Horris Hill Prep, Newbury
A small, high-achieving rural prep where outdoor learning is huge. It's got a family vibe, welcome emphasis on individuality and is shaking off its overtly traditonal reputation.
Horris Hill is one of the UK’s leading prep schools for children aged 4-13. It’s a hidden gem, found at the end of a long drive, surrounded by 65 acres of woodland and playing fields on the Berkshire/ Hampshire border. Basically it’s kid heaven.
The school was founded in 1888 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 110 children including a new co-ed Lower School from nursery 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 110 children attending Horris Hill, 60% board, be it a few days or full time, with day pupils coming in from Newbury, Winchester, Basingstoke and Marlborough.
The school is now entering a new phase in its history having recently been bought by the Forfar Group – owners of eight nurseries and prep schools in the UK. What does this mean? A big wedge of investment for starters (£5million over five years, to be exact). IT has been beefed up, plans are in motion for new STEM and art facilities, a woodland adventure playground and forest school and a co-ed Lower School will open this year. Plans for an indoor swimming pool are currently being drawn up and other general sprucing.
Plenty, in an independent school you would expect sport to be strong, you’ll find astroturf, large sports hall with winter cricket nets; rugby and football pitches, a 25m outdoor heated swimming pool, a cross country route that includes Heartbreak Hill (a fiendishly steep climb near the finish, above), squash courts and 9-hole golf course. A new £100,000 woodland adventure playground and zip wire for the Seniors are coming soon.
Outdoor learning is a huge part of Horris Hill’s DNA. 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). A new Wild Child Expedition has been introduced for the Upper School kids to hone their bushcraft skills – building survival skills, self reliance and a love of outdoor pursuits.
MUSIC/ DRAMA/ ART
On the artsy side, the £2million state-of-the-art David Brownlow theatre is the school’s crown jewel. 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 – providing a theory and practical space for young designers.
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 kids are not hiding their talents. The Watermill Theatre pros also provide weekly Drama and Lamda sessions.
The Music School is also impressive – a modern, purpose-built building, featuring a chamber performance space with a grand piano, 23 practice rooms plus a computer and recording room. Almost all learn an instrument, one of the highest take up rates I’ve come across on my prep school travels. There are many opportunities to act, sing, play, dance or learn the techy side in productions, concerts or talent shows.
STEM and Art are earmarked for even more improvement, with a new art studio, pottery workshop and kiln planned and CAD software. Once work is completed arts science and design will create a STEAM hub.
Children are placed in small classes according to progress and, judging by the scholarships and destination schools, it really works. Progress is regularly reviewed and awards are dished out for effort, giving every child the opportunity to have their name up in lights. 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 children benefit hugely from the attention. The results? Pretty darn impressive. Although it feeds into the big names – Winchester, Harrow, Eton, Radley, Charterhouse, Marlborough and Sherborne – 29 senior schools now feature on the leavers’ destination list, so so there’s a greater focus on fit.
Toot toot! Uniquely Horris Hill also has a train set room and the kids (and grown ups) 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 Lego, Snooker, Model Trains, Chess, Table Tennis, Squash, Judo, Kitchen Garden, Cycling, Golf, Climbing, Photography, Brain Games, Debating, Raspberry Pi, Stem and Robotics. The list is long and varied.
Here come the girls! A new co-ed nursery will be added to the Lower School, taking boys and girls from the age of two. A blessing for families who want to reduce the number of drop offs and school run stress levels. Numbers will rise, but not to the point that it will change Horris Hill’s USP. There used to be a co-ed nursery here donkeys years ago, so although not new, the hope is to offer girls the same opportunities as boys. It’s inevitable co-ed will filter through the years groups but it’ll take years before it reaches Y8.
What can you expect? The family feel, individual focus, small class sizes and lots of time outdoors. Forest School is massive. 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 children 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. It’s worth noting the boarding staff are amazing. They live with the children and really make their time together as home from home as possible.
Dr Steve Bailey has taken the leadership reins in September 2021. He has a wealth of prep school experience having previously been head at Westminster Under School in London at Twyford School in Winchester and he’s a Royal Marine Reserve. Safe pair of hands and man who gets things done. His plan is to steer the ship for one year, but has made such a positive impression on the staff, pupils and parents that everyone wants him to stay longer.
He’s not planning on tinkering with the essence of Horris Hill, but he will drive through the changes necessary to secure its future and ensure the school is fit for purpose. And, boy, has he been busy. He’s focussed on making improvements that will benefit the children the most – Chromebooks for all Upper School pupils, iPads for the Lower School, a new adventure playground, large outdoor classroom, play areas, bike track, tree houses and teepees. He’s also upgraded the technology infrastructure. Dull by vital. Next on the wish list? He’s looking at redesigning the sports facilities to incorporate an indoor 25m swimming pool complex. But he’s also improved staff communication, introducing walkie talkies. Simple but effective. I like Steve a lot. He’s impressive, knows what works and gets stuff done. A man of action not hot air. Will he stay beyond the 12 months? He says not. But the pleas for him to stay longer are getting louder.
There’s not one school tie, but 120ish different ones. True to their word on individuality, each child 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 or 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 children 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 floordrobe, I’d be positively zen.
Prisoners Base is something of a Horris Hill tradition – like an elaborate game of It. I 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. Trump did manage to stay in the basket. No shocks there.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
There’s a no-device policy, so leave the iPads/ Apple Watches and phones at home, they won’t be needed. All pupils have a Chromebook or iPad available to use in class and boarders are given time and privacy to contact home.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Excellent. The longer days certainly help weary working parents who are always fighting a losing battle with the clock. Day pupils 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.
The boarding options are great if you travel, struggle on a daily commute or want to prepare your son for senior school boarding. Pastoral care and the wellbeing of the pupils is top notch, they’re well fed with many of the veggies grown in the school kitchen garden. The school also offers 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): £3,950-£5,000. Upper School (Y4-8): £6,050-£7,100. Transition Boarding for 3-4 nights a week is from £7,250, Weekly Boarding is from £7,875 and full is from £9,975. 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:
With change comes the fear of the unknown. But my moles like what they see so far. They’re excited about the improvements, they’re keen for the school to keep its nurturing vibe, and rave about the school’s ability to get the best out of each and every boy. Oh, and you won’t hear any complaints about only ever having to buy one PE kit. Kit is swapped in as and when needed – sustainable and easier on the pocket. Of course the mere mention of co-ed in a single sex setting, will always get a mixed response.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Parents looking for a school where individuality shines and there’s a have-a-go spirit. It’s not in your face, but it is a thing. Super-sporties are well catered for and the outdoorsy nature of the school is a big tick.
Not for: With a maximum 15 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 Lower School Stay and Play is on 11 Feb, 9am-10.30am Whole school Open Day 21 May, 9.30am-12.30pm. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your place.
Horris Hill, Newtown, Newbury, Berkshire RG20 9DJ. Tel: 01635 40594