Brockhurst & Marlston House, Hermitage
This bucolic day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 2-13 is family focused, offering progressive learning, academic rigour and flexible fees.
Brockhurst and Marlston House is a traditional family-run country prep offering a mix of single sex and co-ed teaching for kids aged 2-13. The school’s situated on a sprawling 500-acre estate just outside Newbury that stretches down to the River Pang, with a dedicated 60 acres for the kids (lucky things). But hiding behind the period facade is a modern approach to schooling that offers families flexibility and affordability. A new hybrid classroom model gives children the opportunity to join lessons online, on demand or in person and there’s flexibility in the fee structure too.
There are currently 300 pupils, with class sizes of kept to a maximum of 20. The main building is a knockout Elizabethan mansion accessed down a sweeping drive with some sympathetic modern add-ons that blend in rather than stand out. The baronial windows, turrets, oak panelling and enormous fire places could give the impression of it being a bit stuffy, but it’s a warm, buzzy school, where dirty knees are the norm.
The grounds are immense, so out the kids go! Lessons often spill outside and sport is a big part of school life – played daily with A, B and C teams fielded in rugby, football, cricket, hockey and netball. If they don’t get your heart racing, golf, judo and tennis are also on offer as well as traditional country pursuits like clay pigeon shooting, fencing, fishing and horse riding. The school has it’s very own equestrian centre where pupils can stable their pony or learn to ride on the school’s horses and a modern 25m indoor pool. Rock up at 7.30am and the children can swim lengths before school starts at 8.35am – with the promise of a bacon roll to get them out of the water.
The performing arts centre (above) provides individual practice rooms, where kids can learn pretty much any instrument (there’s a long list of visiting peri teachers), plus a couple of larger music spaces including the sports hall that doubles up for performances with a pullout stage. Oh, did I mention there’s also a recording studio? Well there is, lay down your track and hit the iTunes charts, I say. There are senior and junior orchestras and choirs, plus a chamber choir and string quartet. Swing and R&B bands, guitar, flute and recorder groups provide other opportunities to make music.
The Learning Development Centre goes beyond the usual remit, giving extra support to kids experiencing difficulties to develop comprehension, study skills and exam revision techniques. The LDC also helps gifted and talented to extend knowledge, and assists foreign students with English.
Brockhurst and Marlston House’s USP is the diamond shaped co-ed/ single sex education. Boys and girls are educated separately between the ages of 6 and 11, coming together for art, music and drama and extra-curricular activities. But classes are merged at pre-prep and in the final two years of senior school to prepare pupils for scholarships and Common Entrance exams on an equal footing. It allows the academic teaching to be tailored to play to the girls’ and boys’ strengths and differing learning needs .
All the classrooms are kitted out with conference tech to support the new hybrid learning and staff got additional training. Nothing like the idea of potentially being watched to give you the wobbles. But the teachers and kids all rave about this brave new world.
The art and DT block provides plenty of space to let rip with creativity. So if you think you have a mini Banksy or a pot-throwing Grayson Perry, there’s no shortage of space to have a go. Whereas some prep schools have dropped traditional subjects like Latin and Greek, it’s still taught here. A big tick, if you’re aiming to send your child to one of the top public schools.
Extra-curricular has improved a lot since my last visit – and it’s also optional. I’d say more kids sign up for clubs than not and with 80+ activities to choose from, there’s a ‘have a go” feel about what’s on offer. That said, if your child is obsessed with art, they can immerse themselves into that subject by choosing things like drawing, painting, pottery and textiles. All the major sports are covered, plus ballet, boules, table tennis, horse riding and yoga.
They’ve also introduced robotics, programming and creative media. Despite the traditional vibes, the school is keen to embrace new tech – but only if there’s a genuine educational benefit. They’re not in the business of throwing money at the latest fad, just for the sake of it. I think you get the feel of it. Life is busy here, but you can reign it in if and simply choose to end the day earlier or there are plenty of quiet spots to chill out.
The weekend activities (day pupils can join in) definitely have the fun factor. Escape From Brockhurst – staff hunt the kids down while the kids try to make their escape from school – sounds brilliant. Brockworts (a Harry Potter-themed weekend) is massively popular as well as camp outs and Mountain Biking. The annual fireworks display is also a highlight for the whole school, with the Y3 boys and girls form the torchlit procession with their parents to the bonfire – traditionally lit by the youngest child in the school. Life outside lessons is creative, energetic, good family fun.
Although the majority of children are day pupils, boarding is a big part of the school experience here. Stuart Raeburn-Ward is both Head of Brockhurst Boys and Head of Boarding and he throws everything but the kitchen sink into his job, ensuring the boarders feel safe, at home, and have lots of opportunities on and off site. I suspect he’s a big kid at heart because they’re all having a blast. They have 24 full-time boarders, but the majority of children from Year 5 flexi board which is very popular (62 are currently booked in). It does mean there are a lot of bunk beds to a dorm. It’s got fun sleepover vibes, but not an abundance of space.
Only full boarders are permitted to have mobile phones on site – and even then its usage is heavily managed by boarding house staff. They only have access to their phone for 30 minutes on a Wednesday evening and twice over the weekend. It sounds heavy handed but there’s so much going on, I doubt they even give it much thought. Boarders can speak to their parents every day if they wish, but it’s on the old school landline.
Very Good. Brockhurst and Marlston House is non-selective but still achieves a high number of academic scholarships, as well as music, sport, art, drama, DT and all-rounder scholarships to boarding schools like Bradfield College, Radley, Downe House and Marlborough. The school motto is ‘no reward without effort’, so there’s a genuine desire to learn and succeed. Important life lesson right there. The school supports streaming able pupils to stretch and challenge them with the brightest moving into scholarship sets (usually Y5) or ‘accelerated’ ie moved up a year, in other year groups.
