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School review: Dulwich Prep Cranbrook

Three years after my first visit this popular rural prep goes back under the Muddy microscope... Class, listen up, and no talking at the back please!

WHAT? WHERE? 

Dulwich Prep Cranbrook is a rural prep school located in (you guessed it) Cranbrook, pretty much smack bang in the middle of the Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Ashford triangle. Only an hour from Central London, the school sits in 50 acres of beautiful Kent countryside. This is at the bigger end in terms of size for a prep school, (there are a total of 400 boys and girls aged between 3 – 13, with a roughly even gender split) but it certainly doesn’t feel too big. 

It’s been cleverly designed to actually function as three smaller schools  in one. These self-contained buildings are divided into age groups, each – very importantly for us parents – with their own School Office and separate car parking area for Pick Up and Drop off.

The split works like this: Nash House (Nursery and Reception), Little Stream (Y1 – Y4) and Upper School (Y5 – Y8). Dividing the year groups like this of course makes perfect sense and allows that all important personal touch and the chance for each child to be known and looked after individually, which is what you pay for after all.

Classrooms are light, airy and spacious. Each building has its own facilities – as well as strong identity and style – and has clearly been designed to meet the specific needs of the children as they pass through each age and stage. Yet they are also linked successfully – the Headmaster attends assembly at Nash House and Little Stream each week and all children eat lunch up at the main building, at different staggered times, so no one is overwhelmed.

There’s very much a campus feel about the school and although some of the older buildings have character like Manor, the Boarding House, the site has a sense of practicality and modernity.

SPORTS FACILITIES

Excellent, with all the usuals you’d expect, plus tennis courts/all weather hockey pitches, eight-lane athletics track, heated outdoor pool on both the Upper School and Little Stream sites, cricket nets, two out-door permanent table tennis tables, oodles and oodles of playing fields to really knacker the kids out at playtimes and a woodland area for Outdoor Learning. An impressive vegetable patch is tended by Gardening Club and there’s a new Climbing Wall donated by the Friends of Dulwich.

Dulwich has a long-standing reputation as a sporting school, with considerable success in fixtures and competitions both regionally and nationally.

However you do not have to be sports-mad to thrive here and the school has made real efforts to establish an ethos of inclusivity – not just talking about it but actually putting this principle into action. In this vein, they recently launched their ‘Dulwich Inspires’ programme to offer children an alternative to the normal Games activities.

Recognising that the usual repertoire of team sports might not be for everyone they offer a wider choice of alternative activities during the traditional Games afternoon – offering things like Abseiling, Wind Surfing, Climbing, Sailing, Biking, Gardening or Walking, Talking and Drawing. This sounds like an excellent option for keeping kids active and providing opportunities to try new things – while acknowledging that rolling around on a muddy rugby pitch isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.

MUSIC, ART & DRAMA

The MUSIC Department is housed in a purpose-built block in Upper School with a large recital room and seven practice rooms. Little Stream also has a self-contained music suite with teaching and recital space as well as two practice rooms. Dulwich has close to 20 peripatetic music teachers as well as permanent staff. There’s every kind of music ensemble on offer – from Chamber Choir and Orchestra to Samba Band and (sign me up right now) Rock School!

ART here is very strong, and the school is understandably proud of their pupils’ achievements. Scholarships are inevitably won to major schools every year and Dulwich pupils consistently shine in the prestigious IAPS iArt competition (the school has just celebrated a winner and two runners up in 2020) see these exceptional specimens below.

Advanced Art Club is extended to Y7&Y8 (by invitation only) – giving talented pupils the chance to really hone their skills as well as take part in trips to galleries or see their work exhibited.

DRAMA is also a favourite subject at Dulwich, and several students I chatted to commented on how much they enjoyed Director of Drama, Mrs Carter’s, lessons. Each of the three buildings has its own hall for putting on shows, with Upper School, having a wonderful performing space, (see above).

During Covid-19 times performances are being recorded and sent home for virtual viewing (someone pass the popcorn). This summer the Y8 Revue was held Drive Thru style complete with big screen and valet parking – a brilliant example of innovation that must have prevented a great deal of disappointment at such an end-of-era stage for those Leavers.

