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The school feels very much part of the city. In fact one of the opening clips on the local news shows a line of happy children in royal blue tartans and sunny sweatshirts snaking across Cathedral Green. The balance feels just right here; ‘there is an expectation for children to do their best and give their all at any task, and there is an academic push, but it is a gentle, perfectly pitched push,’ parents said...

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What the school says...

Exeter Cathedral School is a leading independent day and boarding Prep School for girls and boys aged 2½ - 13.

Founded in the 12th century as a choir school, ECS now offers a fully-rounded education to 280 pupils from a variety of backgrounds and with a range of talents and interests.

We have an enviable location in the heart of the city; a maximum class size of 18, meaning we know each pupil as an individual; a proven track record of securing places and scholarships to a range of leading senior schools; and a firm commitment to being a forward-thinking Prep School with traditional values. We aim to offer an outstanding Prep School experience and are proud of our commitment to educating the ‘whole child’: we seek to do this by providing a nurturing, purposeful, exciting and gently-Christian environment in which each child is known as an individual and encouraged to be mindful of, and grateful for, those around them, and aware of the part that they and others play in building their community.

Above all, we are a school where people matter, and where staff and families work in partnership to help children acquire the right habits for life.
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What the parents say...

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Other features

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

What The Good Schools Guide says


Since January 2016, James Featherstone (30s). Previously head of lower school at the Perse School in Cambridge. Studied French and Spanish at Durham, then did a PGCE there, and was a choral scholar at Durham Cathedral. He later joined the choir of Jesus College, Cambridge and became part of the professional quintet at St-John-at-Hampstead, London.

James and his family live in Hall House, the pre-prep school, and have embraced life in the southwest, making the most of nearby moors and beaches. Julia, his wife, was previously assistant director of music at the Stephen Perse Foundation and now teaches music part-time at ECS. Both are well-suited to this lifestyle; James is son of a headmaster so grew up living in boarding schools, and Julia spent her childhood living in vicarages.

To date, James has made significant improvements at ECS with his ambitious makeover plans, plus he has appointed new staff and repositioned older ones. Parents have been kept up to date with his newsletter and are so far impressed. ‘I think he has exactly the right attitude for ECS,’ one told us; ‘a breath of fresh air,’ said another. One added that he 'is dynamic, accessible, enthusiastic and ambitious for the school with a passion for nurturing the best in all his pupils and ensuring that they understand that success is not just based on grades but being a good person too.’


Taster days with informal assessment, plus interview with headmaster. Voice trials for choristers (boys and girls). All special needs considered, although the school only supports mild needs currently. Children will only be turned away if their behaviour is not up to scratch on taster day (most are given a second chance). If a child doesn't fully meet academic standards, school may offer places as long as a learning support plan is agreed. Choristers must be above the baseline academically. Choristerships worth 25 per cent off tuition fee; there are currently 36 choristers at the school.

As well as taster days there are ‘Come and be a chorister for a day’ and ‘Taste of boarding’ sleepovers for prospective and current pupils alike. The entrance process and settling in is seamless. The school has a tea party for all new children and their teachers in Hall House just before term starts. Parents said, ‘We were impressed with the staff, and the general warmth of the place.’ Several told us that they chose ECS as it was the most natural step on from a small village primary school so suited their children best. Another parent told us, ‘It was very much what the school could offer them, rather than whether the [children] would assist their results. Very refreshing compared to some of the other schools!’


Majority stay on to 13. In 2016, all year 8s gained places at their first choice school, some with scholarships, several with multiple offers. The head has recently appointed a head of scholarships, to guide pupils and parents through the process. Destinations include Sherborne, King Taunton, Taunton School, Exeter school, Maynard, Torquay Boys Grammar and Blundells, among others.

Former pupils include 14th century theologian Boniface; more recently, bass player Orlando le Fleming; Chris Martin – lead singer of Coldplay (who apparently once said, ‘ECS is where it all began’); Hampshire CCC manager, Giles White and Dave Webb, ENO.

Our view

Founded in the 12th century as a choir school, ECS is one of 35 choral schools in the UK, and the only independent boarding school in Exeter. As one parent put it, ‘ECS is a rare kind of school,’ and we agree. The Chantry , the prep school, and Hall House, the pre-prep, are on either side of the magnificent Exeter cathedral; an impressive backdrop to learning by anyone’s standards. Although the multiple sites mean there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, it also means that the school feels very much part of the city. In fact one of the opening clips on the local news shows a line of happy children in royal blue tartans and sunny sweatshirts snaking across Cathedral Green.

