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Westbrook Hay Prep School, Hemel Hempstead

Muddy says: This co-ed day prep school has an outdoorsy culture, offers an all-round education and puts children’s happiness and wellbeing first

There have been quite a few changes since my last visit in 2019, including an amazing new adventure play area, a brand new centre for emotional and learning support, some whizzy new classrooms and a renewed focus on sustainability. Naturally I went back to find out more. Read on to get the lowdown.

WHAT? WHERE?

Westbrook Hay School
The back view of the school and gardens

This co-ed day prep school for children aged 3-13 couldn’t have a more prime location. Westbrook Hay sits proudly on top of a hill overlooking acres of Boxmoor Trust land. The private drive – a narrow hedge-flanked country road – sweeps through fields and farmland, up to the imposing school house.

Step inside and it feels instantly welcoming, as if you’re in a friend’s (rather grand) front room – unsurprisingly, it was once a private home – complete with roaring fire, well-loved Chesterfields and even a fish tank. There are 350 pupils (220 boys and 130 girls) with 16-18 in every class, and two main entry points: nursery or reception and then again in Year 4 and Year 7. Children are class-taught up to Year 4 and from Year 5 onwards they are subject taught.

FACILITIES

The front view of the school with the sprawling grounds

The 26-acre grounds have all the usual suspects – football, rugby, cricket and athletics pitches – as well as a six-hole golf course, outdoor pool and netball courts. Incidentally, the slightly overgrown and tired old tennis court is being made over into a new scooting hard play area, and the nearby Peter Rabbit Garden is having an overhaul with the old greenhouses being knocked down in favour of more child friendly polytunnels which the gardening club can make use of. The first potato crop was actually cooked up for school dinner just before my visit!

The grounds are so big in fact that I was given the tour by golf buggy! But it’s not all an over-groomed expanse. Take the ‘playground’ for example. Far from a tarmacked square, it’s a rugged green space (known as the inner garden) enclosed by woodland, where the kids spend break times climbing trees (which is not only allowed, but encouraged here!) and creating make-believe stories in the rockery.

You only have to look at the piles of muddy boots and trainers stacked up in the outdoor racks to understand that being outdoors is a major part of school life, and a popular one, at that. This is something that’s more than encouraged by Headmaster, Mark Brain, who comes from the ‘work hard, play hard’ school of thought and is a huge advocate of letting kids really experience childhood as it’s meant to be, with plenty of freedom and fun. ‘Dirty’ definitely isn’t a dirty word here! That being said, some new, in-keeping perimeter fencing has been installed around the school boundary to ensure noone takes the freedom mantra tooo literally.

One of the major recent additions is a rather impressive adventure play area – a huge wooden climbing frame with treehouses, playhouses, and teepees for those who prefer quiet imaginative play, and climbing walls, tunnels and rope bridges for more physical activity.

Westbrook Hay adventure play area

And, talking of the great outdoors, you might also spot the odd bell tent dotted around the grounds – this is part of the new Westbrook Adventure programme. It’s a progressive development scheme to help pupils grow in confidence before staying away from home on longer residential trips. They’re eased in gently in Year 3 with a night under canvas on the familiar school grounds (campfires and marshmallow toasting obligatory, of course!), before moving additional trips to an off-site bushcraft camp in Year 5 and then French trips in Year 6. The aim is that by Years 7 and 8 they’ll be brimming with confidence, ready to embark on an exciting overseas trip to the glaciers in Iceland or take part in a Spanish exchange.

Westbrook Hay camping

In the mansion (the original school building) there are four newly refurbished classrooms – it’s amazing what a lick of paint, some new furniture and tech updates can do – which are light, airy and fresh. The kids are big fans too.

Plus Years 7 and 8 now have their own common rooms, where they’re given special privileges – a step towards prepping them for Senior School where they’ll have more independence and responsibility.

The purpose-built teaching spaces include: the Gadebridge Building with spacious classroom, science and D&T laboratories (used by all year groups); Pre-Prep Building with modern art studio and pottery kiln (used by all pupils); sports hall for gymnastics, basketball, netball, badminton and 5-a-side football; and a twin-roomed IT suite.

