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Sacred Heart, Wadhurst

Muddy has unearthed a hidden gem of a school that offers many of the bonus points of a prep without the usual price tag.

Ruled out an independent school education for your child because of the wallet-busting fees? Well Muddy has unearthed a hidden gem of a school that offers many of the bonus points of a prep without the usual price tag. No talking at the back please, let us tell you more!

WHAT? WHERE?

Sacred Heart School (SHS) is a small mixed prep just south of Tunbridge Wells in Wadhurst, offering one-form entry throughout from 2 – 11 years old.

Ranked in the top 50 of the Sunday Times Top 100 Prep Schools in 2022, there are currently 142 children on roll (83 girls and 59 boys). This is a Catholic school – although all religions/non-religions are welcome – originally established in 1938 by the Sisters of the Order of Notre Dame to provide an education to the children of local Catholic families.

FACILITIES

Sacred Heart School is unusual in that it offers many of the advantages of a prep – like small class sizes and lots of sporting fixtures – but it is the most affordable independent school you’ll come across. So don’t go expecting a huge roll call of facilities or acres of games fields to gambol in. But what they have they make excellent use of – and the last few years have seen a real investment in resources.

The school hall

There’s a small hall (in scale with the rest of the school) where assemblies, lunch and after school clubs take place, (pictured above). The school previously used a catering delivery service for daily meals but now cooks everything fresh on-site and this development has been very well-received by pupils.

Outside there is a play area on one side and opposite, a welcome new addition since my last visit, an all-weather MUGA (multi use games area) pitch. This has replaced the muddy sports field which got rather waterlogged in winter and means pupils are now able to play outdoors in all weathers and the school is proud to now host matches.

Plus we have it on good authority that the next area of the school to be developed is the Forest School offering – and they are currently looking at creating an Outdoor Learning Area – so watch this space.

All these improvements, alongside the highly competitive school fees and academic success of the school, have seen a steady increase in pupil numbers. All year groups are filling up – it’s one form entry per year and class sizes hover around 18, a good number (not too big, not too small).

SPORTS

Sportswise, considering the small size of the school it punches above its weight in terms of sporting success, with a specialist games teacher and pupils from Y5 and Y6 playing matches every week against other prep schools in the area and taking part in bigger tournaments too.

Membership of the ISA allows them to compete against schools from across the south east in a range of sports including cross country, hockey, rugby, football, netball, cricket and pop lacrosse (non-contact version of lacrosse). As a small school, often competing against much larger schools, they are rightfully proud of their sporting record.

They have had particular success with their football of late and recent achievements include getting through to the National finals for the ISA 5-a-side football. And 3 pupils from SHS were selected out of only 18 boys from across Sussex to go to represent England in the Gothia World Youth Cup in Sweden in July.

The school has enjoyed a long-running relationship with Mayfield School, (a large independent girls Secondary school 10 mins up the road) and this has a series of knock-on benefits for Sacred Heart. All classes from Year 3 to Year 6 have swimming lessons (they rotate the terms) in the smart Mayfield pool. And the big end of year Prize Giving Ceremony takes place in the Mayfield chapel. A major advantage for a small school.

ART & ICT

The schools sits on a site next to Sacred Heart Church. The buildings are modular blocks – purpose built and practical. The newest of these is a Nursery that opened in 2018 – this addition made room for creating an ICT suite (below) in the main school building. Now the school has an ICT specialist, currently teaching the older pupils, exploring various elements of coding and robotic engineering.

Art is a popular part of the curriculum and there have been recent successes in the regional ISA Art competition which is again an accomplishment for a school of this size.

MUSIC AND DRAMA

The school has a small but mighty choir who, legend has it, beat several swanky preps in the final of the Tunbridge Wells Arts Festival in one of those brilliant David and Goliath (or Nativity the movie) moments. And for all the main instruments, like piano, guitar, flute etc there are peripatetic music teachers who visit the school and provide private lessons.

Similarly, when it comes to drama, although there is only a small stage in the hall it is put to full use regularly for assemblies and Musical Evenings, like the annual Spring Musical performance by Y3 and Y4.

At the end of every summer term the Year 6 leavers put on a big musical production and I’ve heard that it is quite something and raises the roof on the school hall (not literally, silly!)

LITTLIES

SHS has a smart Foundation Stage Nursery building which takes little ones from their second birthday and also houses the Reception Class. The new modular building has a fresh and friendly feel. What’s more the advantage of being purpose-built (as opposed to being part of a stately-home-type prep in a Listed building) is that each of the rooms is very spacious and sizeable.

As well as their own free run of an outdoor play area which leads directly off the Nursery rooms, little ones also use the tarmac at the front of the school for outdoor play, (this area doubles up a the Pick Up / Drop Off car park at the beginning and end of the day, below).

The Nursery accepts applicants for 15 hours of funded care a week and some 30 hour funded places, where applicable (not all schools do this). They also offer flexible childcare – from a couple of mornings a week right through to full wrap around care 5 days a week. Go see for yourself at one of the free Parent & Toddler mornings – a fun session of play and refreshments on 1st and 3rd Fridays each month from 9 – 10.15 am.

