Hilden Grange School, Tonbridge
Want the convenience of a town-based school, but without compromising on the sports and facilities? Introducing Hilden Grange Prep School...
Hilden Grange is a friendly, co-educational prep school for children aged between 3 – 13 years old on the northern fringe of Tonbridge.
While this is such a strong contender of a school it’s not one that is in the habit of shouting too loudly about itself, so you may not know all that it has to offer – and that’s quite a lot actually…
Firstly, it’s a real Dr Who‘s Tardis of a school – appearing to be a smart urban period house (admittedly a rather large one) when you see it from the road at the front. But step through the original buiding and look out the back and what opens up is a surprisingly spacious panoramic view of the large acreage of grounds and new buildings bustling with busy school life.
It’s a school in the Alpha Plus Group (a portfolio of 20 top swanky schools, nurseries and colleges) which in real terms basically means the school benefits from good funding and backing with development schemes. Come take a closer look at this school full of surprises…
An extensive development project transformed the school and created new spacious modern buildings that consist of play areas, new teaching spaces for Nursery and Reception and Years 1-5 and new facilities including Science Labs, an Art and Design area, a Library and a Dining Hall. The existing school hall became a largely dedicated sports facility.
Being a town based school, there is no onsite parking for parents at Hilden Grange School but they provide parents with a number of alternatives to parking on the roads around Dry Hill Park Road, including a drop-off facility, park and stride from Tonbridge School and a minibus service.
Despite the town setting there’s plenty of outside space and sports fields and lots of opportunities for sporty kids. In fact, the school has built up an excellent reputation for sporting success – including a large number of tournament highlights and unbeaten seasons for both boys and girls.
One stand out fact is that Hilden Grange have had more boys qualify for the National Athletics Finals in each of the last three Kent Championships than any other school in the county whilst eleven girls have won sports awards to their chosen secondary schools since 2015. Plus they made Cricketer magazine‘s Top 50 Prep Schools for cricket in 2020.
Although standards are high, the ethos is very much on participation and enjoyment of sport, with all children given the opportunity to represent their school in a very full fixtures list. All successes are celebrated equally, with plaques celebrating unbeaten seasons for the D teams sharing pride of place alongside the A teams.
The school has signed a long term lease agreement to use several acres of land owned by neighbouring Tonbridge School, bringing the total to over 22 acres of outside space and sports fields – definitely something to shout about for a town-based prep.
ART & DT
With specialist Art teachers, and a smart Design and Technology area to complement the existing Art room, this is now a strong subject for the school.
Music is particularly popular here – with more than half of all pupils learning an instrument – which is a pretty impressive proportion. Many take part in groups including Strings, String & Piano trio, Big Band and recorder consort. It’s as much part of the boy’s culture as girls in this school, which is always refreshing to see, of the 70-strong choir (I said music was popular) many are boys.
As for Drama – there’s a big production that takes place every year in Tonbridge School’s E.M. Forster Theatre, in which children get involved from Y4 upwards both as members of the cast and the backstage crew.
Unfortunately, due to Covid, the school wasn’t able to stage their 2020 production, but instead members of the Production Club spent the Michaelmas term rehearsing and fine tuning their performances which were filmed, ready to be edited by the newly-formed Film Editing Club.
This is just one of the ways in which Covid has prompted the learning of some new skills, and it has been a really fun experience for all involved. The traditional Pre-Prep Nativity was also replaced by a Winter Entertainment with filmed performances for parents to enjoy.
Outside of school hours, children enjoy a decent range of after school clubs, from ballet to gardening, chess to fencing.
Little ones are very well catered for at this school. A real stand out feature here is the Early Years Foundation Stage Outdoor Learning Area that the school is understandably proud of.
It sits right at the heart of the school and the ethos is very much that outdoor leaning is a vital, integral part of the curriculum for the Early Years.
When I last visited some boys are building with blocks, a mixed group were telling stories in the Hobbit House, some were whizzing round the little lanes (under green archways) on scooters, others were playing with the incredible water feature (complete with an interactive waterwall…) One little boy was mixing ‘potions’ in the outdoor kitchen/laboratory. It’s a bit of a magical kingdom.
Sheena Sowerby is the Head of Early Years Foundation Stage (Nursery and Reception). Since my last visit there has been a complete overhaul of the EYFS classrooms – now the impressive features of the outside learning have been brought inside.
Heard of hygge? It’s the buzz word for warmth and a sense of community – and it’s being very successfully incorporated into classrooms by the more progressive thinking schools, like Hilden Grange.
Here, the EYFS has a Scandi feel – lots of wood and natural material – no plastic in sight. The little tea sets are real china, the imaginative play areas contain a record player, a typewriter and a telephone (how antique!) Each pupil even has a pair of slippers at school that they wear in the classroom – and putting them on (as they come in from running around outside) immediately instils a sense of calm in the child.
While the inside is a cosy, home-from-home here, outside learning is warmly encouraged too. Risk-taking, trying new things and building independence is all done within this secure environment. Little ones foster just the kind of confidence and love of learning that leads to academic success higher up the school.
Most of the younger children’s lessons move around the newer more modern buildings. The older children (Y6-8) are based in the older original building in Form Rooms (moving around the school for their specialist subjects).
