Beechwood Park, St Albans
This seriously academic school has idyllic grounds, bags of opportunities, and a unique child-centred approach which puts kids in charge of their own learning journey.
Beechwood Park feels about as rural as it gets – while the address is St Albans and it’s only five minutes from the M1, it’s a little way out of town, nestled amongst picturesque villages like Markyate and Flamstead, within its own 37 acre grounds, approached by meandering country lanes and, naturally, a sweeping drive.
The school building was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, (and the school’s young archaeologists have discovered some medieval artefacts in the grounds), and was later frequented by Henry VII and Edward VI. During WWII the grounds were used to land damaged or obsolete planes, before it became a girls’ school until 1961 and later reopened as Beechwood School in 1964.
Today it’s the largest Co-ed Prep in the area with just shy of 550 pupils aged 3-13, and that’s grown by 12% over the last 4 years – testament to its popularity. The general catchment extends fairly widely thanks to a great bus service and flexi-boarding option (from Year 5) but most pupils come from Harpenden, St Albans, Luton, Dunstable and Berkhamsted.
Children can join at any year and any time depending on places, but most years are oversubscribed so the majority join at Woodlands Nursery, Reception or Year 7 in September.
The Junior Department is housed in a cute quadrangle (with its own Junior Hall/Library, above), meaning the littlies really own their space, while further up the school there are dedicated subject classrooms including an IT suite, science labs (used from Year 5) and language rooms.
Music, Art and DT take place in the old stables – something of a creative courtyard – one of the highlights being the pottery cellar (above) – once filled with wine, it’s now home to a wheel, kiln and all manner of clay-based creations! Plus a new music wing was added two years ago with a fancy recording studio and Mac suite (opened by country pop band The Shires, no less!) where the kids can create Garage Band compositions and record performances.
There’s a gorgeous library with original wood panelling – largely unchanged since the property’s past life as a private house – and a performance hall used for assemblies, drama and productions. Plus, there are not one but two dining rooms – one wood panelled traditional affair, and the ‘annexe’ which is used for breakfast club too. Incidentally everyone has school lunches – not a packed lunch in sight – so the food must get even the fussiest of eaters’ approval.
Outside, what was once the walled kitchen garden is now the netball courts and playground, while the Junior play area known as Orchard Green is on the site of – you guessed it – the former orchard. How bucolic is that?
The woodland area (Friendship Forest) is an absolute corker and understandably a big draw. It’s used for everything from Cross Country and woodland writing comps to the popular Welly Boot Camp (an overnight stay for Year 3s). Plus – a no-brainer with a setting like this – it’s got its own dedicated Forest School (Capability Wood), which includes a brand new covered outdoor classroom on stilts, and is used by Nursery to Year 4 on a three weekly rotation.
I caught up with a Year 1 class who were doing an autumn scavenger hunt, whittling wood (yep, they’re allowed to use tools), and to reflect the current literacy theme – The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – there’s a Narnia vibe to their outdoor play too – I even got turned into a wicked prince with a twig wand!
There’s also a willow teepee, a stage, a campfire for toasting marshmallows and making hot chocolate, as well as nature cams for the kids to see what the resident wildlife gets up to after dark. And subject teachers can book it for lessons too – Music have come out to record woodland sounds, Art and DT have made forest bunting and bird boxes, and elderflower cordial and wild garlic butter have been whipped up. They even run basket making and willow weaving sessions for parents here!
On the sporting front, the sports hall has had a swish update with new cricket nets and viewing gallery-cum-sports-office for the staff. There are also four new all-weather cricket lanes outside.
There’s also an all-weather covered pool, for year-round swimming and where there was once a baby pool there’s soon to be a greenhouse-style garden, (a novel use for the humidity), which is looked after by the Gardening Club.
Flexi boarding is available for 60 pupils from Year 5 for four nights per week (Mon-Thurs) and the boarding house feels super homely and un-dorm-like, perhaps as it’s run by a husband and wife team who live on site. The large rooms are sectioned off into cosy corners and smaller rooms are available too. Even if a child only boards for one night a week they buy their bed so there’s none of that hot-bedding malarky. The girls’ dorm is in the eaves with lovely views and is all unicorns and onesies, while boys and girls have their own breakout rooms, too.
The school has 16 (yep, 16, gulp!) values to encourage good behaviour, thinking for themselves, responsibility and a decent moral code, along with their mission to ‘Nurture, Engage, Inspire’. There’s a whole school focus on one value per fornight to help instill them. And achievements academic and otherwise are recognised with a Headmaster’s Commendation and given pride of place on the ‘Wow!’ board.
