A Swallows and Amazons nirvana (without the boats), this traditional all-boys prep is quirky and fun with an extremely kind heart. It is non-selective at intake but very strong academically: a whopping number head for Eton, Harrow and Winchester. You won’t find in-your-face grandeur here but you will find positive values, enthusiasm, humour and teaching beyond compare.
Around 15 per cent of the 210 boys are from overseas and boarding is key. Day pupils start aged six – with a fleet of minibuses from west London complementing the local contingent – and build up to weekly or full boarding by the summer term of Year 6.
This is truly a scuffed-knees/climb-trees place for happy boys, where eccentricity is not discouraged and everyone is a team player.
Set on a 15-acre site on the edge of Ascot (with the racecourse nearby it is possible to listen to the Gold Cup while watching your boys play a cricket match), it is an easy hop out of London. Boys enjoy cricket in the Square (the heart of the school), whizz by on RipStiks, hang upside down on the adventure playground or play ping-pong for hours.
While the main building has a smart entrance/exhibition hall, classrooms are in a collection of slightly ramshackle buildings and a few of the facilities are a little worn. But an extremely impressive new boarding house has upped the school’s game.
One of the most popular heads on the prep-school circuit, Tom Bunbury is dynamic, genuine and, most importantly, believes in his boys. He has been in charge since 2004; before that he served as head of maths, housemaster and deputy head (he arrived here in 1993).
Mr Bunbury is a holistic educator, instilling values ‘required to be a really good human being’ and turning the boys into ‘leaders… but compassionate ones’. While he has extremely high standards and expectations, he believes prep school should be fun: if boys eat well and exercise often, everything else will fall into place.
The school is firmly non-selective and ‘character counts’, says Mr Bunbury, who is looking for everyone from future Eton scholars to boys for whom 50 per cent in Common Entrance would be a triumph. Papplewick puts much stake in reports from prospective pupils’ current schools, and boys are interviewed alongside parents.
Boys who 'get' the Papplewick ethos and want to take part in absolutely everything will thrive here. Up to 16 boys join in Year 2 from a mixture of local pre-preps and state primaries, with further intakes in Years 3 and 4 when the London boys arrive on the Papplewick Express. Plenty more join higher up the school.
Academics and senior school destinations
Papplewick embraces CE for all subjects and there is no sign of this changing. The curriculum is deliberately traditional and even includes ancient Greek. Streaming starts in Year 3, with a scholarship set created in Year 6.
Saturday school is important, after which is a chapel service, lunch and afternoon sports fixtures (with an extremely impressive spread at tea time). Parents can, and do, join in from chapel onwards, which one parent tells us ‘makes for a big family feel’.
Many parents choose Papplewick for its extraordinary hit rate to the big boarding schools. Eton takes the largest number of leavers, with Harrow and Winchester a close second and third. Others go to Wellington, Bradfield, Radley, Tonbridge and St Edwards, Oxford.
Every year, boys win a hefty number of academic, art and all-round scholarships to senior schools. A King’s Scholarship to Eton is an almost annual occurrence.
Unsurprisingly for an all-boys prep, sport is huge. Football kicks off Michaelmas term, with rugby taking over after half-term and continuing through to Easter.
Cricket is the major summer sport, and the school’s South Africa tour is legendary – we met one family who chose Papplewick expressly for this. But many other sports are on offer too: golf, basketball, polo, shooting, rowing, croquet, futsal and American football, each with its own fixtures.
Art takes top prize here, with GSCE-standard (and higher) artwork and ceramics on display. Drama and music are up there too, with a good number of boys winning creative and performing arts scholarships to senior schools. There are numerous productions every year, plus the well-supported Papplewick’s Got Talent.
All boys take part in PALS (Papplewick Activities and Leadership Scheme) – the school’s own DofE, encouraging self-esteem, goal-setting and good leadership.
The standout club has got to be herpetology: ‘Snake Club’, in Papplewickian. The science lab is a slithery menagerie of serpents, bearded dragons, spiders, newts and frogs – oh, and the crickets and baby chicks they have for lunch. Club members earn a herpetology tie emblazoned with coiling serpents – a great talking point at senior-school interviews.
Charmingly, Papplewick also has Britain’s only prep-school antique booksellers, collecting and selling rare books.
Papplewick is all about boarding – everyone has to board from the summer term of Year 6 (although many further down the school do too). Boys may go home after sports on Saturday afternoon and return on Sunday evening, but many stay for the weekend to enjoy the fun stuff – all-you-can-eat Chinese, socials with local girls’ schools and exclusive use of the local slide-and-waves pool.
London boys can catch the Monday morning bus in from stops in Chiswick, Brook Green and Gloucester Road, and we hear that this offer might soon extend to local boarders too (watch this space to see if the rules relax further). Occasional boarding is popular.
It is all helped, of course, by the new boarding house (complete with pool tables) and what the school calls its ‘modern, family-friendly’ approach, with parents welcome to drop in at (almost) any time. While there are undoubtedly a few wobbles, a fortnight of full-on activities at the beginning of the boarding programme usually wards off homesickness.
Two-thirds of staff, along with their families and pets, live on site and, from Year 6, boys are allocated a tutor who will see them through to graduation. Pupils have got each others’ backs – kindness counts here.
All are welcome at Papplewick, from sports jocks to brainiacs, and they jolly along nicely. Parents are a mix of billionaires, bankers, two-income families and those with grandparents fronting the fees. The joy of Papplewick is that you won’t know, or care, which is which. The car park isn’t overrun by Teslas, and the chat on the sidelines is down to earth and modest.
The staff, the staff, the staff. This is where the (eye-watering) fees go: energetic, inspiring staff who stay the distance.
One way of summing up Papplewick: the most coveted leavers’ prize goes to the boy who has shown the most enthusiasm for school life, the biggest contribution to the community and, above all, the most kindness to others.