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Sevenoaks School
  • Sevenoaks School
    High Street
    Sevenoaks
    Kent
    TN13 1HU
  • Head: Jesse Elzinga
  • T 01732 455133
  • F 01732 456143
  • E [email protected]
  • W www.sevenoaksschool.org
  • Sevenoaks School is an English independent day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 11 to 18, located in Sevenoaks, Kent. It educates over 1,000 pupils and was founded in 1432, making it the second oldest non-denominational school in the UK.
  • Boarding: Yes
  • Local authority: Kent
  • Pupils: 1005; sixth formers: 468
  • Religion: Non-denominational
  • Fees: Day £25,020 ; Boarding £39,960 pa
  • Open days: See website
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review
  • Ofsted report: View the Ofsted report
  • ISI report: View the ISI report

What says..

Not so much a case of getting down with these kids but scrabbling up to their level. They leave, says school, with ‘enlarged capacity for independent thought’ – and without, as far as we could see, acquiring swollen heads on the way out. Copers will thrive here. ‘You shape up pretty quickly,’ said parent. Big on nurture in year 7 but given pace of life here, in other years best to get…

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What the school says...

Sevenoaks School (HMC) is an independent, co-educational boarding and day school, set in 100 acres on the edge of Sevenoaks in Kent.

Founded in 1432, Sevenoaks provides academic excellence with a strong pastoral and co-curricular emphasis and a global dimension inspired by the International Baccalaureate. There are around 1080 pupils, including international students from over 30 countries and about 350 boarders. We are a selective school, and welcome enthusiastic pupils ready to get involved in all the opportunities we offer.

Sevenoaks has a reputation for exploring new ideas. We have taught the IB for 30 years and were the first HMC school to offer the IB Diploma Programme exclusively. Between 30 and 50 students accept places Oxford or Cambridge every year and an increasing number go to American universities.

There is a strong emphasis on the co-curriculum and pupils are also involved in community service.
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Curricula

International Baccalaureate: diploma - the diploma is the familiar A-level equivalent.

Sports

Fencing

Shooting

Sailing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since September 2020, Jesse Elzinga. BA in comparative religion from Harvard, MSt from Oxford on a Rotary International Scholarship. Previously at Reading Blue Coat School – his first headship.

The latest in a long line of fearsomely well qualified and multi-talented heads, he doesn’t just pack an academic punch but is a highly talented sportsman as well – a three-time national champion rower at Harvard and Oxford who then switched to competitive cycling twice racing against Sir Bradley Wiggins at the British Time Trial Championships.

To fill in any spare moments, he’s also an Ironman triathlete and marathon runner (and a dab hand at welly throwing, judging by video on website). Out of school, enjoys cooking, BBQing, travelling, opera and supporting England Rugby Club with wife Elaina. Though with three daughters – youngest born during the pandemic – spare time must be at a premium.

Teaching experience, unsurprisingly, is suitably high powered. A summer school rowing coach and housemaster at Eton in the early noughties, his first teaching post (theology), was at Whitgift, where he qualified as a teacher, set up the school’s first rowing programme and subsequently became assistant head of sixth form.

Two director of studies posts followed, first at St Edward’s School in Oxford (joining in 2006 as head of religious studies, promoted in 2009), next at Harrow School where he worked for five years from 2011 before his move to Reading Blue Coat School in 2016.

Knew he wanted to work with children at age 10. Had initially planned to be a paediatrician but after gruelling work experience in a children’s ward turned to teaching, unwavering even when his peers opted for masters of the universe careers in banking, investment or law (they now call him for education advice).

No AI generated background during Zoom call from his office. A traditionalist, he’s already overpainted previous statement fuchsia stripes on the walls and leather chesterfield sofas are on the way, while marble fireplace, currently captive behind high-gloss cabinetry, is shortly to be released back into the wild.

Relish for the role unmistakeable. Leadership style, he says, is about remaining positive and determined ‘really important [...] especially in difficult times.’ Still teaches (year 9s) and has thrown himself into school life.

