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Today the original red-brick schoolhouse, which is located on the approach road to the historic high street, forms the centrepiece to this pretty village of neat buildings, punctuated by gardens, blooms and trees. This leafy suburb is spoilt for choice education-wise, with several good fee-paying schools on the doorstep and some of the best grammars in the country a short hop on the train away. Even Old Chigwellians admit to investigating the competition before signing up their offspring, but the school still wins people over with its ability to…

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What the school says...

Academic results at all levels are impressive, but Chigwell places an emphasis on providing a rich and full education with opportunities in a whole variety of areas. There is widespread success in sport but drama, music and outdoor pursuits are also very strong with a very high degree of participation, not to mention the variety of clubs and societies. Chigwell has excellent facilities on an extensive site of 100 acres, dating back to 1629. The school provides a welcoming, friendly and caring community but despite the demand for places it retains its medium-sized feel so that pupils and their families are known well. ...Read more

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All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2007, Michael Punt MA MSc PGCE (40s), a physicist who lives on site with his wife Gill and their three sons, all of whom attend the school – a fact that many parents say ‘keeps him in tune with pupils’ and parents’ experiences of Chigwell.’ His calm and positive influence is palpable throughout the school, with parents describing him as ‘approachable,’ ‘well-liked’ and ‘respected.’ In fact, many were swayed against the local competition purely on the basis of meeting him. ‘He doesn’t just talk at you in some grand hall – he chats with you in a relaxed way and seems to know exactly what you want to know,’ said one.

Pupils also speak enthusiastically about him. ‘He knows every one of us, as well as taking an interest in us,’ one pupil told us. Not for him a chief executive type headship, but rather a personal touch that’s helped by the size of the school and the fact that he and colleagues interview every child that comes here. Mainly, though, it seems to be down to his hands-on approach - he teaches pupils, does a lot of mock interviews and is often seen around the school. The week before our visit, he’d had all the prefects round for a meal and he eats regularly with the boarders.

Having grown up in nearby Brentwood, he did his degree at Oxford and his masters at Imperial, then worked at St Dunstan’s College as a physics teacher, working his way up to head of year and head of physics, after which he did a stint at The Perse School, Cambridge, as deputy head (academic) where he continued to climb the ranks until moving to Chigwell.

Academic matters

Excellent results, which have risen steadily – 73 per cent of GCSE grades were A*-A/9-7 in 2018. Head puts this down to pupils’ positive and conscientious attitude to learning and an excellent relationship with teachers, both points which the latest ISI inspection praised. ‘ ‘I was amazed when my son emailed teachers about his essay during half term and got detailed feedback the same day, but that’s how it is here,’ said a parent. The tone of the communication seems to be spot on, too. ‘In many schools, it’s either too matey or terribly stand-offish, but they seem to have got the balance just right here,’ said one parent. Lessons interactive and busy, with plenty of IT embedded across all subjects – and a pilot of tablet-embedded learning going on in years 9 and 12 when we visited. ‘We’ll see how it goes and may well expand it in future,’ says head.

Low turnover of teaching staff, who must be willing to teach beyond their subject and get involved in extracurricular activity. ‘It’s not unusual to see maths staff getting stuck into games or English teachers helping to run chess clubs here,’ says the head. ‘It’s the Chigwell way, this family-type approach.’ Head regularly observes all teaching staff and has implemented a rigorous structure that ensures constant reflection and sharing of good practice.

On entry, four classes of 22 maximum, although class sizes drop considerably at GCSE level and to around a dozen at A level. Latin and French taught to all year 7s, and all try German and Spanish in year 8. In year 9, all pupils continue French and select one or more of the other three languages, with all pupils doing at least one modern language for GCSE. Mandarin also taught as extracurricular from junior school upwards. Setting in French and maths from year 7 and some in German from year 9. English and sciences set from year 10. Regular testing means there can be movement between sets to start with, although this is uncommon later on. Homework taken seriously, although it’s never set for the following day.

At GCSE, all students take one modern language and the vast majority do the three sciences. Other popular options include geography, history, RE, with a strong interest also seen in other languages, drama, DT and music. ‘We don’t have option blocks – we make the timetable work around the pupils’ choices,’ says head, who adds that there are no early GCSEs taken here, although the top maths set in year 11 takes additional maths.

Wide choice of subjects at A levels. Economics, maths, sciences, geography and English are strong, but psychology, drama and DT are on the rise too, enforcing Chigwell’s reputation as a place for the all-rounder. In 2018, 81 per cent A*-B and 49 per cent A*/A at A level.

Plenty of extension opportunities, including EPQ and HPQ (latter at GCSE level), essay competitions and Olympiads. Enrichment programme impressive and includes subject-specific groups, such as law groups, medics' groups, social sciences groups etc. University preparation stunningly good, with guidance for UCAS applications starting in the February of the lower sixth, with plenty of targeted guidance and support, and mock interviews aplenty.

