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‘Almost too much sport,’ one parent said, ‘except that it seems to embrace all pupils, and so the effect is everyone of them feels involved and wanted’. The school has a huge local reputation – arguably one of the few fixed points in that restless rootless world of Knightsbridge. It embraces the local community in the fullest sense, inviting local societies and residents’ associations to concerts and plays and festivals. There is more art, music and drama than one can imagine...

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Other features

Choir school - substantial scholarships and bursaries usually available for choristers.

Sports

Fencing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Principal

Since 2002, Richard Townend (early 70s) – organist, scholar, and son of the founder. The present head is calm, shrewd, gently impassioned by the vision of the school which he runs – and a wonderful foil for an egotistical and anxious world. The running of Hill House, while ultimately in his hands, is shared among his wife and two sons. His beliefs are refreshing simple: ‘bring children up with plenty of love and affection, and an example which allows them to understand the boundaries by which we must all live’. To that, and an inspiring academic education, add lots of fresh air, games, skiing and mountaineering, swimming and music. The morning of our visit, he was taking a vast choir practice of over 90 children, preparatory to a school assembly held at St Columba’s Church. That isn’t how most heads operate today - more’s the pity.

After some stinging criticisms from Ofsted in 2014, the school found itself forced to address a range of health and safety issues, and to oversee some structural shifts designed to safeguard academic progress. It is a mark of the head’s quality that he believes much good resulted from the whole episode. It was also very telling that the Ofsted debacle was chiefly notable for provoking an outpouring of parental, pupil and old pupil love and faith.

Entrance

Prospective parents have to go on a tour of the place – there’s no booking: you just show up at one of the advertised times (these happen four days a week). ‘Hardly sounds very onerous,’ says the head, ‘but just occasionally you’ll get someone who tries to avoid it. No tour, no place. Simple as that.’ If you like the place, then you fill in an application form. There is a waiting list, but – given the fast-changing plans of young parents and the fact that many go abroad - vacancies often crop up. The school tries to sidestep entrance tests, especially for the youngest children. Mrs Townend, wife of the headmaster, is in charge of admissions. She and her team make it their job to be friendly and accessible.

Exit

Most pupils go on to London day schools: girls’ destinations include Frances Holland SW1, Queen's Gate, JAGS, St Paul’s, Putney High, More House. Boys to Dulwich College, Wetherby Senior, KCS, St Paul’s, Dulwich, Westminster, inter alia. Boarding destinations include Charterhouse, Eton, Roedean, Wycombe Abbey.

Our view

The youngest, aged 4 and 5, go to Small School to learn their rudiments - physical development, communication and language and social development. With lots of free play as well as structured lessons, the aim is to build up confidence and competence. They move from Flood Street to Pont Street when they are 5 or 6, and start to focus on English, handwriting, maths and reading, supplemented by supporting subjects as well as lots of music, drama and games. Then it’s on to Cadogan Gardens and gradually learning to adapt to specialist subject teachers as well as the all-important form teacher. Aged 10 and 11, the girls and boys have separate classes, as they set about preparation for senior schools. Most girls leave at 11, while the great majority of boys stay to 13.

‘The genius of Hill House,’ said a parent, who is also an old pupil, ‘is that they apply intelligence and thought to getting a child happy. Being happy means feeling reassured, not indulged. When they are surrounded by teachers who focus upon them with a fond and shrewd eye, they feel reassured. They can start to learn.’

There are three special needs teachers to support those with particular needs. The ethos of the school is to attend carefully to anything which may stand between a child and their ability to meet their potential, but also to guard against anxiety. ‘Early intervention and calm management seems to level most things out very satisfactorily,’ the head observes.

Staff reflect the school’s commitment to diversity and cosmopolitanism – a spread of ages and backgrounds, but with a healthy quota of bright and fit young ones heralding from all over the word, as well as those from within London and the M25. This is a family school and, as presently constituted, nobody who isn’t a Townend would appear able to climb to the very top of the tree. While this might work to demotivate a lesser teacher, the staff here palpably relish the wonderfully idiosyncratic extended family to which they, and everyone connected to the school, belong. The proof of that can be seen in the extraordinarily high rates of staff retention. The head’s deep knowledge of his staff, and fond regard for them, is an eloquent advertisement for the school.

‘Almost too much sport,’ one parent said, ‘except that it seems to embrace all pupils, and so the effect is everyone of them feels involved and wanted’. All pupils play sport at least once every day. Given that the school buildings are housed in the heart of Knightsbridge and Chelsea, this poses some logistical demands, but the sight of boys and girls in rust-coloured breeches is well-known to residents of SW3 and typically presages a visit to or from various indoor and outdoor grounds (Duke of York’s, Battersea, Queen’s Club – the list goes on for ever). Longer journeys are also made possible by a fleet of six minibuses, operated (as with everything else here) by in-house drivers. As well as all the usual rugby and netball, football, hockey and so forth, there are limitless opportunities for individual sports and a full complement of inter-school fixtures. A particular emphasis is placed on swimming – to which the late Colonel Townend, the school’s founder, attached a passionate importance.

