While Essex is not overrun with private schools like other home counties, the range takes in palatial schools that claim both regional high-standing and glowing international reputations, to smaller schools with dedicated local followings. The county’s pre-prep and prep schools (some of which are part of all-through schools) are familiar with preparing children for the entry to private senior schools and often happy to lay the groundwork for grammar school admissions too. Read our candid guide to the best private schools in Essex.
Private schools in Chelmsford
Prep schools in Chelmsford
If you’re looking for a fee-paying school for your four-year-old and don’t want to start the search again at 11, New Hall Prep is the junior side of Chelmsford’s only all-through private school. Purpose-built on a beautiful campus next door to the senior school – the historic red-brick ancestral home of the Boleyn family. A Catholic school but all faiths are welcome. ‘There are now even more opportunities available both in and out of the classroom,’ parents told our reviewer. Academic standards are high though not all make the grade to transfer to the senior school.
Meanwhile Felsted Preparatory School, part of one of England’s first public schools, has a stunning 90-acre rural campus 10 miles north of Chelmsford. It’s ‘a really buzzy, full-on place’ say parents. Mixed, like the senior school where most pupils move on to. Saturday school is compulsory from year 7 and boarding an option – flexi is popular with older children.
If it’s a standalone private prep you’re seeking, the urban St Cedd’s, Widford Lodge and St Anne’s School are top choices - all three have traditional uniforms with caps and hats (distinctive in the high street after school).
Academic reputations and specialist teaching are their main draws and pupils at the first two have a track record of securing places at the exceptional local grammar schools as well as scholarships (boosted by 11+ tutoring) to the big Essex independent senior schools plus a smattering of London day schools. St Anne’s is smaller and more relaxed. Prep schools here accept that they will lose a handful of pupils each year to the exceptional local grammars and some help prepare for the 11+ assessments.
Six miles away, Heathcote and Elm Green are two preps in the leafy village of Danbury, more rural in feel. Both see pupils move on to local comps, grammars and independents. Stephen Perse Junior School Dame Bradbury's in the market town of Saffron Walden and accessible to families living in hamlets to the north of Chelmsford, mainly feeds into Stephen Perse Senior School but other Cambridge independents are popular too.
Secondary schools in Chelmsford
New Hall School is based in a grand Tudor pile on a beautiful parkland campus only four miles from the city centre. A reputation in recent years for its sky-high academic attainment and superb opportunities for sport and the arts. Single-sex classes for ages 11 to 16 and then mixed for the sixth form. Facilities range from a drama and dance school to a golf driving range. A third of pupils come from its prep (see above) and competition for year 7 entry is fairly fierce. Set in 90 acres of idyllic north Essex countryside is Felsted School, founded in 1564 by Richard Rich, King Henry VI’s chancellor, it has seven boarding houses for the majority of pupils who opt to stay at school. Lessons run six days a week, and time is set aside for CCF and DofE, the arts, and sport – many professionals start their sporting careers here. Leavers head to good universities; Russell Group and overseas.
Private schools in Colchester
Prep schools in Colchester
‘Do you prepare for grammar schools?’ is a question often put to the head of Holmwood House School and his answer is ‘yes’. Whereas in other counties, switching from a traditional prep to a state school at 11 would not be countenanced, let alone promoted, this is Essex where things are often done a bit differently. Holmwood is a rambling place set in natural surroundings on the Suffolk side of the city with a satisfyingly long day. A favourite of parents considering one of the big-name boarding schools for the senior years, Holmwood itself is extending to year 11 from 2023.
The other traditional-style country prep locally is Littlegarth School – ‘a day school channelling a boarding school’ as our reviewer put it - and indeed the school run out into the sticks is rewarded by a gorgeous campus with cavernous contemporary buildings and a curriculum focused on independent learning. More urban private options are Oxford House School, an academic prep with an excellent record of 11+ success, and Colchester High School (not to be confused with the girls’ state selective), a long-established all-through (to 16) school with small classes and a tech-focused curriculum.
On the city’s western fringes is the pleasant campus of St Mary’s Lower School (senior school is closer to the centre), the area’s only all-girls independent school, with its own playing fields, hard courts and a classroom in the woods. Some Colchester parents are more than happy to make the half-hour commute to St Margaret’s Preparatory School, close to the market town of Halstead, which is rated ‘excellent’ by ISI inspectors and whose pupils invariably move on to their first choice of grammar school or to an independent senior school, clutching a scholarship.
Secondary schools in Colchester
There are no big private schools in Colchester – if that’s the kind of school you’re looking for you’ll need to travel, or board.
