This co-ed village prep near Stamford in Lincolnshire seems to have cracked the formula for providing a near-perfect education, as testified by the fact that it draws in families from a wider-than-usual catchment area, with numbers growing consistently for more than a decade. But there’s no resting on laurels at Witham Hall – head Will Austen and his wife Jossie are always on the lookout for ways to enhance school life for its 250-plus pupils, whether that’s honing the curriculum to ensure everyone fulfils their potential, or building a dream treehouse and swing complex to inject more fun into the school day. Add flexi boarding from Year 4, which is hugely popular, and it’s not surprising most pupils stay on until Year 8, emerging well prepared for the next stage in their educational journey.
Located in Witham-on-the-Hill, a village a few miles from the market town of Bourne, the school sits in stunning parkland with a magnificent Queen Anne mansion at its heart. Several snazzy new buildings have been added in recent years, including a science and resources centre with a modern languages suite and a superb sports centre that is, without doubt, the best we’ve seen at a prep. The grounds offer ample romping room for outdoor fun and reflection – as well as the tree house and swings complex, an ornamental pond area has been turned into a safe and accessible wellbeing space.
The rural location means most children arrive by car, but there are links to mainline trains at Peterborough via Stamford. The area is becoming increasingly popular with ex-Londoners, with the commute from Peterborough to King’s Cross taking just 50 minutes.
The easy-going and unstuffy Mr Austen joined in September 2020 from Ludgrove School in Berkshire, where he was deputy head. He and Mrs Austen, who looks after external relations, embody the school’s family-friendly feel. Their two sons are pupils, so they have both parental and professional perspectives.
A self-declared ‘country person’, Mr Austen has set out to ensure that pupils can make the most of Witham Hall’s impressive grounds. He also strives to help the most and least academically able achieve the best they can, with learning support now a central and natural part of the school day. Drama, music and art are other focal points; Mr Austen hopes to make the school’s reputation in these disciplines as strong as it is in sport.
Most pupils join at Reception, and with high demand and no formal assessment – places are allotted on a first-come, first-served basis – early registration is highly recommended. There are also admissions in Years 4 and 7 with informal assessments – current reports and a school visit – to gauge levels for streaming. Ad-hoc admissions are possible if there is space. Since the pandemic, the school has seen increased demand, which has meant the introduction of waiting lists.
Academics and senior school destinations
Mr Austen’s drive to strengthen the school’s academic offering has seen the appointment of a new deputy head of academic, Rupert Candy, who joined from Westminster Under School in September 2022.
From Reception to Year 4, classes are led by a form teacher, after which pupils move to subject teachers. In Years 7 and 8, there is streaming for pupils taking scholarships at Common Entrance, an innovation introduced by Mr Austen.
He has also earmarked D&T for expansion – a new building that will offer programming and robotics options is in the pipeline. The junior science lab has been updated to be on a par with the senior lab. The library has been rehoused to a light, airy room in the mansion, and it now holds three times as many books as it did before.
The three local public schools, Uppingham, Oundle and Oakham are the next step for most pupils, but a few go further afield to Eton, Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Wycombe Abbey, among others.
Witham Hall is renowned for its sporting prowess and fields teams for all of the main IAPS competitions, as well as triathlon and cross-country running. But its competitiveness doesn’t mean it caters only for the gifted, with teams and matches for all abilities. The state-of-the-art sports complex built in 2018 houses an indoor sports hall, sprung-floor dance studio, gym, changing facilities and a first-floor viewing terrace overlooking an Astro hockey pitch and tennis courts. In the grounds there is a grass running track and a cricket square, which is sometimes used for county training. There’s also a small golf course, a discus cage and space for javelin. Plans are under way for a swimming pool.
Art, drama and music are timetabled, as well as offered as clubs. Head of music Miriam Forbes is both extremely talented and inspirational, and everyone takes part in music, be it in a choir, in the drum ensemble or learning an instrument with a peripatetic teacher. All pupils enjoy art in a loft-style studio, and a good number go on to gain art scholarships to senior schools. A Lent-term production is the focal point of the school’s drama calendar, with festivals and competitions throughout the year. LAMDA exams are an option for those with a passion for the stage.
There is an array of extracurricular clubs, including clay-pigeon shooting, water-skiing, cooking, sewing and bushcraft in the school’s wilderness area.
Weekly and flexi boarding is available from Year 4, and it is very popular. Understandably so, as the dorms, housed in the main mansion, are both elegant and cosy, and the boarding activities are a real draw. By Year 8, most pupils will have boarded at one time or another. There is no full boarding, so everyone goes home after sporting commitments on Saturday.
Pastoral care is exemplary, with form teachers the first point of contact, and there is also a vertical mentoring group. Boarders are under the care of matrons, as well as houseparents Chris and Lucy Meadows. ‘Steph the Chef’ is a school legend – she has won awards for her cooking and is a real innovator with her tasty and healthy dishes. One pupil told us their three favourite things at Witham Hall are breakfast, lunch and supper.
Mr Austen has overhauled the learning-support team with the aim of removing any stigma, so that instead of a pupil having someone sit alongside them in lessons, they now have half a dozen or so one-to-one sessions to fully understand the challenges they face. The space is at the heart of the prep-school building and is open to any pupil, whether they need extra help with spelling and times tables or emotional support.
This is a beautiful and happy school, with a strong family feel and an ethos based on encouragement and promoting wellbeing rather than pushing for achievements. It really values its pupils and throws a protective veil over their childhood while supporting them to be themselves and do the best they can.