In Depth

The best prep schools of 2021

Emma Lee-Potter and Janita Clamp consult education experts, teachers, parents and pupils to discover the best of the best

Best for academic results

Guildford High Junior School

The Sunday Times ranked Guildford High Junior School (above) as the top independent prep school in its 2020 league tables after its stellar SATs results for reading, grammar and maths. This all-girls’ school prides itself on being a “lively, happy place where girls blossom personally, intellectually and socially”. The junior school is selective but girls progress to the high-achieving senior school next door without having to take an additional exam. Having successfully led the junior school since 2016, current head Mike Gibb leaves at the end of the academic year and will be replaced by Allistair Williamson, deputy head of Surbiton Girls’ and Boys’ Preparatory School. guildfordhigh.co.ukOther contenders: Alpha Preparatory School, Harrow; St Martin’s Preparatory School

Great city prep 

Carleton House Preparatory School

Carleton House’s motto is “They can because they think they can” and head teacher Sandy Coleman says this reflects “the aspirations and achievements of every child who comes to us”. SATs results are impressive but this Liverpool school firmly believes in developing “the whole child” too, with lots of opportunities for music, drama, sport, extra-curricular activities and trips to the theatre, museums, science fairs and more. The Sunday Times ranked the school eighth in its list of top independent prep schools in November 2020. carletonhouse.co.uk

Other contenders: Brighton College Nursery, Pre-Prep and Prep; Highgate Junior School

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Gresham’s Prep School

Pupils at Gresham’s are introduced to an extensive array of art techniques

Best for art and creativity

Gresham’s Prep School

Pupils at this Norfolk school enjoy a double period of art every week and can use the art room at lunchtime and for after-school activities too. The emphasis is on children throwing themselves into a range of creative activities – everything from painting in watercolours and acrylics to making clay, papier-mâché and Modroc sculptures – and gaining an understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the visual arts in the process. The majority of prep pupils progress to the senior school, just a short walk away, where there’s huge excitement about the £19 million Dyson Building, a centre for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education. Funded by inventor and former Gresham’s pupil Sir James Dyson, it’s due to open in September this year. greshams.com/prep

Other contenders: Heath Mount School; St Ives School, Haslemere

Great for community  

Redcliffe School 

Now part of the Godolphin and Latymer School Foundation, this co-ed south-west London school has launched its own plogging club. For the uninitiated, plogging means jogging while you pick up litter so children keep fit and make a positive contribution to the local community at the same time. Redcliffe’s ploggers meet every week and set off with protective gloves, biodegradable bags and litter-pickers to collect discarded plastic, cans, paper and rubbish. The plogging club is part of the school’s commitment to working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Global Goals. Pupils also learn about the world’s social, environmental and economic challenges and how they can make a difference to the planet in their everyday lives. redcliffeschool.com

Other contenders: Westminster Under School; Winchester House School

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Cheltenham College

Cheltenham College encourages a culture of ‘boundlessness’ in its students

Great for all-rounders 

Cheltenham College Preparatory School

Founded in 1863 as Cheltenham College’s junior department, the prep is housed over the road from the senior school. There’s lots of space for learning and outdoor play but prep pupils also get the chance to use the senior school facilities, including the swimming pool, vast sports hall and chapel. Small classes, specialist subject teaching and plenty of individual attention enable prep pupils to progress in leaps and bounds. As well as opportunities for sport, music and drama the school runs more than 30 clubs and activities, from street dance and baking to Lego and Scouts. “The school nurtures this intangible quality of boundlessness – the idea that anything is possible,” a parent told The Good Schools Guidecheltenhamcollege.org

Other contenders: Farleigh; Walhampton School

Great for STEM 

Notting Hill & Ealing High Junior School GDST

STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects are hugely popular at this all-girls’ west London school. Science is led by Dr Selina Raguz, who aims to make pupils passionate about STEM from a young age. The teaching is exciting and engaging – whether it’s year 4s using their knowledge of electrical circuits to create robots or year 6s imagining themselves in the First World War and working out the best way to purify water if they were in the trenches. There’s also a year 6 science leadership programme where young scientists work as lab technicians, looking after the school’s stick insects and setting up equipment for the rest of the school. “We all really look forward to our science lessons – we never quite know what we’ll be learning about next,” says one year 6 girl. nhehs.gdst.net/junior-school

