St John’s Beaumont, Old Windsor
An under the radar prep that's laser focussed on the softer skills and academic firepower to produce well-rounded socially intelligent boys.
St John’s Beaumont School is a Roman Catholic boys’ day and boarding prep tucked away in Old Windsor – in an enviable location close to the River Thames, surrounded by countryside, and yet just a short hop from Windsor town centre (Heathrow and London are just 11 miles away). With just 270 pupils, it’s academically strong and feeds into the top senior schools in the country.
You don’t get the full wow factor on entering the grounds, parking next to the vivid blue tennis courts. Persevere, the main building is an absolute beaut, designed in 1888 by JF Bentley, the architect of Westminster Cathedral. It was the first purpose built prep school in the UK, but as the school has grown, sympathetic modern additions blend in with the original, period architecture.
Beyond the bricks and mortar, there are 70 acres of playing fields, meadow and copse for the boys to let off steam. It’s slightly under the radar of many parents, but it definitely packs a punch, delivering its boys to the likes of Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, Winchester and Wellington.
Excellent facilities with loads of sport as you’d expect in a boys’ prep school. Worth particular mention are the floodlit tennis courts, an impressive climbing wall, 25-metre indoor pool (above), nine-hole golf course and high-tech indoor rowing, so you can race boats without getting your feet wet. On the arts front, there’s an outdoor ecological amphitheatre (very cool), light-filled art studio, and a well-equipped Music School with concert hall. Not forgetting a large Games Room full of table tennis tables, air hockey, pool tables and table football. The stuff childhood dreams are made of.
STEM is super-hot right now and the plan here is to develop more space for STEM subjects and add a dedicated performance space (to include sound and lighting opportunities). Before they start throwing money at projects, a masterplan of the site and its existing buildings is being reviewed to assess the best use from a teaching practice and technology point-of-view. Parents will appreciate the emphasis on strategy over bragging rights.
As a bit of an architecture nerd, I love that from the classroom to the dining hall, old meets new – the stunning period features in many of the rooms, sitting alongside the modern practical needs of the pupils like interactive white boards, tech etc.
Lockdown was a shock to us all, but St John’s Beaumont swiftly invested in building an online platform for the majority of their pupils to continue their studies at home. Cue head-spinning, grateful parents. SJB Reach offers eight hours of live academic and creative lessons every day for KS1, KS2 and KS3 – on laptops provided by the school. Daily morning assemblies and collective worship have moved online too. Remarkably, they’ve also managed to offer extra-curricular activities too. Music lessons and concerts, art, cookery, chess, coding and online fencing sounds fun – just move the family heirlooms. SJB Reach has meant that the kids have not missed out academically, have pulled together as community and creatively embraced the challenges Covd-19 and thrown at them. It’s impressive.
Giles Delaney is St John’s Beaumont to the core. He joined the school as Director of Music in 1996, was promoted to Deputy Head three years later and became Headmaster in 2006 when his predecessor tragically died in a car accident. It was an incredibly difficult decision for him to step up, but the staff, boys and parents needed stability – and it is a testament to his character that he did.
Expectations are high at St John’s Beaumont and, Delaney is the first to admit it. ‘Controlled pressure is good, stress is not’. The boys are supported and encouraged to be the best versions of themselves – confident, independent thinkers who have a sense of servitude, kindness and faith. In fact, there’s as much emphasis on the soft skills as there is on academic rigour. Despite many schools going co-ed, Delaney is fiercely single sex for SJB and contextual learning is the key to the boys’ success. I liked him a lot. Charming, kind, but very straight forward. He’s married with four girls, so I imagine life at home is very different to his days surrounded by 290 boy, with his gorgeous Spaniel Otto by his side.
With nearly 300 boys to exercise every day, sport is always going to be a big deal. The prep boys play 350+ matches throughout the year, with multiple teams fielded in rugby, football and cricket. Swimming is also a big deal, with all the children (from Nursery up) enjoying lessons in the school pool. It’s hardly surprising that there’s a chunky number of Regional and County swimmers to be found in Prep. Some of SJB’s enthusiastic fish even swam a relay across the English Channel. Impressive.
Extra-curricular offers a broad range of activities: climbing, rowing, yoga, SCUBA diving (one of my guides had successfully completed his PADI qualification), kick-boxing, polo, golf, judo, tennis, athletics. The list is long. One of the school’s strengths is the encouragement to try activities that come less naturally. The feeling of mastering something when you’ve really had to work for it, cannot be bottled. Brilliant.
MUSIC AND DRAMA
I didn’t hear any musicians on the day I visited, but I met a fair few singers, violin and guitar players. Nothing shy about these boys – and there’s no shortage of opportunities for them to flex their musical muscles with an orchestra, three choirs, rock band and house music competition. The Music School has a lovely performance space and eight practice rooms above, where 13 specialist teachers offer one-to-one tuition for the harp, percussion, guitar, drums, piano, woodwind, brass, voice, violin and cello.
