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OBH boys and girls are encouraged (in a phrase grudgingly authorised by some inspectors) to make their own ‘dynamic risk assessments’ and gauge things for themselves. Predictably, a lifebelt at the edge of the pond does not look like it has been used for years. The science complex is a highlight as it incorporates three laboratories. Also worth a look is the DT centre (take note here of the textiled scarves and the model catamarans)...

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What the school says...

OBH has introduced more flexible day pupil collection times recognising the needs of modern families. Whilst committed to full boarding, the school supports boarding children who have commitments outside school and encourages parents to meet with the Headmaster to discuss options on an individual basis.

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2015, Tom O’Sullivan – a man who makes workaholics seem lazy. In two years, he has, through the power of his personality and brio, transformed his school. Educated at Pate’s Grammar School in Cheltenham and Durham University where he read law; people always said that he would become a teacher but, for a while, he resisted, spending an extra year at Durham as JCR president before deciding that a career spent in a quest for silk was not for him. Work began in a variety of roles: as a graduate trainee for WH Smith, for a recruitment firm in Singapore, and in drug education for a pharmaceutical company. He then followed his destiny, taking a PGCE, specialising in science, at Homerton College, Cambridge. Here he discovered in the first 10 seconds of his first lesson that 'the buzz from teaching' was better than anything he had previously experienced in his working life.

Appointments at Beaudesert Park and a deputy-headship at Mowden Hall followed, before he assumed command of Old Buckenham Hall. A flamboyant individual – in many ways a sort of academic circus-master – he has clearly put an immediate stamp on OBH with his dynamism and determination. This has come as a major contrast to his predecessor, who did much for the school but, according to one of the Year 8 pupils, tended 'to tuck himself away in his study'. This head is different and epitomises all that a modern leader needs to be. He describes OBH as 'absolutely brilliant' and that 'it’s lovely when you wake up just wanting to go to work'. Thus far, he has made a series of what he claims are 'little tweaks'. This understates both the scope and significance of his reforms, especially in the recruitment of new staff (now well into double figures) and in his development of boarding.

OBH operates an 11-day model, a scheme that was instituted before the head took over, but has now been honed to include themed weekends such as The Masked Masquerade Ball, featuring chocolate fountains and mocktails, Grillin‘n’Chillin and Secret Mission Sunday. Boarding numbers are up 40 per cent, around 40 children stay in for the weekends and the school is now financially buoyant. The word ‘fun’ dominates many a sentence as the head explains that if his boys and girls are here for 10 years then 'they have got to love it'. And they clearly rate him, senior pupils describing him as 'energetic and funny': he dresses up on themed nights as The Incredible Hulk or Michael Jackson, and runs discos from his jukebox - he admits to a liking for power ballads and American rockers REO Speedwagon……

And then there is his dog, a year-old Great Dane by the name of Scooby; a huge beast of a hound who brought to mind Conan Doyle, Baskervilles and Grimpen Mire. Scooby, though, is softer then cream and is predictably popular with everyone, especially the children, who seemingly at almost any time can pop into the head’s study to pat their pet. The head lives in a flat in the main house, holds Tuesday night suppers for year 8 pupils, teaches science to years 7 and 8, likes refereeing rugby and directed the school play Joseph with a cast list of 190. Claiming not to 'do stress', he then reflects and concludes that it only strikes him 'on the odd day'. Far more than merely a whacky cousin or a spirited uncle, he is, we perceive, well able to crack the whip if required. He will be a terrifyingly hard act to follow.

Entrance

This is essentially non-selective. Taster days are available and children wishing to enter from year 3 onwards are assessed in English, reading and maths. Only if a child is exceptionally academically fragile will an offer of a place not be forthcoming. Bursarial assistance is available for military and clergy children whilst sibling discounts operate for parents with three children at the school.

Exit

Ultimately a major part of any parental verdict will depend on how pupils fare in final examinations. According to the head, 'expectations were not where they needed to be': OBH’s senior schools were in a rather narrow geographical area, comprising schools such as Framlingham College, Oundle and Uppingham. Clearly these still feature, but 2017, 37 leavers have offers 16 different schools, amongst others Winchester, Radley and Benenden. Children have on occasion been offered Harrow and Eton places.

Our view

Deeply embedded in the Suffolk countryside, a few miles from exotically-named villages such as Thorpe Morieux and Bradfield Combust, appears the splendid entrance to OBH. Lodge cottages frame the gates: an avenue of trees flanks the drive on which a pheasant sprints away to safety. The 80-acre estate opens up… Cambridge Blue flags edge the rugby pitches; red flags pin the greens of the golf course. The house, dating back to the mid-19th century, was the home of Sir Edward and Lady Warner until the former’s death in 1955. Entering the building, we were struck not just by the gold lettered honours boards or the oak panelling, but by the fire that, even by mid-morning, had crackled its way through many a log. Sofas are voluminous; pupils bustle by on their way to lessons. A suit of armour stands in the corner.

