The early Days
Deep into the first quarter of the twenty-first century, the 110 000 population of Sevenoaks District is adequately served by Independent Preparatory Schools. It was a different world in 1882 when JS Norman took over The Beacon, which had been established as a Preparatory school in 1863. Located at 18 St John’s Road, it was one of three schools in close proximity which met the needs of young gentlemen to be educated and attracted a large clientele among the landed gentry of Kent and southern England. Its momentum was lost, however, and numbers dwindled to zero.
Norman’s regime commenced in the spring of 1882, with a strong military feel which was in keeping with the spirit of the day. His methods were successful and he attracted more boys than he ever imagined and larger premises were needed. And so in October 1897 the decision was taken to erect a new boarding school in Sevenoaks, without disrupting the continuity of learning of the exisitng pupil body. After much searching, land was acquired at Cross Keys from Lord Amherst’s Montreal Estate. The contract for the construction of the New Beacon was signed in February 1899. At the end of the Autumn Term of the same year all was ready at the Kippington site for the transfer of all the ingredients that has been used to run the school in St John’s.
The New Beacon is born
During the first week of the twentieth century the New Beacon opened for the (continued) education of boys in an imposing brick-built edifice to house up to sixty boarders. So sound was this magnificent building that it does not look greatly different well in excess of one hundred years down the line, though the the nine-hole golf course has long since fallen foul of the developer’s bulldozer. An inspection by the Board of Education some four years later commented on the free and happy dialogue of the boys among one another and between themselves and the masters; this strength is one that contemporary inspectors praise too. The construction of a chapel in 1912 meant that the customary Sunday walk to Kippington was no longer on the itnerary and it cemented the place of worship within the school routine, which is a tradition continued to this very day.
By 1913 the school had grown to sixty-two pupils, the Company System has been established and the termly fees were £120 per year for boarding and tuition, plus £1 11s 6d for medical attendance. The chapel had now been opened and other facilities included a swimming bath, a miniature rifle range, a playground and two large fields for football and cricket. The inspectors of the time felt that there was an over-emphasis on the Classics, deeming seven hours per week to the lower classes and more than eleven to those higher up to be excessive.
The New Beacon survives two World Wars and the Great Depression
The First World War made a great impact on society and the New Beacon was not exception. With young men called to arms the staffing was depleted and extra duties included the tending of the school’s grounds and gardens. Thirty-five former pupils lost their lives during the hostilities, some of whom not long removed from the school itself. It took some time to return to the pre-war momentum and the 1919 inspectors felt that the New Beacon was ‘a first-rate example of that thoroughly English institution, the Preparatory School.’In 1920 JS Norman handed over the general running of the school to his elder son Frank and in 1924 an Old Beaconian Society was formed, very much a London dining club that met every three years that time. Numbers had grown to eighty-three, which required the dining hall and dormitory area to be extended. Numbers remained steady until the Great Depression, though a number of day boys were admitted to the roll. As optimism began to loom thereafter the political power shift in Europe led to the Second World War. Life changed significantly with a greater threat from bombing and the need for survival. For the duration girls were taught at the New Beacon, though the initial experiment of having integrated classes was soon shelved. 1941 saw the retirement of Frank Norman as Headmaster and he was succeeded by his younger brother, Cecil. Seventy-five Beaconians fell in the 1939-45 war and their sacrifice is noted on the wall in the chapel, alongside those of the 1914-18 campaign.
Post-war changes and the increase in day boys
After the war numbers continued to grow, much owing to the increasing influence of the day boys as boarding numbers remained fairly constant. With in excess of one hundred and twenty pupils in 1948, the school was formed into a Private Limited Company, with Cecil Norman and his wife as directors. John Norman joined the staff in 1952 and was appointed a director in 1954.
Cecil passed over the reins of Headmastership to Denis Pratten in 1964 with the school number at an all-time high, hovering at just under two hundred strong. Sadly, ill-health saw his early passing and so began the reign of John Norman in the same year. In 1969 the directors of The New Beacon School Limited handed over control of the school to a Board of Governors to manage ‘The New Beacon Educational Trust Limited.’ A grand plan to develop the school was put in place, to include the development of a Pre-Prep department, to purchase the freehold of the site and to undertake new building developments, including a changing room block, science laboratories and classrooms.
A new era of expansion and growth
Thus a new phase in growth began and the new intake of fifty-six pupils September 1970, albeit nearly all day boys, saw the roll rise to 240. Further expansion took place during this decade, with the sporting scene developing strongly and a wide list of activities taking place without the classroom. A new science, language and maths laboratory block was opened with funds raised from the Development Appeal. During this time, the New Beacon Parents’ Association was set up, also raising funds for much needed improvements. Amidst the excitements of growth and change, John Norman himself became ill and so retired as Headmaster in July 1976.
The appointment of Rowland Constantine saw the end of a long run of Norman Headmasters and thus the beginning of a new era. The New Beacon was now predominantly a day school, with fifty-five boarders which dropped to thirty-five by the end of the decade. The Pre-Prep started as a small class located in a flat and before long some one hundred children were being taught in Portakabins as the new Junior section grew at apace. The school’s musical tradition grew stronger as did drama, sport and the curriculum became more diverse.
The need for further facilities to meet the demands of what the school was offering, together with its growing population, meant an on-going programme of developments. 1982 saw the opening of the Junior School block and construction of a new sports hall in 1986 allowed the former gymnasium to be converted into a theatre, with an indoor swimming pool being built only three years later. It was clear that further specialised teaching space was soon to be needed and further fundraising, together with good housekeeping, saw the school site transformed over the next two decades. A purpose-built Music and Arts Centre allowed the already strong tradition in these disciplines to evolve further and, after a period of quiescence, a Science block and a centre for Design and Technology combined with ICT came along in the late 1990s.
Constantine oversaw one further major development during his thirty-two year tenure, which was the impressive new Junior block to house Years 3 and 4, thus releasing space for the Pre-Prep to expand its base. At the same time, numbers grew to reach four hundred with excellence at Common Entrance and Scholarship examinations being maintained. To meet the demands of the modern family, Saturday school was withdrawn with a subsequent expansion in after school activities.
Modernity and tradition prevail
In 2008 Mike Piercy, an experienced prep school man himself, was appointed to take the New Beacon forward into a new era of ever-changing curriculum requirements and rapidly advancing technology. During a long-lasting global recession, numbers have held constant and an on-going review of teaching styles and the sharing of good practice has ensured that excellence in Common Entrance results and the earning of Scholarships to senior schools has continued. There is evidence aplenty of continued improvements to the school’s facilities with the total refurbishment of the Pre-Prep block, an adventure playground for the youngest together with laying down of a child friendly playing surface and most recently the provision of a floodlit astro pitch, which will enable the sporting programme to be enhanced. Behind the scenes, the school computer servers have been replaced with a concomitant upgrading of cabling and switches.
Plans for the next major phase of development are in place, which include the expansion of both the sports hall and swimming pool, together with the provision of a further ICT suite to meet the demand of an expanding curriculum.
Should JS Norman walk the corridors of the modern-day New Beacon he would see the same striving for excellence, the healthy rapport between pupils and staff and that knowing confidence that a sound education provides. He might raise an eyebrow to hair styles and be confused by electronic wizardry, but he would recognise the New Beacon boy with consummate ease whilst muttering to himself "plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose."