Charlotte House Prep School for Girls, Rickmansworth
This pint-sized Prep school has a nurturing approach and a can-do attitude which fuels girls with the confidence and resilience to ready them for the next steps in their education.
Nestled inbetween leafy Rickmansworth and the pretty village of Chorleywood, Charlotte House sits comfortably surrounded by a smattering of impressive family homes set back off affluent tree-lined drives.
Originally a family home, the school was founded in 1931 by Miss Kitching, and known as Rickmansworth PNEU (Parents’ New Education Union), which followed the principles of education as a positive extension of home life and that learning should be fun. This year marks its 88th anniversary – a strange milestone to celebrate you might think, but given that the address is 88 The Drive you can see the connection, so naturally they’re having a party to celebrate 88 at 88!
Things have obviously moved along a lot since then, but Charlotte House still follows the core idea that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom, and this extends to everything from involving parents in their child’s education to taking regular trips, both near and far. It’s not unusual for a class to jump on the school minibus to visit a local pond to help bring their book work to life.
Inside it feels homely and inviting, and perfectly proportioned so I imagine it’s not too daunting for little newbies. Plus there are only 124 pupils which helps. It’s a non-academically selective school and informal assessments are designed to ensure that the girls have good communication skills, are naturally curious and interact positively with their peers. Most families come from within a 30 minute radius.
Although there’s only a rather minute two acres to play with, the school uses it well. The outdoor area feels open and spacious, surrounded by trees and while the whole school will often be out at once it doesn’t feel squeezed on space.
There are dedicated play areas for different age groups dotted around, with a climbing frame and swings, as well as a tennis court, which is used for PE but also racing around on trikes, water play, chalk drawing, you name it.
And there are dedicated outdoor learning sessions scheduled into the timetables too – something that the school is continually developing for Early Years. There’s a fab al fresco classroom with wendy houses, a table and chairs and plenty of hands-on activities to fuel imaginative play.
Indoors there are cute murals all over the walls, from an enormous Hungry Caterpillar in the loos to inspirational Dr Zeuss mottos emblazoning the stairwells.
There’s a lovely space for Art and DT and a dedicated art teacher who is also, I’m told, a bit of a whizz on a pottery wheel – you only have to look at the super clay creations to see that her passion is rubbing off on the girls, too. What’s more, some of the girls’ work has been featured in two local exhibitions. And when it comes to DT the desks can be raised like drawing boards for more technical work – nifty!
On that note, STEM is definitely not an afterthought here. There’s an awesome fully equipped science lab, not something you find in every Prep school, and the girls do two hours of science per week from Form 3 – the little ones are still a bit wobbly on the high lab stools, so they study it within their topics in class using some of the equipment instead.
There’s a STEM day every year where parents can come along and take part in interactive experiments with the kids and, recently the Fifth formers hosted an assembly on space, and wrote their own space-themed rap – now that I’d love to have seen! Also, impressively for such a diddy school, Charlotte House has won the Haileybury Science Prep Challenge a number of times, pipping some of the area’s larger schools to the post. Nice one girls!
There’s a cosy library-cum-reading-nook as well as a separate non-fiction library, which is combined with the ICT suite. The Head, Miss Woodcock talks me through the significance of this. She’s an English specialist and a big believer in the power of books so will often challenge the girls to a fact-finding race – them on the internet or her with a book. Inevitably she wins! It’s an important lesson in research skills, teaching the girls to read around their subject and not rely solely on computers.
The ICT suite is used by Form 1 and upwards (Nursery and Reception take it in turns to use the computers in their classrooms) for dedicated lessons and subject teachers sometimes make use of it too, plus there are 45 iPads for class work.
They learn basic coding, with the help of Bee Bots and the Purple Mash programme. And of course staying safe online is top of the agenda, with Fourth formers tasked with talking on the subject in assembly during E-Safety week to really help hammer the message home.
Sportswise, I’ve mentioned the outdoor courts but there’s a sports hall too, equipped with gymnastics equipment, used for PE, dance and clubs.
Class sizes are 22 max, with most sitting 16-18 (and it’s single form entry here), but at the moment there are only five in the nursery, so those lucky girls are getting lots of attention. Academically Charlotte House performs well with all pupils exceeding the national average throughout the curriculum and one scholarship acheived last year. Independent leavers’ destinations include Royal Masonic, Abbot’s Hill, Berkhamsted and Haberdasher’s Aske’s, but many also go on to state schools, with St Clement Danes, Dr Challoner’s and Rickmansworth being popular choices.
There’s a definite feel of growing up as you move through the school. By Form 3 most subjects are specialist taught and there’s a gradual move towards a Secondary style set-up as the girls have to find their way to different rooms and adapt to different teaching styles. Plus the classrooms feel more geared towards serious learning too, with desks arranged in rows rather than groups – all good prep for the next steps.
The school follows the Read,Write Inc. Phonics programme and has adopted a mastery approach to our Maths teaching, which is about really understanding and explaining how they’ve reached their answers – much like showing your workings in a vocalised form. From Form 3 and upwards Maths classes are split into two mixed-ability groups.