Trained with the first XI when normal life was still possible (though ‘was reminded I did not make the top football squad in my school’) and among other things made ecobricks (with the rest of the school) when it wasn’t.

Confesses to being spotted in the nearby Waitrose ‘more often than I’d like’ as well as enjoying a daily run round Knole Park to give him ‘the moment of stillness.’ Post pandemic, he believes, there’ll be greater appreciation and gratitude (‘an important aspect of wellbeing’) for schools and teachers from families.

He’s passionate about ensuring that school opens up to more children from all walks of life, in part because of the scholarships that made his own education possible. (His father, a fruit farmer in the mid-West, ‘never grew enough apples to pay my tuition fees.’)

Points out that school’s founder, William Sevenoke, set the school up ‘to support social mobility.’ Following a little mission creep through the centuries since, Mr Elzinga’s ambition is to ‘create a culture of philanthropy’ by setting up an endowment fund (school, despite appearances, is not plump in the pocket where means-tested bursaries are concerned) to ensure that one day there is needs blind admissions for all. May take several generations of headteachers to come to fruition but with sufficient determination (and a concerted campaign to persuade alumni to give generously) will be worth the wait.

While he’s so energised that he avoids coffee before meetings (effects unspecified but we’re guessing scorch marks on the meeting notes), his video messages are gentle, understated, thoughtful (singles out the cleaners for all their efforts during the pandemic) and upbeat. All delivered in a pleasant accent which is part UK/part US with the occasional slight tussle between the two.

He’s made a favourable impression with parents who praise his commitment and straightforward communications style and (when briefly possible) was a friendly presence in the car park at drop off time (and no doubt will be again).

‘Doesn’t rely on long words and technical terms,’ says one. ‘Talks in a very human way.’ Stays in touch. ‘We know he’s there and what he’s up to.’ Praise for passion for education and respect for his straight talking – if he doesn’t have the answers, he’ll say so.

Hard-to-impress pupils, meanwhile, are also (in a more understated way) pleased with their new head. Approachable, thought one. ‘A good bloke’ felt another – considered to be high praise. Based on Zoom call this reviewer would certainly agree.

Entrance

At 11+, 80 places, and 100 at 13+. For year 7 place, entrance tests in maths, English and VR, references, group interviews and reports. Numerous local prep feeders. Rumour that state school entrants may be favoured if tie break for a place. ‘Only a rumour,’ stresses school. School stresses that parents should not worry that lockdown means that candidates with limited access to online learning will be disadvantaged – will look at all results (maths, English and CAT scores) and talk to previous schools before making a decision.

Applicants for 13+ entry take maths, English and VR tests in year 7, plus 40 minute group interview and reference. Unconditional offers made in June of year 7. Those at prep schools asked to aim for 70 per cent at common entrance (used for setting purposes).

For sixth form entrance, when another 75-80 pupils taken in, tested in three proposed IB higher level subjects plus maths and English if not native language (high levels of fluency essential though can offer a session a week to 10 pupils needing short-term boosters).

Exit

Vast majority (95 per cent) stay on into sixth form. Countdown to UCAS form completion handled extremely well with teachers pitching their own degree subjects. Also ‘how to’ personal statement talks, coaching for US SAT tests and support if predicted grades don’t work out quite as planned. School balks at our description of talking near misses on to foundation places at desired uni as doesn’t want to create the impression of dark arts string pulling – but if they can support pupils they will.

Many offers from highly prestigious unis here, there and everywhere – many to US and Canada, few to anything other than Russell Group or top international equivalents. ‘Work really hard to support them, in the end it’s what you pay them for,’ said parent. As a result, destination list tends to resemble a global best of higher education list, with 28 to Oxbridge in 2021, and 42 to US and Canada (including Chicago. Toronto, Brown, Northeastern, Berkeley, Pennsylvania, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, CalTech and Stanford) and nine to Europe and Asia. Around half study arts and humanities courses, a third STEM and the rest mainly liberal arts and combined programmes. Fifteen medics in 2021.

