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Bilton Grange Prep School, Rugby

Shortlisted for Pre-Prep school of the Year in the TES awards 2021, this happy and family-orientated co-ed boarding and day prep school merged with nearby Rugby School in January 2020.

Three on a tree

WHAT? WHERE?

A top UK independent co-ed prep boarding and day school for children aged 3 – 13 tucked away on a leafy site between Rugby and the village of Dunchurch.

Set in 90 acres of idyllic parkland Bilton Grange, or BG as it’s affectionately known, combines gothic charm and Harry Potter vibes, extensive modern facilities, with acres of space for exploration – and tree climbing!

As you come up the drive, you leave the bustle of the main road behind to only to be blown away by the school’s stunning centrepiece, a mansion worthy of a period drama, designed by Westminster architect Augustus Pugin nestling in wild gardens, woodlands and countryside.

Pupils can board weekly, flexi or come as day pupils. Saturday school’s compulsory for Years 6, 7 and 8, but optional for Years 4 and 5, with Year 3 having the opportunity to attend Saturday Morning Hockey with regular matches on Saturday afternoons – when not under Covid restrictions.

Years 4 and 5 follow the Big Saturday programme and up to 80% choose to attend. BiG Saturday Activities range from football to natural history club, drama and bushcraft with a life skills option learning how to iron, clean and mow a lawn – all handy to know!

Famous Old Biltonians include Taio Cruz (singer, songwriter, rapper & record producer), former MP Sir Nicholas Winterton, professional cricketer Richard Montgomery, Team GB Olympic hockey player Rob Thompson, Olivier-nominated actor/singer Alexander Hanson and actor and Charmed star Rupert Evans.

There are currently 300 pupils on the roll with 45 boarders and classes averaging 15, so plenty of attention for your kids here.

FACILITIES

Impressive. Dating back to 1873 the school is rich in history. Augustus Pugin was commissioned by a previous owner around 1846 to design a mansion around the pre-existing Georgian farmhouse, at the same time he was designing the House of Lords and the Commons at Westminster. His work includes the interior tiles, stained glass, panelling, the heraldic sculptured beasts on the hallway staircase (below), the gorgeous patterned wallpaper, door furniture, walled garden in the grounds and adjacent cottage.

In 1887 when the first Head, Reverend Walter Earle, moved the school into Bilton Grange he had had the brewhouse and working men’s room converted into a chapel, adjoining the mansion.

Pupils at BG have the use of a good size dedicated theatre, a 25m indoor swimming pool, a sports hall with squash courts and a full-size floodlit AstroTurf hockey pitch in a listed Victorian kitchen garden.  They can also learn to tee-off in a revamped 9-hole golf course with further golf facilities to come.

The school is understandably proud of its Design Technology Department, located in a converted stable block, which continues to be at the forefront of most Prep Schools and would rival many senior schools! Facilities include a 3D printer, vinyl cutter, milling machine and its own CAD (Computer Aided Design) room.

A team of inspirational teachers fire up the pupils’ imaginations with pupils consistently achieving scholarship success to top senior schools. Successful personal design projects range from up-cycling old floorboards into a coffee table to a bench made from an old copper boiler tank and a bespoke doghouse.

For outdoor adventures, the school boasts three woodland areas:

  • the Bath Spinney, a den builder’s paradise, centred around an old military parachute protecting the much-used fire-pit – a regular haunt of the school’s Scout and Guide groups.
  • the Wild Garden – home to the ‘Best Climbing Tree in all the World’ and the location for the newly introduced Outdoor Learning programme, a timetabled curriculum subject for all children in the pre-prep.
  • the Scout Forbid – a woodland space exclusively for the school’s Junior adventurers.

In fact, outdoor learning is a huge part of life here. The setting has a picture-book quality and children are given the chance to safely explore their natural surroundings, climb trees and let their imagination run free.

Brand new Early Years facilities with fully refurbished and expanded 3+ provision in The Nest and Reception classrooms have been designed to support a child-led, play-based approach. Future plans include a Year 1 refurbishment this summer, with a secure outdoor area and double doors from the classrooms to enable free-flow outdoor access for younger children.

During my pre-Christmas tour I was greatly impressed by the friendliness and warmth of staff and pupils. There’s a nurturing environment here, and a relaxed, family feel with many fun quirks (read more on this later).

Walking down a corridor we bumped into a giant elf; at the same time the older children were outdoors competing in festive netball and rugby tournaments dressed up in Christmas hats and costumes.

ACADEMICS

Excellent. Bilton Grange feeds into a broad range of independent schools and Rugby’s state grammars. Consistent and outstanding Common Entrance and Scholarship success over recent years is a testament to the quality of teaching and learning with many of BG’s brightest boys and girls joining Rugby school.

