Swanbourne House School, Swanbourne
This bucolic, rural prep school on the Bucks/Beds border has had quite a year, with a new, dynamic, sometimes controversial head teacher. Twelve months on, here's my update.
Swanbourne House School is an all-rounder co-ed prep school (4-13 years) in the rural village of Swanbourne, north of Aylesbury and close to Winslow and Milton Keynes in Bucks. The only co-ed prep school to offer full boarding in the county, you’ll find Swanbourne’s handsome early Victorian stone mansion nestled in 55 acres of grounds – plenty of room in which the 256 kids can dash around in safety. Most of the children here are day pupils, but there’s ad hoc, flexi, weekly and full-boarding on offer from Y3 upwards, though most kids start in Y4-5.
Big news for Swanbourne in 2021 has been its incorporation into The Stowe Group of schools (Winchester House School prep in Brackley also having been scooped up). Part of a national trend that has seen deep-pocketed Senior Schools financially partner with feeder school preps, it’s good news for Swanbourne, with cash at its disposal and Stowe School’s excellent facilities and expertise now at its disposal.
Swanbourne’s loveliest facility is its grounds, including massive wooded areas where kids roam around and make dens and climb trees.
Sportswise, there’s a well-kept 20m indoor swimming pool within an attractive walled area, an athletics track, a mixture of grass and artificial cricket nets, four astro pitches, 10 tennis courts, a Cricket Pavilion, a dance studio and a 6-hole golf course with views over the Vale. The indoor hall accommodates three badminton courts as well as facilitating indoor cricket nets and mini basketball courts. Like other schools I visit with a small cohort and a sports provision that needs developing, Swanbourne is introducing sports that can be excelled at individually as well as together – they’ve started up an equestrian team, and triathlon is being encouraged (currently 35 of the kids take part). That said, football has now been given equal footing with rugby – the new Head of Sport was the coach for Arsenal ladies – and there’s talk of bringing back lacrosse here.
In 2015 the Music department was refurbished and now boasts with practice and teaching rooms, plus a percussion room. Drama is an area that currently lacks its own dedicated space, with the main gym hall doubling up for drama shows and assemblies though, now Stowe School’s facilities are available how long before Swanbourne productions are held in Stowe’s stunning Roxburgh Hall or money is found for a bespoke performing arts centre?
During Covid Swanbourne cancelled its nursery for 3 year old entry and now the Pre-Prep starts at 4 years. There’s a large sheltered outdoor area, a big garden, digging area, playground and, of course, access to the woods. The building, which has recently gained a dining room in the newly refurbished conservatory, dates back to Elizabethan times and is the oldest in the village.
Swanbourne has a non-selective cohort, but with smaller than average class sizes of 14-18, there’s clearly plenty of attention to help the kids reach their goals. For those struggling there’s strong SEN support.
In 2021 there was a record tally of scholarships to other schools and my sense is that Swanbourne is on a mission to deliver strongly in this area. There’s a Bright Young Things club from Y3-6 at Stowe School to stretch the most talented kids, and there’s an internal scholar mentoring programme where all scholars meet every Saturday for workshops and support. In 2021 47% of Swanbourne kids gained scholarships – a huge success.
In Thorpe’s tenure, Swanbourne has moved away from Common Entrance exams to the PSB educational model [Pre-Senior Baccalaureate – based on skills such as leadership, arts, debating etc as well as core knowledge]. It was controversial at the time but the model has gained momentum and as more Senior schools accept the limitations of the CE exam there are now 40 schools signed up (including local schools in Bucks & Oxon like The Beacon and New College School Oxford),
Worth noting there’s still Saturday school at Swanbourne but lessons have been replaced by an Enrichment Programme – courses, workshops and activities that are optional for Y5-6 and compulsory for Y7-8 and offer everything from fashion workshops and go-kart building to ancient greek and photography classes.
The major benefit of a school with 256 pupils is that it’s almost impossible for kids to slip through cracks. From Y5 upwards, every child has a Personal Tutor as well as a Form Tutor and they meet weekly, and the pastoral care system in school is managed by a Safeguarding Lead, who is a member of the school’s Senior Leadership Team. There’s also a school counsellor available twice a week.
The boarding provision was pretty standard, with large bright but basic rooms that are about 60% through a refurb. The bathrooms, lounge and kitchen have had a zsush too. Numbers are relatively small post-Covid with 22 boarders but the school expects these to rise as travel confidence returns along and international students.
Jane Thorpe’s appointment as Head detonated a bomb amongst Swanbourne parents in 2018, with many of them unhappy that a Family Court Judge with no experience in teaching was appointed to the top job. But nearly four years on, Thorpe has grown into the job and the tenacity that saw her play Blues’ rugby for Cambridge Uni, become one of the youngest Barristers called to the Bench as well as an England children’s cricket coach and county hockey player has seen her take the school out of Covid (Swanbourne made the ISA shortlist for Outstanding Response to Covid) and into a partnership that she proactively suggested to Stowe. While most of us peered down the neck of a gin bottle during Covid, Thorpe trained for an Iron Man – and of course she nailed it. So discipline, drive and let’s face it, a dusting of stubbornness make up Thorpe’s DNA. I’d not want to compete against her, but it’s hard not to admire her.
It’s a traditional prep school offering here, and quirkiness is not high on the agenda. Maybe the most unusual thing about Swanbourne is Jane Thorpe – I can’t say I’ve met any other 70.3k ‘Iron Man’ head teachers in the years I’ve been reviewing – and next year she’s planning the 140.6km version!
WRAP AROUND CARE
Flexible childcare is a big thing at Swanbourne and pupils can be accommodated very quickly – if parents are running late, kids can stay on past 4.40pm until 6/6.30pm with no notice, meaning prep and supper are cleared by the time kids get home.
Swanbourne nailed an ‘Excellent’ rating by the ISI (Independent Schools Inspectorate) in 2018; The school was awarded the rating in all aspects of the report which assessed by the quality of education and other achievements and the pupil’s personal development. Read all the reports here.
Keeping pace with other local prep schools I’d say. Per term, full boarding fes are £8,904, weekly boarding £8,310, Day Fees (Year 5-8) £6,487, Day Fees (Year 4) £5,500, Day Fees (Year 3) £5,000, Day Fees (Reception – Year 2) £3,752.
There’s currently school transport provision to collect children in the morning from the Woburn Sands and Milton Keynes areas only.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The Swanbourne parents I talked to enjoy the outdoorsy, non-pressure cooker approach to teaching here. Thorpe’s handling of the school through lockdown was reassuring for many, and everyone I spoke to seemed delighted with the Stowe partnership.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents looking for their child’s all-round education; those who want an outdoorsy, idyllic country setting for their kids; anyone who needs flexible childcare. Children who’d like more support and small classes.
Not for: Those who are looking for a strongly-selective school, prefer a more urban setting, or dislike the idea of Saturday school.