Reverse commuting: schools a train ride from London
The past year has forced many of us to rethink our priorities. Families are flocking out of the capital in search of more space, time and a longer childhood for their children, and we’ve shone the spotlight on the myriad benefits of upping sticks and moving to the country in our recent country preps focus
. But what if your job requires you to stay in London – or you’re not quite ready to leave the city lights behind? For many families, reverse commuting – where you stay put and your child does the travelling – is the answer. Cast your net a bit wider and consider sending your son or daughter to study slightly further out. There’s a glut of brilliant schools within easy reach of central London, all with excellent transport links, ensuring your child’s reverse commute is as seamless as possible.
What do you get in exchange for that slightly longer journey to school? We’ve picked out a handful of senior schools that tick all the boxes for families looking for the perfect city/country hybrid…
Merchant Taylors’ School
Journey time from London: 14 minutes from London Marylebone to Harrow-on-the-Hill. Then take the Metropolitan line five stops to Moor Park (10 minutes). From there, it’s a 10-minute walk to the school campus.
If you want to see what travelling just 30 minutes outside central London gets you, take a look at Merchant Taylors’ – a forward-thinking, vibrant school packed to the brim with bright, sparky boys. The site’s whopping 285 acres include a spread of handsome art-deco buildings, a collegiate collection of quads and enough sports facilities to keep an aspiring Olympian happy: endless immaculate pitches; a lake for sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, canoeing and fly-fishing – and two local golf courses within easy reach too.
Despite all the acreage, most facilities and buildings are no more than a handy three-minute walk from each other – ensuring little time is wasted schlepping around campus, but still giving boys ‘space to physically grow and think’, according to head Simon Everson.
Full marks for the brilliantly diverse community here, too: boys zip out from central London on the Metropolitan line for the green space; or flock in from further afield for the streetwise, on-the-pulse feel. If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, they’ve got it in spades here.
Journey time from London: 29 minutes from Oxford Circus to Woodford on the Central line. From there, it's a 15-minute walk to the school campus. The school also runs a shuttle bus from Loughton station (mornings only), and is well served by local buses (including ones from Chingford Station, 20 minutes from Liverpool Street).
Located right at the end of the Central line, Bancroft’s is technically a London school – yet its glorious setting, sheer amount of space and spellbinding buildings would certainly suggest otherwise. Home is a grand-towered and turreted Victorian residence, designed by the same architect as Selwyn College, Cambridge – and there’s a serious Hogwarts feel to the place. The campus is fringed by pretty Essex woodland on two sides, adding to the green-space vibe, and the on-site prep school means pupils can stay all the way from age three to 18.
It’s a fair walk from the nearest Tube (Woodford), but there’s a shuttle bus to ferry pupils back and forth from the station, making the journey superbly easy. The radius of pupils is steadily growing – while a great deal are broadly local, plenty flock in from more urban pockets of the city in search of high-flying academics, a packed co-curricular programme and a staunchly down-to-earth school community.
Journey time from London: 18 minutes from London Bridge to South Croydon. From there, it’s a 13-minute walk to the school campus.
Picture a Croydon campus, and we’d bet that a sprawling concrete jungle might spring to mind – but in Whitgift’s case, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The school’s 45 acres are a proper oasis of immaculate grounds, beautiful parkland – and even the odd peacock roaming the car park.
No surprises, then, that sporting facilities are first class. Every one of the 40 or so different sports options up for grabs takes place on site, bar a few such as riding and skiing. Plus plenty of old boys have gone on to forge hugely successful professional sporting careers.
At weekends, boys flood back onto campus for play rehearsals, CCF practice or DofE training; there’s a real boarding school mentality here, despite Whitgift’s city school status. It’s so in demand that many pupils cross London to take up a place here, travelling in from places such as Southwark and Surrey. A refreshingly diverse ethnic and social community is a given too: the school is part of the Whitgift Foundation, which runs one of the biggest educational bursary systems in the UK.
Journey time from London: 37 minutes from Clapham Junction to Caterham. From there, it’s a 15-minute walk to the school campus. The school is also on the fast train line from Clapham Junction to Upper Warlingham (22 minutes); from there, a shuttle bus transports pupils to and from the campus.
Set on a massive 200-acre campus deep in the heart of the Surrey Hills, Caterham could easily masquerade as a proper out-in-the-sticks school – but in reality, it’s incredibly well-connected, and the perfect solution for families seeking both space and convenience.
An extensive bus network ships pupils in from suburban pockets of London daily; weekly boarders, meanwhile, can jump on the train home on a Friday afternoon and be back pounding the pavements just half an hour later. Best of all, day pupils are more than welcome to stay on for clubs and supper – allowing them to avoid the rush-hour crush.
There’s no shortage of space here: an impressive performing arts centre boasts not one but two theatres, while sports-mad pupils get the use of 40 acres of pitches, Astros and netball courts. Heaps of fresh air is a given: an outdoor learning programme makes the most of the on-site woodland, with activities including bushcraft, orienteering, zip wiring and weekend campouts all weaved into the curriculum.
Journey time from London: 25 minutes from Clapham Junction to Woldingham. The station is set in the school grounds.
Less than 30 minutes from London by train, the day market is booming at this Catholic girls-only school, which is becoming increasingly popular among south-west London families. Convenience doesn’t get much better than this: Woldingham station is set in the school grounds, meaning it’s just a quick minibus ride down the long drive each morning to reach the school: a splendid, wood-panelled house based in Surrey’s Marden Park.
