Heathfield School, Ascot
This deliberately small all-girls' school is a stone's throw from Ascot, where boarding is big, opportunities are endless and there are more facilities than you can shake a lacrosse stick at.
Heathfield School is a deliberately small boarding and day school for girls ages 11-18 on the outskirts of Ascot. Rather handily it’s also a speedy one-hour trip from London, Oxford and Heathrow Airport – perfect for parents looking for a little bit of country and a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll for their daughters.
You’ll find this senior school – currently 197 girls rising to 230 in Sept 2021, where just over 60% board full time or weekly – in a striking Italianate white mansion. It’s a short distance from Ascot’s famous racecourse and its buzzy high street cafés. Be sure to head to Fego or Eliane Smiles in Sunningdale for a post drop off coffee.
First impressions? The sweeping drive exposes the stunning leafy 36-acre site, with playing fields as far as the eye can see. The ground floor, as you enter the main building, is very traditional with lots of wood panelling. But the campus stretches beyond the mansion house and gives ways to more modern spaces and a few retro adds-ons that won’t be winning any design awards, but are flooded with natural light.
Er, how long have you got? Facilities are excellent. The headline news is the development of a spinky-spanky new Sixth Form Centre that will open in 2022. The two-storey building will provide a larger space for the older girls, but it’s more than a building. The Sixth Formers will take part in a new life skills and mentoring programme that will help prepare them academically and socially for life after school. Let’s be honest, it can be a total culture shock starting a job or heading off to uni. Giving these young adults a toolkit to thrive when they take that daunting next step is on the money right now.
Aside from new developments, you can’t miss the stunning playing fields with six pitches for lacrosse, football and cricket. There are all-weather courts for tennis and netball and a large sports hall. The girls also have access to first class equine facilities for polo, show jumping, dressage, hacking and military riding. Polo is popular here and they get to play at the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club. They’re used to winning too. Heathfield Diamonds are National Champions and beat teams fielded by Eton and Harrow.
It’s not all team sports and ponies. The girls also have access to a spin studio, fitness centre, 25m indoor pool and dance studio – recently adding GCSE Dance to its list of options.
At a time when parents expect all private schools to deliver on academics, what else can you offer to equip kids for the modern world? Creativity is high on the wish-list employee qualities for the future, and it’s Heathfield’s calling card. In fact, new head Sarah Wilson wants the school to become nationally recognised as a centre of excellence – forming arts partnerships with universities in the UK and abroad.
Unsurprisingly, Heathfield’s creative facilities are excellent. The modern 220-seat theatre and music school with recording studio, teaching rooms and performance spaces are just two jewels in its crown. But with a reputation for stellar fashion and textiles, you’ll find a dedicated art library, pattern cutting room, fine art studio and 3D sculpture room, with Life Drawing, Sculpture, Printmaking, Millinery, Illustration and Felt making all on the curriculum.
When you look at the alumnae, you’ll realise it’s not just PR puff – Amber Le Bon, Sienna Miller, Isabella Blow and Daphne Guinness. Oh, and Stephen Lisseman, former creative director at Gucci, even helped students prepare their most recent Fashion Show, which showcased the girls’ designs. Wow barely covers it.
But Heathfield’s excellence stretches beyond fashion, with students flying high in graphic design, photography, art, drama and music. Not forgetting the Leiths Cookery School which is proving a huge hit. Judging by the aroma wafting out of the door during my visit, the girls are whipping up something Angela Hartnett would be proud of.
Academically, the impressive STEM building complements the sport and creative offering. The lines between the arts, science and technology are increasingly blurred as businesses look for creative thinkers to solve real life problems through tech and science. So it’s good to see the uptake in A Level sciences increase since the building’s completion.
Boarding is big. Up until 2015, Heathfield was boarding only but has adapted to offer more choice to families living locally, in London and further afield. The new weekly boarding is proving popular and there’s a handy bus service into London. Like many schools I visit, Heathfield wants to capture a broader market so flexibility is key. The boarding provision is upstairs in the oldest part of the school for the younger year groups, extending above the classrooms. It’s the usual story of Formica furniture and, as it is girls, unfeasibly tidy rooms.
The Heathfield approach is all about the value added with many girls improving one or two grades higher than expected thanks to small class sizes and individual teaching. In 2020 for GSCES 47% gained 8/9 (A*), while 63% gained 7/8/9 (A-A*). Impressively, 23% achieved the highest grade of 9. For A levels, 34% achieved an A-A* and 73% hit A*-B.
