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Beacon boys also leave school with a thorough grounding in nutrition and culinary skills. By year 8 they can all knock up a loaf of bread, and the school’s own Masterchef competition is keenly fought...A few minutes’ walk via a quiet suburban cul-de-sac and down a leafy footpath leads to a truly breath-taking vista of pristine pitches rolling away to the Chilterns. Glorious it may be in summer, but apparently it’s at least

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What the school says...

The Beacon is a lively boys' prep school situated in Buckinghamshire. From the moment your son arrives at The Beacon, he will be encouraged, educated and enthralled by a dedicated team of staff who have one aim: to make every day at school a memorable one.

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2015, Will Phelps MA (40s), joined after five years as headmaster of British International School of New York. His first teaching job was at Aldenham School, followed by 12 years at Abingdon School where he taught religious studies, was senior housemaster and head of boarding. He’s relaxed, friendly, full of ideas and has seemingly boundless energy – to talk with him was like being bundled on to the non-stop charm express, one arrives at one’s destination slightly dazed, but feeling positive. No doubt some of this ebullience is a result of the years he spent in New York – after dealing with Manhattan mummies and daddies, home counties parents probably aren’t a tough crowd – but it’s also his natural mien.

Comes from a large ‘clan’ and something of a teaching dynasty. He was brought up in Oxford where his father was a maths don, attended the Dragon School (where his brother is now deputy head) and Clifton College, Bristol where one of the boarding houses had been run by his great grandfather. Studied theology at King’s College London, takes all the school assemblies and teaches his subject when he can, ‘but not as much as I’d like to.’ The shelves in his study hold not just books, but also clocks and wands, providing an insight into his enthusiasm for Tolkein and JK Rowling: ‘I wish I could be Dumbledore!’ His hobbies are walking, cooking (Sunday roasts and barbeques a speciality) and watching cricket and rugby, ‘I support, I don’t play. I was never any good.’ He’s married with three children, two at Marlborough and the youngest at Godstowe. Latest additions are two puppies, Merlin and Luna.

On taking the reins of the largest boys’ day prep in the country he had some remedial work to do, ‘reasserting leadership’ and being ‘genuinely present and accountable to over 1,000 parents’. The school’s demographic is a complex one: some families are pinning everything on the 11+ Bucks grammar school tests, others are aiming for big name day and boarding schools at 13+. ‘We must have equal commitment to both,’ says Mr P, but adds, ‘I truly believe that the last two years of prep school are golden.’ Likewise, while the school’s website isn’t averse to mentioning the number of boys who get into Dr Challoner’s Grammar, it’s clear that 13+ is the preferred route.

We found Mr P’s views on prep schools, and education more widely, to be both robust and compassionate. He believes that single sex education, ideally to age 13, gives boys a ‘sense of belonging’ and the freedom to ‘relax and grow into who they want to be. By 13, most know who they are.’ He is also alert to the pressures his pupils face, including ‘massive parental anxiety’ about the 11+, ‘We don’t want to overheat these kids.’ Believes school’s pastoral care should extend to parents, especially interested in how to encourage ‘resilience’ in parenting: ‘School is about letting go, allowing children to fall, but to fall forward. Children learn by making mistakes, they have to do this.’ Shakes his head when we ask about tutoring, ‘We resist it as much as possible, but it still goes on.’

The Phelps mantra is thus: ‘I run on three things. Be kind, be kind, be kind.’ He makes a point of ‘shaking hands with every boy in the morning’ and promises, ‘no grey suits’, no pupils ‘passing through unknown.’ Parents are impressed, ‘He’s always there, at the school gate.’ ‘Lovely, very approachable and so knowledgeable about senior schools.’ Optimistic? Definitely. But not idealistic, ‘Of course I don’t run a perfect school. How could I? It’s full of boys.’ We like his style.

Entrance

Early registration advisable - places fill very quickly. Informal assessment for boys joining at age 4. Entry points also at year 3, when an additional class is added, and year 7. Places occasionally available in other years.

Exit

Around half leave for grammars at end of year 6, most to Dr Challoner’s. Most of those who stay until 13 head for Berkhamsted, with some to Haileybury and Bradfield and most others to eg Eton, Marlborough, Rugby and Charterhouse. Eighteen scholarships in 2019.

