The Good Schools Guide
Headmaster since September 2016, Richard Brown, lives on site with his sons. Previously Head of Dorset House School, with a stint before that as housemaster at Pangbourne College. Five years in the army are not immediately apparent in this head who likes best to spend his free time writing or walking. Was a ‘tennis parent’ and understands parents getting a bit twitchy about teams. His most important qualities to inspire in pupils: love of learning and kindness.
‘Bent over backwards to help us’ , said parent seeking urgent places for her four children mid-year, ‘…transition was incredibly easy’; another said ‘one step ahead and always thinking about what needs to be done’ (passing- places appeared on the drive as if by magic… )’. ‘A bit more traditional than his predecessor’, thought another, explaining that he has introduced grace and increased the emphasis on manners. Parents appreciate the well- attended surgeries the head has introduced for the parents of each year- group, and say he is at his best one to one.
Following an adored predecessor has its challenges, but most appreciate the new head’s ideas: ‘The…leadership programme is brilliant’ say pupils, with its command tasks and collaborative creativity - the usual helping each other across shark-infested water; his busy programme upgrading facilities - new Arts building and Science lab - is very popular. ‘He’s good at focusing on children’s abilities’, said a parent - ‘[he] makes a point of telling a child if they’re doing well’.
‘I like his different approach - more focused on academics’, said a Year 8 pupil thoughtfully; ‘…his assemblies [are] very enthusiastic…’ , said another. A boarder told us - ‘he’s really friendly; comes and chats at lunchtime and visits boarding houses….helps with Maths’.
A parent told us ‘ the culture [of this school] is to do with the magic of childhood’; or perhaps the magic of how we think childhood should be, with acres of green on which to run around, ancient trees to climb, and teachers who say - how about doing this lesson outside in the sun? The school even created its own moving pictures on Harry Potter day. Children seem young here compared to city schools, and the head aims to extend childhood for as long as possible (whilst of course preparing pupils for senior schools). It’s impossible to resist the happiness of this place, and this reviewer received more random smiles in corridors from children here than at any other school; a tribute not just to their politeness, but to the genuine warmth and friendliness which seem to fill this school.
It’s not selective, but parents say it’s an academically challenging school: ‘we joined the school for more academic stretch’, said one; ‘the bright are well challenged’, said another. Parents say teachers are the best thing about Handcross, who feel that its small size means they know teaching staff well: ‘phenomenal’; ‘energetic and engaged’; ‘commitment beyond what you expect’. ‘The teachers are very inspiring - particularly…in English and Science’, said a parent, relaying her surprise when her son, enthused by Science for the first time, talked about time and black holes the whole way home.
‘Teachers are kind’, agree pupils, one commenting that English has become less scary because the teacher uses her own stories and experience; a Year 3 pupil said of the History teacher - ‘he tells wonderful stories…and they’re all true!’
Handcross is a Google Reference school, and a lot of academic learning here is through this medium. Pupils start using Chromebooks in Pre-Prep and have their own from Year 5 of Prep School (although not to the exclusion of using a pen). Parents and pupils are enthusiastic: revision notes and homework are all detailed there (no more problems with forgetting that scruffy handout) and pupils can email the teacher if they’re not sure about a topic.
In Spanish, Chromebooks mean that each table can be doing something different; in the class we saw one group answered questions on a video, others were translating, others practised conversation.(Pupils here all learn Spanish, and Mandarin. French and Latin are available in upper years for the adventurous.)
‘[Google Chrome] works across so many different things’, say pupils, who particularly love the multiple choice Caboodle. Google Expeditions mean pupils can travel the world in Geography and History - ‘so amazing’, said a pupil, enthusiastically recalling a virtual trip to the theatre to see President Lincoln die. Go-Guardian means teachers can see whatever pupils are doing on screens - ‘so they know if you sometimes look at the football scores…’, said a pupil feelingly.
Learning support has been transformed here in the last year, with parents and pupils bubbling over with enthusiasm for the wonderful staff in the ‘dairy’; ‘[My son’s] self-confidence has soared…’, said a parent. Innovative thinking in this unit: there are no desks, but bean bags, a ball to lounge over and wobble-boards; a teacher may well say ‘let’s do our half an hour of English walking among the trees’: they understand here that dyslexic children need to move while they learn. Dyslexic pupils were using tweezers to move dinosaurs from bowl to bowl to increase their dexterity - a fun way to improve handwriting; a pupil struggling with Maths was using a toy horse rider and jumps to learn his four times table (four faults every time you knock down a fence).
Around twenty pupils receive regular support (1-1 charged as an extra), but this is a department with school-wide relevancy, a parent telling us that any pupil who feels ‘flaky’ about exams can do them in the dairy instead of the school hall, and in this friendly environment feel more confident and do better. Dyslexic pupils become Nessy ambassadors, and go down to Pre-Prep to explain the programme; instead of the indignity of handwriting club, there is the supremacy of Scribe masters. ‘[Learning Support has] gained heart with the new headmaster’, said a parent, ‘[my son] doesn’t feel embarrassed any more’.
