Highfield Prep, Maidenhead
This small 'family' oriented school – now taking boys aged 2-7 and a girls aged 2-11 – is big on equality, opportunity and emotional IQ.
Big news at Highfield Prep, this nurturing day school on a hill in Maidenhead town centre, has adopted a hybrid intake offering co-ed for ages 2-7, but will remain girls only for ages 8-11. It’s an academically non-selective, deliciously small, with just 100 pupils, and class sizes are set at a maximum of 18. Realistically, the numbers are around 14-15.
The school opened during the First World War in 1918 and the guiding principles of former head and educational trailblazer Charlotte Mason are evident today. Basically, it’s all about teamwork making the dream work with parents, school and child working together to get results.
Compared to some private schools with their posh science blocks and golf courses, Highfield’s facilities are more modest. The site is small, but there’s plenty of space for the children to let off steam or find a quiet, contemplative spot. It does have a multi-use sports hall, netball and tennis court, a climbing wall and a cool Eco Hub and Eco Garden that was opened by local MP and ex Prime Minister Theresa May.
As with all urban schools, when it comes to green space, it’s all about getting creative. Highfield uses the new £32m state-of-the-art Braywick Leisure Centre for matches and weekly swimming lessons, Little Marlow athletic track and the Muddy Award-winning Norden Farm for some performing arts activities.
Are you starting to think the school’s not very sporty? Wrong! Highfield punches well above its weight with district, county and national competition successes in tennis, hockey, gymnastics, netball and biathlons. They even have the next Emma Raducanu in their midst, with one Year 6 tennis star in the making being supported by Highfield every step of the way, working around her training schedule and tournaments.
Academically, the head feels strongly that exposure to the sciences from an early age is essential (perhaps to avoid bunking off chemistry and biology in their teens like I did!). To inspire a love of the subject, children are taught science and technology from Early Years upwards. The fun all happens in the aptly named Discovery Room kitted out with high hexagonal tables to encourage a collaborative working environment.
A specialist teacher comes in each week to teach computer technology – iPads are used regularly, there’s a suite of PCs and the children design their own games and apps, create content and basically do things that boggle my mind. Make way dinosaur coming through.
There’s not a school out there that doesn’t have some sort of eco initiative going. But Highfield Prep seems to be walking the walk towards a Silver Eco Award. The Eco Hub (a child-led initiative) has a solar panel and wind turbine fixed to the roof that provides for the kids to plug in and charge their iPads. All the display boards at the school are now hessian backed to reduce paper and plastic usage.
There’s a very good music provision, with 70% of kids playing an instrument in the school orchestra. There’s also a large school choir, a chamber choir, a Year 3 beginners’ recorder group, and instrumental chamber groups are formed for special events.
Strong. The kids tend to go to their first choice schools (a wide variety including The Abbey, Queen Anne’s, William Borlase, Kendrick School, Newland’s Girls’ School, Luckley House, The Marist etc) and receive lots of support before taking the 11+ or Common Entrance exams. Although academically there are no worries – max class sizes of 18 mean your kids are getting a lot of attention – I also really like the ethos here. Highfield plainly states on its promotional material that the kids are encouraged to be ambitious. If something hasn’t been done before, be the first. There is a sense of purpose – social stereotypes determining what girls or boys can or cannot do simply do not exist here. Work hard, be bold, be fulfilled and your opportunities in life are limitless. Love love love.
Highfield has a history of trailblazing heads, so no pressure for Joanna Leach. But she has risen to the challenge. Joanna’s been steering the ship for the past six years, having previously worked in the state system as head of Englefield Primary in West Berkshire. Back in the day, she was the first in her school to play cricket and football.
She’s incredibly passionate about Women In Leadership, and the ‘can do’ vibes can be felt all over this school. So the decision to accept boys in the pre-prep may seem at odds with this vision. Joanna explained to me that if we teach boys from a young age to be inspired by female role models and learn to socialise with girls and learn alongside them, equality will be the norm and not the exception. They’ll then take their modern male thinking onto their next school and the girls will continue towards the business end of their time at Highfield. On a more practical level, parents were keen to have siblings in one place as Maidenhead has separate Infant and Junior schools. It’s a bit of a headache having to view and apply for schools every couple of years.
