St Margaret’s Prep School, Gosfield
A small, intimate, 'family' oriented prep school, St Margaret's is the perfect option for those looking for a nurturing environment and all-rounder education for their kids.
There’s no denying the beauty of St Margaret’s Prep School’s setting, in the former grounds of Gosfield Hall in Gosfield, a small village in one of the prettiest parts of the Essex countryside, near to postcard-worthy places like Finchingfield and Castle Hedingham. It feels very rural, but the school is commutable from plenty of places including Halstead, Braintree, Colchester and Chelmsford. The school is housed in the 16th century coach house and stable block of the former Royal Palace (now a wedding venue), with stunning grounds all around, including The Lake Golf Course out the back, where all the children take lessons.
Co-educational with a pretty equal split between boys and girls, St Margaret’s School is non-selective and takes kids from age 2 (in the stunning nursery space). Overall, there are 185 pupils with a very attractive current class size of 14. In 2021 the school will be celebrating its 75th anniversary, having started with just ten children in 1946. The school is part of the global Cognita group of schools whose main aim is to build self-belief and empower individuals to succeed. In more tangible terms this means that the school benefits from good investment in its facilities and educational resources, all of which are fabulous.
The grounds are not huge (7 acres in all) but ample for the amount of students and the space has been well thought out with smart outside play areas divided into sections for kids of different ages, as well as a pretty woodland space for forest school. Plus, with fields all around and a long tree-lined private road approach, there is plenty of space and fresh country air to be had.
Sports wise there’s pretty much everything catered for here, with a good-sized sports hall (which doubles up as the dining hall), two netball courts, and playing fields for cricket, athletics, football and rugby. What you can’t find on site, the school has access to locally, including Gosfield Cricket Club/Clubhouse, which is used as the school’s home ground for cricket matches, The Braintree Hockey Club, which is used as the home ground for hockey matches, and a 25 metre swimming pool at Halstead Leisure Centre where children in Year 3 have weekly swimming lessons.
Other facilities include a beautiful art room, a well-stocked and cosy library, a specialist science lab, a large dedicated music room and three music pods for individual lessons. In 2018 the school opened an impressive Apple based Discovery Lab where children learn coding, robotics and how to create films using the green screen.
All the classrooms are large, bright and beautiful. There’s a riot of colour and decoration throughout the school, proving how strong the creative subjects are here. Some classrooms have stable (back)doors that open directly onto the fields, so can be opened for free flow work and play in the warmer months.
There are plenty of opportunities for sporty kids to excel here. Cross country, netball, swimming and athletics are the main sports and all Prep pupils have golf lessons at the Gosfield Lake Golf Club with the Golf Pro. Recent successes have included three years as ISA regional netball winners, regional and national placing in the ISA National Swim Gala and regional and national placing in ISA Cross Country competitions. In terms of extra-curricular sports there are morning cross country, netball, and football clubs. After school paid clubs include yoga, golf, boxing, football, rugby, and netball.
Music is a particularly strong suit for St Margaret’s and a big part of the culture. They start them young here – singing, musical notation, composing and Solfa hand-signs are introduced through games and puppets from Nursery. Plenty of chances to shine as well at dedicated music assemblies.
There are individual soundproof instrumental lesson rooms used by 13 visiting peris, where kids (from Year 1) can learn any instrument they fancy (current pupils learn everything from French horn and cello to drums and the harp). There’s also a well-equipped music room (overseen by a passionate Director of Music) and the hall doubles as the theatre for school performances. An impressive 90% of children in Years 3 – 6 learn at least one instrument and have access to a whole host of free lunchtime ensembles – wind band, drumming club, clarinet choir, cello choir, flute choir, guitar ensemble and string orchestra. A training orchestra, (open to all grades and instruments) also takes place before school and there are early morning choirs for Year 3-6.
As part of the school’s dedication to helping pupils gain scholarships, in the autumn term Year 6 can join a free music scholarship club that helps them prepare for auditions and interviews. This results in an average of four music scholarships being offered each year.
On the jazz hands front, there’s specialist drama teaching for Years 1 and 2, and 1:1 LAMDA drama lessons for kids who love to act (80% of entrants received distinctions in the last round of exams so that tells you something).
There are plenty of opportunities to tread the boards – each year group creates and performs two assemblies each year, there are Christmas plays aplenty and a marquee goes up in summer term to host the annual speech day This whole school production is directed by pro actors, and accompanied by an orchestra of former pupils and peri teachers. The day also features solo and group dances as well as a piece of music composed by The Composition Club and performed by the school orchestra.
The art department is also worth a mention because specialist teaching in ceramics, sculpture, photography, drawing and painting with a professional artist starts early at St Margaret’s and the school has a good record in the annual ISA Eastern Region and National Art Competition. In 2019/20, they were awarded five first place awards and a pupil in Year 2 gained a first prize in the National Art Competition.
There’s a huge programme of lunchtime and after-school activities offering kids the chance to try plenty of exciting activities during the year – everything from boxing and ballet to song writing and computing.
Although it’s a Prep school, there’s a lot of focus on future careers and helping the children to consider their future from an early age. St Margaret’s regularly welcomes former pupils to give talks – recent visitors have included an HS2 engineer and a doctor – and the school won an award from the Chief Constable for its forensic science course with Essex Police. The introduction of spaces like the Discovery Lab also helps pupils to take a subject like Computer Science and apply it to real life situations and careers.
