‘The merit of one is the honour of all’ is the school motto here – and there is certainly much to be merited at Heathfield. Cast aside any preconceptions you may have about this all-girls, Ascot-based senior and prepare to be bowled over by an unashamedly girls-first ethos which puts its pupils at the forefront. Feeling valued doesn’t depend on coming top of the class – instead, the school believes in bringing joy, happiness, kindness and inclusivity 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. Tall trees surround the site with beautifully coiffed and manicured lawns and flower beds and seem to somehow breathe space between the buildings and classrooms which might otherwise feel close together. Just 45 minutes from central London and only 20 minutes to London Heathrow Airport, Heathfield is easily accessible. Transport links are first-rate with local minibuses for day pupils, as well as a weekly service to and from London for boarders, which currently drops off at South Ken, Clapham, Chiswick and Queensgate (the routes are continually expanding to accommodate the location of new pupils).
Sarah Wilson – formerly senior deputy head of Cranford House and with two decades’ experience of working in girls’ education – joined Heathfield in January 2021. She is warm, friendly, down to earth, bright and evidently loving every minute of putting her girls front and centre. As well as her role as head, Ms Wilson also teaches geography to the Year 7 children so that she can get to know every pupil and ‘understand how they are feeling and adapting to their new school environment’.
Pupils we asked about their headmistress were universally positive in their responses, (‘so nice’, ‘love her’ and ‘knows every single person’). She expects her girls to ‘be kind and work hard’ and in return she will always give them a say in what they do as well as being a woman of action who leads by example – her approach to everything, she says, is ‘to face it head on’. Atmosphere, ethos and feeling are all vital to Heathfield’s head, and markers which help her balance the traditional with the evolutionary. The unique and customary wearing of achievement badges in a vertical line on girls’ jumpers (visible under an open blazer) sits comfortably alongside the interactive science wall in the STEM building where pupils busily scan QR codes as part of a quiz.
Applications have been soaring, thanks to the proximity to London, the availability of day places (since 2015), full boarding and the newly introduced weekly boarding options. And although the headcount is up by around 20 pupils for the coming year and set to rise further, the school has a strict upper limit ensuring that they remain ‘intentionally small’ with a family feel and a focus on the individual – 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 later than that. Prospective pupils sit a computer test and have an interview – the prep-school reference is also important. The school is looking for potential and attitude rather than the finished product and are interested in what each girl can offer Heathfield.
There is a small intake at 13+ (Year 9) – 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 fabulous new sixth-form centre opening in September 2022, we expect this to continue.
Academics and university destinations
The key here is value-added, which the school piles on in spades: class sizes are small, the staff to pupil ratio is 1:4, there is setting in English and maths from the outset and subject clinics abound if a little extra help is needed. Assessments are thrice yearly to ensure everyone is on track, stretched or supported and academic standards are relative to each pupil. Girls thrive in this nurturing environment, and many blossom way beyond their initial expectations of themselves – which is the joy of a school like Heathfield where individuals count and individual successes are celebrated.
The brilliant STEM building – opened by Professor Robert Winston in 2016 – has really inspired Heathfield’s pupils – and photography has also captured imaginations both at GCSE and A-level. Standards in art are impressive across the board with girls heading to Parsons School of Design in New York or the London College of Fashion. Other leavers head to a wide range of courses and destinations from the USA and Edinburgh to Spain and Salford – given that there’s no such thing as a typical pupil at Heathfield, it stands to reason that there’s no such thing as a typical destination either.
Extracurricular and community are key: everyone is encouraged to sign up for 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 immensely popular Leiths cookery course.
Note that in sports, pupils play lacrosse and netball instead of hockey, with Saturday fixtures taking place in the mornings, before a timetable of extensive and age appropriate weekend activities in the afternoon (which day girls are welcome to join in with). There’s riding and tennis, cricket, a polo team (which has beaten Eton, Harrow and Marlborough) and the Windsor swimming club four times a week. Athletics is excellent, and several girls compete at county and national level. Lacrosse pitches, a fantastic six-lane indoor swimming pool, a sports hall, a dance studio and fitness suite are all on site.
Drama is ‘amazing’ according to pupil insiders, and the recent whole school production of The Addams Family received universal rave reviews. LAMDA lessons are on offer too 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’. Whilst full boarding is still popular, weekly boarding is on the increase and the two lower years are now a 60/40 split with day pupils. In Form III (Year 9), many of the girls transition to boarding. We love the flexibility: there are already four exeats a term, with parents welcome to take their daughters out for supper or to pop in to celebrate birthdays (plus extra leniency for Years 7 and 8 as they settle in), and girls are also allowed to stay over during exeats, adding scope for day pupils to try out sleeping away from home, and more options for overseas parents. From September 2022, weekly boarding is available too.
We loved ‘the avalanche room’ where boarders’ trunks and suitcases are stored – now in an orderly fashion on custom-built shelving (the name has stuck from the days when removing one could bring the whole pile cascading down). Younger ones are in dorms in the main house (it speaks volumes when dorms are as lovingly decorated as they are here), and there is a big common room for the younger children and separate common rooms for the top two years. GCSE-year pupils have single rooms in The Square (all girls can anonymously request three people they would like on their corridor, and change rooms every term). The new sixth-form centre 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. This has been one of the many initiatives by the head girl’s 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 pupils of all ages meeting 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 three times a week – a good time for quiet reflection and an opportunity for the entire Heathfield community to come together (everyone takes part in the ceremony, whatever their beliefs).
When pupils tell us a lot about their school meals it’s either because they’re great or because they’re awful – but reassuringly the chatter at Heathfield was unanimously more Masterchef
than mass catering and inspiring teenage girls to be so effusive about their ‘amazing food’ is no mean feat. The school’s catering manager has recently been awarded location manager of the year and the regular themed events (such as the Harry Potter
feast complete with Hogwarts cake) are incredibly creative and extremely popular.
Heathfield old girls (affectionately known as HOGs) are a strong and remarkable bunch of women and their ongoing links with each other is evidence that girls make lifelong friendships here. There's a lovely balance between learning to soar academically and socially (socials are an important part of life, with Papplewick and Sunningdale in younger years, then Eton, Harrow and Radley) and there are community outreach initiatives, mentoring schemes with local business leaders and alumni and a bespoke leadership programme helping to teach children how to be the catalysts for change and shape their own worlds. If you’re looking for a school where pupils are educated academically, personally, socially and emotionally in an environment that puts girls’ needs first, then look no further.