Ashfold School, Dorton, Mid Bucks
This bucolic co-ed prep school for day pupils and boarders in the rolling hills of Buckinghamshire is family-oriented with a deserved reputation for its all-rounder offering.
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, Ashfold School takes kids from age 3 (in the nursery bit obviously). 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). There’s no Saturday school here – Ashfold prides itself on its family-friendly ethos, so you can have you little darlings back all weekend.
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.
Plenty to recommend it, with 2 computing labs, a science lab, and the jewel in the crown, £1.3m Art & Design Centre (below) opened in January 2016 – 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, plus newly refurbed History and English rooms, and a new Learning Support room.
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) and with a new Director of Sport recently arrived, odds are it will get even stronger 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.
There’s a huge programme of after-school activities offering kids in Years 5 -8 the chance to try more than 30 activities during the year – everything from fashion design and robotics to dance and fishing. Plus there’s more tecky fun than you can shake a stick at with the latest Microsoft hybrid tablets, iPads, a new satellite music suite, interactive screens in classrooms and every computer replaced.
Ashfold feeds into the top independent schools like 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 2018 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 a new Head of Learning Support to further bolster the SEND provision.
There’s an Academic Scholars’ Club and weekly masterclasses for art, DT, music, sport, computing and drama. But fear not, if your little darling isn’t on course for a Nobel prize or an Oscar, Ashfold is very friendly and inclusive, fielding 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. Class sizes are small so places get filled quickly.
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 guaranteed entry to Stowe School at 13+ and up to 100% of fees and also now one for girls to go to Tudor Hall. Check out the school website for application deadlines.
All change from September 2018 with a new head teacher – Colin Macintosh, former Deputy Head of Beaudesert Park School took over from Michael Chitty, who was 21 years in the hot-seat. I met him before Christmas and liked his enthusiasm, and ‘join in’ ethos. He’s been coaching the football team himself and also wants to be involved in the drama (fact: he used to act at school with his friend, Strictly’s Tom Chambers!).
Like most heads new in the job he’s sitting back and watching before making any huge changes, though the air raid style siren that rang between lessons has been given the chop already and he clearly has his eye on creating a bigger performance/assembly space. There’s also his own list of 50 Things to Do at Ashfold that includes doing a shift with the cleaners and climbing a tree. I’d like to see both of those!
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 (due for refurb). There are plenty of opportunities for the littlies to shine with regular concerts, school trips, and their own Sports Day.
Ashfold doesn’t do quirky in general. ‘Family-oriented’ is probably the better word for Ashfold – it’s quite a community, with parent/staff netball, hockey and tennis, wine tastings, quiz nights, regular coffee mornings, fireworks, Burns Night dinner, 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.
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 let’s 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 discipline 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 finishing at 5-6pm depending on year groups.
Dare to disagree?! You can’t visit the school in person at the moment, but to book a virtual meeting with the head contact the Registrar here.
Ashfold School, Dorton House, Aylesbury, Bucks HP18 9NG.