Camaraderie, choirs, cricket and character – single-sex starter schools have so much to offer, finds Sally Jones
When you’re educating all boys, the atmosphere is very different from a co-ed school,’ says Sarah Segrave, Headmistress of the highly successful all-boy prep school Eaton House The Manor in Clapham, which the TES recently shortlisted for its Prep School of the Year Award. Segrave adds: ‘Humour is the key. Boys don’t like to be nagged so we really encourage lots of fun and laughs, and they love the sense of camaraderie.’ Activity and exercise are central, too, she points out. ‘They go haring round Clapham Common for 40 minutes at lunchtime and come back covered in mud – half-boy half-labrador. Then, when they get down to work there’s this great buzz and energy – and a real sense of purposefulness.’
Eaton House The Manor is one of a select group of sought-after all-boy preps that are bucking the trend towards mixed schools. Although non-selective on entry, almost half its pupils go on to seven top public schools, including Eton, Westminster, Dulwich and Winchester. So what are they and the other thriving boys’ preps doing so well?
Segrave insists courtesy and communication skills are as important as the intellectual curiosity her school instils. She shakes hands with all 223 boys, each morning and evening while the younger pupils still doff their caps.
‘There’s a lovely blend of formal and informal,’ she says, ‘and a high standard of kindness and empathy. If someone’s done something really good they come in to see me for a ‘good show’. It can be doing well in a maths test, helping tidy up at lunch or being kind to another pupil. We rely on fabulous teachers, a really rigorous curriculum focusing on the humanities – History, Geography, Religion, Philosophy – and high expectations to get the most out of everyone.’
This is not a quiet school, she points out: ‘We ensure the kids’ voices are heard, encouraging them to debate and explore ideas out loud to develop their critical thinking skills and academic resilience.’
Variety and imaginative teaching methods seem to be common factors among the boys’ schools which are succeeding in a highly competitive sector.
The educational world may be moving away from single sex education, admits Ben Beardmore-Gray, Head of Moulsford Prep School in Oxfordshire. ‘Several schools around here have gone fully co-ed in the past few years,’ Beardmore-Gray says, yet adding, ‘Over the same period we’ve grown – and gone from strength to strength.
‘I’m a firm believer that there’s still a market for all-boys prep education but the absolute key is to run a first-class school.’
He explains: ‘We know what makes boys tick. We focus on variety and a practical education, so they’re not stuck in the classroom the whole time. We re-enact battles in our fantastic school grounds or do relay-style spelling tests outdoors: a boy runs from A to B, tags his partner and recites the spelling then the next guy goes.
‘We have a large patio by the river tiled with perfect squares so sometimes in maths lessons, the boys will draw graphs with chalk on the squares. They love doing something different, and it makes the lessons really memorable.’
Papplewick School near Ascot, renowned for its close-knit, quirky atmosphere and impressive academic credentials, is so popular that its current roll of 225 boys means ‘it’s bursting at the gunwales’. Its head, Tom Bunbury, believes that teaching boys is a distinctive skill and that even for those going on to co-ed senior schools, there are particular benefits in an all-boy environment up to 13.
‘In co-ed prep schools,’ says Bunbury, ‘the girls mostly sit together and the boys sit together. They’re very different beasts; their interests aren’t shared and they develop at different ages.
‘At 11, many girls are quite mature and can sit and concentrate. The boys are still little boys and we gear our teaching to this: lots of movement in the classroom and boys competing with others learning and maturing in the same way.’
He adds: ‘We’re very much an all-boys school but not in a macho way. There are crazy things like our famous Snake Club, which grew from one snake and a handful of boys involved to about 20 animals, including bearded dragons. The little boys love it, as they do the rocket club and making dens – the sort of activities featured in The Dangerous Book for Boys.’
Bunbury laughs: ‘You could say we’re the Dangerous School for Boys!’ before saying, ‘Boys need bags of humour in their lives: banter’s become a dirty word but there’s lots of friendly banter in an all-boys school. There’s plenty of sport but most stay really involved in the arts too: people fight to get into our four-part First Choir and the art here is extraordinary – both things which senior boys in mixed prep schools often drop out of, perhaps self-conscious about being judged by the girls.’
Richard Berlie, Headmaster of St Anthony’s Prep School for Boys in Hampstead, agrees, insisting that in an increasingly pressurised world, it is vital that boys be allowed to develop at their own pace.
‘Getting the best out of boys requires careful nurturing and the chance to try new activities, develop skills and build confidence,’ Berlie says. ‘The all-boy environment at St Anthony’s fosters a camaraderie of learning, in an atmosphere of kindness and respect, rather than brittle competitiveness. It also allows our pupils to sing and perform, dance, play with Lego, code or exercise without fear of embarrassment – they can be themselves.’
