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What says..

Very much a local (home counties and London) boarding school – nearly all parents live within a two hour drive and matches, plays and concerts are very well supported as a consequence. ‘I love the fact that my children get a great education and also have local friends’, a mother told us. ‘Houses are everything’ at Cranleigh, both academically and pastorally. ‘Returning to your house should be like coming through a family door,’ we were told. Each is almost like a mini-school but they…

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What the school says...

Cranleigh is a leading co-educational weekly boarding and day school set in a stunning rural location in more than 280 acres on the edge of the Surrey Hills.

Cranleigh’s beautiful campus is exceptionally well equipped, with outstanding classroom, studio, performance and sports facilities, including three theatres, twelve rehearsal and performance spaces, competition pitches, equestrian centre, sports centre, gym, golf course, outdoor education centre and swimming pool.

There are strong links between the School and nearby Cranleigh Preparatory School and pupils also join from a wide variety of other prep schools across London and the home counties, creating a lively, House-based community of young people who are drawn together by their inherent love of life and getting involved in everything Cranleigh has to offer.
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What the parents say...

We have educated three children at Cranleigh. We chose the school for our eldest child when we lived in South Buckinghamshire because it ticked more boxes than schools closer to where we then lived. Our two sons thrived there and so our third child- our daughter- naturally wanted to be educated there too and be involved in all of the activities on offer. We moved to West Sussex to be closer and she, like her brothers, greatly enjoys everything about the school. She has developed academically in ways we could not imagine, plays many sports, rides for the school and benefits from fantastic art and music tuition. The school has grown in many ways in the 10 years that we have been involved and I recommend it to everybody.

Commented on 16th Oct 2017

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Curricula

Cambridge Pre-U - an alternative to A levels, with all exams at the end of the two-year course.

Other features

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.

Sports

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

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2014, Mr Martin Reader (40s). Brought up in Orpington and attended St Olave’s Grammar School, which he describes as ‘an academic school that also offered breadth of sport, art and music.’ Thence to University College, Oxford where he read English, played lots of rugby and stayed on for an MPhil (his dissertation was on an ‘anonymous early Scottish poem’). Also has an MBA in school leadership. Harboured early ambition to be a television presenter and has the look – think twinkly but unimpeachable silver fox.

First teaching post and first experience of a boarding school was at St Edward’s Oxford, from there he went to Oundle and then to Reigate Grammar where he was senior deputy head before taking up headship of Wellington School in Somerset, where he spent eight years. Loves the boarding ethos, ‘Boarding gives us time to develop deeper trust and partnership. Nothing is more rewarding than having time to talk to children.’

He describes his headship as ‘coming home’ and says he has found Cranleigh parents to be ‘very grounded.’ They in turn describe Mr Reader as ‘a very good fit’, ‘approachable’, ‘diplomatic’ and ‘visionary’. Changes he’s made have been generally well received: lessons are now 50 minutes instead of 35 (‘gives pupils more time to think and encourages problem solving’, he says) and there’s a drive to get pupils going with independent learning skills from the prep school up. His mission to ‘ensure we are current’ has lead to the appointment of a head of contemporary music to support ‘non-traditional’ musicians. Art provision has had a makeover and the new head of DT is a robotics specialist. What makes Mr R’s heart sink is ‘constant measuring’. He fears ‘the enriching cultural experience’ that lies at the heart of a good education is in danger of being sacrificed on the academic altar. ‘It is possible to do both and be successful,’ he says.

Head feels school needs to ‘burst the Surrey bubble’ and to that end has encouraged the Beyond Cranleigh programme. Pupils help the local community, litter picking, working in local schools and staging joint concerts. He is developing an exchange with a Chinese school and building on longstanding links with a community primary school in Zambia. His wife, Amanda, who is head of careers, is also very involved with this project. The Readers have a son at the prep and a daughter in the senior school.

Outside school Mr Reader enjoys cooking and he also preaches in the local church. He’s a trustee of the Hawk and Owl Trust and hopes to encourage barn owls to nest on campus (maybe he should offer a barn owl bursary…). Favourite book? ‘Crime and Punishment. It’s got everything – violence, love, tragedy, morality.’ No owls, though. When asked to sum up the Cranleigh ethos he says, ‘It’s a competitive school. We love to compete but we play for the shirt, not individual glory.’

