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It would be disingenuous to suggest Frensham is anything other than selective, but they are more interested in you fitting in with the school’s broad-minded ethos than helping them soar to league-table-topping prominence. Arguably, the most impressively led art department in the country, offering oodles of GCSEs and A levels (eight in total). Art school vibe – and it looks like one too, with the students relishing every inch. No uniform and teachers called by first names. Reasonable expectations and modelling of good behaviour substitute rules, all accompanied by heaps of personal responsibility. Even extends to...

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What the school says...

Frensham Heights is a highly distinctive school in a world of educational conformity. From a strong foundation of mutual respect and tolerance and through a dynamic modern curriculum, we build on each child’s innate strengths to ready them for life as courageous independent thinkers, problem solvers and socially conscious change makers who are committed to making the world a better place. ...Read more

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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

Head

Since January 2019, Rick Clarke BA PGCE (40s). Previously deputy head at Warminster School. Born and raised in South Africa, his career choice must have delighted his parents (father was a teacher and mother was an ed psych; he did his degree in English and psychology at the University of Natal then PGCE). Worked his way up the ranks in South African schools to head of English at St John’s College in Johannesburg before heading to the UK where he became a protégé of the transformational head Sir Anthony Seldon when he was head of English at Brighton College and housemaster at Wellington College. But parents (and there were some) who worried he was going to Wellington-ise Frensham need not have fretted. ‘He’s just the breath of fresh air we needed – pulling the school back from becoming just a bit too laissez faire, while still hanging onto its core values,’ summed up one.

Understated, softly spoken, considered and, as one parent put it, ‘possibly a teensy bit shy’. An intimidating head this is most definitely not. But that’s the whole point. ‘I’ve always valued relationships above all else in the classroom – I’m not autocratic and I’ve never been one to shout or give detentions.’ Must have jumped for joy when this post came up. Parents like that he has ‘aligned the junior and senior schools’ and ‘made the reports much more thorough’. Office door wedged open, with students frequently popping in eg for ideas on how to minimise the queues for break time snack and requesting an A level in film studies (coming soon).

Embarked, during his first year, on a USA road trip to discover the roots of progressive (‘I steer away from the word liberal – sounds too political’) education, upshot of which is that he’s considering how to inject even more breadth into the curriculum and explore what the oft used expression ‘the Frensham way’ really means in an educational climate where co-ed, student voice and even no uniform are becoming more normalised. ‘In other schools, you get the crest, the Latin motto and the values, but we have historically been more fluid and I think we need to be clearer on what we’re all about.’ Keen also to ensure watertight foundations - ‘Schools that allow students to have greater freedom need even clearer rigour and structures underneath,’ he believes. One parent surmised, ‘I think Rick will make the school and the school will make him’.

Lives on site with wife Natalie, an artist and art teacher in the junior school, and their young children, also at the school and whom he insists ‘provide all the work/life balance I need,’ although he is also a keen runner.

Head of junior school since September 2019, Katherine Bluck MA PGCE (30s). Educated at Berkhamstead School then Cambridge, where she read geography and education; PGCE also from Cambridge. Previously deputy head of junior school at Stephen Perse Junior in Cambridge and before that worked across the state and independent sectors including Lambrook for many years as their head of lower school. Youthful, savvy and with enough innovative educational ideas to fill a book, we also liked her unperturbed manner and un-patronising way with the kids.

Entrance

Entry into nursery in term of 3rd birthday (16 places) or the following year to reception – assessment done by informal observation during a visit. Years 1-6 take one or two more – roughly two apply for each place. Candidates spend a day with peer group during which they are assessed in reading, spelling and maths. ‘We look for those who are curious, good at communicating with their peers, respectful and all-rounders.’

In year 7, two apply for each place. All candidates are interviewed in groups of four or five. Exams a week or so later - 11+ tests in reading, writing, spelling, maths and verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Reference sought from current school. Ditto plus a science test for 13+ candidates (when there are 1.5 applications for every one place), though pre-testing in year 6 for boarding year 9 places available on request. Sixth form places (up to two apply for each place at this stage, often less) require six GCSEs at 4+, ideally with 6s in A level subjects (with some flexibility). School also sets its own papers for sixth form entry.

Exit

Around half leave at 16 - mostly to the several large state (free) sixth form colleges round about, some for the IB or for subjects not on offer here. ‘Some have been here since they were three and just want a bit more urban grit,’ said one parent (‘some return the following term,’ says school). Over a quarter (sometimes up to 40 per cent) go to Russell Group universities, the rest to one of the widest range of tertiary education establishments we’ve seen. Many to creative courses - arts, design, music – and odd ones to Oxbridge or overseas. Exeter and Sussex currently popular, as are Surrey, London College of Creative Media, Manchester Met, Falmouth University, Norwich University of Arts, University of Creative Arts Farnham and Central St Martins College of Art. One medic in 2019. UCAS support phenomenal, say parents.

