Whitehall School, Somersham
Small but perfectly formed, this family-owned and pastorally-strong nursery, pre-, and prep school in rural Cambridgeshire tailors the teaching to the needs of each child.
Whitehall School is a non-selective pre/prep day school for girls and boys 6 months – 11 years in the heart of the lovely large fenland village of Somersham. With just 91 pupils and 1.2 acres of land, it’s one of the smallest independent schools in the country and it has a lovely a family atmosphere – no surprise in a way as Whitehall has been owned by the same family since 1983, with the current Principal the daughter of the original founders. The school is all on one site, housed in a charming Edwardian house and listed coach house. Class sizes are 16 max (although most classes average 8 -12 pupils), so individual attention and a highly personalised approach to early years education is the school’s main calling card.
1.2 acres and a large Edwardian pile goes a long way when you’ve only got 98 pupils to accommodate, so there are plenty of lovely play spaces for the different age groups as well as a forest school/ sensory garden area for gardening lessons and a timber trim trail.
There might not be huge playing fields to speak of (although there is a games field on site for PE lessons), but the school does have an excellent sporting facility in its own covered heated swimming pool, so every child gets to swim regularly.
Academically all the classrooms are a really good size and light and airy, and there’s a separate library. The nursery is proving very popular, so there are plans afoot to extend it further.
Pupils here are fit and healthy and get to stretch their legs during three sports sessions each week, (one indoor and two outdoors) which includes swimming, gymnastics, dance, hockey, netball, football, rugby and tennis. The school puts out teams for inter-school matches and ISI Regional Competitions, and prove that small really is mighty – performing particularly well as the ISA Cross Country competition last year and holding their own in local Football and Netball games.
Like most schools with limited space, Whitehall is inventive with what it has and then outsources where necessary, using the excellent local facilities – hard courts and fields – as well as the beautiful surrounding countryside for cross country (although hill training must be difficult in this extremely flat area of the country!)
MUSIC, ART AND DRAMA
The creative subjects are a big part of school life, especially music and drama. There are annual productions (both Infants and Juniors put on a Christmas and Summer production) both within the school and to the local community.
Music is the other strong suit with a really passionate Junior music teacher, weekly peripatetic piano and violin lessons and the school attends Young Voices in London every other year and perform at the Cambridge St Marys Church Carol Concert at Christmas so there’s plenty of chances for your little one to shine. In fact, throughout their whole school journey at Whitehall, all children get their moment in the spotlight thanks to the small class sizes and the teachers’ knowledge of each pupils’ individual strengths.
There’s an impressive range of extra-curricular clubs for such a small school including some quirky clubs alongside traditional offerings. Current and previous clubs have included, Mandarin, Japanese, Italian, yoga, bottle top craft, chess, ukelele, jigsaws, cooking, textiles, choir, swimming, athletics, football and cricket.
The nursery was set up by Rebecca fairly recently and is housed in a separate building in the grounds. There are two lovely bright rooms for the different ages with their own gardens. The kids (a maximum of 16) looked like they were having a lot of fun when I virtually visited. The nursery has its own garden, so there’s the usual free flow indoor/outdoor play you’d expect with early years provisions. There’s a lot of focus on the outside space though and using nature as a learning tool and a lot of structured play and lessons take place in the school grounds and garden.
Whitehall School is non-selective, but it definitely delivers academically. Maths and English are taught by class teachers with specialist teaching in the other subjects including French, P.E, music and computing beginning as early as Foundation, which is pretty impressive with such small classes. The school has recently transferred over to the International Primary Curriculum for topic based learning of the Foundation subjects, to make the lessons more interesting and interactive for students and has been a real success.
The school operates an Individual Performance Programme, so children each work towards their own specific goals based on advice from their teachers, the head and principal and the outcome of consultations between parents and teachers throughout the year. The goals and targets for each child are continually reviewed and amended throughout the year depending on how they are doing or whether more support is needed. It’s a fabulous way to teach because gifted and talented children can be stretched and challenged by a differentiated curriculum within the classroom, while pupils who are struggling in certain areas are given the one-to-one support they need to gain a lifelong love of learning rather than feeling left behind. There’s also an excellent SEN provision at the school as well as the possibility to organise more support externally.
