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Pastoral care is in the bones of this school with clear focus on development of balanced and resilient individuals who have been well equipped for life inside and outside the classroom. One parent told us that Colfe’s is a ‘360˚education’: a balance of academic, pastoral and extra curricular. Vertical tutoring throughout senior school matches sixth form mentors with newbies in year 7. ‘Ahead of most schools on...


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What the school says...

Entrance examination consists of: 11 + Maths & English. Also 16+. Scholarships: 11+ and16+.

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All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

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Since 2005, Richard Russell MA. Admits that teaching wasn’t exactly calling him as a vocation when he started out fresh from Cambridge with a classics degree, but it was the only profession he could think of that would guarantee long summer holidays and thus enable him to indulge his passion for Mediterranean archaeology. He and his wife Alison have since acquired a property in Sicily and his love of classics remains undiminished. We are told that junior Colfeians are both enthralled and delighted when Mr Russell joins their assemblies, gowned and headmasterly, and full of tales of derring–do from ancient times.

He arrived at Colfe’s via prestigious Sevenoaks School in Kent and latterly Forest School, another co-ed independent near Epping. His lilt reflects an upbringing in Belfast rather than Lothian, but here is a head who (to borrow from a certain Miss Jean Brodie) is ‘in his prime’ – experienced, genial and at ease in a school he has nurtured and is proud to champion. He is ‘a force to be reckoned with,’ according to one parent, ‘a father figure of the Colfe’s community,’ to another and, as one parent lamented, ‘I just wish he was running the country.’

School’s response to Covid was nimble and sure-footed with parents unanimous in praise: first-rate online teaching with frequent breaks and lots of attention to wellbeing. ‘We made three years' technical progress in the space of three months,’ smiles the head – and for a school previously accustomed to more traditional teaching ways, he admits things have now changed for the good.

Mr Russell, we are told, ‘says it as it is’ and is keen to distance Colfe’s from some of its celebrated competitors. He has no truck with arrogance or airs of entitlement and school is firmly positioned at the ‘non-snooty’ end of independent spectrum – ‘Parents have made real sacrifices so their children can come to this school,’ he told us, and he means to provide ‘the best possible passport’ to wherever students want to go next. In 2021, for 10 per cent of sixth form that meant heading off to Oxbridge, an impressive upswing on previous years. This catapulted Colfe’s up league tables and silenced some critics but also generated a few parental grumbles about academic pressure (head feels differing views balance each other out). Instrumental and successful in promoting social inclusion through generous scholarship awards, Mr Russell insists school can cater for everyone, including the very bright – ‘Our challenge is to keep upward trajectory without sacrificing culture of a school where everyone feels comfortable and supported.’

Head of junior school since 2016, Catriona Macleod BA MSc. As our interview drew to a close, she was looking forward to joining her charges in the mud at forest school so certainly not afraid of getting her hands dirty. Enthusiastic, kind and also protective she allows for the fact that not all her juniors are destined for Colfe’s Senior. Some move to local state grammars or single sex schools; for others a smaller school is just a better fit and very occasionally a higher level of SEN support is required. Parents say she runs a tight ship and is always accessible. Pupils say she is ‘lovely’ and interested in what they are doing, inside and outside the classroom. One family moved a previously ‘miserable’ daughter into Colfe’s and were delighted at the transformation – ‘The best decision we ever made – a head that cares as much about happiness as academics’.


Most join juniors at 3+ or 4+ via assessment morning. Curiosity, we are told, is key and no toddler hothousing required but places increasingly sought after. Year 3 no longer main point of entry and only occasional spots come up later in school, subject to assessment. Seniors via 11+ exams in maths and English, and take note – no free pass for junior Colfeians, who also get put through their paces. Some parents express dismay at exam obligation and others feel pupils are not ‘prepped’ enough. Interview and reference also required and all part of competitive selection process which has become rite of passage in this part of London. Sixth form applicants are offered places on basis of interview and four 7s at GCSE. Hopefuls also submit a written personal statement and provide two recent school reports, plus reference from current school.


