Hatherop Castle Prep School, Cirencester
What? Where? Hatherop Castle is a co-ed, day/boarding prep school for children aged two to 13 located in a Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty around 20 minutes’ drive from Cirencester, Northleach, Stow-on-the-Wold, Burford and Faringdon. The 220 pupils have the run of 22 acres of grounds which incorporate lawns, woodland and, I am reliably informed by a pupil, an elephant’s grave! This is not a fanciful notion as the castle was the home of a maharaja in the 1850s and he did indeed keep elephants. Anne Boleyn is believed to have used it as a hunting lodge, Edward VII considered it for his country dwelling (he opted for Sandringham in the end) and during the Second World War, special forces training to be parachuted into Nazi Germany were secretly stationed there. It became a girls’ senior school in 1947 and a co-ed prep 27 years ago.
Facilities: The Hogwarts-style main building presides over pristine lawns, including an Italian garden leading to a charming outdoor storytelling space that in the summer is framed by rose climbers. Nearby is an adventure centre with climbing frames and a wooded forest school area where, on the day of my visit, Prep 2 were following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and searching for new species as part of their Explorers project. The new head, Nigel Reed, is keen to promote both outdoor learning, as well as creative curriculums that draw different subjects into a topic keeping things practical and not just textbook based.
There’s plenty of space for sport – cricket, rugby, football, hockey and lacrosse (Mr Reed has a PE background and sport is taken seriously while at the same time being inclusive) – tree-climbing and make believe. A group of girls told me they have a favourite glade where they dream up fairy-tale narratives – and who wouldn’t with the magical history this school has! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hatherop is harbouring the next JK Rowling.
The only new build on site is a wood-clad theatre which neatly fits 180 and is used for assemblies and school productions, as well as social events, such as Burns Night and curry and quiz nights.
Mr Reed has grand plans for the walled garden, a massive and currently unused space, which he wants to half cover with floodlit AstroTurf, leaving the other half free for an orchard, vegetable garden and animals.
Academic results: From the child-led play in the nursery, the creative, topic-based pre prep curriculum and the emphasis on practical learning in the prep school to the forest school provision for all ages, the ethos at Hatherop is all about engaging pupils’ minds and imaginations. ‘The Adventure of Childhood’, the school’s motto (watch the motto come to life here), is at the core of everything it does and this emphasis yields results. As the head says, “Happy children learn.”
Class sizes are small, ten to 15, and pupils are treated as individuals, encouraged to step out of their comfort zones, and find and pursue their passions. A great many start in the nursery and go all the way through to Year 8, after which, being an unaffiliated prep school, the world is their oyster and the school takes great care in helping parents find the right senior school for their child. Many pupils go on to Cheltenham College, Dean Close, Rendcomb, Marlborough, Westonbirt, Abingdon, even Gordonstoun and Truro, and every child gets their first choice of senior school with an impressive number gaining scholarships judging by the roll of honour hanging in the entrance hall.
Boarding: Most of the pupils are day boys and girls, but the school does offer full boarding, weekly boarding and flexi boarding. Up to 28 pupils can board at any one time, with many day pupils choosing to flexi board, both for their parents’ convenience and to enjoy a sleepover with friends. Overseas students regularly come for temporary stints, which the school celebrates with culinary tributes and themed lessons.
Accommodation is in the main building and while it’s not shiny and new, it has a homely, cosy feel to it, which is something of a feat considering the grand proportions of the castle. The head has the boarding facilities very much on his modernising agenda, however, so watch this space.
Headteacher: Nigel Reed joined the school in September this year, only the second head in Hatherop’s 27-year history, so it’s only right and proper that he has plans up his sleeve – a more creative curriculum, redevelopment of the walled garden, growing and refurbishing boarding facilities, developing a new STEM centre, expanding the library. However, he’s definitely not going to mess with the strong family ethos. On my visit, a Year 6 girl told me, “The best thing about this school is you’re all a family”, which is educational star dust.
Mr Reed lives at the school with his wife and their two boys, who are in Year 4 and Year 1. He’s a teaching head (computing) and knows all the children by name, while his wife helps coordinate forest school, covers early years’ classes and also offers weekly emotional literacy sessions to any pupils needing extra pastoral care. As a team, they’re very impressive and it feels like they’re following their vocation not their career.
What else? In line with the school feeling like Hogwarts, it offers what it calls the Cotswold Flyer, a free, escorted service which carries boarders to London Paddington on a Friday night and brings them back to school on Sunday evening. The school has been a Lego Robotics champion for the past two years, so the pressure’s on to make it a hat trick. The list of other extra-curricular clubs is long – from yoga, ballet and Scottish dancing to dissection and cooking clubs, girls’ and boys’ rugby, choir, art club, and speech and drama.
Quirks: Being a castle, the main building has impressive wood paneling, a huge open fire in the entrance hall, impressive murals, glorious views and a very grand drawing room where pupils can practise fencing, learn to tickle the ivories on a grand piano (peripatetic teachers will come and teach pretty much any other instrument a child wants to learn as well) and enjoy match teas – parents are politely asked to remove their wellies so as not to soil the French blue carpet. Clay pigeon shooting is one of the more unusual sports on offer. And another reason to gaze skywards is to watch the Red Arrows practising manoeuvres a Year 6 boy told me excitedly. Red kites also fill the sky in the summer and all year long owls serenade the school at night.
Wraparound care: Excellent – you can basically leave your child at 8am for breakfast club and pick them up at 6.30pm if you need to. And you’re covered in the holidays too, with the nursery open 50 weeks of the year and the school offering holiday clubs during the vacations. Nursery starts for children aged two.
Fees: From £2,125 to £6,995 per term. Find a full list of fees here.
Word on the ground: Parents love the caring, family atmosphere, along with the nod to old-fashioned values without being stuffy. They also appreciate the strong, pastoral support which produces high academic standards without the need for hot-housing. In the words of one parent, “A child not wanting to go home from school after a very long day? What better endorsement can a school ask for?”
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Parents who want their kids to remain childlike for as long as possible and believe children learn through being happy not hot-housed. Families who live in a city and want to give their little ones a countryside childhood.
Not for: Parents who wrap their offspring in cotton wool – here, children are encouraged to play outdoors in all weathers, climb trees, get muddy building dens and generally live out an Enid Blyton fantasy.
Dare to disagree? You can arrange a visit at any time, but the next Open Morning is Sat 3 Feb. There is no Saturday school, but pupils come in for lessons specially and there’s always a theme – in February, it’s Round the World in 80 Days and Mary Poppins ideas are percolating for the summer Open Morning.