Aldwickbury School, Harpenden
Don't be fooled by the trad appearance of this boys' Prep - it has a relaxed and modern outlook, and teaches kindness and humility alongside a curriculum that propels boys into happy and successful futures.
I last reviewed Aldwickbury in March 2019 and there have been quite a few changes since then (not to mention a pandemic!), including a new Head, the development of a new sports centre and a Future Thinking curriculum in the pipeline. Read on for more…
This independent Prep school for boys age 4-13 has a prime spot in leafy Harpenden, with 20 acres to call its own and bordering the vast green space of Aldwickbury Park Golf Club. Built in 1871 it was a private house before becoming a school in 1948.
My first impressions of Aldwickbury, with its rather grand entrance (just look at those gothic doors!) – would this be a stuffy old-fashioned boys’ school? – were immediately eschewed once I was warmly greeted by the Headmaster, Paul Symes. He took on the headship just last year, following a nearly 20 year stint from Vernon Hales, so has had some big shoes to fill – more on him later.
There are 364 pupils, the vast majority of whom live in or near the prime commuter hotspots of Harpenden and St Albans, and many London-based families have actually upped sticks for the Herts countryside, to send their boys to Aldwickbury, which speaks to the school’s reputation. I like the fact that Aldwickbury tallies up holiday dates with other local schools, including St Hilda’s and St Albans to make it easier for parents with siblings there and for car pooling, too.
The three-form entry system means that there’s a nice average class size of 14 boys in Pre-prep and 18 in Years 3-8. Admission at Reception is first come, first served, and while it’s not selective at this age, there are assessment days for those entering Years 3-7, which may become competitive if places are limited.
The school building might be very traditional, but it feels refreshingly light and non-intimidating, devoid of the dark corners that you might expect to find in an old building.
Under former Head, Hales’ reign, developments included a new hall complex and music department, refurbishment of the science labs and a total renovation of the Coach House in 2016, providing a superb Art and DT department (below). The employment of an architect has helped to ensure the additions are in keeping with the tradition of the school, so nothing feels jarringly modern.
There’s the bright and contemporary Chidell Hall (again, with the architect’s stamp all over it), with senior classrooms, a fabulous entrance area used for breakaway group work and reading. This is also handily located for drop off, right by the car park at the heart of the school.
And the lovely library is a really traditional but warm and sunny room (detect a theme here?) The school runs Reading Labs, where Year 8s listen to the younger boys reading and report back on how they’ve done (apparently the ones who benefitted from the scheme themselves are always the first to volunteer!)
There’s also the appealingly named Monster Reading Challange where boys are invited to read six books through the term and claim a small prize for every two they complete.
Venture outdoors to find an amazing tree house, complete with viewing platforms connected by bridges, with swings and rope ladders underneath. It was funded by the Aldwickbury Friends Association (AFA) in 2018, and has been a huge hit with the adventurous and outdoorsy boys (ie all of them!)
But, the big news – which is happening right now – is the build of a £3.8m sports centre. Symes shows me the plans, with an infectious enthusiasm. And it’s easy to see why. Not only will the new build provide facilities for badminton, cricket, basketball, netball, table tennis, trampolining, 5-a-side football, yoga and indoor athletics, it will also have a climbing wall, viewing platform and double up as a lesson space when required.
All this should be finished by Sept 2022 and will be an excellent addition to the school’s already impressive sports facilities (for a Prep), which include two playing fields, four tennis courts, an Astro turf pitch, a cricket square and a 25m indoor pool.
Specialist teaching is faded in gradually from Reception, then all boys are subject taught from Year 5 onwards. Setting starts from Year 6 but there’s no strict pattern at Aldwickbury – each cohort is assessed separately. Some parents aren’t a fan of this method, but it puts the boys’ individual needs first, so it’s really a matter of personal preference.
French is taught from Year 1, and Latin from Year 6, which gives the boys a good grounding for moving on to their next schools.
