Hatherop Castle, Cirencester
An inspirational and nurturing co-ed day and boarding school with a fierce family ethos and a story book setting in the Cotswold countryside.
WHAT & WHERE?
Hatherop Castle is a co-ed, day and boarding prep school for children aged two to 13 located in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty 20 minutes drive from Cirencester. It’s a truly Swallows and Amazons setting, with the 251 pupils having the run of 22 glorious acres of grounds which incorporate expansive lawns and woodland.
The main building is a stunning country house, Anne Boleyn is believed to have used Hatherop as a hunting lodge and Edward VII nearly bought it for his country dwelling (he opted for Sandringham in the end). Hatherop became a girls’ senior school in 1947, turning finally into the co-ed prep it is now in 1990.
Since our last visit two years ago the school has gone from strength to strength under the leadership of head Nigel Reed who joined in 2017. As well as new facilities, a dynamic and creative curriculum has been brought in to enrich further the children’s academic journeys, and the school has propelled itself strongly into the 21st century, introducing personal tablets for the first time to individual years.
The grand Hogwarts-style main building presides over pristine lawns, including an Italianate garden leading to a charming storytelling space. Nearby is an adventure centre and large tree house which the children clearly enjoy, with a wooded Forest School area nearby. There’s also a new outdoor common room ‘yurt’ for Years 7 and 8.
On the day of my visit, Prep 2 were following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and searching for new species as part of their Explorers project. The head, Nigel Reed, is keen to promote both outdoor learning, as well as creative curriculums that draw different subjects into a topic keeping things practical and not just textbook based.
There’s plenty of encouragement for sport here – cricket, rugby, football, hockey and netball are all keenly promoted (Nigel has a PE background and sport is taken seriously while at the same time being inclusive).
Three years ago saw the transformation of an unused walled garden into a huge AstroTurf pitch. At the far end of the new pitch is an area which has been transformed into the Pre-Prep play area, complete with vegetable garden, compost heap and, we hear, if the children get their way, the future home of chickens!
2017’s new on-site build was a spectacular wood-clad theatre which fits 180 pupils and is used for assemblies and school productions, as well as social events, such as Burns Night, curry and quiz nights. The Pre-Prep Nativity play, Middle School and Upper School productions take place here too, both music and drama are strong features at Hatherop.
The big news for 2020 / 2021 has been the transformation of the Pre-Prep area. Now housing the whole of Pre-Prep up to Year 2 the delightful stable block with its cobbled courtyard is a warm and welcoming area for little ones and is currently being refurbished to expand the space for pupils. It’s also had the addition of a new roof. The main library has moved from what was an unprepossessing cupboard to a grander room downstairs.
From child-led play in the Little Owls Nursery, the creative, topic-based Pre-Prep curriculum and the emphasis on practical learning in the Prep school, to the forest school provision for all ages, the ethos at Hatherop feels hyper-focused on engaging pupils’ imaginations.
‘The Adventure of Childhood’, the school’s motto, (watch the motto come to life here), is at the core of everything it does.
Class sizes are small, often no bigger than 15, and pupils are encouraged to step out of their comfort zones, and pursue off-topic passions. There are two classes per year up to Year 6, two classes in Year 7 and one in Year 8. Currently Year 7 has a cohort of 20, hence the two classes, and Year 8 has 15 children.
Many children start in the nursery and go all the way through to Year 8, after which, being an unaffiliated Prep school, the school takes great care in helping parents find the right senior school for their child. Parents and children get a personal 1-to-1 with the Head to chat about where they see themselves next.
The onward schools are diverse but many pupils go to Cheltenham College, Dean Close, Malvern College, Cheltenham Ladies College and Marlborough. The school does however maintain strong links with Westonbirt, (its ‘sister school’) making any transition here easier.
Scholarships are available, with the assistance going towards the one-to-one music or drama lessons for a child who might be musically gifted for example.
A huge amount of work has been done on the curriculum. In September 2018 a new timetable was installed, expanding lessons to a longer 50 minutes and getting rid of double lessons. Children are given five minutes between classes – the school is on a large site so it’s a clever move to make sure learning time isn’t being lost as pupils go from class to class.
