Durlston Court Preparatory School, Barton on Sea
This small co-ed prep school near the Dorset border has a real family feel, excellent academic results and community-minded 'can-do' outlook.
Durlston Court Preparatory School is a non-selective, co-ed, day school for children aged between 2 -13. Located in the village of Barton on Sea, just on the Hampshire border with Dorset, the school is set over 16 acres and located extremely close to the coast.
The school started life over the border in Swanage, Dorset, back in 1903 before moving to its current site in Hampshire in 1945. Durlston Court retains a traditional Christian ethos, though it’s important to note that religion is not a prerequisite for entry and children of all faiths or no faith are welcome.
Centered around the main school building, there’s a real mix of old and new within the grounds and with class sizes that usually max out at around 18, its 250 strong cohort feels akin to a very big family.
Although the Pre-Prep, middle school and senior are technically separate from each other, there’s a really strong sense of flow and cohesion between all sections of the school. It’s something that’s actively promoted by the creative teaching team, especially in areas like all-school art exhibitions and on the sports field, where older pupils happily lend a hand to mentor their younger counterparts.
Plenty of great facilities were added to the expanded campus in 2016. The Design and Technology Centre is fully equipped with 3D printers and a laser cutter. The ceramics studio includes both manual and electric potters wheels for budding creatives. Pupils have also benefitted from new tennis and netball hard courts. For the keenest, there are tennis and cricket academies that operates daily. Durlston Court even offer parent sessions in tennis, too!
Also in sports, there is a heated outdoor swimming pool, along with all-weather floodlit astroturf for hockey, football and tennis, large playing fields and an on-site sports hall. The school has also had quite a bit of success with its sailing squads, no surprises there with its proximity to the coast. Previously, the U11 Sailing Team won the National IAPS Competition, and the U11 and U13 crews won the Independent Schools Inland Sailing competitions. Most recently, the Millfield Regatta, so any boaty kids will have plenty of good company at the school.
Kids also get the opportunity to use ‘The Den’, Durlston’s Forest School setting, a Galley Kitchen for cookery activities, the library and a purpose-built science lab (available to students from Year 5 onwards). The fact the coast is just half a mile means that it’s ideally located for beach-related activities and mini field trips.
Any child with a love for music would be very happy with the facilities here. There is a purpose-built Music School, complete with a large space acoustically geared up for performances, 10 separate practice rooms and 13 pianos (two of which are grand) for plenty of undisturbed practicing.
In fact, all the children learn to play at least one instrument during their time at Durlston, with 75% having additional private tuition as well. There is also a range of musical ensembles for all musical talents and tastes at the school, including several choirs such as the Durlston Chamber Choir, plus the Orchestra, Jazz Band and even a Recorder Ensemble.
During the pandemic, creative teaching has been more important than ever in enabling children to shine – and the wider school community to come together safely. Channeling the Durlston ‘can do’ spirit, Middle School pupils busked with their ukuleles in front of parents and the public on the sea front. This was just one example of how the music department, like the rest of the school, really rose to the unprecedented challenge.
For Drama, the school has two core productions a year with the Middle School and Senior School performances, each also putting as much effort into sets, sound and lighting as the acting itself.
For the other year groups, there’s an eagerly-anticipated Year 7 Panto as well as a special Pre-Prep traditional Christmas Nativity performance and Dance Shows for all pupils in the Spring. Pre-Prep’s dedicated hall space also allows for regular drama assemblies and the chance for everyone to perform from a young age.
The school has a lot to shout about when it comes to its academics, particularly as a non-selective. It has regularly been ranked as the number one school in Hampshire and Dorset in The Sunday Times ‘Top 100 Prep Schools List’ for 2018 and 2019.
There’s also been a lot of success with scholarships – across the board academically, but also in sports, music, drama, dance, art and all-round scholarships. The roll call of secondary schools includes Canford, King Edward’s, St Swithun’s, Bryanston, Winchester College, Embley, Bedford School, Lord Wandsworth College – so success is an understatement. The school also has a record of 100% pass rate in Common Entrance Examinations.
Having joined the school as Head back in 2015, Richard May previously held the role of Deputy Head at Red House School up in County Durham. On meeting him it’s easy to see he is fully and completely immersed in school life. Working very closely with the senior leadership team throughout the whole school, he is also extremely hands-on when it comes to interacting with the student body as a whole.