Latest results

In 2021, 94 per cent 9-7 at GCSE. Average diploma score of 41.

Teaching and learning

Not so much a case of getting down with these kids but scrabbling up to their level. Regardless of mother tongue, notable for gift of gab and desire to avoid muscular Christianity (or contortionist’s pantheism) in favour of secular education that builds curiosity, creativity and critical thinking. They leave, says school, with ‘enlarged capacity for independent thought’ – and without, as far as we could see, acquiring swollen heads on the way out. This despite evident brightness starting early, year 7 packed with top of their year types – no surprise given school’s entry criteria: grammar school level or better. ‘Other girls took five lessons to learn something; I took one,’ says typically bright 11-year-old. Most pupils find flocking with similar highflyers an easy transition, though brilliance of plumage can be dazzling. ‘It was hard at first,’ said one recent leaver.

Unquenchable sense of purpose the norm. ‘A lot of people had very strong opinions about where they’d be in life in the next five or 10 years’ time,’ said ex-pupil. (And you can probably assume they aren’t thinking middle rank pootling with safe pension in Basildon.)

But while spreading a little zappiness throughout, school doesn’t ramp it up to mind-blowing levels. Don’t sit exams early – why spoil the pleasure of discovery? Staff lay on homework with a light touch rather than trowel - if not necessary, won’t set.

Curriculum, naturally, is robust. Three sciences from the off, second language added in year 8. Most teaching is mixed ability – maths and languages the exceptions – sometimes adjusted instead for gender balance. For years 10 and 11, formulaic in the sense that these very bright children have only to be shown the way to strings of 9-7 grades at GCSE and it happens (87 per cent in 2019). Norm is 10. New Middle School Diploma for years 9-11 records co-curricular and skills based learning.

By sixth form, IB is natural extension of school’s way of thinking, most pupils revelling in mind-stretching approach that’s been their lot so far. It’s about ‘developing brain muscle so can frame an argument,’ said upper sixth English teacher leading typically lively, interactive lesson. Intellectual weightlifting produced 39 point IB average in 2019.

The head, who’s had substantial involvement in the IB in previous schools, is a proselytiser for the way it covers all the main academic bases, incorporates 50 hours of community service and keeps options open. ‘Sixteen is too young to be closing those doors and professional careers,’ he says.

Maximum class sizes sound large (24 to GCSE, 15 in the sixth form), but average is far lower (16 to age 16, and between eight and 10 in final years), with overall teacher to pupil ratio of one to nine.

Stable core of middle management reflected in average staff age of 41, with 55 notching up 10 years plus. Inevitable turnover of younger mob to more senior positions elsewhere (around 10 headships in recent years). Staff team so strong that (unusually) parents and pupils couldn’t name a single weak area and inspection accolades agree. ‘Can go away and think about it,’ offered recent leaver. ‘Used to being at the top of their game,’ confirms parent.

Just as well, given need to move swiftly to an online platform during lockdown, learning ‘how to teach online from scratch, look at safeguarding [and] health and safety and leap into being new teachers again in world that they hadn’t ever experienced.’

Results impressive, with some nice touches to compensate (where possible) for absence of corridor conversations – the day-to-day stuff of normal and much missed interaction. There’s deliberate latitude, with extra minutes in breakout rooms so pupils can enjoy a bit of chat and laughter ‘so hard to recreate,’ says parent.

Learning support and SEN

While around 10 per cent of pupils have some form of learning need, it’s mild only for dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome and visual impairment. Only exception is hearing impairment. Not suitable for anyone needing substantial support in class. Once in (and admissions process incorporates extra hand holding where needed) support is felt to be thorough and effective.

The arts and extracurricular

Visitors might find numbers of events and activities almost overwhelming. Not so pupils, busily adding more, from coding to Middle Eastern Society, at a rate of knots. Others enter -and win - high profile competitions, one group snaffling £15,000 prize after developing app for autistic children.

