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The school’s claim that confident and happy children are more likely to be successful in the classroom is hardly ground breaking but there aren’t too many where we see children humming joyfully while they get on with work set by the teacher or where teachers regularly have their pupils in stitches of laughter as part of ordinary lessons. The school walks the talk when it comes to hands-on learning too – we sat in on an English class where pupils…  

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What the school says...

Westbrook Hay is a wonderful co-education prep school located in 26 acres in the Bourne Valley close to the M25 and M1. It really is a beautiful safe haven for children to be educated in.
The academic results are excellent with the school achieving 100% success at placing children in their chosen schools. Sport is played at least four times a week with a vast array of activities as well. Children also have the opportunity to perform in one of the many productions held at the school and take dance and drama lessons in addition. ...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2019, Mark Brain BA (Ed). Educated at Warwick School, where he became set on the idea of teaching during a half term stint volunteering in a primary school – ‘I just loved it.’ Coming from a sporty background, his teen years also saw him coaching football, which turned out to be the clincher for his career choice. Following his degree in education at Exeter, he seems to have worked exclusively in outdoorsy schools – Dartmouth Academy as head of boys’ PE, Repton Prep in Derbyshire as director of sport and housemaster, Kelly College as deputy head of prep and most recently Stonar School as head of prep for 10 years – none of which can have done any harm in landing him the headship here, where climbing trees and den building are among the school’s hallmarks. ‘I see [this school] as being cut from the same cloth because children can explore the grounds with a lot of freedom and trust,’ he told us. Still teaches – ‘currently RS and a bit of English’ – which he describes as ‘probably the best bit.’ Like all teachers here, he also runs clubs – most recently cricket and chess.

‘This is the happiest school I’ve ever worked in,’ he declared chirpily from one of two sink-into sofas in his very comfortable office which is decorated in muted tones with thick leather volumes lining the well-ordered bookcases. Such a comment could easily be dismissed as gush, but it is genuinely hard not to be swept along with the sheer jollity of life here. We saw children having a whale of a time tearing around the fields, cheering each other on as they did their drama auditions outside and simply singing to themselves as went about their day. Described by pupils as ‘chatty,’ ‘cheerful’ and ‘someone you can really be yourself around,’ Mr Brain (surely the best name ever for a head) is clearly a good fit, every bit as sparky and energetic as his charges.

He describes his changes so far as ‘a polishing exercise,’ with marginal gains including merging the school from three parts to two (pre-prep and prep) and appointing a drama teacher. ‘Brilliant on communications,’ rave parents, whose praise for his ‘prompt and all-embracing response to the pandemic’ is about as good as it gets. All families we spoke to (some of whom have other children at other schools and therefore a point of comparison) feel the school was streets above others in the area. They even got a remote learning brochure (with behind the scenes intel and parental guidance). Working parents were grateful for the full timetable with set lunchtime for all (it’s usually staggered) and everyone loved the imaginative sports lessons (eg go off and video yourself doing certain cricket techniques).

Away from school, he can usually be found on his bike ‘desperately trying to stay fit whilst lost somewhere in the Chilterns’ or in the thick of family life in his flat above the office (he and his wife, a teacher at St Mary’s in Gerrard’s Cross, have three sons, one still at home). ‘Or, if my luck is in, I may have sneaked off to watch my favourite football team whose identity shall remain a poorly hidden secret.’

Entrance

Selective-ish. Most join at nursery, reception, year 4 and year 7 – and some in between, usually because they reach saturation point with the concrete playgrounds of central London or (especially since Covid) have moved from the state sector. For entry into nursery, children visit for an hour – with or without their parents, depending on the child’s age – which increases to a morning for entry into reception (or a day if it’s during the reception year). For years 1-8, children spend a minimum of a day in school ‘where their behaviour and willingness to join in will all be observed’ and they complete some standardised tests ‘to make sure they are meeting their milestones.’ ‘It breaks my heart when we can’t meet the needs of a child, but thankfully it doesn’t happen all that often,’ reports the head.

