St Andrew’s, Pangbourne
This bucolic co-ed prep school in the rolling hills of Berkshire is family-oriented, outdoorsy with great results – and the Duchess of Cambridge raves about it.
St Andrew’s School is a bucolic prep near Pangbourne, West Berkshire, perfectly positioned for those around Newbury, Reading and South Oxfordshire (or further if you don’t mind the drive). Co-ed with 312 pupils, the school is at the end of a tree-lined drive in 54 acres of beautiful woodland and playing fields. And if you love to name drop, the Duchess of Cambridge and John Le Carré are both former pupils. Oo-er.
The Victorian Gothic mansion dates back to 1885 and was designed by architect Alfred Waterhouse (London’s Natural History Museum is one of his too. Fancy!) and, despite its grand features (wood panelling and original Royal Doulton tile panels), it feels warm rather than stuffy – light and spacious, kids’ art and motivational messages everywhere.
Big news for St Andrew’s in 2021 has been its partnership with Bradfield College. Something of a recent trend that has seen Senior Schools partner with feeder school preps. For St Andrew’s, it means an opportunity to share facilities and expertise. There will be additional investment in the School too, with priorities being the Nursery, a performing arts space and its boarding provision.
When you’ve got 54 acres to play with, you’re going to deliver on playing fields, Forest School and sporty baubles. Just wait until you see the swimming pool, sports hall and dance studio. It’s impressive.
The Sports Centre, with its indoor courts, dance studio and 25m pool is very very impressive. And so it should be for £4m. St Andrew’s has quite a sporty rep, so this new centre opens up even more opportunities for the kids. Better still, it’s something the school shares with the community too.
Next door to the sports centre is a full-sized astroturf pitch, opened in 2012 by St Andrew’s most famous alumni the Duchess of Cambridge. You’ll also find tennis courts and numerous football, rugby, and cricket pitches. The school loves nothing more than to battle it out on match days and they field multiple teams, giving all kids the opportunity to wear their school colours with pride.
The main sports are athletics, cricket, cross-country, football, golf, hockey, lacrosse, netball, rugby, swimming and tennis, but taekwondo, orienteering and more alternatives are available at after school clubs and activities.
MUSIC, DRAMA, ART
Music is a big part of school life and I heard violin and recorder lessons at full volume. Music lessons aside, from Pre-Prep onwards the children can take up individual instrumental or singing lessons (with a whopping 200 scheduled a week). There’s even a Pre-Prep choir – just one of many musical groups that have the chance to showcase their talents throughout the year.
If I’m being picky the weakest link in terms of facilities is the lack of a theatre. Not all prep schools come West End ready, but a Performing Arts Centre would certainly add another jewel in their crown. The good news is that this is priority number one. Architects’ plans are in place to transform the Old Sports Hall into a performing arts centre, along with a mezzanine art studio, over the course of the next 12 months.
Largely a day school, but St Andrew’s offers, flexi boarding and it’s really popular Monday to Thursday (no Saturday school here). The boarding houses are well above average, having recently been renovated and the 12 boys’ and 12 girls’ beds have come straight out of London’s Olympic Village. How awesome is that?! Let’s just say Mo Farah, Usain Bolt and Jess Ennis slept in them. The odd night at short notice is an option here, so if you have a last-minute night out or an unexpected work trip, a cheeky sleepover is as much of a thrill for the kids as that first glass of fizz is for you. Increasing the boarding provision is also part of the development plan. As more London families move out, they need to ensure they can meet the growth in demand.
St Andrew’s has a robust reputation for bringing out the best in its pupils, with scholarships (academic, music, sport, art and all-rounder) being dished out with reassuring regularity. As a passionately non-selective school that’s a big academic tick. That’s not to say they are complacent. ‘Could do better’ has probably featured on all our reports over the years. So expect tweaks to stretch and challenge the pupils.
The most popular leaver destinations include Abingdon, Bradfield College, Downe House, Headington, Leighton Park, Magdalen College, Marlborough, Millfield, Pangbourne College, Radley, Queen Anne’s, Teddies, Shiplake, and Wellington College.
Outdoor learning is St Andrew’s calling card – Forest school, bushcraft, den building, camping out, there’s a mountain bike course, a whizzy zip wire, orienteering and climbing trees are celebrated. Something the Duchess Of Cambridge loved during her time here and wants for her own kids. Dirty knees and mild scruffiness is very much encouraged.
‘Bother Boxes’ are dotted around the school for the boys and girls to post notes about their worries or concerns and there’s a designated quiet space, called The Lobby. Life is busy and downtime is essential.
Pupils are taught about media awareness and reliable sources of news, independent study skills (handy right now) and what they can do to help the environment. Happiness and welfare; compassion and leadership and curiosity and curriculum form the pillars of school life.
Ed Graham is the fresh out of the box new head at St Andrew’s Pangbourne. Previously, deputy head at Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London, he moved out to leafy West Berkshire with his wife Olivia and two children Fergus and Martha, hopping into the hot seat in September 2021. If you’re playing lockdown bingo: a move to the countryside, a puppy and new job can be ticked off and I reckon there was a bit banana bread baking at some point too.