Haven’t let the pandemic slow their efforts with pupils involved in potentially world-changing initiatives. One group is synthesising molecules (as you do) as part of an open source project seeking a cure for fungal disease affecting Indian farmers. Other pupil initiatives include an app that shows people exactly how their choices damage the planet and another, ‘Get well soon, world,’ that focuses on support for mental health.

Overdoing things isn’t an issue, says school. Can mean hard choices – some pupils (reluctantly) give up drama in the sixth form, and school keeps watchful eye on the ultra-active, though approach, ladling on the encouragement rather than activating the brakes, is distinctly hands off. ‘If you feel you can cope, you probably will,’ says pupil. Latest initiatives are three institutes - teaching and learning, service and social impact, and higher education.

Performing arts impressively housed in The Space, with vast, acoustically advanced theatre that takes staging challenges in stride (pop up orchestra pit for Les Mis a doddle) and umpteen practice rooms for 750 weekly individual lessons. Very talented flourish (conductor Andrew Gourlay is a former pupil) with symphony orchestra, jazz band, gospel choir and song writing groups among many ensembles on offer, though ‘have a go’ spirit sees all abilities from virtuoso to enthusiast rapturously received when they take to the stage.

Sport

Lavish facilities the norm. For sporty, substantial outside spaces supplemented by great indoors of Sennocke Centre – just lapping its three tennis courts, pool and giant sports hall probably enough to meet daily exercise requirements. With some international pupils completely new to team sports, hasn’t been high profile area in the past, though recent successes - U14 hockey and U16 netball teams making national finals - could signal a change, achievements recognised by must-read authority, School Sport Magazine. Individual sports generally more popular - sailing especially so. However, numerous parents and pupils testified to star ratings for CCF, available from year 10, khaki-clad mob milling prior to drilling, rugged in tee shirts despite below-zero temperatures on day of visit.

Boarders

Sensible pandemic planning enabled international boarders to stay on during autumn half term 2020. Plaudits from parents for Mr Elzinga’s fleet footed acquisition of highly accurate rapid response Covid testing equipment (funded by parent donations and bought only when certain that it was not at patients’ expense).

Has minimised unnecessary self-isolation time, essential when one child’s symptoms can impact on an entire boarding house, though pupils have been exceptionally sensible, one selfless soul staying outside boarding house with a temperature, alerting housemaster by knocking at his window so when he did test positive for Covid, nobody else was affected. Similar behaviour par for the course in every house, so don’t worry which one you’re allocated, says pupil. ‘They’re all just as friendly and happy.’

Sensible to book your place early – not easy to change to boarding later on and even a few sixth formers (house captains excepted) share rooms. Not that pupils mind, enjoying companionship and, according to one sixth former, preferring in any case to study in three-level, attractively nook-filled library, which like Sennocke Centre and practice rooms is open late. ‘Less distraction as you don’t have your stuff round you.’

Cleanliness comes as standard (a spot of stuffiness in one bedroom was nothing that open window or two wouldn’t solve), ditto entertainment (TV/DVD, Sky, snooker or table tennis, wi-fi) and bulk deliveries of bread, fruit and milk (sensible refrigerated dispensers).

Considerable variation otherwise. Sixth formers have International Centre (boys) and Girls’ International House. Then there’s gorgeous Johnsons, one of seven houses for year 9s to upper sixths, all early 20th century Agatha Christie-whodunnit-style fixtures and fittings except from the two new ones. No longer offers boarding to years 7 and 8. Construction has started of a new girls’ boarding house for 2023.

Newest boarding house, Aisher, opened in 2019 for 60 middle and upper school boys and is much sought after. ‘Incredible – newest, cleanest facilities,’ says parent who extolled the homely feel and sensitive use of colour palette (a mustard and yellow – warm and welcoming rather than hot stuff). Each of the single and two-bed rooms has an en suite, with an enormous TV and lounge area – university accommodation likely to be a distinct let down.

