School review: Somerhill
Want the best of both worlds? Co-education and single-sex schooling meets in harmony here under one community. Somerhill is the latest school to go under the Muddy microscope...
Set in a Grade 1 listed Jacobean, stunning stone mansion, Somerhill is one school comprised of three sections. Starting with the co-ed Pre-Prep, the school takes children from 2 (and a half) – 13 years and you’ll find it just outside Tonbridge, conveniently located just moments from the A21.
One of the most striking schools I’ve reviewed, Somerhill sits in 150 acres of glorious parkland, (see pic below). They offer some stonking facilities, a wide range of opportunities and have a strong record of academic success placing children in both grammar and independent schools at 11/13+.
Somerhill is a school that is both known and not-known at the same time. Known in the sense that it has a strong reputation and most people have heard of it. Not-known in the sense that most people I’ve encountered don’t really understand the structure of the school, which is quite unique, having merged three schools into one.
It comprises three sections within one school – the co-ed Pre-Prep, Yardley Court for Boys and Derwent Lodge for Girls. The children pretty much mix in every aspect except for actual academic lessons. Could it be we have stumbled across the perfect school model?
With 150 acres of glorious parkland there’s no limit to what you can offer the girls and boys here, and there’s no question that its facilities are one of Somerhill’s massive selling points. There’s heaps of outdoor space and pupils are encouraged to make the most of it – with play/climbing areas dotted all around the site.
Space inside the mansion is also in abundance here and there are so many rooms or buildings which the school takes full advantage of – whether it’s a cosy Nativity performance taking place in the Grand Salon (pictured below) or a whole school Summer Concert taking place in the large multi-sports hall (also pictured below).
Facility-wise there’s a sports hall, music building, indoor and outdoor pool. You’ll find touch-screen whiteboards in all classrooms and banks of tablets available for teachers if they need them to enhance learning. And in terms of clubs there’s everything from Taekwondo to Bee Club.
Somerhill has an average class size of 18 (not too big, not too small) and is a non-selective school. But you can rest easy about sending your son or daughter here from an academic perspective – there’s a strong record of academic success placing children in both grammar and independent schools at 11/13+.
The Principal, Mr Sinclair, is clear that Somerhill is not an 11+ factory – but equally parents are supported in whatever path they choose for their child. It’s good to see that, like many of the traditional preps that go up to Y8, Somerhill is making changes to the Common Entrance curriculum, which is generally considered fairly outdated.
Heard of the Prep School Baccalaureate? It’s the emerging assessment model that’s being used by preps to replace the traditional 13+ and is being rolled out at Somerhill throughout the year groups. The sensible theory being that, rather than stuffing their young brains with facts that any child could find in 3 seconds on the internet, this programme of study is much more relevant for our information-rich world. It’s designed to actively develop and track knowledge, skills and attitudes and aims to prepare children for the challenges of life as young adults in senior schools, delivering rounded children, not just ones that can regurgitate facts.
Away from exam papers, it’s also a pretty story. The school has an innovative approach to preparing children for the next school stage. For example, Somerhill is one of only two prep schools in England to have put ‘Engineering’ on the curriculum which pulls in many skillsets and covers projects such as rocket cars, full size catapults, robots, electronics, and a bridge building challenge- students from Year 5 upwards build their own website and create a video to showcase their portfolio of work – rather than presenting it in an old-fashioned folder (hard copies are so passé!).
Somerhill pupils whether at Year 6 or Year 8 do get their preferred school, be that state grammar school or senior independent. Girls leave the school at the end of Y6 – with typical destinations being Tonbridge Grammar, Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar, Walthamstow Hall, Sevenoaks and Kent College.
Of the 37 girls who left at the end of Y6, July 2019 – 23 went to their Grammar School of choice, 13 to Independent Senior Schools and 1 to a state secondary school.
A number of boys, around 40 per cent, also exit at this stage for the Kent grammars, principally The Judd and Skinners. Of the 27 boys who left at the end of Y6 July 2019, 22 went to their Grammar School of choice, 3 to Independent Senior Schools and 2 to state secondary schools.