Teaching and learning

It would be disingenuous to suggest Frensham is anything other than selective, but they are more interested in you fitting in with the school’s broad-minded ethos than helping them soar to league-table-topping prominence. ‘We are frequently reminded that becoming the best version of ourselves is more important than striving for all A*’s,’ a student told us. Doesn’t mean they don’t achieve highly however, with 31 per cent A*-A/9-7 at GCSE in 2019 and 23 per cent A*/A grades at A level (45 per cent A*-B).

We were initially struck by the sheer amount of chit-chat in lessons but it’s not a case of the tail wagging the dog – students are encouraged to learn as much from each other and via brainstorming, negotiation, teamwork, co-operation etc as via the teacher standing at the front (in many cases the teacher wasn’t even doing that, instead weaving through the class - all 18 max). We dropped in on a year 6 class on slam poetry where youngsters were discussing ideas ready, as per their instructions, to ‘read out loud, cut the fat, read again, and flavour’. Vibrant labels surround the interactive whiteboard reminding students to eg plan, rethink, question, co-operate, risk etc, while huge (non-interactive) whiteboards at the back act pose questions of the day (‘If you could invent something that would make life easier, what would it be?’ was one – ‘a money tree!’ one student had astutely suggested). In a year 9 geography class on climate change, students frequently (but respectfully) interrupted the teacher to question her statements, ask for more detail etc – the teacher’s answers showed striking subject knowledge and typified how news-driven the curriculum is. You snooze, you lose here – ‘somehow they make it that you’re always engaged and analysing,’ a student said.

Even pre-prep is child-led, with structured adult input – we watched reception children following a dragon topic with a mixture of construction, role play, drawing, cutting and pasting. ‘What are scales?’ piped up one, prompting a teacher to dash off to the library to find a relevant book. Junior lessons also novel – year 3s entered their classroom to find everything everywhere as they were learning about hurricanes, meanwhile forest school gets littluns outside come rain or shine.

But Summerhill this is not. There’s setting in maths from year 7, English from year 8 and sciences from year 9. French from nursery, with Spanish and German introduced on a carousel from year 7. If the demand is there for eg Italian, they might employ a teacher. Smallish school but a wide range of GCSEs - no classics, Latin or Greek, for instance, although they do offer photography and business studies (both popular) and are soon to launch philosophy and religion. Geography and history get good numbers, the latter boasting some of the best results in recent years alongside visual arts. Most students take nine, some more. ‘Rigour at sixth form has improved,’ said a parent. Three A levels is the norm, with history, drama and fine art all popular and increasingly (‘a surprise to some parents given that we’re an arts based school,’ says head) psychology and sociology, with growing numbers going on to study these subjects at uni; ‘they have catered tremendously for my daughter whose strengths are in the sciences,’ said one mother. Around a third do EPQ, with stunning results. ‘One or two teachers are a bit lazy, but there is far more brilliance than bad,’ remarked a parent.

Mixed views on SEN support, which is only really for milder end (moderate and beyond are often referred to More House down the road) and mainly classroom based. Several parents raved about it (‘In his last school, my dyslexic son felt thick and his self-esteem was down the toilet, whereas the enthusiasm of teachers and the bigging up of his questioning techniques, along with the one-to-one support, have made him shine here’); others feel there’s some way to go (‘I think they could be a bit more clued up on latest evidence’). EAL available, though rarely required.

Sport

Arguably, the most impressively led art department in the country, offering oodles of GCSEs and A levels (eight in total). Art school vibe – and it looks like one too, with the students relishing every inch from the newly covered outside space (‘great for spraying’) to the rows of kilns. Artwork, displayed throughout, is of an astonishing standard, with the diverse work exposing just how much freedom students are given to develop their ideas. We loved the gigantic portraits, out-of-kilter wardrobe installation representing a stream of consciousness and the mock GCSE 3D designs. Ceramics, textiles, wood, metals, jewellery, furniture, lighting – you name it, these students use it to go off in their own directions. A ‘hope or concern’ themed year 9 exhibition offered a particularly fascinating window into the minds of teenagers politically, personally and environmentally. Photography has a long history here, under inspirational leadership, and school still has its own dark room (always a joy in this digital age).

