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Notwithstanding the large number of pupils, the campus feels lively rather than crowded – more like a well-ordered village rather than an institution. The pupils exude purpose – modern, dynamic youngsters with an eye on what’s happening next – but their manners lack that brittleness of some metropolitan children which can set teeth on edge. Football, in the warden’s words, ‘is deep in the DNA of the school’, but he is also convinced that the range of choice is sufficiently embedded that no one sport enjoys a monopoly of prestige...

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What the school says...

Surrounded by ancient forest and only 30 minutes from central London, Forest School is an independent day school located on the edge of Epping Forest. One of the very few diamond structure schools in the country, our 1,300 boys and girls, aged between 4 and 18, are taught in single-sex classes from 7-16 before joining a coeducational Sixth Form. Beyond the classroom, however, they enjoy all the benefits of a coeducational environment - the best of all worlds.

Our pupils are as busy outside the classroom as they are within it - a strong curriculum is supported by an equally strong co-curriculum programme, so our pupils can pursue their interests in music and the sporting field, for example, all while achieving outstanding GCSE and A level results.
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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.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Warden

Since 2016, Marcus Cliff Hodges (50s). An imposing man – looks tough and dynamic – but thoughtful, likeable and very easy to meet. A career schoolmaster in the very best sense of the word: an English degree from Cardiff plus a masters from the Institute of Education then teaching posts in Gstaad, followed by Bedford and the assistant headship at Latymer Upper. Hit the top spot (warden) at Forest after a spell as head of the boys’ senior school and acting warden. No sense at all of his being overawed by the job – ‘it’s actually a very liberating experience’ - and he is evidently devoted to a school he knows and understands intimately. A keen fisherman and mountaineer, he communicates calm dependability. Married with a teenage son (a pupil). ‘Steeped in the place and a great appointment,’ said one parent, adding, ‘he’s quite formal and old-fashioned in some ways. No bad thing.’

Academic matters

A highly efficient and effective feel to the teaching backed up by excellent results. In 2018, at A level, 50 per cent A*/A grades. At GCSE, 77 per cent of all grades were A*-A/9-7. Maths, science, English and history appear particularly strong. Less obvious drive to continue with modern languages - take-up at A level is slight. Masses of (trained) support for those with organisational difficulties and specific learning difficulties. The overall sense is of very capable and determined teachers plus a school packed to the gunnels with bright students and a few very high flyers. ‘It’s a high-achieving school,’ said one parent, ‘but not a hothouse. That’s suited us. I really hope that it stays that way’.

Teaching was judged ‘excellent’ in the latest ISI report and there is no sign of anything less than ongoing commitment. ‘My teachers really mind,’ said one girl, ‘and it makes such a difference to the way we all work’. The warden agrees: ‘There is masses of good practice,’ he says, ‘but the real challenge is to make teaching and learning tailored around each individual pupil. Not to pander to them, but to empower them.’ Forest has made a big play of ‘learning characteristics’ – independence and flexibility being two of them. Teachers use these to check on their charges’ progress.

Professional but pragmatic attitudes to special educational needs: basic screening tests are given to all pupils on entry and parents are told immediately if extra support is needed. A learning support department with four qualified staff lead the drive to help, whether that means specialist lessons to pupils or advising subject teachers how to contribute. There are no pupils on EHC plans, but about 80 currently have IEPs.

The great singularity of Forest is its diamond structure. Between the ages of 4 and 7, the school is fully co-ed. Between 7 and the end of GCSEs, classes are single-sex. Eating, recreation, sport and most other activities all take place together – it’s just that boys and girls learn separately. At sixth form, they revert to co-ed. ‘We haven’t retained it as an historical curiosity,’ says the warden. ‘We believe in it. We think it’s best.’ As it is a one-site school, he has a valid argument that the school falls in the co-ed camp.

Games, options, the arts

Sitting on 50 green acres on the edge of Epping Forest, sporty children are in clover. The facilities are astonishing – a sports centre on site and an Olympic swimming pool. Football, in the warden’s words, ‘is deep in the DNA of the school’, but he believes that no one sport enjoys a monopoly of prestige. ‘Having sufficient alternatives is critical if people aren’t going to feel excluded,’ he insists. The U15 footballers have recently been in the ISFA final, and hockey is making a strong comeback, with three U15 players (two girls and one boy) in the England squad. Girls’ football is also booming and the school tries to cater to all tastes and talents, taking advantage of the Olympic velodrome, West Essex golf club and local rowing clubs. All pupils have to do four games or activity periods per week, right up to their last year. ‘It’s simple,’ said one pupil, ‘they want us to have something to think about as well as our work, otherwise, you can end up fretting.’

Very strong dance (musical theatre, street, ballet and tap) welds into performance. There’s an annual multicultural music and dance spectacular – the so-called FUSION. Every house enters the annual house drama competition and the school theatre stages three major productions each year. The Michaelmas Play draws its cast from the whole school community. Recent productions include Oh What A Lovely War! and Dick Barton - Special Agent! They are rightly proud of old pupil Paapa Essiedu, who graduated from studying theatre studies here to playing Hamlet at Stratford. For the past five years at least one pupil per year has won a place at a musical conservatoire. Clear indications are appearing of the booming significance art, design and technology play in the life of the school and a new head of DT has recently signed up.

