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There’s no uniform or dress code and the teachers are just as likely as pupils to be wearing a hoody. Everyone goes by their first name and there are no school bells. Classrooms mainly comprise of large tables with chairs grouped round collaboratively, where small groups of pupils learn via discursive tutorial type teaching. So far so hippy – until you notice the hush that has descended in the classrooms and the fact that pupils (younger ones, at any rate) are just as likely to do traditional spelling tests and times tables as any other school, while older ones follow strict exam-oriented curricula. It would be hard to find better provision for the artistically inclined. But not for the super-sporty...

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What the school says...

The College offers a fresh alternative to traditional independent education, accepting day students from the age of 11 and boarding students from 13. All have the opportunity to thrive in a happily distinctive atmosphere. Our only entrance qualification is an honest determination to work hard. Our students enjoy being here and are treated as young adults. We have high expectations and are small enough to get to know everyone well. There is no uniform and students and staff are on first name terms. ...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says


Alistair Brownlow MA (St Andrews) MPhil (Glasgow) in English. Joined as a new graduate in 1997 after teaching English in Russia and Romania, working his way up to co-principal in 2002 and sole principal in 2016.

Adept at putting others at ease and bouncing with enthusiasm like Tigger, he expresses the school’s beliefs and methods with an articulacy which backs up his reputation as an ace English teacher. Winces at the term ‘headmaster’ on account of the school’s flatter leadership model - in fact, he refuses to take any more credit for school’s success than the other ‘principals’, aka heads of lower school, sixth form and pastoral and welfare.

Parents say he’s ‘always available’, ‘very understanding’ and ‘he listens’. ‘You never feel like you’re going into an old schoolmaster’s office where your feelings will be belittled – he makes it clear you have the right to feel however you do and he takes swift action too,’ said one. ‘He’s intuitive when it comes to responding to each individual and is also pragmatic, both of which make him very skilled at fitting the right courses for the right child,’ said another. Pupils told us he’s ‘often wandering around, usually with prospective parents’ and that he has a ‘good sense of humour’.

Tends towards relentless comparisons with ‘other’ schools, presenting a somewhat unrealistic view of the big, bad world of education – though to be fair, he hears many tales from pupils who have become completely disillusioned with their previous schools. Some pupils go further still - ‘All state schools are rubbish,’ one told us, although school says this view is ‘regrettable and we believe it is not representative of the views of most students here’.


It’s non-selective in that there’s no entrance exam for children joining at 11 or 13, and there’s no minimum GCSE grade requirements for sixth form entry. You don’t even have to have done a history GCSE to do a history A level (‘We get that some 14-year-olds are put off history but want to come back to it later on’). But every prospective student is interviewed (‘it’s as much a consultancy session as anything’), and the principals say they do turn some away.

Direct entry into any year group at any point in the academic year is possible, and places can be secured in the short gap between exam results and the start of a new term. Around 60 students join each year, either to retake their A levels having completed two years of A levels elsewhere, or directly into year 13 after disappointing results in year 12 elsewhere. Welcoming boarders from 13+ (previously 15+) from September 2022.


Over half leave after GCSEs. Those that stay for the sixth form go on to universities including UCL, Manchester, Leeds, UEA, Bristol, Newcastle and Loughborough. Courses reflect a very wide range of interests from law, maths, medicine and classics to animal behaviour, film studies, marketing, photography and midwifery.

Latest results

In 2023, 30 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 25 per cent A*/A at A level (49 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 25 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 29 per cent A*/A at A level (60 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

There’s no uniform or dress code and the teachers are just as likely as pupils to be wearing a hoodie. Everyone goes by their first name and there are no school bells. Classrooms mainly consist of large tables with chairs grouped round collaboratively, where small groups of pupils learn via discursive tutorial type teaching. So far so hippy – until you notice the hush that has descended in the classrooms and the fact that pupils (younger ones, at any rate) are just as likely to do traditional spelling tests and times tables as any other school, while older ones follow strict exam-oriented curricula. ‘People try to place us in the progressive/alternative mould, but we’re not,’ says Alistair. ‘It’s common sense; small classes, good teaching, and an informal but ordered and respectful atmosphere.’

The next surprise comes in the teaching methods where – certainly higher up the school – it’s teach-test-teach-test, with A level students getting a test a week in every subject. The idea that testing thwarts children gets short shrift here and both pupils and parents seem to welcome it. ‘It’s not testing in the sense of passing or failing; it’s testing to spot the areas where you need more support,’ one pupil explained. ‘The ethos is that if you get something wrong, the teacher needs to work with you and if the whole class gets something wrong, the teacher needs to sort themselves out – it highlights the school’s dedication to personalised learning and genuine accountability,’ said a parent. Pupils say it also reduces exam wobbles (‘we’re so used to tests that we just get on with it’) and that it’s confidence-boosting to watch your grades go up (many students transfer here after poor progress elsewhere and the effect can be dramatic).

