Here come the girls! This bucolic Berkshire nursery and prep is now fully co-ed. It's big on manners, academics and life skills.
With an easy-on-the-eye Georgian mansion set in 150 acres of parkland and playing fields, Elstree is an independent boarding/ day school for boys and girls aged 3-13. This bucolic beauty went fully co-ed in 2020 and the number of girls has shot up to over 60 in just one year.
It’s in a cracking location in the West Berkshire village of Woolhampton, close to Newbury and within easy reach of Reading (about 30 mins). If you live in London, the school’s five minutes from Midgham train station with a route into Paddington and a bus service runs from Earls Court and Hammersmith.
The school is proudly non-selective, big on kindness with high academic expectations. Much work has been done to beef up critical thinking, craftsmanship, resilience and pride across the curriculum through the new Learner Profile – ticking the wellbeing and life skills boxes very nicely.
The Prep school days are pretty long, starting at 8.15am until 5pm-6pm depending on year groups. Day pupils can use the Late Club, saving parents making endless trips (Phew). Saturday school starts from Y5: church and lessons in the morning, followed by matches in the afternoon and parents are encouraged to cheer from the side-lines (without being too embarrassing). They’re a social bunch, so expect your diary to fill up really quickly.
It’s worth noting Elstree’s strong Christian and pastoral ethos, with regular assemblies, the kids eat with their teachers and the children take it in turns to pour water for their table and clear away the dirty dishes – so no food fights here, it’s all very civilised.
The big selling point is the epic amount of outdoor space. This is a school where kids can be free range. It has a huuuuge amount of space for sports, outdoor learning and letting off steam.
You only have to sweep down the drive to spot the amount of acreage available to play rugby, football, cricket and athletics. There are two all-weather astro pitches – one is full size, the other slightly smaller – for hockey, football and tennis. A modern sports hall is marked for badminton, five-a-side football, netball, basketball, volleyball, and they can bounce into action on the competition trampoline. What else? How about a nine-hole golf course, a zip wire and climbing wall ? Oh, and let’s not forget the heated outdoor pool.
Expect a packed calendar of competitive matches and 15+ teams are fielded so everyone gets a game even if they’re a wannabe Heston rather than a Team GB hockey star, like Hollie Webb. If team sports aren’t your thing, you can sign up for kayaking, golf, judo, and fencing, to name a few. It’s a Generation Game of activities. They play to win, but recognise that you need to find your fitness groove.
DRAMA, MUSIC AND ART
The Coach House is home to Music, Art and DT. The new Music School was opened by composer and choral conductor Bob Chilcott for music lessons, 1:1 tutoring with the usual squad of peri teachers. There are three choirs, an orchestra and various rock bands who slug it out on a Battle of the Bands nights. Pretty cool, right?
The choice of extra-curricular fun is long and varied – from Da Vinci’s Enrichment Club for Art and Chess to Fencing and Astronomy Club, music technology, cookery, history fun, Headmaster’s pot luck club and scrabble – plus lots more sport.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Elstree Award yet. Like a junior Duke of Edinburgh, it aims to develop leadership, team and individual skills, through charitable work (sending their old football boots to Africa, making and selling apple juice for good causes etc), problem solving and learning new stuff like cooking, navigation and first aid. That sense of service and community is really important here, and teaching kids to give back is a brilliant life lesson.
Performing is something the kids really love to do and they all get the chance to take part in a show every year – on stage, as a musician or as part of the backstage crew working the lighting, stage management and set design. In the past there has been quite a battle for roles that require a dress. Now that the school is co-ed, I wonder if that enthusiasm will die out. It remains to be seen, but I hope not.
As you’d expect in a school this small, there are currently 265 pupils, each child has a massive amount of attention lavished on them. The results of that is that Elstree feeds into the top independent schools like Bradfield, Downe House, Radley, Eton, St Mary’s Calne, Pangbourne College, Wellington, Abingdon, Sherborne, Winchester, Marlborough, Stowe many of them on scholarships. Thirteen scholarships were awarded to Elstree children in 2021 in Art, Academic, Music, Drama, Sports and All-Rounder.
Pre-Prep (formerly known as Home Farm) is a warm nurturing intro to Elstree. Little ones can join the term they turn three and stay here until the end of Y2. It’s at full capacity with 90 pupils, it has a separate entrance for parents to drop off – it’s less busy and overwhelming. The Pre-Prep occupies its own corner of the 150 acre site, but the children troupe over to the Prep for PE, IT, Drama and lunch every day, so there’s no danger of getting FOMO.
