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
I first visited Westbrook Hay in Feb 2019, but there have been a few changes since then, including the appointment of a new Headmaster and a brand new Lower School outdoor classroom, so naturally I went back to find out more. Read on to get the lowdown.
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 330 pupils (220 boys and 110 girls) with 16-18 in every class, and two main entry points: nursery or reception and then again in Years 4 and above. Children are class-taught up to Year 4 and from Year 5 onwards they are subject taught.
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. 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 (yep, it’s allowed 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 here, and a popular one, at that. This is something that certainly won’t be changing with the appointment of new 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!
The purpose-built teaching spaces include: the Middle School with spacious classroom, science and D&T laboratories (also used by Upper School); Lower School 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.
There is also a traditional library in the main school building, which is used by the whole school. It has its own librarian but the kids can have a go at being librarian duty too – a great way to encourage reluctant readers.
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!
The Lower School day runs from 8.30am – 3.30pm (with morning, afternoon or full day options for nursery), while Middle and Upper School start at 8.15am and finish between 3.45pm 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 and Friday afternoons there are activity sessions for Middle and Upper School, 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…
After 23 years at the helm, former Head Keith Young has retired, making way for new blood, the aptly named Mark Brain, who joins from Stonar School in Wiltshire where he was Head of Prep. I meet him only 17 days into his role and he’s itching to get stuck in. This past few weeks have been about getting to know the school from the inside out – a fact-finding mission, if you will. He’s been chatting to the parents (a relationship Mr Brain is very keen to develop), getting hands-on in lessons (he’s not one for hiding in his office all day), and meeting with the teachers.
But before any current parents reading this go into panic mode, there are no major changes in the pipeline at the moment. Of course Mr Brain is planing to make his mark and polish a few edges here and there, but think of it more as an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary one. I’m pretty sure he knows he’s landed a plum job here in this already well-oiled machine, where the teachers go the extra mile, the kids’ manners are second-to-none and the facilities are up there with some of the best I’ve seen.
Like Mr Young, 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. Last week he was out and about kicking a football around with the kids. He’s clearly found the way to their hearts already, and that’s evident in the beaming smiles and greetings he receives as we wander around the school (‘high five, Mr Brain!’) There’s no doubt that the warm and compassionate ethos I noted on my first visit will continue to be in safe hands under the new Headship, which is heartening to see.
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.
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 chidren do it!). All of the pupils, from nursery upwards have the opportunity to get involved in annual productions in the Performing Arts Centre (this year it’s The Lion King). 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.
Despite being a day school, Westbrook Hay follows a boarding school-style timetable, with the kids from Year 3 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.
Children join nursery in the term in which they turn three. There’s plenty of time for play alongside learning here. The big news for Lower School is the addition of the newly developed – and superb, I might add – outdoor 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).
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. Lower School 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.
Good wrap around provision here. Breakfast club is from 7.40am, and after school club until 5.50pm Mon – Thurs, and 5.30pm on Fridays. At the Lower School after school club includes a healthy tea and creative activities, but must be pre-booked, whether on a full-time or ad-hoc basis. Middle and Upper School pupils can take part in activities on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and Upper School pupils can also choose to stay behind for a supervised prep session.
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.
Average for the area. Full-time nursery fees are £2,990 per term (although parents can book just morning or afternoon sessions for £325 each); Reception to Year 2 costs £3,495; for Years 3 and 4, it’s £4,360; and for Years 5 – 8 it costs £5,030. 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 28 September, 9.30am – 12.30pm.
Westbrook Hay Prep School, London Road, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, HP1 2RF. 01442 256143.