Next door, A level drama students were preparing their devices to the sounds of The Clash in one of the two studios, with the main theatre a spectacular space in which to perform. Again, creativity and freedom are order of the day – students write and perform at the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while back at school there are alternating annual junior and senior musicals (Mary Poppins up next), plus bi-annual dance concerts.

‘Everyone is musical in some way,’ we were informed by the extrovert head of music, and the music block, complete with recording studios, is certainly a great space to hang around in to find out. Lovely to see one boy completely lost in music playing one of the many grand pianos; around half of students learn an instrument, including three harpists and a couple of instruments we’d never heard of when we visited. No orchestra – ‘we don’t have the economies of scale,’ says school. Would be easy to nit-pick but we rather like the supply and demand model over slogging through a term with meagre numbers (and anyway, there are ensembles for that). It’s the buzz that matters here and there was plenty of that with all the student-led musical prep for the year 4-8 Mary Poppins production. Rock choir and chamber choir.

And so to sport which, as an old OF recently reminded the head, is a far cry from 1940s when students had to run five miles at 6am. Many heads have come and gone since then – some similarly hard-core; others who shuddered at the idea of enforced exercise or sport. ‘I thoroughly dislike uber-competitiveness, where winning matters too much and I would never force kids to do what they don’t want to,’ current head told us, suggesting he is of the latter mindset. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I do believe in the value of exercise and staying active and I do think we have a duty to cater for those who are keen on more competitive sport,’ and as such there’s now an annual sports day and more fixtures (though rarely on Saturdays). Students hold their own even against much bigger schools like Weydon and Bedales with girls’ netball and boys’ football getting best results. Facilities, indoor and out, are certainly conducive to performance although, as is the case with most endeavours here, we got the impression the main focus is on breadth and creativity – badminton, table tennis, basketball, rowing, fencing, golf, tennis are all for the taking. Student-led too - ‘we’re not a rugby playing school, but some year 8s wanted to play it so we got together a team and a fixture list,’ says head. One parent summed up, ‘We were playing a school the other day and the coach on the other team was screaming at his lot, whereas I knew ours would walk off having had a great time whether we won or lost – they know how to encourage each other but nobody gets silly about it’.

Extensive menu of extracurricular options should tempt the most sluggish teenager - bike maintenance, parkour, eco warriors and even reading Harry Potter in German in addition to the more predictable sports, chess, debating etc. Dance much praised and popular. The Edge programme sees sixth formers signing up to the likes of first aid, cooking and driving theory. Visiting speakers range from Holocaust survivors to a hairdresser for the homeless. And masses of trips, with the two weeks in west Scotland for year 9s the real highlight (where all start their DofE bronze).

Boarders

Around 100 board, half flexi (most of these weekly), the rest full-time. Around a third are international, though school has wise policy of not taking more than four pupils who speak the same language into any senior year. So penny numbers from eg Russia, Germany, Spain. Hamilton House is for juniors, while years 10 and 11 reside in the upstairs of the main house and sixth formers in Roberts House (also base for day students). All co-ed, with boys and girls housed on different floors or wings, sharing modern kitchens and exceptionally welcoming sitting rooms. Good sized bedrooms, although singles are compact – all clean and tidy (ish for the older ones – a few unmade beds). Plenty of workspace and outdoor space. Evening activities, as we saw from wall-mounted picture collages, include baking, gymnastics, skating, dinner dances and making sushi (well, this is Surrey) while weekenders do anything from dinner at Nando's, shopping in Guildford, Winter Wonderland and Harry Potter World (those who attend aforementioned club posing as Germans, perhaps?). Older children can trail 10 minutes through the woodlands to the village with its supermarket and sweetshop. ‘Vertical friendships common and all unbelievably homely,’ said a parent, although a few niggles there aren’t more boarders ‘and the beds could be comfier’.

Ethos and heritage

Charles Charrington, the brewer, acquired Fir Grove House on the edge of Rowledge village, overlooking a panorama of Surrey woods and hills and transformed it into Frensham Heights – a striking gothic red-brick residence with turrets, leaded lights and stained glass, splendid Georgian-style interiors (they still do readings of Dickens round the fire), cornices, architraves, fireplaces - the lot - in 1902, as a would-be ancestral pile. Alas, the First World War intervened and the house became a military hospital and, as the old order changed, was reinvented as a school by three redoubtable women: Edith Douglas-Hamilton and joint headmistresses, Beatrice Ensor and Isabel King. Ensor, an early proponent of Montessori education, was a theosophist, a vegetarian and an anti-vivisectionist. The school's liberal credentials, being coeducational and progressive, were integral to its ethos from the first. Strangely, every head since its founding pioneers has been male.

