Lovely leafy South Bucks (two miles south of Chesham and close to Berkhamsted) is the setting for this friendly co-ed, partially selective prep school for kids 3-13. Opened in 1938, its home since 1940 has been Orchard Leigh house, an Edwardian home previously tenanted by Champneys (the school began life in the upstairs room of the local Conservative Club!). Chesham has since added a hotch-potch of additional or reconfigured buildings as it has grown to accommodate its 399 pupils – 189 girls and 209 boys.
From the country roadside the school looks attractive but relatively compact – only when you see the fields at the back do you realise the extent of the grounds. And the 7 acres of school fields feel a lot bigger with all that countryside surrounding them.
The star of the show here is the outside space. Sitting next to a working farm, there are cows a-plenty to spy from the school rooms, and a feeling of rural tranquillity. The big project – a 4 lane, 25 metre swimming pool – has been completed (ceremoniously opened in 2019 by Olympian Mark Foster) and all children from Reception upwards now swim at least once a week (although for Reception this is for the summer term only). CPS is making the most of the investment, with water polo, after school swimming and swim squad also now on offer.
With plenty of space for sports facilities, there’s certainly no shortage with an 800m2 sports hall, 3 all- weather pitches, an astro wicket, grass wicket and bowling machine and two large sports fields. Moving with the times, there’s been a gradual ditching of gender-biased sports, so yoga, football, cricket, fencing, and golf are among the activities now offered to all pupils, and for the smaller classes in Year 7 and 8 (because half of the Year 6 pupils leave to go to the local grammars) there’s an opportunity to play at the local golf, tennis and squash clubs.
Academically there’s a specialist Music Block with teaching space, keyboard room and 6 practice rooms, and specialist areas for science, art, DT and languages. Plans are afoot to build another classroom and make separate spaces for art and DT, as well as a dedicated space for food tech.
The main hall currently doubles for drama productions, but a tiered seating performance hall for 180 is earmarked for the future with lighting and sound rigs, along with a new dining room.
Plenty of investment going on elsewhere too, with an Outdoor Learning Area, pond and Learning Resource Centre (21 networked computers in the IT Suite, plus around 200 computers in the school and 7000 library books) all opened in 2017.
Two thirds of the children who take the 11+ here pass the exam (and as someone with children at local schools in this area, I can say categorically that’s a phenomenal percentage, more so as this is a partially selective school for children from Year 3).
Unusually CPS gives equal weight to the 11+, rather than funnelling as many children as possible through to private secondary schools – this might make it an attractive option for parents who are willing to stretch to prep fees but hope to make the move over to (free) grammar schools ultimately.
There’s a broad mix of scholarships (sports, music, academic) to a wide range of private schools, reflecting the all-rounder ethos of the school. Some of the more popular destination schools include Dr Challoner’s and Chesham grammars as well as Abbot’s Hill, Pipers Corner and The Royal Masonic.
A new approach to teaching in the Junior School called ‘Creative Curriculum’ sets them apart from the exam factory style, with all subjects teaching around a single topic, most recently, for example, the story of Sir Charlie Stinky Socks. This had them doing castles in history, medieval maps in geography and testing waterproof capes in science.
Specialist subjects like French, Spanish and DT are taught from nursery (don’t worry, your toddler won’t be handed a power tool), and music is a big deal here, several choirs, and with an orchestra -sensibly not accessed by would be Benedettis and Menuhins until one year’s tuition or Grade 1 is passed.
And no prep school would be complete without a Mud Kitchen, part of the Forest School, which goes ahead whatever the weather. Engaging the 7+ age groups in Forest School requires more than bug hunts and mud, and in the case of CPS they’ve had a go with some more age appropriate clubs – Eco Warriors, who hope to grow food for the school kitchen (there’s also a school orchard – perfect for that Eureka moment…), plus they get stuck into the pond habitat and have sown wild flower seeds.
For the Y7 & 8 kids there’s Survivor Club, building on the epic popularity of everything Bear Grylls. Kids solve ‘survival scenarios’, learn to build shelters and orienteer their way back to school from a drop-off point (without a smartphone…).
Jonathan Beale (above) taught both maths and PE at the school for almost 20 years before taking up the role of Head in Sept 17. I haven’t met him personally so can’t offer an opinion on his management style but since his tenure began he’s introduced Growth Mindset initiatives as well as the afore-mentioned Creative Curriculum, alongside his bold bricks and mortar ambitions. I’ll nobble him personally next time I’m at the school, I promise.
Nursery and Reception classes are housed in the Early Years Building. The nursery has 1:5 ratios and maximum classes of 20, with Reception classes hitting a maximum 20 (as per the rest of the school). There’s a sweet, safe EYFS playground and a pirate ship climbing frame specifically for littlies.
As integral to a prep school offering as manners and scholarships. At CPS you can drop off your kids from nursery onwards from 8am (soon to be moved to 7.30am) and collect at 6pm for a variety of before and after school clubs. There are currently four school bus routes – Little Chalfont/Amersham/Chesham, Great Missenden, Wendover/Choleysbury and Tring/Berkhamsted.
Is it quirky that a high-achieving prep school can feel so much like a traditional village school? I really liked the friendly, low-key vibe, quite refreshing amongst all the striving we put our kids through. The PE curriculum includes trendy sports like lacrosse and girls football amongst its more traditional pursuits which sounds like fun for the kids with parkour and fencing as extra-curricular activities.
Rock Band is also an option (restrain your husbands, it’s just for U13s). And more of a necessity than a quirk these days, the school provides a confidential counselling service called ‘Chatline’ for the pupils, with the kids requesting sessions through a post box system with a qualified counsellor should they need it.
Standard for this part of the country. Full time nursery £3,180 per term, Reception £3,530 going up to £5,140 per term for Years 7 & 8. Fully justified in a school that’s been judged excellent in all areas of its most recent ISI Report (Jan 16).
WORD ON THE GROUND
Praise and more praise – the consensus is that it hits the sweet spot of inclusivity and allowing children to be children, but also making sure they deliver on academics. There’s acceptance that the school is a bit scruffy in parts, but no-one really seems to mind.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a prep school education without undue pressure. Throwing kids outdoor to play is the order of the day here, and sport is taken very seriously – hockey, swimming and rugby do particularly well.
Not for: Those who feel uncomfortable about mixed ability classes (though in fairness there are ability sets for maths from Year 4, and maths and English from Year 5). The school has a lived in, homely feel that I like, but those wanting pristine surfaces for their money may take issue with. If you’re wanting to find a school in a hurry you won’t be in luck here – it’s oversubscribed across all year groups except Years 3,7 & 8, so you’ll need to get your name down on a list pronto.
Dare to disagree: Be my guest! The next Open Day is Weds 22 September (9.30 – 11.30am) and Sat 25 September (9am – 11.30am).
Chesham Preparatory School, Two Dells Lane, Chesham, Bucks, HP5 3QF. Tel: 01494 782619. cheshamprep.co.uk