Good Schools Guide Review: Junior School
What The Good Schools Guide says
Headmaster of the junior school
Since 2014, Matthew Robinson (40s), previously deputy head. ‘Flamboyant,’ ‘lovely,’ and ‘a massive sell for the school,’ say parents, who can’t get enough of his newsletter sign offs which are always along the lines of ‘Go climb a tree’ (one of his latest projects is expanding outdoor education, with all-new classroom in the woods). Chatty and cheerful, he is also a stickler for no homework in holidays. ‘He’s all about the kids – I’d be very, very upset if he left,’ said a mother.
Nearly won a world record when we visited, for – drum roll, please – stacking mini-marshmallows. The current record, we learned in a lively year 7 led assembly on Guinness World Records – is five, and by Jove he nearly beat it! No wonder pupils think he’s the bees’ knees, especially when you add coaching football, rugby, hockey, cricket and golf to his extracurricular skill set, along with directing school plays and editing school magazines. ‘Really nice,’ and ‘almost never strict,’ they loyally informed us. Genuinely heart-warming to watch him balance the fun-loving uncle role in assembly with the ability to command instant respect with a softly spoken, ‘Ok, let’s calm down.’
‘More luck than judgement,’ he laughed when we quizzed him on his career choice. With no clear direction when he’d finished his BA at Plymouth, he wound up as a gappie at Cranleigh Prep – ‘they saw something in me and took a punt, offering me a job teaching English, Latin, sport and boarding responsibilities.’ As a young single man he was in his element, later gaining QTS from IoE, MA from Surrey and much later an MEd from Buckingham. Has also taught at King's College Wimbledon and mostly recently at Junior King's School Canterbury (of which he still has a much-loved painting on his wall).
Married to Victoria, also a teacher; they have four children, the eldest now at university. Loves theatre, walking, golf and listening to music.
Sixty places available at 7+ although it it’s the additional 30 at 11+ that bring in the most punters – sometimes over six applicants per place. Increasing demand for joiners in the in between years – especially years 5 and 6 - so always worth asking. Academically selective: tests in maths, English and non-verbal reasoning – school is looking for IQ of 118 and over. Equal emphasis (and certainly far more than there used to be) on interview and feeder school report. ‘We are looking for bright and motivated children who are both interested and interesting, not just those who want to pass exams.’ No pre-prep and no plans for one.
Over 95 per cent to senior school and the best bit is it’s automatic. External applicants have to sit a test.
‘Once you’re in, you’re in,’ are the head’s magic words that leave these parents feeling very smug indeed. It’s rare in this neck of the woods to find an all-through route that will scoop up your 7-year old and hand them back to you at the end of year 13 ready for (most likely a Russell Group) university – and this, say parents, makes a place at this semi-rural Surrey prep the most shiny of golden tickets.
Rather less shiny is the junior school building itself – the purpose-built Kemp House – which, we later learned from the senior school head, is hovering somewhere towards the top of the wish list for a rebuild. Not that it should put you off. In fact, there’s something endearing, almost grandmotherly, about it – a bit outdated and tired for sure, but welcoming, even comforting and completely lacking in polish and pretension– the latter denoting the school itself, according to parents (‘very down to earth – you can turn up in an old banger and nobody gives a hoot,’ said one).
The foyer is vast, housing some inspired entries for a recycled art competition when we visited, as well as a vibrant science lesson on the solar system, complete with inflatable planets and pupils stretching an extraordinarily long piece of string. The junior school also boasts its own science lab, art room, music practice rooms and assembly hall, with pupils (especially years 7 and 8) accessing some of the senior school facilities and outdoor spaces – rolling greenery as far as the eye can see (in addition to the junior school’s own playground). New STEM room and the library is a book lovers’ delight – far better stocked and staffed than many we see, with one of the three lovely librarians (that spread themselves across senior and junior schools) talking us through the nooks and crannies of themed reading matter, multiple book clubs, silent reading sessions on bean bags and the computer where ‘they click, we deliver, it’s better than Waitrose!’ Here and throughout the school are attractive displays of work – messages in a bottle, combining art and English skills, caught our eye. But sort out those school toilets, say pupils – ‘they’re gross!’
Lessons we dropped in on revealed sound and solid teaching, with motivated and engaged children – year 6s confidently reading out their English comprehension, year 5s with heads buried in colourful maths workbooks, year 4s immersed in technical wizardry in a computing class and year 3s enjoying some carpet time debating their latest storybook. ‘My worry was that the school would be too pushy, but it’s really not about having a 10-year-old that’s way ahead of everyone else as much as creating rounded and nice people who reach their potential,’ said one parent. ‘Definitely less hot-house than the local competition,’ agreed another. As for the parents who describe their children as ‘very bright’ and demand ‘lots of stretch’ (of which there are many), they seem equally satisfied – ‘you just have to trust the school to get on with it because they really do,’ said one. Class sizes max at 21 (22 for years 7 and 8). Very little setting (just a little in maths) and a big focus on languages, with year 3s all getting a term each of French, German and Spanish, plus a taster of Latin, with one MFL chosen in year 5 and Latin re-introduced from year 7.
