St Hugh’s School, Faringdon, South Oxon
A warm, friendly, non-selective co-ed day and boarding school in gorgeous grounds in rural South Oxfordshire.
St Hugh’s is a co-educational, proudly non-selective prep school for kids aged 3-13 years deep in the South Oxfordshire countryside, with 350 kids in pre-prep, middle and senior departments.
The school started its existence in Kent 114 years back, but moved to Carswell Manor, a stunner of a Jacobean mansion with architecturally stylish modern additions, set in 45 acres of perfectly manicured grounds, in 1945 – it’s probably one of the most prettily situated prep schools I’ve come across. The school is definitely rural, though ‘remote’ is too strong a word – it’s a mile or so to the town of Faringdon and a hop and skip to Lechlade, while Oxford and Swindon are further away, at around 30 mins.
Let’s just say that facilities are not an issue here! In an independent school you would expect sport to be strong, so you’ll find a floodlit astroturf, large newly refurbished sports hall with cricket nets and lines for basketball/badminton, 5 rugby pitches, football/grass hockey pitches, 7 netball / tennis courts, 6 cricket nets, a woodland cross country route.
You want more? There’s a new adventure playground (rope bridges, fireman’s pole, scramble netting and all that jazz) and a fully equipped Forest School over a 2 acre site complete with outdoor pizza oven – St Hugh’s kids are expected to play, run and compete outside in all weathers, and yes, occasionally scuff their knees and whack each other with conkers (well, didn’t you play it at school?).
The sports hall has recently been completely refurbished, including new changing rooms, three additional classrooms, a dance studio and a brand new 20 metre indoor swimming pool, complete with viewing gallery, which opened in January 2020.
There’s also a gleaming new Medical Centre manned by two nurses.
On the artsy side, there’s a very cool music building with plenty of room for orchestral groups and a newly refurbished Barn where the kids perform. Big shiny exciting investments include a spinky-spanky new school library on the site of the Grade 1 Listed Dovecote (linking with the music room), opened in Sept 18, and a new courtyard garden.
St Hugh’s is a deliberately non-selective school and so clearly it’s not just a gallop to the academic hothouse – some kids will be super-bright, others may have talents elsewhere. Somehow – and respect to St Hugh’s for this one – it still hits 100% at Common Entrance to schools, including the toppies like Abingdon, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Eton, Winchester, Bradfield, Malborough, Radley, etc and in 2018/19 snaffled 26 scholarships for its kids in Academic, All Round, Art, Music, DT and Sport.
Clearly those small class sizes and integrated SEN provision are put to good use. So I guess what that says is that St Hugh’s is an all-rounder school, and like all good schools should, looks for the ‘thing’ that makes that child stand out.
MUSIC & DRAMA
Music wasn’t a St Hugh’s strong point a few years back, but there’s clearly been a lot of work done in this area, with an energetic Director of Music and not least the awesome modern music building itself. The Chamber Choir are the top tonsils – they were given the incredible honour of singing during a service at the iconic basilica in St Mark’s Square in 2018 and toured in Athens in 2019, and there are 4 additional choirs at the school, various brass, rock and string groups.
Eighty per cent of the kids learn an instrument here, one of the highest percentages I’ve come across on my prep school travels. The orchestra is open for Grade 1 plus (so beginners essentially) so give the conductor a prize and a set of earplugs. On the drama front, there are 6 performances across the school each year, LAMDA exams on offer and curriculum Drama taught from pre-prep onwards.
The Boarding House, accessed over two floors in the main Manor house, has just had a total refurb and actually looks smarter than my own children’s bedrooms (*the shame*). In keeping with most of the prep schools I review these days it’s weekly and flexi boarding provision at St Hugh’s rather than the full-time option – most students are within a local commute.
St Hugh’s dispensed with Saturday morning school in 2015, another boarding school tradition that is slowly dying out, however they do still offer Friday night boarding which, as you can imagine is a very popular option, not least with parents. The flexi boarding is up to 5 days a week, and encompasses those getting their kids ready for weekly boarding at next schools, to working parents who need flexibility, and probably the occasional mother like me who can’t be arsed to cook! Whatever the reason, they pretty much have it covered.
James Thompson is the new headteacher (Sept 19), replacing the popular Andrew Nott. Jovial and relaxed, Thompson was previously headmaster of Royal Russell Junior School in Croydon before taking up his rural Oxfordshire post along with his wife and two daughters, one of whom has joined St Hugh’s for Y8.
I met him so early in the term he had barely nailed staff names and I wouldn’t expect any significant changes or statements, though he is adamant that he wants the pupils to enjoy being children here and wants to protect them from as much real world pressure as possible. Small positive changes he has made already at the school is the whole school assemblies twice each half term (previously the pre-prep and prep were entirely separate). Every decision he makes, he says, will be child centred.
It’s taken seriously here, with no mobile policy for day pupils and flexi boarders and only weekly boarders allowed limited access. I admit it, I’m of the draconian mindset on this one and love the fact they’re banned. Wellbeing has been included into the curriculum for the last couple of years here, with every child receiving Wellbeing lessons (and the staff too!) on how to manage their own wellbeing with training in mindfulness and yoga – there’s even a new fitness/health related teaching room in the classrooms above the pool. St Hugh’s has just won its Wellbeing Schools Award, which sounds a bit woolly but actually it’s taken 18 months to win it, so hats off.
Well, first off I think the head gardener needs a medal – it’s the tidiest, most perfectly-manicured school I’ve seen for some time. But we’re not superficial at Muddy so let’s move past mere looks. St Hugh’s is not quirky really – it’s warm, cosy, family-oriented, traditional. But I’m liking the sound of the biannual trip to Barbados for the Y7&8 netball and cricket teams to play other local schools. Great for the soul and the suntan!
WRAP AROUND CARE
Good. The flexi boarding means that parents who are late have the option to book their kids in for a night boarding. There’s early drop off at 8am and kids can stay after school for a bonkers number of after school clubs until 5.30pm (various sports plus robotics, debating, creative writing, nature and gardening club and, um, Ancient Greek Club), after which they can have supper and then be picked up at 7.30pm – that makes it one of the latest prep pick-ups I’ve come across.
Reception (4+): £4095 per term, Pre-prep (Yrs 1 & 2): £4470 per term, Middle School £6500 per term and Upper School £7065 per term. Add £1385 for termly weekly boarding. Flexi boarding is £42 per night.
I’d say these fees are comparatively good value, as they also include all trips, SEN support, extra-curricular activities and all meals, including tea. Music lessons and some extra curricular clubs such as judo are extra.
WORD ON THE GROUND
I’ve been struggling to find any murmurings of dissent at all on this one. Parents love the friendly, inclusive, non-pretentious vibe – there’s no question there’s a warm, family atmosphere here.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Supersporties are well catered for here but so are the triers – the size of the school means kids are strongly encouraged to join in a team and participate.
Not for: With a maximum 15 in a class, more rumbustious, knee-scuffer type boys might benefit from a bigger pond to swim in.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it! The next Open Day is 5 March 2020, email email@example.com to book your appointment.
St Hugh’s School, Carswell Manor, Faringdon; Oxfordshire, SN7 8PT. Tel 01367 870700. st-hughs.co.uk.