A new creative curriculum has been brought into Pre-Prep, with a termly topic that includes geography, history, creative writing and art. For example, they recently used a trip to Giffords Circus to explore science (forces used in death-defying acts) and Geography (mapping where it had travelled). And exploring Space last term they even had a phone call from NASA.
Common Entrance is still on the agenda, although Nigel isn’t a great fan of it. Having said that, he does appreciate the academic rigour CE gives children, pushing them to a high standard, so rather than ditching it completely like some Preps, he has gone halfway house, sticking with maths, English, science and a foreign language, but moving history, geography and RS internally. These subjects are examined but they are also tested in other ways with presentations, projects and essays.
At Hatherop a key feature is to let teachers and children go ‘off piste’. One Year 8 described how they had explored the topic of discursive writing that week not by looking at dry texts, but by selling houses on Rightmove, creating listings in different styles.
Time is also allocated at the end of the day for pupils to do homework with a teacher.
Preparing pupils for the digital age is one of the Head’s priorities, with the roll-out of Microsoft Surface Go tablets to Years 5 and 6 from September 2021, to be eventually used by Years 5 to 8.
Although handwriting skills are still strongly championed here, the move will ensure children have access to work which can be stored on them, as well as being able to utilise them during some lessons. Although admitting it has been a ‘hard sell’ to some parents it’s one change that’s non-negotiable.
Around 10% of current pupils at Hatherop are full boarders. Most of the pupils are day boys and girls, but the school does offer a whole range of options to suit parents, from full and weekly boarding to flexi boarding so there is always a good percentage of fellow pupils to be with in the dorms on any given week (no lonely echoing rooms here).
The dorms are in the main part of the old house so children feel safe and secure here. Effort has clearly gone in to make them feel at home, there are 40 beds in total, and all the rooms have stunning views over the grounds. I couldn’t believe how tidy the rooms were, with perfectly-made beds. You might scoff they knew I was coming, but a Year 8 told me they have a new flag point system – tidy rooms and clothes in the laundry equal a point and a sweet, and at the end of the term the house with most flags gets a prize.
Both the boys and girls dorms have funky mix-and-match duvet covers, soft furnishings and smartly painted walls, having had a makeover in recent years. Two Year 8s told me how fun it was being ‘one big family’ and confessed there had been some ‘really emotional chats’ in the evenings together as they contemplate moving on in September – a testament to how strong the family-feel is at Hatherop .
The boarders have their own living room to do prep in or watch movies and just chill out. Weekends involve trips to London to watch Matilda, Cadbury’s World, go-karting, Go Ape, trampolining, hoverboard races, smoothie competitions or crazy scooter Olympics down the corridor. Outside I also saw a cool-looking assault course that boarders had built themselves to have fun on in their spare time.
Nigel joined the school in September 2017, only the second head in Hatherop’s 27-year history which is quite impressive! So unsurprisingly significant changes have already been made, and he has more up his sleeve, including growing boarding and pupil numbers and putting Hatherop firmly amongst the big players when it comes to applying to senior schools. Numbers have risen since he arrived, but he is careful to emphasize numbers won’t be going ‘over 300’ as he believes that would change the strong family feel of the school.
He seems popular with the kids too, with a group of children spotting him in the canteen and spontaneously imploring him to sit with them.
Nigel has one child in Prep 5, with another who recently moved on to Westonbirt. Word from parents is he is a very popular head, visible in the car park in the mornings and on the sidelines for matches.
Although he is clearly passionate about the school’s provision, he’s down to earth about the fact Hatherop has competition from other independents in the region. I sense that putting Hatherhop on the map is a big thing for him, and a work in progress.
The school offers what it calls the Cotswold Flyer, a free, escorted service which carries boarders to and from London Paddington on Fridays and Sundays. Although the pandemic has reduced the popularity of this service at the moment, it’s ‘always there if needed’ Mr Reed tells me.
There are 27 clubs to choose from here every week. The school has been an award winner at the Lego Robotics Championships and the list of other extra-curricular clubs is long and distinguished – from yoga, ballet and Scottish dancing to dissection and cooking clubs, girls’ and boys’ rugby, choir, art club, speech and drama and Fencing, with children competing at every level.
A local chapel service every Friday at 4pm at the local parish church is a lovely way to end the week, and parents are drawn by visiting speakers, usually heads and registrars of senior schools.
The food here I can testify is excellent, the canteen menu changes on a three-weekly rotation and is always freshly cooked and seasonal. Although the smaller ones are guided to ‘something hot’ each day, the older pupils can choose from a range of foods such as Chicken and Vegetable Ragu, and big salad bar (the chilli noodle salad and watermelon and strawberry salads were restaurant level!).
Plans are also afoot for a swimming pool at Hatherop. Although in the early stages, initial site plans have been drawn up and talks of how to fund it – possibly through crowdfunding – are expected to start soon. When I visited a group of reception children were excitedly clambering onto the school minibus to go to Cricklade swimming pool – half an hour away – so it’s an exciting plan the Head seems really behind, and it would clearly be a huge asset for the school and pupils.
In keeping with its grand castle-like appearance, the main building has impressive wood panelling, a huge open fire in the entrance hall, impressive, colourful murals, glorious views and a very grand drawing room where pupils can practise fencing or learn to tickle the ivories on a grand piano (peripatetic teachers will come and teach any other instrument a child wants to learn).
Clay pigeon shooting is one of the more unusual sports on offer. And another reason to gaze skywards is to watch the Red Arrows practising manoeuvres a Year 6 boy told me excitedly (the Fairford Air Tattoo is a famous local event each year). Red kites also fill the sky in the summer and all year long owls serenade the school at night.
Is an elephant’s grave quirky enough? We think so! In 1862 Hatherop was bought by Maharajah Duleep Singh who brought one or more elephants over from the Punjabi possibly to roam the grounds, a rumoured gravestone is thought to mark the spot where it was buried.
Also, Pre-Prep has its own dog – Tessa the cuddly black Lab. When I visited the children were sitting with her intently watching a video. She encourages them to explore books when she is curled up in in Reading Corner, and is brilliant for ‘pastoral care’ – if the children are ever having a rough day they know they can go out for a stress-busting walk with her.
Wraparound care here is very good and available from 8am. You can drop off for breakfast club and pick them up at 5.30pm if you need to. And you’re covered in the holidays too, with the nursery open 50 weeks of the year and the school offering holiday clubs during the vacations. Nursery starts for children aged two.
From £2,395 (Pre-Prep) to £5,170 (Prep 6, 7, 8) per term, with a full boarding supplement of £2,600 per term. Find a full list of fees here.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents like the caring, family atmosphere, along with the nod to old-fashioned values without being stuffy. They also appreciate the strong, pastoral support and ‘dedicated’ teachers, a combination that produces high academic standards without the need for hot-housing. In the words of one parent, ‘a child not wanting to go home from school after a very long day? What better endorsement can a school ask for?’.
In April 2016 Hatherop received a pretty glowing report from the Independent School Inspectorate (ISI), rating it as ‘Excellent’ in all nine assessed categories. Special mention went to the strong emphasis on a ‘positive and genuine family atmosphere’ and the ‘quality of pupils’ achievements and learning’ through the school.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Parents who want a genuine, warm, home-from-home experience for their children to learn in. Hatherop, for all its grand appearances, is a wholesomely down-to-earth school. Families who live in a city and want to give their little ones a countryside childhood, or parents seeking that Holy Grail mix of a high-achieving environment without hot-housing.
Not for: Parents who wrap their offspring in cotton wool – here, children are encouraged to play outdoors in all weathers, climb trees, get muddy building dens and generally live out an Enid Blyton fantasy. For those who want a very traditional, formal schooling, it’s probably not for you. While the school has a reasonably traditional feel, its education is progressive.
Dare to disagree? You can arrange a visit at any time, but the next Whole School Open Morning is on Friday 8 October 2021, from 9.30am to 12.30pm. And Nursery and Early Years Open Morning takes place on Friday 12th November 2021 from 9am to 11am. Contact Registrar Samantha Kinch to make an appointment on 01285 750206 or email@example.com
Hatherop Castle does Open Days brilliantly – Expect themes such as ‘A Voyage of Historical Discovery’ where prospective pupils go on a journey through Hatherop’s history, from monastic and Tudor times to the Second World War. They’ll get to play Cluedo in French, become WWII code breakers, live like monks and sample Indian delights. A great day out!
Hatherop Castle School, Cirencester, Glos GL7 3NB. Tel: 01285 750206. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.