Since 2017, Matt Thomas (Exeter), formerly deputy head of Moulsford, and previously taught in two challenging comprehensives ‘where you need a huge box of skills’. Married to Julie, with two children, who attend Dorset House, along with Amber, their fox red lab, often to be found in the head’s study. The head was attracted to the school by the mud – ‘it’s outdoorsy – how schools should be’, clearly loving that children play in the woods at break time, climbing trees or building dens, or playing man hunt – ‘really in at the moment… ‘absolutely brilliant’ he said happily.
The head’s most important quality for pupils to gain at DH is confidence. He’s by the gate every morning to greet the children – just as important is for them to return his greeting, and make eye contact; pupils are expected to shake hands firmly each Friday before they receive their tuck voucher. The emphasis on manners and respect is matched by a warm friendliness between pupils and head, pupils saying: ‘the head will sit next to you and ask what you’re doing’; ‘really nice, knows everyone really well’; ‘gets involved in everything we do – you can go and see him’; ‘he always helps’. The head teaches RS to years 7 and 8, which he loves – ‘the highlight of my day’.
This open-door policy also applies to and pleases parents, who describe him as ‘warm and friendly’; ‘in the fabric of the place’; ‘he focuses on the kids as individuals’.
Dorset House seduces at first sight. Set on the banks of the Arun with views over the Downs, its ancient buildings (a 12th century manor house at its core) are surrounded by lawns, walled garden, woods and an amphitheater for performances and speech day. A parent said, ‘you walk through the grounds and feel that idyllic childhood memories could be created. It took my breath away a bit…’
Beyond the stunning grounds, what immediately strikes a visitor is children having fun – when we arrived a group of girls were giggling, elbows digging into a tub of fruit – ‘trying to get their snack without their hands’, explained the head. It’s a school where you hear laughter and see children playing as well as learning – as a parent said, the attraction is in the ‘joy that the school creates’.
In this small family school, there’s lots of mixing across Year groups – it’s not unusual to see a Year 8 holding hands with a 6-year-old. One parent said her son loves its size because he’s a worrier- ‘[he] feels safe and contained’.
Many are attracted to the sense of children having a traditional upbringing – ‘they’re allowed to be children for a lot longer’, said a parent, another saying- ‘[my son] has rosy red cheeks and muddy kit every day…nonstop chatter and always saying how good lunch was…so bubbly and enthusiastic…’
Traditional manners are expected – doors will be held open here; in an assembly on table manners, the head wore a dinner jacket at a dinner table; children only have to see the head in the dining room for any faulty forks to be quickly flipped over.
This school listens and cares, but the head is keen to equip pupils to cope rather than resolve all their difficulties for them; one parent described how her daughter was given ‘coping strategies’ to help with a problem with peers, and how much this helped – ‘she understood what was going on and how to deal with it’.
Pupils said they would talk to a teacher or gap students if they had a problem, and pupils can request a session with the independent listener, described by a pupil as ‘a comfortable and supportive experience’. The deputy head will often connect older kids to younger ones to help with difficulties. Parents described various minor incidents where they had spoken to teacher about ‘girly nonsense’ which was resolved in a low-key and sensitive way.
Punishments here are proportionate and rare. You get the feeling that they’re not often necessary. When Ds (detentions) happen, they generally doing something useful – cleaning up a classroom or picking up litter. Or so pupils have heard.
It’s small, relative to some of the preps in the area – ‘not for those for whom huge grounds and the best facilities are essential’, said a parent, but the head is keen to make both pupils and school the best they can be: he has (amongst other things) refurbished the dining room, reorganised the pre-prep building and plans to modernise the sports hall in the Tudor barn (the inner barn is used for assemblies and recitals).There’s a heated outdoor pool with gorgeous views, and we wonder who would possibly rather swim inside. A ‘boutique class act’, said a parent firmly. It really is.
Sports lessons follow the usual gender divide, but girls have played on the cricket team – ‘it’s a very flexible school, no hard and fast rules’, said a parent.
A small school means fewer teams, and one parent suggested it wasn’t the school for someone who ‘wants to be always on the winning team’. But, parents and pupils insist, there is an upside to being small: everyone has to take part so everyone has a chance; a mixed ability team brings out the best qualities in all players; and those who excel can be a big fish in a small pond – and can always play for the team in the year above for more of a challenge.
A parent who described his daughter as a ‘lazy socialiser’ said how this has gradually changed – almost through osmosis – in the world of Dorset House. She did one-night boarding, and is now asking to do more, and wouldn’t say this unless she was really happy – ‘she loves to sleep’.
Praise for boarding was common to all the parents we spoke to, in particular, the warmth and care of the house parents. An attractive common room with packed bookshelves, a pool table overlooking the downs, and a piano and squashy sofas, with a pile soft blankets to snuggle under to watch a film.
