Muddy Schools Guide: Dorset House, Bury

A new feature for Muddy Sussex in which I go for a snoop around some of the county’s best schools. First up is Dorset House, a non-selective co-ed prep and pre-prep near Arundel with a family feel and a peculiar use for jelly babies… It has an open morning and future schools exhibition coming up on March 18 so, you can take a virtual tour with me, then real one for yourself (see details at end).

DORSET HOUSE SCHOOL, BURY, NEAR ARUNDEL

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What, Where?

Dorset House is a co-ed prep and pre-prep school for 4-13-year-olds taking both day pupils and part-time borders. It’s non selective and intimate with currently around 140 pupils and one form per year comprising a maximum of 21.

It is one of the oldest schools in the country, having been founded back in the 18th century. Even older than the school itself is the 12th century Manor House at the heart of its present day site and on my visit I saw children rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a great barn that was actually around in Shakespeare’s day. The buildings both old and new are clustered together and some classrooms and boarders’ bedrooms have a knockout view to the River Arun and Downs beyond. The choir sings in the church next door.

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View from boarders’ common room

Facilities

The Prep school block includes an ICT suite and a laboratory – science being very hands-on at Dorset House. Art and DT are taught in a separate building.

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The music school includes a large teaching space with a swanky JamHub collaborative plug-in system. Want your child to learn the bagpipes? Of course you do (in school time) well they’re among the broad range of instruments they can take up here. A recent revamp to the pre-prep building includes a ‘wet room’ for Art and Science with more space to get all Despicable Me with larger creations and experiments.

There’s also a dedicated library for the younger pupils as well as the main one in the Manor and I’m told some children are so keen on their books they have to be stopped walking down stairs reading. On the sports side there are playing fields, netball and tennis courts and a grass athletics track, an Astroturf, a heated outdoor swimming pool and all-weather cricket nets.

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What else?

An amphitheatre backed by that fabulous view allows for alfresco performances and the grounds also include woodland, which is well utilised for playtime and lessons.

The boarders (there is room for up to 40) were only too happy to show me their lovely homely rooms up in the eaves and to tell me about how they get to cuddle Mylo the dog before lights out. The school offers ‘flexi-boarding’ which means children can choose to board between one and four nights a week which helps them build up to longer stays away from home.

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Ampitheatre

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Mylo and friends

Academic results

Pupils consistently gain their first choice place in competitive entry to senior independent schools and around 60% leave with a scholarship or award of some kind, be it academic, music or sport. Schools pupils go on to include Brighton College, Hurst, Ardingly and Lancing College.

Headteacher

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Matt Thomas has only been at the school a few months (he was previously deputy head at Moulsford Prep.) but seems to have settled in very quickly. When he showed me around during a break five-year-olds were launching themselves at him to tell him news about their siblings and their lunch (I got shown an eyeball sweet one of them had procured), while prep school children intercepted him with strange smelling leaves (no not that kind!) and allegations of their mate’s fourth helping of lasagne.

He tells me the school doesn’t get involved in ‘a facilities arms race’ and he isn’t planning sweeping changes but would like to explore using the nearby River Arun in some way. He’d like to develop ICT further and also the leadership programme on which older children enjoy the likes of adventure training in the Brecon Beacons. “We talk about how to lead personally, because not everyone can be a leader but you can have self respect and self determination,” he explains.

Quirks

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Pond dipping in the grounds

Dorset House has a more local intake than a lot of independent schools with its catchment area generally around 20 miles. Many come on word-of-mouth recommendation. A family atmosphere is encouraged and class teachers eat with the children at lunch times. I was told we’d see different ages mixing at break and, sure enough, this was happening on the football field.

A lovely aspect is the Forest School where children make hot chocolate and pancakes and take their learning outdoors. “We see some children really come alive there,” says Matt.

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Breaks are very freeform, with children choosing where to play and this can include woodland camp building. Topics based learning recently saw Year Four pupils taking part in a World War II evacuation role play, being dropped at a station by their parents, carrying gas mask boxes and even eating a separate menu with the likes of spam fritters (a delicacy I wish my own school had restricted to theme days).

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I popped into a science class and it was very animated, with quick fire questions being answered about a recent experiment. I was told how to blow up a jelly baby (sorry, I’ve forgotten the formula) –  apparently it kind of whines as it goes – aww.

Wrap-around care

Where there are clusters of pupils in the community the school will lay on a mini bus to get them to and from school for a small charge. Prep is done during school time with the day finishing at 6.00pm for most prep school pupils. There’s an After School Club available (£7 an hour, or half that for a sibling) for pre-prep children, who finish at 3.30pm or 4.30pm. Popular extra curricular activities include, gym, judo, horse riding and even rock band. There’s a nursery, Bury Manor Pre-school, on site,  run by an outside company, which is handy for younger siblings.

Fees

Pre-prep is £2,625 – £4,435 per term depending on the age of your child. Prep is £4,775 to £5,625, again rising with age. Boarding is from £28 a week for one night to £90 a week for the maximum four nights (Mon-Thurs).

Word on the ground

I met some of the older pupils over lunch. Straight off the mark as soon as I asked what the best thing about the school was, they all chimed in that they knew everyone. One boy said that until the recent reception intake he’d known the name of every pupil in the school. Themed nights with movies or Thai food were popular with the borders, and everyone seemed to have an enthusiasm, be that sport or music or drama.

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Drama in the ampitheatre

THE MUDDY VERDICT:

Good for: The ethos is very much ‘let children be children’ down to the uniforms which don’t force them to look like mini adults. It’s a small school with ‘a one big family’ feel, so a great place for less confident children to grow. Though it’s a good all-rounder, science and music are particularly strong.

Not for: If you like your education more hot house style or you are after a big site with big facilities this probably won’t appeal. There is no special provision for SEN pupils though their needs are considered on a case by case basis. Also, note that boarders cannot stay over weekends.

Dare to disagree? The next scheduled Dorset House open morning is on Sat 18 March, 9.30 to noon. It includes a future school exhibition so parents can get an idea of where children could continue their education within a two-hour radius.  If you can’t make that date you can arrange a visit at any time.

Dorset House School, The Manor, Church Lane, Bury, Pulborough, West Sussex RH20 1PB. Tel: 01798 831456, dorsethouseschool.com

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