WHAT ELSE?

Upper School has a well-stocked library with lots of ICT equipment, pictured below, and a vibrant creative Librarian. All students in Y7 & Y8 have their own school iPad.

There’s a decent sized DT department, pictured below, which looked so much fun I wanted to stay and play.

The great outdoors is a big thing at Dulwich and the woodland area of the school, as well as the on site nature reserve, are regular fixtures in school life. There’s an Outdoors Club and even an Outdoor Education Co-Ordinator.

Popular dates in the school calendar involve various team bonding experiences in the older year groups when they get to spend a night camping and trying out lots of Bear Grylls-type activities, like survival skills and den building. By Y8 the students go to Wales for three nights and climb Mount Snowdon.

Normally there’s a big After School clubs Activity List – but current circumstanes have curtailed some of these. Undeterred the school has quickly adapted – making the most of the extensive grounds to move clubs outside.

One of the most popular clubs is Triathlon Club, which culminates at the end of the Summer Term when Dulwich hosts the National Prep Schools’ Triathlon (over 200 competitors from across the country join in to compete across the three disciplines). I’m exhausted just thinking about it, but the kids love it.

WELLBEING

Since my last visit a new iSpace Wellbeing curriculum has launched here – with weekly lessons focusing on mental health and personal growth in a very real and practical way, which must be particularly useful for the children in our uncertain world right now. In fact the school has embraced the ethos of putting each child’s happiness at the core of everything that it’s just made Finalist in the Wellbeing category of the Independent School Parent Awards.

The school aims for exceptional pastoral care, working closely with children’s mental health charity, Place2Be. To support this scheme the school has 2 therapy rooms and 2 dedicated counsellors available for drop in sessions (one in the Senior School and one in Little Stream). It’s already proved hugely successful with the aim being that talking openly and problem solving has very much become part of the school culture. Relaxation techniques are encouraged with everything from Mindfulness Colouring to Broga (yoga for boys!)

ACADEMIC RESULTS

The raison d’être for many for going to Dulwich Prep has historically been to get into the local Grammars, in particular Cranbrook Grammar, (which now takes pupils from Y7 ) – and about 40 per cent do just that, with almost all the others continuing in independent education.

It’s also worth noting that if your child should need extra learning support for maths and English this is automatically offered as part of the package – basically meaning you don’t have to fork out extra money like you do at some other prep schools, which is a good feature.

For those staying in Y7 & Y8 there’s a new curriculum called Dulwich Colours, which is a move away from confines of the traditional Common Entrance. Outside of the core subjects of English and Maths this age group is freed from the confines of a final examination in Humanities and Modern Languages – encouraging more independent and skills-based learning.

SCHOLARSHIPS

Each year Dulwich produces a long list of students who have had scholarship success in Sports, Art, Drama and Music.

ISI REPORT: Click here for the full report.

THE HEAD

Headmaster, Mr Paul David, is a keen sportsman (he teaches games in Upper School) and his wife also teaches at the school. He’s an amiable man, but also has a certain gravitas, which is exactly what you want in a head teacher.  A very visible presence around the school, and while Nash House and Little Stream both have their own Headteachers Mr David also attends assemblies there once a week. He has very high expectations of the schools surroundings – everywhere is immaculate, lots of fresh paint, with not a weed or piece of litter in sight (I think the groundsmen here must be exhausted).

LITTILIES 

Nash House and Little Stream (both fairly recently rebuilt; all classrooms open onto the garden with outdoor retractable roof – light and airy with lots of space) are set away from the main school in interconnecting buildings.

The inside/outside learning/play spaces are so well designed I’m not surprised to learn that the teachers themselves played a bit part in designing the buildings. They have their own Heads as well as their own swimming pool and a cosy well-stocked library. Overall there is a much less formal, relaxed feel to the younger years setting.

