Skippers Hill Manor, East Sussex
A warm and caring prep school set in 22 acres of countryside that brings together outdoor learning and wholesome values with a forward thinking curriculum and focus on 21st Century skills.
I’d say this non-selective day school for girls and boys aged 2 to 13, in Five Ashes in East Sussex is small, but that depends on what you mean by ‘small’. Numbers-wise there are 195 children on roll, but the campus is set in 22 acres of absolutely idyllic countryside. This gives it that elusive balance between cosy and caring, which suits its younger pupils, and spacious and grown-up, a boon for the Year 7 and 8 cohort.
The front entrance of Skippers Hill is well tucked away, but the back of the site behind the lovely old manor house extends out and out, like a countryside Tardis. Arriving on a cold and miserable December day, the warmth of the school was palpable. It’s impossible to imagine the pretty frontage with its courtyard garden, currently decked out by the children for Christmas, not raising a smile.
The school has been under the ownership of wider Bellevue Education since 2010, a move staff say has been hugely positive and never more so than during Covid-blighted 2020, when the backing of a large group came into its own. Significantly, it’s undergone a change of headship during the Covid pandemic, with Phillip Makhouli joining as head in September this year, from his previous role at Holmewood House in Tunbridge Wells. Credit has to be given to the school for pressing ahead with the appointment instead of delaying due to Covid but it’s a challenging time to take over leadership of a school. Muddy found Mr Makhouli firmly ensconced, however, and a whole-school commitment to create ways to keep the parent body fully involved despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic.
The site itself is absolutely jaw-dropping. Behind the main building of the thatched-roofed manor house, which has those characteristic huge windows that allow light to stream in, the site stretches out into fields and woodland. Traditional hard-standing playgrounds give way to adventure playgrounds, a sublime and sweeping grassy slope to huge astroturf courts, and then another slope down to an adorable cricket pavilion that doubles up as an outdoor classroom, and endless pitches. To the side of the pitches runs woodlands that are used for outdoor learning.
There’s no children outside at this time on a hideously wet and windy December day, but I’m told at break and lunch they stream out onto the grounds and it’s hard to look at the school field without imagining children rolling enthusiastically down it.
At the top of the site lie the brand new year 7 and 8 classrooms, and the music centre. These chalet-like timber buildings have a different style to the redbrick manor and the atmosphere here is slightly different too. The manor house is all cosiness and warmth and nurture, out here it’s more of a grown-up space to accommodate the children’s growing need for independence and to prepare them for senior school.
Early Years has its own separate, purpose-built space complete with outdoor classroom and freeflow play area. It’s large, modern, bright and airy and also plays host to mum and toddler groups for families from the local community, whether or not the children go on to attend Skippers Hill. Children can start from the age of two and even the littlies have the run of the entire 22-acre site! The tiny ones are gently introduced to school life during their time in Early Years, following a curriculum based on self-discovery and learning through play, with tailored lessons in music, sports and French. Learning is steered by children’s interests and passions, and has seen the children follow topics including space, autumn and Roald Dahl, which led to the creation of a chocolate factory and much marvellous medicine brewing.
Given the size and scope of the site, and the range of sports pitches, it’s no surprise to learn that sport is a huge strength at Skippers. Several of the children I spoke to instantly volunteered sport as their favourite thing about the school. Alongside the regular PE and games curriculum encompassing swimming at the on-site pool and all the usual games and gym, the school excels in fixtures (during non-Covid times) in football, netball, hockey, rugby, cricket, athletics, cross-country and rounders. England cricketer and three-time World Cup winner Laura Marsh is a former pupil. Sporty kids can also join after-school clubs covering all the usual games suspects as well as tennis, outdoor activities, ballet, dance, and even fencing.
All classes from kindy upwards have dedicated music lessons and children in Year 1 and 2 learn the recorder and in Years 3 and 4, the ukulele. Many study other instruments in addition to these alongside music theory. There’s a range of choirs and an orchestra which the school describes as ‘quite individual in its mix of instruments’ – Muddy suspects this is an absolute joy to listen to. From Year 3, drama is taught as part of the curriculum and children can also opt to take LAMDA or Trinity exams.
The sizeable school hall provides a great space for productions and performances. During Covid, performances have been filmed as opposed to live, allowing the children a different experience and set of skills while live performances aren’t feasible. The school’s production of Peter Pan this year was filmed on location around the school, a really challenging learning experience that also made the most of the school’s site. Art is taught in the dedicated art studio which is housed next to the science lab.