The £3 million Performing Arts Centre is the pièce de résistance though. A major addition in 2016, it houses a 300-seat auditorium, music practice rooms, a dance studio and lots of whizzy tech stuff!

Finally, what was the old library is now a chic lounge area for staff to use (no work allowed!) and hospitality for parent meetings and events.

WHAT ELSE?

The Pre-Prep day runs from 8.30am – 3.30pm (with morning, afternoon or full day options for nursery), while Prep starts at 8.15am and finish between 4.00pm and 4.25pm, age depending. Most pupils live within 20 minutes of the school and there are three minibuses, which cover St Albans, Watford, Harpenden, Berkhamsted and the local villages, as well as ferrying kids to and from Hemel Hempstead train station.

It genuinely feels like the children have fun here. I walk into a science lesson at the prime moment to exclamations of ‘Wow, cool!’ as a beaker of green liquid starts fizzing over with pink froth. In the sports hall, I watch a group of Year 4s performing self-choreographed routines on the rope swings and climbing apparatus to the theme of Mission Impossible. I like the way the teachers bring their lessons to life, and it’s clear that the kids are soaking it up, too.

On Thursday afternoons there are activity sessions for Years 5 and 6, which gives the kids an opportunity to try new things, ranging from photography or rifle shooting to skiing and stage make-up. Head of Science, Mrs Harris runs pet club, for example, where the kids can get up close and personal with the school’s resident creatures and learn how to look after them. Incidentally, she also runs science workshops every other Wednesday (for those unable to take part in sport that week). A recent one involved mapping out the solar system in the snow on the school cricket pitch – the impulse to pick up and throw a new planet at a stationery human in the galaxy must have been huge

Since Mr Brain’s appointment, a bigger emphasis has been put on pupil support and there’s now a brand new dedicated area for them to go for that. The Willow Centre offers a quiet area for children to go at breaktimes if they just need some calm time to read or think.

Westbrook Hay

There’s a sofa area with a phone that directly connects to one of the two newly appointed ELSA (Emotional Literacy Support Assistant) trained staff, who can offer a supportive ear for those who are struggling with personal issues, such as bereavement, or the effects of lockdown. There’s a cosy room with beanbags and books where the kids can take a moment chill away from the freneticism of school life. And you’ll find a classroom where class splinter groups can go for a little extra learning support – there’s a full time SENCO and a qualified counsellor who comes in once a week too.

Another area of renewed focus for the school is sustainability. Westbrook Hay now holds a Silver Award and is well on its way to a Green Flag Award. There are dedicated sustainability staff members who meet regularly, new electric car charging points which parents can use free of charge, a newly planted orchard and a green travel plan which includes a walking bus. What’s that you ask? Parents can drop their children off at the local golf club and school staff will walk them across the fields to school (while their bags are transported by golf buggy!) As well as being healthier for the kids, it reduces traffic on the school driveway, as well as fumes from idling. There’s also a new shuttle bus that runs from Bourne End and the school coordinates a lift sharing scheme.

What’s on the menu today?

Oh and they’ve got new caterers too, with the new Pre-Prep dining room being re-named The Rose Garden – sweet! Plus there’s a new outdoor seating area for dining and play time.

HEADTEACHER

Mark Brain joined two years ago from Stonar School in Wiltshire where he was Head of Prep. I first met him only 17 days into his role and he was itching to get stuck in. The initial few weeks were about getting to know the school from the inside out – a fact-finding mission, if you will. He chatted to the parents (a relationship Mr Brain is always keen to develop), got hands-on in lessons (he’s not one for hiding in his office all day), and met with the teachers.

Mr Brain has a sporting background, having also been Director of Sport at Foremarke School in Derbyshire. Perhaps that’s why he’s so passionate about kids having a really broad experience of outdoor activities. And he isn’t afraid to get his hands (or boots) dirty – it’s not unusual to see him kicking a football around with the kids. It all feeds into the warm and compassionate ethos of the school – you only have to look at the beaming smiles and greetings he receives as we wander around the school (‘high five, Mr Brain!’) He’s certainly running a well-oiled machine here, where the kids’ manners are second-to-none, the teachers go the extra mile and the already fantastic facilities and offerings are continually being assessed for potential improvement – there’s no sitting on laurels here!