Junior school pupils screened on entry for SEN, with further testing in the senior school. Learning support provided throughout the school as necessary either inside or outside the classroom. Not a school for severe learning disabilities, however, with only one statemented when we visited.

Games, options, the arts

Mass participation in sport does what it says on the tin here, with the possible exception of football, which one parent told us is all about the A team. Core boys' sports include football (first term), hockey (second term) and cricket and athletics (third term). For girls, it’s hockey (first term), netball (send term) and rounders and athletics (third term), along with some football and cricket also in the summer term. Other sports include golf (played at nearby club), swimming, basketball and badminton. School punches above its weight in competitions, regularly getting through to regional finals, along with national finals for football and hockey.

Outdoor facilities are vast, with 100 acres of playing fields, including Astroturf, surrounding this small school, and indoor facilities are being steadily improved through an ambitious development plan. Pupils particularly keen to have an indoor pool, rather than just the small outdoor pool they currently have, and many want to see the unfancy sports centre updated – both projects under consideration.

The drama centre is an eye-catching red-brick building with professional facilities, including a foyer big enough for pre-theatre drinks receptions. All children use it for weekly drama up until the end of year 9 and it’s also a popular GSCE option, with around a dozen taking drama at A level with great success. Related subject areas, such as theatre make-up and costume design, also taken seriously here, and the centre is used for public speaking, debating and LAMDA. Numerous productions. ‘It would be rare to find a child who isn’t somehow involved in drama,’ says the head.

Music very inclusive, with every other pupil learning an instrument (over 300 lessons per week from 23 visiting music teachers), some of whom play to incredibly high standards (usually one a year to Oxbridge as a choral music scholar). Plenty of opportunities to perform in ensembles, with a wide range of musical tastes catered from swing bands to string bands, as well as rock and pop. The chapel choir, an elite choir for 40 odd students, performs regularly in the likes of Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Yorkminster, and there are plenty of other choirs too. ‘Every aspect of music is amazing here, from the singing right through to every instrument you can think of, along with many you didn’t even know existed,’ said one parent.

Art and DT work closely together in the spacious and hi-tech facilities, with graphics offered as a GCSE option and many pupils going onto study architecture and fine art when they leave. Phenomenally good artwork displayed throughout the school, much of it in 3D.

Huge choice of extracurricular activities, from D of E and scouts to art exhibitions and the inspiring and thought-provoking talks on everything from evolution to restorative justice for schools. ‘I haven’t had a free afternoon in the last three years – but in a good way,’ laughed one student. A seemingly infinite amount of trips, including French and Spanish homestays, hockey tour to South Africa, scout trip to Switzerland, annual ski trip to France, along with smaller scale trips including activity weekends in the likes of Wales and the Lake District. ‘We are conscious that there is a broad mix of wealth and make sure we do not offer all five star trips,’ says head.

Boarders

Sixth form only boarders, of whom there are 30 living across four equal-sized boarding houses, either on the school site or just across the road. Hailing from around 16 countries – mostly central and Eastern Europe and China - the boarders are almost all international, and no two boarders who share a language share a room. ‘The boarders help give the school a homely feel,’ reported one student.

Boarding houses are more inviting than institutional. Rooms mostly twin, although the odd one has three beds, and boarders told us ‘there’s a good balance between houseparents letting you get on with it, and providing clear boundaries.’ ‘In our house, the parents have children aged 4 and 6 and we always love hanging out with them,’ said one student. Curfews are 10.30pm on weekdays; 11.30pm at weekends. Daily study time between 7-9pm during weekdays – ‘Even if you don’t have work to do, you have to respect that others have and be quiet,’ one boarder told us.

No shortage of events – the week we visited, they’d just had Divali weekend celebrations and a film night - which day pupils also join in, but boarders welcome the opportunity to be allowed to be self-reliant too. Boarders told us they’d formed close friendships with both other boarders and day pupils and already felt sad about the prospect of leaving the school.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1629 by the Reverend Samuel Harsnett, the local vicar, who became Archbishop of York and Chancellor of Cambridge University. Today the original red-brick schoolhouse, which is located on the approach road to the historic high street, forms the centrepiece to this pretty village of neat buildings, punctuated by gardens, blooms and trees. The surrounding playing fields stretch towards Epping Forest and give a rural aspect to the school and some lovely views from the windows of the attractive, low-rise teaching blocks. Buildings all kept up to date, with sixth form centre, dining hall extension, new sports hall and indoor swimming pool next on the agenda.

Of particular note is the 1920s chapel, which was built in tribute to fallen alumni and is a mainstay of life here. Pupils usually attend at least once a week for a service (and another weekly service at the local church).