BG works with every family to decide on the right for their child. Last year every senior went to their first choice of secondary. ISI inspectors found that the quality of Bilton Grange pupils’ personal development and their academic and other achievements is excellent, the highest grade. Read the report here.

Little Grange Nursery is yet to open (and will launch in Aug 2022) by Bilton Grange and will accept children whose parents choose a state school pathway instead of Bilton.

The Nest Pre-school for children aged 3+ is a very sweet, well established learning environment. The imaginative curriculum follows the ‘curiosity approach’ in their ‘Busy Learning’ time with adventure outdoors in the grounds every day. Reception teachers have driven a curriculum overhaul which provides a wonderful blend of high quality, bespoke teacher-led interventions, and child-led exploratory play.

The Nest pre school

Year 1 has also revamped their provision, launching a Continuous Provision programme that balances more formal teacher-led learning, with elements of child-led ‘challenge time’. Children can choose how they work through activities aimed not only at developing core skills, but encouraging collaboration, critical thinking, gross and fine motor skills and communication.

Pre-Prep specialist provision is outstanding with experts in their field delivering class sessions including super-talented Mrs Gray, the resident Pre-Prep musician who holds the awesome accolade of performing on the recent Downton Abbey film soundtrack, recorded at London’s Abbey Road studios. A new Super Skills system to help the children with their developing character skills. Characters such as the Teamwork Tiger and Persevering Penguin are used to engage and reward the children for displaying these skills.

Prep From the very start an accessible and highly stimulating curriculum provides pupils in Years 4 to 8 of all abilities the appropriate level of stretch and challenge to be the best they can be. Pupils are encouraged to be confident and adopt a ‘can do’ attitude. Study Skills are developed and learning how to learn is a key facet of a Bilton Grange education, and is, in the school’s view, an essential skill for modern life.

Maths, English and Science are the core focus, complimented with a vibrant humanities, technology, creative, performing arts, musical and sporting study programme. The syllabus is enriched by visitors to the school and trips to various places of interest including Warwick Castle, Lunt Roman Fort, Sulgrave Manor and Bosworth Battlefield.

From 2022 the prep school will see all children given the chance to become part of a chorister programme which includes daily singing, Year 2 pupils learning a string instrument and Year 3 pupils a brass instrument. Bilton Grange is the first prep school to start its own independent choirister programme. 

Residential trips from Middle School include Mount Cook Adventure Centre in Derbyshire and Blackwell Outdoor Activity centre in Worcs (a glamping pod stay, abseiling and orienteering anyone?).

In Year 7, pupils head to Northern France to visit the American Cemetery in Omaha and the Normandy beaches giving the pupils a chance to reflect on sacrifices made during WWII. They also visit the medieval Bayeux Tapestry and enjoy delicious French crepes.

A final residential for Year 8 pupils after completing their common entrance exam is a trip to Skern Lodge Outdoor Centre in Devon where they can forge memories and strengthen bonds before moving on to senior school.

Throughout the curriculum BG aims to promote excellence and achievement. Talented pupils are invited to join the ‘High Flyer’ groups operating in the various scholarship areas.

Years 7 & 8 follow the independent school Common Entrance or Scholarship syllabus, ensuring pupils are fully prepared for their senior school entrance.

SPORTS

There’s plenty of room for sports. One of the most impressive features is BG’s full-sized, artificial turf hockey pitch in the listed Victorian Kitchen Garden.

Major games played here are hockey, rugby, cricket, rounders and netball. But coaching is available in athletics – with many of the school’s talented athletes reaching national finals – tennis, Tae Kwon do, swimming badminton, horse riding and golf.

In 2018 and 2019 the U13 boys were runners-up in the National Prep Schools’ Hockey Tournament, and regularly pick up county and regional hockey titles. One major benefit of the recent merger with Rugby School is that BG pupils now also gain from professional coaching of top-level senior school standard.

WHAT ELSE?

The list of extra-curricular clubs for children in Year 2 upwards is long; there are more with than 20, including Lego, ballet, film appreciation, fencing, yoga and even a dedicated group of Eco-Troopers who volunteer to empty the recycling bins each week!

As for pastoral care, tutors are the first port of call (though children are encouraged to talk to any trusted member of staff); boarders have a pyramid of support.

Well equipped with technology. Almost every classroom has an interactive whiteboard and in the Upper School, pupils in Years 7 and 8, all have their own laptop for use in lessons, preps, and outside of school when necessary.

The introduction of iPads means that younger children in early years and pre-prep up can document and reflect on their own learning, and share this ‘almost live’ with parents, which has been a huge hit. Daily observations have helped parents to feel in touch with their child’s learning.

But it’s a mobile-free area in school (phew). Boarders have access to them in the evening for keeping in contact with their families.

Music – Each child from Year 2 up has the opportunity to learn one or more instruments, from a list of 22. An impressive 75% of those eligible play an instrument regularly with 184 instrumental lessons a week.