OBH presents itself as a 24/7 school where, according to the sparkling registrar, 'The children rock around an old family house and are allowed to be children. They aren’t treated as mini-adults.' The range of buildings and the way they have been adapted, in, for example, the old stable complex is impressive and we especially liked the South Lawn with its well-tended pond (large enough to accommodate a platoon of ducks) and a variety of trees that formed Sir Henry’s small arboretum. The children are encouraged to climb them. Whereas many schools would have corralled off this area as some kind of health & safety danger zone, OBH boys and girls are encouraged (in a phrase grudgingly authorised by some inspectors) to make their own ‘dynamic risk assessments’ and gauge things for themselves. Predictably, a lifebelt at the edge of the pond does not look like it has been used for years.

All classrooms, whether in the nursery, pre-prep or in the more senior areas of the main school, are spacious and stylish; not really a verdict that we could pass on the library, which is on the small side. However, the science complex is a highlight as it incorporates three laboratories. Also worth a look are the DT centre (take note here of the textiled scarves and the model catamarans), the performing arts centre and the suite of music practice rooms. The Britten Hall – opened in 2003 and named after one of the more famous alumni of the school – houses not just a selection of classrooms but also a major facility which doubles up as a gym and as a theatre. Assemblies are also held here, which, given the fizziness of the staff, are sure to be more inspiring than the dog-eared and broken-spined selection of hymn books on show.

OBH stresses the significance of outdoor education and runs a modular programme based on acquiring skills, such as ‘how to make silver birch tea and super-glue’ and ‘the knots that you should know’. Then there are the physical challenges which build through each year until year 8 pupils are ready to deal with their 100-length swim and the Gold Survival Expedition. This lasts four days, recent locations being the Welsh Peaks and Northumberland.

Sport, music and drama are central to the school. Main sports are rugby, hockey, cricket and athletics for boys, and hockey, netball, athletics and cricket (increasingly popular) for girls. The spectrum of fixtures is impressive and every child represents OBH around six times each term. And there is so much more … cross-country, golf, clay pigeon shooting. There is a cycle track in the woods. Musical opportunities are, if anything, still more striking. Four choirs, a jazz band, two samba bands and a string orchestra sing and play each week whilst dramatically recent productions include The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Mr Humbug sees The Light.

Learning support is co-ordinated by one of the two deputy heads - who switches more hats than a milliner as she is also director of studies and in charge of scholars - and takes place in the Learning Centre, situated in the heart of the school. LS caters for approximately 50 pupils out of a roll of around 200, including scholars who each follow an individually designed educational plan. Apart from the head of learning support, there are two full-time departmental staff who provide assistance in lessons, small groups and individually. A trio of external specialists are brought in if extra individual tuition is required.

There are exams three times a year and progress-tracking is clearly of a high quality. Class sizes are pegged at a maximum of 18; many are smaller.

There is a real enthusiasm for boarding, created not just by the head’s ambition, but through the fact that, along with a squadron of matrons, six members of staff live on site. The girls' house is characterised by a pinky fluffiness, hairdryers and posters which advise the reader to Keep Calm and Love your Pony. Dormitories, such as Pankhurst and Sharman, are arranged by year group. The boys’ accommodation is similarly configured, although curiously the names of some of the original residents have been retained. Thus, boys could be assigned to Elizabeth, Isobel or Maud. Plans are well advanced to alter these boarding bases and create junior and senior boarding houses. This will no doubt give a boost to the standard of some of the furniture and fittings which, although perfectly adequate, do not quite have the wow factor. Amongst the boarders are around a dozen children from overseas.

Staff are full of praise for the way in which OBH is developing. One recalled driving up on her first day and sensing 'that this is a very special place'. Appreciative of being kept informed via daily staff briefings, they express confidence that the school is sufficiently flexible to attract working parents. The number of staff children in the school gives a further spur to their attachment and involvement.

Children and parents become almost misty-eyed when they assess OBH. The former think that 'it’s all so easy to settle here'. Teachers are 'absolutely amazing' and one boy commented, between mouthfuls of lunchtime crumble, that 'I know everyone' – unlike his previous experience in a Singaporean school where he was one of 3,000. On the debit side, the grass on the football pitch is 'too long' and supper, at 5.50pm, is 'way too early'.

Parents are similarly full of praise, for the overall 'slickness of everything' and for the head who is 'extraordinary with the children'. They are kept superbly informed through a library of literature and the clarion call system which sends out electronic updates; 'the teachers cannot be faulted'. The Friends of OBH give a social appeal, organising bonfire nights, cake sales and lunches for new parents.

So, what could be better? The swimming pool could do with a roof. There could be a new sports hall; but our dominant impression is that OBH is very much on the rise. It makes much of its school colours - Oxbridge stripes of the sort that are found in Jack Wills shops. The head wears hooped socks in the same shades (matching Scooby’s collar). Less is made of the school’s motto Spero - Latin for I Hope. Doctor Johnson had it that 'Hope is perhaps the chief happiness that life affords.' Much of it can be found at OBH – original, brave and, above all, happy.

Special Education Needs

Mostly one-to-one withdrawal principally for pupils with specific learning difficulties. Some small group work also takes place.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers Y
Aspergers Syndrome [archived]
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders [archived]
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Delicate Medical Problems [archived]
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Epilepsy [archived]
Genetic
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
Not Applicable
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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