Dover College Prep
A small, nurturing school rich in tradition but with modern ambitions and currently undergoing a huge investment in facilities and teaching. Yes, Dover College is definitely one to watch.
I’ve been to Dover many times (mainly to see the castle or catch a ferry) but I have never stumbled upon Dover College before on my travels and let me tell you, it’s a hidden gem of a school which is an oasis of calm in the midst of the town centre.
Dover College sits in idyllic surroundings in the grounds of a 12th Century Benedictine Priory with Dover Castle overlooking proceedings in the background. Founded waaay back in 1871, Dover College has a Nursery, Prep and Senior School (with option to board at Senior School) all within the same campus and with a total of around 350 pupils – so there is real sense of a ‘family’ atmosphere throughout the place.
Historic settings aside head teacher, Gareth Doodes, has modern ambitions for the school. Not long after he started (in 2015) he set in motion Project 150, a five-year development plan, (launched in 2016) that will come to full fruition in time for the school’s 150th anniversary in 2021. The aim is to revolutionise teaching and learning at the College as well as enhance the school’s facilities.
And the recognition is already trickling in with Dover College being shortlisted for three awards within the 2019 Tes Independent School Awards including the Strategic Initiative of the Year Award for their new curriculum, the Senior Leadership Team of the Year Award, and the Boarding School of the Year Award alongside contenders such as Wellington, Eton and Winchester. So Dover College is definitely one to watch.
The focus of our visit was to get to know the Nursery and Prep School (from the age of 3 until Year 6) and give you the lowdown on what you can expect for your brood. The Prep School and Nursery are housed within a former Victorian residential building on the premises, which adds to the family-feel vibe of the place, but Years 5 and 6 frequently head to the Senior school for Art, Textiles, Science, DT and language classes which also helps the transition stage for later.
Part of Project 150 includes full decoration and renovation of all classrooms within the Prep school as well as the development of a learning resource and ICT room, and therefore the classrooms and facilities are maybe not as ‘sparkly’ as other schools that we have seen in the area but this is not for long and also does not inhibit the learning that is going on with pupils having the option to learn French, Spanish and Mandarin from Reception. I told you that it was a forward-thinking school…
The Nursery and Prep School all eat their meals at The Refectory, built in the 12th Century and renovated by the school along the way, and this is a remarkable place to sit together, particularly for any Harry Potter fans out there, and eat food which is all home-cooked on-site. Think I just saw Nearly Headless Nick flying by…
As well as the sports facilities on campus such as the astro-pitch and football fields, there are two offsite sports facilities including Farthingloe, where Sports day is hosted each year, plus the cricket ground at Maxton, which boasts a magnificent view of Dover Castle. Can’t get more English than that…
Rugby, football and cricket are the key sports for the boys and hockey, netball and rounders for the girls with competitive teams for the Under 9s (combining years 3 and 4) and Under 11s (combining years 5 and 6) plus there is a dedicated tennis coach who comes in for tennis clubs and they are very proud of one of their Year 4 pupils who is ranked 15thin Kent.
With smaller classes, you have benefit of knowing your child has a good chance of playing some competitive games within their sporting career if that is what they are after.
As previously mentioned, the Senior School is where years 5 and 6 head to for ICT/DT and Art and there is plenty of space there to develop and hone these skills. As someone who did not take to DT at school, I was particularly drawn to this space with its funky design.
The Chinese Dragon in the Art department also got my vote as it was the combination of several age groups’ work with individual pupils designing the different plates to form the dragon’s body – another example of the working together and ‘family’ atmosphere that the school evokes throughout.
MUSIC & DRAMA
Since Gareth Doodes’ appointment there has a been a surge to improve the school’s offering in this area with a new Director of Music and a new Director of Performing Arts in place.
A new Performance Arts Centre is on the horizon for 2020 which will be the Timothy Cobb Centre for Performing Arts, enabling the teaching of Dance and Drama alongside Digital Media and Film, plus the Refectory will also be invested in so it can be used as a multi-use facility for a truly atmospheric backdrop.
Music is encouraged from a very young age with music lessons available for all pupils from the age of three if they are showing an interest and the emphasis is on inclusivity.
A recent summer concert celebrating Beatles’ music, conducted by the whole Prep school, was a highlight for parents and pupils with much audience participation apparently when it came to some of more recognized numbers (God, we parents are soooo embarrassing).
The school has a non-selective admission policy with no exams needed to enter. The stress here is on the potential of the pupil and encouraging them to love learning. This is evident from the school’s development of The Connected Curriculum, unique to Dover College, which is a skills-based connected and creative curriculum from Year 1 to Year 8 focusing on thematic teaching, educating pupils for life and workplace.
As you may expect, the school loses a few pupils at the end of Year 6 each year to local grammar schools (there’s Dover Grammar School for Boys and Dover Grammar School for Girls to contend with) but the number of Leavers are not as great as you may expect. For this Year 6 intake, 8 out of the 20 pupils will be taking the Kent test with the remaining pupils staying onto to enjoy the seamless transition into Senior school.
Pupils will also benefit from smaller classes at Dover College (average is lip-smacking 10-15 with 15 as the top capacity) plus all parents get the direct email addresses for staff with a policy to reply within 24 hours so you really get that personal touch when it comes to know about your children and their education path.
Headmaster, Gareth Doodes, who has an open door policy with the students, and has two children at the school plus his wife, Jess works alongside him, running the marketing as well as setting up initiatives like the new Wellness Centre due to be launched in early 2020.
