West Hill Park School
A happy, romping countryside prep, where the carrot very much overrides the stick and the focus is on letting children develop in a kind, secure, environment.
**OPEN DAY AHOY! Sat 19 May*
West Hill Park School is a well-regarded day and boarding prep with a glowing ISI report. Set near the coast (hello beach school), it takes children from 2-13 with an average class size of 15 throughout the school — from Year 3, the maximum is twenty. There are 288 pupils on the roll with a roughly 55/45 boy:girl ratio. The school was established in the twenties and, as the former hunting lodge of the Earl of Southampton, the main building is grand-enough with huge Georgian windows and parquet flooring. The classroom blocks circling the house have that post war, pre-fab feel in common with many British prep schools and could do with an upgrade at some point; my impression is that investing in young, enthusiastic teaching staff and state-of-the-art equipment: 3D printers, iPads for all older children, that kind of thing, is the school’s priority. The grounds are well-kept and put to full use with forest school, den-building, tree-climbing, a riding school plus various sports pitches. The early years space is newer and more spacious so ideal for free-wheeling pre-schoolers.
Smiling children. Everywhere. Here little girls with wide grins giving each other piggy-backs, there an older boy picking up a paint bottle knocked over by this clumsy Muddy Ed with a big smile and reassurance not to worry; an instinctively kind gesture from one so young — politeness that comes from thinking about others, as opposed to worrying about what others think about you.
There is a flood-lit, astroturf hockey pitch, a covered swimming pool, nine hard tennis courts or four netball courts, three grass courts, affectionately known as Wimbledon, *draws breath* plus an athletics track, rugby, rounders and cricket pitches; the former popular with both sexes. Finally, the riding school, a big plus and something I don’t come across very often. Pupils bring their own ponies for livery on condition that the animals can be ridden by all West Hill Park children, there are plenty of opportunities for lessons and hacks throughout the week. Elsewhere, there’s a large indoor sports-hall including a smaller dance and gym studio. The Headmaster, Alastair Ramsay, is a former PE teacher and it shows. Sport is on the curriculum every day and, with facilities like these, pupils go on to compete at county and national level. Physical education goes beyond the sports pitch as well, helping older children with issues such as body-image by teaching them about the dangers of steroids and how to use weights safely.
ART, MUSIC, DRAMA & DT
What can I say? Strong again. I like that the creative departments stay open at lunchtimes and weekends, so pupils can continue projects in their own time. The music department is a tad on the small size, but there are still plenty of practice rooms (a very solid 80% of children learn an instrument), plus a dedicated teaching space with all the usual instruments – drums kits etc. – as well as a suite of Macs where pupils produce electronic music, some of it pretty impressive. One girl’s work, in particular, sounded uncannily similar to Lorde. Also take a squizz at the variety of music nights on offer; it says something about the energetic staff behind the department, don’t you think?
The same goes for art: the space isn’t huge, but teaching staff seem genuinely passionate, lots of fun but also focused on stretching children and encouraging them to try out as many mediums as possible.
On to drama. The 255-seat theatre has a good-sized sound and lighting rig. Posters of past plays suggest high production values and a cast acting its socks off. This summer Years 3 and 4 are performing the brilliant sounding Robin and The Sherwood Hoodie. Any tickets left for a smallish Muddy Ed?
Running out of space now, but I also need to mention the large DT room with its 3D printers and laser-cutters, where older pupils were confidently welding and forging their own projects when I popped by. Projects include everything from speakers that plug into an iPhone (yes really, they’re doing this aged 10) to dress-making: there is a separate room dedicated to textiles with state-of-the-art design software. The emphasis is on exposing pupils to as many creative forms as possible, so that they can all produce something which they are proud of.
The school is resolutely non-selective, instead prospective pupils have a taster day where teachers flag any potential issues. The ethos is very different from your hothouse-type London prep: carrot over stick every time. Classes are streamed according to ability from Year 5, though, to focus on Common Entrance and scholarships. This year, pupils gained places at a swathe of strong national and local independent schools including St Swithuns, Downe House, Harrow, Bedales, Dauntsey’s, King Edward VI Southampton and Portsmouth Grammar. Last year pupils achieved nine scholarships including two academic to Harrow and one to Downe House (out of interest, all three children were educated here from nursery all the way through to Year 8) as well as sport, music, drama and all round to Millfield, Dauntsey’s, Hampshire Collegiate School and more.
The focus is very much on finding the right school for the child. That said, if your child thrives in a super-pressurized environment, you might want to look elsewhere but, other than that, the school caters for pupils across the whole academic spectrum — judging by last year’s academic scholarships this includes the very bright.
Lessons I poked my head into seemed calm, with engaged, smiling pupils. The staff are young-spirited and enthusiastic; Miss Harvey, a Year 4 class teacher, was regularly besieged by adoring tweens as she showed me round. Science is particularly strong, and all subjects have dedicated teachers from Year 3.
There is also a designated Special Needs area and a new SENCO who can either help children one-to-one or support the teacher so that the child remains with her peers in the classroom. Occupational and pet therapy are also part of the school’s toolkit. I was impressed with Alastair Ramsay’s flexible attitude so, for example, instead of shoe-horning dyslexic children into a constant round of essay writing, he encourages them to express themselves in ways that feel more comfortable through film, possibly, or music.