From Year 5 the boys use the science labs. It was British Science Week during my visit and the boys were learning about bubbles and building spaghetti towers. The new Head of Science explained to me the importance of linking science to everyday life and giving it wow factor. If the boys’ enthusiasm after his assembly was anything to go by, I reckon he’s nailed that! Years 5-8 can join science club and they’ve recently been studying how chromatography can be used to identify substances at crime scenes – no wonder it’s so popular – and there are plans for a Pre-prep and Junior science club, too.
The school is making big strides in outdoor learning, with the appointment of a dedicated Outdoor Learning Co-ordinator and plans to develop the ponds, bushcraft survival areas and firepits which will feed into the eco curriculum from Reception.
One of the major changes to come in, though, is the launch of the Future Thinking Curriculum from September 2022. It aims to fuel the boys’ enthusiam for skills that will be key in the future, and will run alongside their usual lessons. The six key areas of focus will incorporate everything from Lego engineering and food tech to mindfulness and community work, while fine tuning those all important 4 Cs: Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity. The World of Work lectures – where parents come in to talk about their careers to the boys – are a step towards this change. They’re happening already, and are proving really popular.
Symes is palpably excitied about this change and is determined that it will help to burst the school bubble. Don’t worry, it’s not as dramatic as it sounds, he’s just keen to expose the boys to the wider world through community work like litter picking on the nearby Nickey Line, and developing the learning partnership with Luton schools – opening their eyes to the bigger picture.
You could say that Paul Symes had something of a baptism by fire, having been appointed at the height of the Covid crisis in September 2020, from Belmont School in North London, where he was Senior Deputy Head of Prep and worked across the foundation of Mill Hill’s four schools. Symes spent a 12-month handover under the guidance of former Head Vernon Hales, before formally starting at the beginning of the 2021 school year.
I liked Symes instantly – he’s about as far from that stiff-upper-lipped school master stereotype as you can get. But while he’s cooly relaxed and eminently approachable, Symes doesn’t lack an iota of professionalism and passion. He’s also a family man and dad of two young boys – one of whom is in Year 1 at the school – so it’s safe to say that Hales has left Aldwickbury in very capable and caring hands.
While Symes admits he was lucky to inherit an already outstanding school, naturally he’s keen to put his stamp on it, and is ALL about the whole picture (remember that Future Thinking Curriculum, I mentioned above?). In particular he wants the school to be seen as one, not two separate entities (Pre-prep and Prep) and he’s talking to all parties, from the ground up, about how to achieve that. Staff meetings involve everyone from the groundsmen and gap students to the Heads of department, and I loved hearing how Symes ordered in pizza for the staff Christmas lunch, so the catering team could let their hair down, too.
He’s also keen to give parents more of a voice and a presence at the school in the wake of Covid. Whether that’s through social events like quizzes or the now regular Coffee and Chat sessions after drop-off, where parents have the opportunity to ask questions and keep abreast of school news in an informal way.
Ann Baxter, Head of Pre-prep, simply emanates dedication and pride, with just the right balance of authority and warmth that you’d want from a Pre-prep role model. She’s a big fan of the non-selective entrance as it helps the children to understand and accept differences in one another.
The self-contained Pre-prep building is for boys aged 4-7 and features both a Reception-only outdoor play area and a freeflow outdoor learning area leading out from other classrooms. There are three small Recepion classes, each with a teacher and TA, and with only 11 pupils per class, they are able to forge friendships and develop social skills with ease. They also have their own hall where Symes regularly gives assemblies, so the little ones can get to know their Head, and giving him a visible presence across the whole school.
Lessons are a mix of teacher and child-led learning, with total parity across all three, so all children learn the same topics. The Gruffalo and Stick Man are featuring heavily this term and the kids follow a journey with the stories, from making their own stick men to building fires and toasting marshmallow to really bring it to life.
On that note, there’s now a dedicated Eco room, specialist teacher and planting area to support to the new Eco curriculum that the school brought in last September. It covers everything from natural art to keeping fit and there are plans to get some Aldwickbury chicks and beehives, too. Baxter is positively buzzing (excuse the pun) about the opportunities this will bring.
There’s a big emphasis on language, communication, literacy and listening in the early years, and there’s a weekly library session – the library is a cute and cosy snug perfect for curling up with a book. Before the Christmas break, teachers have a good understanding of pupils’ phonics levels and will mix classes, then recap or extend those pupils accordingly.
