Muddy Best Schools Guide: Saint Ronan’s School
Muddy says: A bucolic, co-educational, prep school set in a stonking 249 acres, well-regarded for its old-school charm and encouraging in its pupils a lively, adventurous approach to life.
SAINT RONAN’S SCHOOL, HAWKHURST
What? Where? Saint Ronan’s is a bucolic prep school, set in a stonking 249 (frankly gorgeous) acres of Tongswood Estate, in Hawkhurst and perfectly positioned for Cranbrook, Goudhurst and just over the border in East Sussex (or further afield if you don’t mind the drive or live in one of the villages served by the useful school minibus service). Highly regarded for its Hogwartian charm and encouraging in its pupils a lively, adventurous approach to life, this is a co-educational school (220 boys/180 girls) with 400 pupils aged between 3 – 13 years old. There’s also weekly or flexi boarding available from Monday night through to Thursday night for all pupils from Year 5 upwards.
The main building is very attractive on the outside and grand yet homely when you go inside – think light and spacious, kids art everywhere, wood panelling and period features – not quite a magical moving staircase, but almost. If you like your schools with a feeling of old school quirky charm and a modern blend of robustness and nurturing, you’re in the right place.
Facilities: You’d expect any prep school charging over £16k a year to have some decent sport, drama and music facilities, and Saint Ronan’s has invested heavily in the last few years. Alongside the grand Victorian main building sits the purpose built Harris Building which houses the pre-prep, music and ICT departments. There is also a modern sports hall, (see below) a new DT workshop, Nursery and the Children’s Farm, (real miniature working farm which provides meat and veg for school meals!) not to mention the heated outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts and golf course (yes, you read that right!) that has also been ‘revitalised’. Music and Arts are strong here – there’s 16 Peri Music teachers, 2 large teaching rooms and 9 practice rooms – all of which were in use when I visited. Above the practice room doors were posters proudly celebrating the many music scholarships to independent secondary schools that pupils have recently achieved.
The school has numerous pitches for all the major games – well, there’s no shortage of room in the extensive grounds! And just outside the sports halls is a new astro field ensuring hockey, football and ‘doing laps’ can take place all year round (opened by The Duchess of Cornwall, in honour of her brother, Old Ronian Mark Shand; it’s now known by his nickname – Shandy-ba).
There’s also fencing, lacrosse, sailing and – of course golf on that new course! Yet I got the impression that in sports, like all elements of school life, they take a relaxed, caring approach – encouraging enthusiasm and participation but not wanting to be ‘a school for sporty kids’. Although obviously any child who is naturally that way inclined will thrive with the excellent facilities and teaching.
There’s lots of opportunities to get involved in drama productions across the age ranges and art is popular too and the well equipped art room at the top of the school had a wonderful creative vibe and some exceptional work on display (pupils who show significant promise are selected to join the Scholarship Art Group in Year 6).
Woodland learning is a big feature at Saint Ronans and they make every effort to squeeze outdoor play into the curriculum – whether that’s building a dam and sluices in the stream or trekking across the field to a new classroom on the edge of the woods nicknamed ‘The Hobbit House’. Oh and there’s a lake where pupils can fish too.
Slip on the sorting hat – will it be Gryffindor for you? House pride and identity is strong here. Every afternoon the normal working day stops and there’s games and clubs (activities include beekeeping and mountain-biking) between 2.30 – 4pm. Then it’s back into the classroom between 4.00 – 5.15pm. Sounds exhausting, but Mr TV is quick to point out that most children at other schools will either go straight onto external clubs (finishing around the same time) or straight home (to iPads). This set up just allows them to do all the clubs (and less brainless technology) at school before pick up. It’s a good argument.
The academic results: Most children stay until the end of Y8 and go on to wide spread of independent schools. While it boasts 100 per cent success rate in the 11+ exam this is not particularly the place to go if you have your sights on the grammars (particularly now Cranbrook has lowered entry age to Y7). To date only a handful of children in Y6 sit the Kent 11+ and leave at 11, so it could be a lonely experience. The majority of parents are buying into private education for the duration, although around 30 per cent of pupils go to Cranbrook grammar at 13 – not sure how this will be affected by the changes at Cranbrook.
Scholarships: Pupils won 35 scholarships last year and while some children gain places at nearby Cranbrook grammar school, the majority go on to a variety to top independent secondary eduction.
ISI report: Saint Ronan’s School was judged ‘excellent’ in every area by inspectors. Click here for a full copy of the report.