Hall House is a former canonry and houses reception up to year 2. Securely enclosed by ancient Roman walls (and keypads), it is welcoming, bright and playful. A new ‘spongey’ all-weather playground separates the main building from the nursery, which was purpose-built in 2015. This is a fantastic area, free-flowing from inside to out. From the cosy keyworker areas and rooms, little ones (all in uniform) can play under awning in an area that leads to the shared playground one end, and the Woodland Garden at the other. This is a child’s dream. Centred around a huge hawthorn oak tree, there’s a mud kitchen, a bug hotel and The Hide, their very own shed to bird watch, play games or make dens with pipes, tarps and crates. Beyond this there is a terraced garden with allotments for each class and the gardening club. Worried about noise from the city’s neighbours? Next door is the bishop's garden.

Classes are small, between 11-18 pupils. And the classrooms are imaginatively set up; we saw one with a zoo area, another with a bakery café. The creativity continues into The Bookwormy, the library, that has a car for a bookshelf and bug beanbags. On our visit, pupils were just back from swimming and were settling down in comfy tracksuits, devouring healthy snacks, ready for storytime. The balance feels just right here; ‘there is an expectation for children to do their best and give their all at any task, and there is an academic push, but it is a gentle, perfectly pitched push,’ parents said. ‘My son has only been at ECS for a year but the school has made him more inquisitive and he has learned so much already,' said one. 'Even this morning, at the age of just 4, he was explaining to me why he could hear building work echoing as he walked across Cathedral Green.’

Pupils walk to the Chantry for lunch or to the cathedral for worship. For sport they are minibussed around the city; there never seems to be a dull moment here and it adds to the charm of this inner-city school. School begins with daily morning worship in the vast cathedral chapter house. This includes spiritual readings, hymn practice and a chance to ‘just be’. The Chantry houses the offices, plus years 3 and 4. Other buildings including Evans for years 6, 7, and 8 are dotted around nearby in spaces requiring passcodes. It feels like a maze but it’s not; it’s full of character. Walks between buildings are across pedestrianized walkways, and glimpses of the cathedral, pretty cobbled courtyards, small peaceful gardens and cleverly planned playgrounds areas make it all feel really rather special.

The boarding accommodation is made up of three Georgian houses with 22 boys' beds and 18 girls' beds for 7-13 year olds. Currently there are six full-time boarders, 12 weeklies and a large number of flexi-boarders. All are from the UK, most live within an hours drive, and around half are choristers. Girl and boy choristers sing on alternate evenings so pupils do get downtime, but this adds to the irregularity of the boarding numbers throughout the week. One parent said, ‘The girls are at home there and I know they are happy.’ The large dorms have three bunkbeds each and a piano, or in some cases, a harp. Older pupils can have the privilege of a double room with two single beds. Decent showers and toilets. Efficient laundry system; even flexi-boarders get their own clean laundry basket. There’s a comfortable common room, a TV room, a classroom to do prep, and the Cosy Club in the basement with sofas, DVDs, a games table and a crafts area. The boarders also have three gap students from Australia to keep them company. One parent said, ‘To my eyes, parts of the boarding house could do with a lick of paint!’ and this is true, but the new housemistress is on a mission and is gradually upgrading the whole place. After supper, prep, choir practice and Mrs Jolly’s Hot Choccie Trolley, there’s not much time for activities during the week. At weekends there can be anything from a handful of pupils to 25, and activities include trips to Haven Banks, Dartmoor or beaches. Recently boarders learnt to make sushi and hosted a Spanish tapas evening and an Irish evening.

As you would expect music plays a big part at ECS. One parent told us, 'Her music has gone from strength to strength and she has gone from a child who never stopped singing to a violinist, pianist and a member of Devon County Junior Choir with a place as a cathedral chorister. Yet the music hasn’t taken over and she is developing a real love of hockey and netball.’ Plans are afoot to create a music centre ‘that is befitting of the standard of music that we’re known for,’ says the head. There is planning permission to pull down or extend the current music and drama building to make this happen. The design technology room has also recently been refurbished and the food technology room is equipped with a large and sunny kitchen. Most classrooms now have smart whiteboards or projectors. And there is talk of moving the ICT suite to a more central part of school and converting the current room into a hub, fully equipped with iPads and beanbags.

