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Parents report boys roaring around on scooters in their pyjamas before bedtime rather than gluing themselves to screens. And therein lies the magic of the place. It’s a school where boys can ‘have a childhood,’ say parents. They can build dens or bird boxes, go pond dipping or interpret Notre Dame Cathedral in clay to their hearts’ content. Although school not equipped to deal with serious SEN, superb support in place...

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Since 2011, Duncan Bailey (40s). Educated at Cothill and Eton then Manchester University (French) and Vienna University (German). Bitten by teaching bug during year abroad but harboured ambitions to nurture passion for sport, particularly tennis, and moved into sports management. ‘Fell into teaching’ after being asked to stand in for head of modern languages at Eton, where he spent two years. Prior to taking headship at Cothill, ran Sauveterre, the Cothill Trust’s French outpost, for eight years.

Married to Maria (his ‘secret weapon’ according to parents), lives at heart of school with two daughters. A hands-on couple, the Baileys are in true loco parentis – head says he is ‘a parent above all things’ – taking full responsibility for the four year groups housed in the main school building. Maria ‘does everything,’ from rolling up her sleeves to help with cooking, cleaning, teaching and running the school if required, right down to marching boys back to the salad bar if they don’t have enough veggies on their plates.

Relaxed and approachable, with the chameleonic ability to switch between the persona of favourite uncle and respected leader, and not averse to taking pupils on at table tennis or joining in with an after-hours skateboarding session, head says he ‘likes boys to be happy, expects them to be busy and insists they are polite.’ Parents consider him ‘very dynamic, involved and committed to the school’ and the few that were ‘worried he might be a bit green’ when appointed have climbed firmly back into their boxes.


Recruits about 20 boys with a ‘fairly broad brush’ into year 4, with intakes in both September and April, numbers swelling to between 25 and 30 by end of year. Parents and boys interviewed together (‘we choose the whole family’) to establish fit rather academic ability. Boys assessed rather than tested, in English and maths. Majority at this point from London preps with just a few local boys in the mix. Good number of Forces' children and between 10 and 15 per cent international (Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Thai) although head insists on fluent English as no EAL on offer (‘they have to be able to survive in the boarding environment’).

Oversubscribed from year 5, with head looking for ‘boys who are prepared to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in’ above all else. Drop-out rate of less than one a year. A number join in summer term of year 5 to settle in before real focus on destination schools starts in year 6.


Eton, Radley and Winchester currently most popular. Smaller numbers to Harrow, Marlborough and Wellington, plus Sherborne, Stowe, St Edward's and Malvern. No fall-out to day schools. Huge focus on ‘negotiating’ places with destination schools with evidence of heart and soul going into making sure boys land in the best places. ‘A good handful’ of scholarships most years, most notably in art and music.

Our view

Steadfastly traditional and so discreet you could miss it altogether in its picturesque village setting. No grand buildings or flashy reception. Visitors arrive directly into the heart of the school (the dining room) – giving the first clue to school’s substance over style ethos. Main building is a large country house with later additions nestled in 26 acres of grounds, playing fields and woodland. Sports and leisure facilities include a 15 metre indoor pool, six all-weather tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, a somewhat shabby, albeit well used squash court cum table tennis room and a fleet of shiny BMXs for tearing around the woods. Equally appreciated by pupils is the wealth of retreats where they can spend as much free time as they like indulging creative passions such as woodwork (a real favourite with boys, guided by former police officer known as PC), pottery and art. There’s also a large, modern library and gleaming ICT suite for, amongst other things, Skyping home, although a handwritten letter once a week is compulsory.

No common room, bar a pool room, and no significant evidence of televisions (junior movie nights and major sporting events only are hosted in head’s sitting room) or other passive distractions. Parents report boys roaring around on scooters in their pyjamas before bedtime rather than gluing themselves to screens. And therein lies the magic of the place. Macs and iPads do have a home here but what Cothill really offers is a Swallows and Amazons style education. It’s a school where boys can ‘have a childhood,’ say parents. They can build dens or bird boxes, go pond dipping or interpret Notre Dame Cathedral in clay to their hearts’ content. Parents and boys also firmly supportive of full boarding ethos (two exeats per term), which makes for fun-filled weekends jam packed with activities for all, not just those who live too far away to make a weekly journey home. However, from 2020, years 4 and 5 will have the option of going home from Saturdays to Sunday evenings/Monday mornings. Broad geographical spread, from Scottish Highlands to Norfolk as well as overseas, makes for a collegiate bunch.