Positive behaviour manangement is Baxter’s key calling card, starting from Reception when they gain marbles for good behaviours (from being kind to trying a new food), and the weekly winner is awarded a certificate. This develops to earning marbles for their planets (house groups) from Year 1, which teaches them to work as a team and not just have responsibility for themselves. Stars of the day are awarded too and there’s a Friday celebration assembly.
From Reception the boys swim weekly and have specialist Music, Drama, Eco and PE teachers, then from Year 1 they have specialist teachers in French and Games too. They also have their own Prep-prep hall for plays and assemblies – a bit less daunting than joining the whole school. They also do Art and D&T using the main school facilities and ICT is taught in Pre-prep (in their own computer room, no less) to spike an early interest in STEM subjects.
There’s a sport-for-all attitude here, although as Symes tells me it’s never going to be a Alpha male school. If boys want to play in matches they can, whatever their level – sometimes that’s a whole year group. In fact the U11 football teams range from A-K at the moment. No wonder there are so many fixtures – 15 on the day that I visit! And Symes gets stuck in, too, reffing matches before joining the parents for tea afterwards.
There’s Games every day from Year 3. Football, rugby (the school is partnered with Saracens Rugby Club) and cricket are taught weekly with an emphasis on fun. Friday mornings start with athletics club at a punchy 7am, which is oversubscribed with over 40 members – that tells you what keen beans they are!
For those who are clearly ahead of the game in their field (or court or pool – delete as appropriate) there are opportunities to be entered into National competitions.
Aldwickbury boys compete both regionally and nationally in athletics, swimming and cross country, and boys in Years 7 and 8 are representing England in fencing. Meanwhile, the football teams have reached the national finals recently with the U13s in the IAPs and the U11s in the ISFAs. And the 1st XI cricket team were 2021 county semi-finalists.
There’s also a strong ski team (with around 80 members) with the Year 7/8 team coming 3rd in the English School’s Ski Association National Finals and two boys were selected in December to represent England Schools’ Ski Association squad.
Don’t have a natural affinity for traditional team sports? No problem! Boys can try just about anything here, with some of the more unusual ones on offer including kabaddi and tchoukball to Danish longball, Aussie Rules and even aqua quidditch!
MUSIC, DRAMA AND ART
Around 200 private music lessons take place every week and just shy of 50% of pupils learn a musical instrument (lessons start from Year 1), with around 6% learning more than one. All Year 3s learn the violin as part of their curriculum. There’s a popular school choir, which is open to all and has around 80 members, a senior choir and junior choir, plus a chamber choir for the older boys, where those with – how can we put this gently? – more of a natural aptitude for singing are able to hone their talent (there’s an audition for this one!)
Instrumental groups include a wind ensemble, a brass group and two string groups for differing abilities, and there are plans to start an orchestra soon. There is also a guitar group which was practising during my visit (something by Ed Sheeran, I think, so it’s not all classical stuff!), a percussion ensemble, a samba group AND two rock bands (one of which qualified for a competition recently and had the Head rocking out at the gig!)
Over 120 boys from Years 3-8 sign up to the LAMDA course and there’s a drama club which starts from Year 2 as well. The Year 6 production of The Jungle Book at the end of last year went down a storm (particularly as it was the first live performance since 2019) and I was lucky enough to sit in on a Year 7 & 8 rendition of Oom Pah Pah during their rehearsal of Oliver! for the upcoming production. I love the fact that these boys are getting stuck in on the rugby pitch one minute, yet aren’t afraid to don a frilly dress and play Nancy, the next.
The art studio is a lovely space over two floors with light flooding in through the Velux windows and green trees to look out on to. It’d be a pretty plum spot for a professional artist, let alone a class of schoolboys studying still life. They can use the facilities at break time and there’s an after school art club on Thursdays, too.
Recently the Head of Art took a shine to a painting of a lion in Symes’ office which sparked a Year 7 project to create their own versions. The boys came in over the weekends with the art teacher to work on them and the finished paintings are being rotated on display around the school. That explains the deja-vu, then!