Not one but three heads. David Fleming leads the charge overseeing the whole school, while Stuart Raeburn-Ward is Head of Brockhurst Boys and his wife Bronwyn is Head of Marlston Girls. They all teach regularly. For heads to put so much time in at the coalface is rare.
David was educated at Brockhurst (it’s been the family biz for 85 years), then Radley and Oxford. No grandeur, but he’s authoritative and passionate about this new progressive teaching model. Having hybrid learning and a flexible fee structure is exactly what stressed out families need in a world full of uncertainties. With fees as low as £12,600 a year, that’s pretty enticing. If you have a particularly talented child, it’s worth asking about discretionary awards, too. It’s done on a case by case basis, but as a family run school they can make those decisions very quickly.
The one thing that will never change is the traditional prep experience. If his former pupils look back on their time here as the best years of their lives (much like he does, I suspect) – it’s a job well done. He’s a comfortable wearer of check and tweed which undoubtedly inspired the uniform here.. The key for him is to be the best fit for family life, maintain academic rigour and offer opportunities.
From the age of two, boys and girls can attend the new 51-week Nursery. It has its own building, offering a light, bright open-plan space with access to the outdoors. They can enjoy play in their little courtyard or small playing field with climbing frames and ‘Bag End’ – a cute Hobbit house burrowed into a hill in the lawn. It’s beautifully built and the children LOVE it.
From Reception to Y2, the kids are taught in the pre-prep Ridge House – a safe, secure environment and the children seem very content. They reside in their own busy self-enclosed area, with the the usual accoutrements of sandpit, outdoor space, good staff ratios, all the crafty stuff you can imagine, and happy kids. Learning progressively gets more formal as they move up the school, and swimming, PE and Music lessons in the Performing Arts Centre are taught in addition to the core academic subjects. The Latin and Mandarin classes can wait.
Without question the online, on demand or in person learning is new (post lockdown). But I’m loving the flexibility – fewer days are lost to illness or family commitments. It sounds strange but another quirk is just how traditional it is. The uniform wouldn’t look out of place at a shooting party with their tweed blazers, tank tops and check shirts. Personally, I’d like to see a uniform policy that allowed girls to wear trousers or shorts, although I’m told any requests will be considered. It’s unfussy and charming which is great in an iGadget obsessed world.
There’s also a trap door to a secret space under the school that the children only discover during Brockwarts – the much-loved annual Harry Potter activity weekend. Oh and it’s worth mentioning the school also owns a French château and a farm on Exmoor which it uses for adventure training and field trips.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Excellent. The new Nursery is open from 8am-6pm, 51 weeks of the year. From Reception to Year 8 the academic day starts at 8.30am and finishes at 3pm. You can pick up at this time or sign them up for after school clubs until 5.50pm. No Saturday school, instead they offer optional weekend courses. So if they fancy learning Indian Cookery, Archaeology, Bushcraft, Tennis, Art, to name a few, then book them in. Cue grateful overstretched parents everywhere. From Reception, children can attend Breakfast Club from 7.30am. It’s safe to say, the new Cabin café is also going down a storm with parents who can grab a coffee or a prosecco (*hello!) and a snack while waiting for their kids to bundle out of school.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Brockhurst and Marlston House has a solid all-rounder reputation. Ticking all the pastoral care, academic and extra-curricular boxes. I know quite a few mums whose kids go here, and they rave about it. It has that sense of old-fashioned freedom – the kids roam the grounds or are whacking each other with conkers, for example. Although that freedom can tread a fine line between The Famous Five and Just William. The most recent ISI report rated it excellent across the board – flagging up the need to give more guidance for even better pupil improvement. Probably the best ‘could do better’ report you can get. When issues arise, the parents feel they’re kept in the loop and are able to voice concerns freely. It’s a family school, with family values, so it’s good to know. They’re also loving The Cabin, a new café for parents to grab a cuppa or a prosecco (*hello*) with other parents or if they’re early for pick up.
The fees here have always been in line with the local average, but the new structure could make private school an option for anyone on the financial fence. Full time nursery is £3,750 per term, including lunch and supper. You can dip in and do odd days (from £65) or a half day (child care vouchers accepted). Reception – Y1 from £3,900 per term; from Y2 – Y8 from £4,200. Full Boarding (Y3 – Y8), £9,000 per term. Flexi boarding £42 per night. The price creeps up when you add after school activities and ad hoc boarding. Although there are a few free clubs (mainly choir and orchestra), expect to pay £50-£360 per interest. It’s like ordering sides in a posh restaurant, before you know it, you’ve got a hefty bill. Having the choice is a big positive.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Those looking to preserve their kids’ childhood. The outdoorsy, wholesome ethos has a touch of the Enid Blytons about it. There’s also a lot to be said for having the safety net of longer days and ad hoc boarding with the convenience of shorter days if needed to ease the pressure on finances and family commitments.
Not for: If you’re looking for a modern school who jumps on every educational trend, Brockhurst and Marlston House is not for you. It is proudly traditional, set in a country idyll and the children benefit hugely from all that space. It’s progressive in its approach, just not for the sake of it.
Dare to disagree?! Have a look for yourself at the next Open Morning 14 May at 10.30am. Private tours are also available.
Brockhurst & Marlston House School, Marlston Road, Hermitage. Tel: 01635 200 293.