ACADEMIC RESULTS

Academia isn’t the be all and end all at Westbrook Hay. The ethos is more about providing a good all-round education, which is what sets it apart from highly selective schools.

That said, there’s an impressive track record across the whole range of scholarships, including academic, into the cream of local secondary schools like Merchant Taylors, St Albans, The Royal Masonic and Berkhamsted, as well as tip top boarding schools including Harrow, Bedford, Queenswood and Rugby. The success rate of children being offered their choice of senior school, (girls at 11 and boys at 13), is 100%, plus the ISI report rated the school excellent and early years provision as outstanding.

The school has also recently joined the Pre-Senior Baccalaureate with the aim to encourage retention of pupils into Year 7 (particularly girls, given that it’s harder to gain places in Year 9 at local girls’ Senior schools) – Mr Brain is passionate about the benefits of staying on at Prep for an additional two years and believes it gives children more opportunity to play and explore before knuckling down at Senior school. Can’t argue with that! There are are also now scholarships available into Years 7 and 8, which will undoubtedly pull in those looking to move on to specialist drama or sports-focused seniors.

AND it’s only one of three schools in the country to offer a kids’ MBA – yep an actual certified business qualification for completing a 16-week course.

PERFORMING ARTS

The big news on this front is the appointment of a new full time Performing Arts teacher. LAMDA is popular here with 150 pupils choosing to take part, and while the school is more often associated with its sporting prowess, Mr Brain firmly believes that there’s no reason it shouldn’t perform as highly in the arts too – the enthusiasm is certainly there! So, watch this space…

Kids are encouraged to tread the boards from nursery age here, be that in assemblies or dance displays. On that note, all pupils up to Year 2 take part in dance lessons. After that it can be chosen as an additional activity. Options include ballet, jazz and modern, with street dance coming up trumps with the boys apparently, (thanks, Diversity!)

Every child from Year 1 learns to play an instrument in their music lessons, with 150 children going on to have individual music lessons from Year 2 and upwards. LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) verse, prose and acting is offered as an additional activity to Years 1 – 8, which is really popular (as in one third of the children do it!).  All of the pupils, from nursery upwards have the opportunity to get involved in annual productions in the Performing Arts Centre. Even those who might not be natural performers can try their hand at things like lighting and set design thanks to the snazzy high-tech facilities.

SPORT

Despite being a day school, Westbrook Hay follows a boarding school-style timetable, with the kids from Year 5 and up playing sport four times a week and an activity of their choice on the fifth day. Boys play football and cricket and rugby, and for girls it’s football, cricket and netball. Basketball features strongly too. The U13 football team recently beat 80 other prep schools to claim the trophy in the national IAPS tournament. Year 3 and up also have the chance to swim, and the school grounds have been mapped out for orienteering purposes and cross country, so there’s plenty of active stuff to get stuck into.

PRE-PREP

Children join nursery in the term in which they turn three. There’s plenty of time for play alongside learning here. For Pre-Prep there’s a superb outdoor learning and play area…

It’s designed to be an extension of the classrooms to encourage freeflow learning, with every area having an educational element. Not that the children know that, of course. They are having a whale of a time figuring out how to level off the weighing scales in the sandpit, ‘driving’ their cars around the race track and selling toys in the role play shop (that’s £7,000 for a squirty toy to you, Mr Brain – bargain!) There’s also a water play area, with a handpump and bridges, a fairy garden and a fab climbing frame. I’d love to have seen the faces of the returning children when the transformation was revealed after the summer holidays, and I’m not surprised to hear that the older kids are desperate to get in there too.

In a Year 1 classroom, the kids tell me about a project they’ve been working on, which involves filling a bucket with things like pipe cleaners for good behaviour (and dipping into buckets for bad behaviour). They’re totally invested in this idea which is all tied into positive mental wellbeing – it’s lovely to see.

It’s the first time I’ve been asked to bring wellies on a school tour, so I’m not quite sure what to expect, but after seeing the forest school set-up it all makes sense – getting muddy may as well be written into the curriculum here. Nursery make use of the dedicated patch of woodland at least twice a week, and reception and Year 1 at least once a week. The children are making bird feeders, digging up worms with their hands (no time for being squeamish!) and building dens, then at the end of the session they all take a seat around the camp fire, drink hot chocolate and toast marshmallows (under supervision, natch).

