Aberdour School, Tadworth
An innovative approach to learning which includes a unique and bespoke curriculum helps put this co-ed prep school in a class of its own.
Aberdour School is an independent day school in Tadworth for boys and girls from age 2 to 11. Tucked away just off the A217 midway between Epsom and Reigate, it’s set on a pretty 12-acre site that looks out across to rolling hills and farmland.
But while the location and facilities here are undoubtedly a big draw – more on those later – the headline feature is the school’s innovative approach to learning which is all centred around a curriculum programme called PAL. Personalised Achievement Learning is a system of teaching which was developed at Aberdour in 2007 by the school’s head master, Simon Collins. It’s entirely unique to Aberdour – so much so it’s been trademarked – and has been created to put the children and their individuality at the centre of their education.
Of course every school will tell you the children are at the centre of the learning – and even by Mr Collins’s own admission “it’s not exactly rocket science” – but the offering at Aberdour is genuinely quite unique and you’ll see evidence of the PAL curriculum throughout the entire school. It’s entrenched in the ethos and spirit of the school, and the style of teaching and the school’s resources reflect that.
Aberdour is proudly non-selective, with a three-class intake throughout and about 350 pupils in total. Most pupils come from within a five-mile radius, but some also come from Ashtead, Reigate, Epsom and Ewell. The school is made up of a Pre-prep (Nursery to Year 1), Middle School (Years 2 and 3) and Senior School (Years 4-6). It was founded as a boys’ boarding school in 1933 but became co-ed in 1994 – and in the school’s 87-year history there have been just four head masters. Mr Collins has been here 14 years.
The school is centred around a handsome red-brick Victorian building which houses the reception, admin offices, some classrooms and the head master’s residence. There’s parking at the front of the building, and a drop off area for parents.
To the right of the main building is the Pre-prep – a collection of portakabin classrooms clustered around the Pre-prep playground, and to the left of it there are more purpose-built classrooms.The buildings are probably not the prettiest feature of the school – and strict council planning controls prevent the school from making too many major changes. But forget style, because what Aberdour has in droves is substance, especially in the tech area. There’s an impressive Mac suite which is fully integrated with the iPads that are used throughout the school (from nursery to Year 3 classrooms have a bank of iPads, and from Year 4 upwards every child has their own iPad). Every classroom has also been fitted with a 75 inch interactive all-singing, all-dancing screen.
And then there’s the Innovation Centre, opened in 2015, and is a smart two-story building that houses a collection of modernistic tech-focussed classrooms. There’s the STEAM innovations studio, music rooms, music practice rooms, a dance and drama studio, a completely unconventional maths studio (not a desk in sight), and – my absolute favourite – an interactive language studio which has been built like a film set with a Parisian street café, a boulangerie, and a green screen for creating their own short films.
This is all about dynamic learning and inspiring children, which makes a lot of sense. If you’re going to learn French, why not do it while you’re sitting in a café in Paris?
There’s also an art room, a science block with two physics, chemistry and biology labs, a library, and a digital design factory with more impressive gadgets than you can poke a stick at.
The pupils at Aberdour are not left wanting for sporting opportunities or facilities – in addition to the usual traditional sports (cricket, netball, hockey, football, tennis and rugby) it has specialist gymnastics and golf teaching.
There are sports fields aplenty, three all-weather cricket wickets, astroturf netball and tennis courts, plus a large all-weather sports surface which caters for two netball courts, three tennis courts, as well as hockey and football. There’s also a heated indoor swimming pool, and a climbing wall, as well as trim trails. There are also plans for a Go Ape style high wire course.
Children undoubtedly achieve to a high academic standard at Aberdour, but there’s equal focus on three elements of educational developments – academics, pastoral care and aspirational development. The latter includes the Aberdour Challenge – like a mini Duke of Edinburgh.
Specialist subjects are taught from as young as pre-prep and these increase as you move up the school and from Years 4-6 each subject is specialist taught.
The innovative approach to learning is working at Aberdour – kids do well here and go on to excellent schools. Of the 2019 Year 6 cohort, the 51 leavers received offers from 31 different schools and were offered 27 scholarship offers between them from schools including Box Hill, Caterham, Croydon High, Dunottar, Epsom College, Reigate Grammar, St John’s, Whitgift and Woldingham.
