Muddy says: A small, high-achieving rural prep with a brand new Lower School. We think you'll love the family vibe, welcome emphasis on individuality, 'joining in' and good manners.
Horris Hill is one of the UK’s leading prep schools for boys aged 4-13. It’s a hidden gem, found at the end of a long drive, surrounded by 85 acres of woodland and playing fields on the Berkshire/ Hampshire border. Basically it’s boy heaven.
The school was founded 132 years ago (1888 if you’re struggling with the maths), by Winchester College master Mr A H Evans with just 16 pupils. It’s still very much a small, nurturing school by modern standards with just 130 pupils including a new lower school for Reception to Y3.
You’ll not find a Hogwarts-style mansion, but a less intimidating collection of period houses, three miles south of Newbury – handy for speedy trains to and from Reading and London. Of the 130 boys attending Horris Hill, just over half board, be it a few days or full time, with day pupils coming in from Newbury, Winchester, Basingstoke and Marlborough.
Day Boys are able to stay at school until they have done their prep, music practice, activities and have supper, so parents can step off the after-school treadmill. No more stressful school runs, no more homework nagging, no need to hastily serve up a meal to your hangry sons.
Plenty, in an independent school you would expect sport to be strong, you’ll find astroturf, large sports hall; outdoor heated swimming pool, rugby and football pitches, cricket nets, a cross country route that includes Heartbreak Hill (a fiendishly steep climb near the finish, above), squash courts, 9-hole golf course and an adventure playground in the woods. Just to let you know, Horris Hill kids are expected to play, run and compete outside in all weathers. You’ll also find these mini Bear Grylls camping out, den building and climbing trees in Spain (a patch of wood shaped like the country).
On the artsy side, there’s a frisson of excitement with the hotly-anticipated new £2million state-of-the-art theatre. The new theatre will complete the impressive arts offering sitting alongside the contemporary music building, a light-filled art studio and the new enormous DT classroom (above) – providing a theory and practical space for young designers.
Toot toot! Uniquely Horris Hill has a train set room and the kids rave about it. It’s certainly a school that works hard to ensure the boys blow off steam and enjoy life when they’re not in the classroom, offering extra-curricular activities like photography, chess, cycling (they have their own wheels on site), sailing, shooting. The list is long and varied.
Boys are placed in small classes according to progress and, judging by the scholarships and destination schools, it really works. Form places are regularly reviewed and can be accelerated or delayed based on their mastery of a subject. Academic expectations are high, but there’s a calm approach to learning that enables pupils to truly grasp the work they’re doing – a testimony to the quality teaching and boys’ work ethic. Gold stars all round.
Class sizes are rarely more than 12-13 pupils (smaller in the Lower School and Y8). Naturally, the boys benefit hugely from the attention. The results? Pretty darn impressive. It’s been raining academic scholarships, one boy was awarded the top Academic Queens Scholarship to Westminster School, plus similar awards for Harrow, Magdalen College School and Winchester College. Wowzers! Although it feed into the big names, 29 senior schools now feature on the leavers’ destination list, so so there’s a greater focus on fit.
None of us planned for a pandemic, but how schools responded to this global crisis speaks volumes. Teaching did not stop at HH. Teachers were Zooming live lessons into homes every day from 8.30am to 5.30pm during lockdown. All academic subjects covered, plus loads of fun stuff like circus skills, art, music, debating, Lego, brain teasers and origami to keep them engaged . Although many of the boys are now back at school, it’s good to know, if there is a second wave, Horris Hill has nailed online learning. They really understand boys here, and everything from lessons to play are designed to get the best of them in real life or online.
MUSIC & DRAMA
Performing arts tick all the boxes in terms of confidence, language development, IQ, better exam results – and judging by the pictures plastered over the walls, Horris Hill boys are not hiding their talents – clearly loving the costumes, greasepaint and opportunity to perform. Almost all learn an instrument, one of the highest take up rates I’ve come across on my prep school travels. But there are many opportunities to act, sing, play or dance in productions and concerts, assemblies or talent shows.
A new Lower School opened last September. Headmaster Giles Tollit is unwavering when it comes to expansion. Horris Hill is a small boys prep and it will stay that way on his watch. With the Upper School pretty much at capacity, it seems a natural step to add a Lower School, with boys now able to join from the age of four. What can you expect? The family feel, individual focus, small class sizes and lots of time outdoors, all feature. I loved the themed curriculum. Take a topic like dinosaurs and the children apply it across as much of the curriculum as possible. It establishes a deeper learning and understanding, so more of it sticks.
The building is a light, bright, hub of creativity with interactive screens, lots of colour, activities laid out and, in the older year groups, they can write on white board tables. Don’t try this at home, I’m not sure marker pen on an heirloom dining table will go down well. Specialist teachers from the Upper School take the boys for PE, French and Drama and they mingle with the older boys during whole assemblies and chapel services.
