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.
Until we visited Dover College for our first review, I had never stumbled upon this hidden gem of a school which is an oasis of calm in the midst of the town centre. The school 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 300 pupils – with 75 in the Prep School – so there is real sense of a ‘family’ atmosphere throughout the place.
Historic settings aside, there are modern ambitions for the school especially with Simon Fisher as the relatively new Head (he started in September 2020) as he has an advanced ICT background, alongside his teaching experience, so it’s no wonder that he is helping the school move into a more digital-focused and forward-thinking era. As the sign at the school gates says, it’s a 12th Century school with a 21st Century approach.
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.
The Prep school is maybe not as ‘sparkly’ as other schools that we have seen in the area but this does not inhibit the learning that is going on with pupils having the option to learn French and Spanish from Reception.
There is also a Performing Arts Centre in the making as well as a new 4G pitch (all-weather) on the horizon so there is plenty in the pipeline alongside Simon’s desire to look at what the school already has and enhance it even further. Prime example of this is a former storage space in the eaves of the Senior School is now being used as a cozy and effective study space for Sixth Formers so they will be looking at how they can do this within the Prep School too.
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.
Plus there is a new chef in place (formerly Head Chef at The King’s Head in Wye) and he is getting the BIG thumbs up from students and staff alike.
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 what was music to my ears is that Swimming is an all year round sport for ALL children (from Nursery through to Year 6) so you can be rest assured that your children will be proficient in this area.
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.
In addition, there is horse-riding and sailing on offer too so something for everyone, and there is Forest School for everyone within the Prep School as well as their own Beavers and Cubs groups on site.
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.
The new Head’s proficiency in this department has already seen some valuable changes take place and there is already an iPAD scheme for all pupils from Year 3 upwards, so they can view it as their digital pencil case and as an enhancement to learning rather than a distraction, plus there is a bank of iPADs for the younger kids to use.
As someone who did not take to DT at school, I was particularly drawn to this space with its funky design and you can tell that LEGO is a well-loved subject matter for all ages.
In the Head’s study, I quickly realized that the flowers I had been admiring were made entirely of LEGO (one of Simon’s recent 40th birthday presents) and this subject matter is used across all age-groups as an effective learning tool. There is even a LEGO-run club led by pupils.
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
The recent appointments of a Director of Music and a new Director of Drama shows that the school has invested in these subjects of late. The new Performance Arts Centre, to be completed by 2023, will enhance 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 and there will soon be a Prep School dedicated choir. We are also told that the Drums is a very popular subject alongside piano and violin and LAMDA has recently been introduced at Prep School level.
The encouragement to perform comes from all corners and we love the fact that during lockdown, the school hosted their own digital version of The Masked Singer with staff taking part and pupils voting for their favourites!
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.
However the new Head is keen to reinvigorate the academic offer at Dover College acknowledging the fact that the school can nurture its pupils alongside stretching their abilities and helping them reach their potential.
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.
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.
Simon Fisher joined Dover College as Head of both the Senior and Prep School in September 2020 so it was a baptism of fire in terms of getting to know a school through installing new Covid-19 regulations.
In his typical positive fashion, he states that this additional process actually helped him and the team form a close bond in the months leading up to the official start of term due to the intense planning that took place during the summer months to ensure that Dover College could re-open its doors once again!
By way of background, Simon read History at the University of Exeter before taking a PGCE in Secondary Education. His first teaching post was at Wycliffe College in Gloucestershire, where he was quickly promoted to Head of Department and subsequently onto the Senior Management Team.
In 2011 he moved to Worth School in West Sussex, where as Assistant Head he led on the use of ICT to enhance learning and teaching. In 2015 he was promoted to Deputy Head, with responsibility for the academic provision. During Simon’s tenure in this role the school achieved its best ever set of GCSE results and received the highest possible ISI grading for academic standards.
Simon seems to have to the perfect measure of the school (and I was told on my tour round by a member of staff that they were so delighted that he accepted the role as he is so forward-thinking) and he shared with us one of the key winning factors that attracted him to Dover College was that it is ‘small but beautiful’ and the staff really know their pupils and what a benefit that this brings to their learning experience.
As Simon says, ‘We like to envisage what jobs our pupils will be doing in the future and how we can give them the right skills to do that with ease and finesse. We will be honing in on their lateral thinking, with a creative manner, which will give them the right skillsets for life.’ Simon’s superior ICT background will really help the school take shape on the front.
We were also encouraged to hear Simon say the following about the school and realizing the small wins for every pupil. “At Dover College, we believe it is about achieving your personal best and celebrating those victories. That personal best may be an A* for one pupil or a C for another but they should all be judged as individual triumphs if the pupil has worked hard to achieve that goal.”
Another take-away point about the school is its ambition to install in the pupils a strong moral compass which is one of the school’s strongest selling points as 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.
Simon is joined at the school with his wife and two children, who have just started at the Prep school, and is living on-site so that family atmosphere really lives on here at Dover College.
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.
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.
The forthcoming Harry Potter week in November 2021 promises to be a big hit, and possibly a new quirky tradition, as there will be a Harry Potter themed banquet in the Great Hall, potions classes and quidditch games played on the green to name but a few activities. This has been built on a fun concept the staff did for boarders who had to stay at school during the January/February lockdown so imaginations can run riot here.
We 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.
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 and a lot of post Covid-learning has been adopted with a swifter drop-off system.
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. And what is extra amazing is that there is NO extra cost.
FEES (per term)
Muddy Knees and Pre-Prep (Age 3+, 4+) – £3,075 ; Prep 1 & 2 (Age 5+) – £3,290; Prep 3 & 4 (Age 7+) – £3,650. And Prep 5 & 6 (Age 9+) – £4,100.
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.
We also chatted to some of the pupils from Year 6 about the perks of Dover College and, as always, it is a fascinating insight. One boy quoted the view of Dover Castle on a sunny day is one of the many reasons that he loves the school and there was big excitement about a forthcoming Healthy School Week with plenty of fun facts on this topic alongside activities like ice skating, ten pin bowling, trampoline and archery.
The varied clubs and sports were also cited as big plus points for the school with two girls loving their new ‘Sing and Sign’ club, as well as LAMDA and Football, and they both proudly spelt out their names in Sign after just one lesson.
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…