Berkhamsted Day Nursery and Pre-Prep
Muddy says: This idyllic nursery and co-ed pre-prep encourages the future generation to break the mould on an academic, social and emotional level - and its outdoor facilities are what dreams are made of!
The Day Nursery and Pre-Prep (part of the wider Berkhamsted Schools group) are both situated on the Haresfoot Estate, on the outskirts of leafy and affluent Berkhamsted. It’s a gorgeous approach down the drive, through wild meadows which lead to the attractive converted estate buildings – I feel more like I’m arriving at a National Trust property than a school!
NURSERY AND STEPPING STONES
There are 49 children aged from five months to three years in the Day Nursery, split across four rooms. While it’s primarily about childcare at this age, there is an element of ‘teaching’ involved, too, and one of the benefits of being part of the wider school group is that specialist teachers (namely music and PE at this age) run sessions with the babies and toddlers, too. These will become familiar faces as they move up through the school too.
Rising threes move up to Stepping Stones – this is the School nursery, which follows a 6-term approach to learning, designed to ease the transition from nursery to pre-prep. So the children are considered to be on their school journey from the moment they start here. But it’s a gentle approach, and the school works with the parents to ensure their child is ready for every stage of the process. Parents are asked to book a minimum of five mornings a week or three full days for their children to get the full benefit.
There are 54-60 places in Stepping Stones and these are dependent on how many move on elsewhere after nursery. The children are divided into three groups but playing is freeflow and they are encouraged to make their own choices rather than always looking for an adult, which all helps to develop their independence and curious little minds. They also start to learn about routines and do group activities here, which gives them a flavour of learning without feeling like it’s being forced upon them. After all they are only three!
There are just over 200 children in pre-prep and the majority join straight from Stepping Stones. Any other available places are dependent on leavers, which at this stage can be few and far between so the message is: get in early to avoid disappointment!
Reception is three form entry with 18-20 per class, and I really like the fact that the children are mixed every year to widen their group of friends and to balance the class dynamics. The Headteacher, Karen O’Connor brought this in in her second year here and while some parents felt slightly anxious about whether this would unsettle their little ones and separate them from their friends, it’s gone down really well with the kids, which is what matters at the end of the day.
Phonics underpins all of the learning here and by the time the children leave reception they are all able to write sentences. It’s not pushed, but led by the children, and I feel heartened to hear Mrs O’Connor say that they’re a long way off GCSEs… phew, plenty of fun to be had yet!
There’s also lots of big space learning here – large sheets of paper are rolled out on the floor in one classroom – it’s lovely to see that the teachers are doing things on the children’s level, quite literally.
I’ve mentioned the lovely setting, well, within the 15 acre site, there’s also a circular library with curved windows, a fab sports hall, equipped with enough sound and light equipment to run a West End show, and the most amazing (I mean, my jaw literally dropped) outdoor play area you could imagine. Contained within a (pretty sizeable) walled garden there’s a wooden pirate ship, a mud kitchen, wendy houses, an outdoor stage, a reading area (complete with thrones, of course!) and raised gardening beds. It’s the stuff of story books.
And it doesn’t stop there – beyond the wall there’s the woods, where the kids have masses of outdoor learning opportunities based on Forest School principles, as well as a climbing wall, high ropes course and zip wire, which are graduated in difficulty for age appropriateness (they’re also used by the prep and senior kids – some were getting harnessed up there and then!).
And if that lot isn’t enough for you, there’s a bushcraft tent, too (eat your heart out, Bear Grylls!). And the amazing facilities don’t go unused over the holidays as there’s a programme of summer camp activities held here too.
As for how they fare academically, the vast majority of the children join at national levels, but by age five, most will be exceeding those levels, which is pretty impressive.
Music is important here and all of the children from Day Nursery have music lessons taught by a specialist, with an emphasis on recognising rhythm and listening skills. Then in Year 1 they learn the drums (how rock ‘n’ roll is that?!). In Year 2 every child learns the violin and plays in whole school assemblies. And there’s a popular recorder club, too.
On that note each year group performs to the parents in a termly drama production, too. Year 2 were rehearsing for their end of year show, Madagascar, when I visited (how cute are they in their little penguin costumes?!).
And there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as stage fright here – as the children are gently eased into performing at a young age when they have no inhibitions. This isn’t just through performing arts but standing up in assemblies to do readings, and, later on, the school council and house captains are encouraged to write their own speeches.
Berkhamsted follows the ‘Building Learning Power’ school of thought, which is about active, rather than passive learning, and instilling things like resilience and common sense in kids, not just filling them with facts and knowledge.
They’re big on developing emotional intelligence here, too – the children learn, through specialist coaching, how to manage their emotions by naming, owning and dealing with them – something that will surely stand them in good stead for later life.
There’s a lot of cross-curricular learning too, which shows the kids how things join up rather than learning on topic in isolation. Case in point – the gang of little piggies and wolf cubs I see toddling off to the woods (wearing their handmade egg-box noses) had earlier been doing The Three Little Pigs in a drama class. Cute!
Karen O’Connor joined the Berkhamsted family in 2015 following a decade-long stint as Deputy Head at a primary school in Camden. Berkhamsted seems to seep out of her pores and she fizzes with pride as she shows me around.
Just like her pupils she’s approachable yet driven, calm yet enthusiastic and has the warmth that parents want to see when visiting their child’s prospective first school. Most importantly, the kids are really comfortable with her as it’s hugs all round when she enters the room! I get the impression she’s not one to sit on her laurels, though, so I can’t wait to see what she brings to Berkhamsted next.
It’s the only school to have its very own Gruffalo Trail (oh Julia Donaldson you’ve salvaged many a family walk in the woods!), which, unsurprisingly, the pre-prep kids love. Even the senior pupils come back to enjoy it and reminisce about their time here.
On another note, history buffs might be intrigued to learn that the original ice houses and tunnels (which the unseeables would use to enter the manor house) still exist under the drive!
Nursery care is from 7.30am until 6.30pm for 50 weeks of the year and wraparound care in pre-prep is available from 7.30am, for breakfast to 6.30pm after school during term time. The nice thing is though that this is not considered an extension of their learning but basically a giant play date, and the proof is in the pudding as many of the kids actually ask their parents if they can stay on as a treat!
Day Nursery fees range from £880 per month for 4 days a week (school hours), to £1,470 per month for 5 days (extended hours). Pre-prep costs from £525 for one morning session a week (per term), to £730 per full day a week (per term). Then it’s £3,540 for five full days in reception per term, to £3,690 for Years 1 and 2.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Put simply, Berkhamsted parents are proud to be Berkhamsted parents… I hear one story about how a little girl shouted across the crowds on a family day trip ‘come and collaborate with me mummy!’ (mum shrugged and told them her daughter was at Berkhamsted), and another about a child who encouraged their mum to ‘persevere’ during a stressful car journey. And to think they’re only seven by the time they leave…
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Eager beavers. Berkhamsted is a really nurturing school that kids who are ambitious and hungry to learn will undoubtedly thrive in. Also, parents who want their child to have a consistent, all-through style of education, with an element of familiarity throughout.
NOT FOR: Unadventurous types. Children are encouraged to have a go at everything here, so if they’re not willing to give new things a try, Berkhamsted might not be the school for them.