A good example of Gareth Doodes’ approach as headmaster is that one of the first tasks he set into motion, within months of his new role, was to move his study from its former location at the top of a boarding house to a ground floor room which has a huge window space overlooking the central community of the school. It’s this ability to be seen/and to see his pupils daily (plus still teach) that showcases the direction that he wants to take Dover College.
Dover College’s mantra is to ‘think differently’ and this very much comes across in The Connected Curriculum which was developed by the school following extensive research at curriculums across the world and then identifying the best mode for the school.
As Gareth says, ‘We want our children to learn the core subjects but more importantly we want them to learn skills that can’t be robotized and will enable their employability later in life. Creative thinking, public speaking, critical approach and use of emotional intelligence are hugely important values for us as a school and that is why we want to teach our pupils how to learn rather than what to learn, and more importantly, to love what they do.’
Another take-away point that Gareth wants to install in the pupils is a strong moral compass and believes that one of the school’s strongest selling points is that they produce very friendly kids with no hierarchy which leads to a genuine caring and family spirit between the pupils and staff.
And as if on cue, during my walk-round, a line of Year 2s passed me by as I opened a gate for them and each one gaily shouted out ‘Good Morning’ as they walked by. Job done on that front.
By way of background, Gareth was previously Headmaster at Milton Abbey for five years (and then briefly at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh before realizing he wanted to be down south) and joined Dover College at a challenging time when the school had recently failed its most recent school inspection and was losing pupils fast. Therefore, the Think Differently mantra has really come into play, as Gareth and his team have turned the school around.
The Muddy Knees nursery (of course we love THAT name) is open to children from the age of 3 (capacity for 19 in total) until school, and a big plus point is that they also offer 30-hour funded places for parents/carers who are eligible as well as the universal 15 hours.
The free-flow classroom and attached playground allows the kids to get stuck in and play but as they are dressed in school uniform and eat every day in the Refectory alongside older pupils, you know that they are getting a little bit of routine into their lives and preparation for school.
There are also plenty of fun trips to keep them engaged and learning with frequent trips to the beach (well it is on your doorstep and the school does have minibuses on tap) as well as a recent team trip to Tesco as part of their ‘farm to fork’ project and its on-site Forest School.
Mrs Mills heads up the Nursery and Pastoral care for the Prep school and she is also one of the key forces behind the new Wellness Centre so you know that your children are in very safe and nurturing hands.
There are lots of interesting quirks that sets Dover College apart from its others, such as the Muddy Knees prefects within Year 6 (alongside the more standard prefect titles) who are responsible for going into the Nursery each week and supporting the team there and getting to know the younger lot.
I noticed that all the Prep school pupils wore trainers with their uniform allowing them to feel comfortable and not come home with scuffed school shoes each day – which are still worn for more ‘formal’ school occasions.
Also rather liked the Dover College branded horse box/café which is wheeled out at sports matches and events plus is used by staff/students within normal school hours and is now run by the pupils.
For the traditionalists out there, the Head Boy and Head Girl wear red gowns, over their uniforms, on Fridays for the formal assembly and Discovery Garden is another quirky and fun aspect of Dover College where Forest School is run, and camp fires are held under the canopy with the obligatory marshmallows and hot chocolate.
Dover College also hosts an Outdoor Playgroup every week inviting kids from the community, on a weekly basis, to come and use the Discovery Garden with quite a few home-schooled children.
Famous Alumni include Captain Wilfred “Billie” Nevill who led the famous football charge in July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme on Christmas Day and there is a statue of him in the grounds, as a great role model for the kids and ambassador for the school.
I always think it is important to share drop-off/pick-up info when reviewing a school, so you know that you are not going to get swallowed up in monotonous one-way system every morning. It was encouraging to learn that there are plenty of options for parents.
For the younger lot, you can enter through the main gates and park up near to the school and walk them in. Or many parents park on Folkestone Road, which has a different entrance to the school, for a quick ‘dump and run’ plus Dover station is 5 minute walk from the school as well as a very cost-effective school minibus service which goes around the local area scooping up children from home and taking them in for you.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Breakfast club starts at 7.30am each morning (with option of a full cooked breakfast each morning (for your little darling should they so wish) with school starting at 8.15pm and then finishing at 4pm, with options for pupils to stay on for clubs (ballet, tap, beavers, cubs etc) until 5.20pm each day.
FEES (per term)
Muddy Knees and Pre-Prep (Age 3+, 4+) – £2,665; Prep 1 & 2 (Age 5+) – £2,980; Prep 3 & 4 (Age 7+) – £3,300. And Prep 5 & 6 (Age 9+) – £3,675. So very competitively priced when you compare it to other Preps in Kent.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents quote the relaxed and family atmosphere as key factors for them about what they love about the school and breakfast club is a big hit with their children with really helps when wanting them to start the day on a positive note.
Others say it is the response from staff to any issues or queries, which mean a lot to them as they which have been dealt with immediately and robustly, and they have felt respected and informed as parents. And this is from a parent who has had five children educated at private school, so they know their stuff! They say that their youngest child has been welcomed, loved and supported by every staff member they met (from the head teacher right through to the canteen and cleaning staff); which all contributes to that happy family environment.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Those wanting a small school, where every child is truly known alongside the hands-on and nurturing approach when it comes to educating your child. Anyone looking for an option where your child could potentially stay in one school from Nursery right through to Sixth Form. Oh and the fees are definitely competitively priced.
NOT FOR: If you are attracted to modern, shiny schools, which are highly competitive or academic with state-of-the-art facilities, this is maybe not the school for you. However, watch this space as those state-of-the-art facilities are certainly on their way…