How about this gorgeous modern and light space for your little darling? The nursery is a particularly impressive space and is cocooned nicely in the middle of the school, so little ones feel like part of the daily routine from the off. It’s one of the biggest, brightest and best we’ve seen having been completely rebuilt in 2017 so everything is nice and new and really well thought out. There’s a huge amount of space for the amount of children (currently 15-20 a day) and they have constant access to their own lovely, safe garden.
Excellent. St Margaret’s is non-selective but still manages a haul of scholarships every year. The pupils don’t naturally move on to one main school as is the case with a lot of prep schools. Instead, the children here tend to split off in up to 16 different directions – most to local grammar schools (Colchester Royal Grammar School, Colchester County High School for Girls, Chelmsford County High School for Girls and King Edward VI Grammar School) or highly-regarded selective East Anglian independent secondary schools like The Perse in Cambridge, Ipswich School, Culford School in Bury St Edmunds and St Mary’s Cambridge.
The school has a brilliant record of students gaining scholarships for their chosen secondary school including academic, music, art, drama and sport scholarships – highlighting the strong all-rounder education kids receive here. In 2020, there were 17 scholarships and grammar school places for the Year 6 leavers.
PASTORAL CARE AND SEN PROVISIONS
Pastoral care is extremely high on the agenda here and there’s a really strong family vibe throughout the school. A lot of the staff have children here or have even been pupils here themselves and many teachers have been at the school for long stints. The School Council has a loud voice here and isn’t just for show, with any concerns or initiatives being carefully considered and implemented. Senior prefects are appointed as listening friends for younger students, staff are trained to deliver yoga in the classrooms, there’s a wellbeing space for both pupils and staff as well as the usual worry boxes and Wellbeing Wednesday initiatives. Charity work is a big part of school life, with children voting on their annual charity and supporting it through a series of events and campaigns.
There’s a good SEN provision here with a dedicated Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator who has been at St Margaret’s for more than 10 years and has been ‘SEN Practitioner of the Year’ in the Cognita Awards for Excellence. Small groups or 1:1 lessons are available for kids needing extra help
The school has a brand new head (appointed in July 2020) but definitely not a new face. Reflecting the family vibe that the school is known for Carolyn Moss’s own children came to the school and she joined St Margaret’s Prep School as a maths teacher in September 2004. She’s worked in various roles at the school including Head of Prep, Director of Studies, Deputy Head and now Head, so is perfectly placed to have an understanding of the school from every angle – pupil, teacher, and parent.
Her plans as head? Carolyn is improving the educational resources as one of her first big projects. Following a major classroom tech refresh in 2019, from autumn 2020 each child from Year 3 upwards will be given a personal laptop to enhance their lessons. Over the winter months a Quiet Garden and outdoor classroom are being created, based on the designs submitted by the children themselves. Carolyn is also looking to expand use of the school at weekends and holidays with Super Camps returning, a cooking camp, forest school and potential music school.
Carolyn is clearly passionate about St Margaret’s ability to school each child individually and its flexibility to play to each and every strength. There’s no such thing as top and bottom sets here – children are put into groups depending on their particular strengths within a subject, as Carolyn recognises that children aren’t simply strong or weak in one subject in its entirety.
You wouldn’t describe St Margaret’s as particularly quirky, although the introduction of a school reading dog is a little different. The Head is fostering a Guide Dog for the Blind puppy who comes into school to help children improve their confidence in reading.
In keeping with the sense of fairness and opportunity for all that runs through St Margaret’s, there are two Heads of School and these may be two girls, as is this year, two boys or a mix.
There’s also a real sense of celebration of the individual here and no gender stereotyping. Hockey, rugby, football and netball are for both boys and girls and there’s freedom of expression to be who you want to be through a trouser or skirt uniform policy regardless of gender.
As a family-orientated school, the parents here like to get involved (although of course there’s no pressure to) and there’s a very active PTA who organise a ball each year. The school also arranges a ‘voice of the parent’ annual survey, invite parents to special assemblies and to attend a school dinner throughout the year, so if you like the idea of getting under the skin of your child’s school and really playing a part in their education, you’ll love how much of a say you can have here. You can work on your own grey matter too while you’re at it – there are afternoon maths lessons over tea and biscuits for parents, so you can help your kids with their homework without wondering what on earth Singapore maths is!
Current pricing is: Nursery from £30.50 per half day up to £64.25 for a full day; Reception £3,355, Pre Prep £3,500 and Prep £4,200.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a superior all-round option, where kids are nurtured, and have the opportunity to get involved in loads of different activities. The support offered to parents and pupils to find the best school to continue their educational journey and to gain scholarships is particularly impressive.
Not for: Those looking for loads of acreage or snazzy sports facilities on site. St Margaret’s makes the most of its small grounds and then outsources to the local facilities.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest! Register for their open morning on Saturday 2 October, where you can experience a personal tour, meet the team, and enjoy some nature craft activities in their woodland Forest School area. There’s also a Stay & Play on Friday 4 March 2022 (TBC) and another open morning on Saturday 7 May 2022. Places are limited, offered on a first come first served basis, and must be booked in advance.
St Margaret’s Prep School, Gosfield Hall Park, Gosfield, Halstead, Essex, CO9 1SE