Other contenders: St Faith’s, Cambridge; Edge Grove School 

Great for pastoral care 

Handcross Park

Lockdown restrictions didn’t stop Handcross Park delivering pastoral care to its 380 pupils. The co-ed day and boarding school in West Sussex adapted everything it had done previously and added more. It sent a wellbeing questionnaire to pupils every day and also introduced a TV channel called HXPTV to communicate pastoral messages virtually. There’s also a Morning Mindfulness programme, an independent listener who works with children needing one-to-one support, pastoral surgeries for parents and kindness wristbands for pupils who perform acts of kindness. “Our whole school ethos is based around our culture of kindness and this is reinforced daily in assemblies teaching empathy, kindness, grit, diversity and believing in yourself,” says the school. handcrossparkschool.co.uk

Other contenders: Ashfold School; Edgeborough

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Cumnor House

Sport and mindfulness go hand in hand at Cumnor House

Best for innovation 

Cumnor House Sussex

This co-ed day and boarding prep school in West Sussex was the first school in the UK to introduce the pioneering iSpace Wellbeing curriculum. Created and developed in 2017 by Paula Talman, the school’s director of compliance, health and welfare, and aimed at children aged four to 11, iSpace Wellbeing offers a child-friendly approach to wellbeing education. Taught through the school’s PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) timetable it encourages pupils to talk about their feelings and to learn how and when to ask for help. Year 7 and 8 pupils have their own curriculum, #iWonder, which helps teenagers to understand their emotional, physical, social and mental health. Both programmes are now being used by other schools too. cumnor.co.uk

Other contenders: Putney High Junior School GDST; S. Anselm’s School

Great for boarding

Elstree School

Boarding at Elstree prepares pupils for moving on to full boarding senior schools such as Eton, Bradfield, Radley and Wellington, but it’s also great fun and very popular with those heading for day schools. Elstree is based in Woolhampton House, a Georgian mansion with 150 acres of parkland, so there’s plenty of scope for outdoor adventures such as laser tag in the woods, kayaking on the lake and mountain biking. Indoor activities include filmmaking and Scrabble. “Big Weekends” are a chance for year groups to bond over challenges such as Zorb football and catapult making, finishing off with hot chocolate and marshmallows round the campfire. Now that Elstree is fully co-ed, girls can enjoy the school’s award-winning boarding experience too. elstreeschool.org.uk

Other contenders: Maidwell Hall; Beachborough

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Sandroyd School

Sandroyd is a prominent member of the National Schools Equestrian Association

Best for riding

Sandroyd

Pupils and their ponies have plenty of space to roam at this co-ed day and boarding prep. Located up a winding drive, Sandroyd is well away from roads and right at the heart of Cranborne Chase on the Wiltshire/Dorset border. The school has its own riding department, with an outdoor manège, showjumping paddock and cross-country course. Pupils may bring their own mounts but most learn to ride or develop their skills on one of the school’s resident ponies. Sandroyd is a registered Pony Club Centre, a licensed riding school and member of the National Schools Equestrian Association (NSEA). The school’s very popular annual tetrathlon (shooting, running, swimming and cross-country riding) attracts young competitors from far and wide. sandroyd.org Other contenders: Dean Close Preparatory School; Millfield Prep School

Great for sport

Bede’s Prep School

Maybe the bracing sea air is one of the secrets to Bede’s sporting successes. Former pupils of this Eastbourne day and boarding prep recall the clifftop walk to their school’s playing fields with great affection. Core sports are hockey, football and cricket, and expert coaching is also on offer for swimming, tennis and netball. “Support sports” such as climbing, volleyball, basketball, kayaking, paddle boarding, windsurfing, sailing and riding are offered as part of the extra-curricular programme. Bede’s under-11 girls’ cricketers recently won the IAPS (Independent Association of Prep Schools) tournament and the school’s tennis players regularly triumph at regional and national competitions. The school says winning matches is only one measure of success and aims to foster teamwork, participation and enjoyment of sport at all levels. bedes.org