There is more art, music and drama than one can imagine. The head is a fine organist and, back in 1972, a fine two manual organ with mechanical action containing 456 pipes was especially commissioned for the school and installed in the music room in Hans Place. There is also a stock of over 300 orchestral instruments, which are loaned to boys and girls for the duration of their time at Hill House, and everyone gets a slice of the action. ‘I’ve just watched my son play at Peter Jones,’ said one parent, ‘and my daughter at St Columba’s Church. They’re not prodigies, but they’re thrilled to be involved. And so am I.’ Among many other offerings, there is an annual Christmas musical as well as a regular dance and drama club. The school has three art galleries and children’s work is displayed everywhere – all of it is framed. In a typical Hill House touch, the frames are bought at the local Habitat and knocked together expertly by the school’s works department. The impression is terrific.

Hill House famously has an overseas annexe in Switzerland. Since 1960 this has been located at Glion, a mountain village over 700 metres above sea level looking out over Lake Geneva. The children are given an experience of a boarding school environment in the setting of a mountain village: there are geography CE project courses – and, of course, skiing.

The founder, Colonel Townend, opened the school in 1951 and was still in post in his 90s. His somewhat autocratic manner, the Knightsbridge address and the fact that the young Prince Charles arrived as a 7 year old newbie in 1956, have led many to assume that this is a school for toffs. That is quite unfair. Its vision has always been both forward-looking and international. It was among the very first of the so-called prep schools to welcome girls, its fees are a good deal lower than many local competitors, and its pupil constituency much broader socially than its elite addresses suggest. True, the place is superbly equipped, but it is also quite crowded, teeming with life. The children and staff are both industrious and relaxed. Both genders and all ethnic groups are fully represented at every level

There are a series of handsome London houses – Hans Place is the site of the original school and this is where the headmaster and school offices are located, but there are other houses in Flood Street, Pont Street and Cadogan Gardens. Two idiosyncrasies seen in each are revealing: a discreet investment by the school in the latest chemical technology to ensure the loos are odour-free (an issue in some schools) and the fact that all the catering is done in-house by support staff who have mainly worked here for years and years. No agencies, no fuss and consistently terrific reports of school lunches. The day of our visit we passed chefs chopping mounds of fresh carrots alongside mountains of fresh fruit. That isn’t typical fare in school kitchens, more’s the pity.

The school has a huge local reputation – arguably one of the few fixed points in that restless rootless world of Knightsbridge. It embraces the local community in the fullest sense, inviting local societies and residents’ associations to concerts and plays and festivals, loaning its facilities at knock-down rates (or, where appropriate, free) and also doing a mass of fundraising for local children’s charities.

The ethos of the school revolves around being tolerant, well-exercised, stimulated and kind, and contexts for nurturing each of these are embedded within every aspect of the school curriculum. There is a well worked-out chain of communication embracing form tutors, year and section heads, senior tutors and housemasters, all ultimately reporting to the pastoral deputy head (the only very senior figure in the school who is not a Townend) and finally the headmaster himself. ‘What matters,’ says the head, ‘is that every child knows there is someone to whom they can confidently turn.’ Anecdotal evidence suggests this is overwhelmingly true. ‘The key to it all,’ said a parent, ‘is an atmosphere of great friendliness and patience, accompanied by an underlying structure and sensitive discipline.’

The school draws in families from south, west and east London – lots of children commute by bus and tube - as well as those who walk to school from various smart Knightsbridge or Chelsea Squares. We detected none of those snobbish hierarchies which, in some schools, can make relationships toxic. Parents are welcomed as part of the school community from the first minute, and many are first-generation users of independent schools. All form tutors – the first port of call between parents and school - set aside 30 minutes before and after school when parents can go and see them. There are reports at the end of every term (a particularly full one every summer) and an annual parents’ evening to discuss children’s progress with individual subject teachers.

The uniform is conspicuous but no more costly than others, but a big effort is made to keep extras to a minimum. Individual music lessons and Friday clubs are charged as (inevitably) are the trips to Switzerland. Some bursary help is available ‘in exceptional circumstances’ – the school works especially hard to try to look after families which have encountered bereavement.

Hill House challenges many of the complacent assumptions of our age. The fact that it’s in Knightsbridge and that the uniform is so conspicuous could mislead one easily into inferring the opposite of the truth. The reality is a superbly effective and brilliantly resourced school - one which operates in a glorious time-warp in its preference for doing everything within the family and among the extended family: no school in the country can enjoy such deep loyalty from its support staff, which says a lot. Children of any race or social background will be gathered up here and utterly integrated.

Just like any family business, there are inherent vulnerabilities – and we suspect it may have been that which nettled the inspectors. But the commitment of the Townends to the constituency they serve is massive and wholehearted, and the palpable love and loyalty of all its constituencies (including old pupils), let alone their various successes, says everything.

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