Cothill House School, Abingdon
Homely but high-achieving, Cothill House in South Oxfordshire believes in allowing its pupils to retain a 'youthful exuberance' in a place where boys can be boys. Cue pillow fights!
Cothill House is a gently selective boarding prep school for boys 8-13, hidden away just outside Abingdon and 15 minutes from Oxford, with 220 boys. Having celebrated its 150th year in 2020, though the actual celebrations were curtailed by the pandemic, it’s one of the largest boarding schools in the area (many of the local boarding options being primarily for day pupils). Despite this, there’s a small number of overall pupils here, so class sizes are small – an average of 14.
Though the first view of the school is inauspicious, through the car park and onto tarmacked playgrounds, you should persevere – though the main buildings are a mix of homely and purpose built, there are 26 acres for the boys to play in here surrounded by a nature reserve. It’s slightly under the radar of many parents, but it definitely packs its punch, delivering its boys to the likes of Eton, Harrow and Radley.
Excellent facilities with loads of sport as you’d expect in a leading boys prep school. Worth particular mention are the grass tennis courts (my absolute dream – and so few of these courts around now), a 20 metre indoor swimming pool, nine hole golf course, squash court and pelaton of BMXs. On the arts front, there’s pottery room with large kiln and a replete school library (10,000 books and counting) with amusing life-size cardboard cuts out of Hagrid, Neil Armstrong and the Hobbit to fuel the senses. Construction of a new state-of-the-art Sports Hall begins in January 2022.
Duncan Bailey has had an irregular route into the top job, starting out as a tennis player, then running a sports shop in Eton before being hooked onto the school staff to teach French (he’s fluent in French and German). While you can’t be the headteacher at a top prep school without being highly organised and sharp on people management, Bailey has something of the rebel charmer about him – he’s all about letting the boys have pillow fights, get into scuffles, play conkers, be youthfully exuberant and basically enjoy being children, and you get the feeling that, more often than not, he’d love to join in. Married with two kids, his Austrian wife Maria is ‘mother to over 200 kids’ as he says, and there’s definitely a feeling of family to this place.
With a tennis coach headteacher and over 200 boys to exercise every day, sport is always going to be a big deal at Cothill. Cricket is probably the biggest sport here (and there’s a gorgeous cricket ground with a lovely tiny thatched pavilion and a whopper new build boarding house called Bowlers too to prove it). Football is strong too, with the boys qualifying for the national finals. The Cothill ski team came first in the IAPS ski champs, and Bailey takes the tennis team every year to Florida to train.
MUSIC AND DRAMA
I didn’t hear any musicians on the day I visited, but clearly it must exist as there’s a brass band, jazz band, samba band, orchestra, two choirs (senior and junior) plus several rock bands, who showcase their riffs at twice yearly rock concerts as well as at the summer festival, Rockhill that’s soley for the kids (parents aren’t invited). As with the choir, drama productions split into junior and senior age groups.
Bailey describes the Cothill cohort as ‘broad entry, sharp exit’. Though the children (as in most independent preps) take a basic academic test to join, the school cares more about ‘fit’ and boys who will make the most of being at the school.
Like Summer Field’s in Oxford and Caldicott in Burnham, there’s a clear expectation here for boys to move onto the top private schools (Bailey himself attended and taught at Eton), and Cothill churns out the places and scholarships with assuring regularity though for the less academic there’s also a close eye on ‘value added’ and enriching the learning. Thursday afternoon see the curriculum ripped up in favour of clubs and weekend excursions include trampolining and laser tag to mini golf and geocaching.
Cothill is a full boarding school, starting with the Cothill Juniors (launched in Sept 2020) in Years 4 & 5 who can go home after Saturday school (lessons in the morning) until Sunday night. By Y6 all the boys are full boarding.
I was shown around by two lovely boys, who were so enthusiastic about the school – they loved boarding because it was like sleepovers with your friends. The best things were all the activities. The worst bit was the prep in the evenings. Nothing to worry a parents’ ears there.
The teachers seem to have been chosen with dual talents in mind. Most of them seem to be able to teach sport for starters! And there are stand-outs like PC, ‘a legend’ according to the boys, who used to be a policeman, became the woodwork and design teacher and has been at the Cothill for 40 years, having also taught Duncan Bailey.
Not so much a quirk as a massive advantage is the term the boys get to spend at Château de Sauveterre in the South of France (above) – Bailey ran this facility for 8 years before taking up the top spot at Cothill. The red phone box in the playground is fun too.
Full boarding only, at £10,230 per term which is pretty much the same as its main competition.
See the latest ISI reports here.
WORD ON THE GROUND
A very family-oriented school by all accounts. Parents love the pastoral care, the ‘let the boys be boys’ ethos and its homely feel – the reception area felt exactly like I’d walked into someone’s house, and parents pick up on this warmth.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: The boys I spoke to were sweet and unguarded, and when asked what kind of child would suit this school they said anyone ‘determined’ – by which I think they meant boys that join in, have a go, want to do their best. It’s not about academic ability, but attitude.
Not for: Parents who aren’t on page with place where ‘boys can be boys’, with all the good and bad that entails. Those children who really struggle academically might find the pace tough here, despite – or perhaps even because of – the attention.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Cothill has an Open Day on 16 October. Register for it here.
Cothill House, Cothill, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX13 6JL. Tel: 01865 390800.