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. Click here to be taken to Muddy Stilettos or read St Andrew’s Prep’s report here:
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.
Shortlisted for multiple awards this year including a category at the Independent School of the Year Awards, this fresh and forward-thinking day and boarding prep, pre-prep and nursery for children aged up to 13 beautifully reflects its location on the edge of Eastbourne, the sunniest place in England. Its entrance lies in an endearing jumble of what look like coastal town-houses, and buildings seem to layer out on each other before opening up to a vast school field. A few facilities – notably astroturf and an auditorium – are shared with nearby Eastbourne College, as is a board of governors.
Set over 12 acres, like many historic schools (St Andrew’s celebrated its 140th anniversary back in 2016) it’s a mix. There’s the old – like the wood-panelled hall now used for table tennis (of which more later) and 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 new 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 new playground for pre-prep built into a slope leading up to the netball and tennis courts.
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.
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. There’s also a lot of table-tennis tables, all packed with eager children honing their skills and chatting nineteen to the dozen. This focus on table-tennis is entirely pupil-led, staff tell me, and it’s become enshrined in the character of the school for no other reason than the children love it – in fact two teams were crowned county champions last year so all that practice at break is clearly paying off.
A new head of performing arts has revolutionised the department, and the school now plans to refurbish the old sports hall into a dedicated performing arts space. When I visited a group of children were being educated on the subject of Queen and Freddie Mercury. It comes as no surprise then to find that the head, Gareth Jones, is keen on music. Drama is another strength and pupils can take LAMDA exams from entry to Grade 6, preparing them for performing arts scholarships or colleges. A new 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 has 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 – this year’s GCSE and A Levels debacle demonstrated the impact of over-reliance on exam preparation as opposed to, you know, learning.
Although it’s not a hothouse, academics are ambitious. Given that 35 leavers in 2018 were granted scholarships to top public schools, ambitions are clearly being realised. The focus is on forward-thinking teaching and learning – the school’s response to lockdown demonstrates this – 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.
The boarding facilities were totally refurbished in 2019 and sit at the heart of the school. They’re cosy and inviting, more like the lovely airy spare room at your favourite auntie’s house than a faceless chain hotel. Assuming said fave auntie is also an interior designer, as one of the gongs St Andrew’s has been shortlisted for this year is Boarding House Extension or Refurb at the BSA Awards. 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, Beach School, with staff members trained by Sussex Wildlife Trust.
Gareth Jones and his family joined St Andrew’s from the Dragon School, Oxford, where he was a housemaster. He’s made a lot of appointments focusing on developing creativity and allowing children to express themselves, skills he’s convinced children need for the future.
He’s clearly an active presence at the school and leads by example – from painting the cute beach-hut style shelters around the school to swimming in the sea every morning for 64 days to raise funds for the new pavilion. He’s also put in place a community awards scheme, described as a bit like a junior Duke of Edinburgh award, in which children earn credits for various activities including challenges and adventures as well as service. Overall he seems a man with an eye to the future, which in the often traditional independent school sector, is refreshing as well as wise.
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 children are going to flourish here, as there’s something for everybody and wellbeing is at the heart of the school. Whether sporty, outdoorsy, academic, creative or sensitive, children should all thrive. All that sunshine and sea air is like a prescription for a robust constitution.
Not for: Parents who want a London day-school-esque hothouse might look elsewhere. It’s a town site, admittedly a very spacious one and close to both the beach and the Downs, but St Andrew’s is no isolated fortress.