Westonbirt Prep School
We were seriously impressed with this inspired community of boys and girls from rising 3s to 11. Oh, and there's a Senior School too. Tick!
WESTONBIRT PREP SCHOOL, TETBURY, GLOS
Westonbirt Prep School is an inspired community of boys and girls from rising threes in Nursery to aged 11. Set in 210 acres of gorgeous parkland in the heart of the Cotswolds, it sits alongside its older sister, Westonbirt Senior, a day and boarding school for girls (and boys, too, from September 2019), just outside Tetbury in Gloucestershire. The Senior School has had its home here since 1928 (apart from a brief sojourn to Wiltshire during the Blitz), in a mansion built by Robert Stayner Holford, the landscape gardener of Westonbirt Arboretum.
With a strong family feeling throughout, the Prep School currently has 140 pupils, plus a thriving nursery. Pupils come predominantly from local towns and villages including Cirencester, Chippenham, Tetbury and Swindon, but with some children travelling up to 40 minutes for the privilege. Entry can be flexible (once pupils numbers hit 20 in each year, the single class will split into two), children join the school in every year group and at every time of year – they have 10 pupils joining this January!
While the big kids in the Senior School enjoy a stately home with Great Hall, Reading Room and ornate library, it is a slightly more humble environment in the Prep. My knowledgeable guides, Tilly and Ruby, showed me around the pretty main building, with colourful classrooms and a lunch room (I’m told you get a really good lunch here) that is also used for assemblies. Outside, prefab cabins are home to Year 4 and Year 3 classrooms but they still manage a bright airy feel, with the children’s artwork displayed on every wall.
I particularly noticed the new Prep School library. Originally conceived and driven by a previous Head Girl and then taken under the wing of a recently formed pupil-run Library Committee, the room was deemed old fashioned and has now been given a total makeover, with murals on the walls, new books and a relaxed lounging area with cosy bean bags. The children themselves researched the project, designed the room, convinced a local bookshop to come on board and chose the books themselves. The Pre-Prep library is next on the agenda, so watch this space! There is also a dedicated iPad room and SEN room, with numerous play areas, a dedicated Forest School area called The Spinney and fields to run around in outside.
With the advantage of a thriving Senior School on site, younger pupils benefit from their impressive playing fields, a leisure centre with 25m indoor swimming pool, gym and sports hall, tennis courts and school chapel. Prep children also use the Music Tech labs and computing labs, as well as the DT lab and all of its up-to-date equipment.
The Senior School Orangery is home to concerts, drama lessons and plays (this year’s production is Mary Poppins, with pupils from Years 3 to 9 taking part). The school orchestra, wind band, choir and string groups also involve pupils from both Prep and Senior, encouraging the strong family feel.
Westonbirt Prep is firmly non-selective, with a one-form entry and one class in every year from Reception to Year 3. There are two classes in Year 4, one in Year 5 and two in Year 6, with a maximum of 20 children in each class. Maths is the only subject divided into academic sets.
The active SEN department caters for a huge variety of abilities, offering everything from one-to-one support to enabling the most able students to stretch and thrive. Learning support here is designed to be bespoke, and will prepare pupils for 11+ entry into the Gloucestershire grammar schools while also supporting the mental wellbeing of all. Westonbirt Prep currently sits at 60 on the Times Top 100 Prep Schools in England, based on their Year 6 SATs results, up from 88th place last year.
At 10/11, pupils take the entrance test and interview into Westonbirt School, however the Prep also prepares pupils successfully for the extremely competitive local grammar schools. Here, it is very much a case of supporting the individual and looking at what is best for each child, with no pressure on moving up to the Senior School. Saying that, 60-75% of girls each year go on to the Senior School, and now that they are taking boys they hope the figures to be the same for their male counterparts. The remaining children head into Cheltenham, Cirencester or Stroud to the excellent grammar schools there, or to independent schools in Bath. There is a good record of students achieving scholarship successes at schools such Cheltenham College or Dean Close, and occasionally to Millfield, but Westonbirt Prep can’t really be said to be a feeder for the big hitters of Eton, Harrow and Winchester.
Yes, you can, although at present there is only one boarding pupil at the Prep! Children in Years 5 and 6 are welcome to board with the younger Senior School pupils. The boarding environment at the Senior School is strong, with nearly 60% of the school full boarding and the fee for older day pupils including one night’s boarding a week.
