Looking to the future

Posted on 16th Jun 2023 in School News, Prep Schools Guide

Mr Ben Beardmore-Gray, Headmaster at Moulsford Prep School, explains the decision to become a co-educational Pre-Prep from September 2023.

Moulsford Prep School was founded in 1961 with a handful of pupils, as an independent all-boys Prep School. Since this date the school has adapted, flourished and evolved with the times to ensure that its educational offering remains wholly relevant to modern parents. In the 1970s and 80s, Moulsford’s pupil roll settled at just over 100, but as with much of the sector, the school went through a period of significant growth at the turn of the millennium which has continued to the present day, and Moulsford currently has 382 pupils.

While the school’s journey over the past thirty years is very similar to many other very successful schools in the prep sector, there is a fundamental difference to Moulsford’s story. Moulsford has remained an all boys Prep School, while most similar schools have become fully co-educational, helping to explain their growth over this period. However, in September 2023, Moulsford will welcome girls to its newly built Pre-Prep, with the Prep (Years 3 – 8) remaining all-boys. So why is the school now welcoming girls up to Year 2, how has Moulsford been able to buck educational trends and market forces over a sustained period, and what might the future hold for an all-boys Moulsford prep education?

Firstly, why has Moulsford’s Pre-Prep gone co-educational at a time when its boy pupil numbers continue to grow? In response to very strong demand for places at the lower end of the school, five years ago Moulsford took the strategic decision to construct a state of the art new Pre-Prep (Pre-School to Year 2). The subsequent decision to bring girls into the Moulsford community was taken largely for two reasons. First, there has been very significant interest in girls’ places once parents could see the outstanding offering that the building, and most importantly the staff, provide. Second, as school fees have risen over the past 10 years, Moulsford and the independent sector has seen significant growth in the number of parents reliant on dual incomes to pay for the fees. Looking ahead, we could see that logistics for working parents of very young children were such, that an all-boys Pre-Prep risks becoming a barrier to parental choice of schools. This is less of an issue for prep age children (age 7-13), where bus routes and lift shares provide more transport options.

In making the decision to go co-ed in the Pre-Prep, there was prolonged healthy discussion on the Moulsford governing body, which ensured that, while embarking on significant change, the school both understood and stayed true to its values. One fundamental premise lay in the fact that I, as Head of the school for nine years, am not and never have been dogmatic about all-boys education. My overriding belief, almost always articulated to prospective parents, is that parents should not focus too heavily on all-boys or co-education, but should seek out the very best school for their child. Indeed, it would be disingenuous of me to align myself purely to the all-boys model, as prior to leading Moulsford I had run a very successful co-educational prep school for seven years, having been Deputy Head of another for six years previously. Similarly I would suggest that most parents choose Moulsford because they perceive it to be an outstanding school rather than because it is an all-boys school.

Granted, Moulsford’s single sex model has enabled us to tailor our curriculum to get the very best out of boys in the classroom, on the games pitches and in the performing arts, and much of our promotional literature highlights this. However, I would argue that outstanding schools can achieve excellence for all their pupils whatever their model, all-boys, all-girls or co-educational, and that there are plenty of co-ed schools that are able to achieve this. With the world going co-ed around Moulsford, and access to only half the market, we know that we have to deliver an outstanding product to continue to thrive, and this ensures that we are never complacent for our pupils and parents.

Moulsford’s decision to go co-ed in the Pre-Prep should be taken in the context of the above. Boys and girls learn very effectively together, particularly at pre-prep age, and co-education at any age is entirely natural. The specific benefits of an all-boys education tend to kick in at around age 7 or 8, when team sports come to the fore, and classroom learning can be tailored to appeal directly to boys such as the introduction of nurtured classroom competition, practical work, outdoor experiences, collaboration, and boy-focussed design projects. We do this extremely well at Moulsford.

What does the future hold for an all-boys Moulsford Prep education? There is no doubt that the market local to Moulsford is moving in a co-educational direction, and that this reflects national trends in the independent sector. Elstree, Shiplake, The Oratory, The Manor, Rupert House, Cranford House and Reading Blue Coat, are all schools within Moulsford’s local orbit, and have all gone fully co-educational since I became Moulsford’s Head in 2014. There are no plans for Moulsford’s Prep to go co-educational, with demand for places in Years 3 – 8 remaining extremely strong, and we will continue to deliver an outstanding education for our boys, while welcoming girls to our co-educational Pre-Prep.

This article appears in the 2023 edition of John Catt's Preparatory Schools, which you can view here: