Westbrook Hay Prep School, Hemel Hempstead
Muddy says: This outdoorsy and nurturing co-ed prep has stunning facilities and isn't scared of healthy competition.
Westbrook Hay is a co-ed day school for 300 children aged 3-13 in Hemel Hempstead, west Hertfordshire. The setting is idyllic: 26 acres of parkland overlooking the Bourne Valley. The school is minutes from the A41, yet it feels blissfully rural. London is 30 miles away and it’s under 30 minutes by train from Hemel Hempstead station. The school is also close to, but peacefully separate from, the M25 and M1. I think you get the picture: Westbrook Hay is in a plum location. The school has been around for 120 years and has changed location in its time. It started in Bedford, moved to Wellingborough, then went to Gadebridge House and finally moved to this elegant building that used to be home to the Hemel Hempstead Development Corporation. With 300 children, the school still manages to feel friendly and intimate, and the grounds feel even more expansive than their 26 acres.
Where to start? The performing arts centre was completed in 2016 and it’s an absolute stunner. It’s got everything you’d find in a professional theatre, and the studios and facilities for composition, lighting and set design are so sparkly that it’s encouraging children to get involved with drama who might previously have been less keen to perform. The sprung floors make you want to spin and do those running jumps that ballet dancers do. Drama and dance (jazz, street, ballet) are taught from nursery. The children I talked to were quick to tell me about their LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) exams in verse, poetry and acting and also about the recent production of James and the Giant Peach and their forthcoming Oliver. The music room has also just been refurbished and the children are confident working with ‘Garage’ and ‘Band in a Box’. There are choirs to join, an orchestra and wind band. The majority of children learn an instrument.
From Year 3 everyone does sport four days a week and on the fifth day there’s an activity. The activities, clubs and music tuition on offer are too numerous for me to include all of them, but pretty much everything you could want to try is on offer, from horse riding, photography, skiing and shooting to chess, golf, art, choirs, and any instrument you would like to learn. There’s an outdoor pool, and a great sports hall for gymnastics, basketball, netball, badminton and 5-a-side football. Outside, there’s everything you’d expect and more: pitches for cricket, football and rugby and loads of space. You will leave this school as a well-rounded individual, and you’ll have had a lot of fun on the way.
I have the pleasure of talking to a group of children, girls in Year 6 and boys in Year 8, including the head boy and head girl, all of whom are about to go on to their first choices of senior school, including St Albans High School for Girls and Berkhamsted. They are charming, poised and confident. What impresses me above all is the way they listen to whoever is speaking and are extremely supportive of each other. One boy tells me about how he moved to Westbrook Hay from another school where he was being bullied. It’s fine to be different, he explains, and he’s now in an environment that allows him and encourages him to be himself. They tell me that the food is ‘really good,’ even one girl who says that she is a fussy eater, but says she loves the curry and roasts at the school. Some of them use the breakfast club where they alternate between fruit and cereal and full English.
The school is ‘laid back but strict at the right time’. They talk enthusiastically about sport. One boy loves Arsenal and is currently playing for Luton Town Academy. He has to be pushed to tell me about it – he’s endearingly modest. They all get excited telling me about school trips to Barmouth in north Wales and La Manche in Normandy. And when it comes to drama – they are unstoppable. With the wisdom of people looking back on their lives, they tell me that what they have appreciated most about their time at Westbrook Hay is how the school encourages them to feel good about themselves and how they have grown in confidence. I feel totally disarmed, and a tad envious.
Design technology (DT) and science are strong. The DT department is brilliant, complete with a 3D printer and – sharp intake of breath – disc sanders. I wouldn’t call them ‘power tools’, but the DT teacher believes in teaching the children to be responsible about health and safety so that they can do more and be more creative. The art department is impressive, and I admire the work of one boy, Marley, who has just won an art scholarship. Here you are, what do you think?
One thing that is big at Westbrook Hay, is that your children won’t be cooped up and longing to go outside. This is a school that lets the outdoors in and encourages the children to go out. As a result, I think they are more grounded; certainly that’s the impression I got from the children I spent time with. And the grounds are fantastic.