If you have a mini Mark Rylance, SJB stages a wide variety of productions, ranging from musical classics like Bugsy and Joseph to the neon-fuelled Return to the Forbidden Planet. Some are keener to slap on the greasepaint than others, but everyone’s encouraged to get involved. All Y3 and 4 take group LAMDA exams with many going on to take individual qualifications. Great for confidence, future public speaking or vlogging, I reckon.
Though the children (as in most independent preps) take a basic academic test to join, the school cares more about ‘fit’ and boys who will make the most of being at the school. There’s a clear expectation here to work hard and St John’s pupils are awarded places and scholarships in the top senior schools with assuring regularity. During my visit, Giles Delaney was taking a mini bus full to Harrow for their interviews. He told me he makes a point of letting the boys introduce themselves, as it’s their first impression that counts, not his. Speaks volumes.
For the less academic, there’s also a close eye on ‘value added’ and enriching the learning. There is real weight here to offering opportunities to all individuals and ensuring the curriculum is challenging without being overwhelming.
St John’s has always been a boarding school but these days has a more flexible approach, offering full, weekly and tailored boarding for those who want to sleepover two or three nights a week. The original two dormitories, offering 60 beds, are still used and they’re nicely decorated, with enormous flags hanging from the ceiling and pictures of family and friends by the boys’ beds. The newly refurbished bathrooms have caused much excitement as the boys are now within loo-dashing distance from the dorms and everything is automated – loos, showers lights, taps, the lot.
I was shown around by two lovely boys who were so enthusiastic about the school and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of its history. Boarding got a big thumbs up for the fun factor with friends and cool activities. There are always a few grumbles about doing prep but, to be honest, the boys just crack on with it. Nothing to freak parents out there.
The Pre-Prep – run by Head Pippa Powell-Harper – has its own building in the stonking school grounds. So they get all the benefits of the Prep facilities (swimming pool, music rooms, forest school, outdoor theatre etc), as well as a purpose built space to suit their needs. Class sizes are small, the boys are lavished with attention and there’s an excellent range of after school clubs for this age group, including chess, tennis, art, science. Frazzled working parents and those picking up older siblings will love the option of a 6pm pick up which includes a hot tea.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Keen to lend a helping hand to frazzled parents juggling work and family, morning drop off for Day boys at Pre-Prep is 8am with activities running until 4pm. For Years 3-8, the day starts at 7.55am with activities running until 5pm (Y3-5) and 6pm (Y6-8). After-school care is available for Nursery to Y5 until 6pm and they’ll get a hot supper too. Phew! Rustling up something more exotic than fish fingers can be a challenge when you’re all a bit weary.
They’re all Animals… no reflection on behaviour, it’s all part of the House System, and the boys are assigned to Tigers, Yaks and Emus (aka TYEs). I didn’t actually find out why those particular animals, as the boys really just wanted to show my their TYEs. I thought they meant the ones around their necks, but we’re talking points awarded for effort, achievement or commendable actions, like holding open doors or acts of kindness. There’s a House party riding on it, so the stakes are high.
Every day the boys practice Examen – a Jesuit tradition to stop and take stock. Basically it is a time of reflection, giving the boys the opportunity to hit the reset button. Having a bad day? Catholic or not, this allows the boys to intelligently debrief and move on. It’s a big tick in terms of mental health and wellbeing.
The teachers have been chosen with dual talents in mind. Most of them seem to be able to teach sport for starters! Giles Delaney wants as many people, all with different skills, to be feeding these young minds.
Shall we talk about the seriously impressive visitors? The Queen pops by to open buildings, Phillip Hammond MP, Princess Basma of Jordan and BBC R4 presenter Sarah Montague have all given talks and rumour has it the Pope swings by in his Popemobile when he’s in the ‘hood.
Nursery-Y1 £3,410; Y2-3 £4,440 and Y4-8 £6,525 per term. The school offers Full Boarding (£3,480 per term), Weekly (four nights £1,945) and Tailored Boarding (£1,395-£1725) – which is pretty much the same as its main competition.
No scholarships on offer here, but generous bursaries are available. Children who are baptised Roman Catholic get first dibs, but anyone can apply.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The key message here is: don’t rule out St John’s Beaumont if you’re not Catholic. Regardless of faith, parents are attracted to the school’s values, Visitors are bowled over by the type of boys it is producing: well-rounded, socially intelligent young men with a strong moral compass. And what parent wouldn’t want their son to have those qualities? The pastoral care, quality of teaching and family vibe also get rave reviews.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for:Those looking for a boys school where kindness is cool, expectations are high and opportunities are there for the taking. Sport, music, art and drama are all very strong and St John’s excellent pastoral care will suit anyone looking for a family feel.
Not for: If you’re vehemently anti faith schools, the Catholicism underpinning St John’s is probably not going to be your jam.
St John’s Beaumont, Priest Hill, Old Windsor, Berkshire SL4 2JN. Tel: 01784 432428