Majority of parents from upper echelons, most of whom have gone ‘through the system’, with titles aplenty. Car park generally occupied by ancient mud splattered 4x4s rather than gleaming Maseratis on match days and supporters, who are encouraged and welcomed to visit twice a week, tend to be of the green welly variety, with the odd royal godparent thrown in for good measure. In the words of one mother, ‘definitely not the facelift and white Range Rover crowd.’ That said, head reports increasing numbers of professional, middle class London parents, keen to escape the hothouse London day school scene and allow their boys the space and roundedness offered by a country prep. One such parent reported that without exception the children are just from ‘incredibly nice families who want the very best education.’ Boys confident, smiley and polite and, with shirts untucked and ties askew, the slightest hint of Just William.

Strong artsy feel around the place with examples of boys’ work festooning every spare wall and surface. Music, art and DT highly praised and head’s bet with us that ‘about 70 per cent’ of boys would say their favourite subject was history appeared to be bang on the money. A visit to the history room demonstrated what teaching at Cothill is all about – getting boys out of their seats and experiencing things firsthand. A mini Battle of Trafalgar was laid out across pushed together tables, complete with tablecloth sea and stacks of wide, slim drawers opened to reveal other famous (mostly French) battlefields to enable boys to visualise and act out events. Another recent highlight for history department was the re-enactment of the Dambusters raid on the school field. No wonder it’s top dog, although this kind of thing is apparently all in a day’s work for most departments here, with teachers described as ‘inspiring’ and often ‘quirky – in a good way.’

The star draw though, has to be Sauveterre, Cothill’s unique French chateau outpost near Toulouse where all year 7 boys spend a whole term immersing themselves in French language, culture, food and sunshine. Parents evangelise about the benefits of this, not only where tipping the balance at CE is concerned but in terms of an unforgettable life experience.

Boys ‘loosely set’ from the outset for all subjects with maths more tightly so, but flexible according to exam results. Class sizes between 10 and 15 at the bottom of the school, gradually shrinking to seven or eight from year 7 onwards, consistent with head’s belief that ‘success at common entrance comes from small classes at the top of the school.’ Each subject teacher reports to head on every boy on a weekly basis, resulting in a score out of 10 read out in Friday’s assembly. High running totals at the end of term lead to treats and trips. Although school not equipped to deal with serious SEN, superb support in place for those who need a bit of extra help with a highly experienced, passionate SENCo who spends time with every boy before they join the school.

‘Spectacular’ drama, with frequent plays and shows, including original works written by Cothill teachers. And yes, boys do take on the female roles (‘mainly with enthusiasm,’ they told us). Around 80 per cent of cohort plays a musical instrument and there are bands and choirs galore for them to showcase their talents. Sport every day, with a focus on health, fitness and everyone getting a go at representing the school. Lower teams celebrated as vigorously as superstars – a recent fixture saw the bottom football team allowed to wear the first team strip as a reward for thrashing the opposition in their previous match.

Parents moving ‘overeducated’ children out of London preps shouldn’t be surprised if boys cruise a bit academically initially. Year 4 is all about getting to grips with boarding to set the foundations for future success and happiness. Tidy, basic dorms for about eight boys, adorned with all the usual football paraphanalia, house years 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the main school and year 8s are in Bowlers – a cosy outpost across the games field where, according to parents, boys feel ‘terribly grown up.’ Action-packed weekends mean boys become wistful when they are at home, missing the mix of organised activities – an optional trip out every week and free time on their rollerblades, ripsticks or exploring the woods.

Unsurprisingly, top notch pastoral care with parents reporting that school ‘celebrates high spirits’ and ‘really understands each boy’s potential and how to get him to reach it,’ with more than one parent telling us their son had been ‘turned around.’ Very impressive, albeit informal, daily staff meeting where issues or concerns are raised (from which boys need to be reminded to wear their spectacles to who is struggling with the pressure of scholarship exams) leads to holistic care for every pupil. Boys know they can confide in whomever they wish, whether it’s their tutor or junior matrons (usually gap year girls). Parents report boys returning to school ‘without a backward glance’ – and our guides themselves encapsulated the spirit of the school by telling us that the only kind of boy they could imagine not liking Cothill would be ‘an iPad lover.’

Special Education Needs

Cothill has an exceptional SEN department with two full-time and three part-time staff. Provision is made for boys who have mild to moderate learning problems in English and the school also provides both extension and support classes in maths. Touch typing has been a recent school-wide enhancement and is routinely taught to all boys in year 5 in preparation for their year 6 pre-tests and as an essential skill for life.

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