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Was never a soft option, but is scholastically crisper than ever, with school now ranked in The Sunday Times Top 30 Independent Secondary Schools for improved value added and achieved final outcomes. ‘My son was quite a late developer academically but that didn’t put them off taking him – they’re just very good at spotting talent and nurturing it,’ said parent. Parents who have been there long enough to witness the academic climb under the current headship say teaching has become more intense, ‘but it’s…

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What the school says...

Eltham College is a school rich in history, variety, vitality and care. Throughout its history, students from Eltham College have been recognised for their scholarship and commitment to serving others; they have gone on to give leadership and service in many areas beyond school life.

The aim of the school is to provide a balanced and stimulating education based on Christian principles and practice. Founded in 1842, originally for the sons of missionaries, it has become fully co-educational from September 2020, accepting girls in Year 3 and Year 7. It is a day school for 672 boys and 63 Sixth Form girls and 45 Year 7 girls in the Senior School, plus 211 boys and 31 girls in Year 3 in the Junior School. The school is set in over 60 acres of playing fields and is unique in that it has excellent facilities yet it is small enough to care and every pupil is known and valued as an individual. It is committed to academic achievement of the highest standards, but its yardstick is always the individual's potential. Students are encouraged to perform at their highest level both academically and in the breadth of school life. In the range of activities here, from sport, through outdoor pursuits, to our justly celebrated music, art and drama, there is scope for everyone to realise that potential. There is a purpose built sports centre on site housing a 25m swimming pool and indoor cricket centre. The school also has a new library and, most recently, a dedicated music school and hockey astroturf.

The school has over 25 musical groups performing regularly both in and out of school, a busy drama schedule in the performing-arts centre and regular international travel across all areas of school life. Standards in sports and games are high and there are national and regional representatives in many sports. There is a substantial commitment from pupils to local community service and charity work plus there are a wide range of vibrant clubs and societies.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2014, Guy Sanderson MA (Oxon) PGCE (40s). Studied PPE and then modern history at Trinity College, Oxford. Having started out as a stockbroker in the City, he followed this with a stint at the UN High Commission for Refugees in Pakistan and Afghanistan before teaching at a series of academic independents – St Paul’s, Whitgift, City of London Boys’ School and Reigate Grammar, where he rose to head of sixth form and deputy head.

His office – tasteful greys with fresh flowers and framed photography of the students in action – reflects his commitment to modernisation and is fitting in its sophistication for a school that’s increasingly considered up there with the best, especially in London. A regular tweeter of Elthamians’ daily activities (‘Well, of course, because social media is the modern way of communicating’), he also has an open door policy which pays particular dividends at lunchtimes when pupils regularly drop in to suggest ideas for new clubs or initiatives. Year 7 pupils appreciate the invitation to his office on their birthday for a doughnut, though one parent felt that ‘he’s not quite as in touch with the children as I’d like.’

Oozing ambition and drive, he draws something of a marmite response from parents. Some think he’s ‘amazing’ and are very supportive of what he’s doing, ‘He’s come in with an agenda to drive up the results and it’s all thanks to him that Eltham is no longer lagging behind in this very competitive part of south east London,’ said one, another said, ‘Like David Cameron, he’s a smooth and polished politician of a man,’ (a compliment, she insisted). Others aren’t so sure, ‘Quite businesslike and corporate – some people find him too much so.’ One parent told us, ‘I’m not a huge fan of the extra pressure some children feel since he made it more academic.’

Very much a family man, agree all, he lives in a house overlooking the playing fields with his wife, a TSE 100 head hunter, three children and some chickens they brought with them from their previous home in Sussex. Also a keen skier and open water swimmer.

Head of junior school since September 2020, Vikki Meier (30s). Previously deputy head and before that, sat on senior leadership team at Chigwell School, overseeing pastoral care for the junior school having previously led and taught prep science. Also spent several years as a boarding houseparent for sixth form students. Anthropology degree from Durham. ‘She’s lovely,’ raved parent after parent, with praise coming thick and fast – we heard she’s ‘good at communicating,’ ‘takes ownership of problems if they arise’ and ‘really invests in getting to know the children.’

