A warm and thriving co-ed prep school for day and boarding pupils from three to 13, St Hugh’s is set in 45 acres of gently rolling south Oxfordshire countryside, with glorious views south to the Ridgeway. A cheerfully non-selective school, it nevertheless produces excellent results and a high scholarship strike rate from its 350 happy and polite pupils, who whizz about in one of the smartest school uniforms we’ve seen. Founded in 1906, it is small enough to feel cosy, but large enough not to feel cloyingly close. Being kind and mucking in is the order of the day here.
Down a long drive tucked off the A420, St Hugh’s is about 25 minutes from both Oxford and Swindon – each are an hour’s train journey to central London. The school’s Jacobean main building, once the family home of actor David Niven, sits front and centre, with modern classrooms and additions to the back. Hats off to the groundspeople – this is one of the tidiest, most immaculately kept schools we’ve been to.
James Thompson took the tiller from the widely admired Andrew Nott in 2019. Independent schools are something of a family business, Mr Thompson says: ‘My life has always been ruled by three terms and a bell.’ Dryly humorous, he is an avid skier and music-lover – and his great height and affection for St Hugh’s pink trousers make him hard to miss around the school.
Formerly head at Royal Russell Junior School, in Croydon, and deputy head at Ardingly College in West Sussex, Mr Thompson describes St Hugh’s as a place filled with those ‘really willing to go the extra mile for each other. The pastoral care is phenomenal and goes above and beyond what you’d expect.’ He is committed to keeping pupil numbers as they are, and keen to revamp the dining space and introduce more technology in upper-school learning. We’ve heard many stories of his personal kindness to both pupils and parents.
St Hugh’s has a healthy waiting list, but entry is possible into any year group if there are spaces. Sign up for an open day to look around and meet the head, after which a conditional offer may be made and a taster day undertaken. Please note, there’s no sibling discount, although they do give priority entry to those with siblings already in the school whenever possible. Fee assistance is available to qualifying families – up to as much as 100 per cent of fees. St Hugh’s also offers a discount of 15 per cent to armed forces families.
Academics and senior school destinations
The phase-out of Saturday school for Years 5 to 8 a few years ago means weekdays are long, with lessons not wrapping up until 4.40pm. Pupils mentioned how understanding teachers were if homework was forgotten or a games sock missing. ‘It’s not a stressful place at all,’ they said. The school’s wellbeing plan, which took 18 months to implement, won an award last year from the National Children’s Bureau. The brightest pupils are well supported with a scholarship set from Year 7; Latin is taught from Year 5, French from pre-prep, and we hear that the cooking lessons in D&T are superb.
The exit list is impressive: a record 26 scholarships were awarded by senior schools last year. But it’s not all about the superstars, as the school has a 100 per cent success rate at Common Entrance and first-choice school entry. These include usual suspects Eton, Harrow and Cheltenham Ladies’, but also Radley, St Mary’s Calne, Magdalen College School, Malvern, Abingdon, St Helen’s and St Katherine, Winchester, Rugby, St Edward’s, Oxford, and Cheltenham College. There’s a fair split between day and boarding senior-school destinations, with families now looking further afield to schools in Dorset and the Midlands.
The sports hall has been stunningly extended and refurbished in the past year, with the addition of a 20-metre indoor pool. Facilities include a floodlit Astro, seven tennis/netball courts, cricket nets, five rugby pitches, football/hockey pitches and a cross-country route through surrounding woodland. A highlight this year was the equestrian team’s qualification for the National Championships later this year.
Sport is five times a week, and Wednesday-afternoon matches for Years 4 to 8 are compulsory; the amazing teas encourage parental attendance even on the rainiest days. Rounders has been phased out in favour of cricket, and lacrosse has received a huge boost in the past few years. Girls in Year 7 and 8 can join the biennial Barbados netball tour, competing against local schools and clubs; boys go on a similar cricket tour in alternate years. Sports scholarships have recently been awarded from notables like Harrow, Malvern, Radley, Abingdon and Rugby schools.
Music and drama have flourished over the past decade, with the spring term Year 7 musical fusing departments to produce all-hands-on-deck shows (staged at a professional theatre) that have included Oliver!, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Honk! in recent years. St Hugh’s offers Lamda training, and selected pupils rehearse the whole school year to take part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival.
A dozen bands, ensembles and teatime concerts ensure music is part of the everyday life at the school, and the selective chamber choir goes on tour every spring to destinations such as Venice and Athens. Every two years in June there is a massive whole-school picnic concert held in the Rose Garden, and in alternate years teachers go glam at the St Hugh’s Rocks concert held in the Barn.
Thoroughly popular and much encouraged, boarding here is also very flexible. Pupils can weekly-board from Monday to Friday, flexi-board regular nights a week or do occasional one-offs if there’s space. Wednesday and Friday nights are the most coveted as they often involve off-site activities.
All-boarding is in the Manor House, and while the girls’ rooms have been recently revamped, the boys’ side looks a little more tired. Houseparents Jessica and Jack Avery (a former pupil) are very much visible throughout the day, feeding their own little ones at pupil breakfast in the morning and supervising smaller boarders’ prep in their flat, with Labrador Mazzi curled up under the big dining table.
Matrons are on hand 24 hours a day and gappies assist throughout the school with tea, prep and games. The pupils we spoke to gave the food a huge thumbs-up, with one mentioning the amazing amount of choice: “They don’t keep doing the same thing over and over and there’s always going to be something you like. And they sometimes do squid!”
Pre-prep pupils (Reception to Year 2) may arrive as early as 8am and remain until 5.30pm. After-school activities run between 4.45pm and 5.30pm four days a week, most of which are included in the fees. Day children can stay on afterwards for tea and prep with boarders, which ends at 7pm for middle school and 7.30pm for upper school.
Pastoral care is exceptional: 'One of the best bits of the school,' said one parent we asked. There is a huge emphasis on kindness, consideration and emotional stability.
There are few international pupils; this is very much a 'country' school, with families tending to come from within a 25-mile radius in Oxfordshire and east Gloucestershire.
This is a tightly woven school community with high levels of pitching in and a palpably warm relationship between staff and parents. Friends of St Hugh’s puts considerable effort into helping with events such as the Christmas fair, Bonfire Night and the summer fete, plus backstage donkey work and committed fundraising for Oxfordshire charities. Being a fairly rural school, the school does tend to be the hub of the social wheel, and parents looking for an international flavour might be better suited elsewhere, but for a halcyon, all-round, English prep-school experience, St Hugh’s is hard to beat.