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Good Schools Guide Review: Junior School

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Headmaster of the junior school

Since 2014, Matthew Robinson (40s), previously deputy head. BA from Plymouth, MA from Surrey, QTS from Institute of Education, MEd from Buckingham. Has also taught (English, Latin and humanities) at Cranleigh Prep, King's College Wimbledon and, mostly recently, at Junior King's School Canterbury. Amiable and approachable, but not a man to let grass grow under his feet: has been boarding tutor and coached football, rugby, hockey, cricket and golf as well as directing various school plays and editing school magazines. Married to Victoria, also a teacher; they have four children while also finding time to go to the theatre, walk, play golf and squash and listen to music. Highly rated by parents, who called him ‘an excellent leader, very open to feedback and discussion but making his own views clear.’

Entrance

Sixty places available at 7+, and a further 20 at 11+, making up a school of 400 pupils. Places occasionally available in other years if families have to relocate – always worth checking. Maximum class size of 20, and gender balance is even across the school.

Selective and competitive at all stages. Children sit tests in maths, English and non-verbal reasoning. Results are considered together with feeder school report, and all applicants are interviewed regardless of how they scored. Always oversubscribed, particularly at 11+ when at least six pupils apply for every place. However, parents confirm that whilst their children work hard to win their way in, once they’re there the atmosphere is unpressured.

No pre-prep and no plans for one. The school is proud of its all-through route for academically able pupils, and has no wish to jeopardise this by taking younger children who are necessarily more of an unknown quantity.

Exit

Virtually everyone moves up to the City of London Freemen’s senior school. No entrance tests are required of the junior pupils, and the transition is seamless and well-managed. ‘Once you’re in, you’re in,’ confirmed the head. ‘The children arrive at 7 and our expectation is that 10 years later they’ll still be here.’ The same is equally true for children who joined the junior school at a later date.

Our view

The all-through route right up to year 13 takes the heat off the juniors once they arrive and ensures a calm, unpressurised atmosphere throughout. (We were touched to see a photo display of the children’s recent holiday homework: to climb a tree!) Lessons are sound and solid, and children are motivated and engaged. ‘The junior school is very welcoming and the emphasis is on trying hard, enjoying learning and experiencing new things,’ wrote a mother. ‘The school has a talent for making potentially challenging things seem very normal.’ Another observed, ‘Freemen's primary school children can enjoy life like real children. I think it is a very healthy environment.’ ‘The academic standards are high, yet there is a lot less stress and pressure compared to what I hear of other prep schools,’ was another comment. Just occasionally, the atmosphere struck us as a little too comfortable, and it may be no coincidence that one member of staff observed to us in passing, ‘The pupils are so bright and motivated that the academics almost look after themselves.’

A smattering of students with mild SEN are supported by a team of four SEN teachers across the junior and senior school. Support is ‘done quite subtly’ – at breakfast and lunchtime clubs, for instance – and students with dyslexia will do one foreign language rather than two. However, this isn’t the place for more than a low level of need, and parents should check that the school is able to support their child.

Housed in the purpose-built Kemp House, the junior classrooms look out onto the foyer space, attractively furnished with armchairs and scatter cushions. Very inviting library at the heart of the school, well-resourced and colourful – we liked the Shakespeare display in particular. Excellent IT room, cool and spacious – again, lots of good work on the walls. Junior school boasts its own science lab, art room, music practice rooms and assembly hall, and also has access to some of the senior school’s teaching facilities and fabulous outdoor spaces – rolling greenery as far as the eye can see. Additionally, there is a lovely adventure playground exclusively for the juniors. As the head remarked, ‘We have the strength of a junior school and the resources of a senior school.' All the parents who contacted us praised the activities on offer, calling them ‘fantastic’, ‘outstanding’ and ‘superb’. Sport is taken very seriously, but the emphasis is on participation and enjoyment. ‘Probably not as competitive as some schools, but my children get to do more sport as a result,’ thought the mother of two not-very-sporty children, although another parent felt that there was too much emphasis on participation at the expense of results. Boys do football, rugby and cricket, the girls do hockey, netball and rounders, and everyone does swimming – new six-lane pool. Other sports on offer include fencing, athletics, running and tennis.

Drama is seen by many as one of the highlights of the school - Romeo and Juliet was a year 8 production - and the school enjoys regular success at the Shakespeare For Schools Festival, with everyone encouraged to get involved. Music is also popular, with a variety of orchestras, bands, ensembles and choirs (plenty of boys in the latter, always a healthy sign), and regular concert opportunities, but again the emphasis is on inclusion. ‘If children are complete beginners, the staff will write the music part for the notes they know so that they immediately enjoy playing in a group,’ wrote one mother.

Broad enrichment programme gives children the chance to try all sorts of things they might not normally sample eg mountain biking, Bollywood dancing, martial arts, photography. Younger children recently spent a term learning sign language, rounded off by using their skills to converse with a hearing-impaired visitor to the school.

Rules are clear, children know what’s expected of them, and the absence of undue academic pressure seems to result in a happy and relaxed school community. Parents say that staff are very open to discussion if they have concerns or questions, and that any incidents are handled with discretion, sensitivity and kindness. Nonetheless, there is a strong and unapologetic emphasis on independent study and organisational skills, with all pupils expected to think for themselves. If your child requires a high level of nurture and shepherding, therefore, this school may not be the best fit. The parents we spoke to, however, were well satisfied with the confident and capable individuals their children were learning to be. As one parent put it, ‘The school trains children to study on their own gradually. By the time my daughter was in Y7, she was very organised and now does what she needs to do independently.’ 

This is classic commuter country, and Freemen’s families are mostly professional, but from a range of backgrounds nonetheless; some affluent, some making large sacrifices to pay the fees. Parents' Association is proactive and supportive of the school. Pupils predominantly from surrounding Surrey towns of Ashtead, Epsom, Banstead, Leatherhead, Esher and Cobham, and school offers a return coach service to these areas and more. Shuttle bus to and from Ashtead station also a great help, particularly to those travelling from further afield. The junior students we met were able, cheerful, polite and grounded. Very little ethnic diversity, reflecting the area’s demographic, but all the children we saw were mixing happily together regardless of difference.

‘We are delighted with the school and both our children actively look forward to going back after the holidays,’ was a very typical parental comment.

For those seeking a solid, reliable all-through educational route for their academically able sons and daughters, this is an excellent choice.