It’s no surprise then, that as the Chatsworth Schools group lead for Diversity & Inclusion, Joanna is heavily involved in decolonising the curriculum for schools across England and Wales. Not just Highfield Prep. She’s an educational warrior. I like her a lot.
The nursery is very well-equipped, with the usual freeflow indoor/outdoor areas, and plenty of love and attention. They have whizzy touch-screen whiteboards to plays games – educational, obvs. By the time the kids make it to Reception, they’re paired up with Year 6s assigned as their buddies, reading to them, playing with them and supporting them.
Probably its biggest quirk is this extremely homely approach. I was very attracted to it, as I can see how it would allow kids to blossom but of course it’s not for all children. Those parents whose kids are ‘larger than life’ characters might want the scope to ‘grow into’ a bigger school. For a school of this size, there is a concerted effort to offer a broad range of extra curricular activities from ballet, art and chess to cheerleading, Futsal, touch typing, origami and board games, coding and construction. It’s all about choice, and there’s variety in the clubs available, but you cannot magic more space, so your child’s interest may not make it onto the list.
Awards for academic brilliance or sporting prowess do not steal the limelight here. Instead, children are rewarded for Kindness, Integrity and Respect. Which feels much more inclusive if you’re not a brainiac or über sporty. Termly Cups Assemblies are dedicated to sport, maths, English, creative arts etc.
There are also lots of wellbeing initiatives dotted around the school – Mood Stars and a Worry Monster are used to help the littlies understand and express their feelings. For older kids, Worry Boxes are dotted around for them to pop a note which are picked up by a member of staff to help them work through any issues.
Family life is important – so there is no school on Saturdays and enough time in the evenings for home pursuits, including a realistic session of homework for older children. I really agree with that, there’s way too much shoving pressure down kids’ throats at way too young an age. Certainly there’s no hot-housing here, it’s a lovely, nurturing, family-style environment for the kids, a kind of everything in moderation approach.
WRAP AROUND CARE
The school day runs from 8.30am to 3.30pm. Years 3-6 finish at 3.45pm, but kids can be dropped off at 7.45am for Breakfast Club and The Den After School Club runs until 6pm. A virtual high five from working parents.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Nurturing, friendly, effective. The parents I talked to love the fact that the children are allowed to stay young here – and that was my impression too.. The emphasis on equality and emotional IQ goes down a treat. There are so many extraordinary women celebrated around the school, many that were totally new to me.
Very good value, the fees are around 20% less than the average private school. Reception, £3,330 per term; Y1&2 £3,570; Y3&4 £3,840; Y5&6 £4,355. Fees include tutoring for Common entrance and 11+ exams, but hot lunch, trips, breakfast club and after school care are all extra.
The Chatsworth Schools Fellowship, inspired by Sir Ken Robinson, is an opportunity for a girl from Y3 upwards, who is outstanding in Art, Music, Drama or Dance to have a small reduction in fees and extra coaching. They will be entrepreneurial by nature, courageous by spirit and exhibit an ability to lead. Click here for more info.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Children who prefer a smaller, more intimate and ‘family’ oriented school. Parents who care about the academics but resolutely don’t want to hot-house their kids or force them to grow up too fast. Anyone looking for good value education – at 20% less than most private schools it may open up an option not previously thought available to some families.
Not for: Those who like the ‘grandness’ of country private schools. The main building is attractive, but it occupies a compact site. Kids with ‘large’ personalities might do better at a bigger school with more of a pecking order. It didn’t bother me particularly, but there’s a bit of road and train noise, but not unexpected given its location.
Dare to disagree: Oh be my guest! The next Open Day is Fri 15 October at 9.30am. Take a look and then let me know what you think.
Highfield Preparatory School, 2 West Road, Maidenhead SL6 1PD Tel: 01628 624918