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Ashford Prep School

Those looking for endless space and opportunities, and a large emphasis on mental health and wellbeing, Ashford Prep School in the rural village of Great Chart should be on your list. 

WHAT? WHERE?

Ashford Prep School is a Pre-Prep and Prep school, that sits in the rural village of Great Chart, and benefits from being within 44 acres of land, with 25 acres of playing fields, but is also just over 2 miles from Ashford station so perfect for those commuting to and from London. If you haven’t driven through Great Chart before, you will find yourself craning your head out of the car clocking up the huge amount of quintessential English houses that will lead you all the way to the school gates. There’s even a village church, where the school walks to for services, like Harvest Festival and Christmas, so a picture-perfect English scene.

From Pre-School to Year 6, there are approx. 350 pupils with the word ‘bored’ not within their vocabulary thanks to a staggering 43 Co-curricular activities at their disposal during breaks and after school as well as a total of 549 competitive sports fixtures played in the last year. With a recent decision to abolish homework, that has had a noticeable improvement on maths and literacy results, you will be sure to find a very happy and fun environment where the focus is on ‘happiness breeding success’. As the church bells pealed away and tractors tootled past, I too was in a pretty happy place upon arrival.

FACILITIES

In 2005, Friars School merged with Ashford Girls’ to form Ashford School, which now consists of the Prep School at the Friars site in Great Chart, and the Senior School on East Hill in Ashford town centre. There is real mix here of the old with the new. Friars Prep School was established at Great Chart as an all-boys School by Mr and Mrs Lendrum in 1949. The main house now looks after the admin dept, head and staff room, and breaks out into a huge space, built in 2006. What you will now find is an impressive building with a huge amount of space (both inside and outside) for kids to learn a wealth of new skills – the obvious and the not so obvious. A recent addition to the school has been the LOC (Learning Outside Classroom) positioned just beyond the tennis courts and they held team bonding days there for pupils at the beginning of term as they formed new classes to redefine new friendship groups.

SPORT

Aside from a sports hall that is scheduled for renovation in the next year or so, the facilities in this department are top notch and this is reflected in the results too. A new all-purpose all-weather astro-turf (with floodlights) was opened a few years ago and a new pavilion was opened this term right next to it – with changing room facilities and ‘diner’ which are used for match teas.

The girls (U11) hockey team ended up in national championships for the second year running and came 2nd overall so the  proof is in the  pudding on this front.   Swimming is also a huge success story for the school with regular wins at inter-school galas which I am sure is partly aided by the fact that swimming is part of the curriculum at the school, starting from Nursery right through to Year 6 in the on-site 20m heated indoor pool. Any dolphins in your family? Send them this way…

As well as the standard sports that you may expect from a quality prep, the school is also known for its cross country (well there are acres to practise in) as well as biathlons (that is cross country skiing and rifle shooting for those who are as unaware as I was) and tetrathlons (shooting, swimming, riding and running) as well as the wealth of clubs on offer, ranging from sailing, riding and judo, so no stone is left unturned in finding a skillset that might interest your child. Success stories aside, it is an inspiring place to play with so much greenery around you.

ICT/DT/ART & H&E

These departments are all conveniently housed in the same area and close to the Music School. There’s very nurturing feel to this side of the school as we were greeted by the wafts of Year 4’s homemade tomato soup, made with onions grown in the garden and cultivated by the school’s Gardening Club, with mooing cows in the near distance. It struck me that from a child’s point of view that this is a great environment to learn as the setting feels homely rather than a stiff school setting.

Year 3 and upwards come to this area to learn these crafts (Pre-Prep do Art in their classrooms) and there is plenty of activities to motivate them. The Art Room benefits from a kiln, so pottery is on the cards and lessons are built around learning about different artists and producing art to reflect the them. It was encouraging to see that graffiti is within the mix to ensure that learning is also modern and relevant. The DT department has a 3D printer as well as a laser printer so the students can do innovative projects based on these tools and there are also DT days at the Senior School to motivate the next generation.

MUSIC & DRAMA

Drama is a key part of Ashford Prep School, and is built into the English curriculum not only to inspire the pupils but as a great tool to help with confidence building. Year 6 productions are considered a big part of the school year and Years 3,4 and 5 also put on entertainment evenings throughout the year (dances/poetry/plays) and you will find that it is not always the most obvious candidates given the big parts every year to ensure that everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. Drama classes take place in the hall and they are often linked back to wider topics such as anti-bullying to ensure that these life lessons are nicely weaved into the learning process.

