Stowe School, Stowe, Buckinghamshire
A stunning setting across 750 acres, incredible facilities and a growing reputation for its academics has put all-rounder co-ed Stowe School on the must-see lists.
Without doubt the most visually stunning of all English private schools, Stowe School sits in 750 acres of splendour in rural North Buckinghamshire – an 18th century neo-classical palace as its centrepiece, surrounded by some of the most beautiful grounds in the country, with Vanbrugh, Soane, Kent and Capability Brown having all had a hand in design.
With 850 pupils 13-18 years (a healthy 40% girls to 60% boys, despite girls only being accepted into Year 9 in 2007) Stowe offers nearly an acre per child – not bad going, right? No doubt the children who come here end up taking stuccoed ceilings and temples and follies for granted – youth being wasted on the young and all that – but I think any parent driving up the two mile approach to the main building with its perfectly-appointed cricket pitch and vistas, will feel a vicarious thrill that at Stowe they’ve delivered a unique experience to their children.
Boarding is the norm here. Over 80% of pupils stay termly in the 8 boys and 4 girls houses. But there have been some recent changes too with two new Day Houses to accommodate a lower cost point and an expected influx of pupils expected by the creation of The Stowe Group which from Jan 2021 has incorporated both Swanbourne House School and Winchester House School into the fold.
Seriously, where to start? An extraordinary array of sports facilities, many of which underpin the School’s elite pricing and lucky young guests. Amidst the expected rugby fields and sports halls, there’s a new golf course, an equestrian centre with a cross country course designed by Mark Phillips, an assault course, a livery centre, athletics track, a scrambling track, fencing salle, Fives courts, 6-lane 25m competition pool and a Clay Pigeon Shooting Range. Lacrosse, polo and beagling are some of the more specialist sports offered here. Though Buckinghamshire is landlocked, sailing is offered on Stowe’s Eleven Acre Lake as well as at a local sailing club where the school has its own fleet. For the super talented, there’s a Golf Academy and a Sports Performance Programme for sports scholars, club players and internationals
Deep pockets have created some inspiring set pieces in terms of arts provision. The Chung Music School, completed in 2013 under the banner Music For Everyone, offers practise rooms, a 200-seat auditorium, recording studio (yes there’s even a Stowe music label) and music library. Fancy playing chopsticks on a Steinway? Here, choose from 24 of them! All the pianos in the Music School are Steinways: from the uprights in the practice and teaching rooms to the ‘Model D’ concert grand piano in the Recital Hall. Budding musicians will find orchestra, wind, brass and jazz bands, chamber ensembles and string quartets, a choral society, chapel choir and rock groups, and all children in Year 9 try a musical instrument.
Drama-wise, the kids can walk the boards at the 400 seat Roxburgh Hall, recently refurbed with light and sound set up and a slick enough offering that it’s also rented out to professional companies. The Roxburgh Hall also boasts a studio theatre for smaller productions. Both music and drama are both strong performers at Stowe.
Already up and running is the Worsley Science Centre completed in 2017 includes 18 labs for up to 24 pupils, six lecture theatres, and a Sixth Form Science Centre. More recently Stowe has been busy investing in its pupil infrastructure, with a new Sixth Form centre due to open in September along with the expanded Day Houses. I’m fascinated by the launch of the Wellness Centre, also in September – a space for pupils to spend time relaxing, to try yoga and meditation and to meet with their Mentors. There’s even talk of England and Saints rugby star Dylan Hartley playing a key role, if you can imagine that.
And if you have a keen Design, Engineering or Technology pupil due to leave before 2023 you’ll be gnashing your teeth – possibly the only bit of Stowe that’s drab and outdated, the existing DT workshops and portacabin classrooms will become an architect-designed Centre of Design, Technology and Engineering incorporating separate ‘designing’ and ‘making’ spaces and including an exhibition space and in close association with Silverstone racing.
For Sixth Formers at Stowe, there will be a new Sixth Form Centre ready for Sept 2021 – with quiet study spaces, break out spaces for collective study, a café and space for live music, all held in a refurbished two storey building, the school is upping its provision for the senior year groups.
Finally, Stowe has its own rocket launch pad on the back lawn. OK not really but seriously, it can’t be long.
In the early 2000s, before head Anthony Wallersteiner took up the reins, Stowe had a reputation as a ‘second choice’ school, that sat a good tier or two below the likes of Eton, Harrow, Radley and Rugby. Wallersteiner arrived from the academic powerhouse of St Paul’s in London and clearly set his sights on overhauling of the very middling academic results. He’s largely succeeded, even as he still applauds the ‘broad church’ of children at Stowe, claiming with sincerity that ‘no-one ever goes into teaching hoping to teach only the elite’ and recognising that Stowe is an all-rounder option rather than an Oxbridge sausage machine (though in fairness, it does churn out some of these sausages too).