The Boarding Houses, four in total, look smarter and tidier than my own children’s bedrooms (*the shame*). Horris Hill has tweaked it’s offering to suit modern family life. Now you can enrol as a day pupil or boarder – a Transitional three or four days a week, Weekly or Full. If your son’s a bit unsure, or as a parent, you’re not keen for them to board full time, Transitional boarding is a good halfway house. The days are long, starting at 8.15am and ending at 7.15pm (younger day boys finish at 5.30pm and Reception up until Y2 finish at 3.30) but no homework.
The younger boys sleep in Private Side attached to the Headmaster’s house, the 10-11 year olds move to The Hill and the seniors are in The Bank and The Wood. They have a homely, family vibe – posters and pictures are encouraged – there’s a cool TV room and the boys can speak to their parents any time on the phone or Skype. It’s home from home with the added comfort of knowing there are qualified nurses on site when anyone’s feeling under the weather.
Giles Tollit has been the main man for nine years, supported by his wife Molly who also teaches part-time at Marlborough College. He’s friendly, normal (by which I mean, not madly posh) and giving the air of a man calmly focused on the task. I liked him a lot. With three boys of his own, he understands young minds: lessons are 40 minutes, break times are 40 minutes. Giles is passionate about single-sex education at this age to encourage a have-a-go spirit. Plus the traditional curriculum and nailing fundamental life skills gives Horris Hill boys the edge to succeed in life. With the acreage here, there’s room for many more kids, but there is a conscious decision to keep HH small, friendly, family-oriented and inclusive. That’s clearly the USP of the school – and there’s no point reinventing the wheel.
There’s not one school tie, but 120ish different ones. True to their word on individuality, each boy from Y3 to Y8 must wear a tie, but they get to choose colour, style and print. As long as it stays round their next and not their head, they can be as bold as conservative as they like.
It’s not all about impressive results and success on the sports field… Oh no, if you’re sick of laundry, send them here. Horris Hill makes a point of teaching the Y8 boys how to wash and iron shirts and sew on a button before they leave. LOVE IT! It’s a brilliant idea and parents (oh who am I kidding, mum’s) will be thrilled. If they could teach my boys to use the wardrobe rather than the floor, the stress levels will be dramatically reduced. There’s a no-device policy, so leave the iPads and phones at home, they won’t be needed.
Prisoners Base is something of a Horris Hill tradition – like an elaborate game of It, the boys play it all the time. But I particularly loved the sound of the annual Balloon Debate – an opportunity to dress up and argue your point to stay safely onboard the hypothetical hot air balloon. This year saw Trump, Putin, Sherlock Holmes, Yoda and Family Guy’s Peter Griffin go head to head. I’m voting for Trump to get the boot first.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Excellent. The longer days certainly help weary working parents who are always fighting a losing battle with the clock. But the boarding options are perfect if you travel, struggle on a daily commute or want to prepare your son for boarding at senior school. Pastoral care and the wellbeing of the pupils is top notch, they’re well fed (three hot meals a day) with many of the veggies grown in the school kitchen garden. The Lower School also offers a Breakfast Club from 7.30am and after-school activities can extend their day until 5.30pm up until Y2 and 6.30pm from Y3.
Lower School (Reception-Y3): £3,800-£4,800. Upper School (Y4-8): £5,800-£6,800. Transition Boarding for 3-4 nights a week is from £6,950, Weekly Boarding is £9,150 and full is £9,550. Means tested Bursaries are available. I’d say these fees are pretty good value, as they also include all trips, SEN support, extra-curricular activities and all meals, including tea. Music lessons and some extra-curricular clubs such as judo are extra.
WORD ON THE GROUND:
I’ve been struggling to find any murmurings of dissent at all on this one. Parents love the unpretentious family vibe. And they rave about the school’s ability to get the best out of each and every boy regardless of ability or background while giving them every opportunity for boys to be boys. The latest ISI report agrees rating it excellent.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Parents looking for a school where individuality shines. It’s not in your face, but it is a thing. Super-sporties are well catered for and so are the triers. The size of the school means there are no gender boundaries and nowhere to hide. There’s an expectation for everyone to join in.
Not for: Parents who aren’t on page with a place where ‘boys can be boys’, with all the good and bad that entails. With a maximum 14 in a class, more rumbustious types might benefit from a bigger pond to swim in and it’s very traditional so, if you’re looking for a progressive curriculum, you won’t find it here.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it have a nose for yourself! The next Open Morning is on Sat 20 Mar, 10am Reserve a place or book a private visit another day (in person or on Zoom), simply email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Horris Hill, Newtown, Newbury, Berkshire RG20 9DJ. Tel: 01635 40594