Entrance

Academic standards are high and getting higher, but entrance is ‘only marginally more selective than it’s ever been,’ insists head. Still, entrance by selection is based on academic merit (papers in English and maths – those with SEN are allocated extra time), plus assessment of the pupil’s likely positive contribution to the school. Everyone needs a good reference, and computer adaptive verbal and non-verbal reasoning is now a feature of testing at every stage. At 11+ - the main entry point, when around 55 external candidates join the majority of pupils from junior school – there are around 11 competing for every place. New joiners hail mostly from local preps, including the Pointer School, Blackheath Prep, Breaside, Bickley Park and St Olave’s, but also a variety of local state primary schools. Entry at 13+ is stopping as a formal entry point after 2021 entry, when there will be occasional vacancies only. The biggest news on the entrance front is that girls have been admitted in years 3 (a 50/50 split) and 7 since 2020, with school moving to fully co-ed by 2024.

External candidates to the sixth form (which has been co-ed for 40 years) take an exam and if successful are interviewed. Candidates sit papers in two subjects of their choice. Offers made are subject to a minimum of six 9-7 grades at GCSE including the three subjects of further study.

Exit

Fewer than five per cent leaves after GCSEs. Common university destinations include Durham, Loughborough, Exeter, Bristol and Imperial, so one can be pretty confident of attaining Russell Group aspirations. Ten to Oxbridge in 2020. Popular courses include medicine (15 medics in 2020), engineering, geography, history, maths, politics and psychology.

Latest results

In 2020, 95 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 86 per cent A*/A at A level (98 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 85 per cent 9-7 at I/GCSE; 68 per cent A*/A at A level (93 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

Was never a soft option, but is scholastically crisper than ever, with school now ranked in The Sunday Times Top 30 Independent Secondary Schools for improved value added and achieved final outcomes. ‘My son was quite a late developer academically but that didn’t put them off taking him – they’re just very good at spotting talent and nurturing it,’ said parent. Parents who have been there long enough to witness the academic climb under the current headship say teaching has become more intense, ‘but it’s no pressure cooker’ and ‘the extracurricular provides relief from academic work.’ Good at flexing towards individuals’ interests too, with timetabling not completed until each child’s preferences are accommodated. Plenty of subject clinics and targeted interventions for those who need it.

Lower school class sizes average 22 and sixth form classes average 10 but with smaller teaching sets in all languages, maths, science and some creative subjects. Setting in languages and maths only from year 7. One of our guides said of the teachers, ‘They’re all passionate about their subjects – lessons are very interactive.’ The head told us of a lesson he witnessed recently where the boys were studying glaciation using edible food stuffs. Keen to develop staff, he devolves leadership, empowering them to run with their own project ideas if it will benefit the school. Parents are acutely aware of teaching standards being consciously raised and they also told us they’ve noticed more academic subjects slipping into the curriculum, while the less academic such as sports studies removed (though one told us, ‘they fully supported our son to do something non-academic after GCSEs and worked hard to help us find the right place’). There is a head of academic scholarship running a programme of debating, lectures from outside speakers and encouraging pupils to prepare and deliver papers to their peers.

French, German, Mandarin and Spanish are introduced from year 7 – students pick two, dropping down to one in year 8. Everyone takes a language at GCSE, with very few exceptions. The head of classics has recently introduced ancient Greek and classical civilisation to complement Latin. Mixture of IGCSEs and GCSEs – staff are given the freedom to choose which they will best prepare students for the next step. Ten or 11 is the norm, with most doing single sciences. Decent spread of A levels includes psychology, ancient Greek, geology (a 30-year tradition) and economics. A quarter of students take four, the rest three with an EPQ. Maths is the most popular A level (closely followed by physics and economics) and mathematicians throughout the school regularly compete nationally. A glittering array of highlights from the science department. The physics department is recognised as a centre of excellence by the Institute of Physics with stellar grades. The school regularly produces Arkwright scholars who go on to study engineering at the country’s most desirable destinations.

Hugely revamped careers advice offering. Pupils are carefully prepared for university exits, including a new focus on US universities. A pathways programme ensures pupils are en route and prepared for possible careers, making use of the network of Eltham alumni for work experience placements.

We heard nothing but praise about the school’s reaction to the pandemic. ‘There isn’t one thing they’ve got wrong,’ reckoned one parent – ‘they responded quickly, the head was responsive and thoughtful in a changing situation and the online learning has been exceptional, while the extra-curricular and pastoral side of things has gone above and beyond too.’ We heard of a geography teacher doing virtual expeditions and students doing everything from virtual netball fitness to GCSE support groups out of school time.

