If you’re after the quintessential English all-boys prep school, look no further. Sunningdale is a proper, traditional prep (in the very best sense of that word), family-owned and with a wonderfully warm atmosphere. Our tour of the school began in the oak-panelled hall, which was full of chirpy boys on break (or ‘Lemonade’, as it’s called here), dressed up as wizards, Roald Dahl’s Twits and aliens for World Book Day, with head Mr Dawson as Sherlock Holmes, complete with deerstalker and shadowed everywhere by his gentle black Labrador.
Prime commuter territory on the sought-after Berkshire/Surrey borders, 25 miles from Hammersmith, 50 minutes by train from London Waterloo. There’s no grand entrance or obvious signage, just a short drive leading to a lovely red-brick manor house that feels much more homely than schooly. Outside, there’s a teeny chapel where the whole school gathers four times a week; 25 acres of nicely enclosed greenery (where boys can – and do – run wild) and sports pitches; plus a clutch of little allotments where boys dig up lettuce and tomatoes for the chef. It’s spot on: not too over the top, not too shabby either.
This is very much a family-run school: Tom Dawson took over from his father and uncle (twins Tim and Nick, who ran Sunningdale for 38 years) in 2005. His sister Amy is head of art and pastoral care; his wife Elizabeth teaches French. Mr Dawson is thoughtful and kind, driven, he tells us, by the overriding view that children should be happy at school and given the chance ‘to become the best version of themselves’. It’s something we hear a lot, but is no less true for that. Sensibly, he’s listened to parents and is now offering a new weekly-boarding option – more on that below.
Broadly non-selective, admissions are first come, first served (except at 11+, where boys sit assessment papers in English, maths and verbal reasoning). It’s worth getting names down at birth; there are 22 places available at 7+, and once they’re full, names are put on a waiting list (the admissions team will keep you informed about where you are on it). About 15 months before boys are due to start, they’re invited in for Discovery Day to get to know the school, have a go at sport and join a taster lesson. One of the many bonuses of Sunningdale is its small size – numbers are constant at 110, which Mr Dawson calls ‘happily full’.
Academics and senior school destinations
Academically, the school differentiates itself by operating a ladder system, where boys move up through forms as they develop, rather than by age – which means everyone learns at their own pace and is kept interested, not bored (or scared that they can’t keep up). We spotted plenty of young and enthusiastic staff during our visit, and Mr Dawson stays fully involved by teaching Year 4 Latin (if boys are good enough, they take on Greek too) and Common Entrance geography. There’s lots of one-on-one support for SEN pupils, and masses of exam practice: boys are split into three forms for their final year – CE, more advanced CE and scholarship sets.
Pupils head off to the top schools: in recent years, Eton, Harrow, Sherborne and Stowe have proven most popular with Oundle, Winchester and Charterhouse not far behind.
Boys play sport five afternoons a week, and facilities have been getting a spruce-up: the shiny new Astro is proving a hit, and there’s a new sports pavilion, five-a-side-football pitch and winter-cricket training space all in the pipeline. The main games here are rugby, football and cricket; the rugby teams have an unbeaten record, and the football teams claimed victory in almost every one of their matches last season. There’s loads more for boys to try too: badminton, swimming, water polo, golf and fives (which is huge, with boys regularly taking on Eton or Harrow, despite being a year or two younger).
We love the performance culture here: the annual French-drama evening, which gets every single boy singing or speaking in French; the annual whole-school musical, with a part for everyone (a few years ago it was Annie – both brave and hilarious for an all-boys school); and heaps of informal and formal concerts, rock bands, choirs and ensembles. About 80 per cent of pupils learn an instrument, from the bagpipes to the guitar. We snooped in on a reassuringly messy art and D&T room, where boys were working with laser etchers and 3D printers.
All the pupils we spoke to raved about the science reptile club, which is all about getting up close to scaly creatures such as a Fijian iguana or Madagascan tomato frog. We also love the sound of the week-long residential trip to La Vacquerie, the school’s restored manor house in Normandy where boys practise French in the local markets, visit the D-Day landing beaches and see the Bayeux Tapestry.
Full boarding has long been the norm here, but the big news is that Mr Dawson announced a new weekly-boarding option last year to give families a bit more flexibility. Weekends are still packed with non-stop activities for those who stay over (70% are in school on Saturday nights and Sundays) – but boys can now opt to head home after lessons and matches on Saturday afternoons.
There’s tons of fun to be had: when they aren’t kicking a football around or building dens, boys are fishing, cooking, messing about with giant inflatables in the pool, paintballing, mountain biking and playing bumper games of the ever-popular Convoy, Sunningdale’s very own version of tag.
Dorms are among the best we’ve seen in a prep school. Recently refurbished, they’re filled with funky Farrow and Ball-painted tongue and groove cabin beds or bunks made to look like fortresses and castles.
Sunningdale’s small size gives staff the opportunity to get to know the boys very well: niggles are easily spotted, worries picked up and achievements celebrated. Mr Dawson had a brief word of encouragement for every child we bumped into about anything from a piece of work well done to a pitch-perfect concert recital or their effort in a sports match. Each boy is assigned a tutor who keeps a close eye on their academic progress, and a friendly counsellor pops in every week for an informal beanbag chat with anyone who fancies it.
Manners clearly matter here: door opening and pupils looking us in the eye were very much to the fore during our visit. And a note on the food: it’s so good that day boys often make a point of arriving in time for a cooked breakfast – the first of three proper hot meals each day (we were treated to a nicely wholesome lunch of beef casserole and red cabbage – just what boys need after so much running around outside).
Children come from all over the UK: the Home Counties, London, East Anglia and Scotland (a bus drops boys off at the Royal Albert Hall on exeat weekends). A minority hail from overseas too, both Europe and beyond.
Whichever senior school a boy chooses, this long-established boarding prep gives them the best possible start with its caring, family feel.