He’s young, ambitious and very likeable. It’s a bit early to say what kind of head he will be, but he has taken on a prep school in good health. Parents have been consulted on the school’s strengths and weaknesses and Drama and DT were flagged up as ripe for improvement. Ay Caramba! There were even pleas for Spanish to be added to the curriculum.
Ed’s very keen to improve St Andrew’s academic rigour, looking at the curriculum, lessons and child engagement, as well as how to use digital and traditional teaching methods to make those marginal gains. Not easy when you’re also juggling tradition, wellbeing, inclusion, diversity, sustainability and more. Crikey, who would be a head? So what am I saying? Well, I don’t think Ed is planning on changing the DNA of St Andrew’s, but he’s keen for the kids to be stretched and for this non-selective school to punch above its weight. I doubt you’ll hear many parents complaining about that.
Little people can start at three years old in Nursery and it’s waaaaay superior to most of the nurseries I’ve used over the years. Forest School and time spent learning outdoors (two hours at least every day) is a huge part of the kids’ day – I think I saw three classes toddling off into the woods in their boiler suits pulling an off-road trolley with all the kit they’ll need. They also use the natural resources in their lessons – the blackberry artwork was pretty cool.
Head of Pre-Prep Fiona Armstrong has adopted the Reggio Emilia approach which gives children a limitless opportunity for them to express themselves, known as ‘the 100 languages of child’. It might sound a bit ‘out there’ but it fires up that love of learning and gives them the tools to grow with confidence. I wouldn’t say she applies it to the letter, but takes from it what she feels will benefit the children. Every day they have a specialist lesson with PE, swimming, French, STEM and music all on the agenda.
The Nursery and Pre-Prep buildings are spacious, bright, with a great outdoor space next to the Sports Centre and playing field. Tellytubbies Hill is a big draw, and there’s a lovely climbing frame, massive sandpit and building and construction materials to engage the kids during lesson and break times. The emphasis is on getting the kids excited about learning – and sometimes that means they get a bit, OK very, dirty.
Orienteering is big. It’s safe to say St Andrew’s kids know where they are going as National Middle Schools Champions for eight out of nine years running. It’s a skill they can learn from Year 3. Great for teaching perseverance, handy if they ever get lost and a must if they find themselves on Bear Grylls Celebrity Island.
Trees are there to be climbed. During break pupils spill out of the classroom and head for the woods (or the zip wire) – ‘kids can climb trees but always in threes’ is the motto (safety first) and there’s a stop sign at 30ft. EEK.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Excellent. Frazzled parents juggling work, life and kids rejoice. All ages can be dropped off for Breakfast Club from 7.30am. Supper Club is primarily for boarders and Y3-8s doing early evening activities, runs until 6.30pm for Years 3-8. If you’re running late, don’t stress, you can book them in for slap up meal and short notice.
Nursery and Pre-Prep start at 8.45am-3.30pm, with after-school care and activities available from Reception until 6pm for an additional fee. The main school day starts at 8.25am-5.20pm (juniors) and 6pm (seniors), but again supper and after school activities are available until after 6.30pm. Flexi-boarding is massive; kids can book in for as many nights as they like and weekly boarding is also offered. There’s no Saturday school here – St Andrew’s prides itself on its family-friendly ethos, so you can have your little darlings back all weekend.
Holiday camps run by the staff plug a gap in the Christmas, Easter and Summer holidays with lots of fun age-appropriate activities going on. The Nursery does not offer the same level of wrap around care, but they’re working on it.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Lots of my friends send their children here, and they love the upbeat, ‘can-do’ vibes about St Andrew’s. The staff get lots of good press, the outdoorsy nature goes down very well and the school meals get a big tick. Bye-bye tapioca puds, hello cosmopolitan buffet with salad bar and exotic fruit. Even Squash and Bs (biscuits) are now carrot sticks and sesame-free hummus.
Surprisingly, ISI inspectors managed to squeeze in a visit in 2020. St Andrew’s got a clean bill of health and received an excellent rating across the board. The school’s ‘can do’ feel was picked up and they raved about the results pastoral care and teaching.
It’s a mobile free zone. But to be honest, there’s no reason to have one in school. However, if there is a justifiable reason to bring a phone into school, it is handed into the School Office upon arrival and only retrieved at the end of the school day.
Full time nursery is £3,890 per term (half days are available); Reception to Y2 £3,890-£4,140; Y3-Y8 £5,910-£6,525. Boarding can be booked ad hoc at £35 per night or four nights a week each term at £1,250.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Well-rounded kids. The vibe is warm and friendly, but academically strong – not an easy mix to pull off. The superior sport facilities are impressive and all children get to participate fully. Good flexible after-school care is particularly helpful for working parents.
Not for: Those who require full-boarding, a larger school cohort, or parents who prefer a more ‘starchy’ approach to schooling. Free range risk takers are not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s pretty refreshing.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest. The next Open Day is on 4 March 2022 at 9.30am. If you can’t make it, contact Director of Admissions Jane Taylor TaylorJ@standrewspangbourne.co.uk to arrange a private tour.