Frensham Heights is a Surrey day and boarding school with its focus firmly on the future. Since its foundation in 1925 it has sought to provide an alternative style of education based on mutual respect, tolerance and generosity of spirit that educates the whole child. Its invitation to ‘come and be you’ and insistence on inspiring each child to improve themselves – in any way – is a pleasure to see. With no uniform and pupils on first name terms with their teachers, we love the less formal, more progressive educational ethos here – one that celebrates children in the most holistic way possible, and brilliantly prepares them for a world beyond school.
Set on the outskirts of the pretty Surrey village of Rowledge, a few miles from Farnham, Frensham Heights sits in a beautiful red-brick Edwardian mansion in 125 acres of glorious countryside. The views of the South Downs from here are blockbuster. The house is jam-packed with stunning original features and grand reception rooms, and each section of the school has its own area on what feels like a really close-knit campus. The all-through ethos is evident, with nursery children beetling about among the sixth-formers – and Frensham’s extensive facilities are available to all of the 500 or so students.
A new permanent head will join the school in 2024, but acting head Andrew Fisher is holding the fort brilliantly in the interim. Andrew is certainly no stranger to the school – he was head here for 15 years before the previous head took over, so it’s safe to say he knows the schools inside-out.
Frensham is a truly all-through school offering a holistic approach to educating the whole child from nursery to Year 13. There is currently single-form entry from Reception to Year 3, with numbers increasing higher up the school. Years 7 and 9 are key entry points, and demand has led to an extra class being added in both groups. The school has enough space in most year groups to offer flexibility to newcomers, but places are being swiftly filled by parents leaving London. Some families also welcome a fringe benefit of the all-through model: the opportunity to escape the potential stress of the 11+.
While the school is selective, it’s not highly academically so. Children joining in Year 7 will sit an exam but they do so alongside Frensham’s own Year 6, which is a good way of informally calibrating the cohort.
Sixth-form entry is strong – some students move on after GCSEs (perhaps for a change of scene in some cases), but there is always a fresh intake of students looking to finish their educational journey in this progressive environment. Anyone looking to join the school at this stage is expected to achieve at least six GCSEs at grades 9-4.
The academic ethos here revolves around critical and creative thinking, and collaboration was a word that sprang to mind repeatedly during our visit to Frensham. Teachers work closely with individuals and groups of students alike, pupils co-operate and confer to get the job done and staff have a mutual respect – partly due, perhaps, to the importance of parity across all subjects. Children are encouraged to find their potential and to thrive but not to be defined by exam results. This deliberate lack of competition is also apparent in the absence of a head boy/girl or prefects, and children aren’t singled out for prizes in a formal speech day. Instead, the aim is to build relationships that spark learning – and using teachers’ first names is one way that Frensham creates an environment of trust. Provided it doesn’t disrupt the class, students are allowed to learn however they wish – be it sitting in a window seat or with their books spread out on the floor. It all helps contribute to the lovely relaxed environment.
In the school's most recent inspection, both the quality of students' academic achievement and the personal development was found to be excellent – and the report commented that students are 'supported by teaching that is strongly focused on the individual' as they 'develop outstanding levels of self-knowledge, confidence, self-discipline and resilience' – high praise indeed.
French is taught from nursery, and all Year 7 and 8 students can take two languages (the second one is optional). Streaming starts in Year 7 for maths and Year 8 for English; students have the same tutor in Year 7 & 8 and then in Year 9-11, before moving to mixed-year tutor groups in the Sixth Form. A development project here is a new faculty structure that breaks down barriers between subjects and ensures that all have equal weight, and topic-style teaching throughout the school reinforces this. GCSE choices are very flexible too, with no one obliged to choose subjects that fit into pre-defined blocks (languages aren’t compulsory, for example).
Frensham boasts three ICT suites, and technology is a big focus. Students in Year 10 and above can sign up for a BTEC in Esport, which is highly focused on the business element of gaming (students might try their hand at managing a brand or developing a product) and taught in an incredible gaming room which must be utopia for many teenagers. The library is more comprehensively stocked with publications than many reputable newsagents. It is a buzzy and friendly place, with a hot-chocolate machine and a wonderfully engaging librarian who will source any book for you on the school Kindle if it can’t already be found on the shelves.
Creative subjects get top billing here, and are among some of the most popular A-level subjects alongside maths and psychology. Around a third of students fly the Frensham nest for Russell Group universities, while the rest take on a refreshingly wide range of courses including many in the creative arts.
Around 100 students board at Frensham Heights; around half are weekly or flexi and around 15 per cent of the boarders are from overseas. There are two boarding houses: Hamilton House for students in Years 7 to 10 (where pupils sleep in small dorms), and Roberts House for Years 11 to 13, which is set up like a university hall, with single rooms and two kitchens for rustling up light meals. Both have a lovely family feel and bright, welcoming and comfortable common rooms, plus a huge lawn to let off steam on.
Sian, Frensham’s head of boarding, has worked here for years – and house staff are charming with a great sense of humour. When we visited, she told us the boarding model here gives pupils an important mix of freedom and responsibility. Specialist teachers will often open up facilities for a particular activity at the weekend, but boarders can also enjoy shopping trips to Guildford, walks with the staff dogs, skating or trips to Harry Potter World. Boarders have access to their phones in the evening but at a certain time (depending on age), phones are stored safely in their charging cupboards and internet is switched off.
The informal environment here is credited for helping to create strong and respectful relationships between students and staff, while a no uniform rule allows children to express themselves. There’s a dedicated pastoral space, The Hub, for students to drop into anytime they wish, and a clever red, amber and green card system helps children discreetly remove themselves from lessons when needed.
An extended lunch break gives students plenty of time to chill out, stretch their legs and take part in clubs in the middle of a busy day, and wraparound care means everyone can stay on for homework and supper for a small additional fee. Students eat communally, which feels absolutely right at a school like this. The food is excellent, with imaginative salads and – during our visit a cheese-topped cottage pie that would have made Mary Berry jealous. Staff eat in the same dining area, mingled in among the students.
The majority of students here come from within a 20-mile radius. The community feels close, united by a very child-centred ethos that parents have purposely selected for their children.
This isn’t a uniformed or brand-driven school. It doesn’t rate itself on academic results but instead asks children to be brave, pose questions, be respectful and be themselves. We had a good sense that both students and staff felt empowered and accepted for who they are. If you’re looking for a school that really puts child’s needs first, Frensham Heights ticks all the right boxes.
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