There’s a really nurturing environment here from the get-go, with class teachers playing the main support role from Reception, and starting to move them around the school to specialist areas in Years 3 and 4. Then from Years 5-8 form tutors become the main points of contact for worries (either home or school based) and from Years 6-8 the boys join vertical tutor groups, where the older boys help to support the younger ones.
A school counsellor is available for one-to-one sessions should individuals or families need a little extra support, and the school will cover the cost of the first two sessions which shows its dedication to the boys’ wellbeing.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
The school has a no mobile phone policy, to help encourage the boys’ people skills and ability to hold a conversation away from the digital screen – sounds like a positive move to me. If the boys need to contact home they can do so through the office staff.
Aldwickbury boys won five academic scholarships and five cultural scholarships (in Music, Art and Drama) in 2021, with St Albans, Bedford School and Haileybury being the top leavers’ destinations. Boys also went on to Harrow, Shrewsbury and Gresham’s last year but in other years Senior schools have also included Oundle, Stowe and Uppingham.
I loved seeing the traditional wooden school desks in the classrooms, even in the modern areas – a reminder of the school days of the past. One teacher warned me off opening one though for fear of what might be lurking in there!
Year 8 have a longer school day than most, finishing at 5.45pm, allowing them some time to do their prep and have a go at things like coding or robotics without pulling them away from their core curriculum – and of course, preparing them for the coming workload of Senior School.
The school is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary and while it’s not really a quirk, I do think it’s testament to the strength of the Alwickbury community that there have only been five Heads to date (Symes being the 5th) – that means they’ve all stayed for an average of 18 years each. Good going!
Breakfast club starts at 7.30am and hot and cold food is served, plus the boys can take part in clubs and activities during this time, such as swimming or athletics.
The school day finishes between 3-4pm (from Reception to Year 7), and after school club is open until 5.45pm, when the boys mix with other year groups and can have a go at activities from football and magical maths to skiing, fencing and drama.
The school offers a ‘light’ boarding provision, with an option for up to 36 boys boys from Year 5 and up to stay from Tuesday – Thursday. While fewer than 10% take this up, many stay for just one night, predominantly to take advantage of the after-school clubs and camaraderie, not to mention the unbridled fun of running around with their torches at night playing Man Hunt! It’s super flexible, too, so mums and dads can just book their son in for a one-off night if there’s a late-running school trip. And they even can just ring in the morning to book for the same night if they’ve got a late meeting scheduled. How’s that for convenience? It can also be a good way to prep boys for going on to a Senior boarding school.
The 2021/22 term fees are: £4,505 for Reception; £4,770 for Years 1 and 2; £5,145 for Years 3 and 4; £5,700 for Years 5 and 6; and £5,795 for Years 7 and 8.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The general reaction from the old boys who visit tends to be that while things are, of course, different not much has actually changed at all. This, I think, is the beauty of Aldwickbury. Whilst it’s constantly moving with the times in terms of modernising its teaching and updating its facilities it’s a traditional school at heart – just without the hard edges you might come across at more stuck-in-the-past boys’ schools.
Parents are also reacting really positively to being more involved and having a greater say in school matters thanks to the changes Symes has brought in.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents who buy into Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys culture and the benefits of leaving at 13 (as opposed to 11) and who want an active involvement in their sons’ education. Aldwickbury understands that boys need to be boys, but that they also need to be taught self-control and how to grow into kind, considerate and helpful young men – the extra two years that they get here allows for that and means they are really ‘ready’ and academically mature enough to move on.
Not for: Those who favour the 11+ model might not appreciate the full benefits of Aldwickbury, as the learning journey here is designed to prepare the boys to leave at 13. And if parents value a strict and formal academic regime or aren’t keen to expose their son to the world outside of the school gates, Alwickbury is probably not for them.
Dare to disagree:
Don’t take my word for it! Have a look for yourself. There’s an Open Morning on Friday 6 May. Call the registrar for details or to make a personal appointment on 01582 713022 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Aldwickbury School, Wheathampstead Road, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, AL5 1AD.