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The changing face of Saturday school

We’re all counting down the days until 8th March, when schools will reopen. Not just because we can stop being reluctant teachers and go back to being parents – but because our children can go back to being children again.

While most schools appear to have coped well with online learning, we’re all too aware that those crucial ‘character qualities’ such as adaptability, resilience and teamwork can’t be taught exclusively through a screen. So how are prep schools seizing the opportunity to help children catch up socially, while broadening their horizons?

Many are reinventing Saturday school, moving away from the boarding-school tradition of academic lessons in the morning in favour of enrichment activities that get youngsters thinking laterally, discovering a new skill or passion – and most importantly, relishing their childhood.

The Dragon School in Oxford has come up with an imaginative solution. Last September, they launched Dragon Quest, a new, optional Saturday morning enrichment programme focussed on developing pupils’ broader interests and skills in a creative and vocational way. The timing of the launch was fortuitous. After many months in lockdown, almost everyone signed up on the spot (the initial rollout was for pupils in Years 4 and 5; from September, it will be open to the entire prep school).

The main message of Quest is the flexibility it offers families: the school’s recently altered boarding model means that pupils can now choose to stay on for weekends sometimes and head home after lessons on Fridays on other occasions. Activities – driven by the three key principles of ‘discover’, ‘develop’ and ‘dare’ – make full use of the Dragon’s wonderful town and countryside hybrid location.

Pupils can head off on an architectural tour of Oxford, spend a messy morning mucking out the animals at a local farm or stay on campus to tear apart and repurpose wrecked bikes, under the guidance of a member of staff with a particular passion. ‘I never cease to be amazed by the talent in the Dragon common room, including a certified archery coach, a calligraphy tutor and a high-intensity interval training instructor’, says Tim Knapp, the director of Dragon Quest. ‘Children are working better in the week because they’ve got something to look forward to.’

Pupils are rewarded for trying something new – so parents might catch their restless rugby-mad son zoning out in yoga, or their shy daughter trying her hand at filmmaking. It’s all about finding balance, while giving pupils the opportunity to spend more time doing something they’re already passionate about. ‘My son came out effervescing with enthusiasm’, says one mother. ‘He has so much to tell me about what he’d learnt and done.’

A few hours of extra academic teaching have been quietly slotted into the week, meaning there’s no knock-on effect of reduced classroom time. Importantly, it’s ‘that extra tool in the pastoral development of a child’, Tim tells us. ‘Learning is disguised as fun. It doesn’t feel like I’m learning, but I most certainly am’, says a pupil.

The Dragon School

The Dragon isn’t the only one. Westbourne House School in Sussex put a stop to formal Saturday school a couple of years ago, shifting sports matches to the morning and filling the afternoon slot with a roster of activities including fly fishing, kayaking, coding, beach clean ups and even visits to a local hedgehog hospital.

‘It’s more of what the children absolutely love about the school: the adventure, the experiences and the opportunity to try exciting new things’, says head Martin Barker. ‘It’s these experiences which enable our pupils to develop the can-do attitude and resilience they are so often remarked upon.’ Again, greater flexibility for families is at the forefront of the initiative – and anyone preferring all-important family time is more than welcome to head home straight after match tea.

Westbourne House School

Another advantage of these Saturday programmes is the extra edge they give children in their senior school interviews. Many Year 7 and 8 pupils spend their week following a restrictive Common Entrance programme, but doing something a bit more off-the-wall at the weekend gives them something completely different to talk about. The Oratory Prep School in Reading introduced its Saturday enrichment programme to do exactly that: instead of swotting up on maths or English, children have the option to dip their toe into debating, critical thinking or even beekeeping.

At The Elms in Malvern, the Saturday school shake up is all part of the school’s new vision, aimed at giving its pupils the strongest possible start in an ever-changing world. From September, it’s out with compulsory Saturday school for Years 5 and up, and in with a brand new (totally optional) STEAM initiative.

Taking full advantage of the school’s knockout facilities, including the idyllic school farm, children will have the opportunity to sign up to practical classes that might see them focussing on engineering, practising their public speaking or conducting research in the extensive grounds; honing essential skills that in some way or another replicate real life. ‘Many senior schools have shown their support for this new initiative’, says head Chris Hattam, ‘and we think it will make our pupils even more sought after at their chosen senior school.'

The Elms

On the other hand, plenty of prep schools – including Cottesmore, Cothill House and Cheam – are choosing to stick with the tried-and-tested Saturday school model, keeping academic lessons on a Saturday morning while tweaking their boarding models to better suit the demands of modern families. At Sunningdale School in Berkshire, full boarding has long been the norm – but parents now have the choice to opt into a new weekly boarding model, collecting their children after lessons (and matches) on a Saturday afternoon.

Headmaster Tom Dawson is evangelical about the advantages. ‘Having those five lessons on a Saturday morning gives a very good balance to the week – and time from Monday to Friday to do many things that we would otherwise struggle to fit in, including sports fixtures, play rehearsals and a huge range of clubs and activities. Without time dedicated to learning on a Saturday morning, something would have to give.’

Sunningdale School

‘Saturdays at Sunningdale are fantastic. Lessons in the morning with mounting excitement for that afternoon’s fixture; then into the school for match tea by a roaring fire. After that, some of the boys will choose to go home for the night, but about two thirds will stay at school for a themed supper before settling down for movie night under piles of duvets. One of the magical things about boarding school is the time spent with friends – and we certainly don’t want to be forced to cut down on that.’

Saturday school or no Saturday school, prep schools are working hard to help children regain their confidence and bounce back from a year most of us would like to forget.