Most of the girls head off to Russell Group universities (Exeter, Durham, King’s College, Edinburgh, to name a few) to study a broad range of subjects including Costume Design, Architecture, Criminology, History of Art and Business. The Old Girls are smashing it out of the park, too, with over 95% achieving a first or 2:1 degree over the past five years.
A brand-new head. Sarah Wilson has been in the hot seat since January 2021, having worked at Cranford House and St Helen’s and St Katherine’s over the border in Oxfordshire. She is massively capable, driven and brimming with positivity. Sarah’s passionate about single sex education to give girls the confidence to do anything and develop academically, physically and emotionally at their own speed. She’s careful not to fall into the gender stereotype trap, allowing the girls to discover their passions freely, rather than follow the herd.
I loved the fact Sarah wants to divert the focus from girls meeting boys at discos and instead invite them along to speaker programmes and conferences where they use their individual skills to provide a different perspective but working towards a common goal. She feels it’s a more positive message than simply ‘marrying well’ and gives real-life experience. Amen to that.
Every girl who attends Heathfield has her name carved in the back of the chapel pew. It’s worth a nose to spot the famous names, but a lovely moment for Old Girls to know they have literally made their mark on the school to inspire future generations.
How cute is this cornflower blue Victorian tuck shop? It has been here since the school moved to the site in 1899 and looks like something out of a Dickens novel. Do not be fooled but it’s old-fashioned looks, it has a thoroughly modern Covid safe ordering system offering a super-efficient click and collect service.
I’d say Heathfield is a heady mix of tradition and progression – there’s no question that its baseline offering is ‘quality all-rounder’, but it also offers Art & Design, award-winning Photography A Level course, as well as Dance and Business at GCSE. Creativity has always been strong here, so it’s top marks for that.
WRAP AROUND CARE
All private schools with growing day numbers and a strong cohort of boarders, know they need to provide sharp wrap around care for all. The massive bonus for Heathfield girls is that day pupils can extend to 6pm or later if they have clubs/ prep and can even pull up a chair for supper.
In fact, all activities available to the boarders are on the table for day pupils too. There’s a lot to choose from: drama tech, coding, Duke of Edinburgh, trampolining, spinning, French cinema, fencing, Zumba as well as all the usual sport, music and LAMDA clubs. Day girls also have the option to book an overnighter if they have an early start the following day. Drop off and pick up is 7.15am – 8pm. The school day starts at 8.10am and lessons end at 4pm. Early close on Fridays, is a nice touch.
The day school fees are more expensive than all-girls competitor The Marist but less than St Mary’s Ascot. Boarding costs are broadly in line with other comparable schools in the county.
Forms 1-2 Day, £7,840 Boarding, £12,650. Forms 3+ £8,000 and Boarding £12,950 per term.
Scholarships are available for girls joining at ages 11, 13 and 16.
WORD ON THE GROUND
One mum I spoke to said that she loves that her daughter is in a ‘bubble’ – allowing her to enjoy her childhood without too many external pressures. Another said she thought the parts of the school were reassuringly ‘grotty’. A little harsh. Some of the buildings aren’t the prettiest, but it tempers the slick reputation is has as a favourite among wealthy London families. The reality is a place that’s homely and a bit more grounded than you might think. The teenage ‘moles’ I know who go to the school and nobbled later, tell me Heathfield is still on the right side of encouraging – no-one I talked to thought it was a ‘hot house’, and I guess the massive range of co-curricular events is testament to that.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Those looking for an all-rounder school – academically Heathfield is robust but art, fashion, music drama, photography and sport are all individual success stories here. Sports-wise polo and lacrosse are the stars, so if your daughter is more comfortable in jodhpurs or a wielding a lacrosse stick, this is the school for her. The huge co-curricular programme offers plenty of opportunity beyond the classroom.
Not for: Well, single sex education is a marmite subject so if you’re not keen on the idea, strike Heathfield off now. The USP of Heathfield is its diminutive size and have-a-go ethos, so if you have a serious wallflower just bear that in mind.
Dare to disagree?! Meet the Head events are being held on 16 Nov, 1 Dec and 10 Dec, 10am – 11.30am. The next Open Day is Sat 5 Mar 2022. Book onto this event here.