An idyll of all that is enchanting in childhood – sprawling grounds, woodland playgrounds, acres of playing fields, mucking about in boats on the school lake... Westbourne House has managed to bottle that elusive formula of what makes a prep school perfect: not too big (360 pupils), a small family feel, and yet an immensely large site, fizzing energy and, oh yes, top-drawer academics.
With 100 acres in deepest West Sussex, Westbourne House must surely bag the award for most handsome prep. Just outside Chichester, close to the South Downs and a stone’s throw from the gorgeous Wittering beaches, it is not surprising that water sports are an important part of school life. Kayaking and canoeing take place on the school’s lake, along with fly fishing, nature studies and interesting experiments that involve crafting rafts out of barrels. The superb sports facilities include an indoor pool, squash courts and climbing wall.
The onsite nursery and pre-prep are housed in their own separate building and grounds, close to the main school. Imaginative displays festoon the foyer, with everyone taking part in creating them – this is a fun, creative, immersive experience the minute you walk through the door. We found magic and inspiration in bucket-loads here, from a well-thought-out Gruffalo den in the woods to the classrooms vividly decorated with themes: Under the Sea, How to Catch a Star, Zoom into a Good Book. This place offers a gentle transition from nursery to Reception and is one of the loveliest, most uplifting pre-preps we’ve seen.
Martin Barker is celebrating a decade at the helm. A calm, steadying hand, he is inspiring yet firm, friendly yet forceful. Inclusive and holistic are his buzzwords; he is keen to encourage confidence, for children to have a go at anything and everything and for them to acquire skills and develop talents they never thought they had.
It’s all about the staff in Mr Barker’s book – attracting them, inspiring them, keeping them. He believes that if he can secure dazzling teachers, the rest will take care of itself. Which, of course, it does. Many staff live on site, which helps with the family atmosphere.
Westbourne House is fervently non-selective. This is very much a through school from nursery to Year 8 – very few peel off before that. Admissions are possible at any time and into any year group, and the school prides itself on being able to accommodate households relocating with children joining in all years, provided there’s a space. A good sprinkling of overseas pupils arrive in Year 6, eager to experience English boarding school life at its best.
Academics and senior school destinations
Parents often choose the school for its terrific academic record, expecting and demanding great results, with an eye on entry into the top boarding schools. Saying that, achievement in itself is what matters here, for every level of ability and effort is recognised. A few years ago, the school adopted the High Performance Learning philosophy, which encourages children to develop skills such as lateral thinking, empathy, perseverance and resilience. In 2021, Westbourne House picked up the prestigious High Performance Learning World Class School award, which recognises the very best schools around the globe at the forefront of educational thinking.
The IT suite is exciting, with rows of iMacs and Lego robotics kits amongst other funky gadgetry, and the science department impresses, with chemistry, biology and physics taught as separate subjects in Years 7 and 8 (not often the case at prep schools, and brilliant preparation for the next stage). Science clinics offer support for children at both ends of the scale, and pupils with SEND needs are offered in-class support, with individual breakout sessions and regular feedback from subject teachers where necessary.
From Year 5 upwards, Learning for Life lessons kick in, with everything from organisation and revision skills to interview practice and touch typing on the agenda. There is no formal Saturday school; instead, pupils play a wide range of sports matches and enjoy a fantastic programme of activities from the educational to creative arts – think chess, fly-fishing and baking – optional but increasingly popular for both boarders and day pupils.
Common Entrance is only taken for maths, English and science. Leavers head predominantly to local schools, a mixture of day and boarding. Brighton College, Canford, Bryanston, Hurst College and Seaford bag the biggest number of pupils, with Lancing and Cranleigh also on the slate. Mr Barker begins the ‘next-step’ conversations with parents in Year 5, helping guide them towards the schools that best suit their child. Westbourne gets an impressive amount of scholarships, about which he is refreshingly self-effacing.
Sports hall, pool, cricket nets, squash courts, Astro, dance studio, climbing wall… plus a nine-hole golf course on-site and real tennis at Petworth. Not to mention the lake for canoeing and kayaking from Year 2. Basically, the sports facilities are fab. So it’s no great surprise that the standard of sport itself is first-rate and. These teams win. All the time. And there are plenty of vocal parents on the sidelines confirming that.
The smart, recently refurbished standalone music school makes for a strong culture of music, and has over the years clocked some pretty impressive tours, singing in Notre Dame and in 2019, at the Last Post at the Menin Gate Memorial. Three quarters of the children in the prep school play an instrument – all taught on site by visiting peris, who are mostly professional musicians. A string of orchestras, bands, choirs and chamber groups means there’s something for everyone.
Drama is similarly whizzy. Like music, it is a key part of the curriculum in all year groups, and we are pleased to hear that every year from nursery upwards puts on a play, with Years 6 and 8 producing musicals (and getting involved in lighting, sound and stage management) and Year 7 creating happy havoc with their sketch show.
The art and technology department is particularly impressive, with pupils in Years 3 to 8 enjoying an hour of art plus an hour of tech each week, covering textiles, food technology, ceramic, woodwork and plastics. The highlight is the food tech room, complete with a demo kitchen and individual preparation areas for pupils – a budding chef’s dream.
Where every school on the block now offers Forest School, Westbourne House was an early adopter of outside learning, and has its own DofE programme in the form of the Westbourne Award.
One of the most fun and flexible boarding set-ups we’ve seen. There are seven different boarding houses: one in the main house (for Years 3 to 6), but the rest (Years 7 to 8) are set up as a cutesy cul-de-sac of village houses in the school grounds – each one has a married couple as houseparents – where children pop over to play in each other’s gardens (one even has its own trampoline). What a great way for the older children to learn to be independent while having real housemates – a proper dress rehearsal for senior school, university and beyond. Full boarding has been on offer for a while, attracting a number of Spanish, French and Chinese pupils, among others. A mammoth 100 children board at present (everything from one to seven nights a week) – not surprising when you see the list of weekend jaunts on the rota (including the arrival of ice cream vans).
Deputy head academic Barbara Langford deserves a special shout-out: not only has she spearheaded the HPL Programme, but she’s also put together a total review of the pastoral care system, training all teachers on the processes to follow and creating access to an onsite emotional & behavioural coach and a school counsellor, whose door (next to matron’s) is always open. The school runs regular ‘teen tips’ parent seminars, and Year 7s and 8s have their own tutors (and a specified pastoral head), more akin to what you’d expect at a senior school.
Westbourne House was founded at the same time as the Scout movement, and so the house system here borrows some of the lingo – houses are ‘patrols’, head boys and girls are ‘troop leaders’ and pupils work towards a boarders’ adventure badge; learning survival techniques, night navigation and outdoor cooking. Siblings are often in the same patrol, fostering healthy cross-year group collaboration.
When they arrive, new pupils are buddied up with an older pupil to help them settle in, and we spotted several Year 8s sporting ‘friend’ badges so littlies feel confident approaching them. Pupil camaraderie shone through during our visit – and the quietly confident Year 8 pupils who showed us around were brilliant ambassadors for their school.
Parents are warmly welcomed here (there’s even a dedicated ‘grandparents’ day’ in the pre-prep). Some 40 per cent of families have relocated from London expressly for a broader, more tranquil environment, while still seeking academic excellence. The demographic is fairly local, although the expansion in boarding means that Westbourne is now on the radar for, and becoming popular with, international parents. A good minibus service runs from the South Downs in the north the Witterings (on the coast) to the south – a boon for parents keen to avoid the notoriously bad Chichester rush hour traffic.
‘Have a go’ sums up the Westbourne ethos. Kids are expected to work hard and play harder.