Part Hogwarts, part Enid Blyton, Saint Ronan’s has a magic that’s hard to define. This is the most traditional and best-loved prep in this pocket of Kent, rock-solid in quality and totally flash-free. With its marvellous family feel, it concentrates on the things that really matter and does an outstanding job of finding everyone’s strengths without taking life too seriously. It’s a real humdinger – little wonder no one ever wants to leave.
Deep in gorgeous Weald of Kent countryside, Saint Ronan’s is just 55 miles from London and within 20 minutes of two commutable stations. The lane leading up to it gets reassuringly muddier as you turn into the school grounds, and the tone is set from the minute you spy the sign at the entrance warning of ‘free-range children’. With 250 acres of lakes, gardens, woodlands, farmland and roaming peacocks, it’s utter rural bliss.
Home is the magnificent Tongswood House, a rambling red-brick Victorian mansion with many original features, from wood-panelled classrooms to beautiful ceiling murals of semi-naked nymphs (sure to raise a giggle or two). Upstairs, cosy dorms are tucked into the eaves, while the pre-prep sits in a standalone modern extension next door.
Head William Trelawny-Vernon and his wife Emma are the beating heart of Saint Ronan’s: a brilliant, bonkers double act full of old-school charm, with impeccable manners and an infectious sense of humour. They worked in corporate finance before moving into education, and their light touch is backed up with steely confidence and intellectual rigour. There have been just seven heads since the school was founded in 1883, and the T-Vs have been here 17 years – and they’ve absolutely no intention of going anywhere.
Pupil numbers have skyrocketed under the couple’s tenure, up from just 130 when they first arrived to 450 today. We’re assured there are no plans to get any bigger, lest the school loses any of its intimacy. The advice is to get names down as soon as possible; Mr Trelawny-Vernon makes a point of meeting all prospective parents, and anyone joining in Year 1 or above is invited to an informal assessment day. Most year groups have waiting lists, but occasional places do pop up.
Academics and senior school destinations
Class sizes are capped at 18 and specialist teaching kicks in from Year 4 to help teachers really get to know their pupils in good time for senior school decision-making. Good humour carries through to the classrooms, with each one given a quirky nickname (Bletchley Park for IT, Ronnie Scott’s for music…) and fancy dress donned freely to make maths more fun. Staff are given real ownership of their lessons – and it works.
Mr Trelawny-Vernon’s relationships with senior-school heads are strong and he is devoted to finding the right fit for each child. There are 20 senior schools on this year’s exit list. The most academic go on to locals such as Benenden, Tonbridge, King’s Canterbury or Sevenoaks for the IB; some head further afield to Harrow or Stowe. A handful leave for Cranbrook at 11+, but the majority stay the whole hog till 13. Bucketloads of scholarships are the norm.
There’s a real creative streak throughout the school: music is ubiquitous, with more than 75 per cent learning an instrument and regular concerts spanning everything from Vivaldi to Ed Sheeran. Drama is part of the curriculum until Year 5, and three big productions a year include an all-singing, all-dancing musical, with opportunities to get stuck in backstage too. We were blown away by the standard of art hanging on the walls; the department is deliciously cram-packed, with plenty of sculpture and ceramics too.
A competitive spirit is encouraged but hero status avoided, and while many do excel at sport, inclusivity is what matters and D to F teams (endearingly named Dragons, Eagles and Falcons) are fielded wherever possible. Girls’ cricket is blooming, and fencing goes from strength to strength, while the fabulous grounds are used to their full advantage: mountain-bike trail, golf course and fishing lake included. The cross-country course is the best in the area – Saint Ronan’s hosts the regional championships and pupils compete at county and national level. An indoor pool would be a nice addition, but no one seems too bothered by the lack of one.
Unsurprisingly, Saint Ronan’s is very much an outdoorsy sort of place. There’s bushcraft, conker-fighting, dam-building, foraging – and no such thing as bad weather. Mud features quite a lot, be it careering down a woodland mudslide, making mud pies down by the stream or mucking out the school pigs. Speaking of which, top marks go to the school farm, filled with children helping feed the chickens and sheep, hand-rearing donkeys (ready for a starring role in the nativity), organising rotas and selling surplus boxes of eggs to parents.
Everyone from Year 4 upwards can flexi-board from Monday to Thursday – a real boon for busy parents in need of a night off. Pupils bunk up in freshly painted dorms under the watchful eye of legendary matron M’Julie, and it’s rip-roaringly good fun. With most families living within a 15-mile radius, staying over is a treat, and children are tired out with swimming, German Spotlight and bat-spotting before settling down for the night.
Pastoral care is very much part of this extraordinarily close-knit community. Saint Ronan’s is a pioneer of AS Tracking, an early-warning system that helps to spot anxiety niggles, and pupils can confidentially direct any concerns to a member of staff via an ‘I am worried’ button on the IT system. And it’s not all go, go, go; we loved the meditative garden, complete with pagoda and wind chimes, designed as somewhere to quietly read a book or just enjoy some time out.
As the school has grown, its net has undoubtedly widened, but most families still hail from a core constituency of Kent, Sussex and London. The bright-eyed, creative vibe attracts more of a mix than nearby competitors and with that comes real warmth. Parents are doctors, film directors, farmers, financiers. You won’t find any tiger mums; everyone here believes as much in a happy, well-rounded childhood as they do in a good education.
We love the eccentricity, the spontaneity and the history of Saint Ronan’s. Bursting with character and joie de vivre, it encourages a can-do attitude that helps children thrive. Shiny it’s not, nor an exam factory – but for a solid preparation for later life, and a jolly good time, it hits all the right notes.