The quality of learning is high: pupils thoroughly enjoy the school
ISI Inspection, The Good Schools Guide, and The Tatler Schools Guide
In July 2012, Godstowe received its latest full ISI Inspection report, following a comprehensive study carried out by 5 inspectors who delved into just about everything the school does and has to offer. Happily, I don't think the report could have been any better if we had written it ourselves.
The report comments on the exciting, happy and successful environment that exists at Godstowe and notes that ... 'The school is highly successful in achieving its aims to develop conﬁdent, happy and successful pupils'.
You can download a PDF of the ISI Inspection report here.
In May 2015, ISI carried out an intermediate inspection on our boarding welfare. We are happy to report that the inspectors were delighted with what they saw, which is reflected in their excellent report.
You can download a PDF of the ISI Boarding Inspection report here.
England’s first girls’ boarding prep school and Enid Blyton’s inspiration (though not the only contender) for Malory Towers, purpose built in 1900. The grounds make excellent use of a hilly, if a little blustery, site overlooking High Wycombe, with the original pretty Virginia creeper-clad buildings now housing years 3 to 8, plus The Lodge and nursery buildings. The few boys in pre-prep, mostly siblings, move on at the age of 7.
The airy new double height reception building (buzzing at pick-up and drop-off times) is a modern addition to the more rustic Victorian buildings and has a gallery-like atmosphere, setting the tone for the rather artsy feel of the whole school. Other recent revamps include the dining room (we highly recommend the lasagne), early years centre, art room and food technology centre, opened in 2007 by Raymond Blanc. There’s also a new £2m sports hall for eg indoor tennis, hockey and lacrosse plus dance and gymnnastics to compensate for the antiquated and somewhat uninviting swimming pool building, chilly water and all. The school says it has made significant investments in this in recent years but it is far from being its star attraction.
Definitely not a school placing importance on hushed tones, although good manners are notably present. Girls dash about chatting noisily between lessons, picking up considerable speed when heading to the dining room for lunch. Posters all over the school that indoctrinate pupils to be happy, confident and successful are clearly doing the trick. Non-selective it may be, but success is in the air here. Minority (about 15 per cent) peel off at 11 to local schools (parents have to ‘opt in’ to 11+), but unlike many prep schools in the area which hothouse pupils for the sought-after Bucks grammars, this is a true 3-13 establishment, feeding its post-CE alumni into a heady mix of top day and boarding indies, many with scholarships. Which are pretty abundant, by the way, with the current record for one year standing at 26, to 17 different schools. Head puts this down to ‘quality teaching’ and the fact that girls are ‘led rather than pushed through the curriculum’. He is proud not to share the pushy reputation of some of his competition.
French is taught from reception, Latin and Spanish from year 5 in creatively themed classrooms. Classes in pre-prep school ‘subtly’ streamed, with a maximum class size of 18. Formal streaming from year 6 for English, maths and French. Girls stay in form rooms for lessons in years 3 and 4, after which they start to move around the school for individual subjects. General acceptance that everyone learns differently and SEN is all in a day’s work rather than marginalised. Two dedicated SEN staff in place and an excellent EAL programme – mostly for those boarders from the Far East, Spain and Nigeria, with girls’ needs assessed upon entry to the school and timetabled to meet their specific requirements.
Boarders’ prep takes place from 4.30pm to 6.30pm, although an hour of this is often taken up with an enrichment activity. Day girls report homework levels to be acceptable. Creative pursuits are well catered for, with a dedicated sewing room in CDT where girls knock up the odd wedding gown for the year 8 fashion show.
Some 300 girls learn musical instruments and practise daily in bright, well-equipped studios. Pupils’ artistic endeavours are displayed throughout the school – and with good reason. They look more like GSCE work, thanks to the inspirational head of art, who specialises in 3D work. The art department, with its gleaming new extension, has the wow factor in terms of space and light, as does the work on show there, from glazed pottery meals on plates to life-size papier mâché humans – not a still life fruit bowl in sight. Taught by specialists from the word go, senior girls win art scholarships every year, but importantly parents report that a passion for creativity has been bred into the core of the school and latent talent is eeked out of those who didn’t know they had it.
Parents say the standard of music is ‘incredible’, with one slipping in that the girls’ achievements and public performances by far outstrip those at their brothers’ schools. All pupils are encouraged to participate from the age of 3 in regular recitals and choir is compulsory in years 3 to 6. Revamped JK Theatre is used for music concerts, after-school clubs, art exhibitions, assemblies and parents’ evenings.
Sports lessons are four times a week, with the usual suspects (netball, lacrosse and hockey) taking centre pitch – all to a high competitive standard. Athletics, rounders and swimming are also on offer, as are ballet, gymnastics and dance. Parents of children in larger year groups occasionally grumble that the A and B teams are a bit exclusive, with not everyone getting a go, but the head is keen to introduce more teams and by and large most girls are able to compete at some level, often with winning results.
