A fabulously traditional, outdoorsy prep school that is co-ed up to Year 3 and boys only from Year 4. With the motto ‘Of Oak, Not Willow’, it’s no surprise to find that Aysgarth turns out robust, confident and courageous children, happy to just get stuck in and make the most of everything they have around them. They work hard here but they play hard too and, with excellent pastoral care to boot, Aysgarth pupils have surely hit the jackpot.
Located at the foot of the Yorkshire Dales, Aysgarth is right in the heart of farming, shooting and fishing country. This is a very rural prep – the nearest train stations are Northallerton (20 minutes) and Darlington (30 minutes), and with no shop or amenities in the local village, it does feel very out of the way. But that’s exactly what makes it a nirvana for children who thrive on good old-fashioned fun and fresh air. There is plenty of transport laid on by the school for boarders and day boys who come in from Ripon and Asenby, and pupils are accompanied by staff to London and Edinburgh for exeat weekends and half term.
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 Form 1 (Year 4) boarding house – where duties extend to getting the boys up in the morning and putting them to bed at night. Mrs Morse has also recently taken on the role of head of art and D&T, and has injected the curriculum with more art history and creative competitions to inspire budding artists to have a go.
Dapper Mr Morse is evidently well liked by the boys, all of whom he knows well. (The family’s new puppy, Mabel, is a much-loved addition to the Morse Force and along with their Labrador, Minnie, and a fleet of staff dogs, these furry companions help to keep the boys happy and entertained.) This sociable and chatty headteacher is utterly passionate about his job. Helping boys to be ‘the best they can be’ is his driving force – and he clearly knows exactly what he’s doing.
Mr Morse will take up the headship at Truro School Prep at the end of the spring term 2023, with new head Jonathan Anderson stepping into his place. Currently head of Clayesmore Prep School, Mr Anderson will be joined at Aysgarth by his wife Hester and the couple's young son and daughter.
Aysgarth is not academically selective; there is no entrance exam, although children do take an assessment test to establish both ability and potential. Places are offered to those whom staff feel will benefit most from the rounded education on offer. The main intake is at 8+ (at which point the school becomes boys only), although Aysgarth will take children in other year groups if there’s space. This is a popular school, and our advice is to register as early as possible.
Academics and senior school destinations
Nursery and Reception follow the EYFS curriculum and have the added advantage of the space afforded by Aysgarth’s location. Forest school is a big part of the pre-prep ethos here, as is learning through play. French is included in the curriculum from Year 1, with a focus on pronunciation and basic vocabulary, and the children are also taught maths, English, science, history, geography, ICT, PSHE, music, religious education, art and craft and PE. Girls disperse at 8+ but, unsurprisingly, most boys (nearly 100 per cent) stay on and progress to the prep school.
Once in the prep school, gentle streaming in English and maths kicks in and there’s great one-on-one provision for anyone who might need extra support. Every boy has both an academic and a pastoral plan (pupils sit a STEER assessment twice a year, which is designed to pick up on any areas of pastoral difficulty so they can be addressed swiftly), and it is this sort of attention to detail that sets Aysgarth apart.
Everyone learns Latin, and academic subjects taught for CE are English, maths, science, French, Latin, history and geography. Religious education and wellbeing, music, art, craft and design technology, ICT, PE, drama and PSHCE also feature on the timetable but aren’t examined.
With its remote location, Aysgarth doesn’t have an obvious exit route, so boys fly far and wide. This year’s leavers will head on to the likes of Eton, Harrow, Radley, Oundle, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Uppingham and Sherborne, and last year's cohort bagged an impressive 14 scholarships among them. Another leaver, who is visually impaired, left Aysgarth bound for Sedbergh and with a hot ticket to become a Paralympian swimmer. Links with senior schools are strong, and sending the right boys to the right schools remains of paramount importance – the variety of destinations is proof positive of this tailored approach.
Music, art, drama and sport are just as important in the pre-prep as they are for the boys in the prep school. Pre-prep children are treated to lessons from the head of music, and there are plenty of opportunities for the children to perform musically and dramatically throughout the year.
In the prep school, music is already excellent, but we hear that a new director of music is also inbound. Almost every pupil learns an instrument, and the choir is often invited to perform at Ripon Cathedral, stately homes 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.
Sport is varied and inclusive, with swimming lessons once a week in the indoor heated pool, hockey, pop lacrosse and cricket, as well as dance athletics and gymnastics. Ball skills are taught throughout, and pre-preppers have full use of the sports hall and facilities, which is a brilliant bonus for these younger pupils. Sports-wise, Aysgarth definitely punches above its weight for a school of this size, and in addition to a host of boys playing at county standard, the quality of rugby and cricket in particular is very high indeed. The new head of sport (formerly at Bromsgrove) has added a raft of new fixtures to the calendar (including water polo), and boys have reached national swimming finals and cross-country qualifiers. His promised ‘have a go’ and ‘all inclusive’ philosophy has led to greater opportunities for boys to compete in more sports at a wider variety of levels.
As well as the usual Astros, pitches and tennis courts, Aysgarth also has an indoor climbing wall, a running track, a newly refurbished rifle range and Sir Matthew Pinsent as an old boy. Team spirit is more valuable than silverware here, and word has it that the match teas are genuinely 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.
Scooters and RipStiks are brought in by the boys, and the school has recently invested in skate furniture, including grind rails and quarter pipes to make break times even more fun.
Clubs range from the conventional (cooking, Lego, Airfix) to the downright quirky: ferreting, build your own remote control car 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.
The school council is important and influential – recent wins include an increase in the frequency of Jaffa Cake provision after a survey revealed that they are the boys’ number one favourite. On the subject of food, Mr Morse noted that if boys eat well, sleep well and have lots of exercise, everything else seems to fall into place – a simple but effective strategy.
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 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 enjoy socialising with other parents. As well as creating more links with the local community, the new head of brand and outreach has the job of continuing to ensure that parents feel part of the school. With this in mind, alongside coffee mornings and the like, there are plans afoot for a school ball, the first in five years. Attendance is always high at sporting fixtures (did we mention the match teas?) and the 'father and son spotlight' is one of the most popular events on the calendar.
It is clear that the head places a huge amount of emphasis on pastoral care and has put in place thoughtful and secure provision to ensure that children here are challenged, courageous, enthusiastic and very well cared for. Boys leave as thoughtful and ambitious young people with an understated confidence and good manners. Aysgarth is a place for go-getters not gamers, for conker fights and muddy trainers. It’s a rural haven of learning and larking about where children can be children.