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This little gem of a co-ed prep school nestled within its own woodland has a lot to shout about – from outstanding academic results and happy, hardworking kids to a forward-thinking Head and an accredited Forest School. Hands up who wants to be on Team Duncombe!


Small but mighty, Duncombe School is a non-selective co-ed independent nursery and prep school for 268 pupils (150 boys, 118 girls) across a four-acre neatly secluded woodland site just outside central Hertford. The Palladian-style mansion house that forms the main school building for Years 1-6 children has been sympathetically extended over the years, with thoughtfully designed purpose-built buildings and a dedicated play area of the Treetops Pre-School for the Early Years children.


The star of the show here is ‘The Dell’, a sunken garden surrounded on all sides by trees so it feels like you’re really in the woods, accessed either by wooden stairs or – more joyously – a great long slide. This is where the accredited on-site Forest School takes place, although happily it’s also used for other outdoor lessons.

Other headline facilities include a no-expense-spared floodlit Astroturf complete with tensile all-weather roof, a 100m running track (not something I come across often at a prep school), an art loft, a bespoke music and dance studio, and an outdoor gym.


All schools like to say they take sport seriously but Duncombe has the proof in the pudding. Impressive for a school of this size, 2018 saw the U11 football and netball teams placed 5th and 10th respectively in the national final competitions for independent schools. And a further two pupils won golds at the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) clay pigeon shooting and fencing championships.

The proximity of Hertford to London means that quite a few of the kids are on the books of Premiership football teams, and some alumnus have gone on to become professional football players. Talking of which, one of the PE teachers is ex professional football player, Danny Granville, who played for clubs such as Chelsea, Leeds and Manchester City, while rugby is represented by ex-professional player, James Story.


The school describes music as being ‘at the heart of Duncombe’, which is quite some statement. It starts with specialist staff teaching music all the way through from the two-year-olds in Kindergarten to Year 6. From Year 2, pupils learn the recorder, and there is a 65% take-up of other musical instruments in the school. There are both junior and senior orchestras here, which is unusual for a school of this size, along with choirs and ensembles.

Dance is also taught by specialist staff from Early Kindergarten onwards as part of the curriculum, with ballet, cheerleading and street dance as extra-curricular adds. If your child is into drama, Year 3 to Year 6 pupils can take LAMDA exams. Duncombe has a 100% pass rate, with 95% of pupils achieving Merit or Distinction, so don’t be afraid to put your child on this stage, Mrs Worthington.


Jeremy Phelan has been in the hot seat since 2013, and his passion for the school and all it hopes to achieve comes across immediately. For starters, when he talks about “Team Duncombe”, it’s clearly not just a catchy name. Phelan, along with the rest of the staff and the kids, are genuinely one big happy, hard-working team. His enthusiasm is infectious, and I find myself wanting to be part of Team Duncombe too.

Phelan’s also a savvy Head, realising the importance of digital learning, not just during lockdown but incorporating this strategy into everyday learning. With this in mind, last year he obtained laptops for every pupil from Year 3 to Year 6, which meant children, teachers and parents were able to hit the ground running on this most recent lockdown.

Phelan also realises the importance of his pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, especially during the last 12 months. He and his team created some brilliant online activities for the kids over lockdown to help them to still feel very much part of Team Duncombe. This is another area that Phelan wants to focus on by further developing the school’s Wellbeing programme.  


Duncombe is non-selective but all independent schools know they need to deliver academically – they regularly deliver pupils to the likes of Haileybury, Queenswood, Bishop’s Stortford College, St Edmunds’ College, St Albans Boys’ School and St Albans High School for Girls, with one pupil gaining a Scholarship to Harrow. From nine years onwards, the children are taught by specialist teaching in most subjects, with maximum class sizes of 20. Recent figures show Duncombe as being 16-20% ahead of the national average at EYFS, KS1 and KS2. It’s no surprise, then, that the pupils consistently achieve the strongest 11+ Entry outcomes in Hertford.

