There’s no denying the beauty of Ashfold School’s setting, in a valley in Dorton, a small village on the Oxon/Bucks border, close to Thame and Princes Risborough and within easy reach (about 20 mins) of Bicester and Oxford. For those in London, the school is within 15 minutes of a mainline station (Chiltern Line) to Marylebone. The School’s centrepiece is an elegant Jacobean mansion with a tree-lined approach worthy of a film set, nestling in 30 acres of stunning grounds.
Co-educational with a 55/45 split between boys and girls and, as describing itself as ‘broadly non-selective’, Ashfold School takes kids from age 3 in nursery up to 13 years. Kids can board weekly, flexi or come as day pupils. The flexi boarding in particular is massively popular with the kids (and their knackered parents) though at the moment with Covid it’s only available for the oldest year group, to comply with social distancing. Previously it was payable a term in advance, but now it’s a less rigid affair. There’s no Saturday school here – Ashfold prides itself on its family-friendly ethos, so you can have you little darlings back all weekend.
Plenty to recommend it, with 2 computing labs, a science lab, and the jewel in the crown, £1.3m Art & Design Centre (below) – a purpose-built facility for art, design technology, cookery, printing and ceramics, and including latest technologies like CAD/CAM/laser cutter and vacuum former. There’s also a purpose-built Cookery & Nutrition room for budding Hestons and Angelas.
A welcome Covid addition has been brand new bigger screens and cameras in every classroom to facilitate interactive learning.
Art & Design Centre
The grounds are large and lovely, and include a walled garden, adventure playground and brand new zip wire. The school also has the use of the 12th century parish church for assemblies and prize-giving.
MUSIC + DRAMA
Strong. There’s a specialist music Building with 2 large teaching rooms and 7 practice rooms plus a performance studio. They start them young here with specialist music lessons with the Director of Music from Nursery upwards (ear plugs at the ready). From Y2 children learn violin, ukukele and recorder and from Y3 most kids take instrumental lessons in some form or other – the team of peris takes 126 individual lessons a week. Expect jazz band, rock band, orchestra and ensembles for brass, cello, strings, woodwind and guitar, plus there are 3 choirs. On the jazz hands front, there’s specialist drama teaching from Year 3 with regular productions. Ashfold is a LAMDA exam centre so that tells you something.
Sport is a powerhouse area (15 sports on offer including triathlon) though the school is quick to point out that every child from Y3 upwards gets the chance to represent the school in competitive matches. There’s a full-sized astroturf for hockey, heated outdoor pool, a fishing lake, indoor rifle range, indoor and outdoor cricket nets, newly refurbed netball/tennis courts and of course oodles and oodles of playing fields. The rugby teams, hockey and athletics teams are particularly formidable and triathlon and equestrian are both flourishing. Girls cricket was introduced in 2018.
The headline news for 2020 (apart from a global pandemic obvs) is Ashfold’s ambitious new whole school Activity Programme. Previously most activities were offered at the end of an already long school day. Now the structure of the school timetable has changed to accommodate it into the actual curriculum. Parents are politely requested to put away the red marker pen and let the children choose things that interest them – anything from origami and debating through to karate and robotics.
It’s very much an enrichment exercise to encourage kids to try something new or pursue something they love, not a way to squeeze in some extra Mandarin or a third musical instrument. Covid currently dictates it runs on two days a week, but this will rise to four days a week as originally conceived, hopefully by Easter 2021.
The DT centre
Ashfold feeds into a broad range of independent schools including Abingdon, Harrow, Magdalen College School and Radley (boys), Headington, Oxford High, St Helen and St Katharine and Tudor Hall (girls) and Bradfield, Rugby, St Edward’s (Oxford), Stowe and Wellington College (co-ed). In 2020 there was an 100% pass rate at Common Entrance and in recent years more than 40% of Sixth Form leavers have won scholarships or awards to their senior schools including academic, all-rounder, sport, art and drama scholarships, underlining Ashfold’s reputation for all-round education.
There’s an Academic Scholars’ Club and weekly masterclasses for art, DT, music, sport, computing and drama, but Ashfold is very much also about joining in – friendly and inclusive, in non-covid times it fields up to 5 teams in sports and giving everyone a chance to get involved in music and drama etc.
French is taught from Year 1, and Latin from Year 5 .
FEES & SCHOLARSHIPS
Fees are in line with other local prep schools from £3,175 per term for full-time Nursery, £3,280 for Reception and Year 1, £3,810 for Year 2; £5,170 for Years 3 and 4; £5,615 Years 5-8 and £6,730 for weekly boarding.
There’s a delicious scholarship available for kids joining in Year 7 which includes entry to a number of senior schools. Check out the school website for application deadlines.
Ashfold saw in a new head teacher in Sept 18 – Colin Macintosh, former Deputy Head of Beaudesert Park School. Two years into his tenure and he’s been putting into action his ‘child-centred’ philosophy – the option of a shorter school day if your kids prefer to do their prep at home; a stronger focus on pastoral care, including mental health training for all staff; and more inclusive in terms of SEN children and positive provision for them.
Ashfold is blessed with some great facilities but Macintosh is gunning for a theatre to be at the heart of the school – at the moment the kids cram into a beautiful but small assembly hall for theatres and assemblies. (Useless gossipy fact; Macintosh is handy at acting and used to tread the boards with his friend, actor and Strictly alumniTom Chambers).
There’s a purpose-built pre-prep building with its own play areas. Pre-Prep children eat lunch with their teachers in the main dining room and use the 16th century oak-panelled saloon in the main mansion for their assemblies. There’s a lovely adventure playground that they can access and they also utilise main school facilities such as the Library and, as they get older, the Art & Design Centre and the Sports Hall. There are plenty of opportunities for the littlies to shine with regular concerts, school trips, and their own Sports Day. Plans are in place for a spruce of the Pre-Prep exterior.
Ashfold doesn’t do quirky in general. ‘Family-oriented’ is probably the better word for Ashfold – it’s quite a community, with pre-Covid parent/staff netball, hockey and tennis, wine tastings, quiz nights, regular coffee mornings, fireworks and a massive May Ball every second year. It’s quite a small school in terms of numbers so parents do get to know each other well.
Worth knowing too that the school has a strong Christian and pastoral approach, with regular assemblies and grace before meals (where kids eat with their teachers, so limited opportunities to flick peas across the table) and an emphasis on manners and tolerance.
WRAP AROUND CARE
There have been big improvements in the pre-and and post school care, with the school now offering daily breakfast club from 7.30am and after-school clubs with tea until pick up at 6pm. On a slightly different note, you can also bung your kids into the increasing number of school holiday clubs – over the last year there have been camps for musical theatre, tennis, multi-activity, plus pre-season rugby and hockey.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Ashfold mums will talk your ear off about how nurturing the school is. They love it. Much is made of it being a school that lets kids be kids – children can roam around in the grounds, climb trees, make dens, hang off the adventure playground equipment, play conkers (now banned in many schools – I mean, come on!). Muddy trousers are not uncommon by any stretch. But there’s routine too. Kids are proud to come here.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Outdoorsy kids, parents who want flexi boarding options, those who seek a friendly smaller school in the countryside with a strong sense of community.
Not for: Those who’d like their kids home early. Ashfold days are long, starting at 8am and even with the new ‘early’ finish of 5pm to 5.20pm depending on your year group it’s a long day.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest! There’s an Open Morning on Sat 9 October, where you can find out for yourself. Register your interest by email.
Ashfold School, Dorton House, Aylesbury, Bucks HP18 9NG.