Director of studies Matthew Minister clearly has a deep personal interest in teaching and learning and a knack for using the environment around Skippers to its best advantage. The school is academically non-selective and there’s a strong focus on developing children as individuals, but as it happens, academic results are also very good. Children go on to a range of senior schools both locally – Brighton, Eastbourne, Hurstpierpoint, Bede’s and Ardingly among others both in Sussex and across the border in Kent – and further afield.
For the last 20 years, the school has had a 100% success rate with Common Entrance and for now the exam remains in core subjects including English, maths and science although Mr Minister is aware many schools, including in Sussex, are moving away from Common Entrance. From Year 7, children follow a Global, Social and Ethics programme that brings together a range of subjects from geography to ethics and design to languages, with critical thinking and creativity at the forefront. Children use a range of 21st century skills to produce an ebook – the first topic is Sussex and makes use of the local environment to tie together multiple subjects and skills.
Outdoor education is a real strength at Skippers, the school has its own Forest School onsite along with an outdoor classroom and children get out into the woods to learn on a weekly basis. Bushcraft and outdoor activities also feature as extracurricular activities.
This is Phillip Makhouli’s first headship – at Holmewood House he was director of teaching and learning, and he joined the teaching profession in 2008 after a career in nuclear engineering. He’s also a former semi-professional football player – quite the CV!
Joining a school during the Covid pandemic, especially in the top role, has brought its own set of unique challenges, not least getting to know the pupils and their parents. Here the school has made the most of online tools and even enlisted the help of the pupils themselves to give Mr Makhouli a thorough grilling in a video introducing him to the community.
With Skippers he has inherited a school that’s gearing itself up for the future in a big way. Children have Chromebooks for their learning and the GSE programme for Year 7 and upwards has a strong focus on 21st Century skills. The facilities are also very fit for purpose, especially with the new block for Year 7 and 8.
If anything, then, it feels that his appointment has coincided perfectly with the overall modernisation of Skippers, which began when Bellevue took it over. Personable, engaging and clearly very dedicated to the school and the wider community, Mr Makhouli has the air of a further game-changer for the school. He’s also a big advocate of outdoor learning, as any head of Skipper’s would have to be given the scope of the site. Most savvy observers of education and wider cultural trends would have to agree that digital skills and connection with nature and outdoors are two huge focus areas of 2020 and beyond, making Skippers a very enticing prospect indeed.
WRAPAROUND AND PASTORAL CARE
Breakfast club starts at 7.45am and after-school clubs last until 5.45pm. There’s also a holiday club during school holidays and the school site is tailor made for energetic days playing out.
Wellbeing is a priority at Skippers, during lockdown as well as online learning the school focused on continuing pastoral care and support for pupils and their families. A dedicated garden room, opened in 2019, provides a safe space for pupils of all ages to talks things through with staff, or just reflect and regroup. Skippers also has several staff members who are trained mental health first aiders, and the deputy head, David Leggett, is also safeguarding lead. The proliferation of articles on the school blog that discuss mental health and pastoral care do point to it being really embedded throughout the school, not a tokenised extra.
That said, in Muddy’s opinion the smaller schools do tend to excel at pastoral care by virtue of their community and family feel and the individual relationships between pupils and staff members. This isn’t limited to teaching staff either – the groundsman, Chris Walker, is often the children’s first port of call and is so valued by the school and families he’s billed as Superhero as his official job title on the Skippers website. Staff tell me many a wobbly child struggling with separation from parents will make a beeline for Chris.
The school has its own mountain biking trail in the woods and cycling skills and mountain biking is a popular after-school club. This alone would win Muddy over, even above the superhero groundsman. Skippers has its own resident chickens, which are soon to be joined by some goats – next step, a mini farm? Watch this space!
WORD ON THE GROUND
Pupils are happy and relaxed and speak confidently about their interests and how Skippers supports them. I’m told the acquisition by Bellevue has been something of a lifeline for Skippers and very much helped such a small day school remain competitive in the 21st century.
From £2,660 a term for kindy up to £4,615 per term for Year 7 and 8. Scholarships are available, similarly, Skippers students frequently win scholarships to senior schools and colleges.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Outdoorsy, creative, active, happy kids who are ready for all life brings. Even if your child doesn’t quite fit this description at the beginning, I reckon they’ll come out of Skippers ticking all of these boxes.
Not for: It’s a day school so families will need to be relatively local or committed to a commute. As with all preps, some of the more urbane, faster-maturing Year 7 and 8s might start to hanker after the bright lights of senior school.
Dare to disagree? Book an appointment at the next Open Week, 8-12 Feb 2021. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01825 830234.
Skippers Hill Manor Preparatory School, Five Ashes, Mayfield, East Sussex TN20 6HR, 01825 830234