Leadership and responsibility is encouraged from an early age here, from the drive-through Kiss and Drop zones (preventing those lingering goodbyes) and the Beechwood Park Leadership through Service Award for Senior pupils who get involved with things like mentoring, running the School Forum, Catering Council, and community or charity events.
On that note, Beechwood has a close relationship with Markyate Village School, sharing facilities, resources and events. While Beechwood pupils might be privileged to have such amazing opportunities, the friendships they develop with the Markyate pupils and willingness to share is humbling to hear about.
As for clubs, there are over 140 available from Chess to Cheerleading as well as LAMDA classes and Yoga and Scholarship Club and a new Co-Curricular Director was appointed last year. There’s also been the addition of a Director of Learning Development and Future Skills lessons are available for Year 3 upwards to help them prepare for Senior school.
Friendly competition is encouraged too. Pupils join one of four Houses from Year 3, and even the staff members (from teachers to admin) are allocated a House. Plus there’s a Clan Shield up for grabs at the end of the year.
Learning Support is integral here and the three dedicated staff have links with local occupational and speech therapists who provide strategies for identifying and supporting those who need additional help. Pupils are carefully monitored so that occasional blips can be quickly picked up. Sessions run from 8am to 6pm so pupils don’t miss class time and most who come through the department are on a par with Beechwood’s highest performing pupils.
Woodlands Nursery stands alone from the main school, next to the forest. It was built in 2015 having moved from up the road so it’s a real benefit to now have it on site, both for parents (with older kids at the school) and children – particularly as the vast majority (assessment dependent – this year it’s 100%) will move up to Reception.
Woodlands accepts rising 3s in September, January and at Easter. Like at the ‘big’ school, the kids have a say on what they do here, from choosing activities based on their interests to the pace they learn at and even the themes for their brilliantly bonkers performances. The Chrimbo show is Bethlehem’s Got Talent with the angels performing the Robbie Williams’ ballad and the kings doing Shake Your Tail Feather!
All children have a key person and work in groups of 6-7. They also benefit from specialist sessions including cooking, science, music and PE, and have use of the main sports hall. Plus they have free rein of the grounds to explore in their groups and on Fridays they go for a lunch ‘outing’ at the school.
MUSIC AND DRAMA
Music is taught from Nursery then becomes an optional subject from Year 7. There’s the chance to try everything from the ocarina to the harp and there are 23 visiting teachers. Around 90% from Year 2-8 take part in music outside of their class lessons, whether in a choir, ensemble or instrumental or singing lessons. Ukulele and recorder club are some of the more informal groups if they don’t opt for private lessons.
In terms of external examinations, 174 pupils from Year 3-8 took part last year which boiled down to 36 distinctions, 79 Merits and 59 passes, so it’s no surprise to hear that a healthy number of music scholarships are offered by senior schools each year. Beechwood is also the first Prep school to offer RSL Rock School Music Production Exams as part of the curriculum – thanks to those swanky new recording facilities.
There are loads of opportunities to sing in community settings like parish churches and there are termly ‘Come and Sing’ evenings for parents, so they can find out what music is all about at Beechwood while giving their own vocal chords a workout. And the music teachers are game too – earlier this year they challenged themselves to learn Grade I on a brand new instrument, with sponsorship going to charity.
All pupils are encouraged to take part in live performance, whether in lessons or large-scale productions. Recently the Juniors have been working on themes including Julia Donalsdon stories, dinosaurs and the circus. The Middle School have been doing superheros and Trestle mask work, while the Seniors have been studying Shakespeare’s witches.
Every pupil who wishes to from Year 5-8 takes part in the main production and this forms the basis of the whole school cross-curricular Arts Week (recent themes being Roald Dahl and Africa) – as well as Christmas productions, verse speaking, dance and drama displays. Years 7 and 8 can choose drama as a subject option where they get to take part in workshops with professional actors and directors.
Language teaching is all encompassing here, with French and Culture being taught from Woodlands. This year the school held its first Love a Lingo day – a whole school celebration of languages. There’s also an annual show for parents – Soirée Amicale – when topical French plays are performed (and written) by the pupils.
Pupils are also introduced to Latin through the Minimus programme in Year 5 and perform to parents in Latin before enjoying a Roman banquet featuring stuffed vine leaves and chocolate mice. And the wildly gesticulating Latin teacher deserves a special mention too for bringing this (often considered outdated) subject to life – there’s a palpable enthusiam emanating from her classroom.
There are Spanish, Russian and Ancient Greek clubs too, as well as a bienniel Classics and French trip for Years 7 and 8 to Provence.
ART AND DT
Art extends beyond the classroom here, from decorating the Nursery entrance to whittling wood in Forest School and joining the Costume and Set Design Club. The Artist of the Week is displayed in the entrance hall and there are whole school art competitions – the current project is being coordinated by the Gifted and Talented Pupils on the theme of eco awareness.