Learning support and SEN

There are two full-time SENCOs (one for junior school and one for senior) in the centrally located learning support department, which itself is housed within the new wellbeing centre – means that students are in and out all the time for everything from a bit of help with study skills to one-to-one dyslexia support to seeing the school counsellor. No hint of stigma. All new pupils are screened on entry, with around 15 per cent having a diagnosed SEN. The school says that the majority of cases are quite ‘mild’ and most support is within lessons. A dyslexic pupil described the school as, ‘nice atmosphere and positive, helpful teachers.’

The arts and extracurricular

The school is proud of its musicians who achieve exceptionally well academically, consistently delivering an Oxbridge place or two. Around 70 per cent of pupils learn an instrument. Choral singing is a high point. Ensembles, choirs and orchestras play across London, including at the Barbican, St John’s Smith Square, the Royal Albert Hall, Royal Naval College and beneath the hull of the Cutty Sark. One of a select few schools that are invited to perform annually at Ronnie Scott’s, thanks to its exceptional jazz. Lots of musical performances within bubbles or virtually during the pandemic.

This is the first school we’ve visited with its own art gallery, voted by the Guardian newspaper as among the top 10 small galleries. The Gerald Moore Gallery houses both school and external exhibitions, with the internal ones assisting students to achieve offers for top graphic design, fine art and architecture courses. All the art teachers and technicians are artists and pursue their own practices and an artist-in-residence has a studio within the department.

Drama is a real strength - on the curriculum for all years 7 to 9 and available at GCSE and A level. The drama department produces a major musical every year – most recently Cabaret, with student-led orchestra. ‘The shows are exceptionally high quality and there’s lots of variation,’ said parent. Students also direct, act, manage and tech their own productions. Regular trips to perform at Edinburgh Fringe and Shakespeare festivals and students have auditioned successfully for the BBC and films. Plenty of distinctions in LAMDA exams. Increasingly joined up with the junior school.

Clubs and societies (40 of which are student led) often seem to be extending in tone but Dixieland band, 'magic: the gathering', slick sticks, run for fun, Fair Trade and banjo club caught our eye. School does well in debating, having reached the national finals during lockdown. Regular national representation for chess too. Around 35 external speakers a year across the arts, sciences, politics, humanities – you name it, they’ll find a household name to present on it. Around 35 residential expeditions a year, including a partnership with charity International Needs and their project in Uganda, with other past destinations including Nepal and Borneo while students tackle DofE from bronze to gold. Day trips to complement most GCSE and A level courses.

Sport

Grounds are very easy on the eye and span a whopping 67 acres – no pupil has to travel anywhere apart from to away fixtures (not too many as schools all over Kent and beyond pick this as their favourite, and why wouldn’t they?). Four sports take the hot spot - rugby, hockey, cricket and netball - with 16 further sports on offer from swimming to skiing, plus plenty of opportunities to try new things like climbing and sailing, while for those with a lighter interest there are clubs and societies for table tennis, basketball and Pilates. List of recent wins too long to list here, but includes U18 Kent 7s champions for rugby, Kent netball champions, U15 Kent cup for cricket and, in hockey, almost every team has made the Kent finals in the last three years. Plenty of individual successes too. Several coaches are national players (currently including an Olympic hockey player, Olympic gymnast and cricket coach who played regularly for the Pakistan team). ‘Neither of my children are particularly sporty, but they haven’t been overlooked,’ said one parent. ‘I mean, it’s not utopia, with the A team for rugby getting certain cachet but that comes from the other boys more than the school, which in my experience doesn’t promote that.’ But for every parent that told us their less sporty children got all the coaching, encouragement, attention and fixtures they could have hoped for, there seemed to be another claiming that, for example, ‘Sport here is quite elitist – I don’t feel my son has been pushed enough because he doesn’t excel at the main sports.’

The school’s most famous alumnus is Eric Liddell, the Olympic athlete who won gold in the 400m at the 1924 Paris Olympics, forever immortalised by Chariots of Fire, hence the eponymous sports centre, which provides on-site indoor cricket nets, a 25-metre pool, dance studio and fitness suite. A new pavilion, second Astroturf and 3G rugby pitch are on the cards.