Some non-negotiables. No solo travel to more distant boarding houses regardless of age and, if late, with accompanying teacher. Y9/10/11 boarders have their mobile phones removed at respective lights out (parents predictably thrilled to be let off this particular hook).

Otherwise, trust and flexibility dominate, from lockers (unlocked) to negotiated later bedtimes for older pupils if vital world events like US election intervene. ‘About compromise,’ says warm houseparent, who teaches ironing and cooking as university preparation. Previously laundry seemed to happen, magically off stage but no longer, with parents stressing that ways with spin cycles are now imparted to all.

House rivalry low key to point of invisibility. ‘Children have to compete with the outside world, they don’t need to compete with each other,’ is parent’s take on school’s philosophy.

No ‘them and us’ between day and boarder, local or international pupils – ‘seamless,’ said pupil, of integration between the two (national groups split up, factions/combatants eg Russia/Ukraine brought together). House events include Valentine’s meal (partners can be blind date, same sex, day or boarding pupils - one boy invited his best friend).

In normal times, around three-quarters of sixth form boarders remain at weekends (it’s half or so in other years). Home clothes allowed though if inappropriate will be ‘sent home at the boarder’s own expense…’ (not a regular occurrence). Sunday excursions enjoyable if not cutting edge (a liking for Laser Quest definitely useful), but a welcome change from frantic pace of life in the week. School prefers parties for younger pupils when hosted out of school to be alcohol-free – and provides useful hints and tips including checking water bottles for vodka - though sensibly stops short of laying down law (impossible to enforce, we’d have thought).

Ethos and heritage

Given awe-inspiring prospectus – fabulously well written, slightly tongue in cheek self-praise in vignette form – school could have work cut out just living up to it. For the most part, succeeds – triumphantly, even if tiny imperfections (like smeary bin in visitors' loo) are the more jarring by comparison. And though it comes with over 500 years of history – was one of the earliest secular school foundations in the country - and literary references in works by everyone from Daniel Defoe to Charlie Higson, isn’t weighed down by it, with plenty of space, physical and philosophical, to let in plenty of fresh thinking and the odd bit of quirkiness.

When back on site, pupils benefit from what one described as a ‘wonderfully happy location’ thought pupil. Also Sevenoaks’s biggest employer, owning substantial chunks of the high street (all pupils must use underpass - severe sanctions if they don’t). Waitrose, appropriately, marks the boundary line. Most of 100-acre site, which backs on to Knole House, isn’t visible from the road, though year 7s and 8s initially operate on a smaller scale for registration and break while are finding their way round the school’s: ‘30 buildings, 107 classrooms, 14 sports pitches, 12 lawns, six ponds and thousands of trees.’ Recent additions to bump up the numbers are science and technology and IB global study centres, newest are the biology pond and school allotment – one area converted into nature reserve, from building site. More environmentally focused initiatives on the way soon.

Each modern language merits own room off long corridor, the world in miniature, while English scores paved courtyard with baby olive trees and silver birch – a grove in the making – just needs own Muse. In the meantime, plenty of inspiration from works of art dotted around, many by teachers and former pupils. One orange sculpture is featured in nuts and bolts parent handbook, together with similarly toned handbag. Possible reimagining of lost property cupboard? ‘Probably to give sense of scale,’ thought sensible guide.

All well worth a look given that one talented sixth form artist (product of satisfyingly messy art room, complete with artist in residence and pile of larger than life-size clay busts) flogged one of own works for £1,000…

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Copers will thrive here. ‘You shape up pretty quickly,’ said parent. Big on nurture in year 7 but given pace of life here, in other years best to get with the programme pronto. Plenty of help around and one parent felt it’s kept semi-structured so that pupils feel that ‘they can go to any teacher who feels like the right fit for them.’