The proof is in the pudding – or the SATs results – and it’s a method that clearly works very well. At the end of Key Stage 2 (year 6) 100% of pupils are above average in Reading, Grammar and Mathematics, with 66% well above expected in Reading and 34% well above expected in both Maths and Grammar. These impressive results have earned the school a place in The Sunday Times Top 100 Schools Guide for 2019.
The school also has a 100% success rate for places awarded into senior schools, which include some of the best in the county – The Perse, Perse Girls, The Leys, St. Mary’s, King’s Ely, Kimbolton School and Wisbech Grammar. Many students also gain scholarships for these independent secondary schools. Again, thanks to its unique position in having so many resources for a small student cohort, a lot of this success in moving on to the child’s desired secondary school with ease stems from the fact that the school work closely with parents and students from Year 5 onwards to help with the secondary school application process.
Wraparound care is pretty good and handy for parents commuting into Cambridge, with early morning drop off from 8am and late stay until 5:30pm during the term time. The nursery (6 months to 3 years) is particularly good, opening at 7:30am until 5:30pm 50 weeks of the year.
It’s also worth mentioning that from September 2021, the pre-school is coming into line with the nursery and offering care from 8.30-5.30pm, 50 weeks of the year and will also be taking the 30 Free Hours Government funding.
THE HEAD OF SCHOOL
There’s a Head of School and a Proprietor at this school with the headmaster, Mr Chris Holmes, looking after the academic and pastoral day-to-day running of the school as well as teaching 50% of the time and the Proprietor, Rebecca Hutley, looking after the business and ‘big picture’ side of things, so the school is a very well-oiled machine and the headmaster has time and resources to really concentrate on the pupils.
I met Rebecca virtually, due to Covid-19, and she’s clearly passionate about the school that she took over from her teacher parents nine years ago and sees the strength of this school in its small class sizes, personal approach to education and breadth of opportunity for all pupils to reach their full potential. She places a lot of importance on the staff that teach here and worked tirelessly to find the right teachers for each role, to ensure the energy, passion and ratio of young, forward-thinking teachers to traditional, ethos-led staff was exactly right.
During the pandemic, Rebecca worked really hard to make sure pupils didn’t miss out or get behind with their work. Invoices were reduced by 25%, but a full programme of home learning was ready to go just one week after the lockdown started. The school did fixed private YouTube videos that allowed parents to home school in their own time without feeling the pressure to log on at 9am and to be free to enjoy time in the sun as a family. It was a method that worked well for the students, with some religiously doing all the work, while others decided not to follow the programme and save the videos for over the summer.
Whitehall is a traditional school with a lot of focus on turning out well-mannered, confident and well-adjusted children, so you wouldn’t really describe it as quirky. It’s pretty rare to find a family-owned independent school still in the same hands of the original founders though. The reason for setting up the school – to provide a small nurturing environment for children to learn – remains true today and the school is committed to its original ethos.
There’s also a School Council, which is a forward-thinking idea to help pupils thrive in later years and develop their confidence. The council is made up of representatives from each class and directly elected by their classmates, and meet in the Drawing Room. The children cover areas they would like to discuss relating to the comments of their friends and classmates and the Chairman states the agenda points and runs through them while the Secretary takes notes and gives the minutes to be typed up and posted.
Below the local average, and a really good price to attract parents who are on the fence about forking out for private education. Current pricing per term is: Foundation £2575, Reception £2645, Year 1 and 2 £2820, Year 3 and 4 £2900, and Year 5 and 6 £2980. Hot locally-sourced cooked lunches cost £210 per term.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a small, caring, inclusive school that puts pastoral care and happiness at the top of the agenda, as well as a really personalised approach to education that is clearly very successful.
Not for: Whitehall School doesn’t have the acreage and large facilities of some of its local competitors, but what it lacks in that area it more than makes up for pastorally and academically.
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