A recent shake-up of the curriculum will entice parents seeking a progressive style of education for their child, besides small class sizes and beautiful views.
Vinehall is a non-selective co-ed nursery, pre-prep and prep school for ages 2 – 13 at Robertsbridge in rural East Sussex. It offers day school and boarding. Though there’s a central 19th century country house, there’s no imposing feel here. Instead there’s a happy alliance between striking school grounds with wonderful views and a set of buildings with a village feel.
The 47-acre grounds are used for lessons from geography to poetry, there’s a zip line, an owl’s nest in the woodland, and children are encouraged to climb trees and play conkers. (I’m told some of the parents have become so competitive on the conker front they have to be warned not to encourage their children to cheat!) From year three, children can fish on Saturday mornings on the school’s lake.
The library and theatre have been recently refurbished and the library now has an enticing ‘hub’ feel with classrooms radiating off. Other facilities include a large indoor sports centre, playing fields, astro, an indoor heated pool and a small chapel. Pre-prep are able to use Prep school facilities including the computer suite.
In the ISI report of 2018 Vinehall was judged to be ‘excellent’ in all areas.
From year four most lessons are taught by subject specialists, so pupils move around the school to their next class – a good preparation for senior school.
The school is embracing academic innovations. Since 2018 STEM has been taught as a curriculum subject in Year 5 with the aim of encouraging children to ‘think like an engineer’. The school is also moving away from reliance on Common Entrance exams across the board with the humanities syllabus to be covered separately.
There will be a more thematic approach to learning for years seven and eight with social history and natural history lessons leading to a research project.
From September 2019, pupils will have weekly Study Skills lessons to help them across the curriculum at Vinehall and beyond. This embraces Five Rs – reading (in an analytical manner), writing (with structure), reasoning, research and revision.
Up to 20 potential destination schools visit Vinehall for a bi-annual school fair. The school regularly sends children to Ardingly, Battle Abbey, Benenden, Brighton College, Charterhouse, Cranbrook, Eastbourne College, Eton, Hurst, King’s Canterbury, Sevenoaks, Bede’s, Mayfield, Tonbridge, Winchester and Worth.
There is a good gender mix across activities with girls and boys trying hip-hop, ballet, tap and yoga, for instance, and there’s a cricket team for each.
Professional musicians often visit from London to inspire pupils and we’re told some year sevens have their own band.
There’s a SEN provision that is used by all pupils in need of extra help, so breaking down any potential stigmas. Some drop in on a voluntary basis, so a child with dyslexia could visit alongside one who wants to practise touch-typing.
Pupils can flag up any anxieties by way of a physical or electronic ‘worries box’.
The Vineline e-newsletter keeps parents in touch with school goings-on on a weekly basis.
The popular carpentry room has a charming ‘grandpa’s shed’ feel. Clay pigeon shooting, sabre fencing (not as scary as it sounds) and Harry Potter activities (spell casting perhaps?) are among more unusual extracurricular options.
On special occasions (usually their birthday) boarders are given a ‘golden ticket’ to invite up to four other pupils to sleep over free of charge.
Outstanding work and behaviour are rewarded with a Good Copy Tea when children have pancakes with the head.
Certain walls are decorated with leavers’ shields on which pupils paint symbols to demonstrate the activities they have tried and skills they have acquired at Vinehall. (I’m told one culinary refusenik was rumbled when he returned to his old school and showed his wife his shield complete with cookery symbol!)
Boarding and wraparound care
Full, weekly and flexi boarding is offered. There are currently 35 full boarders. Pupils can board from seven years but the majority do so from ages nine and ten in preparation for boarding at senior school.
The dorms were surprisingly tidy on our visit. The secret? The one voted the tidiest each week gets to choose the film that everyone watches.
Prep school ends at 4.40pm but 70 – 80% of day pupils stay to take part in after-school clubs. The flexi-boarding system means parents can choose from Vinehall 12 (8am to 8pm) and Vinehall 24 (8am to 8am). Accompanied train travel to and from London is available for weekly boarders.
Extra beds are available in the boarding houses for day pupils to stay over at short notice if parents need emergency childcare. The school is also able to provide a meal for pupils getting a later pick up.
Head and Ethos
The head, Joff Powis, has been at the school since 2017. He says he was recruited for his experience in boarding, to develop this aspect of Vinehall and give the school a more 24/7 feel. He expects the number of boarders to naturally grow as day pupils become envious of the extra fun their boarding friends are having.
“Traditional in values, progressive in education” is the school’s new ethos he says. The move away from the Common Entrance syllabus in humanities subjects is designed to encourage children to be more adaptable, to teach them critical thinking and skills rather than knowledge, giving them, he says, the ‘language for learning’. This is in line with the commonly raised concern that schools need to prepare children for future careers that may not yet exist, particularly with the rise of artificial intelligence changing the work landscape.
The head says destination schools and families have been positive about the syllabus shift.
There will also be greater emphasis on life skills. It’s a buzz phrase, the head admits, but the aim is to produce children who are open to learning and resilient. Internet awareness has been a recent theme, pupils have also been learning about the parliamentary system and about handling bullying – being an ‘upstander not a bystander.’
The head believes Vinehall would best suit parents looking for a small close-knit school with intimate class sizes who would like to see their children enjoying the outdoors and who aren’t seeking ‘bling’ facilities.
Word on the ground
Parents refer to the home-from-home feel, bustling Saturday mornings, a strong academic basis and the promotion of respect and tolerance for others. The ISI report praises the ‘exemplary attitudes’ and ‘enthusiasm’ of pupils nurtured by ‘high expectations’ as well as their good collaboration with peers.
Per term: Pre-prep £3,185; Prep day pupils: £5,756 – £5,939; Prep full boarding: £7,547 – £7,736; weekly boarding: £6,972 – £7,120. Flexi-boarding £12 per session (for Vinehall 12) or £35 per session (for Vinehall 24).
There is a 20% discount for third siblings onwards and 10% discount for children of alumni.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Beautiful grounds but buildings of a scale that is not likely to intimidate youngsters. A SEN facility that feels integrated into everyday school life. A more progressive educational approach than some other preps. Very flexible boarding and wraparound care.
Not so good for: If you’re a Common Entrance purist or you’d prefer your child to move to a senior school before 13. If you want a school that is constantly chasing the flashiest facilities.
Vinehall School, Robertsbridge, East Sussex, TN32 5JL, vinehallschool.com