Due to Covid the number of ensembles has been reduced from 17 to 14 and is now split into bubbles – ranging from Junior Choir for all year 4s to Senior Woodwind, a Guitar ensemble, SuperStrings, plus a jazz and rock BiG Band.

Recent successes include five music scholars entering Rugby School last year and pupils reaching the finals of Barnardo’s national Choral Competition in three consecutive years – 2017, 2018 and 2019. One Year 7 girl made it into the National Youth Girls’ Choir of GB and another talented Year 4 singer won Oakham School’s Carol Competition.

Speech and drama – 97 children (40%) are sitting LAMDA exams.

Design Technology – the curriculum spans from the Nest through to Year 8. Pupils learn how to safely use and enjoy working with a range of materials, tools and machines. This forward-thinking department enjoys supporting and guiding pupils to think outside of the box with personal projects. 

As well as timetabled lessons, pupils can choose additional DT activities and options in the evening. During my visit children were making pop-up 3D Christmas cards.

The school is enormously proud of its creative arts and DT department. Retired engineer Malcolm Farrant, an OB (Old Biltonian), recently returned to BG to present The DT Farrant Award – a new competition to inspire budding young designers and engineers.

Each year, a design challenge is set for pupils from across the school. Four fantastic entries this year included a petrol-powered scooter, an under-the-stairs storage solution for a cat; a fruit themed rack and a bug hotel made from recycled materials.

House system – BG has four sections each named after prominent British historic and cultural figures. At Pre-Prep there’s Whistler, Shakespeare, Nightingale and Elgar; and at Prep – Churchill, Mountbatten, Nelson and Wellington.

Children are involved in all sorts of decision-making from sitting on the School Council (a recent topic was sustainability), to the Charities Committee, Boarding Council and Food Council.

Parents’ group, FAB (Friends at Bilton), plays an important part in organising events such as the Christmas Fair, the Family Christmas Ball and a Champagne Shopping Evening, raising money for specific projects like renovating the organic garden, or funding a visiting theatre group.

BOARDING

A strong, caring and supportive family orientated home-from-home environment ensures pupils’ wellbeing is central and is what makes BG stand out as one of the best boarding schools in the country.

There are currently 45 full and weekly boarders who live in two single-sex houses at the heart of the school upstairs in the Pugin Mansion with stunning views and grand rooms across the estate.

Run by two residential House Mother’s, a residential couple, who are Assistant House parents, boarding tutors, graduate assistants and residential gap year students, the school proudly boasts of bucking the UK and national trend of declining full and weekly boarding numbers.

Assistant Head Boarding, Mark Tovey, his wife Clare and their three children Xander, Lyra and Sennen, along with the family’s Cocker Spaniel Roxy, live between the two houses.

Girls’ rooms are all named after world famous ski resorts, while boys’ rooms are named after world famous surfing beaches – two of the Tovey family’s favourite outdoor pursuits.

The school is very proud of the pastoral pyramid which lives, works and supports the boarders at BG. There’s even a night matron who is up through the night to check and oversee all boarders are safe and well while also ensuring the washing machines keep going throughout the night!

Pre-Covid one of the great attractions of boarding is the flexibility of the four options on offer: Flexi (a regular night or once every so often), weekly light (Mon, Tues, Thurs, and Fri); weekly (Mon-Sat) or full (termly). There are 83 beds and the school would house around 65-70 boarders on certain nights.

BG is also immensely proud of the multicultural diversity within the school and boarding community. The current catchment of boarders is largely from the UK with international students from France, Spain, Germany, Russia, Hong Kong and China.

An extensive action-packed Activity and Options programme during the week takes in academic challenges, sports sessions, art, DT, horse-riding, scuba, music, Zumba, Cubs, Scouts, Guides, Brownies and lots more.

At the weekends, boarders enjoy being at home and playing in their surroundings but also – prior to the pandemic – visiting various attractions from paintballing and trampolining to Milton Keynes SnowPark, West Midland Safari Park and Rutland Aqua Park.

Saturday night is film night in one of three movie areas allowing all boarders to watch age-appropriate films while munching sweets and snacks from Mrs Tovey’s Tuck shop. Children wear with pride clothing from the 1873 BG boarding brand celebrating the date when the school was first founded.

HEADTEACHER

Gareth Jones

Newly appointed Head Gareth Jones is set to take up the reins from current Headmaster Alex Osiatynski in September 2021. Alex has been at BG for seven years and is a popular school leader. His holistic ethos centres on helping children to remain childlike for as long as possible, find something they are good at while aspiring to do their best and making learning an adventure (all captured in the school’s beautifully illustrated prospectus). A letter announcing his departure praised his commitment to the wellbeing of the children in his care, his sense of fun, his enthusiasm and energy.

