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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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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 and likeable, and very easy to meet. A career schoolmaster in the very best sense of the word: English degree from Cardiff, plus a masters from the Institute of Education; then teaching posts in Gstaad (for a year), followed by Bedford and Latymer Upper, where he became assistant head. Moved in 2005 to be head of the boys’ senior school at Forest and in June 2016 was made acting warden before officially taking the top spot in December. No sense at all of being overawed by the job – ‘it’s actually a very liberating experience’ – he is evidently devoted to a school he knows and understands intimately. A keen fisherman and mountaineer, he communicates calm dependability. Married with a 15 year old 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.’

Head of prep school since September 2017 is James Sanderson (50). Friendly, direct, focused. Previously the deputy head of co-curricular at the senior school, and with 17 years at Forest already under his belt. Australian, a professional opera singer by background, he keeps a scholarly interest in early 18th century Italian vocal music. In addition to having been Forest’s director of music at one stage, he has also taught languages and maths. Given his prominence within the school’s hierarchy, and the close links between the prep and senior schools - ‘we respect each other’s autonomy and drive towards coherence’ – hopes of a smooth transition are high. Keen on developing creative links between classroom learning and extracurricular life for children between the ages of 7 and 11, and muses of building up numbers at the pre-prep stage. ‘We hate disappointing good applicants,’ he says, ‘but any expansion needs a huge amount of careful forethought.’

Academic matters

A highly efficient and effective feel to the teaching, and all backed up by excellent results. In 2017, 71 per cent of all A level grades were A*, A or B, and 43 per cent were awarded A*/A. At GCSE, 69 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, where the A level take-up is slight, but there is no glaring gender divide in subject take-up, nor in achievement. Masses of (trained) support for those with organisational difficulties and specific learning difficulties. The overall sense is of very capable and determined teachers and pupils – and of a school packed to the gunnels with bright pupils, 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.’

At the most recent ISI report (true, back in 2011), teaching was judged ‘excellent’ 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 are two of them. These are taken extremely seriously (not least by him) and are used as a constant reference point, particularly to help teachers reflect on the progress of those under their care.

Professional but pragmatic attitudes to special educational needs: basic screening tests are given to all pupils on entry and parents are at once told if extra support is needed. There is a learning support department with four qualified staff. The drive is to give support, whether that means specialist lessons to pupils or advising subject teachers how they can best help. There are no statemented pupils, but about 80 presently have IEPs.

The great singularity of Forest is its diamond structure. Between the ages of 4 and 7, the school is fully co-educational. 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-education. ‘We haven’t retained it as an historical curiosity,’ says the warden. ‘We believe in it. We think it’s best.’ And since Forest is a one-site school, he has good reason to claim the school is properly co-educational.

Games, options, the arts

Sitting, as it does, on 50 green acres on the edge of Epping Forest, the school has great opportunities to allow its pupils to immerse themselves in sport. The facilities are astonishing – with 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 is also convinced that the range of choice is sufficiently embedded 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 under 15 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 for the age group. Girls’ football is also booming and the school tries to cater to all tastes and talents, using the Olympic velodrome, West Essex golf club, local rowing clubs – the list is endless. 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. With 14 houses each doing an annual production in the annual house drama competition, and with at least three big school productions every year, the school theatre is well used. The Michaelmas Play draws its cast from the whole school community. Recent productions include Oh What A Lovely War!, Nicholas Nickleby, Kes and Dick Barton - Special Agent! Paapa Essiedu, the Ghanian-born actor who played Hamlet in 2015 at Stratford, is an old pupil – and did theatre studies A level while here. A new head of DT has recently been appointed, and there are already clear indications of the booming significance art, design and technology play in the life of the school. For the past five years at least one pupil per year has won a place at a musical conservatoire.

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.

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. The way in which they wear their uniforms, and interact with their teachers and each other, corroborate the nice things they have to say about their school. In the words of a parent: ‘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. The Duke of Edinburgh Award and CCF both recruit pupils in their hundreds. The school’s contingent is linked to the Royal Green Jackets - which augurs a commendable degree of toughness. Civic engagement is highly prized: there is a close link to Haven House, a local children’s hospice which costs £7,000 per day to function, and the school has sought to raise £7,000 per term on its behalf. ‘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.

There are also agreeable indications, in the vast selection of lunchtime and after-school clubs, 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,’ says the warden, but he is also clear that sometimes the hardest situations have only a peripheral relationship to discipline. ’I believe the safeguarding here is outstanding,’ he says, ‘and that the whole ethos of pastoral care here is embraced by the staff.’

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 prep – which also contains a pre-prep and admits children from the age of 4; and the senior school, which children enter in year 7 and stay, in the usual way, until year 13. The latter is divided into a lower school for children of years 7 and 8, a middle school between years 9 and 11, and the sixth form. Each has its own head of section who oversees pupils’ progress. In addition, there are housemistresses and housemasters with oversight on the pastoral care of individual pupils, supported by pupils’ own tutors.

Houses exercise a big hold on pupil identity as well as holding considerable importance in terms of school competitions (note – these are about very much more than sport, and include art, dance, drama and MasterChef). There’s also a chaplain (and a very beautiful school chapel) and year group services each week which all pupils are required to attend. It’s has a very Church of England feel, but the choice of hymns is reputedly calculated to avoid offending the susceptibilities of those of other faiths. ‘I’d actually prefer it to be completely secular,’ said a parent, admitting that was ‘a minority view’.

Pupils and parents

Eight buses carry some 240 pupils to and from school 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. Much thought and hard work also goes into liaison with parents. In addition to termly written reports and an annual parents’ evening for each year group to discuss their children’s progress with teachers, there is an additional yearly information evening for parents. These are packed into September. ‘We want clarity and confidence,’ says the warden. ‘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.’ Lots of other events as well – the parental conference programme includes events on revision, drug awareness, IT and so forth. Links seem friendly but businesslike. 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 abound: H Tubb and WJ Cutbill were founding members of the Football Association; Nasser Hussain and James Foster became England cricketers; Paralympic equestrian competitor Liz Stone won gold at Atlanta in 1996. Surgeon commander EL Atkinson was the man who located Scott’s final camp on the ill-fated polar expedition. Leading the way in the arts and engineering are Ruth Buscombe and Chantelle Sampat at Sauber F1 and Toro Rosso respectively, 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

Oversubscribed, of course, like so many schools in Greater London. 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. At this stage there are about 150 applicants for 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 will be 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 is true of the GCSE cohort. A few leave at this point (a quarter in 2017), sometimes because families are moving, and there will be a tiny contingent who decide it’s not for them or who don’t cut the mustard academically and get the necessary grades for sixth form. This is a high-octane environment: five pupils were awarded Oxbridge places in 2017 and almost all leavers go on to Russell Group universities. Seven medics, three vets and one dentist in 2017, but the broad base of subjects studied at university testifies to the school’s academic range and depth. One off to study fashion design in New York and one to Amsterdam to study politics, psychology, law and economics.

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 power-house 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.

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