Cheltenham Prep, Cheltenham
A gently-selective co-ed with a progressive ethos rooted in deep traditions, this prestigious Prep is redefining itself as an all-rounder in the heart of Regency Cheltenham.
Cheltenham Prep School is a co-ed day and boarding school for ages 3 – 13. Sitting in a platinum location on 75 acres of prime Cheltenham real estate it’s the younger sibling to the prestigious Cheltenham College (they share the same campus and some facilities). Pupils start in Kingfishers in the Pre-Prep (3 to 7) then move up to The Prep with many going on to the College after Year 8. Although it is a multi-faith school you’ll find a defined and proud Christian spirit here with Years 3 to 8 attending the spectacular cathedral-like ‘chapel’ across the road, hymn books in hand, on Friday afternoons (Westminster Cathedral eat your heart out).
The College began life in 1841 and The Prep in 1909, so if you’re up for a slice of Hogwarts cachet, this place ticks the box, but far from being old-fashioned, a recent and fairly seismic shake-up has heralded a dynamic new era.
Head Tom O’Sullivan took over the reins three years ago, inheriting an institution in a good place but ripe for new energy. He has built on that by really focusing on making the school a proud Prep in its own right rather than a ‘mini senior school’.
There has been a remodelling of the school’s structure which previously had a top-heavy Senior Management Team. In addition, there has been a massive splash of cash to bring it up to scratch for parents – £5m worth of cash infact – which has funded a smart refurb of the Pre-Prep, new classrooms and a wow-factor ‘Grand Designs-esque’ glass-fronted nursery that opens in September 2022 (more on that later).
The school has waiting lists in three years groups, so it’s clearly popular. There are 420 pupils – having grown from 370 when Tom started – and there are no plans to go above that. Classes vary with around 12 to 15 pupils and a max class size of 18. The school is currently slightly top heavy with more children entering in Year 7, but this will no doubt change with the fancy new nursery parents will be vying to get into.
In the past the school has (wrongly) been presumed by outsiders to be ‘stuffy’ or ‘elite’ but that stereotype is being set straight with The Chadwick Programme. Named after female F1 racing driver Jamie Chadwick, a recent alumni of the College, this innovative addition was introduced to the weekly curriculum this year (2021) and gets pupils to use their initiative and creativity, going out into the community and organising projects and events as well as learning life skills.
Boasting a stand-out mix of facilities set in a combo of red brick Victorian buildings and modern blocks (the dining hall is particularly impressive with its beams and crests), ten years ago Cheltenham Prep was seen as an exclusively sporty school but it’s striving to readdress that balance as much more of a strong all-rounder. There are more than 20 sports teams meaning all abilities are encouraged to get involved and have a go.
Sport is still very much the big ticket attraction here. The facilities are as good as it gets; two astro pitches, a sports centre with indoor 25m, 6-lane swimming pool, 6 squash courts, outdoor tennis courts, and sports hall *draws breath* and if that’s not enough there are 3 further sports fields for rugby, football and cricket (they are used to host Cheltenham Cricket Festival – the oldest cricket festival on an out ground in the world).
Regular swimming galas are held and I hear the after school inflatables club is very popular. There are currently temporary Portakabin buildings being used as changing rooms whilst a smart new changing area is being built.
Music & drama
The Arts are housed in The Lakehouse, a Victorian building that may not scream ‘state of the art’ but inside is really well stocked with instruments, a Steinway piano and a tech-fabulous ‘music lab’ with multiple iMacs for composing lessons. Performances happen in the multi-purpose hall which has just been upgraded with a ‘West end standard’ light and sound system.
A large proportion of pupils take individual music lessons and some regularly sing in the Chapel. The week I visited the English Symphony Orchestra had been in to give pupils a lesson and perform which sounds amazing. But it’s not all choral warbling here, to balance things out the school has its own rock band, which garners it cool points with any kid.
A good number of pupils achieve a Music, Drama or Art scholarship to Cheltenham College and previous pupils have won roles in regional theatre productions and TV shows.
The DT department was especially impressive and well-equipped I thought, the current project for Year 8s is making electric Go Karts. Pupils get to take them to a real life course in Gloucestershire and race them when they are completed, something the pupils I talked too were really excited about it.
As part of the modernising overhaul, O’Sullivan has done away with the traditional roles of Head Boy, Head Girl and Prefects. This bombshell was liked by most, but faced some resistance from a small handful parents I am told (as any change does), but all the children I spoke to really liked what has been installed as the alternative.