28 boys remained for Y7 & Y8, which is a healthy number, particularly compared to some other preps that struggle with numbers in the higher years. And out of those that stay the vast majority go on, in Y9, to Tonbridge or Sevenoaks but some to Caterham, Eastbourne, Bedes, Sutton Valence Senior School, Hurst or Kings Canterbury – and many with scholarships and exhibitions.
Sports-wise, this school does very well. Four out of five days the children can be found doing either P.E. or Games – and that can involve anything from swimming, gymnastics, rugby, netball, hockey, football, cricket or basket ball.
They were IAPS Athletics National Finalists and Silver Medallists in the IAPS Swimming National Finals in 2019.
There’s a 25 metre indoor swimming pool – so a serious full-lengther – always impressive for a prep. Outside there are fields galore of course. The 4/5 football pitches become big running tracks or cricket pitches in the summer. There’s also a sports hall, and an astro for hockeyand an extensive Cross-Country course in the parkland that is also used by other schools for competitions.
If this all sound a bit sports-mad, don’t be disheartened. There are lots of sports teams for all abilities – not just A or B for the elite few – and they all have match experience and all results are celebrated.
The Art department is found, as is often the case, high up in the light, airy attic space at the top of the school and used by boys and girls alike. Here there’s a wonderful creative vibe and some exceptional work on display. All year groups have a good double lesson of art per week so it’s clearly a subject given its due weight and not seen as an ‘add on’ which is always good to see.
MUSIC & DRAMA
Drama and performing arts are excellent here. Music wise, there’s a purpose-built Music Building and children from Reception have class music lessons with a specialist teacher each week and there is also a Performance Room for events. Pupils have access to a large range of music groups, soirees, orchestra, singing practice and daily individual lessons – as well as Choir from Y3 and pupils are very much encouraged to take up individual instruments from Y1.
Somerhill has an excellent team of visiting peripatetic music teachers who deliver over 14,000 individual music lessons a year overseen by the Director of Music. The majority of students go on to take Associated Board exams with the school being the biggest exam centre in Kent in terms of the number of children sitting music exams. Phew – that sounds like one impressively busy department!
I really liked the over-arching Principal Duncan Sinclair – who is also the head of Yardley Court. He’s been head here since September 2017, having moved from St Michael’s Prep in Otford to head up Taunton Prep in Somerset and then back to Kent to take on this role.
Born in Zimbabwe, he moved to South Africa as a child – and perhaps this global outlook leaves him free from any pompousness or unnecessary ceremony. He’s relaxed, fun and enthusiastic – a lover of sports (particularly cricket, rugby and athletics) as well as playing the tuba in the orchestra. Having a son myself I can see exactly how he’s the sort of head that would appeal.
He’s not too much of a man’s man either – I comment on his pink laces and he says it’s more fun for the pre-prep children when he’s reading to them at story time. They can be green, pink or blue to match the school colours. Mr Sinclair’s wife, Georgie, teaches P.E and Outdoor Learning in the Pre-Prep. They have three young sons all at the school too.
I like his description of a child as like a bicycle wheel (bear with me) – a school’s job is to keep adding the spokes, whether that’s learning, confidence, fun, friendship – with the idea being that the child will become a well-rounded individual (wheel, with all its spokes!) when they are rolled out the door on departure.
Helen Hoffmann, pictured above, is head teacher at Derwent Lodge, the girls section of Somerhill. A literacy specialist, Helen is kind and eloquent. She’s also very keen to promote creative, independent, no-limits girls (we likey!) and is an avid supporter and champion of the Engineering Curriculum that has been introduced. Helen seems to have the right amount of oomph required to turn out young women who will be ready for the challenges of the modern world.
Little ones can start here at Somerhill Pre-Prep from the term they turn two and a half. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming and the pre-prep is very much in the heart of the school, situated around the central courtyard (very safe and spongey having been recently re-surfaced – see pic above).
Kathy McLauchlan, pictured above, is the highly experienced Head of Somerhill Pre-Prep. Renowned as an early years specialist and leader she joined Somerhill Pre Prep as Head in September 2019 and is passionate about developing the woodland outdoor learning opportunities and the creative curriculum. At this age children are very much based in the Pre-Prep so won’t ever feel over-whelmed by the bigger children.
