High March School, Beaconsfield
Small but perfectly formed, this non-selective pre- and prep school in well-heeled Beaconsfield puts pastoral care and happiness at the top of the agenda.
High March is a non-selective pre/prep school for girls 3-11 and boys 3-4 in a particularly well-heeled road in Beaconsfield (gated mansions abound!). It’s known locally for its academic rigour but also a warmth of approach and family atmosphere – no surprise perhaps given that High March has been owned by the same family for over 70 years, with the school directors both grandchildren of the former headmaster and headmistress.
The school sits on two sites in three former large residential houses: one for Nursery to Y2, and then a minute walk down the road for Years 3-6. With 300 pupils across four acres with maximum class sizes of 20, High March is undeniably compact, but like many schools with limited space, it uses it inventively and outsources where necessary.
Given the compact site, High March is creative with its use of space. The school does have an excellent calling card in its own shiny 20 metre swimming pool – every child gets to swim at least once a week from Nursery onwards (older girls may swim up to 4 times a week), and the upshot is a highly competitive swim team that won every gala it entered in 2021, and racked up second place in the National Schools Biathlon.
Netball is another major sport at the school, with two recently resurfaced courts on site and previous success for the Y6 teams in reaching the finals of the IAPS national tournament. There’s a tennis wall for budding Emma Radacanus, and two table tennis tables for fun at break times. Girls use the fields at Beaconsfield High School for athletics, and the school mini bus takes the girls to Forest School at The Shepherds’ Hut in Wendover.
Other sports on offer as part of the school’s recently extended extra-curricular offering currently include fencing, gym club (separate clubs for general interest and more talented girls) and football coached by the team at Wycombe Wanderers and played on the back Astroturf.
In terms of academic facilities, the ICT suite has recently been singled out for some special treatment with a revamp. There’s also a really cool aquarium that’s been built between a classroom and the passageway which looks great, and at the least will offer learning on how not to overfeed fish!
Outside, both school sites have excellent, inventive play areas – well superior to what I often see on site visits. The Junior school playground in particular is very creative, with a ship made by the maintenance staff (seriously!), a lovely sensory garden and an extravagant wooden Wendy house.
The art department is a big calling card for High March, offering an extremely well equipped and bright art room, with sewing machines, wood-working stations and its six potters wheels – highly unusual to have that number in a senior, let alone prep school.
The enthusiastic art teacher Mrs Bissett, who I first met in 2020, is still in situ and still massively creative – the girls are currently exploring op art, as well as understanding Sixties culture more generally and designing their own Mary Quant-style dresses. Her fashion design extra curricular club is wildly over-subscribed.
The music department offers up another inspirational teacher, Mr Hayes, who has just led the school into the national Barnardo’s Youth Choral competition finals – they sing at the Barbican in March, one of only ten choirs. The school has an Upper School orchestra (no mean feat given High March only goes up to 11 years), plus ensembles, and roughly 60% of the children from Y1 up take music lessons here.
LAMDA exams have a huge take up, with almost all the girls from Y1 onwards taking part (incredibly, drama refuseniks can be counted on two hands throughout the entire school). The production at Christmas is the big deal here with all children given exactly the same number of lines – so depending on your opinion, either no-one or everyone is given the chance to shine.
An arts centre, assigned funds in 2019, is currently on hold, but I suspect the hunt for nearby premises will come back to the table when Covid properly recedes.
In 2021, the decision was taken to have just one Nursery class. That class remains mixed with up to six places for boys though from Reception onwards the school becomes all girls. The nursery hours run from 8.30am to 3.30pm, with a longer day possible, and there are clear efforts to make life easier for parents, with half day pupils given lunch before pick up, and full day pupils taken to and from swimming lessons and ballet classes.
There’s nothing particularly unusual to shout about in the nursery – everything is as it should be with messy play, dressing up, free flow between classroom and playground, lots of art on the walls, a sweet library area and organic food cooked on site. There are some lovely initiatives like Mini Me Yoga, a six-week block of bendiness, breathing and wellness for all the kids, and the children have specialist teachers in ICT, French, music, and sport.
The children seemed very happy, bombing around the playground in their natty tartan check uniforms and then lining up neatly to come back inside. Part of that uniform are the ‘Spotties’, below, – blue and white spotted overalls used for eating lunch, creating art or frankly anything with mess involved, are beyond cute.
