Muddy Best Schools
Sevenoaks is blessed with quite a number of good school options, and here’s a corker for you. St Michaels Prep School nestled in the calmness of Otford down a rural lane. For some reason, even although I know this corner of Kent pretty well, I hadn’t even heard about this idyllic prep school until recently. And I was really impressed with what I found – a truly special school. Fancy a look around?
ST MICHAEL’S PREP SCHOOL, OTFORD, NEAR SEVENOAKS
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 (247 boys 203 girls).
It’s a non-selective school that aims to help each child fulfil their own potential, with a mass of amazing facilities and a caring, joyous beating heart that you can feel running through the veins of the school. The Pre-Prep (up to Y2) is housed in a separate newly built facility, just 100 yards down a path on the same site (the Prep is Y3 – Y8). This is an incredibly well thought out school from the architectural design of the new building to the pop up library on sunny days. Step this way and you’ll see what I mean…
Very good for a prep school. The Pre-Prep and Prep are in two separate buildings, the modern Pre-Prep catering for all the needs that younger children have and the Prep School’s older manor house offering that sense of tradition and identity that 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 over looking the valley, sports hall and heated in-door swimming pool.
The cricket pitch and lawns stretch out beneath the Prep School main building offering stunning views and a sense of space. I can just see myself on my deckchair, glass of Pimms in hand as I watch the mudlets play cricket. Well, with grounds like this it would be rude not to. Inside, the main Prep is spread over three floors, including spacious classrooms, a beautiful Chapel and a lovely well-equipped library (on warmer days a pop up library is taken outdoors to encourage the children to read in the sunshine).
With a new Head of Drama in their second year of teaching at the school, the performing arts has become an increasingly strong area. The end of year production, which will be Guys & Dolls last year, will actually be performed at the The Stage theatre in Sevenoaks. The school continues to enhance their facilities and hopes to build a Creative and Performing Arts space.
I’m impressed with the well-equipped Computer Room with lots of fun learning tools to teach things like coding from a young age. Several of the kids who are particularly interested in IT spent the day training in the Bluewater Apple Centre so they can now run a Genius Bar at school and trouble-shoot techie questions from both staff and pupils. A truly fab idea.
Sports strong here, but I think the emphasis is on you doing your best, and the best for some is national standard. They are really BIG on music and around 60 per cent of the students play an intrument. There are 5 choirs, from Chamber to Show Choir (singing numbers from musicals – where do I sign up?) The day of my visit the whole school is recovering from The Big Sing – a community day course for St Michael’s pupils and guest singers from local schools.
Here’s the Chapel, above, (note how the carpets match the Prep School girls’ tartan skirts). When I walked in 4 boys (on the left, just out of shot here) were singing a seriously good rendition of a James Bay song (with one accompanying on the piano). They didn’t look more than around 10 – 11 years-old and, although they must have been the tiniest bit awkward/surprised that some stranger has barged in on their rehearsal they don’t show it, continuing to sing (not even so much as a snigger) with effortless cool. A big Muddy double thumbs up from me.
The school was preparing for another music event – an Interhouse Music Contest to be held the next day – and as I walked around students were practising in various pockets of the school – teaming up or in solos. 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. I popped my head into a violin lesson for a Y4 girl who was stunningly good. For that lunch break it’s all turned a bit like the corridors of Fame.
Further into the tour I met an energetic female science teacher who is keen to talk about how both girls and boys show an interest in her subject. Today they are launching a weather balloon with a camera attached in the middle field. There is much excitment when I see it eventually lift off later during lunch break. The whole school spontaneously gets involved – not just the big crowd gathered down on the pitch where it’s being released – but the students in the corridor stop to cheer and watch out the window, others on the tennis courts start a count-down. It’s a fun moment that they’ll all be talking about for days afterwards.
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?) – like these animals made during a visit from ceramic and wire sculptor, James Ort.
