We left this popular Wiltshire co-ed prep beaming from ear to ear. Pupils are cheery, outdoorsy, unsophisticated in the best possible way and there’s a sense of merriment in the air – of doing all the important things very well while not taking life too seriously. Which is exactly what prep school should be.
On the borders of Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, in the pretty Cotswold-stone village of Bourton. Easy to find; easy to park. Pinewood is set on the top of a hill with sweeping views of the 84-acre grounds and the Wiltshire countryside beyond. The red-smocked nursery pupils start school life in the old stable block, before moving into the main house (more Cotswold stone, magnificent staircase).
Fomer head Philip Hoyland oversaw a raft of building work and developments in his 18 years here: a lovely library in an old orangery with doors opening onto a grassy area, the huge, well-equipped sports hall, a performing arts centre, science labs… The brand-new crowning glory is ‘The Hoyland', a new teaching and learning block for the middle school, complete with a ‘Learning Street' and serious eco credentials. The excellent SEN department will also be housed here.
Pinewood shines outdoors too, with its magnificent grounds, super-duper treetops-climbing frame, fairy garden, mountain-bike track, nature walk and recently planted 10,000 trees. Each class has its own vegetable plot in the old walled garden, and the ethos is firmly wellies-and-boilersuits.
Neal Bailey and his wife Nici arrived at Pinewood last September from Mowden Hall – before Mowden, Mr Bailey ran the Cothill Trust’s French outpost, Château de Sauveterre (his brother Duncan is head of Cothill School). We like him enormously: he’s ‘incredibly calm’, according to an insider, a keen sportsman and wonderfully community-minded too – he and Nici stand out on the drive every morning, come rain or shine, to greet pupils and parents. We have no doubt that Pinewood will flourish on his watch.
Pinewood doubled in size during Mr Hoyland’s tenure and is now at capacity, with waiting lists in all years. There is no formal testing for entry from nursery to Year 2. For prep school, children attend an assessment day, with formal testing in verbal reasoning and maths; this is also a chance to experience some lessons, sport and whatever extracurricular delights are on offer.
They’re looking for children who display curiosity about the world and a have-a-go approach to life. (Naturally, they’re looking at you, the parents, too). Early registration is recommended, but occasional places do become available, so it’s always worth contacting the school to see whether they have a space in the relevant year group. ‘First come, first served’ is the message.
Academics and destinations
Part of Pinewood’s charm is its lack of hothousing – there’s no doubt that pupils achieve here (take a look at the scholarships list), but tiger parents need not apply. EQ (emotional quotient) is valued over IQ. For history, geography and RS, Year 8 pupils sit Pinewood’s own bespoke qualification.
The prep school is divided into lower (Years 3 and 4), middle (5 and 6) and upper (7 and 8) schools. Lesson times were recently increased from 35 to 45 minutes to slow down the pace of the school day and to give pupils more time to engage with each subject. Prep can be done at home or in school.
The emphasis is firmly on finding the right senior school for the child, rather than meeting parental aspirations. Pupils go on to a wide range of schools, with most choosing co-eds: roughly half head for Cheltenham College or Marlborough, others to Stowe, Bradfield, St Edward’s Oxford. A handful of girls go to St Mary’s Calne or Tudor Hall each year.
Pinewood’s scholarship numbers are always impressive, with a clutch of awards in all disciplines to a wide range of schools.
Outdoor pursuits rule at Pinewood, and everyone from Year 4 upwards heads off on an annual Pinewood Adventure weekend to let off steam in Somerset, Wales, Chichester or France. Clubs and extras include everything from riding to archery, fly-fishing and clay-pigeon shooting.
Expect plenty of sport. There’s a great Astro for hockey, netball and tennis, grass pitches galore for everything else, plus a nine-hole golf course and an outdoor swimming pool. Mr Bailey came up with a rather ingenious initiative to make up for the lack of inter-school fixtures – everyone from Years 5 to 8 gets split into competitive teams to battle it out in for the chance to win Pinewood’s coveted Cross Keys Super Cup. Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to fiercely contested house matches.
Drama, music and art are all thriving. Annual musical highlights include the bumper summer concert and the hugely successful rock show (this lot sure know how to raise the roof), and there are a number of more informal opportunities for soloists to perform throughout each term. Mr Minter, the head of art, is an absolute star – he used to work at the RSC and the BBC so knows a thing or two about costumes and set design – and drama productions here are some of the most professional-looking on the prep-school circuit.
Although home isn’t far away, Pinewood pupils love their boarding. It’s on offer for Years 5 to 8, and 65 per cent stay at school on either a weekly or regular basis. (‘Weekly’ here means Monday to Friday or Saturday, depending on the weekend; ‘regular’ means committing to set nights each week; no flexi boarding.)
No full boarders; everyone goes home on Saturday nights, so this isn’t a school for the international crowd. Dorms are smartly decorated and picturesquely named after places near the school’s Devon roots: Happy Valley, Cherrybrook, Dartmoor.
There is an exeat every other weekend and school finishes at 4pm on Friday. On ‘in’ weekends, children play matches in the morning (which, for the time being, take the form of the aforementioned Cross Keys Super Cup), and then head home in time for lunch.
Parents praise the wonderful, incredibly supportive pastoral care, underpinned by Pinewood’s family atmosphere. Each pupil’s form tutor keeps an eye on academic, spiritual, moral and social wellbeing, and there’s a dedicated head of wellbeing and emotional support.
Everyone from nursery up eats in the central dining room – we visited on a Friday and enjoyed fish and chips with Evie, Clemmie, Eliza and Zac, who were totally unfazed by having their lunch interrupted by a visitor. The pretty, flowery trays – rather than standard-issue brown – are a nice touch.
We love Pinewood’s spirit of relaxed equality at Pinewood (no head boy or girl; no prefects) and pleasantly informal uniform.
Families are local: most live within a 40-minute radius of the school, with a handful from London. Parents praise the sense of community and the warmth of the welcome they received; we hear that the Bonfire Night party is a highlight of the school year.
Philip Hoyland had an interesting analogy that sums up the school. An elephant is being transported in a cage but is thrashing around. The warden asks the elephant if he’d like to be released to make his own way, or to stay in the cage, stop bashing and be delivered safely to his destination. The elephant replies that he is just checking that the sides of the cage are strong enough to hold him.
Pinewood gives its pupils the confidence to push at the boundaries if they feel the need, but to know the consequences if they break them.