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St Hugh’s is without doubt the tidiest school we’ve ever visited and it’s not just the buildings and grounds that are polished and groomed, the teachers too were quite remarkably elegant – not a baggy cardigan or tatty sandal in sight. Mothers walk their dogs in the grounds after morning drop off. Indeed dogs are a bit of a feature: they kept trotting by or popping out from under tables during our visit – all glossy coated and impeccably behaved, of course. So, what’s the demographic? Put on your deerstalker and consider these clues…

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What the school says...

At St Hugh's we are committed to children's broader personal development as well as their preparation for scholarship and common entrance examinations to senior independent schools. We are a leading co-educational, day and boarding school with 349 boys and girls from the ages of 3 to 13, sited in and around a Jacobean manor house with extensive, wooded grounds and excellent, modern educational facilities. St Hugh's is a very special place and we warmly invite you to come and see why. ...Read more

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Equestrian centre or equestrian team - school has own equestrian centre or an equestrian team.


What The Good Schools Guide says


Since September 2019, James Thompson BA QTS, previously head of Royal Russell Junior School. Previously at Ardingly College Prep School and before that at Kingswood Prep in Bath. Dream was to be a professional sportsman, but opted for teacher training (with PE specialisation) after coaching at own prep in Kent and loving it. If he needs a second opinion, family is riddled with teachers, while Viv, his wife, was head of a Notting Hill nursery school. Two daughters no doubt also provide feedback as required.

Mr Thompson remains big on sport (cricket, hockey, golf, skiing), even writing anon column on umpiring for The Telegraph (if you need an insider’s slant on the shoulder height rule in lacrosse, he’s your man). He’s ‘very kind, prefers being in PE kit, hates suits and wears pink trousers and odd socks,’ say current pupils.


Non-selective, non-competitive, it’s first come, first served. Prospective pupils spend a day; those entering year 3 or above have assessments in English and maths. Main entry is into reception (up to 26 places), year 3 (up to six places), year 5 (up to eight places). Nursery takes up to 25 a year.


To schools all over home counties. Most popular destinations: Abingdon, Cheltenham College, St Mary’s Calne, Eton, Marlborough and St Edward’s, many with scholarships.

Over 95 per cent of girls stay on until age 13; apparently this is very popular with parents – perhaps because their girls stay children for that little bit longer.

Our view

We arrived on a perfect English summer’s day and Carswell Manor, which looks like a bijou country house hotel, seemed to glow with the golden warmth of Cotswold stone. On closer inspection much of façade is pebbledashed but somehow still pretty classy. The Manor was once home to the Niven family and it seems fitting that David Niven, the quintessential English gentleman, was born here – the old place even gets a mention in his autobiography. St Hugh’s is without doubt the tidiest school we’ve ever visited and it’s not just the buildings and grounds that are polished and groomed: the teachers too were quite remarkably elegant – not a baggy cardigan or tatty sandal in sight.

Founded 1906 in Chislehurst with three pupils and co-ed since 1977, St Hugh’s is now very much a family school – nursery was established in response to parent demand and the minute it opened was ‘immediately full with younger siblings’. Mothers walk their dogs in the grounds after morning drop-off. Indeed dogs are a bit of a feature: they kept trotting by or popping out from under tables during our visit – all glossy coated and impeccably behaved, of course. Though we saw no ponies we hear that they also loom large here – jodhpurs (very much not pyjamas) are what the busy St Hugh’s mother wears first thing in the morning.

Small classes (average 13), spacious modern facilities and glorious surroundings are enough to inspire any child to reach their full potential, and while not all will be scholars and high flyers, everyone is encouraged to find their talent. Much is expected of these children and sometimes the head’s role is to manage expectations; by their second or third child old hands know they can relax and put their trust in the school. Parents we spoke to felt that the advice about senior schools was excellent and absolutely right for their child; the broad spectrum of schools St Hugh’s sends to bears this out.

Maths and English set from year 3, French from year 6; rest of subjects taught in mixed-ability groups but this can and does vary from year to year according to cohort. French and Latin for all, optional extracurricular Spanish and Mandarin. Greek for scholars. Middle school pupils (years 3 and 4) have their own teaching block and activities such as drama, choir, sports day etc – a nice way to let the youngest take centre stage. Low turnover of staff apart from gappies (usually old boys and girls) who stay for a year. In lessons we observed pupils were quiet, engaged, working hard individually and in pairs. Small class sizes mean teacher can tailor tasks according to ability; they also make it hard to mess around at the back (not that there seemed to be any such tendency). Parents describe SEN support as ‘brilliant’; the head of the service told us that the aim is for it to be ‘flexible and fluid’, to give pupils a boost when needed and then ‘launch them back, even if they need to be picked up again later.’ Support is either individual or in booster groups and is not charged as an extra. Pastoral care also came in for high praise – merest whiff of bullying is dealt with at lightning speed.