Music is also a highlight here and it was refreshing to see how encouraging they are with initiatives such as the Violin Scheme – Years 2 and 3 can take up violin for free for a couple of terms to see if they like it – as well as the range of choirs available for all standards – from the Young Voices (pre-prep Choir) right through to the selective Chamber Choir. Last year, they had 110 pupils take up learning one or more musical instruments and by the end of the academic year (2018-19), 168 pupils from Nursery – Year 6 were learning an instrument. Since the start of this academic year an additional 40 + pupils have so far taken up a musical instrument. Classes from Reception to Year 6 have Class Music lessons and the option to learn individual instruments if of interest.

ACADEMIA

Here you will find an average class size of 15 (with a three-form entry) for most age groups and a 1:9 staff to pupil ratio. There is no exam to get into the school but there will be a taster day so you (and the staff) can assess whether the school is the best fit for you. Considering the weight of good grammar schools in the area, an average of 60% still heads to the senior school with the remaining mainly heading to local grammars.

92% of children achieved Expected and Above in the English Assessments (national average is 76%) and 86% for Mathematics (national average being 76%) so the proof is in the pudding that your child will be given the best support in this department. Pupils, from Years 3 -6 have their own iPad which they take to all lessons and leave behind at school to recharge overnight. On my visit, a Year 6 class were using their IPads with a new Questions by Learning app which allows teachers to swiftly identify if anybody is struggling with a question but is too embarrassed to raise their hand and ask for help.

French is the main language taught with the option to learn Spanish through clubs and German is available in the Senior School. SEN provision is also hugely important to the school with a dedicated break-out learning area for pupils to get benefit of one-to-one support, and further plans to enhance this area throughout the school. The aim is to develop the current availability and use of technological aids to help support SEN children within mainstream education e.g. maths tools, handwriting practices, dyslexia friendly apps etc. on the children’s iPads so that the tools are always accessible to them.

THE HEAD

Rosie Clifford is the current Acting Head of the Prep School (Teaching and Learning) alongside Chris Neesham as the Acting Head of the Prep School (Pastoral) in the interim following the previous Head’s, Penny Willetts, unpredictable departure in October last year. It was a mutual decision by both school and Penny for her to stand down and a recruitment drive is in place at the moment to appoint a new Head by September 2020.

Rosie Clifford, Acting Head of the Prep School (Teaching and Learning)

In the meantime, you have two very confident and personable people at the helm and sources tell me that although people were surprised by Penny’s sudden departure, the team pulled together and business remained as usual which is testament of the close knit crew there. There is real can-do attitude, approachable manner and good sense of humour with the new duo and many of Penny’s initiatives such as ‘no homework’ rule are very much still in place and children can choose to take part in Enrichment sessions after school as opposed to formal written worksheet, which Rosie believes is a real asset and unique selling point of the school. Chris oversees the pastoral care at the school  and has implemented many of the Wellness themed activities at the school (more of that later) and it seems that the school is benefiting at the moment from two having two Heads skilled in different areas.

Chris Neesham, Acting Head of the Prep School (Pastoral)

Academic Rigor,  Adventurous Learning,  Celebrating individuality and Optimising Potential is the common thread that you will find as values throughout the Junior to Senior School  and this continuity,  Rosie and Chris believe is another of the school’s winning features.

There’s plenty more on the horizon for the school including a bid to start flexi-boarding at the Junior school from 2020(at the moment this can be done  for years 5 and 6 but only at the Senior School) plus the  appointment of the  new Head so we shall be reporting back once we know more….

LITTLIES

Again, Ashford Prep School gets a big tick for this category as The Stables Nursery, set on the same premises as the Prep School, opened in September 2019, with the capacity to take children from 3 months to 3 years including the 15 hours of FEE per week. As you can well imagine, there are not short of space to roam around plus when they make the transition to the Prep School, it will not be such a daunting experience for them. Typically, 50% go from Nursery to Ashford Pre-Prep with the remaining heading off to local primary schools.

There is a healthy capacity with 80 at the Nursery and 72 for the Prep School Nursery. Staff to pupil ratio for under 2 years is 1:2, for 2-4 years is 1:4 so you are getting some quality hands-on care here.

The ethos at the Nursery is focused on Adventurous Learning and they are in the right setting for that. There’s a big focus on music, playing instruments, role play, acting out stories, dancing and moving to music as well as painting, drawing and other craft activities so no bored kiddies here.

For those looking for an in-town solution or have older kids as well as pre-school aged ones, Bridge Nursery is based by Ashford Senior School and takes children from 3 months to 3 so all bases are very neatly covered!

QUIRKS

Aside from the new no homework rule, there are plenty of other individual characteristics quirks at Ashford Prep School that sets it apart from its competitors. Know of any other schools with their own lizard sanctuary, with 200 plus of these reptile reprobates, where students often head as part of their Science lessons? No, I didn’t think so…

A special shout-out also needs to go out to the wide range of clubs on offer that really think about the individual children’s interests with a total of 43 co-curricular activities on offer during breaks and after school, ranging from Mindfulness and Coding right through to Debating, French Drama and Building, Engineering and Construction club with all the obvious ones in between.

