Top-notch academics paired with a family vibe make this rural Dorset prep a happy place to be. And with a senior school on the same site, it offers an excellent all-through option. Leaving the prep is not the end of the journey at Clayesmore. ‘Here there is no boiler room,’ says Jo Thomson, who currently heads both the prep and senior schools. With the stress of being drilled for exams to get into senior school eliminated, results come from nurturing the individual, and the school’s commitment to SEN is part and parcel of its inclusive holistic approach.
The school sits in 62 glorious acres on the edge of the beautiful village of Iwerne Minster, with an imposing turreted mansion at its centre. It’s grand, yes, but there’s no sense of entitlement or arrogance. Pupils just stroll in through the big oak door, past the enormous fireplace, dropping their sports bags in the porch ready for afternoon fixtures.
The prep school was established in 1974, and a building from that decade holds one of the main teaching blocks and boarding house. A 1990s red-brick block has more classrooms, as well as science labs.
Day pupils come from roughly a half-hour radius – Sandbanks, Salisbury, Sherborne, Shaftesbury – and there’s a school minibus service. Gillingham Station is about 20 minutes away, with a straight service to London Waterloo that takes 90 minutes.
Calm, measured and confident, Mrs Thomson is a real advocate of taking children outside, literally, and out of their comfort zone, metaphorically, so they can discover their passions and develop resilience that will see them through into adulthood. Her 13 years at the HMC school
Aiglon College, in Switzerland, informed her holistic views on education. Since joining Clayesmore in 2016, she has introduced an innovative programme that gives pupils the kind of memorable and transformative experiences that classroom teaching alone can’t provide. Called the LEX programme after the school’s founder Lex Devine, it’s seen the school tear up the traditional rule book of a six-day-a-week independent school education, replacing academic lessons on Saturdays with a supercharged weekend of trips, experiences and events. Pupils master new skills, seize new opportunities and build up a bank of memories they’ll never forget.
Entry is non-selective. Year 3 starts with just one class capped at 18. By the time pupils get to Year 6, there are two classes. Children can join in any year group, with Year 7 being a popular entry point.
Academics and senior school destinations
The small numbers enable the staff to know all pupils individually, which means they’re well supported academically as well as pastorally. The library is something of a hub; children have weekly sessions there, with Betsy the school dog sometimes joining to listen to them read. The Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC, the school’s name for the SEN department) is in the same building as the library and is an integral part of both the prep and the senior schools. Some 25 per cent of prep pupils receive specialist one-to-one and small-group teaching to support them. The science labs are also impressive and from Year 5 pupils get increased specialised teaching.
The majority (95 per cent) of pupils stay on for senior school, which is a seamless transition. The two schools are loosely separated by a tree-lined footpath, with the younger pupils frequently crossing over to the chapel, sports hall or theatre. There is also a real emphasis on seniors mentoring and supporting prep pupils, which makes the transition feel even more natural and keeps the connection with the prep school even after they’ve left.
Core sports for boys are rugby, hockey and cricket, and hockey, netball and cricket for girls. They can also do football, athletics and tennis. The prep has its own brand new Astro, as well as sports pitches, and shares facilities with the senior school, which include a sports hall, indoor cricket nets, a climbing wall, an indoor swimming pool and a gym.
Drama and music are pursued passionately. Anyone in Years 5 to 8 can take part in the senior production, with a Christmas show for the younger years in which everyone has a role. There are lots of music groups, including Glee club and jazz band. On our visit, pupils were busily rehearing for an upcoming inter house music competition. Gifted musicians have the opportunity to play alongside senior school pupils.
Art and D&T are incredibly popular with pupils, who have produced some quite outstanding creations using ceramics, 3D printers and laser cutters. Plans are in the pipeline for a CAD suite in the near future.
From Year 5, day pupils can opt to take part in LEX, the weekend growth programme of trips and experiences initiated by Mrs Thomson. It’s hugely popular, with more than 80 per cent choosing to do it.
Flexi, weekly and full boarding are all on offer in bright, airy dorms that feel homely. The atmosphere is more fun than home, though, with nightly activities – from baking to playing on the inflatables in the pool – and the grounds a free-time play space. Only a few board in the lower years, but numbers swell in Years 7 and 8. Boys and girls have their own corridors, and there’s a shared common room and new kitchen. Mixed houses mean day pupils are well integrated and they can stay until 7pm if they like, doing their prep. Phone time is limited to 30 minutes each evening.
Pastoral care is part of the school’s lifeblood; for example, the librarian will go great lengths to find books to help a particular child if she knows they are having a tough time. And then she won’t thrust it on them, but rather will leave it in a strategic place for them to happen upon. Every member of staff knows all the pupils, which creates a wonderfully supportive environment. Pupils told us that staff are kind and approachable. A health and wellbeing centre looks after children’s physical and mental health, while a Church of England chapel presided over by a chaplain serves both the prep and the senior schools, with any faith welcome.
Environmental awareness is high. The in-house catering team is careful to limit food miles, and there is a biomass boiler and solar panels to fuel the school in an eco-friendly way. Clayesmore also takes its charitable status seriously – it is currently funding 12 Ukrainian children through the school.
The Clayesmore community is strong, with a lot of governors living locally and the school’s new café frequented by villagers. An active parents’ association organises book clubs, fitness classes and even a ceramics course, which currently has a waiting list.
A nurturing school that is happy in its own skin and has no time for airs and graces, Clayesmore is a cheerful place with happy and confident pupils, all of whom are wonderfully supported by the motivated and dedicated staff.