Majority of juniors stay to help make up a ‘new’ year 7 group swelling in size from 50+ to 120. Later between 10-15 per cent move away to local state sixth form colleges/schools and other independents. At 18+ Colfeians embark on a refreshing range of subjects (eg maths, natural sciences and law) at different universities, mainly Russell Group. Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Loughborough, Manchester, Newcastle and Warwick all popular. In 2023, two to Oxbridge, four medics and two overseas – to University of Cork (Ireland) to study music and Plovdiv Medical University (Bulgaria) to study medicine. Seven degree apprenticeships in 2023 – their most yet – to the Met Police, the National Audit Office, Direct Line, JP Morgan, Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays and Jaguar Land Rover. Guidance offered on courses and universities regarded as ‘top class’ and school has dedicated head of careers. As one grateful parent summed up, ‘Colfe’s does seem to really respect what is best for the student.’

Latest results

In 2023, 80 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 57 per cent A*/A at A level (87 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last pre-pandemic results), 52 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 50 per cent A*/A at A level (83 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

Academic curriculum in the junior school runs alongside enormous range of sport, arts, and options including ‘free and brilliant’ clubs.

Classes are small (around 20) and mixed ability. School says there are regular individual progress checks combined with careful monitoring. One boy, promptly identified as struggling in maths, was invited to join booster class – happy mum later noted son’s welcome increase in self-confidence as well as math’s prowess. Teaching called ‘exceptional’ and ‘all about learning through play,’ according to parents. Family with several children at school claimed teachers are ‘amazing’ throughout – ‘approachable, encouraging and respectful’. Homework for juniors remains divisive – parents believing either too much or too little given. School keen to promote love of learning and children encouraged in varied activities with lots of outdoor fun at nearby Forest School. Language learning off to a solid start in year 3 with alternating French and Spanish groups and Latin/classical Greek picked up later in senior school for budding classicists.

No fast streaming of the few here as mixed ability classes continue in seniors, apart from maths which is set in year 7. Standards uniformly high – ‘stretched but supported,’ said parent. Nine or 10 GCSEs is the norm including a language, choice of German, French, Spanish or Latin (ancient Greek offered as ‘extension’). Some parents express concern about ‘constant’ testing and homework load and others embrace what they perceive as improved academic focus, possibly with a keener eye on starry exam results further down the line. Unanimous appreciation for ‘enthusiastic and inspiring’ teachers who engage with students on a personal level and are well liked. Communications are strong and ‘there is a friendly co-operative atmosphere between parents, pupils and teachers,’ confirmed one mum; others spoke favourably of bespoke and individualised approach to learning. Head insists Colfe’s is a home for everyone. One father believed school’s USP was ‘making average kid feel good about themselves and able to achieve’. Another spoke of confidence building and son’s trajectory from failing 11+ exam to achieving top grades and place at leading university – ‘[School] propels less academic to levels they never thought possible’.

Online learning, which may, as one parent asserted, have had a shaky start, then flourished and was impressive. Previously low-tech school has embraced a more versatile and digitally enhanced style of teaching.

EPQ available for sixth formers alongside varied A level offer including psychology, media studies, graphic communication, and design and technology. Photography is a recent addition but note computer science, while available at GCSE, is not continued. Subjects like Latin/Greek still on offer, even with small numbers but maths tops the popularity stakes along with strong show for sciences and business/economics. School also runs additional maths qualifications. Talented and robust participation in arts throughout school not reflected in A level uptake. School says numbers are climbing.

Learning support and SEN

Able to cater for a wide range of mild learning disabilities including dyslexia, dyscalculia and attention difficulties; medical and physical special needs also accommodated. Parents keen to share how ‘wonderful’ and ‘exceptional’ they found SEND support in juniors. One mother said school environment had provided her child with ‘best possible chance of learning and thriving’. A relatively high proportion of students – 24 per cent in senior school;12 per cent in junior school - were identified as having SEND at the time of our review. Over half were diagnosed dyslexics, others had visual/hearing impairments or medical issues. Currently two students with EHCPs have individual support. A couple of parents felt resources in the senior school were ‘stretched’ and compared less favourably with junior school provision.