Exit

All but one or two girls leave at the end of year 6 (most local schools for girls start at year 7) while the boys nearly all stay until the end of year 8. When we visited, there was only one girl across years 7 and 8, though school has plans in place to ‘make these last two years irresistible’ with eg common rooms and refurbished classrooms (boys outnumber girls in the rest of the year groups too, but often only just).

Most go on to local independent day schools – Abbot’s Hill, Aldenham, Berkhamsted, Habs, Merchant Taylors’, Pipers Corner, RMS, St Albans High School for Girls, St Albans School, St Columba’s and Tring Park School for Performing Arts are all popular. Around a third go to selective state schools – Dr Challoner’s, Chesham Grammar, Aylesbury High, Aylesbury Grammar and Parmiter’s. A handful each year to boarding school, including Bedford, Harrow, Oundle, Queenswood, Rugby, Shiplake, Cheltenham College, Haileybury and Millfield. A few parents feel there could be ‘more discussion outlining the sort of schools that would suit your child.’ In 2021, 11 scholarships.

Our view

If the sweeping driveway – surrounded by fields, woodlands and some striking views across the Chilterns – doesn’t give you a sense of rural calm, it probably means you’ve arrived at drop off or pick up time when, as one parent put it, ‘things can get pretty hectic down the single-lane track.’ Fear not, however, as the head is on the case – with, for example, a new drop-and-go scheme at the neighbouring golf course (kids chuck their bags in the school golf buggy and walk, supervised by teachers, into school) and (pandemic permitting) lift share schemes. ‘In any case,’ scoffed one mother, ‘the benefit you get from the location is well worth the few precious extra minutes in the car each day.’ Set in 26 acres of grounds, every inch of them used – whether it’s to climb trees, play tag, use mud kitchens, take advantage of the orienteering course, grow vegetables, tend to the chickens or get immersed in sports ranging from golf to shooting to cricket – it’s fair to say she has a point.

The school started life in 1892 at Rye Court in Bedford with just two boys. It has had something of a nomadic history since then, moving locations four times before finally settling on a Victorian mansion a few miles from Hemel Hempstead in 1963. Back then it was still a boys’ boarding school; two years later it started accepting day boys and in 1970 girls (boarding finally stopped in 2017). As pupil numbers have grown, so have the facilities, which now include a handful of purpose-built blocks – most recently a performing arts centre with 300-seat auditorium, music practice rooms and a dance studio. The latter aside, don’t expect anything too flashy or modern but it’s all fit for purpose and all part of the charm. Outside, highlights – above and beyond the extensive fields and woodlands – include the Peter Rabbit garden where pupils are currently growing enough potatoes to feed the whole school, one of the biggest wooden adventure playgrounds we’ve ever seen and a magical pre-prep outdoor classroom with just about every activity and sensory experience you can imagine.

The school’s claim that confident and happy children are more likely to be successful in the classroom is hardly ground breaking but there aren’t too many where we see children humming joyfully while they get on with work set by the teacher or where teachers regularly have their pupils in stitches of laughter as part of ordinary lessons. The school walks the talk when it comes to hands-on learning too – we sat in on an English class where pupils had applied all their senses outside in the woods and returned ready to write stories about them, while young biologists had their heads stuck in microscopes studying micro-organisms. Class sizes are small (a maximum of 18, we were told, although a couple of boys told us their class was 20) and the curriculum is broad and balanced. Specialist teaching starts from reception in music, dance, DT and PE – and by year 5, all are taught by subjects specialists. Setting starts in year 3 for English and maths and there is streaming in some subjects (including sciences and languages) from year 5. Homework ‘not terribly heavy,’ we heard – introduced gradually, leading up to two or three subjects a night.

A full-time SENCO heads the learning support department (soon to be part of a wider wellbeing centre); she and her assistant both have dyslexia which they feel helps them ‘relate to children who have learning needs,’ (24 during our visit, no EHCPs), all of whom receive one-to-one support or small group sessions. Other areas of support are for dyspraxia, EAL, study skills and maths. One mother raved about the support her son got for handwriting, while another said the school had been ‘amazing’ with her child’s far more significant disability – ‘They don’t know all the answers and nor do I, but between us we come up with what’s best for him and the main thing is he’s never been made to feel any different.’