Head Alice Bond is a gentle, kind person with a razor sharp intellect and creative flair. Forest School is huge. I love that the children make their own sandwiches before heading out into the wilderness. There’s lots of learning through play and the transition to big school is supported through a buddy system and there’s a rather sweet picnic organised with the Headmaster of the Prep School and his wife. It’s impressive. But if you’re thinking it all sounds airy fairy, you couldn’t be more wrong. The children are challenged, and their learning, wellbeing and social skills are individually tracked using a whizzy programme.
Sid Inglis is a typical prep head – charming and impeccably mannered, as you’d expect from an Old Radleian. He still teaches Latin and runs the school with his wife Olivia, who teaches French. I genuinely liked them both, Sid and Olivia have created a warmth here that has come to define the school. They make a point of really getting to know all of the children, encouraging them to challenge themselves but with lots of opportunities to let off steam.
The decision to go co-ed was a natural move for Elstree particularly as the Pre-Prep has taught boys and girls for some time, and is in response to parental demand (one school run is enough to tip you over the edge, let alone two or three). The shift to co-ed, has lit a fire under Sid and Olivia who were fizzing at the prospect of developing the school further and what opportunities they can deliver for the children.
They’re very mindful of cultural changes too. Parents no longer want to pack their kids off to boarding school and only see them in the holidays. So they’ve increased the number of exeat weekends, meaning Saturday school happens every other weekend. On the Saturdays they’re in, grab the opportunity to meet friends or binge watch Selling Sunset. It’s the gift of ‘me time’.
It’s rare to find boarding provision that’s superflash – most children just want a place to rest their heads after a busy afternoon of after school clubs. Elstree is no different, with shared dorms for the younger kids, moving to large shared rooms for seniors. The dorms are cosy with family photos, and posters on the walls. ‘Nelson’ is the most coveted room with its amazing views, elegant fireplace and ornate ceiling, sleeping here must feel like camping out in the Queen’s drawing room. There are 100 beds available and roughly 50% of the children sleepover on a flexi basis, but they do have a decent cohort of weekly and full boarders. With the number of girls growing, they’re now looking at the provision to ensure space is readily available.
The Georgian mansion is called ‘Home’. There are no classrooms in this building, instead you’ll find the dorms, dining room, library, offices and communal spaces here. All the learning happens at the rear, with classroom blocks creating a quadrangle and pupils cross the threshold of the ‘Master’s Door’ – physically and mentally separating the learning and chilling spaces where they eat, sleep and relax. I love that. It’s also a Green Flag award-winning eco school. With the children leading the charge with planet-saving initiatives. Not so much a quirk, but it’s worth noting that singer/songwriter James Blunt and novelist Sebastian Faulks are Old Boys. It’s safe to say, they’ve done all right and an increasing number of former pupils have gone on to send their kids here.
WORD ON THE GROUND
It is often described as the ‘It Prep’ with a great reputation for producing blissfully straightforward, well-rounded kids. Elstree mums love it, particularly the ‘let children be children’ vibe where they’re encouraged to roam, climb trees, play conkers (banned in many schools – I mean, come on!). But there’s discipline and academic rigour too. My moles tell me that Sid’s almost encyclopaedic knowledge of senior schools and contacts are also proving to be a huge asset.
By and large Elstree gets rave reviews (recent inspection took place in 2018 and 2015). The ISI inspectors refer to the school’s excellent all-round education and pastoral care. It flagged up a small admin issue, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed pronto.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
It’s a common sense approach. Day pupils don’t need to have phones at school, so it’s a hard no. But Elstree understands the need for full boarders to feel connected to their families, so mobile phones are allowed but use is managed by the Boarding House parents.
Day: Nursery £4,000 per term (£3,100 with EY funding); Reception-Y2 £4,100; Y3-Y8 £6,300 – £7,400. Elstree offers flexi, weekly and full boarding (from the age of eight), which adds £590-£2,700 to the bill per term.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Outdoorsy kids, parents who want flexi boarding options and get a kick out of a bit of bucolic grandeur. Plus those who seek a nurturing school with academic rigour. I loved the emphasis on kindness and confidence too.
Not for: Those looking for a more urban setting, obviously. It’s also not the sort of place to invest immediately in the latest everythings. Your hard-earned school fees are in safe hands.
Dare to disagree? Have a look for yourself at the Open Morning 7 May 2022 from 10am to 12pm, and tell me what you think.
Elstree School, Woolhampton, Berkshire RG7 5TD Tel: 01189 713 302.