Our view

School was founded in 1933 by Mr Stanley Fieldhouse and started with just five boys (hence the five-pointed star of the logo). It moved to its current site, Bois Farm, in the 1950s. Of the farm’s 17th century buildings only the timbered barns remain and prior to becoming a school they accommodated a variety of non-agricultural ventures including a repertory theatre and a dance hall in the 1930s (Chesham Bois must have been quite the destination village) and a billet for soldiers during WW2. So, not much burdened by history, ‘no quirks’, as Mr Phelps puts it, but nevertheless a classic boys’ prep in the traditional mould.

If arriving by road for the first time be prepared for a sharp turn into an unprepossessing frontage that looks more like a cottage hospital than a school, but never fear, it all gets better from here on in. Main school is arranged round a delightful courtyard with a tree at the centre and the low-rise wooden barns and brick buildings make for a rustic, friendly aspect. Inside there’s evidence of skilful design that maximises light and space, notably in the double height foyer hung with papier-mâché dinosaur heads and other large artistic endeavours.

Pre-prep is on a domestic scale with its own building and artificial grass playground; the latter used to be full of the usual climbing equipment but this has now been replaced with a selection of bikes, scooters and go-karts. ‘What the boys wanted was space to let off steam and things they could zoom around on,’ we were told, as we watched them do just that.

Throughout our visit we got a very strong sense that education in its widest sense is pursued here, with all activities, not just core academic subjects, being valued and properly resourced. Parents agree - we heard practically everything on the timetable singled out for praise. Maths is set from year 3 and five sets ensure all abilities get the attention they need. No setting for English until years 7 and 8. Library staff oversee a structured reading programme with online tests to ensure boys are properly ready to move on; an accelerated reading scheme enables them to keep an eye on free readers ‘who sometimes lose their way’ when they come to the end of guided reading. Research skills are also taught: ‘Yes to books and Google, but no to copy and paste.’ Huge praise for learning support: ‘They really understand,’ and also school’s attitude to the same, ‘If a pupil needs learning support it’s never viewed as a negative.’ It’s a big school but they ‘never lose sight of the individual child’ and ‘the teachers really make an effort to develop boys’ talents, whatever they are.’

The Beacon has been at the forefront of developing alternatives to the ‘narrow’ common entrance system, first designing its own Beacon Certificate of Achievement and subsequently becoming an early adopter of the not dissimilar Prep School Baccalaureate (PSB). Take-up of the PSB is gradually increasing and it is recognised by many senior schools as a broader and more balanced modern alternative to CE. Preparation is given for pre-tests and there are extra classes in year 8 for boys applying to schools who still require them to sit CE. Mr P is a great fan, both of the PSB’s value-added (it fosters independent learning and recognises achievement in such areas as teamwork and leadership), and the benefits of presenting senior schools with a portfolio of a candidate’s achievements. ‘The CE exam is very high stakes, it’s only a snapshot of a child’s ability,’ he comments. He also believes that the PSB allows teachers to flourish, ‘the finest teachers should be allowed the most freedom.’ School now also runs a middle years PSB.

Head believes that ‘eye to eye’ will always be the most effective way of teaching and the school library is bursting with books, but there’s a sensible balance between old and new tech. Classrooms are well equipped with appropriate kit and there are specialist-taught ICT lessons from reception onwards. Lots of e-safety work, with parents as well as pupils. Boys use email to contact teachers and all homework is set and sent electronically (paper free, no planners). Older pupils learn how to shoot and edit digital video and make films. Perhaps some of these skills could be applied to the school’s rather uninspiring website?

International studies, a cross-curricular programme that introduces pupils to a wide range of different cultures, is taught from year 2 to year 4 – parents are encouraged to get involved (over 16 different languages are spoken by Beacon parents). All learn French and Spanish from year 5 and Latin from year 6.

Art and DT enthusiastically pursued and boys’ work is exhibited around the school. Bright, paint-spattered art room and very well-equipped DT room where boys start by learning traditional skills using hand tools before moving on to CAD, laser cutters and 3D printers. Beacon boys also leave school with a thorough grounding in nutrition and culinary skills. By year 8 they can all knock up a loaf of bread, and the school’s own Masterchef competition is keenly fought. School lunches are beautifully presented and taste delicious: puddings such as lemon meringue sponge served in rustic boxes or watermelon pizza; ‘adventurous’ salads, curries and different breads – all made on site. Masses of after-school activities including sport, Lego, gardening, creative writing and ‘extreme reading’ clubs. Lots of opportunities for boys to get involved in charity fundraising, head also keenly developing partnerships with community and local charities eg making theatre and other facilities available.

