St Albans High School Prep, Herts
Staff at this girls' Pre-Prep and Prep foster a lifelong love of learning and offer pupils the chance for a seamless educational journey from an early age.
St Albans High School Prep is an independent and selective day school for 340 girls aged 4-11 on the edge of the village of Wheathampstead. It is 3 miles from Harpenden and 5 miles from St Albans, with the majority of girls living in Hertfordshire, but with some travelling from further north and some from north west London.
The Prep is part of St Albans High School for Girls, and the majority of girls who start here go through to the Senior School making it a brilliant all-through education option. This review is about the Pre-Prep and Prep, but you can read more about the Senior School here. Once Covid restrictions allow, there’s set to be a lot more overlap between the two schools, with Prep girls benefitting from the brilliant facilities in St Albans to the transitional teaching that really creates a seamless educational journey.
Pre-Prep and Prep are housed in the main house, an elegant and spacious mock Victorian villa, and together with several other newer buildings, the whole site feels cohesive and well designed. There is a sense of expansiveness both inside and out.
Driving past the school you wouldn’t guess what lies behind the gates. The facilities are all really impressive, but the grounds in particular are fantastic. There are 18 acres in total, with a sprawling forest area, an outdoor classroom, adventure playground, playing fields, tennis and netball courts and a cross-country course. The only thing missing is a pool, but swimming takes place at the Senior School’s large indoor pool, just a short bus ride away.
The current head, Judy Rowe, has made sure outdoor learning is a big part of school life and girls spend a lot of time having both lessons and playing in the forest. This is not a school full of little princesses. The girls get muddy, aren’t afraid of a bit of rain or cold and love hands-on activities like building dens and learning about nature.
Recently the ICT suite has been refurbished and updated, and all ages use the space, with Pre-Prep girls learning touch typing and older years coding and robotics. There’s also a separate and modern science lab, not something you see in many Prep schools.
The library is also a beautiful space that has recently been refurbished and reading for the pure joy of it is very much encouraged here. The school makes a point of keeping the books and ICT facilities very separate and all classes have a weekly library class. There’s a cute little treehouse for snuggling up with a book and a forest theme throughout and the girls can come in at their leisure during lunch times and breaks too.
There are lots of initiatives put in place by the librarian to help engage the pupils with reading, including sections of recommended books for different year groups, making it easy to select something suitable for their age. Each year the school hosts a Children’s Book Festival (the last one was attended by over 1000 people!) with inspiring talks from some of the biggest names in children’s literature, fancy dress, local schools’ competitions, book-themed activities, and tasty food.
Although STAHS is well known for being an academic school, music and the arts are really celebrated in both the Prep and Senior School. There’s been a lot of recent investment in these subjects and the facilities are fabulous – The Lodge opened in 2017 and is a beautiful, state-of-the-art performing arts centre. There’s a concert hall with a large stage, and several well-equipped music teaching rooms.
Around 50% of the students learn an instrument at school and many of the girls are members of the orchestras and ensembles (Junior Orchestra, Lower Strings, Woodwind, New String, Guitar, Brass, Trumpet, Jazz, Beginner Strings, and Beginner Brass). Every girl sings to a high standard too and there are four different choirs for the various age groups to join. Last year the STAHS Singers won Primary Choir at The St Albans Young Musician competition in St Albans Cathedral.
STEM subjects are particularly strong in the Senior School and the focus on these core subjects starts early in the Prep School with the specialist science teaching in the lab and a bi-annual STEM festival.
The 2020 STEM Festival, held pre-lockdown, was attended by 800 people who took part in a range of activities including robotics, engineering and virtual reality experiences as well as innovative medical technologies, science shows, and a birds of prey display.
To encourage the girls to be self-motivated learners (something that becomes increasingly important in the Senior School too) each Prep pupil is given an individual iPad from Year 3 upwards (extending to Year 2 in September 2021) to research material, communicate with others and create presentations.
There’s plenty of space and facilities for the girls to be active every day and to try their hand at an impressive range of sports (and not just the ‘traditional’ girls’ sports either) – everything from football, lacrosse, tennis, rounders and athletics to Kwik cricket, hockey, tag rugby, orienteering, dance, fencing, karate and cheerleading.
The school does particularly well in gymnastics, tennis and athletics, representing both country and region in all three. On-site, girls have access to a cross-country course (in summer there’s a daily run around this before school), as well as an orienteering course and the three netball courts, fields and multi-purpose gym.
There are also masses of co-curricular sports clubs offering everything from fencing and archery to Ultimate Frisbee and karate.
As well as the impressive sporting and musical co-curricular options, there’s a huge range of other clubs for the girls to get involved in. We’re talking all sorts from the more traditional like art, drama and dance to some unusual offerings like robotics and wild woodland adventure club, which is very popular.
Unusually for both a Prep and day school STAHS has an extremely strong house system in place. This is a big part of the pastoral care programme (which also includes a dedicated Deputy Head Pastoral and Co-curriculum, form tutors, Pre-Prep teaching assistants, Mother Clark the school chaplain and a nurse. The house system means the different year groups are in House Families of pupils from Reception to Year 6, growing friendship and mentoring across the years.
