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Keep it in the family

Alleyn Court prep school has been owned and run by the Wilcox family for four generations. Biddy Passmore explores a cricket-obsessed and constantly evolving establishment

Small boys in shorts appear through the sea mist, running. To the right lie the freshly mown cricket square, the cricket nets and the athletics track.

Straight ahead stand an assortment of red brick buildings of varying age.

And here, in corduroy jacket and moleskin trousers, is the owner of the school.

Yes, the owner. John Wilcox, grandson of the founder and former headmaster of the school, is chairman of the family company that owns Alleyn Court preparatory school. Founded in 1904 near Southend in Essex, it is one of the oldest schools to have remained in the hands of the same family since it opened.

But Alleyn Court is very different from the boys' boarding establishment that opened with four pupils just over a century ago. There are now girls in tracksuit bottoms running through the sea mist too. Some of the red-brick buildings went up in the 1990s. In fact, this is not even the original school: it moved from Westcliff-on-Sea to its present home in Thorpe Bay in 1993, taking advantage of the closure of another private school to move into its 13-acre site.

Seekers after nostalgia would look in vain for crumpets - or boys - being toasted in the dorms. There are no dorms these days. (Nor, probably, boys called Beasley, Smellie and Stiff - all listed on the honours board for 1917.) Rather than an upper-middle-class enclave of boys bound for public school at 13, Alleyn Court is now a mixed day school catering for more than 300 children aged three to 11. Most of their parents are first-time buyers of private education. Most will go on to one of Southend's four grammar schools.

"Changes in the school reflect the gradual evolution of parents' wishes - such as the move against boarding - as well as the particular geographical spot we're in," says John Wilcox.

Those changes are brought alive by a touching memoir of the school he has published to mark its centenary. Here, mainly in extracts from the school magazine, is the whole prep school world as it flourished, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, with its obsession with classics, scholarships and manners.

There are distinguished figures in these pages. The Reverend Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, played a vital role: he paid for the education of Theodore Wilcox, founder of the school, when his father, Dodgson's cousin, died young. The author John Fowles was a pupil.

But it is cricket, rather than any famous figures, that is the star of these pages. "The willow wield with all your mightAll unstraight balls be sure to smite," begins one entry from the summer of 1910. And, in advice that could be posted, with minor amendments, above today's football grounds:

"Ne'er use bad language on the ground, E'en though the umpire be unsound, And gives you out when you are not, Accept his view, though it is rot."

Even the First World War is seen through cricketers' eyes. Three incendiary bombs dropped on the cricket field, managing to miss "the 1st XI pitch by yards, another the 2nd XI pitch by feet, and the third the fielding lawn by inches." (The Germans are thanked for their consideration.) Denys Wilcox, son of the founder and a noted player, managed to combine the roles of headmaster and captain of Essex county cricket in the 1930s, when he played against the legendary Australian, Donald Bradman. He died sadly young, of leukaemia, when his eldest son, John, was only 12. His doughty Canadian wife, left with four small children and a school to run, appointed an outsider, the "wonderful" Keith Dyer, as head of the school in 1957.

After studying English at Cambridge and gaining some teaching experience, John Wilcox joined him at the age of 28 as co-head. For most of the last century, the headship of the school has been shared between a family member and an outsider. The advantage, says John Wilcox, is that the two can share the administration and spend a lot more time teaching.

But surely the situation must be uncomfortable for the head who is not a member of the family that owns the school? "Of course the family could insist on something, if it came to it," says John Wilcox. "But nobody ever approached it like that - we do things by agreement." Certainly, all seems to run by agreement today. Having overseen the move to the new site in the early 1990s, John Wilcox retired after 22 years as head at the age of 50 and is now an art dealer in Somerset. He drives over to Essex once a month to visit his mother and the school.

And the sole head now charged with seeing the school into its next century? Appropriately, a cross between family and outsider: John Wilcox's brother-in-law, Richard Chandler. Mr Chandler, born and schooled in Southend, came to Alleyn Court nearly three years ago after a career teaching English in Somerset comprehensive schools. He is aware that he has a tightrope to tread: combining the best aspects of reforms in the state sector - notably the national curriculum and assessment - with the broad ethos and earlier specialist teaching of the independent sector.

The next generations of Wilcoxes are still heavily involved. John's son William was joint head for a while but stepped down on health grounds and is now head of special needs. Daughter Emma is the founding head of the school's flourishing pre-prep. William's two children are current pupils.

With demand for places constantly rising, it looks as though this family school is very much a going concern. And, as John Wilcox points out, private ownership of schools, thought to be "bad form" in the days when all were rushing to acquire charitable status, now seems to be back in political fashion.

Impressions of a Family School - 100 years of Alleyn Court is available from the school secretary, tel 01702 582 553, price pound;14.50 incl pp.

Alleyn Court Preparatory School, Wakering Road, Great Wakering, Essex, SS3 0PW


Most preparatory schools were once privately owned - "proprietorial" - schools, but the number of such schools declined sharply in the second half of the twentieth century. Many opted for charitable status. Many smaller schools closed down in the recession of the 1980s. Only those that adapted to social and educational changes, like Alleyn Court, have survived. In 1982, 400 members of IAPS, the prep schools' association, were charitable trusts and nearly 140 were privately owned. By 2004, the number of charitable trusts had grown to 420 but the number of privately owned schools had fallen to 76.

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