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So what makes Cothill stand out? It’s traditional, but never stuffy. Posh, but down to earth. Low profile locally, but well known to the cognoscenti. Proudly full-boarding, but surprisingly flexible. ‘There’s no hierarchy in the school’, a beaming parent told us, ‘and that includes among the staff’. The range of sport on offer is immense. If the main games, rugby, football, hockey and cricket, are not your thing, then perhaps golf, polo or the climbing wall? Tennis is a particular strength...


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What The Good Schools Guide says


Since 2011, Duncan Bailey (40s). A natural leader, Mr Bailey bears a slightly Waugh-esque CV at a time when increasing numbers of independent school heads arrive armed with MBAs in educational management and the like. Educated at Cothill and Eton, he read French at Manchester and German at the University of Vienna. Had planned to become a Jerry McGuire-style sports agent, but ‘fell into teaching’ games and then French at Eton. Was Directeur of Cothill’s Château de Sauveterre for eight years before returning to his Cothill roots as headmaster.

‘This is my school,' Mr Bailey told us, making plain that his own reputation is nailed to the mast of this very special school. Still takes a schoolboy’s pleasure in a hard-fought game of table tennis or a summer evening of pyjama cricket. Candid. Genuine. Speaks from the heart. Is guided in all he does by the simple awareness that ‘they only have one opportunity to be 10-year-old boys’. When we asked if pupil guides might show us around the school, Mr Bailey invited us to select any two boys at random. It is rare, if not unique, for a head to have such confidence and pride in each and every one of his pupils.

Wife Maria, originally from Austria, is head of boarding, pastoral matters and TLC. 'Home' for couple and their two teenage daughters is in France.


Academically quite broad; socially quite narrow. It has recently begun offering custom-made bursaries from year 5 for 'talented, deserving' boys. In exceptional circumstances, year 4 bursaries are available. A 20 per cent Forces discount comes in handy for many families. Boys typically enter in year 4 or 5, but can join at (almost) any age and, frankly, any term (although the school recommends September or April). All children are assessed via a gentle and informal process ensuring they will thrive at Cothill and enjoy all that is on offer.

Fifty per cent of parents live or work in London, 30 per cent hail from elsewhere in the UK (a good chunk local), 20 per cent from abroad, mainly China, Thailand, Spain, Nigeria and Russia. EAL available for non-native English speakers, but boys still must be fluent before arriving – though even here, the very occasional exception is made.


Seventy per cent to Radley, Harrow, Eton, Sherborne, Winchester and St Edward’s, with a strong scholarship record. Marlborough, Stowe and Oundle also feature. Some grumbles from parents that the school is overly fixated on trad boys' boarding schools at the expense of excellent co-ed options. No one leaves at 11. The school’s superb and phenomenally informative website publishes over seven years of leavers’ destinations.

Our view

Plonked deep in the heart of the British private school heartland: nine other independent schools reside within a 10-minute drive – and that’s without entering nearby Oxford. So what makes Cothill stand out? It’s traditional, but never stuffy. Posh, but down to earth. Low profile locally, but well known to the cognoscenti. Proudly full-boarding, but surprisingly flexible. ‘There’s no hierarchy in the school,’ a beaming parent told us, ‘and that includes among the staff.’

We arrived at break to find ourselves in a sea of tousle-haired mini-Prince-Harrys – mainly British, but with a good mix of international pupils: sparkling-eyed, chatty, polite… a bit muddy. They struck us as unspoilt boys who, we hear, agonise over how best to spend their weekly stipend of £1.10 at the school grub shop and are quick to help one another. Main building is a large country house with later additions nestled in 26 acres of grounds, playing fields and woodland. Cothill Fen conservation area is on the doorstep. Sports and leisure facilities include a 15-metre indoor pool, six all-weather tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, and a somewhat shabby, albeit well used squash-court-cum-table-tennis room. The school’s 150th birthday in 2020 kicks off a campaign to fund a long-coveted new sports hall.

Cothill takes in a slightly wider ability range than some similar schools, but do not mistake this breadth for a lack of academic excellence. Boys are set for maths and English from the start – no pussyfooting around this. A scholarship stream firms up from year seven. Small class sizes throughout. The head takes quite a lot of trouble to hire inspirational teachers who are not too precious to muck in. ‘We’re looking for role models – that’s more important than their qualifications on paper.' Parents gushed to us about the teachers, calling them ‘amazing’ and ‘approachable’.