Background and atmosphere

Began life as a proprietary grammar school in 1834. Forest’s founders included the Spode industrialist, William Copeland, and the governor of the Bank of England, William Cotton. It grew sufficiently rapidly to have sacrificed some 100 old boys in the Great War but the big growth came in the last century, with girls being admitted in 1981.

The campus feels more like a well-ordered village rather than an institution, despite the number of pupils – modern, dynamic youngsters with an eye on what’s happening next but without the brittle, jarring quality of some metropolitan children. The way in which they wear their uniforms, and interact with their teachers and each other, backs up their positive view of the school. One parent said: ‘All types of pupils and all kinds of achievement are celebrated. The teachers set the example and the older pupils take their lead from them, and it seeps all the way down the school’.

The school communicates a palpable ethos of teamwork and service. D of E and CCF are both massively popular, and being linked to the Royal Green Jackets augurs a commendable degree of toughness. Civic engagement is highly prized: there is a close link to Haven House, a local children’s hospice. ‘We’re not going to solve its funding,’ says the warden, ‘but our ongoing involvement is about more than money’. New initiatives are constantly springing up, most recently with pupils helping run a youth club in Chelmsford for young people with mental health issues.

The vast selection of lunchtime and after-school clubs show that Forest embraces irony as well as all that is wholesome. Warhammer and chess clubs, well-known destinations for some who are less than extrovert or athletic, enjoy prominence, as do those for Manfood and cake decoration. Alongside the medicine, engineering and law societies, those of a less squeamish disposition may enjoy time spent at the dissection society.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Discipline is low key, but the school does not shy away from addressing occasional poor behaviour. ‘We have most of the usual teenage issues to confront but I believe the safeguarding here is outstanding and that the whole ethos of pastoral care is embraced by the staff,’ says the warden.

Forest is, depending on how you look at it, two schools (or even three), albeit on one campus and sharing the same ethos and genus: there’s the pre-prep, the prep and the senior school - the latter divided into lower and middle schools and sixth form. Each has its own head of section who oversees pupils’ academic progress.

Pupils’ own tutors and housemistresses and housemasters look after pastoral care. Houses exercise a big hold on pupil identity as well as holding considerable importance in terms of school competitions (note – not just sport but also including art, dance, drama and MasterChef). There’s also a chaplain (and a very beautiful school chapel) and compulsory year group services each week. It has a very Church of England feel but the susceptibilities of those of other faiths are carefully considered when it comes to hymn selection. ‘I’d actually prefer it to be completely secular,’ said a parent, admitting that was ‘a minority view’.

Pupils and parents

Buses bring in children every day from places as far afield as Epping, Docklands and Highbury, although many pupils make their own way to school using the excellent public transport links. Liaison with parents is taken seriously: in addition to termly written reports and an annual parents’ evening, there is a yearly information evening in September. ‘This way parents become clued-up rapidly about what we see as important over the next 12 months, and it gives them confidence and a good reason to work with us,’ says the warden. Lots of other events as well – the parental conference programme includes talks on revision, drug awareness, IT – but there is no sense that this is a school which would ever allow an ‘in-crowd’ of parents to emerge, and is all the better for it.

Distinguished alumni cover all bases: H Tubb and WJ Cutbill were founding members of the Football Association, and Paralympian equestrian, Liz Stone won gold at Atlanta in 1996, whilst Ella Purnell and Nicola Walker are enjoying successful stage, TV and film careers. Less generally famous perhaps is squadron leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC, a renowned Battle of Britain spitfire pilot. He has credited Forest with giving him the spiritual support, courtesy of his time in chapel, to fight another day in the clouds.

Entrance

Selection for the pre-prep takes the form of a morning of low-key activities for which parents are asked – perhaps more in hope than expectation? - not to coach their children for the 32 places (16 boys and 16 girls). There are further entry points at 7+, at 11+ (the start of the senior school, at which point some 120 pupils are selected from at least 750 applicants) and 16+, where the school might well take in another 20 or 30 pupils, depending on availability.

Exit

Almost all the prep school pupils move into the senior school, unless families are relocating, and the same applies to the GCSE cohort. A few leave at this point, sometimes because of families relocating, and there will be a tiny contingent who decide it’s not for them or who don’t cut the mustard academically for the sixth form. This is a high-octane environment: two were awarded Cambridge places in 2018 and almost all leavers go on to Russell Group universities. Four medics in 2018, but the broad base of subjects studied at university testifies to the school’s academic range and depth. One off to the Royal Northern College of Music and one to study liberal arts at UC Berkeley.

Money matters

There is a range of scholarships and exhibitions, for both academic and musical prowess, as well as bursarial assistance, depending on means.

Our view

A powerhouse with a heart. The school has an immensely purposeful feel to it – no doubt influenced by the warden, but also by skilled and serious-minded teachers and parents.

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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