Handcross Park is a school scaling new heights. Pupil numbers have soared by 69 per cent in the past few years: now 320 children aged 2-13.
Growth is set to continue, particularly among the boarding community, which currently numbers around 50.
Headmaster Graeme Owton says while it remains a relatively small school, this critical mass allows investment in the best resources.
School ethos is modern education with traditional values – kindness and mutual respect. It’s big on manners, and a warm surprise when pupils of all ages offer a cheery greeting and assistance during a tour of the beautiful grounds.
“We don’t tell children they have to have good manners; we teach them how it will benefit them,” Mr Owton says. “These are important life skills. When they grow up and go into the workplace, it’s not just about grades on their CV. Good manners will make them stand out.
“We provide an innovative education so they remember what they are taught and enjoy school.”
Among rites of passage is the Year 8 formal dinner. “I invite them and they have to send me handwritten acceptance note,” says Mr Owton. “They attend along with school staff, dress up in their best suits and frocks. We have ‘mocktails’ first and then sit down to a formal dinner.
“We don’t give our children enough credit in this country. They are capable of achieving great things.”
Originally Newells Prep School based at Lower Beeding, it moved to Handcross Park, formerly a private home, in 1968. Ornate ceilings and roaring open fires help retain the sense of a grand country home.
Original buildings now joined by modern teaching blocks including spacious maths classrooms that still smell like newly-laid carpet; music school and art studios.
Set in 50 acres of parkland, children make the most of their location by donning boiler suits and wellies for breaktimes. Sports pitches are popular destinations, along with a zip wire, adventure playground and woodland where older pupils make camps. There is also a new Outdoor Classroom bringing a different dimension to lessons.
The organic garden has a thriving club, and comes complete with its own chickens and there is now a Forest School set up in the woods.
Tucked into an old walled garden, the pre-prep and nursery enjoy their own protective and nurturing environment with separate play areas. Lively walls are covered with artwork as well as a reminder of the ‘golden rules’ and the Tree of Achievement – pupils add a leaf in recognition of good work or acts of kindness.
Jason Gayler is head of pre-prep and nursery. “We have a strong system of rewards and encouragement,” he said. “If you can give children a moment where they feel good about themselves, that’s important.
“It’s a lovely atmosphere. The children are so proud of their achievements, and their parents can join our special assemblies on Fridays so they can share the proud moments as well.”
Pre-prep children are able to use many of the prep school facilities including ICT suite, indoor swimming pool and the large multi-sports hall which also doubles as a space where the whole school can gather for special occasions.
Sporting excellence is a matter of pride, but there are always enough teams for all pupils to join so everyone gets a go. As well as golf, wall climbing and trampolining, active youngsters can try judo, dance and yoga. The cricket coach plays for Sussex and brings his county team mates along for coaching sessions.
Languages are key; children start with Spanish in nursery and add Mandarin in reception, with French an additional option later.
Enthusiastic staff make lessons fun and engaging. Re-enacting battles is popular with the young and passionate history teacher. Last year pupils took part in an engineering project, building their own racing car.
Majority of boarders stay Monday to Friday and go home every weekend, although a few stay full time. Comfortable rooms are shared between five or six, and they’re free to make it a comfortable home from home.
Day pupils can also come to school early for breakfast and stay after for clubs, extra support and supper.
Jo Beard, head of marketing, has her two boys at the school. The eldest chose to board in Year 8.
“They have very structured support in the evenings,” she said. “My son has been able to really focus on his work in the run up to exams, and spend more time with his friends as well.”
Headmaster Mr Owton said: “We are a family school. The vast majority of work can be done in school with support from our excellent teaching staff.
“I’ve never known a group of staff who worked so hard. They work every hour to inspire, help and teach our children.”
Feedback from parents and pupils often focuses on the pastoral care, praising staff who go the extra mile.
A recent inspection by the Independent Schools Inspectorate has given the school the highest possible rating across every inspected area.
Handcross Park is part of the Brighton College family, but pupils go on to a wide variety of top public schools. Staff work closely with parents to help guide when choosing the best senior school for each child.
A teacher said, ‘there’s no ceiling to learning anywhere in this school’.
Little wonder its pupils climb so high.