Nursery and reception classes are in a light, airy, purpose-built space with indoor-outdoor flow. Although not a Montessori school per se, it is inspired by this teaching method with an emphasis on one-to-one activities designed to develop fine-motor skills and independence, so lots of pouring, threading plus a purpose built kitchen where, oh joy of joys, little-ones learn to load a dishwasher. Outside there’s an adorable row of Wendy Houses for role-play, including a space for quiet reading plus a garden and a willow-dome shelter which has recently replaced plastic tarp as part of the school’s drive to cut-back on plastic. Early years pupils access all the main school’s facilities including the music rooms, sports pitches and the indoor pool.
Alastair Ramsay has been in the role for nine years, and was previously Headmaster at The Downs, Malvern College’s Prep School. His West Hill Park School roots run deep having grown up in the village and taught PE and Geography here at the start of his career before becoming the boarding House Master and then Deputy Head. He lives on-site with wife Karen, the school’s registrar.
I was impressed by his thoughtful, intelligent and kind approach to education. He’s all about nurturing happy, confident kids who compare themselves to their previous piece of work or performance on the pitch, as opposed to always competing with their peers. Since arriving, he’s most proud of the school’s shift to a more open-minded, flexible approach to education, really considering what is best for the children and breaking down barriers between staff and pupils hence the school council and switching Saturday morning academic lessons to adventure sessions including everything from fishing and forest school to crafting, karate and stable management.
Pupils board from ages seven upwards. Girls and boys are together until bed-time, then both have a separate wing in the same house. Full, weekly and flexi-boarding are all options (hello Friday date-night). OK, you won’t be checking your wee darling into a 5* hotel, but I liked how comfy the common room is, with a fire to make things feel cosy and big sofas plus a smaller separate room for quieter reading, crafting and general head-space.
As a former boarder, I can vouch for the fact that the common room is more important than the dorms – especially for full boarders at weekends. There’s also a large matron’s room which feels like mum’s kitchen (forgive the gender stereotype, but let’s be honest…), boarders are openly welcomed in here for chats and phone-charging.
The dorms themselves are more akin to my daughter’s tidy-scruffy bedrooms, i.e. like home. Hospital corners and ‘ironing’ your duvet with a coat-hanger are well and truly out. Yes, really I had to do that AND I know, I know — at least I boarded in the age of the duvet. *waves at my lovely older wiser ex-boarding school readers*
Teachers only help out at the boarding house if they want to and, judging by the staff portraits in the boarding house, they are mostly young and enthusiastic hosting all manner of high jinks including Friday evening BBQ’s come summer. Alastair Ramsay is a former House Master and understands that the devil is in the detail when it comes to home-comforts. He pointed out the slightly threadbare carpets that will be replaced soon with a deeper pile and the shower rooms will also be upgraded soon.
Like the classrooms, the canteen is your standard, unreconstructed, buffet-style school dining-room. There’s lots of choice: 2/3 hot meals, and/or cold salad, jacket potatoes and soup so very different from the ‘eat what you’re given’ approach of old. I was lucky enough to try the vegetarian option, a very tasty aubergine and cheese dish. If P’s & Q’s are a big deal for you though, bear in mind that as it is a buffet, teachers aren’t at the head of the table, dishing up food and watching table manners. That said, I was struck by the overall good manners of the children throughout the school: smiling, looking me in the eye, and always holding the door open.
In Alastair’s own words, West Hill Park is as traditional and new as it wants to be; a school that dances to its own tune then. Quirks include the honours boards. I was taken a-back in the dining room, the walls are literally plastered with wooden boards listing hundreds, possibly thousands of names. Surely the school hasn’t been around long enough for this many Head pupils and Prefects? Well no. It’s simply that since the school’s inception, every pupil has had their name engraved on arrival. So, you get the picture, the ethos that every pupil counts is literally embedded in the school’s culture. Elsewhere, there are yurts in the woods for sleep-outs, plus firepits and story-circles. On summer evenings boarders play ‘Spotlight and Camo’: a super-fun sounding game where a house-parent stands on the roof with a spotlight, yes really, and attempts to shine a light on children hiding in the woods.
WRAP AROUND CARE
The core school-day goes from 8am to 4.20pm, but pupils can potentially stay from 7.45am until 5.45pm. Breakfast club is available from 7.45am onwards then late-stay provision with optional after-school clubs for nursery up to Year 2. From Year 3 onwards there is optional tea and supervised prep until 5.45pm.
This is a happy, romping kind of school, where the focus is on letting children develop in a kind, secure, environment as opposed to impressing their parents and the outer world with a wow-wee shining veneer. Enid Blyton would thoroughly approve.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a free-roaming, friendly school deep in the countryside (London parents take note) where academics are strong but so is pastoral care. Also dads who were put-off prep-school for life: this is a gentler version of your alma mater, with the good bits kept-in — sport, self-reliance, fun with your friends — and the bad bits… well, you get the picture.
Bad for: Those after an intense academic crammer or somewhere super-punchy with gleaming facilities and showy grounds. Also families who want the weekends to themselves, like many Hampshire preps, Saturday school forms part of the statutory hours.
Fees: Pretty reasonable for this area, I’d say. £3,600 per term for Reception, Years 1 & 2, rolling up to £6,100 for years 7 & 8. Boarding is an extra £1,450 per term or £45 per night for occasional stays.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Westhill Park’s next open day is on Sat 19 May. You can sign-up here or contact registrar, Mrs Karen Ramsay, at firstname.lastname@example.org / 01329 842356.
West Hill Park School, St Margaret’s Lane, Titchfield, Fareham, Hants, PO14 4BS. westhillpark.com
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