The Beacon School, Amersham
The largest single sex prep school in the UK, The Beacon still has an impressively inclusive, family feel to it, with a focus on pastoral care and turning out well-rounded boys.
The Beacon is a smart independent day Prep School for boys (4-13) between leafy Chesham Bois and Amersham in South Bucks amongst 18 acres. It is the largest single sex Prep School in the UK with around 500 pupils. Classes are nevertheless kept small at 18-20 max, and the school prides itself on its pastoral ethos – The Beacon’s motto is ‘be kind, be kind, be kind’, which I love. The school remains on its original 1933 site, and you’ll see charming timbered barns (once farm buildings) still in use around the school Quad along with more practical, modern additions.
A cool £5m has been spent on The Beacon in the last five years so facilities are fine, thanks very much! Aside from the usuals (sports hall, astroturfs, tennis courts), the sports facilities worth shouting about include 16 acres of playing fields with a cross country course set in the Chiltern Hills, and a jaw-dropping new covered 25m swimming pool that puts most public pools to shame.
Interested in the arts? There’s an attractive 220-seat purpose-built theatre, dedicated LAMDA teaching room (roughly 20% of the boys take exams here), a studio theatre, music technology suite with MAC computers and eight music practice rooms and a drum pod.
Academically there are separate science labs for different ages of boys, a purpose-built Art Studio with kiln, computers and digital cameras, a DT workshop with laser cutter, a CNC router, vinyl cutter and a 3D printer and computer-aided design programmes as well as more traditional DT stalwarts (drills! saws!).
The ethos here is explicitly ‘sport for all’ and every boy from Year 3 upwards represents the school in team matches. ‘Robinson’, the head of the sports department, is super passionate about inclusion, and with over 750 fixtures played throughout the year, he ensures every boy gets their moment in the sun. Nothing too unusual in the sports programme here – football, hockey, cricket, tennis, rugby and athletics are the main focus, with athletics and cross country particularly strong and cricket getting some new financial investment. Expect swimming to get up there fast now the pool schedule has got cracking.
MUSIC, ART AND DRAMA
Musicians are well catered for here – there’s a full orchestra on offer which is not something I see at many prep schools, plus two wind bands, mini strings, two guitar ensembles, rock band and, again unusual, two theory groups. The take-up of 50% for instrumental tuition is around average.
With a large theatre plus a second smaller space, drama is popular here (the current head cites drama as one of his hobbies so no surprise it’s thriving), with four major productions put on each year, plus Christmas nativity plays for the younger boys.
The new head of art is spear-heading a more contemporary outlook in the department so expect more investment in art resourcing over the next year.
The Beacon was one of the founding schools of the Prep School Baccalaureate (PSB) – an alternative to the Common Entrance curriculum criticised by some heads for its ‘rote learning’ reputation. Basically the PSB encourages a set of learning skills – Communication, Collaboration, Leadership, Independence, Reviewing and Improving and Thinking and Learning – across all areas of school life within a spine of 10 core subjects, with the curriculum set not by a board but by each individual school.
At The Beacon that manifests itself in both tradition (Latin and Classics both compulsory between Year 6-8) and progression, with a huge emphasis on areas like Cooking and Nutrition and International Studies as well as initiatives like the ‘Self and Society Room’, a philosophical space that discusses the relevance of religion in the 21st century.
The mix seems to be working – over the last three years, 40 boys gained scholarships to the likes of Harrow, Oundle and Berkhamsted School. The 2019 Transfer Test pass mark into grammar schools was 70% (trust me, that’s excellent). Local options include Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham, The Royal Grammar in High Wycombe and Chesham Grammar.
This is an area The Beacon delivers particularly well on. The core message of ‘be kind, be kind, be kind’ as the school ethos is a powerful starting point (compare to other schools and their mottos of ambition, strive, success etc.), and this is backed up with active teaching of life skills like mindfulness from Reception upwards, Years 7 & 8 mentoring the younger boys and the permanent school counsellor.
Oooh I liked William Phelps a lot. He’s fun, charismatic and a teeny bit eccentric in the way you’d like your headteachers to be, but also vastly experienced, having been Headmaster of the British International School in New York (BIS-NY) for five years and Senior Housemaster and Head of Boarding at Abingdon School. Phelps has been in the hot seat since Sept 2015 and comes from a family of teachers (his brother is deputy head at The Dragon in Oxford and his dad was an Oxford Don).