The kitchen should also be mentioned as additional ‘quirky’ plus feature as they regularly host themed dinners with a recent popular one being a Harry Potter lunch as well as Make Your Own Sushi days. It’s evident from the way that the food is presented on a daily basis (see picture) what pride they take in putting on a good and child-friendly spread.

ANYTHING ELSE?

I know that it is hot topic within education, but you will find that Ashford Prep School places a large emphasis on mental health and wellbeing starting with staff who can take advantage of yoga sessions, pottery workshops and massage sessions to ensure that they are in the best frame of mind.

They have trained over 20 staff members in Mindfulness and host regular mental health awareness assemblies with guest speakers and charities like Mind.

Mental health talks are also hosted to educate parents and there are two nurses on site who are trained in mental health (plus a pastoral team including a chaplain and form tutors) as well as selected Year 6 children who can be the eyes and ears within the playground. Each pupil is given a passport upon arrival at school which is only accessible to staff and gives them easy conversation starters if they notice that a child, that they are not yet familiar with, needs a chat and and they need a good way to connect with them.

There are also plenty of quiet zones such as the peace garden within the adventure playground if boisterous play is not your kid’s idea of fun as well as break clubs such as LEGO to keep everyone happy during their down time. Plus, they will be celebrating a Well-Being week soon at the school where the children will learn more about mental and physical health and they will enjoy things various activities including laughology, learning about pets as therapy and a smoothie bike during lunch. Exercise and healthy food – win/win.

WRAP AROUND CARE

If it’s wrap-around care that is what you are after, then Ashford Prep School is the one for you. You can drop children off at 7.30 for Breakfast Club with the school day starting at 8.30am and finishing at 4pm with the option to stay on for clubs until 5pm and then After School Club until 6.30pm which works particularly well for any parents needing to commute to and from London. There are holidays clubs (including half term) is which open to everyone – even kids not at the school – which is good for mixing up the dynamics and for pupils to have a break from normal school life.

It’s also worth mentioning that there is a free shuttle bus from the Senior to Prep school meaning parents can benefit from one drop-off if struggling for time and have children that straddle both schools. It’s those little touches that do make the world of difference when trying to break a leg to get your kids to school on time each morning. School buses also head as far as Folkestone, Dover and Canterbury to transport children to school which is always a big helping hand.

FEES

Reception £3,500 per term.

Years 1 – 2 £3,500 per term.

Years 3 – 6 £5,000 per term.

There are only bursaries for Pre-Prep and Prep but there is support with scholarships (within Sports, Music, Drama, Art & DT, and Academia) for Year 7 upwards at the Senior School.

WORD ON THE GROUND

It’s all very well getting the spiel from the teachers and co during your visit about a school but what you really want to know is what the pupils really think too. Muddy got acquainted with a couple of Year 6’s during our visit to find out the lowdown.

They were delighted by the lack of homework, particularly as this rule had not been set up when one child’s older brother was at the school, but more importantly (their words, not mine) it meant that it was less pressurizing for them when they got home, and they could concentrate on learning about other things. The clubs are a big hit for them, quoting National Geographic, Junior Life Guarding, News, Drama and Rugby as particular favourites. Trips away also get the thumbs up and their Bushcraft sessions where they claimed to have eaten salmon eyes….yikes. I was hugely impressed by the friendly confidence these children showed and was quietly totting up the numbers in my head if we could make the switch for my six-year-old to join the school in the next few years.

Parents also seem very happy too quoting the incredible grounds on the edge of farm-land, the pastoral care that is very supportive of every child and the unrivalled opportunities that the school offers as the main driving factors for them plus their children are very happy which is music to any parent’s ears.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

GOOD FOR: Those looking for endless space and opportunities as the wealth of options here will help you identify an area where your child can excel – and enjoy. Sporty children will also benefit as the school ranks highly in local competitions and it will certainly suit those who groan at the very mention of the homework word. I would also say it’s a great option for anyone working in London due to excellent wrap-around care and proximity of school to station.

NOT FOR: The school has a three-form intake so this is not the school for you if your child benefits from being within a smaller environment, and the cost of fees (and lack of scholarships at a Prep School) will also be prohibitive.

Don’t just take our word for it,  go and see for  yourself at its next  Open Day on Wednesday 15th January (9.15-10.40) so you can find out more about the school, meet the teachers, its current children and the Senior Leadership Team.

Great Chart, Ashford, Kent, TN23 3DJ, +44(0)1233 620493, www.ashfordschool.co.uk/

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