The arts and extracurricular

Art is incorporated into much of curriculum and junior classrooms are bursting with interesting displays, models and sculptures. Specialist art teacher organises a big end of year exhibition. Musical education starts early with recorder in year 1 and ukulele in year 2. With around 80 per cent taking instrumental lessons, junior school boasts choirs, orchestras, chamber groups, rock band and even specialist brass programme. Creative drama, regular plays and lots of opportunities for performers in musical and dramatic assemblies. Juniors also enjoy house competitions and have collected accolades in national chess and maths challenges.

Lucky seniors go on to choose from even more formidable array of extracurricular pursuits marshalled under enthusiastic and dedicated command of deputy head. Perennial favourites remain maths and chess clubs alongside debating and assorted inter-house competitions, quizzes, concerts and drama. LAMDA classes, stage management and technical theatre skills all on offer; impressive variety and number of productions. Parents comment on the energetic drama department; pupils encouraged to write and produce their own plays. Large and well resourced art department boasts printmaking equipment, a kiln for ceramics and dark room. Music still prominent and ‘exceptionally strong’: up-to-date music rooms and individual soundproof practice studios; swing bands, orchestras, and choirs galore.

School’s Army Air Corps unit thriving as part of CCF, as is DofE, with many progressing to gold award. One parent disliked the military association but others commented on ‘sense of adventure’ and ‘growing self-confidence’ instilled in their city children thriving in the great outdoors.

Year 7s all sent off to Lake District at start of term for team bonding and adventure. ‘It brings resilience and balance for when things don’t go so well,’ felt thoughtful mum. Further afield, international travel also on offer with geography and language trips aplenty – Colfe’s special relationship with school in Gambia sees annual despatch of older students to help with building works and general maintenance. Multitude of school outings enjoyed closer to home with regular theatre jaunts and museum trips.


'The reason we wanted to join Colfe’s,’ said one mum. 'Just amazing facilities,’ said another. 'Exceptional!’ raved one family with several ‘sports-mad’ children at school. On-site facilities include a gym and 25m swimming pool for swimming galas, water polo and lifesaving courses for year 10s. Additional large playing fields at Leathersellers' sports grounds a few minutes away by minibus on Sidcup Road. Boys' and girls' cricket teams compete through the summer and athletes often selected to represent Greenwich in the London School Championships. School claims its ‘sport for all’ policy means there is something for everyone, be it dance or rugby; parents agree, saying there are so many leagues/levels available that everyone can enjoy something, ‘definitely not just for the A team,’ said mum. All sixth formers have timetabled sports but can choose from variety of co-ed activities with emphasis on fun/discovery and co-operation rather than honing competitive edge. Junior school has full access to sports facilities and very youngest encouraged to take the plunge with weekly swimming starting in nursery. Girls’ netball team distinguished themselves as national prep champions.

Ethos and heritage

Look away now if only Hogwarts will do: Colfe’s has no turrets, winding staircases, oak-panelled rooms or listed buildings to boast of. Ironically, for all the uninspired 60s architecture, this school is a pukka establishment dating back to sixteenth century.

Originally set up in 1574, school was re-founded in 1652 by namesake the Rev Abraham Colfe with a mandate to educate ‘the poor boys of Blackheath’. After his death the school was left in trust of the Leathersellers' Company, whose livery members still make up majority of governing body. Additional £1m for increased bursary support recently pledged and head has cultivated robust partnerships with local state primaries and secondaries. Once known as the ‘school on the hill’, its site atop Lewisham Hill was bombed during Second World War and following a temporary sojourn elsewhere Colfe’s eventually alighted on its current home. After a period of girls joining for sixth form it went fully co-ed in 1999.

Utilitarian brick is softened by shrubs and trees and new addition of sixth form centre blends well into existing house style. Purposeful rather than ornamental, architecture feels in sympathy with school’s unpretentious ethos. Juniors enjoy a quiet dedicated corner of the sizeable campus and have fun and colourfully equipped outdoor playground.