Mornings are for core lessons with form teacher and afternoons are for specialist lessons and sports. We were told, ‘The English department in particular has exceeded our expectations – my eldest son has studied TS Eliot, Roald Dahl, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Shakespeare, Michael Morpurgo and Michelle Paver in the past three years with compelling lessons and homework that have both stimulated and stretched him.’ Specialists teach science as separate subjects. French, from reception, is very popular. As is the teacher's dog. This is not unusual at ECS; there are several dogs. We met Ted, a rather floppy puppy who was thrilled to have tickles as pupils made their way between lessons. Latin is taught from year 6. The arts are just as impressive; we saw some fantastic (and huge) decorative masks on display in the art studio. Pupils are encouraged to think big and express themselves. For drama, year 4 recently performed Splash, a musical based on Noah’s Ark. And every year 8 performs their leaving review. During a week of camping on Dartmoor, pupils work on sketches, singing and dancing (in-between other activities).

Learning support can cater for mild needs including dyslexia and dyscalculia, at extra cost. Small classes are also very beneficial and a real selling point to many families. Parents told us that ECS 'has offered an exceptional level of carefully selected and special, additional help specifically for my children. We are encouraged on a nearly daily basis with progress.’ Another parent of boys with very different abilities and needs said, ‘We were amazed at how quickly and accurately the teachers understood what made each of our boys tick and used the knowledge to help them both move forward.’ In fact we were told several times over how pupils really do receive ‘an all-round education.’ One parent told us, ‘her love of reading, spelling, maths and sport have all been developed at the school but I have also seen her become a kinder and more considerate child.’ Another parent suggested that a school counsellor would be a welcome addition, but pupils can contact the independent listener who visits the school, if they wish.

The school doesn't have its own sports facilities but makes good use of some of the best facilities in a traditionally sporty city. All-weather surfaces at the main university campus, other facilities at St Luke’s and outside the city at Pinhoe complete the mix. Cricket is played at the county ground whilst judo, squash, swimming, cross-country and athletics are all catered for. Climbing, kayaking, cross-Dartmoor walk and annual expedition add to the excitement. As do the additional inter-house competitions. A new innovation this year was the introduction of U7 festivals for netball, soccer and athletics. As well as some pupils playing county-level hockey and taking part in the National Prep Schools Athletics Championships, one girl was selected as part of the GB sailing team in the Cadet world championships. And another was accepted into the England Pathway Netball Satellite programme. To manage these budding sportsmen and women, and the 60+ fixtures per term, the head is on the hunt for a new director of sport to, quite literally, up their game.

All sports clubs are after school, and all musical activities take place throughout the school day. The library is open to all at breaks and lunchtimes. The librarian reads with all year 3’s to get to know them and their abilities and tastes. She recently ran a library Olympics reading competition that pupils have already asked to happen again. Judo after-school club is currently very popular and other clubs include fencing, ukulele, indoor cricket nets, maths, drama and poetry, bell ringing, tennis and cooking. Equestrian club takes place at weekends. Parents are very happy with the activities on offer, one saiying, ‘After-school clubs cover an incredible variety (and are inexpensive) - but if you're running late for pick-up even after this time, ECS happily keeps them for prep and supper if needed. As working parents this has been perfect and takes the stress out of being stuck in a meeting and unable to contact the school.’ Local trips make the most of the local area with Roman walks and trips to local museums and interests. Years 5, 6 and 7 go to France for a week every two years, year 8 goes camping on Dartmoor, plus there’s a Buckfast Abbey choir camp, and hopefully some sports tours soon.

The only real grumble we heard from a number of parents was that ‘The food is not great,' and ‘the school dinners are very unappetising.’ We have no doubt that the head and his team will be onto this with a fix straight away. This city prep school isn’t perfect but it’s definitely doing it’s best to head that way. It’s full of charm, balances academia and childhood brilliantly, and most importantly, it gives pupils and their parents exactly what they want and need.

Special Education Needs

Children with special needs are considered on and individual basis and accepted at the discretion of the Headmaster. The SENCO coordinates the provision provided by four part-time specialist teachers including: support for children with moderate dyslexia and other mild learning difficulties, and English as a second langurage.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
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

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