Muddy says: A co-ed day and boarding school for ages 3-13 - an intimate independent prep in the stunning setting of the Malvern Hills with a true family atmosphere
The Elms is a treasure of a co-educational, non-selective, very rural prep school for pupils aged 3 to 13. Founded in 1614 by a member of the Worshipful Company of Grocers, it lies in the extremely pretty Malvern Hills and is the oldest prep school in the UK still on its original site. Bijou it might be – there are only 160 pupils – but they have a massive 110 acres to roam and get their hands mucky in, with everything from riding, growing vegetables and raising show-worthy animals. Bus routes fetch pupils from as far as 25 miles away in three directions, with a few pupils crossing the Welsh border every day.
More than everything an active pupil needs, including the only school indoor pool for miles (they host all local swimming galas) and brand-new indoor cricket nets that are the best in the county, says Head Chris Hattam. There are the usual suspects for a well-stocked prep school: four rugby pitches, three cricket, football and rounders pitches apiece, and one astro – and an indoor air rifle and pistol range! In the sports hall next to the pool, I saw Montessori littlies sweetly attempting pre-lunch yoga. Sparkling new tennis courts are due in 2020, promises Hattam. A bonus for washing-weary parents is sports clothing hire and laundry done for extremely minimal fees per term. There’s also stabling for over 20 school and pupil equines, a riding arena, paddocks and a cross country course. School jumpers over jodhpurs were spotted on several children (not a glum face to be seen, btw). Those who don’t partake in the equestrian can get involved in the school’s farm, raising Gloucester Old Spots and Herefordshire cattle for the September show or growing produce they donate to the school kitchen. The main house is pretty and homely, containing the dorms, dining hall, the charming centuries-old chapel (C of E), library (recently spruced up), SPARKS room and early years section. With inspiring views of the playing fields and hills beyond, a new science block (two labs) is placed alongside an impressive theatre building. The airy art room, where a different artist-in-residence broadens young minds every week, sits above a large and impressive DT space.
It’s a long day – lessons end at 5.40pm – but class size is kept low, between 12 and 16. Pupils move onto a huge variety of senior schools, 29 in the past five years. These included Cheltenham College, Malvern, Dean Close and Cheltenham Ladies College, but also farther afield to Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Oundle, Sherborne, Downe House, Wellington and Gordonstoun. Elms pupils achieved a very impressive 23 scholarships last year, in a class of 33. Bursaries are granted at any entry point and scholarships are available for Year 7 entry in a range of subjects, including equine. Nursery, Reception and Year 1’s are taught in a Montessori environment, located front and centre in the main building. And be warned, Saturday school is alive and well here for Years 5-8 (Year 4 have an optional activities and learning session), with the school week wrapping up after games on Saturday afternoon. Weekends are excitingly chocka with a full boarding programme.
Drama and Music:
Incredibly enthusiastic and fizzy head of drama– married to the head of English – masterminded productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Macbeth last year, and intends on some light Greek Comedy for 2020. In 2017 an Elms leaver won Harrow’s top drama scholarship, and the school has recently introduced LAMDA classes and exams. All children have music once or even twice a week, and the majority of pupils learn at least one instrument, for which there is a charge. Two choirs and four bands help fuel the energetic annual House Music Competition.
The children are lucky to have games sessions every day and are highly competitive on the local circuit. Rugby, hockey and cricket are the most popular for boys, while hockey, netball and rounders are played by the girls.
Chris Hattam took over in January 2018, leaving his role as a housemaster at Sedbergh. His wife Jess (also very handily a paediatric nurse) is the school’s registrar and two of their three children attend the school. Walking around with her she knew every child, and usually where they were meant to be at that time! They come across as calm and focused, committed to bringing fresh eyes and energy to The Elms. And he’s been busy, installing the ISAMs system to better communicate with parents, improving the IT capabilities and emphasising slightly more rigorous prep, while maintaining the values and ethos of the school which focuses on happy children. He’s also hired new a SEN teacher, new heads of English and Drama and a new Geography teacher (who also bowls for the MCC). The one thing he hasn’t done is stop boarders from writing a letter home every Sunday or change the charming and rather timeless school uniform. “I’ve walked into the most perfect prep school I could hope for,” says Hattam. But, he says, “I’m just the custodian. The children set the tone for the school.”
The pastoral care associated with high quality boarding is evident at The Elms, although there are Day, Flexi and Full Boarders. Each child has a bed to call their own, helping to wean the children on to boarding if their destination school requires it. This is definitely a boarding prep school – even the head and his family live onsite. Dorms are arranged by year, and most pupils stay over at least one night a week. Everyone from Year 4 upwards has a bed at school, while the majority of children in upper years board several times a week. Five percent of pupils are from Asia and 5% from the rest of the world; Hattam and his team travel to Asia to interview prospective pupils to really ensure The Elms is right for them. Boarders start each day with a quick walk outside to wake up sleepy heads, and they recharge themselves with quiet time in their dorm after lunch. The rooms I saw weren’t shiny and new but comfortable and lived-in. Stairs up to the dorms lie just next to Hattam’s newly-located office, making him very much a central and accessible presence in the school.
Yes, there is plenty of it! Children can be dropped as early as 7am for breakfast and morning activities before starting their academic day. A rest break after lunch helps them power through, and those not boarding can stay on for supper at 5.45 then join in clubs, leaving as late as 8pm. Flexi-boarding is very popular and highly encouraged, a bonus for rural parents with a long commute to the school.
The school’s physical setting is pretty magical. Most classrooms have a lab or spaniel onsite, and I spotted several trotting around the grounds with teachers. It’s one of the few schools I’ve encountered which offers Rural Studies, teaching gardening, livestock care and the study of nature. Staff and teachers are pretty versatile: the manager of the farm (which is seriously impressive) also coaches rugby and is married to the boarders’ housemother. The Elms has turned its small size (though Hattam admits his goal is boosting numbers to 190) to its advantage, emphasising resourcefulness, imagination, practicality and pitching in. Clubs take place after supper and range from skiing (trip to Austria for pupils and joiners-in parents) to Street Dance and Triathlon Shooting. There’s a sports tour every two years, and the residential “Outpost” programme is very popular. Ledbury and Malvern are only about six miles away and the school attracts an extremely impressive number and variety of guest speakers to keep minds stimulated.
Nursery, five full days a week: £2765 per term; Reception: £3170 per term; Pre-prep (Years 1,2 & 3): £3425-£4630; Year 4: £5945 for day, £7220 for flexi-boarding, £8200 for full boarding; Years 5-8: £6665 for day, £7380 for flexi, £8365 for full boarding. Flexi-boarding is two nights a week, and pupils can stay a night for £35.
Perhaps not the best choice for anyone requiring bright lights and an urban pace. But if you want your child to have an inclusive, rounded education in a happy, hands-on setting that has a whiff of Narnia about it, The Elms would do nicely indeed.
Dare to disagree?
Don’t take my word for it! The next Early Years Open Day is in February, with a whole-school day planned for May. Individual visits very welcome at any time during the year.
The Elms School, Colwall, Malvern, Worcestershire WR13 6EF, Tel: 01684 540344 , www.elmsschool.co.uk.