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Duncombe School, Hertford

Muddy says: This co-ed prep believes in the power of combining indoor and outdoor learning. Yup, it's got a Forest School.

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We’re lucky in Herts to have a wide range of independent schools to choose from — both prep schools and senior schools.  Duncombe School, over in Hertford, is a little gem — but it’s a school you could drive past and not even know that it’s there.  I went to have a look around recently, and I liked what I saw.

What? Where?

Duncombe School is a co-ed independent prep school, taking children from 2 in their ‘Treetops’ Nursery through to the end of Year 6 and the transition to secondary.  The 300 children are split equally between boys and girls, with classes of no more than 19 pupils throughout the age groups.

The school was founded in 1939 with just 8 pupils, and moved to its current site — near the centre of Hertford but neatly secluded and full of trees — in 1951.  The Palladian-style mansion house was extended — surprisingly sympathetically, given that it was done in the 1980s — and there are thoughtfully-designed new buildings for the Early Years classes.

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What struck me most about the site was how it combines indoor and outdoor classrooms and spaces, with a definite emphasis on getting the children out in the fresh air for both playing and learning — particularly in the Early Years.  The school sits on just over 4 acres, and they make the most of every inch of it, with defined activity areas as well as a wilder space for their Forest School and more exploration and play.

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Facilities: 

Right, sports first.  A floodlit Astroturf pitch and an all-weather 50m running track are great assets. They also have great links with local venues — pitches, tracks, riding stables and a climbing wall — and all the children from Yrs 2-4 swim once a week.

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There’s a well-used multi-purpose hall in the centre of the newer building, which doubles as a hall, a dining room, a performance space (complete with curtain and theatrical lighting), and — well, just about anything else it needs to be.  There’s also the Old Hall, in the original building.  Check out the sweeping staircase lined with honour boards.  There’s also a baby grand in there, and that’s where they hold music assemblies, art gallery evenings, and so on.

There’s also a Music and Dance studio, opened in 2012, with music lessons and classes during the day, and dance teaching and groups after school.

The children from Yr 4 onwards are taught on a secondary-style timetable, with individual subject classes — and therefore have dedicated science labs, language rooms, and so on.  The lab that I had a look round — Year 6 were learning about botanical drawings — was open, light and appeared well-equipped.

What else?

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This part of the site and provision completely won me over.  The site included what seems to have been a sunken garden — which the school has converted into ‘The Dell.’  It’s an outdoor classroom in the best way.  A large round area — with all-weather Astroturf — makes it an all-year-round resource, and plans are afoot to develop its use even further.  When I looked round, a Kindergarten group were making portraits of themselves with leaves and twigs — but Yr 6 Drama groups were rehearsing there the day before.

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It’s surrounded  on all sides by trees — you feel like you’re in the middle of the woods — and there’s a gate off down into a wilder area.  It’s here that the magic of ‘Forest School’ happens  — Duncombe has an accredited Forest School programme and the head, Jeremy Phelan, seemed rightly proud of what it adds to the curriculum.  But The Dell is, in many ways, just another classroom — a place where anything can happen.

And the best bit?  You can walk down the wooden steps to get there.  Or you can slide down the great long slide from the top to the bottom.  I didn’t try it — the Muddy bottom seemed a trifle wide and I didn’t want to get stuck — but the Head assures me that it’s a blast.  And he’s tried it.

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Academic results:

Excellent.  In Reception, you’re looking at 97% of pupils achieving Prime Goals (the local authority average is 78%), and 81% achieving all goals.  Last year’s Yr 2 SATs had a staggering 100% achieving above or well above expectation in Reading, 98% in Writing (with the remaining 2% at expectation), and the same in Maths.

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In Year 6 SATs, again, 100% achieved or exceeded expectation in all three areas: 84% above or well above in Reading, 61% above in Writing, and 62% in Maths.  Of the class of 2015/6, an impressive 13 were awarded scholarships.