USP & QUIRKS

Not so much a quirk as an interesting backstory – but if you’ve ever got confused between the two Dulwich Prep Schools here’s why. This one, in Cranbrook, was established as a war evacuation camp for Dulwich College Preparatory School (now Dulwich Prep London) during WWII. Back then it was a small, makeshift school, with the children taught in huts in a Kent orchard. The school you see today has developed from that.

COVID-19 UPDATE

If you were to design a school that was equipped to cope in the strange times we find ourselves in – it might well be Dulwich Prep Cranbrook. The spacious, purpose-built classrooms, (all of which have floor to ceiling doors opening onto the outside play areas) and wide corridors have never been more appreciated. This has always been a very slick school, kept tidy and run efficiently – and the smooth morning Drop Off (with different years allocated different Car Park Zones) I witnessed demonstrated this.

The school seems to have really excelled at pivoting quickly to make changes and embrace technology that ensures the children can continue to enjoy as many elements of school life, while sticking to safety procedures. As I arrived a Y7 trip was taking place – there’ll be no overnight camping this year – but other than that the two-day, team-bonding, life-changing trip will still go ahead as normal. The Christmas Fair is already being planned to take place virtually.

The school is trialling a Hand Health initiative whereby all pupils will wear wristbands to track their hand-washing (a bit like a Fitbit tracks your steps). Also the use of hand sanitisers triggers the automated opening of doors – a brilliant addition because it encourages hygiene but has also been designed to be fun.

Clare Mackie Head of Little Stream

WRAP AROUND CARE

As well as the option to put children into Breakfast or Tea & Prep clubs (children may stay until 8pm) the school offers flexi-boarding.

The boys and girls boarding houses, are now combined into one, Manor, set in the old building and attached to Upper School, so bags of character and very homely. With lots of siblings and cousins at the school the children enjoy being together, but there are obviously very strict rules about which dormitories boys or girls can enter.

Part-boarding is the norm (with students staying between one and four nights each week) but parents can opt for the odd night here and there, when work means they have to be away, or you know, Barbados calls or whatever.

It’s very popular with the children too – so win, win. There are loads of theme nights organised which are highlights in the Boarding calendar, with everything from Comedy Club or Fright Night to Pamper Night.

WORD ON THE GROUND

There’s a lot of loyalty towards the school from the parents I have spoken to and quite a large per centage of them went to the school themselves, so that says a lot. The general feeling is that Mr David is a very safe-pair-of-hands Head who has really given the school a slick, organised feel.

A detail worth mentioning are the ‘Parent’s Coffee Hatches’ dotted around each building – which (during non-Covid times) open up every Friday morning to give parents the chance to chat and get to know one another in a convenient, casual setting. Another lovely feature was the specially built garden gazebo that’s the outdoor classroom, see below.

FEES

On the top end of average and on a increasing scale as you go up the school. Nash starts at £2,085 (for 5 mornings in Nursery) to £3,945 (Reception), Little Stream is from £4,090 (Y1) to £5,395 (Y2 – Y4). Upper School price for all years is £6,350 (Y5 & Y6) going up to £6,435 per term (Y7 & Y8). Regular Boarding is from £29.50 per night and Occasional Boarding is £44.00 per night.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Sporty, outdoorsy, driven kids will obviously thrive here. But so will those who don’t necessarily yet know what their ‘thing’ is as there’s so much on offer – all activities encouraged and pastoral care is exceptional – everyone seems to get the opportunity to shine. These days Art and Academics are equally strong too. Also great for parents who want Flexi-Boarding options and those who seek a friendly slick school in the countryside with a strong sense of family and community.

Not for: Those who want a smaller, intimate setting and don’t like the campus feel. No matter how well structured a school is, there are some children who just do better at tiny schools, being a big fish in a smaller pond. Although if you think this is your child I still wouldn’t rule out Dulwich before taking a look, you may be suprised.

Dare to disagree?! Have a look for yourself at the Open Morning Week from Mon 5 – Fri 9 October 2020.

Dulwich Prep Cranbrook, Coursehorn, Cranbrook, Kent, TN17 3NP, 01580 712179, dulwichprepcranbrook.org

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