I don’t get the impression that Hilden Grange is a pushy school – it’s more about getting pupils to fulfil their full potential. But children are very focused and the school does maintain high expectations academically – and sees results. On the one hand learning support is strong and all abilities are welcome here, at the same time, generally over 80% of those that take the Kent Test are selected for Grammar schools.
Pupils have gained 95 scholarships in the past 5 years and following a record-breaking scholarships year in 2019, 2020 was another highly successful year, with 14 awards won across the board, in Academics, Music, Drama, and Sport to schools including Tonbridge, Caterham and Kent College.
2019 was a record-breaking year for scholarships, with a total of 19 awards won across the board, in Academics, Music, Drama, and Sport. Eight of these were to Tonbridge School, including the ‘Ainslie’, the top Academic Award.
Music scholarships were won to Tonbridge, King’s Rochester and Hurstpierpoint, Drama to Haileybury and Sport to Benenden, Tonbridge and Sutton Valence.
The school is also retaining healthy numbers into Y7 & Y8 which is no mean feat when you consider all the grammars and independent secondaries on the doorstep.
Although with its location and strong links to all-boys Tonbridge School – while many local girls schools start at Y7 – it’s boys that tend to stay and girl numbers do tend to drop off after Y6.
Every child from Y5 has an iPad here as standard (there is no charge for parents) so the transition to home learning was fairly smooth. Mr Gough reports that the biggest surprise was remote learning for Nursery and Reception years, who took to it pretty seamlessly. They are one of the only local Nursery/Receptions offering four Live sessions a day plus 1-2-1 Live reading sessions online.
With over 32 years in education under his belt (30 of which have been as a senior leader and nine as a head), and several years spent at other well-known Kent preps, like Somerhill School and Sutton Valence Prep – Malcolm Gough is clearly an experienced, capable leader.
There’s a sense of continuing along the school’s existing path – with the same focus on kindness and keeping the children invested in their own studies – but also expecting a lot of them. The word academic is mentioned unashamedly. And why shouldn’t it be? The school does well on that front, and has proven it’s possible to be focused on the learning while keeping happiness levels high too.
As someone that has been inspecting schools for 19 years Mr Gough is open to the idea that there is always something new you can learn from others – that you can use to fine tune your own school – a good open-minded approach.
USP & QUIRKS:
One stand out feature that makes this school special is that from Y3 every subject is taught by specialist teachers meaning that from as young as 7 the pupils need to move around the school from lesson to lesson.
I’m trying to imagine how my kids would have managed this at that age (think organisational and navigational skills of a gnat) but I’m reassured this is a concept which pupils are gradually introduced to in Y2 – so the kids are fully supported during this process. Before long all pupils display the levels of personal management and responsibility most parents dream of.
This, says Mr Gough, keeps children interested and engaged and means you fill your school with teachers who are truly strong in each specialist area and are passionate about that subject.
WRAP AROUND CARE
After school care costs £3.50/session for the Pre-Prep (3.50 – 5pm) and £5 session for all from 5-6pm. The breakfast club runs from 7.30am each day and costs £2.50. Parents can pre book or use it on an ad hoc basis.
On the more reasonable side of average for a prep school in this area, I’d say. Termly fees are: Prep School (Years 5-8), £5,300; Prep School (Years 3-4), £4,653; Pre-Prep (Years 1-2): £3,830; Reception, £3,305. Nursery (minimum of five sessions per term), £1,155 or can be booked in day sessions.
WORD ON THE GROUND
This school has a pretty impressive track record for academics but parents are quick to point out it is not pushy. Pastorally excellent is the feedback from families, who delight in their happy, thriving kids. Most seem to cope just fine with the lack of car park and say the Drop Off Facility works.
Big support for the specialist teachers across every subject, from Y3. A particularly loved feature is the way the school celebrates the successes of all sports teams equally – with one parent describing how their son’s cricket team (the Under 8 ‘C’ Team) was awarded a plaque on the wall of the hall for an unbeaten season. As a not particularly sporty child, he was absolutely thrilled! ‘Nurturing’ and ‘each child’s needs being met’ are common phrases.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Anyone that wants the convenience of a town-based school, but without compromising on the sports and facilities. A good choice if you’ve got little ones that love to learn outdoors – it’s not wild bush craft exactly but it is a great structured external play area. Hilden Grange brings the tradition of prep school into the modern era and would suit any child that’s prepared to have a go and a parent that wants a down-to-earth, family-focused education for their child.
Not for: Anyone who wants old school tradition and ceremony – this school has more than a 90-year history of its own but is definitely about looking to the future. And not for anyone who wants acres of rolling hills as far as the eye can see, while the school has done well to obtain as much outdoor space and sports facilities as it does, it is not a rural setting.
See for yourself: While Hilden Grange are always delighted to welcome prospective parents to the school, unfortunately this is not possible at the moment, but they would be pleased to set up an e-meeting with head, Mr Gough. To book, click here hildengrange.co.uk/Admissions.
Hilden Grange Preparatory School, 62 Dry Hill Park Road, Tonbridge TN10 3BX, Tel: 01732 351169, hildengrange.co.uk