A school tradition and one of the highlights of year 8 is a week’s post-exam adventure trip to Wales, with the children given their CE results over fish and chips on the beach. Once back in Oxfordshire as part of an extensive leavers’ programme, pupils are initiated into important life skills such as how to tie a bow tie, polish shoes and iron shirts; they also create and stage a fashion show for a local children’s charity.

Excellent sporting facilities both inside and out (including new swimming pool complex and dance studio) host sport for all, every day. All main ones plus squash, basketball, tennis and introduction to lacrosse. School confirms that every child gets to represent the school in matches. Notable recent success in riding, tennis (and real tennis) and cross-country. Large number of sports scholarships awarded to St Hugh’s pupils every year. Music and drama are also inclusive with enough plays, choirs, bands and ensembles to accommodate the full range of abilities and a new music block. Outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream staged around atmospheric ivy-clad ‘temple’ in the grounds. St Hugh’s seems to produce thinkers and listeners (as opposed to shouters) and recognition for this comes in the form of a clutch of top awards for debating and public speaking. Art and DT thriving in their new building – art room boasts a large walk-in kiln, ready to receive the most ambitious ceramic creations and electric windows that can be controlled to provide optimum natural light conditions.

Pre-prep is housed in the old stable block with classrooms round a flexible central space that can be divided up and used for small group work. Rooms are carefully decorated with colourful posters and children’s work and, as in the main school, the atmosphere seemed to be one of gently restrained exuberance. Or so we thought until we came across a monsieur from the big school delighting the pre-prep pupils with his all-singing and dancing weekly French lesson. Literacy taught via Read Write Inc phonics programme and for this children are grouped by their stage of development, not age. Official forest school: pupils from nursery to year 6 get to do lots of messy learning in the woods (last two years have bushcraft). As one member of staff remarked, ‘Some children come to life outside.’ Parents promised us that pupils really are allowed to get muddy. Sensible uniform.

Day pupils can stay until 7.30pm for prep and supper (no extra charge) and about a third do. No Saturday school. Wednesday evenings are reserved for ‘fun’ things and there’s no prep. Parents pre-select home time but emergencies and late changes accommodated.

Youngest (age 3 upwards) start in The Cottage nursery, a charming house that originally belonged to the groundsman (he is happily accommodated elsewhere). On our visit we saw determined excavation in the large sandpit that is, fortunately, six feet deep. Children sign in for their sessions on the interactive whiteboard and there is an ICT suite upstairs along with a rest room for pupils who still need a nap. Same phonics programme as pre-prep used to introduce letter sounds etc. Specialist teaching for music, dance, ICT. Introduction to French is via croissants and chocolat chaud.

So, what’s the demographic? Put on your deerstalker and consider these clues: nearly all the pupils are children of privately educated parents; a school bus scheme was discontinued after a couple of terms because no one used it (private lift-sharing arrangements more popular); mussels are a favourite on the scrumptious lunch menu. So far, so county, but though the social profile be small, parents say it’s neither snobbish nor exclusive and the children we met were down to earth, funny, normal kids.


Flexi and weekly boarding – parents pre-select boarding options at the start of term. Those wanting a full week get priority, those who want a couple of days are most likely to get them if they are consecutive. As a rule can’t do sleepover style occasional boarding but will work something out in an emergency. Boarding is very often ‘children driven’, it’s the parents who need persuading. Comfortable, characterful dorms up in the eaves (the boarding house has recently been refurbished), all very civilised – common room with original John Piper on wall (sigh). Matrons inspect every morning to ensure that boarders live up to the St Hugh’s standard of tidiness.

Money matters

Termly bill low on the dreaded ‘extras’. Fees include all trips (including trips abroad) and SEN support. Means-tested bursaries of up to full fees available.

The last word

St Hugh’s is seemingly a school with nothing to prove. It doesn’t advertise and prospective parents are not bombarded with glossy anythings. For a flavour of the place, ask to see a copy of the beautifully produced half-termly magazine, St Hugh’s News. Such understatement, coupled with fees that are higher than local average (but are all-inclusive and considered ‘good value’ by the parents we spoke to), might seem counterintuitive in an area that is not under-served with preps, but St Hugh’s is always full, courtesy of the low-tech marketing marvel money can’t buy: word of mouth. Happy parents, happy children, happy dogs – what could be better?

Special Education Needs

At St Hugh's, children of all ages receive extra support if any area of their learning is of concern. We have small classes throughout the school which means that all children's needs can be supported and catered for, whether they are gifted and need extension, or need extra support to enable them to cope with the curriculum. The Prep-Prep department has a qualified learning support assistant who can give extra help to individuals or small groups of children. As they move through the school, specific concerns are first dealt with in the small teaching groups, with advice from the Learning Support staff, who later withdraw children from class for one to one lessons. As shown below, we support a wide range of mild and moderate learning difficulties, including dysgraphia. 09-09

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