Grounds are immaculate and campus is huge – ‘feels more like a mini-university,’ said parent. Newer buildings nestle in trees and witty sculptures sprawl on the lawns and in foyers - we loved the wax mushrooms. Nursery to year 3 learn in sunken single storey junior school with good-sized classrooms full of attentive, relaxed looking tots and interesting activities going on, accompanied by good junior playgrounds with lots of different surfaces and play equipment. Lots shared with seniors, including sports facilities, some staff and the dining room – lovely to see three-year-olds and 18-year-olds eating together, and it’s good fodder too (we even got a sticker for choosing some deep fried cauliflower from the ‘try something new’ table). Middle school (years 7/8) share even more senior facilities. Aesthetically, art and drama blocks are the real dazzlers (complete with café for parents – well used when we visited) but the regular classrooms are nicely done out too – beanbags in psychology and English classroom decorated with literary chat up lines. Library a bit tired - welcoming enough, though, and includes every journal you could think of plus (nice touch) tea and coffee.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

No uniform and teachers called by first names. Reasonable expectations and modelling of good behaviour substitute rules, all accompanied by heaps of personal responsibility. Even extends to falling in or out of love, although you’ll rarely see anything more than a hug or linked arms. ‘If you like rules and formality, it won’t be for you,’ said a parent, although there’s been a (much praised) tightening up of discipline under new head. ‘I love it that they have a chat to unpick reasons rather than give a meaningless detention but if the chats don’t work, there has to be a next step and now there is,’ said one parent. Now up to a handful of suspensions a year and a couple of permanent exclusions in the last year too. Zero tolerance on drugs and a hard line on drink. ‘For more minor things, they spend time helping you so you don’t make the same mistake again – more reflection than punishment,’ mused a junior student. Mutual respect part of school’s DNA, right down to teachers not barging ahead of students in the lunch queue. Bullying minimal, although one year 6 boy did mention that ‘in my year, you get teased if you play with a girl, which I think is silly’ (school says they are aware of it and currently scratching their heads about how to solve it as it’s not an issue they’ve come across in any other year group).

Pupils and parents

Day students, who make up around three-quarters of school community, come from an ever shrinking (school isn’t sure why) radius of about 20 miles in all directions. We noticed how comfortable they are in their own skin and they really appreciate being able to express themselves – we met one goth sixth former, although most opt for jeans and hoodies. Even younger ones are noticeably articulate and, one parent reckoned, braver – ‘When I go out with my friends, it’s my children who will go up to the counter while theirs sit nervously refusing to make eye contact’. Parents, we heard, are ‘a right old mix’, although another added that, ‘You do wonder why some of them chose Frensham – seems like Charterhouse might be more their bag.’ Notable Old Frenshamians include performers Bill and Jon Pertwee, Jamie Glover, David Berglas, Rufus Hound, Hattie Morahan; also Sir Claus Moser, Noah Bulkin (Merrill Lynch, Lazard, now entrepreneur) and uber-fraudster, Edward Davenport.

Money matters

Ten per cent discounts for third and subsequent siblings. Means-tested bursaries in case of need but school has no endowments so not plentiful. Scholarships in academics, performing arts, creative arts and sport but all glory and no gold and note they are awarded a couple of months into years 7, 9 or 12 ‘when we’ve got to know them a bit’.

The last word

If the thought of rigid teaching, endless tests, petty rules, school uniform and calling teachers Sir and Miss all leaves you cold, this could well be your educational paradise. The huge breadth of opportunities, impressive campus and thoroughly lovely, erudite staff win many over. But it’s the freedom for your child to grow into the person they are meant to be - all within a safe, caring and mutually respectful environment - that clinched it for us. As one parent put it, ‘They say youth is wasted on the young – well, it’s not here.’

Please note: 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.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Frensham Heights provides group lessons from Year 1 for those considered to have mild learning difficulties. These lessons not only offer support, but enable the teacher to monitor individual progress. From Year 7, the school uses diagnostic tests to assess the learning needs of all pupils. This then influences how lessons are planned and how those with learning needs are managed. Frensham Heights does not have a Special Needs Unit. Our provision is managed by a Director of Support for Learning and a Head of Support for Learning (Junior School). They work with a team of peripatetic specialist teachers who also provide support on a one-to-one basis. Where this is required, it is charged separately. Support teachers and tutors attend a number of continuing professional development courses annually to ensure that they are fully conversant with current theories and strategies in order to support students.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment Y
Hospital School
Mental health Y
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability Y
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health Y
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment

Who came from where


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