Forward-looking with a nod to a the significant heritage here, he’s keen to emphasise the school’s original motto – ‘Erectus non Elatus’ (Proud but not Boastful) – is still very much a part of daily school life. The Durlston way is all about being a confident all-rounder and although academic achievement is certainly encouraged here, there’s a feeling it’s not the be-all and end-all of everything. Pupils are encouraged to strive to be the best they can be, while retaining a sense of politeness and warmth to others.
The most recent detailed ISI report is the EQI from May 2017. Reflecting the school’s ‘let’s make it happen’ attitude (a whole-school teaching philosophy, supported by parental body), it confirms: “Pupils display a consistently exemplary attitude to learning and they are prepared to take initiative.”
Let’s start with the uniform. The blazer hasn’t changed in all of the 116 years of the school’s history and is incredibly striking with its light grey and white design, adorned with the Imperial Roman Eagle. The colours are said to represent the grey and white for the cliffs and sea from the original location near the Purbeck coast, and the kids look really smart wearing it. Also, bonus, because it hasn’t changed it makes it a lot easier for those sibling hand-me-downs!
From Year 3, all children have weekly “Headmaster lessons” which cover life-skills you wouldn’t necessarily see on any regular curriculum. These involve everything from learning how to give a proper handshake – though that has been put on hold for the moment – to how to change a car tyre and add a little bit of something ‘extra’ to weekly school life. The Head is also actively involved with Pre-Prep and chats with children in every classroom on his ‘Wednesday Walkabout’.
In Year 4, pupils are encouraged to affect change through persuasive writing. They recently scored a ‘victory’ by lobbying the Head and convincing him the Middle School Garden needed some TLC. It had the desired result and they were given the green light to make the changes (and, importantly, discovered how their own words could achieve real results). Well played all round, Durlston Court.
Each year the school hosts a whole-school art exhibition and features works from Kindergarten right through to Year 8. Art is a cornerstone subject here. Ceramics, in particular, is so popular that a number of the kids have even got their own potters’ wheel at home.
The extra-curricular activities are also very quirky in their disciplines with over 40 to choose from including rowing, modern calligraphy, puppet-making and construction.
Little people can start at Durlston from as young as 2 in the dedicated Kindergarten. The Kindergarten area is bright and airy, with crafts and plenty of messy fun to be had. It also has it’s own outside space for burning off all that energy pre-schoolers have in droves.
Pre-prep lessons show the same creative, positive and inclusive flair found throughout the school. Like dancing the Charleston at a 1920s afternoon tea dance – or catching tadpoles at different stages of development in the school pond.
Also pretty special, Durlston’s own version of the TV experiment ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’ created a real bond between reception children and residents of the local care home, who they enthusiastically shared games, songs and stories with. When restrictions allow, Durlston Court teachers and pupils are looking forward to re-engaging with their friends.
There’s an enormous amount of flexibility at Durlston Court for littlies and their families. While the standard day finishes at 3:15 pm, there is wraparound care right up until 5:30 pm so there’s no need for multiple trips to pick up siblings who are doing extra-curricular activities. For those needing an early start, there’s a free of charge Morning Club daily from 7.45am.
Strong. As well as dedicated pastoral staff, which includes two fully qualified ELSAs (Emotional Literacy Support Assistants), one of whom is also a FEIPS practioner (Framework of Enhanced Individual Pastoral Support). All staff have a good knowledge and experience in supporting pupils.
The school also recognises health and wellbeing’s role in mental health and the school operates a Meat-Free Monday with continuing work to develop a strong healthy eating policy. Yoga is also an increasing part of the curriculum, from Pre-Prep onwards.
Pretty good value for the area. Fees start at £2,800 in Reception, going up to £3,185 for Y1 and Y2, Year 3 is £4,765 per term and Years 4-8 top out at £5,935 per term. For the small ones, Kindergarten is £59.40 for a full day session including lunch.
WORD ON THE GROUND
With a strong academic record and close family feel, it’s quite the badge of honour to get your kids in here. Speaking to parents, they often exclaim how much they love the school. Many of the parents are old Durlstonians themselves.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a small, nurturing close environment with plenty of excellent pastoral care on tap. Following a time of enforced bubbles, it’s great to see Durlston proactively broadening horizons and extending the school community well beyond the school gates, from grandparents, local schools, care homes and charities all the way to Durlston’s partnership school in Uganda.
Not for: Those who have purely academic ambitions for their kids. While the academic results are highly impressive, the school’s entire ethos is underpinned by a much more all-round approach to learning
Durlston Court, Becton Lane, Barton on Sea, New Milton, BH25 7AQ. Tel: 01425 610 010