Boarding facilities have a real home from home feel, with bedrooms (sleeping between four and eight) rather than dorms, cosy sitting rooms and homely kitchens. All have their own large gardens, with swings and other outdoor equipment. Housemistresses are non-teaching staff, leaving them free to focus on girls’ pastoral care. Pupils are charming and poised without a hint of precociousness and describe their typical peer as ‘kind and happy’. Early drop-off plus breakfast (7.30am) and late pick-up plus supper (6.30pm) is available for day girls at low cost.
The mobile phone arms race was stopped by the clever acquisition of 100 bog standard phones (yes, these do still exist) into which girls can insert their own SIM cards to call home. Thursdays are ‘no go gadget’ evenings in the boarding houses to further encourage those old fashioned skills, reading, conversation and game playing. Girls say the best thing about Godstowe is ‘everyone is happy all the time’ – future careers in PR await. The ‘enrichment curriculum’ – that’s after-school clubs in old money – offers up to 50 free options for two hours a day from 4.30pm. These range from the traditional sports, LAMDA and wind band to the more diverse knitting, prop-making and cross-stitch, with up to 100 girls staying for these. Boarders benefit from a buzzing spectrum of activities at weekends too (rarely fewer than 50 girls in), many of which take place off site (bowling, skating, theatre, cinema etc). Post CE, year 8s are given a lifestyle crash course to prepare them for a less cosseted existence. Includes classes in self-defence, internet safety and relationships, charitable works, trips out, visiting lecturers and, in a surprisingly retro twist, a hair and beauty day, which seems a little old fashioned but, hey ho, girls will be girls.
Since 2006, Mr David Gainer (50s). Educated at Claires Court, Maidenhead and Belmont Abbey in Herefordshire, followed by St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, where he studied maths and drama. Began career at Llanarth Court Prep in South Wales then returned to alma mater Belmont Abbey as housemaster, followed by three years at Forest Grange Prep in Horsham as deputy head, before taking up first headship at Belmont Prep near Dorking in 1991.
Lives in the thick of it in the main school building with wife Cathy, the school registrar. According to one parent, ‘if you could choose a headmaster for your son or daughter, it would be Mr Gainer.’ Girls and parents alike comment on his energy, enthusiasm and hands-on presence around the school (he attends all sports matches and eats dinner with the boarders every night) – and they’re not the only ones: he was recently named best head of a prep school by Tatler. Praise indeed.
Commands respect yet obvious affection from pupils – appears truly in loco parentis. Parents are ‘hooked’ as soon as they meet him – and no wonder: he lets them have his home telephone number. Passionate about the benefits of years 7 and 8, the head describes these years as ‘dynamic bubble wrap’ – keeping the girls in a nurturing environment while they mature, yet allowing them genuine responsibility, freedom and leadership opportunities at the top of the school. Highly focused on personal development and believes that academic success depends on it. According to the head, Godstowe encourages ‘everyone to aim high, whatever their ability and potential.’
Pioneered a system of deferred senior school places, ‘brokering deals’ to secure girls’ places at 11 to transfer at 13. Strong relationships with senior schools borne out by the fact that 25 schools choose to send their head as representative to Godstowe’s biannual senior school fair.
Leaving in July 2017. His successor will be Sophie Green, currently head of Herries School in Cookham. She has also been director of studies at St George’s Windsor Castle, where she prepared pupils for scholarships and was involved in the demanding boarding life of the choristers. She is also an ISI Inspector.
Despite Godstowe’s growing popularity, head is adamant that it will remain a ‘first come first served’, non-selective school. Majority intake (about 80 per cent) at 7 from its own pre-prep, The Lodge, with girls joining all the way through to year 6 from a variety of local prep and state schools, and boarders joining from further afield in the upper years. Boarding can be full time or flexible with many day girls choosing to try it in years 7 and 8 as a taster for senior school.
Not a specific feeder, with alumni most years heading off to some 20 different senior schools notably Wycombe Abbey, Cheltenham Ladies, Queen Anne’s and Downe House; others to eg St George’s Ascot, Rugby, Wellington, Stowe, Haileybury, Tudor Hall, Oundle, Uppingham, Pipers Corner, St Edward’s, Bradfield, Millfield, Headington and Marlborough. A handful leave for local grammars at 11.
Click here to see the previous Good Schools Guide review.