There’s a woodland area, with plenty of scope for hide-and-seek, with lots of camp building, outdoor cooking and tree climbing. Can you remember when tree climbing was part of childhood?
Strong. There’s a maximum of 20 in each class, with a two-form entry until Year 4 and then three forms in each year. Girls do the 11+ and entrance tests during Year 6 and boys stay on and do school entrance or common entrance exams in Year 8. Westbrook Hay is selective, unless you start in Reception. You can transfer from another school, when you’d be tested by evaluation rather than an exam. The school continues to have a 100% success rate with children getting into their first choice of senior school. From Year 5, subjects are taught by specialist teachers and there is some streaming based on maths, English and science. In 2017, 14 scholarships were won.
Keith Young has been at the helm since 1996 and he looks remarkably energised and sprightly after 21 years of service. ‘Working with children is the great elixir of youth’, he tells me as we enjoy the stunning views from his sitting room and office. He lives above the shop with his wife, who runs her own business, and he brought up his own family here; his children were at the school. When I ask him to define the brand personality of Westbrook Hay, he looks shocked at the marketing speak. But get this. He goes on to say: ‘We’re the custodians of childhood.’ That sounds snazzy, but then he gets down to what’s underneath it. ‘What are we doing to children?’ he asks. ‘Life has become terribly serious and full of regulations.’ His answer? To ban homework. Seriously? Yes, he says. ‘If I was Minister of Education, I would bin homework. Let’s get people playing sport, doing music, drama and art.’ And while he’s Minister, or Headmaster, of Westbrook Hay? ‘I’m going to float the notion that we make homework optional.’ The thing he is proudest of at the school is the breadth of the curriculum. As you would expect after 21 years of experience, he’s the go-to for the lowdown on senior schools.
I didn’t notice any particular quirks in this balanced, confident school. But there are some stand-out positives that I could mention. There’s a book club for parents that meets once a month. Tree climbing isn’t mandatory but it’s popular and encouraged. And rather than brand new school shoes being ruined in one playtime on the Rockery, all of the children keep a pair of trainers or outdoor shoes in a rack outside.
The Rockery is just beyond a more formal garden yet it’s the stuff of adventure. Not a quirk, but something worth noting, is that every child in Years 7 & 8 has a Chrome Book. From Year 5, lessons are divided by subject and taught by specialist teachers to prepare children for the endless movement in senior school.
Excellent. The school day runs from 8.15am – 4.25pm (with variations depending on age) but if you need to, it’s possible to drop your child off from 7.40am and pick up at 5.50pm. This could include the breakfast club (£3.85) to after-school club up to Year 2 (£5.85). For Years 3-8, after-school care is included in the fees.
The fees seem remarkably good value given all the extras. They include most of the after-school activities, lunch and day trips. Nursery (full-time): £2,890; Reception and Year 2: £3,375; Years 3 & 4: £4,210; Years 5-8: £4,860. Fees include after-school care for Years 3-8.
Word on the ground:
Those who know Westbrook Hay say that children grow in confidence here. The school looks for talent in the individual and nurtures it. One mum told me that she loves the fact that the children work hard in the classroom – no messing around! – but that this is balanced with lots of proper outdoorsy play. When she picks her boys up at the end of the day they are calm and more balanced; at their previous school they finished the school day with lots of pent up energy. She also likes the fact that certificates are not handed out ‘willy nilly’ and that it’s fine to be competitive: children appreciate it, and it means that there is real value when they are awarded a certificate or trophy. Children and parents all spoke of the ‘nurturing’ at the school and one boy who had also come from another school said that his confidence had soared and that it was absolutely fine to be different – in fact it was something to be celebrated.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: I think most children would thrive here. Yes, it’s an outdoorsy, sporty school, but the arts and everything else on offer are equally strong. The ethos is about finding things that you like doing and getting the most out of life, and who wouldn’t enjoy that?
Not for: I’m struggling to think of children or parents who wouldn’t love this school. I might have to get back to you on this one.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it, there’s an Open Morning on Sat 3 March, 9.30am – 12.30pm.
Westbrook Hay Prep School, London Road, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, HP1 2RF. 01442 256143.