The Muddy Stilettos Report
The Muddy Stilettos Good Schools Guide offers unique, independent and honest reports on schools, with informal and useful advice from their editors to parents.
Muddy Stilettos visited St Andrew’s Prep in October 2023 and caught up with Headmaster, Tom Gregory for an update.
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A forward-thinking seaside prep school in an enviable location with a focus on bringing out the best in all children and developing creativity, thinking skills and self-expression.
Located perfectly between the sea and the rolling South Downs, this co-ed day and boarding school for children aged 2-13 has been shortlisted for multiple awards, including a Highly Commended Muddy award for originality in teaching music and the arts and International Boarding School of the Year in the Independent Schools of the Year awards. Forward-thinking and nurturing, it shares a few facilities including astroturf and an auditorium, and a board of governors with Eastbourne College, which sits just ‘down the hill’ on the outskirts of the town. St Andrew’s Prep occupies some 12 acres, with an entrance located in an endearing jumble of coastal town-houses and top-notch buildings which layer out on each other and open up, Tardis-like, to a vast walled school field with the Downs just beyond. It’s the perfect blend of rural idyll and town school. Most, but not all, of its 370 pupils go on to Eastbourne College in a well-managed, seamless transition.
Like many historic schools (St Andrew’s is fast approaching its 150-year anniversary) it’s a mix of the old and the new. The former incorporates the beautiful the wood-panelled hall which houses a serene, book-filled library; the chapel, unexpectedly housed behind a thoroughly modern, light and airy drama studio; and the frequent photographs on the walls of old boys with what appears to be the same incredibly austere, flat-capped headmaster in each.
And there’s the new – the sports hall and dance studio opened in 2018 by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, the pavilion for match teas and competitions, the spa-worthy indoor heated swimming pool, the ICT suites and the playground for pre-prep built into a slope leading up to the netball and tennis courts.
A notable new development under head Tom Gregory is the relocation of learning support from a remote building on the edge of the campus to the very heart of the school, in the former library. This calm and relaxed space acts as a drop-in for pupils as well as for learning support and has been housed centrally so as to remove any stigma around seeking additional support. There’s also a cosy ‘snug’ for pupils looking for a bit of wellbeing support, either through play therapy and listening sessions or just to relax and take a breather.
The thought behind how the facilities are used really stands out. For example, sports clubs run after school but also early in the morning, offering an alternative to the usual breakfast-club activities and allowing children – and staff – the chance to build the habit and experience the benefits of exercise in the mornings. The pavilion doubles up as a Year 7 and 8 common room. Located about as far away from the main campus (and boarding house) as it’s possible to get, it gives them a sense of independence and space.
The entire campus is arranged around the spectacular school field, which isn’t just reserved for sport and fixtures but used consistently by the children, all year round. There’s also a pretty headmaster’s garden to the front of the field. The school makes use of the beach, sending pupils out for Beach School weekly on Thursday afternoons.
St Andrew’s is strong on sport and has the glittering trophy cabinet, and the facilities, to back this up. More unusual facilities include a dedicated shooting range and Fives court which, unsurprisingly, the children absolutely love.
The school has been represented at six national sporting finals in 2022-23, including athletics, fencing, hockey, tennis, swimming and table-tennis. The latter is down to the volume of table-tennis tables around the school, a craze that has been entirely pupil-led and become enshrined in the character of the school, for no other reason than the children love it.
During the same timeframe, St Andrew’s Prep was named one of the top 50 prep schools in the UK by The Cricketer magazine. This strong cricket tradition continues across to Eastbourne College, which also excels in the sport.
Not for nothing did St Andrew’s Prep scoop a Highly Commended in the Muddy Awards for teaching in music and the arts. This year, pupils joined colleagues from Eastbourne College for a music tour to Paris singing at Meax Temple Protestant and Disneyland – an eclectic mix of destinations.
Drama is a real strength and pupils can take LAMDA exams from entry to Grade 6, preparing them for performing arts scholarships or colleges. The head of art, meanwhile, has livened the curriculum up from still life to incorporate mixed media and other techniques in the beautifully-lit art studios.
St Andrew’s scrapped the Common Entrance examination and replaced it with the Bridge Curriculum for Years 7, 8 and 9, developed with Eastbourne College. It’s a forward-thinking move that’s paying off, as the heads of St Andrew’s and Eastbourne College both testify.
Although it’s not a hothouse, academics are ambitious. Given that 20 leavers in 2022 were granted scholarships to top public schools, ambitions are clearly being realised. The focus is on forward-thinking teaching and learning and thinking skills features on the curriculum, along with developing intellectual character.
Most leavers go on to Eastbourne but children tend to move onto wherever suits them best, including to very academically rigorous secondaries.
BOARDING and pastoral care
The boarding facilities were totally refurbished in 2019 and sit at the heart of the school. Full-time, weekly and flexi-boarding are all offered to children from Year 3 – flexi is a popular solution and the school uses its boarding space flexibly too, with adorable cabin-like bunk beds for the more occasional boarders. The boarding house is run by husband and wife Mark and Trudy Tomsett, who live in with their three children and teach at the school.
As well as a head of pastoral, there’s a head of wellbeing and the school offers both a school listener and independent listener service. It’s difficult to measure things like wellbeing, confidence, self-esteem and resilience in children, let alone pinpoint them on a visit, but it’s very noticeable as I spend time at the school that children appear purposeful. We’ve all been to those schools where children sort of float around not really seeming to know what they’re doing. Here, they all exude a sense of purpose, of grounding and belonging.
Outdoor learning is valued here, the school has its own on-site Forest School and also takes advantage of its seaside location to run the marine equivalent, a weekly Beach School, with staff members trained by Sussex Wildlife Trust.
Former St Andrew’s Prep and Eastbourne College pupil Tom Gregory started his career in the City. He moved into teaching after 10 years and has held senior roles in various schools over the last thirteen years, including being Deputy Head at both Vinehall and most recently Ashfold School.
He’s clearly thrilled to be back at his old stomping ground along with his wife and two children, who both attend the school. His decision to move the learning support provision to the centre of the school really reflects his ethos and focus on pupils wellbeing. He also wants to maximise the incredible location of the school and make the most of everything on St Andrew’s Prep’s doorstep.
Academics matter to him, and he’s appointed a new Head of Studies to drive the school’s success in this area, but he’s well aware of the simple fact that happy children learn better than unhappy children. Taking over St Andrew’s post-Covid, he’s witnessed the general rise in anxiety among children and seeks to make sure the school has everything in place to fully support pupils in all areas. He’s making changes to the way the school recognises success in pupils, focusing on character and values as much as academic, sporting and creative excellence so each pupil is nurtured as an individual.
He’s also keen to strengthen the links with Eastbourne College and works closely with head Tom Lawson to keep the transition as seamless as possible. That said, not all pupils will move on to Eastbourne and he’s committed to securing each pupil a place at the school that will suit them the best, wherever that may be.
WORD ON THE GROUND
‘Happy, friendly and welcoming’ and ‘rounded’ are words that come up often from parents discussing the school. ‘Religious but not overly so’ is also mentioned – during my visit there was no mention of or focus on a religious element other than the chapel itself.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Most kids, to be honest! Sporty, academic, creative, all-rounders and even those in need of a bit of extra support and nurturing will all flourish here.
Not for: Those after an academic hothouse, or the uber-precocious – childhood is a value here, stress is not.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Visit the website to discover the range of different ways you can get to know the school better.