Handcross Park School, Handcross
An innovative country day and boarding prep with excellent facilities, acres of parkland grounds, outstanding pastoral care and a trophy cabinet stuffed with awards.
A sizeable co-ed, day and boarding prep for children aged 2-13, set in 52 acres of Sussex parkland and playing fields with deer wandering across the idyllic grounds on misty mornings. It was named Prep School of the Year at the Independent School of the Year awards in 2019, and followed this up with being named best prep for innovation in 2020 and pastoral care in 2021 by The Week Independent Schools Guide. Handcross Park is part of the Brighton College family of schools, although has its own separate governing body, and around 30% of Year 8 pupils move on to the prestigious college.
Sussex preps can largely be divided into the small, cosy schools with around 100-150 pupils on roll, and the larger more vibrant campus-style schools. Both have advantages, and head Richard Brown has experience of both, having worked at the boutique Dorset House School in Bury before joining Handcross Park, which has around 400 pupils on roll.
At the time of writing an in-person visit to Handcross Park hasn’t been possible, the school has an unblemished record of keeping the site Covid-free and a strict visitor policy has remained in place. The school via video is undeniably impressive, a glorious red-brick building presiding over acres of pristine green space. More modern buildings have been added over the years and many have a Scandi chalet feel, in particular the four-lane indoor swimming pool and the Tomlinson Art & Design Centre, which was added in 2017 and houses an art gallery, fully operational DT studio and pottery kiln. A brand new, expansive dining hall is the latest addition, complete with catering manager who used to work at the Ritz. Outside there’s an all-weather pitch, and a golf course.
Early years and pre-prep occupy a walled ‘secret garden’ complete with bright and spacious classrooms, adventure playground and onsite Forest School. The prep school reception and entrance have the classic wood-panelled, leather sofa-ed look of traditional public schools, and the stuffed trophy cabinet to boot. A brand new library occupies an inviting looking and airy space complete with candelabra-style lights hanging from the ornate ceiling. It’s impossible to find fault with the facilities, as a very well-established school, Handcross Park has all the boxes more than ticked.
In its previous life, Handcross Park was an all-boys school and prior to that, the grand building and site was a private home. Somewhat charmingly, the great-great grandchildren of the former occupants now attend the school.
Children play, in their own words, ‘every sport you can think of’ and the facilities and amount of outside space at Handcross Park would undoubtedly appeal to and inspire sporty children. As well as all-weather pitches, the school has netball and tennis courts, a range of grass pitches, a sports hall with climbing wall, cricket nets and an all-weather long jump pit. Alongside PE and games on the curriculum, there are 21 after-school sporting activities on offer.
All children from Year 3 upwards play competitive sport against other preps and senior schools. The school also plays host to regular tournaments, swimming galas and cross-country meets and a successful school equestrian team makes use of the local stables.
With a dedicated music school and art and design centre, the facilities are in place for children to shine at the creative arts. Music and drama are taught weekly by specialist teachers and most children also study an instrument. LAMDA lessons are available and the school has a 100% pass rate for these and Trinity, ABRSM and Rockschool music exams. The school has a multitude of ensembles, choirs and bands, and large-scale performances are put on once a term.
The art and design centre houses all sorts of equipment for creative work including a pottery kiln and wheel, sewing machines for textiles and cameras for photography. There’s a garden space for outdoor work and a gallery where students can display their creations. As a result of this investment, a high number of pupils go on to win art and photography scholarships.
With a 100% success rate at Common Entrance and 30% of Year 8 leavers going on to Brighton College, it’s safe to say academically Handcross Park ticks all boxes. The school is selective and children are assessed before being offered a place.
Other destinations for leavers range from Sussex schools like Ardingly, Hurst, Eastbourne College and Lancing College, to the prestigious heights of Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Wellington. The school also prepares a high number of students for scholarships and in 2018, a full 50% of leavers gained scholarships or awards to their senior schools in areas as diverse as sport, photography, chess, leadership and academic.
The school is a Google Reference school, meaning it’s recognised by the tech giant for outstanding use of technology to drive learning outcomes, and all pupils from Year 3 upwards have one-to-one Chromebooks. Languages are also a strength, with Spanish and Mandarin taught to children from age 3, and French and Latin introduced in the upper years.
Richard Brown joined Handcross Park in 2016 after a stint as head of Dorset House in Bury, and previously worked in senior schools. He says the school he took over had struggled in the past but his predecessor had turned it around and when he joined, the foundations were in place to push the school forwards.
During his tenure the school has unveiled its new dining room and a new English and learning resource centre will be the next building project, incorporating four classrooms with one dedicated to interactive and recording equipment. A wellbeing garden is also being created to give children and staff an area to go for a bit of space and quiet and should be ready by the beginning of the Autumn term.
Although it’s run as a standalone prep, Mr Brown says Handcross Park benefits from its relationship with the wider Brighton College family and works closely with the other preps and the college itself sharing best practice.
He says the families that join Handcross are a mix of those new to the independent sector, families with more experience of traditional private education, and the international market.
Mr Brown describes Handcross as a ‘busy’ school with a tangible energy that’s exciting for children and staff alike. He’s happy with the numbers and not looking to grow the school into a larger prep, and is candid that the challenge larger schools face is ensuring all children have opportunities, and attention isn’t just focused on the very gifted and those who need support, something he feels the Handcross Park achieves very well.
BOARDING AND PASTORAL CARE
Boarders are taken from year 4 and currently around 55 of the 400 children on roll board. Of these the majority are UK boarders with around 15 international. Full, weekly and flexi-boarding options are all available and London boarders are picked up on Mondays and dropped back at home by school bus on Friday ready to spend the weekend with their families.
The 14 dormitories in the heart of the main school building are bright and cosy, and boys and girls stay on separate floors. House Parents Vanessa and Andy live in, alongside the matron. Nursing, tutors and support staff also contribute to the family atmosphere and there are around 20 evening activities on offer just for boarders as well as a big living room with games, a TV and library.
For younger children, before-school care begins at 7.45 and includes breakfast, and children can stay until 6pm.
Pastoral care is award-winning and there are 122 staff with pastoral responsibility for children, including an independent listener. Tools used include wellbeing journals, morning mindfulness sessions, sharing and discussion sessions and older children creating videos for younger year groups about mental health and pastoral issues. The school doesn’t allow social media or mobile phones other than for boarders to contact parents.
Animals are a big feature at Handcross Park and one of the dedicated science labs is packed full of weird and wonderful creatures, from chinchillas and gerbils to budgies, bearded dragons, stick insects, fish and a tortoise. Unsurprisingly, Animal Husbandry is one of the more popular of the 100+ after-school clubs on offer, and boarders also take responsibility for feeding the animals in the mornings. As well as school dog Tilly, there’s a boarding house dog, Hudson, who tucks the children in at night and wakes them up in the morning.
Leadership, creativity, critical thinking and innovation are included on the school curriculum and pupils take part in a range of trips that help them develop their life skills. Demanding challenges pupils face include trekking across the South Downs and summiting Snowdon.
From £3,330 a term for Reception all the way up to £8,540 for full boarding in Year 8 for EU pupils and £13,690 outside the EU.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: The head describes Handcross Park as ‘a broad church’ and it’s hard to imagine a child who wouldn’t thrive here.
Not for: The rural location won’t suit everybody. With 400 pupils on roll this isn’t one for those wanting a tiny, cosy country prep.
Dare to disagree? Head to the Open Morning on Sat 22 May.
Handcross Park School, London Road, Handcross, Haywards Heath RH17 6HF, 01444 400526