The recently refurbished science area stands out among mostly standard classrooms. Head of science is reputed to have once been the youngest member of the Magic Circle, and there’s certainly some hands-on, if not sleight of hand, teaching. This includes quite a bit of dissecting: ‘Boys like to bring in things that they’ve shot,’ he explains in passing. Superb computing facilities are on offer, but no hand-held devices allowed except Kindles, no mobile phones, and no social networking. ‘We don’t communicate with the boys by email; we go and find them,’ smiles the head. Boys in the top two years have Chromebooks for school work which they carry from lesson to lesson. SEN support two or three times per week is available for learning difficulties, but also provides maths acceleration for the clever-clogs.

We admired the way excellence is accommodated and nurtured here, even if this sometimes requires bending the school norms. At the time of our visit, two gifted pupil musicians were allowed to miss Saturday school in order to be taught at a London music college. Similarly, the school carves out time for a hotshot tennis player to receive 17 hours of extra-curricular tennis training every week.

Sport runs like a wick through the flame of the Cothill experience. There are games of some kind, at every level, every day. When asked what sort of boy might not be suited to Cothill, Mr Bailey paused before replying, ‘a boy for whom playing sport is a chore’, but he seemed doubtful that such a being truly exists. The range of sport on offer is immense. If the main games, rugby, football, hockey and cricket, are not your thing, then perhaps golf, polo or the climbing wall? Tennis is a particular strength with the LTA supporting provision and five Oxfordshire-area coaches teaching at the school. As well as having its own nine-hole golf course, the school is forging a relationship with a private golf course. Rock-climbing teacher visits every Thursday. Ski team is the current IAPS champion.

Superb after-supper activity programme offers fun, from cooking to canasta. The school now employs a head of outdoor activities (and boasts the slightly cringeworthy strapline ‘HQ for boys’ adventures’). New, flash electronic scoreboard doubles as a screen for outdoor film nights. ‘Tree Tops', an enormous elevated adventure playground, provides fun, especially for the younger ages.

All this outdoors activity does not come at the expense of more refined pursuits. Some 80 per cent of boys learn an instrument, from bagpipes to bassoon, taught by 19 visiting music teachers (early morning practice runs from 7-7.45am). All the main classical instruments are on offer at a high standard, but rock and jazz deserve a special shout out – nice to see them given respect, rehearsal time and performance opportunities. The Rockhill Music Festival – Cothill’s version of Glastonbury – rounds out the summer term. Plenty of art, pottery and DT – all open on weekends. Woodwork still taught by former copper and permanent fixture ‘PC’ (who taught Mr Bailey here back in the day). Boys ‘can make literally anything’ our guides assured us gravely. Junior, middle and senior plays are part of the lesson timetable, so all boys are involved. Two poetry competitions each year.

The star draw though has to be Sauveterre, Cothill’s unique French château 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.


Years 4 and 5 may now go home after games on Saturday and return on Monday morning if they wish. School doesn’t see this as a dilution of the boarding ethos, but rather an expansion: 'We want to make it easier for those full boarding families who aren’t quite ready.' Boarding accommodation for ages 8 to 12 is based in the main school building, with the youngest children under the direct care of Mr and Mrs Bailey and a houseparent. Dorm rooms compete for a coveted weekly tidiness award. Year 8 now reside regally in ‘Bowlers’, a swish outpost across the games field where boys say they develop a bit of independence. Even in this new facility, boys sleep in (roomy) dorms of up to 12 beds. ’Tis the Cothill way! Twenty minutes’ reading time for all each night; reading prefects may read to the younger boys. Homesickness – usually brief if it occurs at all – is dealt with sensitively and boys may phone home whenever they like. Mental health issues are addressed by the school counsellor (unusual to find in a prep school) and Cothill has been able to support boys with a range of challenges.

The last word

Cothill is something of leap of faith and might not suit families keen on the more bureaucratic trappings of 21st-century school life. Health and safety are observed, but not worshipped, and much is accomplished on trust. For those it suits, the school provides a magical five years and a superb underpinning for all future education.

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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