Academic matters

One competition school doesn’t enter is the race for exam league table glory – the Cranleigh way is educational breadth rather than narrow academic focus. Nevertheless, the healthy spread of exam grades from A* to Cs and Ds, not to mention a good handful of Oxbridge places every year, confirms that teaching covers the spectrum of ability. In 2018, very creditable 68 per cent A*-A/9-7 at GCSE; at A level it was 42 per cent A*/A (79 per cent A*-B). General feeling is that Mr Reader will tighten academics where necessary. The newly-appointed director of teaching, learning and innovation (who also teaches physics) told us about plans to build up the EPQ and a school-wide drive to embed independent learning and thinking skills.

We sat in on a fourth year art lesson where not everybody was as engaged as they might have been, but it was just before lunch. Fair to say this is not a school where you will find silent concentration behind every classroom door – we got the feeling that while most eyes were on the board, more hearts were outside on the pitch. A level options pretty standard but also include geology and Greek (as two-year AS courses) and, unsurprisingly, PE. English, history and economics are the most popular subjects at A level, followed by maths and sciences. Very small numbers for music and languages - as elsewhere. Pre-U so far only for maths and further maths. Cranleigh also runs its own specially designed EPQ courses with everyone taking perspectives on science or culture and humanity course.

Around 100 pupils with SEN, mostly mild dyslexia etc. Some receive one-to-one tuition (extra cost) but most are supported in class. Parents were keen to tell us how well their very different children have done, ‘Pupils are treated as individuals academically,’ and ‘There are lots of subject clinics and if a child needs some hand-holding they’ll get it.’ One mother said that the teaching at Cranleigh had ‘absolutely been the making’ of her daughter. Longer lesson times took a while to bed in, ‘My children complained at first but they appreciate them now.’

Games, options, the arts

Cranleigh has 31 sports pitches and appears to be outstanding on all of them. This success is all the more impressive considering that the school is half the size of its closest rivals; ‘We have to play big schools to get all our teams matches,’ the deputy head told us. He added, ‘Sport here is about participation, not just about the elite. Everyone is expected to be involved, staff as well as pupils.’ Recent silverware includes National Rugby 7s schoolboy champions, Finegold Cup (riding), U16 girls’ indoor and outdoor hockey champions and Devizes to Westminster (international kayaking challenge) title holders. There will undoubtedly have been more wins since so best see school website for latest. Average of 29 teams playing on match Saturdays which doesn’t leave many to cheer from the sidelines. More than 20 sports are on offer, there’s a nine hole golf course – golf mainly played for relaxation pupils told us, but that doesn’t stop the golf team winning inter-school tournaments – several Astros and a conditioning room. Two physios, a sports doctor and strength and conditioning coaches on hand to tailor individual fitness and nutrition programmes. Equestrian centre has two all-weather arenas and 60 acres of grazing and riding land. Pupils may bring their own ponies; those without learn on the school ponies.

Music and drama are tackled with typical gusto. According to the school’s handy infographic, Cranleigh in Numbers, there are nine plays and 70 concerts (home-grown and visiting talent) a year. The arts certainly aren’t a competition-free zone with keenly fought contests for house dance, singing and drama. Strings and woodwind also compete (separately), as do poets and creative writers. Speech Hall is the largest performance venue, seating up to 500, and there are two smaller studio theatres. When we visited one of these was being very creatively fitted out for a junior production of Treasure Island. The Merriman Music School (named after first headmaster) has a 100 seat auditorium and 14 practice rooms. School bands can practice in the fully soundproofed ‘rock room’. New head of contemporary music adds another, possibly louder, string to school’s bow. ‘Spine-tingling’ congregational singing is more than fully supported by splendid three manual-pipe Mander organ in chapel. Organist in residence gives lunchtime recitals and organ lessons are available. Much participation at all levels, but as elsewhere, small uptake for music and drama A levels.

Plenty of extracurricular options, including visiting speakers and lecture programme for A level students. Timetabling genius ensures CCF and DofE don’t clash. There’s so much going on it’s hard to see how pupils fit everything in; little wonder day pupils stay until 9pm several nights a week. Might it all be too much for some, we asked one mother. She thought not: ‘Yes, it’s full-on but the children are so happy and if they’re happy, they perform better.’