Throw in 700 acres of grounds boasting a mega indoor tennis dome, a spread of courts and pitches and a seriously smart 600-seater auditorium (complete with a West End-worthy sound and lighting system), and you’ve got the perfect solution for parents looking for the country school experience – without the need to commit to boarding (for those who do choose to stay over, there’s brilliant flexibility to sign up as either a weekly or full boarder).
Journey time from London: 32 minutes from London Charing Cross to Sevenoaks. From there, it’s a 15-20 minute walk to the school campus.
Academically, Sevenoaks has always been something of a pioneer (it was one of the first schools in the country to fully embrace the IB, with last year’s cohort scoring a dazzling average score of 39.4 points) – but its setting and location are something to shout about too. The school’s 100-acre campus backs onto the National Trust-owned Knole House – and it’s jam-packed with world-class facilities such as The Space performing arts centre and the RIBA award-winning Science and Technology Centre and Global Study Centre.
Outdoor space abounds, with every sport from sailing to cross-country on offer (training for the latter takes place in beautiful deer-filled Knole Park). The best bit? It’s all just half an hour from central London, with a minibus service shuttling anyone catching the fast train back to Charing Cross to and from the station.
The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School
Journey time from London: 22 minutes from London St Pancras International to Elstree & Borehamwood. From there, it’s a seven-minute drive to the school campus.
A very large, very busy pond best suited to boys with a super strong work ethic, Habs' 150-acre site manages to emulate a bucolic country school – despite its edge of city location. It’s a mammoth campus: alongside the boys’ schools, there’s a co-ed prep on site, as well as Habs Girls’ senior school right next door. There’s plenty of collaboration between the two seniors – both share a network of 55 school buses and team up for concerts, plays and social events.
Highlights include an impressive sports complex with a pool, gym, sports hall and masses of pitches, plus a rather wonderful DT department, housed in a bombproof historic building that was used by the BBC during the Second World War to broadcast the World Service. The sheer breadth of extracurricular opportunities on offer makes Habs feel much more like a boarding school than a London day.
Journey time from London: 33 minutes from London Liverpool Street to Broxbourne. From there, it’s a 10-minute drive from the school campus. Alternatively, 49 minutes from London Moorgate to Hertford North. From there, it’s a five-minute drive to the school campus.
With 500 acres of rolling Hertfordshire countryside, world-class sports pitches and splendid 19th-century architecture (including one of the biggest academic quads and finest rackets courts in the country), Haileybury ticks all the boxes for families looking for a rural idyll just 20 miles outside London. It’s a striking campus: the original college building was designed by William Wilkins, who went on to design London’s National Gallery, and the beautiful stained-glass chapel – with space to seat the entire school – sits right at its heart.
Full marks for the pristine grounds too: there are formal gardens, endless woodlands and sports grounds so good that they’re regularly used by Hertfordshire Rugby (the Argentina and USA national rugby teams borrowed them when they were over for the 2015 World Cup), and in the past, by Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.
Some two-thirds of the school’s high-achieving pupils are boarders, while day pupils have access to a minibus service linking the school up to the city (it’s popular with a big north London contingent) and trains zip students to and from Liverpool Street in just over half an hour.
Queen Anne’s School, Caversham
Journey time from London: 26 minutes from London Paddington to Reading. From there, it’s a five-minute drive to the school campus.
A surefire alternative to the high-pressured London scene, it’s easy to see why so many urbanites are flocking to Queen Anne’s. Set in 34 acres of prime commuter-belt Berkshire countryside, the school’s gorgeous ivy-clad mansion is less than 30 minutes from central London – and the sense of space here is palpable.
Boarding is as flexi as it comes – girls can opt in to full, weekly or flexi boarding – or even just sign up for the odd night B&B. Saturday school is optional for day girls (but they’ll need to pop in if they’re playing in an afternoon match), but we’d rush back for all the extras laid on: everything from first aid and cookery to trampolining and Mandarin. A real boon for London girls wanting to escape to the country each day.
Journey time from London: 20 minutes from London King’s Cross to Potters Bar. From there, it’s a 20-minute drive to the school campus.
This traditional, all-girls red-brick senior sits in 120 acres of grounds – meaning there’s plenty of space to roam, all within touching distance of the urban buzz of the capital. Just 20 minutes by train to London (and three miles off the M25), Queenswood is hugely popular with families in north and central London looking for flexi boarding, super sport and exceptional pastoral care – resulting in upbeat, eloquent, confident young women.
With all that space comes guaranteed sporting success; there’s a nine-hole golf course, polo field, enormous indoor pool, one of the most impressive sports halls we’ve seen and 27 (and counting) tennis courts; tennis is extraordinarily strong, and Queenswood ladies bag all of the top national trophies. Getting here couldn’t be easier – there’s a shuttle between nearby Potters Bar train station and the school, plus a fleet of minibuses offering families a door-to-door service between home and school, with a catchment area all the way from Berkhamsted to St John’s Wood.
Journey time from London: 17 minutes from London Victoria to East Croydon. From there, it’s a 10-minute drive to the school campus.
Part of the Whitgift Foundation, this Croydon day school for boys – with a co-ed sixth form – offers one of the most generous bursary schemes in the country (more than half of the school’s 1,000 pupils benefit from this). The result is a thoroughly diverse, grounded bunch of students, plugged in to all that’s offer, from the sixth form Trinity Diploma to the annual arts festival (the music department here is one of the strongest in the country, with pupils regularly singing at the likes of Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House).
Ringed by green space, the school’s lovely campus is packed to the brim with knockout facilities including 10 tennis courts, a huge swimming pool, shooting range, climbing wall, TV studio, concert hall and state-of-the-art sixth-form centre opened by the then mayor, Boris Johnson.