Couple this with an unashamed concentration on exam techniques and you could be forgiven for assuming this is an exam factory, but it really isn’t. ‘The teachers here have real passion for their subjects and the two-hour lessons at A level mean you can really explore a subject from all angles,’ said one sixth form pupil. The whole shebang attracts, as you might imagine, the kind of teacher that prefers ‘more teaching, less bureaucracy’ model and many have higher degrees. Some have attended the school themselves, as have many admin staff – ‘You’ll get no sharp-suited admissions department here.’

There are three pathways through the sixth form, mainly set in different teaching groups. There are those doing a two-year A level course through the school; students who have transferred here for year 13 after a disappointing year 12; and those who have done two years elsewhere and are doing retakes. The A level programme, which involves 40 options including global perspectives, music technology and fashion and textiles, is flexible with no option blocks, and students can do speed courses in a new subject to complement retakes. The school is in the top five per cent in the UK for student progress at A level. Maths is the biggest A level subject and English literature and film studies are also strong departments. School says pupils are increasingly joining from IB schools either half-way through or after completing it because ‘they personally find A levels a better route to their chosen university’.

At GCSE, most students take seven or eight subjects. English and maths are taught at IGCSE level. Languages on offer include German, French, Spanish and (by student demand) Mandarin, but it is not compulsory to take a language. Pupils can also take subjects such as astronomy, film studies and most recently classical civilisation has been added. Many take art subjects, sometimes two or three. Nobody cares about EBacc here. English and the creative arts get the highest grades.

Learning support and SEN

There’s no highly developed SEN department and school is up-front about being suitable for milder end problems, where support is in-class. A dyslexic pupil told us, ‘I definitely get all the help I need and haven’t had to miss a single lesson’, while a parent of a child with ADHD said ‘socially, it was a nightmare at her last school but she has blossomed here’. EHCPs are few and far between, usually around issues like anxiety or school phobia, nothing complicated. Some pupils come from neighbouring SEN school Trinity to be more stretched academically. Parents appreciate the efforts made to ensure each pupil gains the best possible grades, with extra lessons available before exams and in the holidays, none of which is chargeable. ‘You’d have to be mad to get an out-of-school tutor here,’ said a parent.

The arts and extracurricular

It would be hard to find better provision for the artistically inclined. GCSEs are offered in six disciplines – fine art, graphics, photography, textiles, ceramics and 3D. Some students take three to A level, enabling them to bypass a foundation year. The art rooms have a welcoming, university feel, with much of the work on display of university standard with real individuality and flair. We also like the cross-curricular approach.

No school orchestra or choir, but pupils describe the music here as ‘sick’ and rave about the music technology opportunities and their bands, which they can showcase at the summer festival. There are musical opportunities within drama too – the latest whole-school performance was Little Shop of Horrors. The drama theatre is a rich cultural hub, according to pupils, hosting visiting theatre companies while the school’s onsite cinema regularly hosts the National Schools’ Film Week. ‘For those of us that come here because of issues at our previous school, drama can be a great way of building up confidence,’ said one.


Not for the super-sporty – unless your child is prepared to pursue their sport outside school, for which they will be flexible around commitments for elite sportspeople. And while some pupils say ‘it can be frustrating when they try and fail to set up sports teams for the likes of rugby or football’, the school had brought in football teams when we visited. The main stumbling block is space – there just isn’t the infrastructure to provide serious provision. But they do use local facilities and they have a small gym and outside court, where we saw pupils kicking a ball around. Main PE provision is, however, more activity based – things like ice skating, sailing, self-defence and climbing.


Beds for 120 pupils aged 15+ (from aged 13+ from September 2022) across seven terraced houses, full to capacity when we visited. All have small, single rooms – some with a small ‘pod’ ensuite, otherwise it’s shared bathrooms until the school completes its rolling programme. Georgian high ceilings and big windows add light and space and each house has a common room with comfy chairs and a study for quiet work. Décor is welcoming and modern, IKEA style, with some houses still awaiting refurb. Teenage-friendly touches include pool tables. School describes it as ‘lighter touch’ boarding with house parents, but parents praise the school nurse – ‘she’s responsive and relates to them,’ said one, although a few we spoke to said the food can be bland and get repetitive. Boarders say they settle in quickly and one praised the way boarding staff ‘respect teenagers’ need for independence, while also setting appropriate boundaries – I will be well prepared for university life.’ Currently some 40 per cent of boarders are from the UK, 11 per cent from Europe, and the remainder from countries including Canada, USA, Thailand, China, Russia, Nigeria and South Africa.

Ethos and heritage

It started as an A level college in 1984 and extended to take pupils from year 7 in 2007. Bought by Dukes Education in 2016 which has given a cash injection to facilities, including new canteen (although some students say food isn’t great) and higher-spec boarding interiors. Plus, members of the Dukes team visit regularly to give advice and talks on the likes of Oxbridge, medical and US admissions.