They have their own hall for assemblies and performances and have lunch in the main dining room from Pre-School age. There is very much a family feel to the dining room and the little ones eat earlier than the prep school children. The introduction into the wider school in general is gradual so that by the time they move on up the school in Y3 they are more than ready for it.
From Nursery up they go out into the Woodland Classroom once a week, following a Forest School curriculum. As the children grow French, Music and Sport are taught by specialist teachers, and a major benefit of the school for littlies are of course the facilities, as they use the swimming pool, sports hall and grounds from Pre-School.
Pre Prep also have their own outdoor play area with child-friendly artificial turf.
Read the latest Inspection Reports here.
USP & QUIRKS
Somerhill is a unique community of three autonomous yet linked sections which bring boys and girls together socially whilst educating them separately. Most children join the school in the co-educational Pre-Prep school, then, from Y3, the girls then move on to Derwent Lodge and the boys join Yardley Court. Both sections are housed in the same building and share the facilities.
On the one hand the school supports the belief that girls and boys learn in different ways and at different speeds, which is why they flourish with single gender education from year 3. Yet on the other, they also believe that boys and girls should socialise, play and develop together outside of the classroom and not live in isolation from each other. Perfect example – see the Orchestra below!
As I moved around the school on my visit a bell went to signal end of lesson. Boys spilled out from class and girls moved through the library – all passing and mingling on route. They might not do the academic lessons together but in every other way the boys and girls mix well here – particularly at break and lunch.
Both the girls’ section and the boys’ have 4 houses (they have different names in keeping with the traditional houses from their original schools) attached to house colours and Sports Day is a shared affair.
The unique structure at Somerhill came about by luck when what was three separate schools merged on the one site in the 1990s – and over time it has become very much a unified school. It’s the first school (to their knowledge – and mine for that matter) to take on this particular structural model.
And it works – the schools’ thriving numbers are testament to that. I’d love to see this idea replicated at secondary school level – it would be the perfect educational model in my opinion.
WRAP AROUND CARE/TRAVEL
Drop off from 7.30am for breakfast club and after-school clubs run until 5.30pm. School buses pick up from five different routes: from the likes of Tunbridge Wells, Kings Hill and Ightham via Sevenoaks.
Pre-Prep School – 5 Morning Sessions or 5 Afternoon Sessions: £828 – £1,710 (the school is registered provider of Free Early Education for 3 and 4 year olds). Longer Morning Sessions that include lunch £1,148 – £2,030.
Reception Class (after Free Early Education): £2,538 or 5 Full Days (Compulsory school age) £3,420 and Y1 & Y2: £3,975
Derwent Lodge – Y3 – Y6: £5, 260 and Yardley Court: Y3 – Y8: £5, 260. Sibling discounts are available.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Somerhill has a bit of a reputation for suiting very sporty, ‘boys boys’ but this is not the case according to several mums I’ve spoken to. Yes, it’s a brilliantly sporty school if that’s your thing, but they equally sung the praises of a system that allows all children to play sport – and enjoy it – whatever their ability.
No school is perfect, but the parents I spoke to here were all very positive. One mum with a son and daughter both there said they ‘couldn’t be happier’ with their choice. I had a lovely chat with 4 girls and 4 boys from each of the school sections and they were wonderful children and a credit to the school. Also, interestingly, a real mix of personalities – some shy, some exuberant, some sports-mad, some not. Most of the boys I met were heading to Tonbridge – the girls the grammars.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Want the best of both worlds? Co-education and single-sex schooling meets in harmony here under one community. Somerhill is a happy learning environment and will appeal to parents keen to put the emphasis on all round character. The facilities and green spaces will make you swoon. The wrap around care and location near the A21 will appeal to working parents too.
NOT FOR: There’s no boarding element here. The one-school-in-three model and the size of the building and grounds might not suit really retiring children that need a very small environment, although the way the school works means classes are tiny and each child is known anyway.
GO SEE FOR YOURSELF: Take a VIRTUAL TOUR of the school by clicking here.
Somerhill, Tonbridge, Kent, TN11 0NJ, Tel: 01732 352 124