Replacing the roles is the aforementioned Chadwick Programme which instead gives every child a role of real responsibility, doing away with a system where only a few get ‘chosen’. This is a leadership programme for all Year 8s preparing them for senior school. But the school does still have a house system and the Year 8s I met chatted excitedly about the inter-house competitions including a recent Laser tag battle that went down a storm.
Being located in the centre of Cheltenham has its perks too, in recent week’s pupils had visited the famous Cheltenham Literary Festival, including a talk by the author of How to Train Your Dragon.
The Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 classrooms have all been refurbished, with new carpets, painted walls and walls knocked down to make it more open plan. All of the classrooms in Pre-Prep have nice little play nooks and balcony areas. There is a dedicated and well-stocked library and separate Hall for them too (lunchtime is shared with the whole school).
Year 3 and Year 4 have classrooms set around a wide open gallery, which is beautifully light and spacious, one of the classrooms made me feel like we were in a treehouse! Perched over a beautiful lake it looked out through the canopy of a tree. The walls were plastered with diversity and colour too, with Year 4 recently having celebrated ‘India Day’ where children they dressed up and had visitors in to give talks.
Wellness is taken very seriously here too, when I visited there was calming classical music floating around in the background which is put on to help the children settle when they return from play. I also spotted a ‘Kindness Box’ where pupils can drop in anonymous notes if they see someone doing an act of kindness (these get read out). Also worth mentioning was the room for yoga and mindfulness with mats spread out, which the children take part in regularly.
The school may be urban but it has still created a lovely Forest School in a woodland glade, which pupils do from Pre-Prep up to Year 2. It’s a small but adequate space for den-making and toasting marshmallows, regular ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’ fun takes place here as well as overnight campouts.
The brand new Cheltenham Nursery School building for ages 3 to 5 has its grand opening in September 2022. It is currently housed in the small (and slightly unsuitable for 21st century needs) Kingfisher Cottage, so it’ll be a huge luxury upgrade for parents and children alike.
Designed by award-winning Gloucester-based Roberts Limbrick Architects, the Nursery School has an impressive eco-build status. Looking at the plans parents can expect light-filled spacious modern classrooms as well as regular French and Music sessions with subject specialist teachers, PE using the extensive sports facilities, Wellbeing and Mindfulness.
The school is academically selective, but only mildly so. Rather than an actual exam, pupils are invited to come in for a taster day and age-appropriate assessments take place to ensure they will ‘thrive’ at The Prep, pupils are then selected on that basis.
Touring the English department I saw a hugely entertaining lesson going on where pupils were using a Kahoot Quiz on ipads to identify grammatical terms from pop songs played on speakers. Although academics are taken seriously here, you get the feeling the learning is made fun.
Whilst scholarships are not offered to enter the school, they are offered going onwards. Last year they had 29 scholarships going out in lots of disciplines and pupils will be encouraged to find a favourite and pursue it. There were dedicated ‘scholarship prep’ classes going on when I visited, with a class of 18 Year 8 pupils studying some extra French, so ensuring children have onward opportunities is really embraced here.
I felt like this area was really valued at the school and made a priority. The past three years have seen lots of new layers brought in to improve the care. These include factors such as reinstating a lunchtime where teachers sit with children to get to know them well and of course The Chadwick Programme where pupils learn coping and life lessons.
In terms of SEN, specialist support is offered to each child that needs it. There is a team of specialist teachers who are based in ‘The Coach House’, a learning support centre with a dedicated mental health room. There are also two dedicated Deputy Heads dedicated to pastoral support.
Every year group, from Reception to Year 8, take part in wellbeing sessions and discussions on a regular basis. Pupils as young as 3 take part in relaxing storytime sessions, and there’s the aforementioned yoga and mindfulness sessions too.
Plus, Year 8s have their own personal common room space to go and find quiet in, kitted out with table football and squishy sofas.
The boarding house has 41 full-time and 48 flexi boarders. Run by energetic and friendly new House Parents, Jack Avery and his wife Jessica, who live in a flat on-site, they have a therapy Labrador that does wake up duty with them each morning, and their 3-year-old Olive can be frequently found toddling the corridors much to the children’s delight! It has its own instagram account, and a huge neon pink sign that welcomes you in, so it’s definitely one of the coolest boarding houses I’ve ever seen.
Cheltenham Prep feels very much like a day school with a boarding house attached, with eight international boarders and a few military families, but the majority of children live within half an hour, coming in on buses from surrounding villages.
The boarding house makes the most of an old Victorian building, with single ‘bedroom pods’ for Year 8s built into a long corridor for the older children and sharing rooms for the younger ones.
Kids seem to have a lot of fun here, with activities on all through the week, from an inflatable adventure course to theme parks, shopping trips into Cheltenham and an outdoor cinema on the school field. Jessica even does baking sessions in the flat with those who fancy it.