ACADEMIC RESULTS

Take one small school, deliver small class sizes – no more than 20 per class, although many are less than that, and you get some healthy 11+ and entrance exam results. The school is in East Sussex, so not in Kent, but still many go on to take up places at various Kent grammars, such as Skinners, Tonbridge Girls Grammar School, Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar, Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School, Tunbridge Wells Grammar for Boys and Judd.

Other than that, with the church connection, Bennett remains a popular choice as does Mayfield Girls School, (which is also Catholic). Pupils also go onto independents like Kent College Pembury, Beechwood Sacred Heart, Claremont, Tonbridge School and Battle Abbey. There’s a good level of scholarships won to secondary schools too – with recent examples being Mayfield, Kent College Pembury and Rose Hill School in Tunbridge Wells.

They offer both French lessons for KS2 and Latin in Year 5 and 6. There’s definitely a gentle, inclusive atmosphere here – and a good level of individuality to teaching.

The ethos is strongly anti-hothouse, which in the light of today’s stressed anxious children has become a selling point for the school. However parents report that each child is enabled to fulfil their individual potential and work at whatever level they need to regardless of their year group. No child is held back and no child is left struggling.

THE HEAD

Mrs Johanna Collyer joined the school in September 2021, replacing the previous head teacher of 15 years, Mrs Blake.

Sharing a similar outlook and ethos to her predecessor, Johanna Collyer wants to build on that and take SHS to the next level. She’s young – with two children of her own, aged 3 and 4, who are also at the school. So she lives and breathes this age group. Plus, when a head teacher has their own children on the roll you know they are fully invested in the school being at its best.

WHAT ELSE?

As tends to happen in small schools some classes have tipped the scale and ended up more boy or girl heavy. But the result of this is that more than any other school I have reviewed – there is much less of a girl/boy divide here. All boys and girls tend to play together and across the year groups.

When it comes to sport they put forward their best players, irrespective of whether they are boys or girls. They are somewhat restrained by ISI interschool fixtures to single sex teams, however, when Tournaments allow, the school happily send mixed teams to compete. This breeds genuine friendships and mutal respect across the sexes which I’m a real fan of (check out their League winning Rugby team above).

Of course the smaller size numbers does mean that each year group can’t necessarily put together A, B & C Teams for sport – so instead, where possible, they tend to take all children to school matches and they rotate the players so that everyone gets a turn.

QUIRKS

I’m not sure Catholicism counts as a quirk exactly but as one of only two Catholic prep schools in the area it’s certainly a USP. All the children participate in whole school masses and liturgies and there’s a catholic-strong RE curriculum but the emphasis is on inclusiveness and Christian virtues.

It may sound strange, but I think possibly its biggest quirk is also the fees – I defy you to find a more affordable prep! The fees are really competitive compared to other independent schools in the area and there’s a lack of pomp or show-offness about SHS which will really appeal to some parents (and their pockets).

Oh and I think it has one of the cutest uniforms I’ve ever seen (caps, pinafores and, in the summer, straw boaters).

WRAP AROUND CARE

Children can be dropped off from 8am for a small cost (no breakfast is provided) and it’s free for all children from 8.15am. There’s an After School Club, called Busy Bees, every day until 6pm, plus a decent selection of after school clubs and activities too.

FEES

Very much less than the average prep and with, refreshingly, hardly any jump in fees from Reception right through to Year 6!

Nursery: (Before any Early Years Education Entitlement Funding benefits) £685 (for 2 morning sessions), £980 (for 3 morning sessions) £1,505 (for 5 morning sessions).

Main School: Reception to Year 2 is £2,940 (before any EYEE funding) and Year 3 – Year 6 is £2,970 (for first child) there is a £200 termly Sibling Discount.

WORD ON THE GROUND

Parents are pleased with the small, family atmosphere of the school which is particularly beneficial to little ones. I have it on good authority that the Catholic ethos here is woven intrinsically into school life rather than anyone feeling there is any pressure to convert! But the school does understandably expect families to be supportive and respectful of the school’s ethos.

Parents mention the words genuine kindness, nurturing and community a lot. They also speak very highly of the academic standards. When it comes to various sporting fixtures, there was mention of a lack of a school minibus which means a bit more driving for parents (a coach takes children to matches and the parents help each other out with the return trip).

Above all parents comment on the value for money of SHS and know what they are buying into here and are happy with the mix of small classes, individual care and a lack of pressure.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Kids who could benefit from a nurturing, supportive, non-hot-house style school. Team players – with small numbers, comes opportunity (and a necessity) to get on with everybody and be part of the community. Equally children who do better with the security of a small school and the extra help and reassurance this can give them do well here.

Not for: Anyone after a secular school experience for their child. Although the school is inclusive of all faiths, worship and prayer are central to the life of the school and are embedded in the whole curriculum. Also super boisterous boys and girls will stand out here like a sore thumb.

Go see for yourself: Visit one of their upcoming Open Days next being 29 April 2022.

Sacred Heart School, Mayfield Lane, Durgates, Wadhurst, East Sussex, TN5 6DQ, Tel: 01892 783414, sacredheartwadhurst.org.uk

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