It says something about the empowering nature of Heathfield that new girls are given a sponge bag adorned with the uplifting phrase ‘See the Sky’. Feeling valued here doesn’t depend on coming top of the class – instead the school believes in bringing joy and happiness so that girls of all abilities can fly academically.
The setting for this single-sex day and boarding school – in a smart Italianate mansion, on 36 acres just outside Ascot – is lovely. And there are great transport links: Heathfield runs a local minibus for day pupils, as well as a weekly service to and from London for boarders (it drops off at South Ken – the 19th-century founder’s old stomping ground).
Mrs Gardiner Legge leaves in January 2021 to take up the headship at Oxford High, handing over a healthy two-form entry in the lower years to Sarah Wilson, formerly deputy head of Cranford House. We're told Mrs Wilson is a keen sportswoman and an avid educationalist – she is currently completing her second leadership programme, this time at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University – and we look forward to hearing her vision for Heathfield.
Applications have been soaring, thanks to the proximity of London and the day option or full boarding but with that little bit of flexibility especially for the younger girls. The broad range of London and country preps and primaries that make up recent years' entries is testament to Heathfield's popularity – everyone is welcomed with a handwritten letter from the head.
Registrations are encouraged two years ahead of entry, but the admissions team is open to approaches from those wanting to escape the London academic race at the last minute. Prospective pupils sit a computer test and have an interview – the prep-school reference is also important. They’re looking for potential rather than the finished product, and are interested in what each girl can offer Heathfield.
There is a small intake at 12+ – particularly from overseas – and in the older years Heathfield is chosen particularly for its art. There has always been a sizeable sixth-form entry and, with a new sixth-form development in the pipeline, we expect this to continue.
Academics and university destinations
The key here is value-added, which they pile on in heaps: class sizes are small, there is setting in English and maths from the outset and subject clinics abound if a little extra help is needed. Girls fly in this nurturing environment, and many blossom way beyond their initial expectations of themselves – which is the joy of a school like Heathfield. Individuals count and individual successes are celebrated, whether as one of the five girls who gained GCSE results 15 grades higher than expected or as the head girl, Oxbridge-bound, striding on to a Harvard MOOC in political philosophy.
The impressive STEM building – opened by Professor Robert Winston in 2016 – has inspired pupils. The majority of girls take the dual science awards at GCSE; those opting for physics and chemistry are hitting grades 9-7.
The level of art and photography is impressive both in standard and numbers taking GCSE and A-level, with girls heading to Parsons School of Design in New York or the London College of Fashion.
Extracurricular and community are key: everyone is encouraged to do the DofE Bronze award and community service – which might mean linking up with a house at Eton to look after disabled children, reading at local schools or visiting an old people’s home. Sixth-form options also crucially include the very popular Leith’s cookery course.
Note that in sports, pupils play lacrosse instead of hockey. There’s riding and tennis, a polo team (which has beaten Eton, Harrow and Marlborough) and the Windsor swimming club four times a week. Athletics is excellent, especially cross-country and high jump, and girls participate in a professional club (alongside boys from Eton) that takes them to county and national level. Lacrosse pitches, an indoor swimming pool, a sports hall, a dance studio and fitness suite are all on site.
Our tour guide vouches for drama (LAMDA lessons are on offer) and there’s plenty of choice in music (compulsory for the first three years), whether your tastes incline towards the drums or the ukulele.
We are told that boarding has ‘dramatically shifted culturally’ now that the lower years are a 50/50 split with day pupils. We love the flexibility: there are already four exeats a term, with parents welcome to take girls out for supper or to pop in to celebrate birthdays (plus extra leniency for Years 7 and 8 as they settle in). But from September 2020, girls will also be allowed to stay over during exeats too, adding scope for day pupils to try out sleeping away from home, and more options for overseas parents.
Younger ones are in dorms in the main house (it speaks volumes when dorms are lovingly decorated, as they are here), and there is a big common room for Years 1 to 3, with separate common rooms for Years 4 and 5. GCSE-year girls have single rooms in The Square (all girls can anonymously request three people they would like on their corridor, and change rooms every term). Plans are in place for a new sixth-form centre, which will connect the lower- and upper-sixth boarding areas and create social and learning spaces.
Just as the boarding model is progressive, so too is the pastoral care. Heathfield was the first to follow the pioneering Flourishing at School pastoral system from Australia, which promotes mental and physical wellbeing from the outset, rather than waiting until later to identify those in distress.
Girls are individually mentored by a teacher to ensure that they are indeed flourishing, plus they are assigned a form tutor (the frequency of one-to-one meetings increases as they go higher up the school) and a counsellor is on hand if needed.
There are four vertical houses, lively inter-house competitions and from what we can see, a lot of fun to be had, from dressing up for World Book Day to end-of-term games. Girls stick to their year groups for boarding and at meal times – with the exception of Funky Friday, when two girls from each year sit on a table together to mix things up. This has been one of the many initiatives by the head girls’ team to ‘replace the hierarchy of the years with respect’, and it'
s working, whether it is role-modelling from the top down or Heathfield girls of all ages greeting each other in the holidays. A merits award system promotes solid, traditional values and accountability, with the ultimate upper-sixth accolade being the Lily badge for consistently excellent behaviour.
Chapel takes place every other day and everyone takes part in the ceremony, whatever their beliefs. Birthday chapel is a special tradition in which girls are given a posy of flowers and dedicated prayers.
Lest we forget the glamour and the social side of Heathfield, friendships for life are made here and there's a lovely balance between learning to fly academically and socially. Socials are an important part of life, with Papplewick and Sunningdale in younger years, then Eton, Harrow and Radley. Girls in the Upper Sixth are allowed to have a car, and can and do go out on Friday evening – either to London or Windsor – but must be back by 10pm.