Sunningdale School, Ascot
Sunningdale is a superb family-run day and boarding prep where boys work hard and play hard. It's small, proudly non-selective and incredibly homely.
Hidden in 25 acres of woodland and playing fields, Sunningdale School is an idyllic country prep for boys from 7-13. This day and boarding school near leafy Ascot, is very small, with just 110 boys, and is one of the last few family run prep schools in the UK.
The main building is an attractive red brick Victorian villa and has the feel of a family home for the very good reason that it is! Not that it’s a relic, the new library is a modern masterclass and plans are in motion to create a new pavilion – a ‘nerve centre for Sunningdale Sport’.
The current headmaster Tom Dawson took over from his own father and uncle, twins who ran the school together for 38 years, and you’re likely to find the family dogs roaming the grounds and in the classrooms. Hand on heart, it’s like no school I’ve ever been to before, just incredibly warm and relaxed.
No prep school worth its salt doesn’t have its share of wow facilities and Sunningdale can boast its flood lit all weather pitches, indoor heated swimming pool, outdoor tennis courts, a 7-hole golf course in the grounds, large sports hall with cricket nets, and, with Eton fives played at the school since 1892, there are three courts.
The spinky spanky new pavilion will be next major new addition. It will become the school’s sporting hub, providing new changing rooms, meeting rooms, with space for target setting, video analysis, strength and conditioning and wellbeing sessions, as well as match teas and a permanent display of Sunningdale sporting memorabilia.
There is a library with no books! No need to reach for the smelling salts, the original wood-panelled room has become an intimate space for musical concerts as well as socials. The modern library building, all curved contours and sheet glass, is a lovely recent addition, and the art room is impressive. The head openly claims he doesn’t want to get into a facilities ‘arms war’ and building stuff just for the prospectus – if it benefits the boys, it’s in. An outdoor kitchen for pizzas and pool time is currently on the wish list.
Sunningdale is proudly non-selective, but it’s no slouch academically. Last year the majority of children were offered places at top public schools like Eton, Harrow, Stowe, Sherborne, Winchester and Charterhouse, with over a third of the boys awarded scholarships, including an Honorary Music Exhibition to Eton. Impressive.
The Sunningdale way is to set academically rather than by age, but taking into account social factors. Progress is assessed weekly. At the end of each term the boys’ progress is reviewed and if they feel they are ready to take the next step they could move up a form to ensure they’re challenged. By the time they leave in Y8, the boys are working beyond GCSE level.
With such beautiful grounds, there’s a massive amount of sport going on (90 minutes of play every single day), with almost all the boys representing the school at some level. Clearly a prep of this size isn’t going to compete with a much larger school in terms of silverware, although they do very very well especially at rugby, football, cricket and Eton Fives (a type of handball). But But tennis, squash, golf, table tennis, athletics, cross country, basketball, indoor hockey, fencing, judo and air rifle shooting are all on tap here too.
MUSIC/ ART/ DRAMA
On the music front, there are the usual peri teachers to facilitate whatever weird instrument your kids want to learn. My usual caveats apply in terms of orchestras – it’s hard to pull one together with so few pupils – but there are 25 boys in the choir and Sunningdale has quite a few Grade 8 performers.
LAMDA has recently been introduced to beef up the school’s performing arts offering and the art department, headed up by Amy Dawson, is very good, helping even the most reluctant artist to surprise themselves with their endeavours. Amy is very talented, and incredibly warm, managing to eek out creativity in every individual. The DT rooms has recently been refurbished and the boys are putting them to good use. Once they’ve nailed the basics, they can move onto fun projects with computer aided design and go wild with the 3D printer, laser etching and more traditional tools.
Tom Dawson is in some ways a typical prep head – privately educated, a boarder himself at school age, impeccably mannered as you’d expect from an Old Etonian, a comfortable wearer of cord and tweed (both of which are in the school uniform as it happens).
