‘Of Oak, Not Willow’ is Aysgarth’s motto – and it utterly befits this sturdy rural prep. Traditional in outlook, atmosphere and set-up, it is a rare find. It has everything you could possibly want from an all-boys prep school: muddy-kneed pupils with a spring in their step, masses of outdoor space and a glorious countryside setting. Boys head off to the very best public schools brimming with confidence and equipped with old-fashioned values. The secret? Proper full boarding and LOTS of fun.
Located at the foot of the Yorkshire Dales, Aysgarth is right in the heart of farming, shooting and fishing country. There’s not even a shop in the local village and the nearest train station is a good 25-minute drive away. If that puts you off, look elsewhere. But for the right boy, it’s utopia. This is a school that attracts outdoorsy types who are more at home dive-bombing into a lake than spending an afternoon at the cinema.
Head Rob Morse and his delightful wife Lottie make an extraordinary duo. Not only do they run the school, they also both teach and take charge of the boarding house – where duties extend to getting the boys up in the morning and putting them to bed at night. Dapper Mr Morse is often seen in purple trews and his trademark tweed jacket, trailed by his two black Labradors. He’s sociable, chatty and has all the assurance of someone who knows exactly what they’re doing. Utterly passionate about his job, he talks about the value of Aysgarth’s ‘three-legged stool’: the fact that it’s all-boys, full boarding and sends its leavers on to the top national boarding schools.
Entry is non-selective; places are offered to boys whom staff feel will excel. Prospective pupils visit for a half-day assessment and informal interview – siblings get priority but they’ve got to pass the character test too. The main intake is at 8+, but in theory the school will take boys in any year or any term if there’s space. However, most year groups are almost always oversubscribed, so our advice is to get names down early (some do from birth).
Academics and senior school destinations
Gentle streaming in English and maths kicks in as boys move up the school, and there’s great one-on-one support for anyone who might be lagging behind. Everyone learns Latin, while Greek and Mandarin are very popular extracurricular clubs. Exit is diverse. As Aysgarth is quite remote, there’s no one obvious senior school to funnel boys towards, and popular onward destinations include everywhere from Eton and Harrow to Radley, Shrewsbury, Canford and Uppingham.
Music is fantastic here – almost every pupil learns an instrument and the choir is often invited to perform at Ripon Cathedral, Chatsworth House and even Old Aysgarthian weddings. The impressive art block is decked out with power tools, laser cutters and a dedicated exhibition space, while over in the theatre, anyone who doesn’t want to act can get stuck in with set, costume and lighting design instead.
For a school of its size, the sporting facilities are superb. Old boy Sir Matthew Pinsent cut the ribbon on the sports centre when it opened, and as well as the usual clutch of Astros, pitches and tennis courts, there’s an indoor climbing wall, running track and even a rifle range. They’re cricket-mad, and boys are often selected for regional competitions – while they might not win as much silverware as their rivals, there’s no knocking their team spirit. Parents, take note – the match teas are epic.
When they’re not in the classroom, boys are most likely to be careering around the valley and woods that make up Aysgarth’s 50-acre campus. Mucking in and mucking around are strongly encouraged, and at weekends pupils build dens, fly down makeshift waterslides doused in Fairy Liquid and play Spotlight, scampering out of windows at dusk while trying to avoid being caught by teachers-turned-sleuths brandishing torches.
Clubs range from the conventional (cooking, Lego, Airfix) to the downright quirky: ferreting, build your own motorboat and – our favourite – the Meat Appreciation Society. Regular socials are held with the girls from Queen Mary’s Thirsk, about 20 miles down the road.
Aysgarth has always stuck to its guns with its strict full-boarding policy. Aside from the handful of day pupils and 'regular boarders' (who stay for two or three nights a week), everyone full- or weekly-boards and there are usually at least 100 boys knocking around at weekends. All sleep in the main house – a homely, colourful space. The Morses spent six figures sprucing up the dorms when they arrived, but thankfully corridor cricket still remains a firm fixture on the evening timetable.
Saturdays begin with morning lessons, followed by games and activities, while Sundays are more chilled – we love the tradition of breakfast in PJs before chapel.
Despite the strong boarding ethos, over half of families are local and make up a real Yorkshire dinner-party circuit. Attendance is always high at sporting fixtures, and the annual Dads and Lads steak night is one of the most popular events on the calendar.
A hefty number of pupils come from London; staff chaperone them on the train down to King’s Cross for twice-termly exeats. There’s certainly no sense of ‘them and us’ – parents from further afield have nothing but praise for the welcome they received from those who live closer to the school.
This is the place to send your boys if you’re looking to immerse them in the full-boarding experience from the get-go. Yes, there are plenty of alternatives nearby (such as Terrington Hall, Cundall Manor and St Olave’s), but none are all-boys and most empty out at weekends.
Aysgarth turns out well-mannered young men destined for success at the UK’s most sought-after public schools – and builds up some serious character along the way.