The Tatler Schools Guide is an annual supplement to the main magazine and schools are chosen according to their own criteria and not because it has been paid for. David Gainer won the award for Best Head of a Prep School at the launch of the 2013 Guide. Here is the entry for 2017:
An inspiration behind Malory Towers (Enid Blyton's daughters boarded here), Godstowe is something of a British institution. It's also one of the last remaining all-girls boarding prep schools. We love head David Gainer's simple ethos: happy children are easy to teach. Despite being non-selective, Godstowe has a fine academic record, with 42 scholarships this year and girls cantering off to the likes of Wycombe Abbey and Marlborough. There's an established equestrian team, they compete nationally at lacrosse and work will soon begin on an indoor swimming pool. Around half board, and at weekends knitting is just as popular as judo, or trips to High Wycombe - a waiter once even wrote to Mr G to commend him on his girls' impeccable manners.
Godstowe really has nailed the all-girls, boarding prep-school thing (nearly an extinct species these days). Parents are making a dash for what thoroughly good head David Gainer describes as "dynamic bubblewrap": girls live and learn in a relaxed atmosphere, happiness ensues, and they go on to achieve great things. Simples. It's called "getting into the Godstowe groove", which might involve girls touring the USA with the lacrosse team, putting on a stellar production of Oliver! or winning a place at Cheltenham Ladies', Tudor Hall or Wycombe Abbey. The facilities here are top notch, and the school has had a delivery of a load of Google Chromebooks too. But they are really careful with technology; we love that boarders (about half of girls) are issued with a "Nokia brick" to call home. The dorms are scarily tidy - you have been warned.
The Godstowe philosophy is pretty straight forward - happy children are easy to teach. And it works. We're not surprised they're cheerful - a great new theatre, terrific new sports hall, a garden for each house, and a headmaster's wife who is so devoted she is like a surrogate mother to the boarders. This is one of the few all-girls boarding preps in the country. It's oversubscribed and Godstowe girls go on to Wycombe Abbey, Downe House, Benenden and Cheltenham Ladies'. Lacrosse is a big sport - last year a team went to the USA - and the netballers are catching up fast. Food technology is slick, and the kitchen was opened by Raymond Blanc.
Goodness, we do love Godstowe and its polite yet gutsy girls. Rarely have we encountered such good manners. The use of ‘like’ to punctuate sentences is particularly frowned upon so ‘they don’t all sound as though they’re in a Disney teen movie’, says a mother. Boarding is heaving – we hear on the grapevine that they recently turned away 17 boarding applications in one week. Last year’s leavers won 20 scholarships to the likes of Wycombe Abbey and Downe House. A swanky sports hall and a new theatre have just been completed too. We gave head David Gainer our Best Prep School Head Award last year. ‘Education really doesn’t need to be rocket science,’ he says. His winning formula: confidence plus happiness equals success.
Looking for that rare phenomenon, an all-girls boarding prep? ‘Godstowe is unrivalled,’ says a satisfied mother. ‘I could wax lyrical about the boarding houses and wonderful housemistresses for days and, as a headmaster, David Gainer is hugely involved and impressive.’ Please note the 23 scholarships last year to everywhere from Ampleforth to Wycombe Abbey; masses of netball and lacrosse triumphs; and a production of The Tempest set to the music of ELO. There’s a ‘bright and breezy’ new extension to the art room and a stonking new sports hall next autumn. We heartily approve of ‘no go gadget night’, when phones and computers have to be put away in favour of sport, crafts or reading. The school tells us that its primary concern is to produce ‘confident, happy children – rocket science not required!'
The country’s first all-girls boarding prep continues to fly the flag for single-sex education with impressive results and happy, smiling pupils. Non-selective it may be, but Godstowe girls have a selection of top senior schools at their feet – Wycombe Abbey, Downe House, Cheltenham Ladies et al – with 22 scholarships and awards achieved last year. There’s success on the sports front too (IAPS national finalists in athletics, netball and swimming; winners of the Heathfield lacrosse tournament) and the foundations have been laid for the new sports hall. There’s also a funky new iPhone prospectus and parents’ app to keep everyone in the loop. Headmaster David Gainer and wife Cathy are behind the feel-good factor here: 'Mr G has utterly transformed the boarding and ethos of the school,’ one mother says.
Godstowe has become something of a treasure, a British institution by default as it is one of the last all-girls’ preparatory boarding schools in the country. Despite being one of a dying breed, this is a school that is going from strength to strength. Under well-liked head David Gainer, pupil numbers have shot up from 260 to a positively bulging 380 in just four years. And facilities on the slightly scruffy site are improving dramatically as well, with a £2 million development plan that will see the construction of a new indoor sports hall, refurbishment of an existing gym into a dedicated theatre and drama space, and new all-weather tennis courts. The girls are winning vast numbers of scholarships, exhibitions and awards – and, remarkably, Godstowe really is fervently non-selective. It’s not all heads in books, though. In the past year these jet-setters have racked up a lacrosse tour of America’s East Coast, a music visit to Prague and a ski trip to Lake Tahoe in California which culminated in a few days’ shopping in San Francisco.
The quality of learning is high: pupils thoroughly enjoy the school