St Michael’s Prep School, Sevenoaks
Set in a stunning 90 acre site of woodland, this idyllic co-ed prep school is a really strong all-rounder. Fancy a look around?
Sevenoaks and its surrounds is blessed with quite a number of good school options, and here’s a stand-out corker for you.
You’ll find St Michael’s Prep School nestled in Otford down a rural lane. The first time I visited I was impressed with what I found – and since then the school has further improved its facilities and gained a new Head. Fancy a look around? Check out the school’s virtual tour.
This is a co-educational prep school for children aged 2 – 13, set in a stunning 90 acre site of woodland, lawn, pitches and courts with a view down the valley that stretches for miles.
Originally a boys’ boarding school many years ago, St Michael’s now takes day pupils only and girls were introduced in the 1990s – these days there’s a roughly even ratio of boys to girls.
Very good for a prep school. This is a non-selective school that aims to help each child fulfil their own potential, with a mass of amazing facilities – on a par with most independent senior schools.
The Pre-Prep (up to Year 2) is housed in a separate building just 100 yards down a path on the same site as the Prep (which is Year 3 – Year 8).
There’s a lot of attention to detail here – from the design of the new additions to the brand-new Reading Range; a little hut created to sit and read a book on sunny days.
The modern Pre-Prep buildings cater for all the needs that younger children have and the Prep School’s older manor house offers that sense of tradition and identity that the children appreciate more as they grow.
Both schools share the benefit of lots of outdoor space (hence the wellies always hanging up): the woodland, sports pitches overlooking the valley, the Astroturf pitch, Sports Hall, Forest School and heated indoor swimming pool.
One new development since my last visit is the school’s excellent Forest School – they certainly have the setting for it here (although the children don’t have to go far, it’s just tucked in the trees the other side of the playground). Here they can explore, evaluate, take considered risks and build their fine and gross motor skills.
Swimming takes place from Year 1 and there’s after school Swim Clubs on site so parents can joyously avoid that mad dash across town to try and make it to swimming lessons (sound familiar?). There are even swim sessions for parents too.
Sport is strong here, but the emphasis is simply on you doing your best, and while the best for some is national standard, for many it’s just the taking part.
In terms of sports facilities, the cricket pitch and lawns stretch out beneath the Prep School main building, offering stunning views and a sense of space.
The school recently celebrated the opening of its smart, new Astroturf pitch, which is used by the Pre-Prep and Prep alike.
It’s a smart addition that you don’t find at many stand-alone prep schools. This will take sports – in particular hockey, which is enjoyed by both boys and girls – to the next level.
With a strong Head of Drama at the school, the performing arts has gained something of a reputation and they don’t shy away from big, challenging productions.
When I visited, the Head of Drama, Alan Powell, was still ambitiously determined to go ahead with the end of year production The Elephant Man – insisting they would find a way to make it work, whilst still adhering to Covid guidelines. The show must go on! Well the show did and word-on-the-ground is – it was outstanding.
The school continues to enhance their facilities and hopes to build a Creative and Performing Arts space. This facility will provide further opportunities for St Michael’s Music, Art and Drama Departments to showcase their spectacular talents, as well as bringing the local community together.
They are really BIG on music and over half of the pupils in Year 1 and above play one or more instruments. There are five choirs, from Chamber to Show Choir (singing numbers from musicals – where do I sign up?) and everyone gets involved – from the Music Scholars to those just-giving-it-a-go – the feel is inclusive.
Inside, the Prep school is spread over three floors, including spacious classrooms, a beautiful Chapel and a lovely, well-equipped library (on warmer days the library is taken outdoors to their new hut to encourage the children to read in the sunshine).
Swimming here is free for some local primary schools too. I mention this because this is one example of the caring ethos at the heart of this school – pupils are encouraged to show gratitude by caring for others.
On several occasions it’s mentioned how important it is that children are rounded and enter the world with the knowledge of their good fortune and a desire to make a difference.
Here’s the Chapel, above, (note how the carpets match the Prep School girls’ tartan skirts) where services, smaller events and music practise takes place.
I chatted to some very brilliant, buzzy Peri music teachers, who seem very much part of the school, not ‘extras’ as they can sometimes appear.
Further into the tour I met an energetic female science teacher who was keen to talk about how both girls and boys show an interest in her subject. She, along with some chirpy Year 6 pupils managed to explain water refraction to me in a way I could finally understand after many years in the dark. So, thanks for that.
The art rooms are brimming with colourful and imaginative works of genius (is it me, or are kids producing much more amazing stuff these days than the dodgy stuff I made at school?).
In one room pupils were painting and in the other there was a Year 3 engineering contest taking place – build a bridge out of pegs and see how many toy cars it can carry. The maximum number was 20 and reached by two delighted girls. Architects, engineers, or designers in-the-making, maybe?
There are several well-equipped computer rooms with lots of fun learning tools to teach things like coding from a young age.
Every year, several of the kids who are particularly interested in ICT spend the day training in the Bluewater Apple Centre so they can then run a Genius Bar at school and trouble-shoot techie questions from both staff and pupils. A truly fab idea.
Plus, there’s smartboards in every class from Kindergarten age, incorporating technology into everyday learning from a really young age.
The Head of Pre-Prep is the very approachable Mrs Leech who gave me a tour of the building – which is both quirky and super functional.