In pre- and (hopefully) post-Covid times, there’s a good focus on trips outside of school. All girls from Year 3 upwards get involved in residential stays to give them a taste of independence. The final trip of the school experience is a Year 6 adventure week in France, where the girls get to test their French language skills through a whole host of fun activities.
HEAD OF PREP
I meet Judy Rowe over Zoom because of lockdown restrictions, but even from behind a computer screen I can feel her enthusiasm and love for the school and the girls. She’s been at the helm of the school for six years now, (coming from Belmont Mill Hill Prep), but certainly isn’t resting on her laurels with plenty of plans to keep enhancing the outside space with a conservation area and quiet space for wellbeing. She’s delighted to have seen one year group all the way from Pre-Prep to Year 6 and clearly plans to see lots more girls fly the nest, many with scholarships to the senior school.
Judy is the driving force behind the fact that the girls spend a lot of time in the great outdoors and has spent a lot of time bringing outdoor learning into the curriculum. Under her lead there are more inter-house competitions. She has also improved the drama department and given more weight to the subject that she believes really helps girls to become more confident.
Judy’s enthusiasm and confidence inspire me in one short meeting, so it must be infectious for the girls on a daily basis. She feels like the perfect person to lead this happy and buzzing school.
St Albans High School is an academic school and is highly selective, so all the girls here are bright sparks who need to be able to keep up with a fast-paced and broad curriculum that goes well beyond national expectations. Rather than interviewing the parents, the girls take part in age-appropriate observed activities. 50% don’t get offered a place. 50%!
There is no sense of it being a hothouse or that the girls feel pressure to perform well above anything else though. In fact, it’s the opposite and instead there’s a lot of attention paid to developing a depth of understanding to ensure secure foundations. As a through school it means that there’s not the big focus on the 11+ transfer like some other Prep schools either, (girls progress seamlessly subject to the Head’s recommendation), so learning is all about learning for the love of it. Given the selection process at a young age, there are fewer girls here with additional needs, although there is a SEN Co-ordinator who works with teachers and parents on individual programmes of support for any girls identified with SEN.
Fees start at £5,100 per term for Reception (lunch included) and go up to £5,435 for Years 3-6 (School lunch Years 3-6 costs £270 per term).
This is a fully comprehensive and flexible feast. You can start at Breakfast Club at 7.15am and stay until 6pm. There are a huge number of after school clubs and you can have tea at 4.30pm.
WORD ON THE GROUND
I don’t get to meet any of the STAHS girls in person due to the pandemic, but the parents and pupils we do track down are absolutely ecstatic about the school. The parents love the broad range of subjects and activities the girls get to do and that all these elements fit seamlessly together as part of the school day. It’s the dedication of the staff that really shines through in their comments though. One parent tells me: “The school’s biggest strength is the quality of the staff. Without exception, they are fantastic. They work hard, are very kind and caring and really encourage the girls to love learning and being at school.” Another parent says: ” As a parent I have a strong sense that the school, and staff, never stand still. They are always reassessing if they are providing the best opportunities for the girls in each area – they seem to really understand that as the girls grow, their needs and interests change.”
One parent sums the environment well: “Whilst it is an academic school, that is almost assumed: what is applauded is citizenship, acts of kindness and charity initiatives. The girls appear to be grounded and rounded: not an easy balance in a privileged environment but STAHS manage it, without being ‘preachy’.”
THE MUDDY VERDICT
This feels like a model school for girls. It’s not your stereotypical single sex offering and the girls aren’t treated like princesses. Instead the single sex offering allows teachers to focus on female role models in all subjects and careers to inspire the pupils.
Girls have the freedom to do what they are passionate about here, and there’s a real sense that they want to study hard simply for the love of learning not because of any pressure from above.
Yes, it’s pretty selective but once you’re in, there’s very little stress about keeping up and there’s a feeling of security knowing that the only entrance assessment your daughter will have to sit is if she’s invited to apply for a STAHS academic scholarship or chooses to go for one of their Drama, Sport or Music Scholarships. The atmosphere is purposeful and relaxed and there is an overriding sense that learning is and should be fun.
GOOD FOR: Girls who are interested in learning. Engaged, confident and inquisitive girls. Parents looking for a superior all-round option, where kids are nurtured, brains engaged, and there are opportunities to get involved in loads of different activities will love it here.
NOT FOR: There are so many opportunities and activities here that girls who aren’t keen to get involved in extra-curricular clubs will miss out on a lot of what the school offers. While the grounds are really good, this is not a country idyll (it’s just off a fairly main road and there aren’t acres of rolling countryside to romp around in).
DARE TO DISAGREE?! Don’t take my word for it. There is an Open Day on Friday 21st May 2021 (either on-site or digital depending on Covid guidance) or individual tours are possible. Click here for more information. You can also read our review of the Senior & Sixth Form here.
St Albans High School Prep Codicote Road, Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire, AL4 8DJ 01582 839270