French drama evening attesting to the school’s French links. Art is taught throughout the school (Classic FM in the background making for a relaxed studio feel on our visit) and culminates with an annual summer exhibition. A physics lab doubles as a DT workshop though the school was without a DT teacher on our visit.

Like most schools Sunningdale retained some good ideas from lockdown eg a five-minute break between lessons (‘It sounds small but it’s had a big impact’) and a longer break mid-morning for burning off steam. Parents appreciate that weekend and holiday work is never set, a perennial complaint in some rival preps. Chromebook use is widespread and parents raved about lockdown teaching, but ICT is otherwise taught within other lessons — there is no dedicated ICT suite.

Parents agree pastoral care is terrific yet singularly light of overt ‘wellbeing' initiatives. There’s just no need, they say, as even tiredness is noticed almost instantly in a school this small. ‘A number of us see the boys in different environments and we know them all so well,' explained one teacher. ‘Informal communication thrives here.’ A counsellor visits weekly to meet with any boy who’s finding life hard, and a life coach and specialist educator now visits termly to discuss issues including bullying, identity, consent and relationships.

Parents are tight-knit and are happy with nothing more formal than a WhatsApp group and steady sports afternoon contact. ‘There’s never any problem finding a lift-share,’ said one parent, but the school also puts on a minibus to west London for holidays and exeats. The annual summer picnic is a big family highlight.

Boarders

Weekly boarding now available to all, not just younger boys. 'So many of the senior schools are weekly boarding now, I felt we were digging our heels in for no reason,’ admits head. ‘And I got slightly bored of granny being 90 for the fourth time.’ Enticing boys to stay in — roughly 60 per cent on a typical weekend — is now a case of carrot not stick, and a new boy-led weekends committee has pleasantly surprised the head by suggesting activities as simple as ‘shopping in Windsor’ to add to their high-octane programme of laser tag, climbing etc.

The school’s art teacher has let her imagination run riot in a super recent refurbishment of the dorms which are fresh and full of light. One even has an indoor treehouse platform, reached by ladder, to read from. Smart and homely, each one has an older year 8 ‘dorm monitor’ to help keep order (or summon matron if needed) until CE term when a year 7 steps in. The surrounding corridors are covered with Tintin posters, team and school photos from yesteryear and shelves of bedtime books. The showers have been upgraded, with rows of tidy toothbrush mugs and cubby holes for laundry. It all feels like a very tightly run ship.

Senior boys migrate from dorms to ‘cubes’ — corridor cubicles big enough for a single bed, noticeboard, bookshelf etc, and school work is banned up here. It’s a place instead to play cards and read for fun before everyone listens to a story on Audible before lights out — ‘sometimes mid-sentence,’ lamented one boy. Nobody has phones (hurrah) except for overseas pupils who leave them with matron until needed.

Money matters

Currently 12 boys are on some form of bursary (excluding Forces families).

The last word

A first-flight boys’ boarding prep perhaps because of — not in spite of — its small size, and out-and-out specialists in public school entry. From the clay pigeon traps to the newly planned kitchen garden this place totally gets what boys thrive on. Brilliant habits and exemplary manners are instilled in pupils who benefit from first class teaching, heaps of outdoor space, non-device based activities and some cracking teacher role models. The whole place bristles with energy and happiness. That even families who’ve not had a seamless ride into their first choice secondary school eulogise about this place tells you a lot: ‘I wish there was a Sunningdale for girls — we will be gutted when we leave.’

Special Education Needs

At Sunningdale we test all the boys' reading and spelling ability each September. If a boy requires extra help he has one to one tuition with our SENCO.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
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
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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