QUIRKS

Here’s some topical trivia for you… Augustus Orlebar, who founded the school in 1892, was the son of the boy that Tom Brown (of Tom Brown’s School Days) was based on. Bet you didn’t know that!

But back to the present… One way the school makes the most of its outdoor space is with a long (45 minute) mid-morning break, and by not limiting outdoor time to the timetable. Pre-Prep classes go for walks in the grounds, or check out what’s happening in the pond with the underwater cameras. Basically, any learning that can be done outdoors is, and this means that kids can ask questions about nature or the seasons in context, rather than looking it up on a computer.

WRAPAROUND CARE

The wraparound provision here, (now known as Westbrook +), is good. Breakfast club is from 7.30am, and after school club until 6pm Mon – Fri. In Pre-Prep, after school club includes a healthy tea and creative activities, but must be pre-booked, whether on a full-time or ad-hoc basis. Prep School pupils can take part in activities on Monday to Friday evenings and can also choose to stay behind for a supervised prep session. Some new after-school clubs have been added to the offering too (which already featured everything from sports and music to crafts and cookery), including fencing and Taekwondo.

WORD ON THE GROUND

You can always rely on kids to be brutally honest, right? All I can say is that the Westbrook Hay pupils charmed my socks off, but not in that well-drilled, children-should-only-speak-when-spoken-to way. They are confident, brimming with energy and clearly very comfortable in their surroundings.

There’s a lot to like about this school and I’d be surprised to find many parents who thought otherwise.

FEES

Average for the area. Full-time nursery fees are £3,270 per term (although parents can book just morning or afternoon sessions for £357 each); Reception to Year 2 costs £3,818; for Years 3 and 4, it’s £4,760; and for Years 5 – 8 it costs £5,495. This includes books, lunches, most after school and Thursday activities, as well as after school care from Year 3 upwards and non-residential trips.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Parents who like the idea of flexible and adaptable learning environment, which allows kids to be kids; and children who aren’t afraid of getting muddy or getting a few bumps and scrapes along the way.

Not for: Parents looking for a very traditional school with a rigidly academic culture, or who want their child to be wrapped in cotton wool.

Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it, there’s an Open Morning on Sat 2 October.

Westbrook Hay Prep School, London Road, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, HP1 2RF.  01442 256143.

7 comments on “Westbrook Hay Prep School, Hemel Hempstead”

  • Julie Francis September 25, 2021

    A brilliant school! We have two at Westbrook Hay, and will be devastated when they leave. Would highly recommend to any parents looking for a happy and very well run school.

    Reply
  • A.Lopes September 28, 2019

    Sounds super. What is the provision for MFL?

    Reply
    • katrina@muddystilettos.co.uk October 1, 2019

      Yes, it’s a lovely school! I’m sure if you called the school directly they would be happy to talk this through with you 🙂

      Reply
  • Jacqueline Davison February 22, 2019

    We have had the pleasure of teaching at this school and helped develop its Special Needs unit. Our 11 years there between 1996 and 2007 were so fulfilling, knowing that the children were being given the best opportunities to achieve their potentials.
    We are sorry to hear that Keith Young is retiring at the end of this academic year (too young to retire) but we wish him all happiness in Spain.
    He should have come to Greece.
    If the ethos of the school is maintained by the new head then the children will continue to flourish at Westbrook Hay.
    Regards Jackie and Mick Davison

    Reply
    • Katrina March 5, 2019

      Lovely to hear from you Jackie and Mick. I was very impressed with the school when I visited and the kids seemed so happy and fulfilled there. It will be interesting to see what the new headship brings.

      Reply
  • Chris Burgess February 21, 2019

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. I was a student at Westbrook Hay 1990-1998 and I remember everything as if it was like yesterday. Westbrook Hay feels like home, I’m always amazed at every old boys event the long lasting teachers still remember you after 20+ years.

    If you have the opportunity to send your child to this school then it’s a must, you won’t be disappointed and your child will experience friendship and knowledge that will last for ever. My home away from home!

    Reply
    • Katrina February 21, 2019

      How lovely to hear from you Chris. Thanks for sharing your memories and I’m pleased that the review reflected the school as you remember it.

      Reply

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