I genuinely liked him because I can see he’s really passionate about offering the boys a traditional school experience in the best sense of the word – I absolutely loved the fact that house points at this school are awarded for resilience, courage, kindness, self-discipline and – my favourite – zest for life. It really encourages kids not to just think in terms of academic achievement and the longer I’m on the planet the more I’m convinced that charm, kindness and the ability to get on with others is the skill set most required for success. Ultimately, Tom wants the boys to have fun but I think he enjoys getting stuck in as much as the boys.
Sunningdale was where Tom Dawson grew up and he clearly feels a sort of destiny to what he’s doing. His dad is still involved in the school and his sister works here too, so it’s a massive family undertaking.
It’s rare I see boarding provision that’s superflash – most boys just want a place to rest their heads after bombing around at after school clubs. But rooms here are something else. Amy Dawson (Sunningdale’s in-house artist, Head of Boarding and Tom’s sister), has lavished the dorms with love – the Castle room is a favourite but personally I’d be calling shotgun in the Jungle room. As the boys get older the decor gets a bit more sophisticated, but It’s not just a place to sleep, it’s has a home from home vibe.
Pastoral care is top notch here but they also go the extra mile. You feel it the minute you walk through the door. But to reassure anxious parents, Sunningdale is the first boarding school in the UK to install a Happy or Not machine, which enables staff to track how boys are feeling. Love love love.
Boys can board full or weekly – and there’s more flexibility for parents with the option to enjoy a Saturday night at home as a family. Plus exeat weekends every two-three weeks. The pull to stay in is strong. Sundays kick off with a Full English breakfast followed by activities like laser tag, fishing, mountain biking, climbing or just hanging out with friends. All schools bang on about a family atmosphere, but this one is the real deal.
Shall we start with bee-keeping and kitchen garden? Sustainability is hot in all schools right now, but Sunningdale was an early adopter. They collect their own honey and give it out as gifts and grow their own fruit and veg. Yikes! We better talk about the snakes and lizard area too. Reptile Club is cool, giving the boys the chance to feed, play and take out (yup, you read it right) those scaly darlings.
There’s also the matter of the dogs roaming around the corridors and grounds, effectively family pets to over 100+ boys. I met the new addition to the family – Stromer the golden labrador – and the headmaster’s BFF Freddie the black lab. But I there’s about 10 woofers and the boys adore them.
From the characterful 1880 iron church and air raid shelter to the pretend pub sign featuring the twin former headmasters and the Eton Fives winners names carved into the brick wall, there’s a real sense of history and personality everywhere you turn.
Also, quite unusual is the aim that every boy should leave Sunningdale being able to touch type which, given the digital world our children will be growing into, I think is an awesome idea.
I also love that there’s a bit of a social scene for the parents. Stilton and biscuits with mulled wine after the Carol Concert, father and son shooting, mother and son tennis and more. Slight niggle, I’d much rather shoot than play tennis, but hey ho.
Fees: £8,750 per term (Day fee is £6,840 per term but most boys board). There are the usual scholarships for academic and outstanding ability in music, sport and art. Sunningdale does also offer some bursaries to families who need help with the fees as well as sibling discounts.
Big praise for the quality of the boys’ academic progress and personal development. When the ISI inspectors have flagged up changes needed in the past, Sunningdale has always acted swiftly.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents sing its praises, loving the family feel, opportunities for parents to join the fun, seeing their boys thrive is a big tick. The boys said they enjoyed school, felt safe and happy and really love the food. Having had a good look around Sunningdale, I’m not surprised.
Still not convinced? Perhaps the 2020 Leavers’ video will hit the spot. The Sunningdale family, doing what they do best…
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Those looking for a nurturing school that is really going to look after their kids and lavish them with care and attention, along with targeted teaching. Its traditional approach to good manners, kindness and consideration also ticks a lot of boxes.
Not for: A school this small won’t suit every child – what could feel safe to some will feel stifling for others. While its traditional vibe is charming to some, it could seen as old fashioned to others.
Dare to disagree? Contact the school and book your visit… and bring your dog, they won’t mind!
Sunningdale School, Sunningdale, Berkshire, SL5 9PY. Tel: 01344 620159.