The Head of Pre-Prep is the very approachable Mrs Leech, who gives me a tour of the new building (it’s about 4 years old now). 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-suffient space, although there is obviously lots of interaction with the Prep School.
Rooms flow into each other, sliding doors create closed off classroom, for quiet reading time, or open up for more free-flow. There’s a covered garden learning space, so little ones can be outside all year round. The building is a beautiful horse-shoe 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…
Also, this school has something I have not yet seen anywhere else – and now I’ve seen it I must admit I’m surprised more schools don’t have this facility. Smartboards in every class from kindergarden age. Incorporating technology into every day learning from a really young age is surely the way forward – another Muddy tick.
Academic results: Staff are happy to talk about 11+ and how they help get the right pupils ready for this exam. Children consistently achieve above national expectations in standardised tests and top performers secure academic and other scholarships to senior schools. The school also prides itself on its Learning Development Department, which has a good offering for say, children with dyslexia, for example.
ISI report: The 2017 ISI inspection was literally just carried out this March and found both the Pre-Prep and Prep ‘excellent’ in all areas – read the report here.
Jill Aisher joined the school in 2013 and she’s clearly passionate about the place and oozes intelligence, consideration and kindness. The voice of the child is central in this school. It’s clear that although the students 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. Even when it comes to homework Jill puts the child first not the school’s targets. The school is streaming exactly what subjects need to be taken home at night. There’s a focus on literacy and maths for homework, rather than hours spent across all the various subjects – that’s what school time is for. Instead students will be encouraged to undertake their own projects which can be on anything at all, from a poster they’ve designed (she has one a pupil made for her on her wall ‘Children Rule’) to a video clip of a science project filmed at home in the kitchen. Jill is big on boosting self-reflection and self-esteem and is definitely a forward-thinking leader.
This is the first school to pilot the Curiosity Curriculum. This was an idea born by two academics based around the simple fact that children, particularly in their early double digit years, respond better when they are given choice. So each child that goes through this school gets to select their own route on a 3, 000 year journey through history and before they leave they paint their own artwork on the Timeline going up the main stairs, to make their mark. The idea is now being taken up by schools across the globe.
Another good quirky idea I spot in the Pre-Prep play area is ‘thinking tape’. There are distinct areas for playing (on the tarmac), kicking a ball around (in the courts) and climbing trees (on the grassy area) making sure no one complains of being hit in the head while navigating a branch. Half-way up the tree is ‘Thinking tape’ – a reminder that this is a good spot to pause for thought and make the decision: Should I go any higher? Clever idea.
Children are encouraged to be very reflective and thoughful here. They write End of Term Reflection pieces based around the school motto of Perseverance, Wisdom and Gratitude. I even witness one child, quietly and geninuely thank his teacher for a wonderful lesson as he leaves the room.
Wrap around care:
Care is available from 7.30am – 7pm in the popular Club/Games Room, The Hive. Breakfast Club costs £ 3.75 (including breakfast) and After School Care Club costs £5 per hour ( plus an extra £2.50 for Supper) – the room has its own adjoining kitchen.
Fees: £1860 for 5 morning sessions per term in the Nursery; £3723.00 for Reception – Y2; £4290 for Years 3 – 4 and £4529 for Years 5 – 8. These are on the more reasonable side of Prep School fees when you consider the cost of others in the area, the facilities on offer and the location (Sevenoaks is affluent commuter-belt country after all).
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: This is a considerate school where a lot of thought is put into the details – both physically and it’s emotional heart too. Everything in this school is child-led. The school has a Christian ethos, children can get confirmed here, but all faiths are welcome (in fact celebrated). This is a sound all-rounder option, particularly for the musically minded. They will do their utmost to install a sense of joy and wonder in 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.
Dare to disagree?! Don’t take my word for it! Have a look for yourself at the Prep School Summer Open Morning, on Wed 10 May, 8.45am – 11.30am. For more info and to book, click here.