She had a lot to do with the design, which is clear when I see how well the space works. With its own dining room and hall, this is a totally self-sufficient Pre-Prep, although there is obviously lots of interaction with the Prep school.
Rooms flow into each other, sliding doors create closed off classrooms for quiet reading time, or open up for more free-flow learning. There’s a covered garden learning space, so little ones can be outside all year round. The building is a beautiful horseshoe shaped wooden structure, with an actual living roof and glass balconies, which benefit from wonderful views over the Kent countryside.
Here, take a closer look…
In the Pre-Prep they separate the Nursery children (aged 2 – 3) from Kindergarten (aged 3 – 4) so the older children remain stretched and stimulated.
Another smart new addition since my last visit is the new Year 2 classrooms in the recently converted stable blocks (pictured below).
Since Year 2 marks the year when children will transition from the Pre-Prep to the Prep school, it makes sense for them to have this separate space – a stepping stone between the buildings if you like – as they start to increase their independence.
ACADEMICS & ADMISSIONS
Staff are happy to talk about the 11+ and how they help get pupils ready for this and other senior school entrance exams. Children consistently achieve above national expectations in standardised tests and top performers secure academic and other scholarships to senior schools. St Michael’s has strong links with top independent and grammar schools in the area including Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Caterham, Judd and Tonbridge Grammar School which many of its pupils go to. The prep school also prides itself on its Learning Development Department, which has a good offering for say, children with dyslexia, for example.
Specialist teachers are introduced from the very early years, but by Year 5 all subjects are taught by the relevant subject teachers, just as they would be at senior school level.
Head, Nik Pears, (previously Head of Prep at Kent College, Pembury) took over the role in January 2021 (right in the middle of the pandemic and all the lockdown challenges that accompanied it), but is now fully settled into the role.
Educated at St Dunstan’s College and Cambridge University, Mr Pears brings with him a wealth of leadership experience – having held his position as Head of Prep at Kent College Pembury since 2016 and prior to that, he was Head of the Junior School at Sevenoaks Prep for five years.
Of his experience so far, Nik says: ‘What has impressed me most about this school is the incredible warmth and sense of community you feel, from the staff to pupils and parents – there’s a real sense of belonging in the bones of the school.’
And the main goal? ‘We are rightly proud of our tremendous academic success and the achievements of our pupils, but first and foremost, what I want is to see our children come running into school in the morning and not want to go home at the end of the day!’.
YEARS 7 & 8
A hot topic at a lot of prep schools that go up to Year 8 is the transition away from the old Common Entrance exams – which are now well over 100 years old. Plus, in a world where we have access to all the answers in a Google click, fact-heavy testing makes less and less sense, over a need for developing an enquiring mind and adaptability. As Nik Pears puts it:
‘We don’t necessarily want to change what we teach but how we teach and how pupils demonstrate their learning. In an age when children and adults have access to information on anything, we need to move away from simply teaching the children what and instead to focus on the why and how.’
In keeping with these trends, the school launched the St Michael’s Diploma in 2019 following consultation with several senior independent schools. The St Michael’s Diploma combines aspects of the Common Entrance curriculum with their own diploma which is tailor made to the needs of their pupils and their futures after consultation with several senior independent schools.
Pupils are graded either a pass, merit or distinction for each subject studied and in addition are judged against seven core skills: academic excellence, independence, collaboration, perseverance, creativity, critical thinking and commitment.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Care is available every weekday in the popular after school care club, The Hive. Breakfast Club (7.30am-8am) costs £9 (including breakfast) and the after school club (4pm-7pm) costs £9 per hour (plus an extra £3 for high tea) – the room has its own adjoining kitchen.
Parents enjoy the proximity to Sevenoaks while being just outside the town in a rural setting and the advantage of this is lots of car parking space on site. The lanes leading up to the school are quite narrow and there’s the occasional queue. The school is currently looking into minibus routes for its pupils.
Termly fees are: £421 per Morning Session per term (8.15am – 12 noon) in Nursery & Kindergarten and £895 per Nursery Full Day per term (8.15am – 3.20pm).
£4,210 for Reception to Year 2. And for the Prep £4,850 for Years 3 to 4 and £5,120 for Years 5 to 8. These fees fare well when you consider the facilities on offer here, the cost of other preps in the area and the location (Sevenoaks is affluent commuter-belt country after all).
WORD ON THE GROUND
The voice of the child is central in this school. It’s clear that while the pupils I met were hugely polite and respectful of all their teachers, they are very much treated as equals and can raise any issue and feel listened to.
Parents comment on the strong sense of community and personal enjoyment they get in being part of that – from watching cricket matches in the sunshine, to school social events including the annual ball.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: This is a considerate school where a lot of thought is put into the details – both physically and at its emotional heart too. The end result is a caring, joyous atmosphere that runs through its veins. A sound all-rounder option, particularly for the musically minded, where opportunities abound and staff do their utmost to instil enthusiasm for learning.
Not for: Anyone who wants old school tradition and ceremony – no natty, bow-tie-wearing Heads talking about generations of family here. That’s not to say that this school isn’t traditional in the manners and good decent behaviour kind of way, but it’s a progressive school, looking to the future, far from stuffy and dwelling on the past.
See for yourself: Check out the school’s virtual tour or better yet attend their Open Morning on Tues 5 Oct from 8:45 – 11:30am. Experience the school, enjoy a tour of the Pre-Prep and Prep buildings, hear from their Head and speak to the children and members of staff during your visit. Book your place now.