Gareth is currently Headmaster of St Andrew’s Prep School in Eastbourne, Sussex where our Muddy editor Cathy wrote he “leads by example – from painting the cute beach-hut style shelters around the school to swimming in the sea every morning for 64 days to raise funds for the new pavilion”.

Previously he held senior positions at the Dragon School in Oxford including Director of Sport and Housemaster, before becoming Headmaster at St Andrew’s six years ago. He read English, with History, before taking his PGCE in Primary Education and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership.

Married to Jemma, a teacher and England Masters hockey player, the couple have three children Ava, Darcie and Jacob.

QUIRKS

Like J K Rowling’s Hogwarts, BG has its very own ‘sorting ceremony’. On entering the Prep in Year 4, all children are placed in the ‘Hobbits’, as they await selection for the four main houses, known as Sections. Towards the end of the first term, the Hobbits are then sorted into Churchill, Mountbatten, Nelson and Wellington Sections in BG’s own sorting ceremony. They are draped in the old BG ‘sorting’ flag (a lion) which arises from its year-long slumber, slowly contemplates their future and then reveals their destiny to the excitement of their peers and section elders from Year 8.

Another lovely Harry Potter-like tradition is the twice-termly candlelit dinners – where the boarding community gathers for a candlelit dinner in the beautiful wood-panelled dining room. Boarders dress up in their evening attire and play host to a mix of BG teaching staff, governors, senior school representatives and other guests.

WRAP AROUND CARE

Minibus runs in the morning bring children in from the villages. Under normal circumstances there’s after school care at Pre-Prep up to 6pm. At Prep, children have the choice to stay for tea and then evening Options. The Options programme caters for all interests from horse-riding, chess, Brownies, Cubs, Scouts and Guides to studying Greek, Improv (Drama), programming and scuba diving.

FEES & BURSARIES

For the academic year 2020/22 fees per term are: Reception £3,460; Year 1 £3,750; Year 2 £3,875; Year 3 £4,150. Fees for Prep start at £5,890 up to £6,675 per term, with flexi-boarding £49 per night, weekly boarding £8,435 and full £9,095.

Bursaries are available for pupils requiring financial assistance in Year 6 from local primary schools.

WORD ON THE GROUND

The parents we spoke to loved the school and their happy, engaged kids. They describe Bilton Grange as providing a fantastic education in “a magical setting” and say teaching staff are always going above and beyond with their commitment, creativity and enthusiasm, supporting pupils with a wealth of innovative resources, patience and kindness. One Year 5 parent says the school gives children feeling of being part of another family, and kids are never rushing to go home; while a Year 7 parent told us as a prep school, BG does just that; it prepares pupils for their senior school, and outstandingly so, and in every area of the child’s educational experience.

VIRTUAL LEARNING

As staff were unable to stage the traditional nativity in Reception for parents this Christmas, the alternative digital Big Bethlehem event sounds awesome. It was a two-day extravaganza, involving story-telling and role play with all the children enjoying playing the different parts and creating props and sets. Highlights were filmed online for parents to watch – and it was such a big hit they may not go back!

Learning went online almost immediately when the first Lockdown struck in March 2020. Lessons were either recorded and sent out or delivered live through Teams. Alongside academic lessons, PE carried on, Zumba classes were followed enthusiastically, there were upcycling projects, and many different types of individual challenges. Recorded and live-streamed assemblies and chapel services continued, as well as the Headmaster’s infamous hymn practices.

Early Years children never stopped learning throughout lockdown, accessing pre-recorded teacher led inputs and reams of high-quality activities sent out each day to parents. From Year 1 children took control of their own learning, accessing activities and tasks each day and engaging in live Teams meetings with their form teachers and peers.

BG sought to give the children a sense of closure for the end of the school year, some special events for the Year 8s who had missed so many rites of passage.

When schools reopened last autumn, stringent levels of cleaning protocols and investment in AIRsteril (air purification) units has increased reassurance for parents, staff and children.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Parents looking for a pastorally driven, outdoorsy school with excellent facilities and outstanding academic results. The weekly swimming lessons are an extra bonus. Ideal for entry into Rugby’s state grammar system as well as the independent sector (Rugby School, Oundle).

Not for: Parents who wrap their offspring in cotton wool – here, children are encouraged to play outdoors, climb trees, get muddy building dens and generally live out an adventure storybook fantasy.

Don’t take our word for it: See for yourself! There’s a whole school Open Day on Sat March 6 for all years at 10.30am and an Early Years Information Evening (The Nest & reception) on Mon March 22 at 7pm.

Prospective parents are welcome to make an appointment to visit the school, and meet the Headmaster at any point during term time. Please contact either Patricia Keating or Caroline Morgan, Registrar, on 01788 818246 or email to arrange an appointment.

Bilton Grange Prep, Dunchurch, Rugby, CV22 6QU. Tel: 01788 818246

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