The DT offering is seriously cool here, perhaps because of the way tech has influenced innovation over recent years. There are 3D printers and laser cutters – machines that are used in the real world. The focus is developing problem solving skills and combining traditional craftmanship with computer aided design, as well as an awareness of the environmental impacts on the wider world.
Pupils start with basic woodwork and paper engineering in Year 3, progressing to simple robotics and musical instrument design in Year 5 (the Head of DT’s speciality!) up to wearable tech in Year 8. The teacher really goes the extra mile too both in terms of innovation and the environment – he’s actually making a plastic shredding machine from scratch, which the kids will be able to use to create recyled plastic!
Despite having such an academic focus Beechwood pupils still perform impressively on the sporting front, with county and national representatives in many mainstream sports like swimming, cross country, athletics, cricket, football and hockey. This is probably thanks to the calibre of coaching staff and visiting specialists as well as the Sport for All programme which includes everything from martial arts and orienteering to table tennis, badminton and sailing.
For starters, Saracens rugby club run strength and conditioning sessions, coaching masterclasses and holiday camps here. And superleague netball team, Saracens Mavericks are soon to be following suit with netball camps. The City of St Albans Swimming Club run weekly training sessions in the school pool for elite swimmers, and a member of the St Albans Hockey Club’s 1st team teaches here. Beechwood also has links with Berkhamsted Ladies’ Cricket Club and offers training by The Paul Davis Fencing Academy.
I definitely felt like I was entering the Headmaster’s Office when I met Edward Balfour. He’s a Head that means business, but that’s no bad thing in my book. This is a school which is ‘seriously’ academic and I can imagine that that takes a lot of work to uphold. The catchphrase ‘Beechwood Park – not a walk in the park’ sums it up fairly succinctly – it’s up to the kids to decide whether to turn challenges into obstacles or opportunities though.
Academia is his number one priority, with a lot of focus on tracking progress, intervention and scholarship development, but everything about Beechwood is child-centred. Pupils are expected to work hard and take responsibility from an early age. And this is also something that Mr Balfour has brought to the school since he joined in 2015. One staff member apparently likened the changes he’s made to a switch from analogue to digital, and January’s ISI inspection Report gave the school an excellent outcome in all areas with no recommendations for improvement – what Head wouldn’t be proud to have that as their legacy?
Beechwood pupils are significantly ahead academically. When they join Woodlands Nursery they straddle the National average 50/50, but by the time they reach Seniors, most will be 2-3 years above the National average, so in ten years they develop by 12-13 years. This is all thanks to a challenging and fast moving programme which combines academic studies with co-curricular opportunities.
Last year the most popular leavers’ destinations were Berkhamsted and St Albans, with St Albans High School for Girls and St Georges following closely and 17 scholarships taken up at those and the likes of Uppingham, Haileybury, Rugby, Wellington and Aldenham.
I’ve mentioned that the school is big on putting children at the centre of everything they do, but this even extends to teachers writing reports directly to them, rather than parents, with the idea of helping pupils reflect on their progress. That doesn’t mean parents aren’t communicated to though – they all get a weekly newsletter (from Nursery upwards) with updates on what the kids have been up to.
As for the grounds, they were designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown so you’ll feel like you’re on a country pile as soon as you drive through the gate – ok, let’s manage expectations here, it’s not quite Blenheim Palace, but it is spacious and green. The eagle eyed might even spot some of the resident Guinea Fowl roaming around, too. How many schools can say that?
And as you approach the school you’ll notice some interesting additions (quite literally!) to the speed limit signs – 20mph is also displayed as ’10+10=20′, ‘√400 = 20’ or just ‘XX’ – every opportunity for learning is taken advantage of here.
There’s a breakfast club for pupils and parents from 7.30 – 8.15 when school starts as well as various co-curricular clubs from 8am. After school care is available until 5.30pm for pupils from Nursery to Year 3 and there are loads of after school clubs for Year 3 and upwards, as well as Prep Club until 5.35. Plus flexi boarding is a popular option.
From £3900 – £5785 per term for day pupils. Boarding (from Year 5) is an additional £1375 per term.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Children who relish being challenged and welcome responsibility with both arms will thrive here. Parents who are willing to let go of the reins a little to let their child take the lead in their own education are more likely to find the Beechwood ‘journey’ refreshing and exciting.
Not for: If you’re expecting your son or daughter to be out on the sports pitches every spare minute of the day Beechwood might not be for you. Also helicopter parents might be unnerved by the innovative child-centred approach.
Dare to disagree? There’s an Open Morning on 14 Feb and 22 May 2020.
Beechwood Park School, Pickford Rd, Markyate, St Albans AL3 8AW