Now that mental health and happiness has hit the bullseye in education it’s playing nicely to Stowe’s strengths. There’s not much evidence of a hothouse environment here with class sizes small without being silly – 22 in the Lower School and 14 in the Upper School – and the array of extra-curricular temptations put fully on the table. That said, there are some clever moves like the Academic Clinics held on Tues-Friday at 5.45pm, open to all pupils and a way to ‘drop in’ on a teacher for help when necessary, and bright sparks will clearly do well – the most recent ISI reported academic outcome as excellent.
The GSCE and A level results in 2020 came in strongly with 51 per cent 9/7 at GCSEs; and 44 per cent A*/A at A level (75 per cent A*/B), an increase on 2019 that saw 45 per cent 9/7 at GCSE and 33 per cent A*/A at A level (68 per cent A*/B).
Modern boarding schools are particularly wise to the need to show outstanding pastoral care, and Stowe is no different. There’s a 24 hour medical centre, onsite counselling team and a partnership with The Priory in Oxford, plus in addition to the expected timetabled PSHE lessons there’s ‘AS Tracking’ is used to monitor pupil happiness and mental wellbeing and regular wellbeing surveys to identify any trends or specific problems.
Like most schools with a mix of older and more modern buildings, the accommodation is a bit of a mixed bag. The undoubted grandeur of rooms in the main palatial building looking out over the cricket pitch is offset by less light and space, while the new purpose-built accommodation (a boys house in 2018 and three girls’ houses that include their own gyms) are more swanky and modern. As you’d expect, dorms get smaller as the kids get bigger, with most children in rooms of one or two by Sixth Form.
Stowe retains Saturday school at the moment, but since last March, has been more flexible with its boarding, with exeats – once every three weeks – so children have been able to go home more regularly if they want to. It surely can’t be long before Stowe announces that it will also be offering weekly boarding alongside its full boarding and day options. If you’re lucky to live close enough, you can take advantage of the new Day House offering – 75 pupils in each house, with kitchen facilities, common room, study spaces, House system and the same access to all the clubs, societies and activities as Boarders. The Day Houses are open from 7.30am – 9pm and, a boon for parents trembling at the school fees, shave £17000 off the £38,000 annual bill. An extension to the Day Houses will be ready for Sept 21.
Anthony Wallersteiner has an easy charm and confidence that clearly works its magic on Stowe’s swirl of old money, entrepreneurs and celebrities. Actually, it worked on me too. I liked him. An art historian, author and super-brain (despite his well-trodden tales of his terrible prep school reports), he is undeniably posh and polished, but also strangely relatable. Never too far from a name drop, which is always fun for a journalist, I imagine he’s rollicking company after a glass or two at a dinner party. He clearly enjoys the more glitzy side of his role, but he’s also driving the preservation of Stowe House itself, and has pushed hard to create Change 100, a £100 million bursary campaign to enable Stowe to give away 100 fully funded places each year to those less advantaged, which is hard for anyone to knock really.
Not a lot to shout about here, although we’ll give some respect to the motorcycle club. Also, the Sixth Formers have their own Saturday night social club until 10.30pm. I haven’t come across a Beagling club either, make of that what you will.
The latest ISI report from Nov 2018 is here.
Here, let me pass you a brown paper bag. Now breathe deeply. Fees per term are £12697 for boarding and £9128 for Day in Boarding Houses (think day places in boarding houses with the kids able to stay over from time to time). Day House prices are discounted – £21472 annually for 2021 entry rising to £23,213 by 2024.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Very positive. Several children I know who go there were keen to say how happy they were, loving their friendship groups, learning environment and the relaxed atmosphere. This is something, perhaps, that first-time prospective parents on a tour might miss – one parent described Stowe as ‘almost Bohemian’ in the way it allows the kids to remain individuals. Some parents are on first name terms with teachers, Anthony Wallersteiner is often around for a chat at fixtures, and ‘stuffy’ is definitely not where they see the school. Also worth noting that home schooling has been a massive success, and while the children bemoaned a drop in variety in school meals when Covid forced several sittings, apparently that’s now been sorted.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those who put greater emphasis on all-rounder education. The mixed cohort from 13-18 with an unusually strong percentage of girls will appeal to many who have come out of single sex prep schools. Visually, bragging rights are in the bag at Stowe – it’s breathtaking. With its bursary system and funding model, Stowe is shaking free of its elite image and by all accounts is a welcoming, friendly school.
Not for: Those with deep pockets – boarding here comes with a hefty price tag, though the day boarding houses will offer reprieve if you’re close enough.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Book onto the Virtual Open Morning – Sat 6 March 2021 (13+) or visit in person on 24 Apr 2021 (16+).
Stowe School, Stowe, Buckingham MK18 5EH