All have lunch in the Harry Potter-esque dining hall (where teachers eat on the stage) and students can have tea at 4pm for no extra cost, as well as breakfast, for which they can bring parents and siblings. ‘Every Thursday, our whole family has breakfast here – we love it,’ said one parent. Food is plentiful and very good (we tried it). The uniform is smart and sober – kilts or plain trousers with a navy blazer, though the sixth formers wear office attire.

No need for intrusive bells here to mark the change of lessons, with pupils making their way around the school in an ordered fashion, and newbies of any age wear a plain tie so they can be spotted and helped when in need. ‘This is a harmonious school, with really lovely young people who, in the majority of cases, you’d be proud to have as your own children,’ says the head. Indeed, ‘happy’ was a word used a lot by the pupils we talked to, with several referring to it as one big family. No wonder old Chigwellians feel such a sense of loyalty, with growing numbers willing to come into do talks, mock interviews and offer work experience.

School council meets regularly, but achieves little more than the usual increase in number of water fountains. There’s a strong charitable culture.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

The transition from junior to senior school is gentle, with parents praising the ‘seamless process.’ A strong four-house system, and staff who ‘really know their pupils’, according to the head, mean students are comfortable in the knowledge that they are being ‘looked out for’. ‘There are lots of personalities among the teachers here, but we all have someone we know we could speak to – a teacher that really stands out for us,’ said one pupil, with many of the younger pupils talking about how friendly the older ones are. A school counsellor is employed for two days a week.

Discipline system highly structured, with detentions the most common sanctions, typically for late homework, missing chapel and being late. ‘They’re not given out willy nilly, so you take it seriously when you get one,’ said one pupil. ‘The pupils aren’t saintly, and they’ve got a twinkle in their eye, but they’re also hard working and really nice. We don’t have many behavioural problems,’ says the head. Current head has only made one permanent exclusion, although occasionally there are temporary ones, for instances such as smoking and repeated misbehaviour. Bullying rare, with pupils pointing out the ‘confide’ button on every school computer, where you can report issues anonymously at any time, or talk to a staff member confidentially.

Pupils and parents

This leafy suburb is spoilt for choice education-wise, with several good fee-paying schools on the doorstep and some of the best grammars in the country a short hop on the train away. Even Old Chigwellians admit to investigating the competition before signing up their offspring, but the school still wins people over with its ability to develop not just academic success, but confident, well-rounded people. ‘One of the things that swung it for me was the way pupils talk to adults in a sophisticated way, but not without respect,’ said one.

The parents - around two-thirds of whom are middle-class white British, with the remaining third mostly British Asian – praise the sense of community. ‘My children have always said they felt they belong to something here – so much so that my daughter felt a real sense of loss when she left, and the same can be said for many parents,’ said one. Most live within a five mile radius, although there’s a growth in the number coming in from East London. Mainly affluent, although not exclusively rich kids and Landrover-driving parents. Lots of socialising - breakfast get-togethers and afternoon teas etc, as well as the programme of social events put on by the Friends of Chigwell PA.

Girls and boys attend in equal numbers. We found them relaxed, confident, articulate and witty. Five school minibuses available for pupils, with others using public transport, notably the tube or bus, whilst many get dropped off by car.

The list of distinguished alumni includes William Penn, Sir Arthur Grimble, Sir Austin Bradford Hill, Sir Richard Dales, Col Bob Stewart and Sir Bernard Williams.

Entrance

Most junior school pupils move up to the senior school, forming about half of the year 7 entry, with the other half from a wide variety of local prep and primaries. ‘It’s very welcoming, so my children took to it like a duck to water, despite not coming from the junior school,’ said one parent. Around 300 apply for these 40-odd places; assessment by interview (separate ones for pupils and parents), and English, maths and verbal reasoning papers. Small number of vacancies at 13 (English, maths and a modern foreign language exam). At 16, those moving up within the school are joined by around 10 local entrants as well as around 14 overseas boarders. Entrants to the sixth form are expected to have achieved at least four 7s and two 6s in six GCSE subjects and 7+ in their A level choices.

Exit

Hardly any post-16 leavers (usually around 10 per cent) and 95 per cent of those who leave after sixth form move on to a degree course at university, or music and other specialist colleges. In 2018, four to study medicine, four to Oxbridge and one to Harvard; some 70 per cent to Russell Group universities, notably Exeter, Nottingham, Bristol, Leeds and LSE. Popular degree subjects include economics, English and humanities.

Money matters

Academic scholarships available at 11 and 13 years; scholarships for art, drama and music offered at 16. Increasing number of means-tested bursaries available. ‘I visit every family we are considering for bursaries,’ says the head.

Our view

A happy, nurturing and busy school with a genuinely family feel and an emphasis on creating caring all-rounders. Academically, pupils are put through their paces, but it all seems to be done in such a civilised and pleasant manner that you’re far more likely to hear pupils talk about opportunities and prospects than pressure and stress. ‘Anyone that wants to do well will do well here,’ said one student, ‘and I can’t think of a nicer place to succeed.’

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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