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Other bits to brag about:

Performing arts at Duncombe is producing some astonishing results in the LAMDA exams.  Last year, all 97 candidates put forward passed — with all the 33 Year 4 pupils who entered being awarded Distinctions.  That’s incredible, and the examiners were apparently impressed by the confidence and enthusiasm — and the manners — of the children.

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Sports is doing well, too.  Duncombe pupils show up in county, regional and national teams, and the cricket and netball teams have both been recent trophy winners.  There’s a real emphasis on sport as integral part of the curriculum, building on the values of the school as well as the physical aspects.  It’s all about participating fully, and taking the lessons from the classroom to the pitch, and vice versa.

Head teacher:

Jeremy Phelan has been there since 2013, and his passion for the school and all it hopes to achieve comes across immediately.  His office is right at the entrance to the school — and there’s a door at the back with a window onto a staircase that the children are up and down all the time, giving a real sense of being right in the middle of things.

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I was impressed at the way the children interacted with him as we walked around the school, saying hello, smiling, and so on.  One very tiny girl, in a uniform that might well have been bought with plenty of room in which to grow, walked up to him, smiled, and shook him warmly by the hand.  Apparently, he’d done an assembly not long before on manners and greeting people — and she, for one, had clearly been paying attention.

What’s special:

There’s a real commitment to educating the whole child.  I know, I know, it’s easily said, but I got the feeling at Duncombe that everything was working together.  Yes, they move to secondary-style subject teaching in Year 4 — which is relatively early — but the connections are just as important as the separate disciplines.  The Dell isn’t just for Forest School — it’s for drama rehearsals and storytelling and science and so on.  The outdoor activities aren’t just about sport, they’re about English and languages and music and more.  It’s got a genuinely holistic feel, what they offer.

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After School:

Breakfast club starts from 7.30am, with a supervised breakfast followed by their choice of quiet activity.  Sounds blissful.  Parents and carers are able to join their children for breakfast if they choose to.

After school, care runs until 6.30pm.  Early Years pupils will have tea, then there’s a range of activities to keep them happy and occupied.  Main School children (Key Stages 1 and 2) have a self-service tea — they’re encouraged to include a piece of fruit! — and then plenty of age-appropriate activities for them, too.  There’s also a homework club running from 4-5pm, supervised by one of the academic leadership team — so no slacking there!

After-school clubs abound — anything from Gym to Construction, Fencing to Chess, Cookery to Crime Lab (sounds intriguing!), Self-Defence to — my personal favourite — Fun Club.  For the full list and info, click here.

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Fees: 

Fees range from £3,160 a term in Early Kindergarten, Kindergarten and Nursery, to £4,370 in Years 4-6.  Early Kindergarten, Kindergarten and Nursery can be part-time, with half-day sessions at £495 up to 4 full days at £2,275 — with a good deal of flexibility within that.

THE MUDDY VERDICT:

Good for: a balanced, whole-child education that still has its eye firmly on academic success.  There’s plenty going on to enrich an already broad curriculum, and the school’s emphasis on nurturing good behaviour and values really shows.  And it provides a seamless transition from the tiniest tots in Early Kindergarten to the scholarship winners of Year 6.  It’s accessible, close to the centre of Hertford, which is a big plus.  Its Forest School accreditation and emphasis on the outdoors adds something different, too, in what is effectively an in-town school.

Not for: I think it would suit most children, and it certainly challenges — in a very positive way — its pupils to make the very best they can of themselves.  The grounds aren’t huge, though, so if you’re looking for that, it might not suit.

Don’t take my word for it! The next Open Day is on 6 Oct 2016.  Can’t make it then?  They’re very happy to offer prospective parents personal tours of the school — checking it during a regular working day and meeting with the Head, Jeremy Phelan.  You can book a visit online, which is very handy — or call them on 01992 414100.

Duncombe School, 4 Warren Park Road, Bengeo, Hertford, SG14 3JA, 01992 414100

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