Though High March is non-selective, academics is an area of shining achievement at the school: High March pupils move on to some of the best state and independent schools, both in the local area and beyond, with 18 school destinations on the table for 2022, and Wycombe Abbey a particularly successful next step (in 2021 three out of four pupils won places here).
Eight girls won scholarships in 2021 across Academic, Art, Drama and Sports, underlining the school’s all-rounder ethos. There was also very high pass rate for 11+ – 82% for the 2021 leavers – but please be aware that, as a partner school, High March doesn’t offer any discrete training for the 11+, so you’ll have to get your coaching elsewhere.
What’s the secret of High March’s success? A mix of early interventions, instilling skills early and a nurturing approach to teaching seems to be the recipe here. The children learn cursive writing from Reception and are also read with for 10 minutes every day throughout Pre-Prep. The kids are streamed for maths from Y4 and English from Y5. In Y5 children can take Latin and classical studies. French is the main language taught at High March but Spanish has been introduced into the curriculum, alternating with Latin on a half-yearly basis. Mandarin, first introduced in 2020, continues to be offered as an extra curricular club. Computer skills, including coding, excel, word, powerpoint and touch-typing are taught from Year 1 (half classes for Years 1 and 2, so nice small numbers).
Excellent. One of High March’s calling cards is its nurturing environment and as a small, all girls school, it’s red hot on kindness, friendship and empathy. Like many smaller schools, High March forgoes tech tracking for a system of checks that starts with the class tutor, and extends up to a Deputy Head of Pastoral, plus the new role of Assistant Head for mental health and wellbeing. In the assisted learning room there’s a small tent where girls can go if they feel like time out, and the Y6s are encouraged to mentor the younger pupils The school has recently introduced Girls On Board, an approach which helps pupils and parents understand the dynamics of girl friendships and gives girls the tools to navigate them.
Kate Gater joined in Sept 2019 from Oxford High prep school, where she’d been the head teacher. Friendly and down-to-earth and quick to laugh, she’s mostly been stuck in Covid fire-fighting since her start, which makes the recent successes across sport, music and academics all the more impressive.
She’s instigated a significant increase in the number and breadth of extra curricular clubs, extended the wrap around care to help parents with drop off and pick up, and most recently in Sept 21 restructured the management so that there are now four assistant heads with distinct responsibilities – one for co-curricular, one for operations, one for professional development (for example, staff training) and a fourth for mental health and wellbeing. She’s also raised the profile of the children’s leadership with all the Y6s assigned roles across the school.
It’s unusual to find a private school that’s been run by a single family for over 70 years and there’s a 1948 High March school song that was created by the pupils at the time and is still sung now.
In keeping with the sense of fairness and opportunity for all that runs through High March, there are two head girls each year – one from each of the two Y6 classes. To make sure there are no cliques and that the girls learn to mix, the classes change regularly.
High March boasts a ‘purple plaque’ next to its front door (above) donated by alumna Alison Ettridge, who was awarded a Women In Innovation award for her contribution to female engineering, and decided that it was High March that had instilled her love of STEM and bestowed the plaque to the school.
Slightly below the local average I’d say, perhaps reflecting the compact grounds. Current pricing is: Nursery (5 mornings) £1,950, Reception £3,985, Year 1 £ 4,120, Year 2, £4,495, Years 3–6 £5,160.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Early drop off at 8am and after school club for all children, including Nursery, until 5.30pm is included in the fees. There are plans to extend pick up to 6pm when possible, as High March are aware that it’s still a bit on the early side and working parents want as much flexibility as possible.
Excellent across the board in its most recent 2019 inspection report.
Always worth a look!
WORD ON THE GROUND
Very positive. High March is the antidote to those hot-housing prep schools that talk happiness and all-round ability but have a gimlet eye on silverware at every turn. Parents love the nurturing, family atmosphere.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a caring, inclusive school that puts pastoral care and happiness at the top of the agenda, expecting achievement to follow from that. The academic results show it’s working.
Not for: High March can’t compete on acreage or facilities with the likes of local competitors so if you’re looking for all bells and whistles on site, move on.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest! The next open morning is Saturday 21 May, by appointment only at 9:15am, 10:00am and 10:45am. To book a place, you must complete the online form.
High March School, Ledborough Lane, Beaconsfield HP9 2PZ. Tel 01494 675186.