Pre-prep assemblies, small plays and drama lessons take place in the Old Barn which is, well, just that. It’s not, however, big enough to showcase the theatrical talents of all Beacon boys, nor the ambitious programme of productions, from class playlets, to musicals, Shakespeare and light opera. Cue the splendid new Spinney Theatre whose completion was overseen by Mr Phelps while he was still in New York – it was obviously a hot summer over there because he agreed to the installation of air conditioning! There’s even an annual ‘community’ play for which staff, pupils, parents and even the chair of governors audition (recently Oliver!). Senior boys take a play to the Edinburgh Fringe every two years. All year 3 and 4 pupils do a LAMDA exam and school prepares boys for 13+ drama scholarships.

Masses of opportunities for boys of all abilities to participate in music and over 300 individual lessons take place each week. Music is timetabled from reception and in year 2 ‘bow or blow’ trials to help boys chose which instrument to learn. There are five choirs, starting with Little Voices and culminating in Beacon Voices (auditioned). There’s even a parents’ choir, Vintage Voices. School’s size means that in addition to the various choirs it can support a full orchestra, instrumental ensembles, wind bands, rock bands and music technology and theory clubs. Parents think the standard of music is ‘incredible’, one told us that the school’s approach is ‘what instrument are you playing?’, and another commented that music is so much part of normal school life that boys don’t view it as an extra commitment and are thus less inclined to give up.

Unsurprisingly, sport is a big deal, with masses of teams and a full fixture list. Head told us: ‘For major sports we field up to five teams to maximise participation; players’ performances are assessed post-match and movement between the teams is genuinely flexible.’ On the whole parents agreed that there was more than enough glory to go around: ‘The cricket B team and the rugby C team still get kudos.’ One or two comments to the effect that the Beacon spotlight might not linger on a non-sporty boy, but others disagreed, saying there were plenty of other ways to shine. Standard issue sports hall and lots of space to run about on site, but school’s stand-out sporting asset is its playing fields. A few minutes’ walk via a quiet suburban cul-de-sac and down a leafy footpath leads to a truly breath-taking vista of pristine pitches rolling away to the Chilterns. Glorious it may be in summer, but apparently it’s at least a couple of degrees colder than down town Chesham Bois in the winter. School regularly gets through to the IAPS national finals in rugby and hockey and has an admirable track record in cross-country, tennis and swimming (the latter in spite of an outdoor pool). Matches are played throughout the week and occasionally on Saturday.

Pastoral care is right at the centre of school’s three-part management structure (pastoral, academic, executive) and along with well-being and ‘lifestyle’ is a key component of the Beacon Vision, a statement of how the school sees its future development. Parents we spoke to felt that the school’s size was not a barrier to children receiving individual attention and monitoring; they said that home-school communication was much improved and that any problems were handled promptly and with sensitivity.

Catchment is from within a 25-mile radius: surrounding small villages, Rickmansworth, Chorleywood, Gerrards Cross and Aylesbury. Head describes parent body as ‘Very aspirational, very grounded. We have plumbers, members of the police force, doctors, London escapees and families where grandparents are paying the fees.’ Parents’ society organises all kinds social and fundraising activities, it’s a ‘very active, sociable group’, we were told.

The Beacon is a dynamic, busy and above all, happy place. It’s a big school that thinks big and while the head and governors have ambitious plans for the future, these are firmly founded upon the school’s existing core strengths and values. All aboard for interesting (in a good way) times ahead.

Special Education Needs

The Learning Support Centre at The Beacon exists to help those boys who are experiencing difficulties with academic work by providing assistance on several levels: support to the boys, staff and parents. Most of the difficulties come into the category of mild to moderate specific learning differences, such as dyslexia. We have a team of qualified specialist teachers, a specialist support assistant and a visiting Speech & Language Therapist. We also work closely with the School Counsellor. Our main aim is to identify boys who need help as early as possible and to put interventions in place at this stage. Research has shown that the best outcome for all is when intervention is in place early in the child's life. We keep up-to-date with current research within the field and aim to improve the boys' literacy and numeracy skills. We use multisensory methods to try and help the boys to achieve their full potential. We ensure that teachers in the school are aware of the importance of identifying, and providing for, those boys who have specific learning differences. The learning needs of the individual boys are also made known to all those who teach them. All staff have had access to training in specific learning difficulties. 09-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
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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