The campus is as unique as the school. It started as one terraced house, but as the school expanded, it gradually bought up 14 properties in adjoining roads, including the seven terraced boarding houses. What would once have been the back gardens to these houses now form the grounds with ancient apple trees and wild garden areas, paths to secret nooks and crannies and outdoor classrooms including a geodesic dome and the oversized ‘maths shed,’ where we saw a business studies class in action. Students work on eco and garden projects as part of their DofE award, and the gardens, complete with resident chickens – a hide-and-seek nirvana for younger ones - have won awards. The £100,000 steel sculptural musical gates, on which you can play three octaves, are an art installation created by Henry Dagg. These gates, like many other areas of the school, feature flying pigs – a wry reference to a cynical comment made when the school opened. Younger pupils said they’d like to do ‘more outside learning – there’s a wasted opportunity there’; older pupils said they’d welcome a main library (there are subject-specific ones) and better sixth-form common room space. Those niggles aside, pupils appreciate their surroundings. Lower school has its own block.

You’ll find no Latin mottoes here, no mahogany-rich headmaster’s study and no suave head in a handmade suit. No pupils with collars and lips firmly buttoned. No assemblies and no pupil ‘type’. No manicured rolling hills and no school hymn. For many, all this is a blessed relief. Pupils can be themselves, with or without piercings and alternative haircuts (all of which we saw), while parents can (and often do) breathe a sigh of relief they’ll never have to attend a PTA committee or fundraising ball again. As for parents who worry it will be Lord of the Flies in the making, the school points out that ‘it is still school and actually quite old-fashioned in the sense of being exam oriented’.

Numbers lower down the school are small, starting with around 13 pupils in year 7, who have deliberately opted for a small and different type of school. These are added to over the years, generally by pupils who have been disaffected or haven’t thrived in other schools, to numbers in the mid-20s for GCSE years. By sixth form it grows to 70 in year 12, and 130 in year 13/14. This is something to consider in the younger year groups, especially as the gender split can be very uneven. The flipside is less of the gender division that you see in big schools – all pupils are clearly relaxed in each other’s company and there’s much more mixing between year groups.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Some of the pupils have been labelled as bad apples or having limited prospects in previous settings, but have quickly turned things around here, where they are free from discipline based on minutiae. Other pupils have come from grammars where they felt under too much pressure, or from large schools where they felt overwhelmed, and they have also flourished here. Parents speak highly of the pastoral care: ‘The way they handle each pupil as an individual is striking and they treat them as young adults, so it’s more a case of negotiating than imposing regimes, which motivates them enormously,’ said one. A level students have one-to-one meetings with a personal tutor every couple of weeks, more frequently if they wish, and pupils lower down the school have individual meetings every term. Parents get regular reports, and never any with surprises.

School is strict about turning up on time, behaviour and homework and pupils told us detentions do get handed out for ‘swearing, distracting others in class and too many warnings’. Some pupils believe the school is too rigid about being ‘even two minutes late’, but overall they recognise and respect the trust they are given and the way ‘you get a second chance if you mess up’ although there is zero tolerance to drugs, with regular random testing. Three or four students a year are excluded or encouraged to go elsewhere but school doesn’t believe in temporary exclusions.

Pupils and parents

Local pupils form 70 per cent of the cohort and come from a wide catchment area – there are minibuses from towns including Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Ashford and Sevenoaks, and the train station brings pupils from Bromley and London. A further 15 per cent come from elsewhere in the UK, and 15 per cent from overseas, including Thai government scholars (who tend to be very high performers, often ending up at Oxbridge). Around half the pupils come from the independent sector, the rest families with no tradition of private education. ‘It’s genuinely diverse,’ said a pupil.

This is a place for individuals. There’s a lovely air of tolerance and warmth between the pupils – many of whom seem relieved to have found a home among other square pegs – and the vulnerability of the ones who have had negative experiences of previous schools is palpable. ‘They look after each other and genuinely celebrate each other’s successes - not just good grades but perhaps a moment that highlights they’ve grown in confidence or self-esteem,’ said one parent, who added that the school’s emphasis on the arts means there’s ‘equal respect for successes in art or academia’.

Money matters

Around £100,000 per year goes into means-tested bursaries, which are awarded not on academic ability, but ‘if we think they’ll make a good contribution’. Scholarships include the Ralph Steadman Art Scholarship, which offers a two-year full scholarship for A levels. Extras are kept to a minimum - music lessons, buses and exam fees are extra, but extracurricular trips are kept deliberately modest.

The last word

This won’t be one that sits on your shortlist and you can’t make up your mind about. As one parent put it, ‘It’s a Marmite option.’ Nor will it be the type of school you’ll be boasting about your child going to at the west Sevenoaks dinner parties. Your money won’t buy the trappings of a public school, but you’ll get that warm buzz in your heart when you recognise your kid in the personalities here – or not. That might be one of several types we saw – the quirky one, condemned to be picked on in an average school; the fiercely intelligent, who has rubbed teachers up the wrong way by being too smart for his own good in other settings; the kid whose education got derailed by too much focus on petty rules and discipline. It won’t suit sporting jocks, but it’s money well spent on children who don’t suit more conventional schooling, but whose parents still prioritise the best possible grades.

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

Rochester Independent College has no specialist teaching or support provision beyond exceptionally small classes, the average being 8. Through working closely with individuals we are able to offer a supportive and confidence building programme for each of our students whether they require extra help and support or academic acceleration beyond their school year group.

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