He showed me around and has a winning, almost boyish enthusiasm for what make the school special – the boys whooping as they got wet outside in a science experiment and the blue Dr Who Tardis (made by a retired DT teacher) that turned up one day in the yard and is now a permanent fixture.
Well catered for in separate Pre-Prep buildings for boys aged 4-7 years in classes of 20 max. Plenty of room, space, light and all the school facilities close at hand for boys, led with plenty of passion and creativity by Ryan Steward who was previously deputy head of pre-prep at Ashfold School.
Specialist taught subjects include Music, Games, PE, Drama, ICT and International Studies and a breadth of afterschool clubs from storytelling to Spanish, but I particularly liked the outdoor space for the littlies – stretched across the breadth of the building with plenty of room for invention (puppet show area, sand pit, and building zone).
The Beacon offers its own regular outdoor learning for Pre-Prep rather than the official Forest School programme. That said, it’s not all bombing around and mud kitchens here. One of the sweetest things I’ve seen in a school is The Beacon pre-prep children having a yoga class complete with cuddly toys. And kindness starts early here – the children who are recognised for being thoughtful to others get a hot chocolate with Mr Steward.
The Beacon is a selective school but take a wide range of abilities – it’s not just about academics here. There’s specialist SEN provision in a new dedicated space on offer in a light and airy space that displays celebrating famous dyslexics and emphasising that everybody has different gifts are the order of the day.
LOCKDOWN & RETURNING TO SCHOOL
The Beacon adapted smartly to lockdown with online learning – its #BeaconExcellence: Online managed to achieved what the best schools have done, maintaining normal time table, live lessons where possible, tutor time every morning, interactions with classmates and assemblies. They also offered one thing I’ve not heard offered elsewhere, which is access to the school counsellor every day for boys and their families – that must have been a real helping hand for many.
Since September, The Beacon has safely welcomed all boys and staff back onto site, with extra hygiene and cleaning measures, easy-to-follow one-way systems, staggered starts for breaks, lunch times and finishes to keep year group bubbles separate and safe. They are also well placed to immediately switch to their #BeaconExcellence: Online provision, should any bubble need to self-isolate at home.
If a quirk is ‘not the norm’ then I have to say the food, because these are the best school lunches I’ve ever come across. The breadth on offer, but also the thought that’s gone into Taste Buddies, a kitchen-led initiative getting the kids to try British seasonal food (when I was there – Jerusalem artichokes!) was seriously impressive. The emphasis on cooking for the boys is unusual too, weekly lessons that culminate in a Yearly Mastercook competition judged by Laurie Gear of the Michelin starred (and former Muddy Award winner) Artichoke restaurant.
More a footnote of history than a quirk is the dining hall where Sgts Mess’ has been carved over the doorway, a throwback to the Second World War when the army were billeted in the buildings.
Average for this part of Buckinghamshire I’d say. Per term: Reception £4100, Y1 & Y2 £4500, Y3&4 £5450, Y5 £5650, Y6 – Y8 £5925.
View the latest inspection and compliance reports here.
Bus links are excellent for those in surrounding towns and villages with routes from Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross, Chorleywood, Denham, Great Missenden, High Wycombe and the Chalfont villages. View the bus route service. Amersham to London Marylebone via train takes 35 minutes.
WRAP AROUND CARE
You can drop off your child from 7.30am for breakfast, and have them fed, watered, after-school clubbed and ready for home again at 6pm.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Glowing. The view from parents is that it’s strong across the board, academically (as you’d expect if you’re paying good money) but also across the arts which are seen as just as ‘cool’ as sports.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents looking to turn out modern, independent, outward-looking ‘all rounder’ boys in a nurturing environment. As the biggest single sex prep school in the UK, it can cater to bigger personalities whilst still being small enough to nurture the less extrovert.
Not for: If you like your schools to look like stately homes on endless rolling hills, start squinting now.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest! The next Open Day is on Saturday 10 October, between 09:00 and 16:00. The school are offering individual, socially-distanced tours with a member of The Beacon’s team. Tours can be pre-booked online.