Without the 11+ and 13+ fever pitch that other preps endure, pupils are able to dive down rabbit holes in their learning. Also leaves time for the enrichment programme (pupils pick from options including sign language, yoga, Bollywood dancing, creative writing, cooking, strategic games and off-curriculum sports such as lacrosse or golf) and the year 8 FPQ (like an EPQ for young’uns), partly taught by the head. Clubs include everything from chess to debating, although parents are reminded not to go overboard – ‘We are big on the value of play, where children learn about making up their own rules, discovering the power of teamwork, problem solving etc,’ says head. On Covid, parents told us school was ‘initially a bit slow,’ but, said one, ‘by the second lockdown they’d completely upped their game and were spot on with a mix of live and recorded lessons and independent work.’
A smattering of pupils with additional needs are supported by a team of three SEN and one EAL teachers across the junior and senior school, though hardly any have one-to-ones. ‘Great on assessment and putting the right provisions in place including movement breaks and making sure all teachers are informed,’ we heard from one parent, though another felt the senior school ‘is much more on it with SEN’. Definitely not the place for more than a low level of need.
School’s philosophy on sport is that it’s not just about the winning – a good job, say parents, since they rarely do. Pupils don’t seem to mind – in fact, a recent survey revealed their number one expectation from sport was to have fun, and they told us the school 100 per cent delivers on this front. Boys do football, rugby and cricket; girls do hockey, netball and cricket, with the one-time very traditional gender divide slowly easing as more boys do hockey and more girls do cricket. Everyone does swimming in the flash new six-lane pool. Other sports include fencing, athletics, running, tennis, squash and basketball. ‘Extremely sporty families might feel frustrated,’ reckoned a parent, although school points out they do have some county players in eg swimming, cricket, hockey and fencing.
The impressive music hall – and, for that matter, the rest of the music department over in senior school – is a major pull for budding musicians. Who could resist tinkering the ivories on the Steinway? Not our guide – and we couldn’t blame him! The popular annual music fair gets pupils to try-before-you-buy, with half the children learning an instrument. Multiple choirs across the year groups (with plenty of boys, always a good sign), and there are bands, ensembles and orchestras galore. Performances include 7 year-olds screeching away on the violin beside more accomplished 16 year-olds – ‘great for aspiration,’ said a parent.
From the off, pupils are encouraged to get involved in all things dramatic - poetry competitions, performances for grandparents, Shakespeare Schools Festival and even running their own musicals, many of which take place in the senior school theatre. Real keenos in juniors can get involved in the senior school play, plus there’s LAMDA – ‘it takes me a good 10 minutes to read out the LAMDA certificates,’ says head. ‘My daughter’s class recently did a fabulous performance and it only gets better the higher they move up the school,’ reported a parent.
Junior and senior art is hard to separate, and that’s the whole point. Not only do young artists get their own messy (in a good way) junior art room but they increasingly access the more professional senior art studios where we watched year 7s learning about expressionism. Emphasis on technique – ‘focus is on the process not just the result,’ said a pupil. Lots of cross-curricular eg linking a project on Aztecs in history, geography and art. Sculpting Greek pots a perennial favourite among pupils, who also rave about their projects in the junior DT studio – moving toys, a game wire board and a Bagatelle board, among others.
Light touch discipline – you’re more likely to see pupils encouraged to learn from mistakes than teachers jumping up and down reactively. This, along with the lack of undue academic pressure, seems to result in a happy and relaxed school community, though one parent felt, ‘they can expect quite a lot of the youngest children especially in terms of organisation.’ Form teachers, heads of year, heads of house, chaplain, nurses and counsellor all on hand for both pupils and teachers. Parents appreciate the ‘affordable’ uniform – ‘a £35 blazer rather than a £100 one.’ Food popular – we enjoyed a scrumptious chicken curry.
This is classic commuter country, and Freemen’s families are mostly professional – finance, doctors, lawyers through to entrepreneurs – but from a range of backgrounds, not all affluent. Catchment is widening, now reaching to Guildford, Reigate, Dorking and up into Wimbledon and Kingston, with a school bus service (and a shuttle bus from Ashtead station) much appreciated. Has led to greater ethnic diversity, though this is still rural Surrey. PA appreciated by some and ignored by others. Some would like to see more ‘consideration for dual income families’ eg wrap-around care (‘the homework club gets full up quickly’), information sessions later than 4pm (‘when many of us are still working’) and for the school ‘working harder to include dads in comms.’
Fees good value for the area but there are extras including lunch. Academic and music scholarships offer five per cent fee remittance.
The last word
This friendly, grounded and well-run school takes the pressure off getting academically bright young things into senior schools and seems to have a knack of making challenging work seem fun. ‘Like a school within a school,’ as one parent put it.