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How do they fit it all in?

Andrew Headley has visited Castle Court School at Corfe Mullen to see how action-packed days turn out well-rounded and successful children

The house that was Castle Court’s original home in Corfe Mullen is still at the centre of the school. It was built in the 1780s for a member of the Coventry family.

It was in 1948 that a young teacher, Donald Scott, and his wife, Mary, founded a preparatory school for the sons of local families in two large houses on Castle Hill, Parkstone, between Commercial Road and Bournemouth Road. The initial intake of fourteen boys had grown to 100 by the school’s twentieth anniversary, when it was clear that the original accommodation was no longer adequate. A new home was found at Knoll Cottage – an inappropriate label for a substantial house built for a member of the Coventry family in the 1780s – in Knoll Lane, Corfe Mullen, but it was ten miles from Parkstone and it must have been a huge gamble for the Scotts as to whether their existing parents would move their sons that far. It is an eloquent testimonial to them that 99 of the 100 boys did indeed follow them to Corfe Mullen when they moved in 1968.

The 35-acre estate allowed the school to grow and to make use of existing features: the walled garden, with its extensive asparagus beds, became a playing field, for example. Always a day school, Castle Court was insulated from the move away from boarding that affected so many prep schools, but it did follow the trend in private education by going co-educational in the 1970s and starting a pre-prep department in the 1980s. More recently, the Badgers joined the Castle Court family: a nursery which takes children as young as 2½. The emphasis at that age is of course on play and flexibility, but the ‘tinies’ do not realise that there is structured learning behind their fun activities.

Lunch in the impressive hall of the main house

Sadly, Donald Scott died too young in 1978, but Mary, although not a formally qualified teacher, bravely took the school on. Happily still alive, she has seen pleasant new classrooms sprout among the lovely trees of the estate and a new hall built which also houses the music department. Today the school has about 300 pupils (roughly sixty per cent boys and forty per cent girls) and thirty staff.

Not until 1989 did Mary Scott retire, handing over the headship to Richard Nicholl. Educated at Stowe and Durham, and with a PGCE from Oxford, he had had a successful career at Haileybury, where he was a housemaster. Yet he chose to ‘come down’ (as some would see it) to the prep school sector. Why? ‘I had always enjoyed prep schools and my sister’s husband was a housemaster at Radley but took on the headship of Monkton Combe Junior School. I saw how happy he and his family were, which influenced my decision.’ The two daughters of Richard and his wife, Vicky, were both at Castle Court, went on to Canford and, after university (one at Oxford and one at Durham), went into prep school teaching, so family ties are strong.

Castle Court is not officially a Christian foundation, but Donald and Mary Scott founded it on strong Christian principles. Although it welcomes pupils from all faiths, those principles still underpin all that it does, especially in inculcating in its pupils sensitivity, thoughtfulness and consideration for others.

It follows that the pastoral care of the children comes very high on the school’s list of priorities. Never has this been more important, with twelve- and thirteen-year-olds susceptible to pressures and temptations, as well as earlier physical maturity, which previous generations never had to endure. The post of Director of Pastoral Care is a comparatively new creation, the role being summed up by Richard Nicholl as ‘to review and oversee the way our children are engaged with, tutored and guided’. The school offers discreet support to parents; in many ways it is easier to work constructively with parents in a day school than in a boarding school. To guide pupils through the dangers of the internet, it uses the outside expertise of the charity, Childnet.

Design and technology are taught as part of the curriculum

Asked what characterises the school in educational terms, Richard Nicholl replies, ‘A broad education, but delivered to the highest possible standard.’ Certainly there is the opportunity for every child to develop his or her particular talent, with art, music and design and technology all taught as part of the timetable and with ample extra-curricular opportunities to pursue an interest or talent further. Sport is particularly strong, with an impressive gallery of successful teams and of individuals who have gone on to gain recognition at regional and even national level. In music, every child in year 2 (six- to seven-year-olds) learns the recorder and every child in year 3 learns the violin. It is an opportunity for a child to conceive an enthusiasm that may enrich the rest of his or her life, and seventy per cent of the children continue to learn an instrument throughout their time at the school. It is perhaps the reason for the impressive honours board in the music department, listing the names of those who have achieved grade 6 or above before they left the school.

Because of time constraints on an already full day, drama is difficult in a day school, but productions are regularly staged, including in recent years a successful Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Playground. Design and technology are catered for in an impressively equipped facility from which emerges work such as speakers for MP3 players: achievements almost impossible to grasp, let alone match, for those of us at school more than about twenty years ago. For children with a special interest in IT, there are three IT suites, while the younger years have four computers in each form room. Every pupil spends fifteen minutes three times a week working on literacy and numeracy via the SuccessMaker program, which cleverly tailors its teaching to each individual using it.

How do they fit it all in? It is a long day, starting with a breakfast club at 7.45 for pupils whose parents make an early start. Registration is at 8.30, then for the main school it is all go until 4.15. Pupils can stay until 5.45 pm for tea, homework and the many extra-curricular activities, so the arrangements for the minibuses which ferry children between school and home are something of a logistical challenge. They go to all points of the compass, morning and afternoon; pupils come from as far as Swanage, Blandford and the other side of Dorchester.

Even the less academic activities are based on structured learning

About half of the leavers from Castle Court go on to Canford, and one in five scholarships given by Canford this year was to a Castle Court pupil. There must be a question whether such a close relationship is healthy, but Richard Nicholl is quick to point out the wide range of other schools for which his leavers head: not only Sherborne, Bryanston, Clayesmore and Milton Abbey but establishments further afield like Eton and Winchester. An interesting statistic arising from the Canford connection is that a disproportionate number of that school’s successful Oxbridge candidates are former Castle Court pupils. About one in six of this year’s leavers will go on to one of the local grammar schools, a figure that may be expected to rise in these recessionary times.

Like any other organisation, Castle Court has felt the effect of the recession and is not full to capacity, but it is extremely well-based financially and Richard Nicholl is cautiously sanguine: ‘Private education is one of the last things parents want to sacrifice,’ he says. When the economic conditions allow, planning permission has already been obtained for an ambitious building programme to create a new dining room and ten replacement classrooms.

One of today’s concerns for a private school is to establish good relations with the local community and to share its facilities with them. At Castle Court, this ranges from making the hall available for concerts to hosting ‘buggy fit’ exercise classes for new mums on the netball courts. The school also has close links with Julia’s House, the children’s hospice in Corfe Mullen, and provides ‘siblings’ days’, when brothers and sisters of children receiving care at Julia’s House can enjoy using all the facilities of the school.

Every child is given the chance to pursue an interest or talent

To put it in crude terms, parents buy into the Castle Court ethos partly because it retains a degree of formality: for example, blazers and ties are still de rigueur for boys in the summer except in the hottest weather. Yet this is in the context of a community which is happy because the limits are so clearly set. As Richard Nicholl, who has just begun the last of his 21 years as Headmaster, sums it up, ‘I like a school where you see the children bounce and skip and smile.’ At Castle Court, they do.

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