Boarding is only available Monday to Thursday, and there is competition for places, which are allocated in as fair a way as possible. Children can flexi board, but on fixed nights (no last-minute boarding here). No mobile phones allowed, school phones freely available. Large dormitories (6 to 8) nestled under the eaves, each bed with a reading lamp. ‘Buns’ before bed (not actual buns anymore, but toast, fruit and cereal). ‘[They] love being with friends…never in a hurry to come home’, said a parent.
At this non-selective school, pupils mention peer learning as something they really enjoy – not usually top of pupils’ best things, and perhaps a consequence both of the mixed ability intake and kindness which pervades this school. Not a hot house, says the head firmly. He will certainly help pupils meet the requirements of senior schools but has no intention of putting verbal and nonverbal reasoning on the curriculum – ‘not valuable education’.
Homework is contained at Dorset House: half an hour to an hour, completed at school. Only in Year 8 does it overflow the school slot, with French and Latin vocab to be learnt at home, and essays to write over the weekend. Some of the usual worry about CE, but pupils are well supported by teachers and the independent listener – ‘school diffuse pressure brilliantly; there’s little one-upmanship’, said a parent.
Science and English were repeatedly mentioned by parents and pupils as exceptionally well taught, the science teacher described by one as ‘barmy – in brilliant exciting way’, and indeed we have seldom met a more enthusiastic teacher, describing humans as ‘scientists from the moment we’re born…’ , keen to describe the delights of blowing up jelly babies in the fume cupboard (to show how cells use energy) and leaping suddenly out of a fire door to accost your reviewer and her guides because he had forgotten to mention that there is science club every break time – ‘so pupils can just come and experiment!’.
There’s a large selection of books in the English classroom and the boarders’ common room, but no library as such; neither pupils or parents feel this is of concern; ‘the kids read relentlessly’, said a parent.
Class sizes have increased a bit under the new head, now up to 22 in the upper part of the school, but this has meant TA support has increased, so the child teacher ratio has improved.
Appropriate technology is used to support the curriculum, although none can be brought into school by pupils. All learn touch typing. Pupils with SEN can use laptops during lessons where this helps learning.
Learning Development (LD) in the pre- prep involves lots of movement – a pupil was happily engaged on a wobble board during our visit. The LD teacher brings her old camper van to school in the summer, and pupils love popping to the van for lessons. A more formal approach in prep, but a gentle switch when pupils are ready during Years 4 or 5.
Pupils can have up to two sessions of support outside class, and support in class too. Assistance is flexible, pupils can have just half a term of support if that’s all that’s needed. In class support is included in the fees, 1-1 is charged as an extra. Parents say the support is good, and like the fact sessions are integrated into what’s going on in class and the curriculum – ‘a very holistic approach’.
Not a school obsessed with getting scholarships for the sake of their tallies, one parent saying there was no pressure on her child to take scholarship which was empty of meaning, or for an able musician to seek a music scholarship in which she wasn’t interested (nevertheless a scholarship rate of 45 percent in the last three years).
The head gives Year 6 and 7s test interviews for senior school, each pupil having to make their appointment to see him – ‘it’s all about soft skills and taking responsibility’, says the head. One parent said her son was set up well for his large senior school – ‘learnt great values, how to speak to people and be confident, to look out for others – it’s been a smooth transition’.
Music is a particular strength, described by a parent as ‘amazing’. Over 90 percent of pupils learn an instrument, there’s a large orchestra, which accompanies the hymn at assembly every Friday, and an excellent choir. The music director follows the Kodaly approach from Hungary, and enthuses about children’s inherent musical ability ‘which they all have in their DNA’. Drama has rather less focus, felt one parent, but there is Lamda, and drama clubs are available, with various school productions, including Shakespeare for Year 8.
The pre- prep building is separate but proximate to the prep, and filled with light, colour and joy. The head (Sarah Hobrow) is a dab hand at making up songs for learning, the hokey cokey now the maths doubling song, pupils in both schools often eager to set her another challenge.
During our visit, half of reception were squeaky clean and making buns, the other half were outside, happily filthy, in head to toe wet weather gear, making a dinosaur family comfortable in sand and mud. It is difficult to imagine happier 4-year olds.
Children learn through topics, the Year 3 classroom transformed into a chocolate factory, huge sweets hanging from the ceiling, children relishing learning about chocolate with Willy Wonka, the Aztecs, and chocolate fudge, then running a chocolate museum to teach their parents all about it.
Pre-prep also houses a nursery, not run by, but approved of by Dorset House, and feeding around half of reception.
Non-selective, entrance on the basis of a taster day and school reports. A parent described the joining process as ‘so easy’, the registrar even phoning to see how the house move was going – ‘first class’.
Sends pupils to a wide range of senior schools, in particular Brighton College, Hurst, Lancing, Ardingly, Seaford, and Marlborough.
Please visit https://www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk/schools/dorset-house-school-pulborough