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Old Buckenham Hall, Brettenham

This small, rural prep school with a family vibe lies in idyllic Suffolk countryside and boasts a musical heritage, impressive grounds and a strong academic offering.

WHAT? WHERE? 

A co-ed preparatory school for three-to-13 year olds, Old Buckenham Hall (OBH), which celebrates its 160th anniversary in 2022, lies around 20 minutes’ drive from Sudbury and is ringed by 80 idyllic acres of grounds – more than enough space for its 240 pupils to roam.

OBH’s long, sweeping driveway and impressive four-hundred year-old red brick hall has National Trust vibes, until you catch a glimpse of the rainbow-coloured nursery, cricket nets and assault courses and realise this country pile is most definitely a place for kids, and not cream teas. 

FACILITIES 

The grounds are the star attraction here rather than any flash facilities. Fields at the front of the school are home to cricket nets and a natural playground with a zip-wire, while to the rear are seven tennis courts, an arboretum with trees that kids are actually encouraged to climb, and woods they’re allowed to roam in (there’s a pleasing lack of fencing). There’s also a couple of scenic ponds, one of which is used for pond-dipping and has a cute duck house.

A wing of the historic main hall has been made into a beautiful children’s library, complete with wood and book-lined walls, comfy sofas and computers. I particularly liked the colourful art work and the window seats, which pupils are encouraged to curl up on with a new read. 

Another stand out is the music department. Famous composer Benjamin Britten is an Old Buckeneer (as alumni are known) and this heritage clearly drives a strong musical offering with eight private teaching rooms (each named after a famous composer) plus a studio with recording equipment and grand piano. It’s a great set up and all kids get free taster sessions to try any instruments they like before signing up for additional lessons. A drama studio next door can be opened out to create a stage, so there’s plenty of opportunity for performers to shine here – during Covid lockdowns they filmed a play for parents rather than a live show, complete with green screen backdrops, and later in the year performed A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream open-air in the woods.

Assemblies take place in Britten Hall, a modern building adjacent to the school, equipped with all the kit you need for sound and lighting wizardry. Sport-wise this school is hot on cricket – there are some inspiring black and white pictures on the walls of the time LG Robinson’s England XI played Australia at OBH in 1921. Hockey, rugby, tennis and netball are also on the agenda from year 1 and there’s a heated, outside pool – future plans include building a roof to enable year-round swimming on-site. 

LITTLIES 

You can’t help but smile as you enter the nursery, a separate modern building with a playground painted in a rainbow of colours. Head David Griffiths let nursery head Camilla Webster lead the way when it came to a recent pre-prep refurb and the results are a glorious riot of colour and fun. Inside it’s much calmer, with a noticeable amount of wood and plants (they’re getting rid of plastic as part of a major green initiative) and it’s even tidy. As with the prep school, its wow factor is the outside facilities including a large old walled garden which looked like a wonderful place to play.

They also get to adventure further into the wider grounds as part of the Mini Buckenham Explorers scheme, where they’re out bug hunting and building dens whatever the weather. On the three Rs front, maths and phonics are covered every morning and then afternoons open out into more varied subjects including geography, history and science. 

ACADEMICS 

Classes are small at OBH, around 12-14 pupils per class, so while it’s non-selective kids get a lot of attention and learn at their pace. 

Being non-selective also doesn’t seem to impact results and there is plenty of scholarship action here, with approximately a third of each year group gaining scholarships to top senior schools. The majority are academic, but also in sport, art, drama, music plus a few all-rounders. Year 8s in 2021 nabbed nine academic, seven sport, one music and two all-round.

OBH has good connections with leading independent schools, particularly Oundle, Uppingham and The Leys School in Cambridge. Old Buckeneers are also at Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Sailsbury, Repton, Wellington and more locally Framlingham and Royal Hospital School. 

PASTORAL CARE 

In a school this size it’s easy to keep an eye on kids’ personal needs and any problems that arise. A school counsellor visits weekly but the key members of staff for day-to-day pastoral care are head of pastoral, David Mitchell and school nurse and head of boarding, Emma Easdale, who lives on site and runs a surgery for both medical and emotional needs. I chatted with her during my tour and she says she’s on hand at all hours to look after the kids’ health problems as well as caring for any pupils feeing upset or who just need a bit of ‘time out’. 