The closest in character locally is Holmwood House School, an up-to-13 prep currently, but which will begin to grow up to year 11 from 2023 with its first ever year 9 intake. Although boarding is offered at Holmwood, it is more of a day school with a sleepover arrangement, which suits many families. The city’s other independents are all day schools only.
Colchester High School is an all-through school, once boys-only now co-ed, and pretty small (fewer than 300 pupils aged 11 to 16); academic results are well above national averages. The similarly sized St Mary’s School is on the leafy Lexden Road and is also 11 to 16, but all-girls and with a reputation as a happy, caring place where pupils achieve well at GCSE and then move on to sixth form, mostly at the grammar schools or the city’s college.
A fleet of school buses criss-crosses Colchester during rush hour, whisking many pupils to and from Suffolk’s independent schools including Woodbridge School, Ipswich School, Ipswich High School and The Royal Hospital School, as well as in the opposite direction to New Hall School and Felsted School.
Private schools in Brentwood and West Essex
Prep schools in Brentwood and West Essex
The closer to London you get, the denser the population, so it makes sense that there are more independent schools to choose from on the western side of Essex than in the east. There are a few traditional independent schools in this area, all with prep divisions and solid reputations. Brentwood Preparatory School shares many superb facilities with its senior school just across the road but it very much has its own identity. Parents raved to us about their children’s ‘amazing’ opportunities for learning, sports and the arts.
Our review of Chigwell Junior School calls competition for places ‘cut-throat’, with four applicants for every one admitted to reception. The successful modern and experiential approaches to teaching are the big draw - reading is less a pastime and more a phenomenon - and the school has huge grounds (‘My child regularly comes home wet and muddy – just as it should be,’ reports a parent).
Bancroft’s Preparatory School in Woodford Green takes boys and girls from the age of seven, who have the run of their own red brick building on the main campus – all quads and crenellations - along with the seniors. Nearly all year 6s move into the senior school. On the London side of Epping Forest but a popular choice for families in this area is the appropriately named Forest School, with children joining its prep at 4 and 7 and mostly carrying on through the school – ‘Modern, dynamic youngsters with an eye on what’s happening next but without the brittle, jarring quality of some metropolitan children,’ we observed.
Other all-through schools include the co-ed Normanhurst in urban North Chingford, and Braeside School in Buckhurst Hill, for girls only. There are some great standalone fee-paying schools around here, including the award-winning, Ursuline Preparatory School in Brentwood, for Catholic boys and girls (interestingly, the associated senior school is all-girls and state); while the friendly Woodlands Schools at Hutton Manor and Great Warley, as well as Coopersale Hall in Epping are all small co-eds. St Nicholas School, an all-through in a rural spot close to Old Harlow, is worth travelling to.
Secondary schools in Brentwood and West Essex
The centuries-old, all-through, all-round private schools dominate here, and offer excellent prospects for youngsters smart enough to smash the entrance exams.
Brentwood School now operates the ‘diamond model’ of co-education, with girls and boys aged 11 to 16 taught separately, before mixing for the sixth form; ‘classes are more relaxed’ the head told our reviewer, girls’ enthusiasm for STEM subjects has rocketed and results are stellar across all subjects. Academic but ‘not a hot-house’ we noted.
Established in the 1600s, the fully co-ed Chigwell School is also known as a place for the all-rounder, but pupils have to cope with pacy teaching and regular testing (‘quite stressful at times’ says a parent), designed to make independent, self-reliant learners of the lot of them in preparation for later life. The beautiful campus on the village high street is an inspiring environment in which to do it though.
In nearby Woodford Green, Bancroft’s has the look of a Cambridge College and although around 1,000 are educated in the towers and halls here – one pupil told our reviewer they ‘chose it because it was like Hogwarts’ - it has a friendly small-school feel. Surrounded by Epping Forest but over the London border, Forest School is ‘purposeful and serious-minded’ concluded our review; bigger than its Essex neighbours, it’s almost a village in its own right and the successful sixth form has a large external intake. Sport is a serious subject here, particularly football, and the 50-acre campus features an Olympic-size pool.
Private schools for children with special educational needs in Essex
Set in a former farmhouse on the leafy outskirts of Colchester, Doucecroft School is a special school for 3 to 19s who have been diagnosed with autism, although the current cohort are all over 10. Run by Autism Anglia, the staff are consistent - ‘high calibre and nurturing’ says our review – and there’s an emphasis on the benefits of physical activities, with a pool and a great sunken trampoline in the grounds.
Most mainstream independent schools have some degree of support for children with milder special educational needs. Rural Gosfield School often scoops up students who have not had a good experience of education so far and gives them the individual support they need to get the most out of school (and their teenage years). Stoke College, just across Essex’s border with Suffolk, is a small independent day and boarding school that offers tailored support to help students access the school’s GCSE programme and achieve the results they need to move forward.