In terms of facilities it has two good-sized common rooms and all years mix to promote a sense of togetherness. I noted big boxes of Lego and games for the kids to enjoy. Although I didn’t meet one, they also have gap tutors, or ‘gappies’, international and local students who come and help out with various boarding activities as an extra pair of hands.
Keen, questioning, driven and warm, Tom comes across as a particularly hands-on Head. Previously Head of Old Buckenham Hall in Sussex and Deputy Head of Mowden Hall in Northumberland he has a passion for education in Cheltenham having grown up there, going to Pates Grammar School across town.
Since arriving in September 2018 he has made a lot of changes to inject some 21st century dynamism into the school. From restructuring the management team to making the school a much bigger part of the community with The Chadwick Programme, he is ultra keen that the school not be thought of as ‘that posh school’ but instead a warm and welcoming all-rounder.
As well as having an open door policy at any time for the kids, he makes a point of taking lunch duty every day to chat to pupils and referee matches. As a science teacher he also gets regularly involved in teaching different lessons in order to get to know the pupils. Although he points out that there’s is always ‘more to do’ and that as everything it is a work in progress, he’s clearly got goals to continue The Prep’s re-positioning as a modern school with roots, and has already put his stamp firmly on The Prep.
The school has an idyllic lake, slap bang in the middle of the grounds. Plans are underway to have it dredged and reopened, so pupils will be able to row around it in little wooden boats which sounds like extremely good Swallows and Amazons style fun. The Lake House in the middle is going to be turned into a usable room and an outdoor classroom has already been built alongside which is used for Thrive lessons (wellbeing), science and art lessons.
Also, the Head’s dog, Scooby, lives on site, and is an enormous Great Dane. He was curled up in Tom’s office the day I visited. Pupils love him and are often allowed to come in and stroke him. When they earn 25 ‘Pluses’ -which are house points – pupils get a ‘Scooby card’ which are cute illustrations on cards drawn by Tom’s own dad, as well as a treat.
WRAP AROUND CARE
In the Prep School wrap around care is comprehensive in the afternoons, school finishes at 4.20pm, then Homework Club kicks in at 4.30pm to 5.30pm and then 5pm to 6pm it’s extracurricular clubs. There are more than 40 to choose from which is quite a lot – including quirky ones such as Skiing Club.
There isn’t an early morning wrap around option however, but should you need extra help the flexi-boarding is always there. The Nursery School and Pre-Prep offer a ‘late stay’ option too for pupils until 6pm.
The most recent ISI report can be viewed here.
MOBILE PHONE & TECH POLICY
Pupils are not allowed phones in school. If children require a mobile phone to travel to and from school they can leave it at Reception at the beginning of the school day.
Apple ipads are used in school to support learning. Whilst pupils aren’t allocated their own personal devices each department has them, so they have access if needed.
Cheltenham Prep has a dedicated bus route service which shuttles pupils in from many surrounding villages. Details of routes can be found on the school website.
OK, expect a hit! Fees here are high (possible the highest in the area) but you get a lot of added value for your money. Termly fees start at £2,925 for Nursery level, and go up to £6,555 per term for Year 8 (boarding is £8,520 for a Year 8).
WORD ON THE GROUND
The school regularly gets 5 stars on parent chat forums, with happy parents saying it has ‘far exceeded’ expectations. Others love the opportunities they get at a town school. The Head gets special mention for modernising the school somewhat with the reforms recently, and the general vibe is children love their time here, feeling happy and confident throughout their time. Parents feel a close affinity to the school, saying it feels like joining a ‘family’.
The kids say it’s the opportunities here that they love, with a dazzling array of clubs to join and they get put up for all kinds of county-wide tournaments from swimming to horse-riding. One remarked on there being ‘a lot’ of homework in Year 8, with three preps a night sometimes but that’s about standard, and it is a stepping stone to College. A point often made was there is always being someone around to ask if help is needed, which is a strong plus point.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: If you want the best of both worlds – a progressive school with historic roots. Those looking for a town-based school with an endless stream of activities. Being only gently selective, not having to worry about extensive CE tuition will be a plus for some. Anyone wanting a focus sport or a very good pastoral offering (not least Scooby the dog who’s always on hand for cuddles).
Not for: If you’re vehemently anti-faith schools. The Prep prides itself on being a multi-faith space but it has a solid and proud C of E foundation, so if regular chapel visits aren’t your jam it’s not for you, or if you’re looking for a budget option, this won’t be it.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it! You can take a tour of The Prep, head over to Cheltenham Prep to register your interest, contact email@example.com or call 01242 522 697