Charlotte House doesn’t believe in streaming or labelling children. Remember being told as a kid ‘there’s no such thing as ‘can’t”? Well here it’s ‘I can’t do it yet‘. And the kids seem pretty invested in this idea too, telling me that one of the best things about their school is that they ‘never give up’ – a steely determination that’s also central to the Charlotte House motto: ‘I am, I can, I ought, I will.‘
As for languages, Spanish is taught from nursery, giving the girls a strong foundation from age 3. In Form 1 the girls take up French and from Form 5 they take Latin (unless they need extra support in English or Maths) and also have the chance to learn German, Sign Language (something Miss Woodcock is passionate about and believes all the girls should know the basics of by the time they leave) and even Russian in the extra-curricular clubs.
On that note, the wide range of clubs change termly. There are lots of enthusiatic hand-lifters when Miss Woodcock prompts the girls to share their favourites – Mad Science, Taikwondo, Piano and Speed Stacking (a competitive game which combines problem solving and gross motor skills), come up trumps in this instance.
New clubs are suggested all the time to the School Council – nope, not a group of teachers, but pupils. Girls in Forms 3-6 put themselves forward and two from each class are voted in by their classmates. It’s a job that’s taken very seriously and a popular one at that (until they find out that they have to sacrifice the odd break time for a council meeting!)
Talking of responsibilities, there’s also the chance to be a playground buddy, where the older girls sit with the little ones at lunchtime and take them out to play. There are also Year Group Monitors in Form 6, where they can listen to reading and help take the register, Music monitors for assemblies, Head Girl (she has to do a speech at the end of the school year!), Head of School Council, Reading Ambassadors and Sports Captains. So there’s plenty to get stuck into.
Plus there’s the annual House competitions – a group of girls are rehearsing for the poetry comp during breaktime when I arrive, but there’s also House music, sport and cross country.
And if you’re wondering what Charlotte House can offer in terms of additional support, it’s an accredited Dyslexia Friendly School. The ethos with support is ‘little and often’. A scheduled hour a week doesn’t cut the mustard here, particularly when a lot of difficulties with learning are related to memory. Instead girls at Charlotte House are offered shorter intervention lessons 3-5 times a week, which means they don’t miss such a big chunk of their class time too. Win, win.
Don’t be heard uttering the words ‘girls’ sports’ or ‘boys’ sports’ here. There’s no such thing. The girls play football, netball, cricket, rounders, touch rugby (which is super popular!), cross-country, athletics, gymnastics and dance.
But Charlotte House’s strongest sport is swimming and the girls have reached both the IAPS national finals and the English Schools Swimming Association Primary Schools finals in Sheffield – really impressive considering they’re competing against other preps which have a pool on site, and maybe 100+ pupils to pick from. Must be that ‘can do’ attitude again!
MUSIC AND DRAMA
During my visit the girls are gearing up to perform in Young Voices – an annual 30-choir strong performance at the O2 – and they’re busy wrapping their vocal chords around nearly an hour’s worth of musical medleys. What a fab opportunity.
Incidentally Charlotte House has two choirs (one for Forms 3 and 4 and one for Forms 5 and 6) as well as a chamber choir. Last year the senior choir performed in a concert with the North London Military Wives Choir – another highlight of the musical calendar.
Roughly a third of Prep girls learn an instrument and every girl in the school is in a play every year – Forms 5 and 6 perform a Shakespeare play every summer term. There’s a class assembly during the terms that they don’t have a production, which parents are invited to so there are always opportunites to perform in one way or another.
Miss Penny Woodcock has been at the school for nearly ten years, having joined in 2010 then progressed to Head in 2015. She has a gentle and reassuring manner and lets the girls’ confidence speak for itself.
The beauty of being Head of a school of this size is that there are still opportunities to teach and Miss Woodcock takes full advantage of that, teaching geography lessons and tagging along on school trips – the most recent was a nursery trip to Chorleywood Bookshop where the girls all had the chance to buy a Little Miss book to tie in with a project. Cute!
It means that she can really keep her finger on the pulse of school life, be a real presence around the school for the girls, and be there to support and listen to her staff as opposed to being stuck behind a desk all day.
Larks opens at 7.35am and provides breakfast while the after-school club, Owls, runs until 6pm – a decent timeframe to fit in with working parents’ busy schedules.
Nursery costs £1950 per term (this covers five mornings per week – it’s not essential to attend all of those but at least three sessions per week including Monday mornings are encouraged) plus £245 per afternoon session.
Reception costs £3265 per term, Forms 1 and 2 are £3845 per term, and for Forms 3 to 6 its £4365.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Girls with a natural curiosity who would benefit from a gentle and nurturing environment to help them blossom. Charlotte House is a small school with a big picture outlook and nudges, rather than pushes the girls towards achieving their best, so that they leave as rounded, content and confident young women.
Not for: Charlotte House’s softly, softly approach won’t appeal to parents who favour the ‘throw ’em in the deep end’ method. It’s more about supporting the girls until they can do it on their own here and gradually building on confidence and resilience, as opposed to seeing if they’ll sink or swim from the outset.
Charlotte House Prep School for Girls, 88 The Drive, Rickmansworth, Herts, WD3 4DU.