I was impressed to find out that every child at Aberdour from Year 3 upwards has a PAL tutor – one of three teachers at the school who’s job it is to oversee the academic and pastoral care of individual pupils.
The lovely Simon Collins. He’s like a rock star among the kids at Aberdour – they love him. And why not? He’s is basically Mr Aberdour – he’s been head master here for 14 years, developed the unique PAL curriculum, and it’s clear he lives and breathes Aberdour and education with a genuine passion and enthusiasm that I’ve rarely seen at such an exuberant level.
His own son attended the school (though he’s now doing his Masters at Durham University), and he lives on site. Before Aberdour, Mr Collins was at Godstowe Prep in High Wycombe for five years, and at More House School in Frensham, for four years before that.
His innovative learning model stems from his own less-than-happy experiences at school – which he didn’t want repeated for others. “Childhood should be magical, and full of wonder and love,” he says. “Every child has brilliance in them – and I’ve made a promise to find out what that is, and I will. So I had to create a system to do that.”
He wants kids to have a Famous Five childhood mixed with a hefty dose of Swallows and Amazons, but also to also gain experience and expertise in our technological and modern world. Safe to say he’s achieving this.
The Pre-prep is part of the main school, whilst still being slightly separate with its own playground. I was shown around by Anna Terry, the head of Pre-prep and it’s a warm, homely, vibrant and creative place.
The rising two-year-olds, called the Honey Bees, attend in the mornings only for between 3 and 5 sessions a week. It’s all about creative play at this stage – with opportunities for exploration and messy play both indoors and out.
The rising three-year-olds are the Bumble Bees, and here the learning is a combination of free-flow play and adult led. They move up from here to Busy Bees – the final year before starting in Transition (what we’d call Reception).
All of the nursery groups have specialist Forest School and Boogie Beats (music and movement) classes, and for the Busy Bees, there’s also cooking, PE, French and library classes
In Transition and Year 1, things move up a notch – as you’d expect – but lovely initiatives like a daily visit from the “Phonics Fairy” keep things lively and fun. On the day I visited, the Phonics Fairy had sent her friend Eunice the Unicorn to visit, and he’d left a glittery pile of unicorn poop on the carpet! As you can imagine, the kids loved it!
Are padded chairs for children considered a quirk? Probably not, but nonetheless I don’t think I’ve seen comfy chairs in many schools. Mr Collins’s logic is quite simple: “Have you ever tried to sit on a hard plastic chair for any length of time without squirming?” I see his point!
The school also has an independently run café especially for parents that’s open before school and after school.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Breakfast club starts at 7.30am, and there’s an after-school / homework club until 6pm as well as a huge range of extra curricular activities that includes things like ballet, robotics, music, tennis, orchestra, chess, judo and gymnastics.
Aberdour has been on the receiving end of many an award – which is perhaps no great surprise for a school that’s innovative and creative with its education offering. Last year, Aberdour won “Best Use of Technology” in the ISA/TES Awards, and this year has been shortlisted for “Strategic Education Initiative of the Year”. The winner will be announced in February.
Pupils at the school have also had success at the First Lego League National Robotics Championship, and in gymnastics and golf, as well as other sporting events.
Nursery fees start at £1,500 per term for a Honey Bee morning session. For Bumble Bees (rising 3 years) and Busy Bees (3-4 year olds) it’s £1,965 – £3,285. Transition is £3,955 per term; Years 1 and 2 are £4,120, Year 3 is £4,840 and for years 4-6 it’s £5,175.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Families love the warmth and energy at Aberdour – and the fact it delivers an education that is both holistic and in many ways traditional, but which also at the forefront of learning with technology. Aberdour kids are happy kids.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: The school’s strapline is “Finding the brilliance in every child”, but this isn’t just a marketing one-liner – there are active programmes in place to do this. It’s a warm and friendly school, and gets great results. And if your child is techy – they’re going to love it.
Not for: You’re looking for a grand facility, or a hot-housing and academically pushy environment.
Dare to disagree? Check the school out for yourself at their open mornings on Fri 6 March and Tues 5 May. There’s also a nursery taster session on Fri 20 Mar.
Aberdour School, Brighton Road, Banstead, Tadworth KT20 6AJ. Tel: 01737 354119. aberdourschool.co.uk