Judging from the claps and cheers from pupils watching their peers perform monologues on the lawn behind the head’s office, there's no shortage of dramatic talent – no doubt helped by the popularity of LAMDA (all but one child we met put their hand up when we asked who took it) and also by the fact that drama is at long last on the curriculum. ‘The plays are absolutely brilliant,’ confirmed a parent. Dance is on curriculum in pre-prep and an optional activity for older pupils.

Music could be more inclusive, according to most parents we spoke to, though school points out that they host beginner concerts and that the choir is open to everyone. Over 120 pupils learn an instrument - guitar, piano, brass, violin, drums, flute, French horn, oboe, double bass, among a long list of others.

We love messy looking art studios – splatters of paint here, piled up resources there – and this one fits the bill perfectly. Granted, it could do with more natural light, but it’s cosy, welcoming and was buzzing with activity during our visit, with year 7s working on their canvases (all pupils are currently doing one) while chatting quietly and easily with classmates. Every year group does some kind of printing, textiles and sculpture.

Thursday and Friday afternoons get big thumbs up from pupils – all spend one or other of them doing activities such as skiing, golf, sports hall games, coding, debating and theatrical make-up. Then, for those who want to (many do), there is the Westbrook + programme which includes wrap-around care that enables children to stay from 7.30am to 6pm. This includes breakfast (with their parents on a Friday – very popular) and supper, plus the chance to complete any homework and attend an afternoon club every day.

From year 3, children play sport four times a week and compete in fixtures against other schools once a week. Every child represents the school at least once a term. ‘What I like about it is that my daughter isn’t that sporty by nature but is always included in the teams and her sport has really come on as a result – it’s really inclusive,’ said a parent. Once a rather gendered affair, there are now the same competitive sports on offer for both genders – football (which some parents feel takes centre stage rather too much), rugby, netball, swimming, cricket, athletics, cross country, basketball and golf. Plus, there’s gymnastics, hockey, badminton, lacrosse and dodgeball. The grounds have pitches aplenty, a mini golf course, netball courts, heated outdoor pool and large sports hall where we saw year 5s warming up for high jumps.

Pastorally strong – one parent told how her child arrived at the school ‘very shy and withdrawn following a bad experience in her previous primary school and became confident and happy in a very short space of time.’ We were impressed that a senior member of staff brought up the uncomfortable topic of the Everyone’s Invited website before we even had a chance to – more than can be said for many senior schools. With training sessions and a webinar for staff organised the moment the website hit headlines, this is a school determined to ensure leavers head off to their next schools armed with respect and awareness of issues like consent. Hats off too for the school replacing the old house names because, as our guide told us, ‘they were historical names that have since been linked to the slave trade.’ Sustainability is high on the agenda – an apple orchard is to be planted by the children and the head is considering a beekeeping club. ‘I have an idea about a rota for library use that I must bring up at the school council,’ said a pupil – proof that, along with the new caterers also suggested by the school council (we enjoyed a mean cottage pie), pupil voice is alive and well.

Families – mostly from a 20 minute radius, some a bit further – mainly hail from St Albans, Harpenden, Berkhamsted, Tring, Watford, Kings Langley, Chesham, Chipperfield, Bovingdon, Felden, Hemel Hempstead and Aylesbury. They welcome the easy access to the A41, along with the nearby train station that goes into London Euston. Parents – ‘some pushy, but mostly not,’ according to one – are a mix of medics, lawyers, academics, surveyors and business owners, with plenty of dual income parents. A bit, but not masses, of ethnic diversity – reflective of the local area.

Money matters

Means-tested bursaries available in certain circumstances – ‘more were given in during Covid than ever before,’ reports head. Historically, sports scholarships have been awarded from year 4, which the school is looking to broaden.

The last word

For bright, spirited children who strive to do their best and love getting outside come rain or shine, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting environment – all underpinned by warm relationships between staff and pupils and an overall ethos of kindness and compassion. A school where children can be children. Top tip: if you book a tour, take sensible shoes.

Special Education Needs


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