BOARDING

Around 20 per cent of Years 3 and 4 board, and by Years 5 and 6 that number shoots up to around 50/50. By Years 7 and 8 around 90 per cent of pupils are boarding in some capacity, such as staying at the school for two to three nights. There were around 3-4 per cent overseas boarders pre-Covid and that number looks likely to pick up again as travel restrictions loosen. 

Boarding’s split into three houses; girls, boys and Spero on the top floor of the main building, a Mon-Fri junior house for Year 3-5 boarders. I took a peek in the shared dorms, which were tidy but had that comfy, creaky floorboards vibe found in old country houses, even after a recent refurb. I came across a big pile of wooden building blocks in the middle of the lounge area with a polite note on top saying ‘PLEASE LEAVE’, which matron wisely had. 

Children have to be registered for boarding and the minimum stay is two nights, so last-minute stays aren’t an option, though the school tries to accommodate existing boarders who request the odd night.

It’s clearly not a bolt-on option here, but an integral part of the school which all staff are involved in, from taking breakfast with the kids to playing games in the common room after school – apparently if any of the Year 8s can beat Griffiths at pool, there’s a packet of Haribo up for grabs. Overall I found it a fun, family atmosphere which is clearly being driven by a head who is raising his own family there – all three of his children attend OBH.

QUIRKY 

For 2022 a seven-metre high tipi will be erected in the grounds providing the school with extra outside meeting and play space. I was also shown around an outside classroom built in a woodland clearing by Year 8s, which was all my retro, no-screen parenting dreams come true – log seats, wooden sculptures, a shelter and fire. This year’s leavers are building a brick pizza oven! 

THE HEAD 

Griffiths is now in his fourth year at OBH, previously head at Daneshill in Hampshire from where he was head-hunted. 

Warm and friendly, I liked his priorities for the school which have a strong emphasis on outside activities, going green and inclusion. Living on site with his young family inevitably means he’s seeing things through the eyes of a parent as well as a teacher, hence he’s accessible and approachable – a pupil recently came to him requesting plants be placed in all the classrooms to improve air quality. A meeting was called, the plan was implemented and it’s been grabbed onto by other schools and rolled out elsewhere.

Numbers are up but he doesn’t want the school to grow exponentially, believing 240 kids the right amount – a small enough number so he can get to know the needs of each pupil. 

WRAP AROUND CARE 

Children can be dropped off from 8am. In the pre-prep, kids have the opportunity to stay until 4.20 pm for a club run by either school staff or specialist staff, such as craft & play, tennis, ballet/tap, chickens & ducks, dodgeball and i-movies.

ISI 

The last report was in May 2018 and OBH received a glowing review with the quality of pupils’ academic and other achievements described as excellent. 

MOBILE PHONE POLICY 

It’s a device-free school. While there are more than enough iPads and IT on the curriculum, outside the classroom children are encouraged to be children in the traditional sense, which means more tree climbing, less YouTube. The only exceptions are kids with learning needs. 

TRANSPORT 

Mini buses operating Mon-Sat mornings and Mon-Fri evenings are available to all pupils from nursery through to year 9 – children in the younger years are accompanied by the drivers to and from their classrooms. .

FEES 

From November 2021: Nursery £28 half-day; pre-prep (Reception and Yrs 1 & 2) £3425 per term; Year 3, £5505 (boarding  £7951); Year 4, £6532 (boarding £8592); Year 5, £6653 (boarding £8716); Years 6-8, £6947 (boarding £9052).

WORD ON THE GROUND

OBH has a well-earned reputation for good pastoral care and connections with the local community, . The head’s clearly popular with parents and one I chatted to said they liked the sense of freedom the school provided for ideas and play, while making sure all academic bases are covered. 

THE MUDDY VERDICT 

Good for: Parents like me who want their kids off phones and outside. Whether your child’s sporty, academic, musical or a nature-lover, they have the chance to thrive here. 

Not for: If you’re seeking a shiny new urban school with all the latest gadgets and a heavy emphasis on technology, or of the wrapped in cotton-wool mentality when it comes to tree climbing, this isn’t for you. 

Old Buckenham Hall, Brettenham Park, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP7 7PH

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