Duncombe is one of 1.6% of schools across the UK in being accredited with the National Association for Able Children in Education Challenge (NACE) award, with the gifted and talented being identified early and supported through anything from extension work and booster sessions through to Latin to advanced maths and various extra-curricular activities. From eight years onwards, the children are put in ability sets for maths and English.

Aside from its core curriculum, which includes two modern languages, French and Spanish, and Forest School, pupils also work towards the Duncombe Diploma, which focuses on five core values of Determination, Excellence, Respect, Inspiration and Courage. A well-respected and resourced Learning Support team was judged as ‘Outstanding’ in the last ISI report.


Purpose-built buildings are ideal for Nursery children, meaning that architects can plan for more space, more light and better flow between indoors and outdoors, so that’s a big tick here. There are two nursery classes, each with staff ratios of 1:6, both with a class teacher and a Nursery nurse.

There’s a brand-new Exploration Hub at Treetops that focuses on early STEAM learning, plus a Reading Café. It’s basically a breakout area, with cushions and a comfy sofa, for the kids to read their books. It’s also where the school’s Patron of Reading, Alice Hemming, runs her activities and workshops.

The Treetops Pre-School curriculum is supported by specialist teachers across a range of subjects, including Spanish, French, PE, Forest School and Music. Duncombe is very proud of its Treetops Pre-School, and the results speak for themselves, with kids consistently exceeding Early Years national scores. Littlies also have weekly access to the big kid facilities in the school.


I love the creativity of the Starbooks Cafe, a shiny-new virtual library in a café setting that hopes to encourage the kids to share book recommendations, click on author readings, read First News and get enthused about literature. Head of English Miss Cartwright, and her assistant, Duncombe Bear, plus Alice Hemming are all on hand to help.

Loving the inclusion of Crime Lab Club, Self Defence, Photography, Fencing, Eco Warriors and Jewellery Making in the extra-curricular clubs on offer too. There’s also a massive 60-strong masterclass community programme of extra-curricular wellbeing activities called The Spirit of Duncombe. Started at the beginning of lockdown in 2020, it’s still open and being added to, and is available for all. Pretty impressive.


Excellent. Starting early at 7.30am with pick-up at 6.30pm, for 48 weeks of the year. Gawd bless! All Lower and Upper school children remain in the Main School for their wrap-around care, while the Early Years and Reception children are looked after in Treetops. Kindergarten and Nursery is part of the 15 free hours scheme for three and four year olds, Monday to Friday (12:30–3:30pm) during term time. Over the school holidays, there’s a Club for children age two to five years (8am–6.30pm) for periods during the summer, Christmas, Easter and half term holidays. Ofsted-registered SuperCamps for kids four to 14 years are also run here for both Duncombe and non-Duncombe families.


Starting at £3,700 per term for five full days (half days and one to four days also available) for Early Kindergarten through to Nursery, and £3,900 for Reception. Fees start at £4,235 from Year 1, gradually increasing each year to £5,240 for Years 4–6. It’s worth noting that the school offers the strongest sibling discount scheme in Hertford and surrounding areas.


Duncombe has a reputation for being nurturing, inclusive and very family-oriented. The parents feel involved and informed, and there’s a lot of love for the school.


GOOD FOR: One of Duncombe’s undoubted USPs is that it’s the only co-ed prep school in Hertford for pupils aged 2 to 11 years, so if you want mixed-sex education, that’s your first tick. The strong family feel and genuine love for Team Duncombe has great appeal, while the school clearly excels in music and sport. Its Forest School accreditation and emphasis on the outdoors adds something different, too, in what is effectively an in-town school.

NOT FOR: I think it would suit most children but parents expecting a shopping list of onsite facilities and rolling countryside acres may want to look elsewhere.

Want to see for yourself? Register for their Open Day on the morning of 24 September or call 01992 414100.

Duncombe School, 4 Warren Park Road, Bengeo, Hertford, SG14 3JA, 01992 414100

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