Other contenders: St Hugh’s School, Woodhall Spa; Cranleigh Preparatory School

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Kitebrook

Drama and science sit side by side on Kitebrook’s tradition curriculum

Great country prep

Kitebrook Preparatory School

Kitebrook’s idyllic Cotswold setting close to Moreton-in-Marsh attracts local families as well as London escapees seeking a “traditional” education for their children. Fresh air, tree climbing, good manners and public speaking skills are all part of the offer. The school was among the first to take up English Speaking Board (ESB) exams when it was founded in the 1950s as an alternative to elocution lessons and these annual assessments are still an important part of a Kitebrook education today. Pupils deliver a talk, read aloud from a chosen book and recite a poem or piece of drama from memory. A year 6 pupil was recently an ESB Young Speaker of the Year finalist. Leavers go on, many with scholarships, to senior schools in nearby Cheltenham as well as St Edward’s, Oxford, Radley and Downe House. kitebrookhouse.com

Other contenders: Perrott Hill; Mowden Hall School

Great for outdoor pursuits

Pinewood School

Prospective parents would be well advised to wear comfortable shoes or bring wellies if they want to see Pinewood properly. The 85-acre site includes an orchard, a mountain bike track, a Forest School, a treetops adventure playground and even a “fairy circle” where pupils sit together and listen to each other’s ideas. Learning outside is just as important as what happens in the classroom and the school has won a regional award for its outstanding outdoor provision. Daily sport takes place whatever the weather and pupils can also choose activities such as clay-pigeon shooting and archery. The Pinewood Adventure programme takes pupils beyond Wiltshire for sailing and bushcraft, and abroad to experience life in a French château. pinewoodschool.co.uk 

Other contenders: Orwell Park School; Beaudesert Park School

Great for music

Westbourne House School

Even absolute beginners are encouraged to enjoy playing their instruments in front of an audience at this day and boarding prep in Chichester. The school’s “Family and Friends” concerts are a great way for pupils to build musical confidence and performance skills. All pupils start by learning the recorder for a year and around three-quarters go on to take up at least one other instrument. Two orchestras, three choirs, a big band and chamber ensembles make full use of the new performing arts centre, which is well equipped with practice rooms and music composition equipment. Every year the whole school takes part in a day of music when a visiting musician is invited to judge solo and ensemble performances. It’s all rounded off with a keenly fought house “sing off”. westbournehouse.org

Other contenders: New College School; Reigate St Mary’s

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Ardvrek School

Ardvreck encourages children to explore the great outdoors

Most idyllic setting 

Ardvreck

This Scottish day and boarding prep school, known as “the school on the hill”, was founded in 1883 and became co-ed in the 1970s. Its turreted buildings are surrounded by 40 acres, with plenty of room for climbing trees, building dens and damming streams, all of which are very much encouraged. It’s also close to Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, and an hour away from both Edinburgh and Glasgow. A big feature of Ardvreck life since its earliest days are “Barvicks”, expeditions beyond the school’s extensive grounds and into the wilderness of the Highlands. Older pupils take up challenges such as sea kayaking or climbing Munros. Members of the school’s pipe band have even performed at the summit of Ben Nevis. ardvreckschool.co.uk 

Other contenders:The Elms School; Port Regis

Great for co-curricular

Cheam

One of England’s oldest schools, Cheam was founded in Surrey in 1645, moving to its present 100-acre site near Newbury in the 1930s. Former pupils include Prince Philip and Prince Charles. Extra-curricular provision is ambitious – great drama and music take place alongside a programme of activities that runs from A (air rifle shooting) to Y (yoga), catering for interests in rubbish recycling, ballet, ceramics, debating and competitive spelling along the way. Full use is made of the grounds where pupils enjoy gardening, learning about nature and an assault course. Around two-thirds of pupils board (weekly/flexi) in preparation for moving on to senior schools like Eton, Wellington College, Marlborough, Oundle and Bryanston. cheamschool.com 

Other contenders: Lambrook; Highfield and Brookham Schools

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