To conclude, Cranleigh is a very sporty school but, as parents and staff were at pains to tell us, it’s not just a sporty school. Message received. Even so, perhaps not the confirmed ball dodger’s first choice.

Boarders

Four boys’ and three girls’ houses (forth due to open in 2019). No flexi boarding, day pupils are fully part of boarding houses and have a cabin desk in boarders’ rooms – it’s their ‘centre of gravity’ within the school where they do prep, get changed for sport, make toast and drinks and take part in house activities. Day pupils can sleep over occasionally if activities such as school plays or trips finish very late and ‘we will always scoop up in an emergency.’ All do prep in their rooms ‘with doors open and prefects in corridors.’ ‘We expect proper, disciplined work,’ said housemaster. Tutors are on hand to inspect and any slackers can expect a short sharp spell at one of the ‘naughty boy desks’.

Boys’ houses are, inevitably, older and, though clean and bright, looked pretty worn out. Grubby polystyrene ceiling tiles rarely enhance a room and walls looked as though they’d been crashed into by generations of schoolboys – probably because they have. Common areas very lived in; walls decorated with team photos and vintage style black and white shots of heroes: Mohammed Ali, Steve McQueen, James Dean. Dorms of up to four for first years, single study bedrooms for sixth formers. Very few personal touches (artistic arrangements of massive shoes don’t count), but that’s boys’ boarding for you. Sixth formers’ single study bedrooms looked better – more in the way of photos and posters. Matron’s room is the focal point on the ground floor from where she keeps an eye on comings and goings. Nice big garden for kickabouts and barbecues. All upper sixth formers are prefects - ‘they’re positive role models’ - and year groups are mixed (not segregated by corridor). The housemaster stressed how ‘integrated’ the year groups were and how seriously his sixth form prefects took their house responsibilities. ‘We have a beer and a chat with the prefects, they’re quick to notice if things are getting a bit scratchy.’

All in all one feels that the concept of gender fluidity has yet to find a foothold in Surrey. Girls’ houses are modern, done out in pinks and purples and considerably better provided for on the soft furnishing front. Perhaps they could loan a few beanbags or pom-poms to the boys? Matron (‘She knows everything,’ our guides said) resides in a room just like a family kitchen, with sofas, throws and lots of photos. Girls can make drinks and snacks and talk over the day’s events in comfort. Study bedrooms (most are doubles, some ensuite) are tidy and colourful, bedecked with bunting and fairy lights. Girls are ‘affiliated’ to boys’ houses – ‘it fosters co-ed spirit’, we were told – and join them for activities such as plays, music and themed socials (wine and cheese, jazz).

Staff reassured us that houses are competitive ‘but not tribal’ and that the school works very hard to mix pupils up, especially important when so many come from the prep across the road.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1865 by George Cubitt, MP for West Surrey, and Rev John Sapte, who decided that what Victorian Surrey needed was ‘a public school for the education of the middle classes.’ The school was to ‘provide a sound and plain education … for the sons of farmers and others engaged in commercial pursuits.’ The Surrey County School, funded by public appeals, was built on eight acres at the top of a hill just outside the village of Cranleigh. As the school grew to its present 280 acres, neighbouring farms were gradually acquired, remembered only in names such as The Butts (a sixth form café). If the original red-brick buildings embody the school’s founding ideals, ‘sound and plain’, their elevated position at the top of a short avenue lends a certain aspirational grandeur. Most recent addition, the Emms Centre, houses modern foreign languages, science labs and IT, its double height atrium, flooded with natural light, was being well used by pupils revising for exams when we visited. The new humanities teaching block with dedicated business and careers centre is definitely not last in line.

Transition to co-ed, which started in the 1970s, was finally realised in 1999, but numerical equality of boys and girls is not on the cards. A ratio of 60:40 in favour of the chaps is the desired aim and the fourth girls’ boarding house should help achieve it. No plans for significant increase in pupil numbers and parents certainly think school is ‘just the right size’.