Sean Price is the main man here, an impressive former academy-level rugby player (he was selected for Welsh Under 19s, no less) with a real twinkle in his eyes. When injury curtailed a glittering sports career, he looked to teaching and, after several years in the state sector, moved to Westonbirt as a middle years English teacher, before progressing to Assistant Head of Pastoral.
In his third year as head, he has already seen significant growth in the school. Saying that, you know you are in safe hands when he talks about the challenges and excitements ahead – that as the Prep continues to grow it is important to maintain the friendly family feeling of the school and to keep up the quality of bespoke provision for individual children.
He keeps his hands in the teaching pot, coaching rugby in the autumn term and taking gifted and talented students for additional classes throughout the year. He also invites fellow teachers to observe his classes, and those of their colleagues across the school – not to watch how he teaches, he assures me, but as an opportunity to stand aside and see how the children learn.
What is clear is that Sean is passionate about both the school and the children, with his raison d’être to empower each and every one of his brood. He and his staff work to find opportunities to develop each child, to challenge and engage them and to find the one (or more!) thing that excites them, whether it be robotics or cross country running.
As always, I asked the head what he is most proud of. His answer, interestingly, was similar to Natasha Dangerfield’s, head of the Senior School : ‘I am most proud of the children. I would be happy to put them in front of any visitor – they stand for what we do. They do their very best and come out of it as great people who want to improve themselves and everything around them.’
WRAP AROUND CARE
Children can arrive at 8am (although breakfast isn’t provided) and can stay until 6pm. Clubs run until 5.30pm (think Cooking, School Play rehearsal, Athletics, Tennis, Judo, Board Games, Speech and Drama, Fizz Pop Science and General Knowledge Club), with free extended care until 6pm.
As with the Senior School, Westonbirt Prep is a small school with an incredibly strong family vibe – the children say that they think of each other as sisters and brothers rather than friends. The size of the school also means that the teachers know every pupil, so any issues are picked up immediately. It is clear to see that even the smallest pupil mixes happily with older ones, and pupils from the Senior School help out in Nursery and Reception, and with swimming, sports coaching and after-school clubs as part of their childcare studies courses. The relationship between years strengthens even more through activities including the school production, with Years 3 and 4 taking roles in the chorus, while Years 5 and 6 have the chance to audition for plum roles alongside older pupils. Even Sixth Formers take part in the school production on the directorial and stage management side.
There is no looking up in awe or looking down with a sneer at Westonbirt, and it is not unusual to see friendships between children across the schools. Driving away from a lovely morning at the Prep, it is very much this feeling that stayed with me. They are one big happy family and if a child needs help, there will be somebody there for them. In the words of the Head, this is a small school community with big school opportunities.
The new Wishford partnership looks set to provide an extra layer of support for both teachers and pupils, with a much wider bank of expertise to call on – the Wishford Schools (including Heywood Prep in Corsham and Hatherop Castle near Cirencester) come together for such projects as a proposed Under 9 rugby tour, as well as workshops and trips that otherwise might not have been feasible. It is also a great opportunity for gifted and talented pupils to be put together with a larger pool of like-minded children, in order to pursue further avenues of study, both academically and on the sports fields.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The parents we spoke to love the fact that they are very much encouraged to be a part of the school – there is no holding parents at arms’ length here! They are able to talk freely, even have a laugh with all of the staff and Head.
Reception Day Fees £2680 per term, Years 1 and 2 £2680 per term, Years 3 and 4 £3600 per term, Years 5 and 6 £3865 per term. Nursery fees are £2800 per term full time, with individual morning or afternoon sessions from £18.75.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Girls and boys looking for a good all-round education that focuses as much on the extra-curricular as it does on the academics. If you love the idea of being surrounded by beautiful countryside (and fancy a Harry Potter existence), you can’t go wrong. And if you fancy outdoor lessons (we came across Year 4 practising for their Romans assembly outside in pouring rain, and having great fun!) this is your place.
Not for: Those looking for a hot-housey environment will want to move along – this school is about achieving a good balance between academics and pastoral care. The school is designed for kids to feel at home here, they have independence and freedom and the atmosphere is, in a good way, laissez faire. For parents who want a slicker, more driven atmosphere, it might not sing.
Westonbirt School, Tetbury , Tel: 01666 881301, www.westonbirt.org