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St Albans High School Prep, Herts

WHAT? WHERE?

St Albans High School Prep is an independent and selective day school for 320 girls aged 4-11 on the edge of the village of Wheathampstead. It is 3 miles from Harpenden and 5 miles from St Albans, with the majority of girls living in Hertfordshire, but with some travelling from further north and some from north west London. The Prep is part of St Albans High School for Girls, and the majority of girls who start here go through to the senior school. The main house is an elegant mock Victorian villa, and together with several other newer buildings, the site feels cohesive and well designed. There is a sense of expansiveness both inside and out.

FACILITIES

Driving past the school you wouldn’t guess what lies behind the gates. The grounds are fantastic. 18 acres, with a meadow, a proper forest, an outdoor classroom, adventure playground, playing fields, tennis and netball courts and a cross-country course. Outdoor learning is encouraged here and girls make a weekly visit to Forest School – not just a patch of woodland – a proper forest that lends itself to building a roundhouse with hazel and dissecting owl pellets. Swimming takes place at the senior school in St Albans, a short bus ride away.

Music and the arts are celebrated here. The Lodge is a beautiful and stylish brand new performing arts centre. There’s a concert hall with a large stage, and several music teaching rooms. Over 100 individual music lessons take place every week. Girls are keen to participate in the orchestras and choirs and almost everyone is involved.

The Lodge

On the day of my visit, the school is buzzing. Parents have been invited to visit that afternoon to see what’s been going on during the STEM festival and the art department is firing on all cylinders. Pottery is on the menu here and everything is sent to the senior school to be glazed and fired. The facilities for science and ICT are excellent, and there’s a modern lab and ICT suite.

WHAT ELSE?

The girls who show me around are talented tour guides. What strikes me above all is how they have a sense of shared ownership and responsibility for their community. They explain that in Year 6, everyone has an area of responsibility or leadership role. These are confident and exuberant girls who are so full of stories about their school that they can’t wait to share them. They also make me laugh. As we do the tour of the school and the grounds, I see how free the girls are and able to make their own decisions.

They tell me that if you enjoy learning you are more likely to remember what you are being taught. Interestingly, in several classes where lessons are going on, I can’t always see the teacher immediately. The atmosphere is relaxed and outgoing and in some classes there’s lots of moving around and chatter. (I have to remind you that I visit during the STEM festival so perhaps on another day they might have been sitting in complete silence but I very much doubt it.) There’s a sense that work is going on here but it’s refreshingly far from chalk and talk. Although thankfully, those days are over in most schools – at least I hope so.

We go into one classroom where one of the guides immediately picks up a book saying ‘I can’t believe they’re reading Mallory Towers in Year 2! We didn’t read it until we were in Year 3!’ I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation, but let’s just say that I was keen to share in the mutual appreciation of Darrell Rivers.

While exploring outdoors, we travel cross country to the woods, home to the Forest School. ‘We have a lot of wild animals here,’ one of the girls warns me. Really? ‘Yes. Hares, deers and rabbits’. One of the tour guides immediately starts picking up a few bits of litter, left behind by a visiting school, and again I am impressed by how proactive they are. The commentary is seamless and they are all extremely forthcoming and enthusiastic about the food. I hear about the recent Ideas festival and its ‘Breathe’ theme; orienteering; the clubs you can join – over 80 – including yoga, karate, debating and archery.

The school is selective and the majority of girls start at age 4. Rather than interviewing the parents, the girls take part in observed activities. 50% don’t get offered a place. 50%! I am more than surprised. This surely means that you’re starting with a strong group of girls, ready for the challenges that lie ahead. As a through school it means that there’s no big focus on the 11+ transfer to other schools. This year 36 out of 49 girls are staying on in the senior school, with 8 going to a state school. Every single girl takes the senior school entrance exam, mainly to see whether they can garner a scholarship. Given the selection process at a young age, there are fewer girls here with additional needs, although a special needs coordinator comes in two days a week.

HEAD OF PREP

Judy Rowe

I first see Judy Rowe in action during assembly. It’s a Friday morning, at the end of a 10-day stint of STEM activities. The school hall is a riot of colour: atoms bobbing about on girls’ heads; a host of Marie Curies; and an unqualified number of erudite professors complete with wigs and lab coats and glasses. One girl is dressed as potassium: a slightly worse-for-wear banana swinging from her leg. My eyesight isn’t the best, and I was sitting at the back of the hall, but I actually thought that Judy Rowe was a very tall Year 6 girl before I heard her speak. She bounces with enthusiasm. She encourages the youngest children to speak as loud as they can so that their voices reach the back of the hall and they promptly read with their papers in front of their faces!

When we repair to her office, she is just as bouncy and excited. Before long I am wondering whether I could join in with the before-school London marathon run in stages every day. It’s part of their resilience programme and it’s a run that’s being measured out in sections in the school grounds as they trace a 26-mile course in stickers on a paper map along Watling Street from the Prep School to Buckingham Palace. Judy’s enthusiasm and confidence inspire me. This is what it must be like for the girls!

Judy Rowe arrived from Belmont Mill Hill Prep three years ago and immediately swung into action as new broom. She says that her initial aim was to make the school relaxed and more outgoing. ‘We don’t do a lot of lining up’, she says. They can afford to be relaxed about rules and talking during lessons because the girls want to learn and are busy with ‘on task conversations’. She has also done a lot of work on improving the communication with parents.

After meeting Judy, I zing with enthusiasm for life and have a can-do spirit. These are lucky girls, but you need to be up to the challenge. Judy Rowe seems to be the perfect person to lead the school and her exuberance is contagious and inspiring.

QUIRKS

There’s a healthy appreciation of biscuits in this school. All around the building there are posters declaring ‘Be a Hobnob, not a Rich Tea!’ I ask one of the girls to explain and the thinking is this: everyone is encouraged to develop resilience in this school. Don’t give up! Persist! Be strong! Rich Teas are the weaker biscuit and if you dunk them in tea they are guaranteed to crumble when subjected to heat and pressure. Put to the same test, a Hobnob triumphs every time. Be a Hobnob, not a Rich Tea. Forest School is extremely popular and it’s hardly surprising. Fancy a S’More? You may not know what you are signing up for so let me explain. Take two chocolate digestives. Toast some marshmallows, with grown up supervision. Sandwich the two biscuits together with your molten marshmallow and there you have it. A S’More.

FEES

Fees start at £4,650 per term for Reception and go up to £4,905 for Years 3-6.

WRAPAROUND CARE

This is a fully comprehensive and flexible feast. You can start at 7.15am and stay until 6pm. There are a huge number of after school clubs and you can have tea at 4.30pm.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

This feels like a model school for girls. Girls seem to be pretty much doing what they want to do here, and what they want to do is learn. Yes, it’s pretty selective but once you’re in, there’s very little stress about keeping up and there’s a feeling of a security knowing that the only entrance exam your daughter will have to sit is the school entrance exam which could result in a scholarship. The atmosphere is purposeful and relaxed and there is an overriding sense that learning is and should be fun.

GOOD FOR: Girls who are interested in learning. Engaged, confident and inquisitive girls. Girls who aim to be a Hobnob.

NOT FOR: Rich Tea biscuit girls. You’ll need to persist. Given time and effort, this can be learned. You need to be able to recognise a challenge and rise to it.

DARE TO DISAGREE?! Don’t take my word for it. There’s a Summer Open Afternoon on Fri 15 June, 1pm – 3pm.

St Albans High School Prep Codicote Road, Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire, AL4 8DJ  01582 839270

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