Parents told us they felt Cranleigh’s reputation as a school that was just good for sport was always unfair and has, finally, been laid to rest. ‘The school itself hasn’t changed but the mindset of some people has’, one told us. In our last review we noted that Cranleigh had become ‘fashionable’. The school is undoubtedly still fashionable but its enduring popularity owes more to highly satisfied pupils and parents than any transient modishness. A ‘sister’ school, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, was opened in 2014.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

‘Houses are everything’ at Cranleigh, both academically and pastorally. ‘Returning to your house should be like coming through a family door,’ we were told. Each is almost like a mini-school but they ‘aren’t empires’ and are run on consistent lines. Houseparents have a detailed overview of every aspect of a pupil’s school career and tutors, teachers and prefects form ‘layers’ to catch problems. The parents we spoke to were very positive about all aspects of pastoral care, several commented on how well the school had dealt with ‘difficult’ teenage moments. ‘They’re so supportive, whatever the problem,’ said one parent. Another told us, ‘they expect the pupils to be independent but they know exactly when to step in.’ Tutors are very quick to pick up on and let parents know about missed homework deadlines – whether the child is a boarder or day pupil, ‘they want to work with parents’.

Pupils told us that their opinions were listened to although the democratic triumphs we heard about were small and mainly food based: Weetabix is now served every morning, spaghetti hoops are on the Wednesday menu and pepper is back on the tables (we couldn’t find out why it disappeared). More significantly, after some wrangling, a termly teaching feedback survey will be implemented. ‘It will improve communication’, our guides said. Teachers weren’t available for comment.

We heard several observations to the effect that expectations were higher for girls and that it was possibly bit easier being a boy at Cranleigh. These weren’t criticisms, consensus is that school is right to make allowances for chaps’ ‘rough and tumble’, although the interior décor of their boarding houses might disagree. Relationships between pupils are ‘few’ but ‘managed extremely well’; the rules are crystal clear and it’s not the Cranleigh way to break them – apparently ‘you just wouldn’t do that.’

Pupils and parents

Very much a local (home counties and London) boarding school – nearly all parents live within a two hour drive and matches, plays and concerts are very well supported as a consequence. ‘I love the fact that my children get a great education and also have local friends’, a mother told us. While school didn’t seem to us as high end as its popular reputation suggests, a quick count of the Range Rovers doing Sunday night drop off will give you the superficial demographic. That ‘Surrey bubble’ may be in Mr Reader’s sights but perhaps he’s going to need a bigger pin.

Pupils are relaxed, confident and friendly, ‘not overly sophisticated’, said one mother, approvingly. There appears to be some leeway when it comes to hair and uniform (especially skirts below the knee rule) and many of the boys looked like they’d be much more comfortable in sports gear than suits. Very small number of international students, mainly from Russia and Poland. Former pupils include numbers of successful sportspeople, fair few military types plus Patrick Marber (actor, director, screenwriter); actors Julia Ormond, Laurence Naismith and Michael Cochrane; historian Andrew Roberts and former editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger.

Entrance

About half come at 13+ from Cranleigh prep. Also Feltonfleet, Aldro, Danes Hill, Godstowe, Amesbury and Windlesham House. Majority of outside 13+ places offered in year 7: applicants are invited for an assessment day with a short test in English and maths and an interview to make ‘an informal assessment of their interests and abilities.’ Conditional offers made on the basis of this and reference from current school. Offer dependent on performance in CE or other assessments. School says it is looking for children who will thrive academically but also those who will make the most of the many opportunities on offer. All schools say this but oversubscribed Cranleigh means it and can afford to be choosy.

A few places are available at 16+ but competition is strong. Candidates should be predicted 9-7 grades at I/GCSE and must sit verbal and non-verbal reasoning papers and submit an essay. Interview and reference also required.

Exit

A few leave post-GCSE, mostly to pursue courses not offered at school. University destinations and courses of those who stay on are as diverse as one might imagine. Lots to Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Durham, Newcastle and York. Handful to Europe and North America. Six to Oxbridge in 2018.

Money matters

Fees broadly in line with similar schools. Day fees towards the upper end of the scale but you are paying for six long days a week. Variety of scholarships on offer (music, sports, all-rounder) and these can be supplemented by means-tested bursaries.

Our view

Cranleigh’s motto, ‘Ex cultu robur’ (From culture comes strength), is a potent and timely reminder that education is about so much more than just exam results. This is a school where the team is defined as much by its fellowship as its success, although it helps that team Cranleigh does win quite a lot of the time. Mr Reader has distilled the famous Cranleigh ethos into five words: wholeness, time, family, love and hope. We think he’s got it about right.

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.

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