There’s a scholarship set, but they are aware that strengths can be subject- specific; teachers will focus and encourage particular strengths, and exhibitions can be in one area. There’s detailed monitoring of value added, and IEPs for all pupils.
Handcross is part of the Brighton College family, but is no back entrance to the College; pupils must hit the same standards as other applicants. The link provides a quality standard, and staff throughout the family share best practice. Around 30% go to Brighton College; others to schools which range from Eton to Seaford College, with 45% getting scholarships.
Pastoral care is a particular strength at Handcross. The head is keenly aware of the mental health issues which can assail young children, and is keen to increase pupils’ resilience to life’s knocks. If pupils have a problem they will talk to their tutor or the deputy head (pastoral), loved by pupils and parents alike, and pupils can also talk to an independent listener.
Random acts of kindness rewarded with kindness bands, on the day of our visit for: handing in money, helping a younger pupil find their parents and for lending someone shin pads.
Not a school to leap for a punishment: time is taken to reflect, discuss and decide on action to address the problem. Parents say that complaints of unkindness or bullying are dealt with quickly - ‘…same day, took seriously, dealt with it discreetly. School investigates misdeeds, doesn’t jump to conclusions’. No exclusions in the last year, one suspension.
Parents particularly appreciate that this school is upfront when things go wrong: an incident was dealt with ‘head on…in a mature manner…and avoided the school gate gossip’, said a parent; ‘they allowed children to make a mistake and be helped rather than punished. Their way of dealing with the situation made me feel we’re at the right school’.
The usual sports, and gorgeous grounds to play them in, with an indoor pool too. Chances for all in A-E matches every week, and a celebration of the less able in the ‘Be Trewe festival’ where the D and E teams play other schools. Girls play football as part of the curriculum, and cricket as a club - although one girl has made it onto the cricket team. (Cricket is due to be included in the curriculum for girls this summer; as is rounders for boys, which gives every player a chance to play, unlike cricket, which favours the strong few).
Most pupils here learn instruments, and music lessons are an energetic business: shoes were in a scruffy pile at the entrance, pupils were sitting on the floor, drums and other instruments between legs, singing and playing with gusto. It’s a traditional set-up musically, which one parent thought could benefit from some street dance and hip hop. Over seventy pupils do LAMDA, with drama lessons and annual productions for all year-groups.
The swish new Art and Design Centre houses art of all sorts, including pottery, textiles and photography. Music played as pupils practised watercolour techniques; next door in woodwork, pupils were turning recycled wood into flags and making plastic coffee containers into Christmas bells.
The lavish range of clubs includes pig care; despite calling them Thing One and Thing Two, the field-to-plate scheme didn’t work out, and the pigs look set for a long and happy life at Handcross.
Around a quarter of Years 5-8 do some sort of boarding, with full, weekly and flexi available. There is an international presence, with boarders from Spain, China, India and more. The varied activity schedule at the weekend always includes a trip: Thorpe Park, Laser Quest and the shopping centre are all popular. Day pupils can join boarders for breakfast at 7.15 for a small extra fee, and can stay for supper until 6.30. ‘Takes the pressure off if you’re both working’, said a parent (Pre-Prep also provides wrap-around care for 50 weeks of the year).
Boarding facilities are of a very high standard, and ‘sensible bedtimes’said parent approvingly. ‘Food is equally good, and pupils enjoy food from around the world on Tuesdays - a taste from home for overseas boarders’.
The best thing about boarding is the freedom they get compared to home, pupils agree. Phones were banned a few years ago and, for a few days, boarders didn’t know what to do with themselves. Now they’re up and out, or involved in Sport or Drama or watching a movie. ‘We can interact with friends more’.
It’s easy to contact parents, by phone or Skype, and parents here are welcome to pop up to the school anytime. ‘My child loved his trial [of boarding]. He felt safe and secure’.
Pre-Prep is headed by Mr Gayler - ‘a big kid at heart; throws himself into everything’, said a parent. It’s set in what would once have been the walled vegetable garden, now a magical place of willow arches, cherry trees and every sort of adventure equipment. The children make full use of the surrounding woods in their Forest School lessons, and on the day of our visit, reception, all in pjs, were about to take a magic trip on a bed to a jungle.
‘Communication is good’ (‘to the point of saturation’, said a parent), by email and text; not just if matches are cancelled, but even if a road is closed that might be a problem on the school run. Parents are confident of a quick response when they contact the school.
‘No average family’, say parents, but it wouldn’t suit ‘someone overly aggressive or full of their own importance and abilities’, said a parent crisply.
‘Believe the advertising’ said one parent earnestly. ‘It’s very welcoming, very kind’. ‘Scatter kindness’ is a sign which appears all over the place at Handcross, and it seems that everyone here has taken this to heart.