Daily meetings with tutors reckoned to be a good safety net, staff normally quick to respond to parent queries. Counsellor also well used – sometimes making appointments difficult but school had been planning more. Sensible approach – though school has made much of the importance of exercise, taking breaks and putting pupils’ – and staff – families first (online lessons often start with wellbeing check in).

Robust but not unkind sanctions for eg alcohol misuse. For drug use, possible that might be allowed back but would have to agree to random testing for remainder of school career.

Common sense advice issued on everything from pocket money allowance (keep it sensibly low to avoid ‘over-reliance on material goods’ – nice thought, though we can’t help wondering if that boat has already sailed – even recent lower school cake sales raised over £1,000) – to cases of bullying: rare, according to school surveys, but acknowledged to rear head now and again.

School sensibly quotes examples of nastiness: ‘You’ve got no friends, you’re fat/gay…’ and urges telling at all times. One parent agreed that unkindness happens but room to escape the tormentors helps. ‘You can breathe here,’ thought pupil. Minor problems tend to work themselves out, school on the whole reserving its energies for coping with more serious problems - has fair share of mental illness including eating disorders and self-harm. ‘Very on the ball,’ thought mother.

Parents are also expected to behave. Don’t expect leave to remove children in term time without a very good reason (weddings or funerals might just about hack it but little else). And as for taking unilateral decisions to run holiday of lifetime into first few days of term? No way. ‘School holidays are fixed at the absolute maximum consistent with good learning,’ says school. In contrast, an empty school is the goal at exeat weekends though pupils ‘in real need’ can stay.

Pre-pandemic, we’d heard that a bit more approachability ‘would make it a better place for parents and allow better communications.’ Views may well have shifted given school’s ability to follow shape-shifting government guidance and keep everyone calm in the process. ‘They’d always say this is our best guess at the moment, then we’d get a letter saying rip up yesterday’s letter, more information has come in and we need to change our advice,’ says a parent.

Pupils and parents

Has always been cosmopolitan, first international pupil arriving in the 18th century. Currently international 175 pupils from Australia to Azerbaijan, Serbia to Singapore, Malaysia to Moldova – greater proportion further up the school, plus 70 expat families. Walls of vast dining hall serving quality food that even Italian tour guide, initially sceptical, was happy to endorse, decorated in a sea of flags representing every pupil nationality.

Sizeable numbers of local-ish families (Kent, Sussex and accessible bits of Surrey plus some Londoners). Can join popular parents’ choir. Friends’ organisation, recent innovation, going great guns with monthly drinks and cultural excursions.

Some parents reckon that small proportion of pupils – Londoners in particular – afflicted by sense of entitlement. Absolutely not, we were told, indignantly. ‘We’re grounded, also there’s so much cultural diversity.’ School’s down-to-earth outreach programme (two pupils diligently sorting stock in local charity shop, medics putting in time at local school for the disabled) doubtless helps.

Money matters

At least five full bursaries at 11+ (may trickle up to year 9 if funds permit), some partial bursaries and offer of temporary support if difficult times strike existing pupils. Scholarships of up to 10 per cent. Head is keen to attract more disadvantaged, ‘intellectually voracious, go-getting,’ children – those out there would be well-advised to get in touch.

The last word

Exhilarating, immersive education that’s ideal for bright, organised, go-getting types – perhaps less so for those seeking a more gentle voyage of discovery. Those eager for new worlds to explore with a team of top-class guides to help them along the way can’t really go wrong.

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.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

The school believes that the community is enriched by its ability to attract a variety of pupils, with varied talents and backgrounds. Being an academically selective school, we aim to attract applicants of high academic ability who are willing to be involved in the wider life of the school. The school is only able to admit those for whom the school’s resources, reasonably adjusted where appropriate, would be able to secure academic success and educational fulfilment. Parents are encouraged informally to discuss the feasibility of their child attending Sevenoaks with the Director of Admissions, the Sixth Form Registrar or the Pastoral Deputy Head. 10-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment Y
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

Who came from where


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