For Alex Thomas, Head of St Philip’s, an outstanding Catholic Prep School in South Kensington, this lack of self-consciousness is an important element. The current leavers are bound for most of the top schools, including Winchester, Tonbridge, Radley, Eton and St Paul’s but he is particularly proud that the school is ‘absolutely not a hothouse’.
‘I see St Philip’s as lots of boys having a good laugh,’ Thomas insists. ‘They love nothing more than being gently teased. It’s a bit like having 100 puppies: they need to be well run and exercised – and they thrive on routine, a bit of discipline, encouragement and loads of fun.
‘When I arrived in 2016, I opened the gardens, so rather than chatting in the classroom when they arrived at school, the boys would spend half-an-hour running around, playing games, then once they got into lessons they were ready to switch on and concentrate.’
He is enthusiastic about his charges. ‘I want the boys to have a ball. We work them really hard and they thrive on it but what they remember most are the conker competition and singing in Latin every Friday morning. The majority are Catholics but we have Muslim families who choose the school because of our clear values.’
Like most traditional all-boys preps, St Philip’s seems untrammelled by the wilder excesses of ‘woke’ and gender politics. Thomas is grateful that as a Catholic school they ‘can opt out of the odd sex education stuff’ and he encourages general tolerance of difference and diversity by explaining that not everyone is the same and that God loves everyone as individuals regardless of our choices.
‘There’s too much reach into people’s family life by government,’ he confides. ‘We should let boys be children as long as possible.’
High-flying Wetherby Prep in Central London sends numerous boys to Eton, Harrow and Winchester as well as all the top London day schools, but here too, personal qualities are as prized as academic achievement. Boys are nominated by their peers and teachers for the Kindness Cup, or to receive the coveted trophy as Citizen of the Week or Sportsman of the Week, the beaming winners featuring prominently in the school newsletter. It is an early lesson that character and integrity are crucial, and thoughtful youngsters with good people-skills are most likely to thrive in their future careers.
At Dulwich Prep London, empathy and high standards of behaviour are central to the school’s positivity and sense of purpose. Around 40% of pupils go on to Dulwich College and several boys each year win places at other top schools including Eton and Tonbridge, whilst two of last year’s head boys are now at Winchester.
‘We are an unashamedly all-boys school with a reputation for assuring excellence and with something for every type of boy whether he be scholarly, sporty, or artistic,’ explains Head Master Louise Davidson. ‘Our music and drama provisions offer a wide variety of choice, and our extensive co-curricular offer allows boys to carve their own niche. Every year we fundraise for a range of charities, and recently our Year 8 boys slept out in the school grounds for the homeless charity Centrepoint raising over £6,500. We promote our eight values across the school, designed to develop character and empathy, and our academic and sporting excellence stems from this approach.’
Though small, close-knit and ultra-traditional, with only 110 boys, family-owned and run Sunningdale School, alma mater of Prince Michael of Kent, is famous as a feeder for Eton, Winchester and Harrow.
‘The boys lap up our 25 acres in leafy Berkshire,’ smiles Admissions Registrar, Susannah Knight. ‘We are a full boarding school with a well-balanced mix of boys from the UK and all over the world. Most of our boys go onto the major boarding schools so this really helps build resilience. The senior schools say they see a big difference between those who’ve boarded for at least two years and those who haven’t.’
Looking round the top all-boys preps, especially the smaller boarding schools, the nurturing environment, camaraderie and fun are almost tangible. Even visiting parents initially suspicious of boarding often come away converts.
As one mother of a former Papplewick pupil admitted: ‘Beforehand, I’d hated the thought of Ben boarding but the moment he arrived, I knew it was perfect for him – in fact I almost wished that in my next existence, I could come back as a little boy and go there myself!’ High praise indeed.
All-Boy Prep Schools In The UK
Aysgarth School – aysgarthschool.com
Caldicott Preparatory School – caldicott.com
Christ Church Cathedral School – cccs.org.uk
Cumnor House Boys –cumnorhouse.com
Ludgrove School – ludgrove.net
Moulsford Prep School –moulsford.com
New Beacon School – newbeacon.org.uk
Papplewick – papplewick.org.uk
Parkside School – parkside-school.co.uk
Sunningdale School – sunningdaleschool.co.uk
The Beacon – thebeaconschool.co.uk
Broomwood Prep, Boys – northwoodschools.com
Dulwich College Junior School – dulwich.org.uk
Dulwich Prep – dulwichpreplondon.org
Eaton House, Belgravia – eatonhouseschools.com
Eaton House, The Manor – eatonhouseschools.com
Elmhurst School For Boys – elmhurstschool.net
King’s House School – kingshouseschool.org
Merchant Taylors’ Prep School – mtpn.org.uk
Shrewsbury House School – shrewsburyhouse.net
St Anthony’s School For Boys – stanthonysprep.org.uk
St Philip’s School – stpschool.co.uk
Wetherby Preparatory School – wetherbyprep.co.uk