William Trelawny-Vernon (or Mr TV as he is known) is the head, but the running of the school is very much a family affair. His wife, Emma, (pictured, above, with Mr TV) is Registrar and Head of Department for History. And the warm and friendly ‘Auntie Amanda’ (the headmaster’s sister-in-law) – who I enjoyed lunch with – is in the office. The philosophy is to teach based on love not fear. Good behaviour is rewarded with a chit, called a ‘Show’ and while I sat in Mr TV’s office the end of lesson bell sounded and several pupils who’d worked especially hard in lesson knocked on his door to proudly present their ‘Shows’. They were rewarded with a quick rummage in the tuck box sat in the corner of the room – sweets shoved in their pockets and ushered out the room on the promise only to be eaten at break time. A perfect example of old school happy chaos. But it also provided a genuine, unrehearsed glimpse into the interaction between Head and pupils.
What I noticed was how very respectful, but also totally relaxed, they were in his presence. It’s the perfect mix and rarer than you think – backing up the school’s ethos that manners and kindness is paramount and expected from both staff and pupils. Negative behaviour results in Minus Points (deducted from your school House Points tally) and the fierce competition between School Houses ensures the pressure is on not to let your team down! Mr TV is big on family and old fashioned charm. He’s been in the job 13 years. In fact the long reign of headmasters says a lot about their contented role within the school – only 7 heads since 1883 (over 130 years). This seems to be a job no one wants to relinquish.
The Nursery is housed in the cosy Groom’s Cottage and garden. There’s a homely feel and again learning outside is very much encouraged. Forest School is a weekly feature for the Nursery children.
The bright, modern Harris building provides accommodation for the Pre-Prep and Music departments – the sound of singing and chatter frequently mix here (a corridor poster advises on 20 things to do before leaving pre-prep, such as dam a stream, make a mud pie, and hold an animal). There’s a two-form entry in the pre-prep which goes up to Y3. From Y3 to Y9 it goes up to three-form entry in the prep school.
If it’s quirky you like, then this is the school for you. It’s brimming with character. Has its own farm for goodness sake. I’m even pointed out the ‘honeymoon suite’ where piglets are made. There’s eggs from the hens and honey from the bees. Running with the whole Harry Potter theme the prep school enjoys a Hogwarts style feast at Christmas, complete with long tables, lighting and entertainment (the children take part in a kind of X Factor followed by a teacher’s finale). The classrooms all have names – Jam Palace, Bletchley Park (I remember that one was computers), The Bogey Hole…
The uniform is fairly relaxed and colourful, topped with school sweatshirts in a variety of colours – pink, green, red, purple, light blue and navy – and the children get to choose. There’s a formal uniform which is worn on Fridays, key days and for trips out.
Wrap around care: Well the standard school day is pretty long anyway (8.30 – 5.15pm) but from Y 5 prep can be done at school until 6.30. Or there’s the boarding options too.
Word on the ground: Before I visited the school one reader, and Saint Ronan’s Mum, emailed to invite me to review it – describing how happy her two girls were and how the school has ‘been sprinkled with a kind of fairy dust’. It’s not a ‘slick operation’ she explained and things are done in a ‘Saint Ronan’s way’ (you hear this a lot) – but it really works. All the parents here have obviously chosen the school for its approach and character, so the feedback is all very positive. The only gripes I’ve ever heard are one Mum saying she thought they ‘played up to the whole Hogwarts thing a bit’ and another saying ‘the school where they run around in the mud and play chess on the lawn at lunch time.’ Now if those aren’t two of the biggest back-handed compliments I’ve ever heard! Seriously, what’s not to like?
Fees: Nursery Afternoon Sessions start at £28. Pre-Prep Day Tuition £3,195 per term, rising to £5,477 per term in the prep. Flexi-boarding: £35 a night.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: This is a very special school and any child that attends Saint Ronan’s is lucky – but as with all good things you pay for the privilege. Still the fees are similar to other prep schools in this area and what you’re buying into here is a truly magical childhood experience, not just a strong all-round education. And of course the long day means no extra payment for after school clubs. Perfect for parents who want informality and intimacy for their children. Pupils are encouraged, but it doesn’t strike me as an overly-competitive school and Mums I’ve spoken to back this up, particularly when compared to other prep schools.
Not for: Parents who insist on order (don’t like mud) and like things in a perfectly planned out way. You either get the quirkiness or you don’t. Anyone who wants kids home early afternoon for whatever reason. The school day runs from 8.30 – 5.15 because all children do clubs every day. Also not ideal if you’ve set your sights on the West Kent grammars – the school doesn’t particularly encourage exit at 11 (although obviously possible).
Dare to disagree?! Have a look for yourself – tours of the school are encouraged all year round – and are usually conducted by the Headmaster, who likes to meet all prospective parents (contact the school for more information), and let me know what you think.