Interiors bright, and attractive but the 60s vibe is inescapable: library gloriously retro with mezzanine floor. Former Old Colfeian who attended in 80s and now returns as parent told us, ‘Auditorium hasn’t changed in years.’ Sixth form common room and prefects’ room looked smart to us (NB prefects have own common room as perk of job). Library resource well used with full-time librarian and open until 6pm (for seniors) and during Easter holidays.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Pastoral care is in the bones of this school with clear focus on development of balanced and resilient individuals who have been well equipped for life inside and outside the classroom.
One parent told us that Colfe’s is a ‘360-degree education’: a balance of academic, pastoral and extracurricular. Vertical tutoring throughout senior school matches sixth form mentors with newbies in year 7 and encourages students to look out for and help each other. House system used to foster strong community as well as friendly competition. Communications are fluid and head master’s weekly letter remarked on by several parents as always being a ‘good read’. ‘Ahead of most schools on mental health front’ declares satisfied mum and parents report happy children who are always keen to go to school. ‘My son can be playing football one day and romantic lead in drama production the next – it’s fine here,’ says mum, acutely aware of how inhibiting teenage peer pressure can be. School employs full-time nurse and independent counsellor. Students drawn from multicultural population and supported by school where difference seems celebrated. Director of pastoral care actively facilitated and supported students with formation of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group. Head also admits that, like many independent schools, diversity is an issue when it comes to staffing and says they are working to address the imbalance. Colfe’s duty of care extends beyond any exam curriculum and sixth formers attend a life-skills course learning how to budget, run bank account, and apply for a job.

Pupils and parents

Mainly professional types from Blackheath, Lewisham, Lee and more recently other areas accessible via train links. Most households with two working parents and grateful for ‘fantastic’ wraparound care (7.30am – 6pm) in junior school and late-opening library (until 6pm) in seniors. Liberation from school run comes via popular in-house coach service, including 6pm late coach available from year 3. Newcomers speak of a friendly welcome and numerous Whatsapp groups thrive, especially during Covid. Definite sense of community with school attracting multiple generations of same family. Veritable avalanche of feedback greeted our request for info and revealed thoughtful, savvy parents who had clearly done plenty of homework before alighting on this school amongst myriad on offer. Many spoke of appealing social and ethnic mix drawing together ‘families of bankers, taxi drivers, surgeons and builders’ from a vast swathe of southeast London. A knowing mum admitted, ‘Of course there’s money but it’s definitely not cool to flaunt it at this school’. One parent and businessman ruled out a prestigious competitor for his son because he was so impressed by Colfe’s students: ‘Sixth formers I would want to employ and know would fit in, whatever the situation’. Slight bias in numbers towards the boys (levelling out by sixth form) but relations between both boys and girls ‘respectful’ and ‘healthy’, according to parents. ‘Definitely more friendship than romance in sixth form,’ revealed one mother. ‘Not as cliquey as other schools,’ another thought. Popular old boys’ and girls’ society runs a number of activities and fundraising events, rounded off every year with open invitation to memorial service dedicated to school founder Rev Colfe.

Well known alumni include writer Henry Williamson (Tarka the Otter), spy novelist Eric Ambler, actor Jack Ryder (Eastenders), numerous sports people including Claire Rafferty (England footballer), Susie Rowe (England cricketer) and notable academics, musicians and politicians.

Money matters

At 11+ and 16+ scholarships and means-tested bursaries are available for drama, art, sports, music and academics. Around 20 to 30 per cent of pupils receive some form of fee subsidy.

The last word

A school where focus is on a truly rounded education. Unassuming but not to be underestimated, Colfe’s produces independent, talented, driven young people ready to make their mark. ‘A hidden treasure,’ said one parent; ‘school is a gem’ agreed another – and so do we.

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

The School must be fully informed of any diagnosed learning difficulties at the time of application. Reasonable adjustments may be offered to pupils in entrance assessments, provided that this is on the recommendation of an Educational Psychologist's or other relevant professional’s report. The scripts of pupils with SEN are scrutinised specifically and sympathetically as part of the selection procedure. The School will discuss thoroughly with parents (and their child's medical advisers, if appropriate) the adjustments that can reasonably be made for the child if they become a pupil at the School, to ensure that the prospective pupil is not put at a substantial disadvantage compared to a pupil who is not disadvantaged because of a disability. There may be exceptional circumstances in which we are not able to offer a place for reasons relating to a child’s condition. For example, if, despite reasonable adjustments, we feel that a prospective pupil is not going to be able to access the education offered, or that their health and safety or those of other pupils or staff may be put at risk, we reserve the right to decline a place at the School.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
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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