Ethos and heritage

Originally founded as a boarding school for the sons of missionaries, boys attend chapel weekly as part of a strong Christian tradition with caring for the community still an important part of the school’s ethos. Since moving in 1912 to this elegant 18th century mansion with a columned entrance, surrounded by 70 acres of green fields, it has grown in size, stopped taking boarders and girls have been part of the sixth form since the 1970s and have in September 2020 joined the lower school in year 3 and the senior school in year 7. Despite the increase in size to over 1,000 students, pupils and parents referred approvingly to the school so often as ‘small’ that we checked the pupil numbers. The atmosphere is peaceful but buzzy indoors and out; students engrossed in lessons or off to play sports with huge kitbags.

The elegant Central Hall houses the humanities classrooms in style, with its beautiful wooden boards of Oxbridge scholars and charming sepia photographs of sports teams gone by, while the rest of the school comprises a collection of blocks in various states of repair. The newest - the Turberville Building - has extended the sixth form centre out into the playing fields (mirroring the students’ imminent transition to university) and also provides new language classrooms, new music and maths centres and a wellbeing centre. The DT facilities comprise a series of large professional-looking workshops with a laser cutter, 3D printer and a CAD-cam suite. The library is large and well-resourced with books, journals and ebooks.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

One parent told us she wanted to give ‘a massive shout out to the wellbeing team – their approach to mental health is exceptional, with it running as a constant theme through form time. Every student knows the school believes that being mentally well is as important as being physically well.’ No parent we spoke to described the pastoral care as anything other than exceptional ‘We had a few issues and the school was amazing, going out of their way to make sure our son got the support he needed,’ said one. ‘Chalk and cheese compared to my daughter’s school during the pandemic,’ voiced another, with every student getting daily form time, regular one-to-ones where necessary (including for parents) and constant reminders of the full-time counsellor, two full-time nurses and chaplain during online learning. On our tour, students waved to the nurse. Even the approach to drugs is caring, with school offering a programme to help students to overcome issues they face outside school, though there’s a zero tolerance to drugs inside school as you’d expect. A head of transition eases in year 7s and form tutors - the pastoral front line - are described as ‘accessible and generally very quick to respond to any concerns’ and now stay with boys for their lower school and then middle school years. Communication between school and home is felt to be excellent. There is a careful and detailed anti-bullying policy – some students have become anti-bullying ambassadors developed by The Diana Campaign. One parent told us, ‘it’s definitely ok to be quirky here’.

No shying away from inclusivity issues – homophobia, sexism and racism regularly feature as subjects of presentations, including from external speakers, and the school has employed an external agency, along with ex-students, to advise on BAME. Two student councils.

Strict? ‘I don’t need to be,’ shrugs head – ‘Students self-manage.’ Detentions are rare, he says, and nobody has been permanently excluded in living memory. Parents aren’t convinced, describing it as a disciplined environment that’s particularly hot on things like uniform, with one adding that ‘Some children disappear quite quickly after incidents.’

Pupils and parents

The majority of students come from within a five-mile radius, taking in Blackheath, Greenwich, the Isle of Dogs and Surrey Quays, but also south to Bromley, Chislehurst and Sidcup, Orpington, Farnborough and West Wickham. Working parents are catered for: pupils could be in school from 8am purchasing breakfast in King George’s Hall, while the library is open for after-school study until 5.30pm, not to mention myriad activities taking pupils until the end of the day, often with no extra cost. Parents were described to us as including ‘multi-millionaires’ and the ‘down to earth’.

What kind of child would Eltham suit? All-rounders and bright, motivated, independent children who will rise to a challenge, we heard. The head says there is no Eltham student; it will simply appeal to those who want to make the most of opportunities.

Money matters

Not an abundance of scholarships, but they are on offer at each entry point – academic, music, sport, art and drama all feature, with the financial reward varying from 10 to 20 per cent off the fees. Everyone sitting the entrance test will be considered for academic scholarships, with further requirements for music, art, drama and sports scholars. Fewer than 10 per cent of pupils are in receipt of means-tested bursaries, which could range from a helping hand to 100 per cent of fees; school aims to increase numbers to widen access.

The last word

A dynamo head, co-ed student body and updated facilities all combine to make this a wonderful place to find a niche and increasingly achieve great things. School is heading in a more academic direction for sure but still catering for those who value extracurricular.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

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