School Life: The best pre-prep schools outside of London

* Read Country Life’s Autumn 2013 School Life supplement in full

Great pre-prep schools are popping up across the UK – from Hampshire to Scotland, Brighton to Dorset and Oxford to Devon, reveals Tessa Waugh.


St Mary’s Melrose, Scottish Borders
01896 822517

Pre-prep for 4-7 year olds
33 pupils


word ‘family’ is often used to describe a school community, but it’s

particularly apt for St Mary’s. Three of Julie Aird’s five children are

there: ‘It’s a very friendly, happy place and the chef is an

institution.’ Pupils are taught PE, Games, Art, Music, Drama and Modern

Languages by subject specialists from the age of four and will

invariably go on to the prep-school section of the school. The deputy

head, Fiona Bell, adds: ‘Children are continually assessed and, if they

require support, this is pro- vided on a one-to-one basis.’

Mount House, Devon
01822 612244

Pre-prep for 3-7 year olds
Approximately 50 pupils

‘Our children are allowed to be free-range, although, of course, I say that advisedly,’ says headmaster Patrick Savage of the pre-prep and prep school on the western edge of Dartmoor. ‘We have huge access to the outdoors, including a farm with alpacas, ducks, pigs and chickens.’

Mr Savage had just returned from an assembly where 50 rapt 3-7 year olds sat in silence for 15 minutes: ‘They listen to each other and are encouraged to be articulate.’

Jeannie Lopes, who’s married to an old boy, has a daughter at the school and two sons now at Eton: ‘Mount House manages to give them this wonderful old-fashioned childhood and gets them to their chosen school without the stress.’

Brookham, Hampshire
01428 722005

Co-ed nursery and pre-prep for 3-7 year olds
200-plus pupils

Headmistress Diane Gardiner has recently introduced a new curriculum: ‘We don’t want to be a hot house-I wanted something that genuinely engaged the children rather than “death by worksheet”.’ The school invites people in to talk to the children – recent visitors include an astronaut. There’s a flexible approach to learning, which might mean doing maths outside or going out on a sunny day to listen to the birds. Mrs Gardiner continues: ‘Put all these ele- ments together in a fantastic environment with passionate teachers, and you develop really good learners.’ Most go on to sister school Highfield Prep School

Old Buckenham Hall, Suffolk
01449 740252

Co-ed nursery and pre-prep for ages 3-7
50 pupils

Set in an old walled garden, in a place the headmistress describes as ‘the middle of nowhere’, the school prides itself on supply- ing the perfect childhood. Sarah Griffiths says: ‘We look at the children and home in on their interests. Some of our year sevens will be going to the north Pole, so we’ve built igloos and hosted talks from someone who’s been there.’ Good use is made of the surrounding woodland, outdoor classroom and outdoor swimming pool.

Most children are involved in a range of after-school clubs-including Spanish, tennis, drama or science-and the transition to Old Buckenham’s prep school, where the majority goes, is seamless.

Bilton Grange, Warwickshire
01788 810217

Co-ed pre-prep for 4-8 year olds
About 120 pupils

Headmaster (and maths teacher) Adrian Brindley is hugely enthusiastic: ‘I tell the child- ren, if you’re stuck, that’s great, because you’re about to learn something! If a subject grabs them, we explore it further. We like to pose questions such as “how would you clean your teeth in space?”-subjects that are exciting to a seven-year-old.’

He describes the school (which also has a boarding prep school) as ‘big enough to have all the facilities [it’s set in 100 acres, with an organic garden], but small enough so that we can look at what each child needs rather than having a “one size fits all” approach’.

Brighton College, Brighton
01273 704259

Co-ed nursery and pre-prep for 3-8 year olds
220 pupils

‘It’s a city school that manages to provide a very nurturing environment,’ explains Niki Cannon, who has two children at the school. ‘It had the most impressive marketing I’ve ever seen, with children aged seven or eight who were confident enough to show prospective parents around their school. It’s a very happy place, with an emphasis on kindness and caring for others.’

The school boasts its own purpose-built building (formerly Roedean Junior School) but also benefits from close links with Brighton prep school and senior school. Pupils have specialist teachers for PE, art, music, Mandarin and French.

, Hampshire

01730 300400

Co-ed nursery and pre-prep for 3-8 year olds
100-plus pupils

Dunannie is the pre-prep for Bedales and stays true to the liberal ethos of its sibling school. ‘It has a family feel, but the children are taught rigorously,’ explains headmistress Jo Webbern, who talks about ‘an enriched curriculum’, where independent thinkers are applauded. Pupils learn Chinese and Bedales staff teach politics and philosophy, asking questions such as: ‘Should Goldilocks go to prison?’. With 140 acres of grounds, there’s plenty of scope for outdoor learning, including a farm. ‘When the sheep shearer came, we were able to stop what we were doing and take everyone to watch.’

Port Regis, Dorset
01747 85780

Co-ed nursery and pre-prep, aged 3-7
55 pupils

Headmistress Ailsa Boardman-Hirst explains that, although the school sticks to the National Curriculum, ‘we have the versatility to interpret it in broader ways because our facilities are so good’. This means that gymnastics takes place in Port Regis’s Olympic gym and swimming in its own indoor pool. French is taught from nursery and the paths around the school offer scope for learning to ride a bicycle.

Parent Lisa Dennis says: ‘In her first week, Dee Dee came back with knobbly home-grown carrots. They go out and track animals in the forest school or make musical instruments out of twigs. For a parent coming from London, it was mind-blowing.’

Lynams, Oxford
01865 315541

Co-ed pre-prep for 4-8 year olds
About 200 pupils

It’s the pre-prep portion of the Dragon School, which most pupils go on to. Headmistress Annie McNeile is proud of her staff-‘they work incredibly hard to make learning fun and the environment welcoming’-and much emphasis is placed on the child as an individual.

In years 1 and 2, they focus on the basics [maths and reading] beside a creative curriculum, and in year 3, the timetable is more subject-based. The children enjoy gardening and trips into Oxford to practise spending small amounts of money or finding a postbox. This year, each child has been given a duster and asked to go home and earn money in aid of childhood diabetes.

* See the best pre-prep schools in London

* See the best schools in the UK

* See the best schools in the South of England