Main image: King's Ely
For the latest in our series of regional features, we’re focusing on schools in the East of England. Taking in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, it’s a hugely diverse area both in terms of geography and what it offers. You’ll find everything from some of the UK’s prettiest beaches in the depths of rural Norfolk to the historical university city of Cambridge and the well-connected commuter towns on the fringes of the M25. Of course, some parts are properly remote – Norfolk, for example, is well-known for its lack of motorways and the fact it isn’t really on the way to anywhere – but that’s all part of its charm. A city at the forefront of innovation, industry and entrepreneurship, Cambridge is bursting with opportunity, and parts of the Home Counties of Essex and Hertfordshire are just a Tube ride from the pulse of city life.
Read on to find out more about some of our favourite schools in the East of England and why their setting is such a key part of their USP, and then read our reviews and compare schools in our dedicated East of England schools guide.
Chigwell Prep and Senior School, Chigwell
Chigwell is a solid contender for one of the top schools in Essex. The all-through education offered here is academically sound, yet with wellbeing and pastoral care as one of its central tenets (the knockout, brand-new sport and wellness centre is testament to this), it’s a properly holistic offering too. And its real trump card is the location, ringed by Epping Forest but just a 25-minute hop into London on the Central line, with the City skyline poking through the trees on the 100-acre campus. In short, it’s got the convenience and community spirit of a town school, with all the green space and opportunities of a country school.
With just a small cohort of boarders, most families live nearby, meaning parents are actively involved in all aspects of school life, turning up to school events and cheering from the sidelines at sports matches. Pupils engage with the local community via collaborative projects and initiatives, and the school regularly opens the doors to its state-of-the-art facilities. Full marks for its environmental ambitions too: plans are in motion to develop a dedicated field centre on campus, kickstarting a rewilding programme and helping educate pupils on how their food is grown and sourced – and we’re excited to see these projects progress.
HOW TO GET THERE: Just inside the M25, Chigwell’s edge-of-city location makes it readily accessible for Londoners. Nearby Chigwell Tube station is 10 stops from Liverpool Street, while the M11 is less than two miles from the school gates. An extensive school-bus network serves routes running to and from local towns including Theydon Bois, Woodford and Chingford.
St Faith’s, Cambridge
We love this forward-looking, progressive Cambridge school that puts as much emphasis on STEM subjects as it does sport. Academically, St Faith’s is flying – and its enviable Cambridge location gives pupils peerless access to the university’s facilities, resources and networks. Budding historians and explorers can pop down to the nearby Fitzwilliam Museum or Scott Polar Institute; the neighbouring University Botanic Gardens open up opportunities from botany to photography; and the school’s setting next to the Cambridge Biomedical campus means pupils can meet scientists from local hospitals and get involved in charity fundraising. Pupils are even invited to take part in events and activities with the Cambridge university community, from singing in college choirs to taking part in coding competitions.
St Faith’s has a slew of knockout facilities of its own, including a multimillion-pound STEM hub (the school leads the way in its teaching of engineering), but with close links to The Leys (the two schools share the same foundation), pupils can tap into senior-standard sports pitches and more. It makes the senior-school transition easier too; almost half of pupils go onto The Leys at 13, while others head on to the city’s top schools, including The Perse and Stephen Perse. And while a large number of families hail from academic and professional backgrounds, expect a refreshingly diverse community, with over 30 different cultures represented.
HOW TO GET THERE: St Faith’s location on the outskirts of the city is a boon – there’s no need for parents to battle the busy central Cambridge traffic on the school run. School shuttle buses run to and from the various Park & Ride locations throughout the city, but many pupils walk or cycle to school. Commuters can reach London by train in under an hour.
The Leys School, Cambridge
Lots of schools talk about making the most of the community they’re part of, but at The Leys that goes far beyond lip service. An urban school with a distinctly country vibe (pupils live and work on a 50-acre, central-Cambridge split site), it’s so popular among families in the region that some travel up to an hour each day to get here – not just to take advantage of the opportunities offered by The Leys, but by the city itself too. Close connections with the University of Cambridge give the school serious academic clout: societies are run in partnership with university colleges; postgraduate students pop in to mentor A-level students; and there’s a glittering line-up of guest speakers from the university and beyond. Musical concerts are often held in spine-tinglingly beautiful college chapels alongside renowned university choirs, and pupils even take part in the university’s intercollegiate sporting competitions. There’s also a smart boathouse on the River Cam for keen rowers.
With the majority of families hailing from Cambridgeshire or East Anglia, many take up the school’s popular ‘home-boarding’ option, which gives day pupils everything but a bed. Parents can scoop up their children as late as 9pm – homework, clubs, activities, societies and supper done and dusted – and avoid the Cambridge rush-hour traffic in the process.
HOW TO GET THERE: Located on one of the main arteries into the city, The Leys feels like a little urban oasis. From here, it’s an easy 20-minute walk to Cambridge train station in one direction, and a 10-minute drive to the M11 in the other.
King’s Ely Prep and King’s Ely, Ely
King’s Ely is well-known for its close links with the Cambridgeshire city’s magnificent cathedral – the school has been educating the city’s choristers for over 100 years. And it’s the cathedral itself that has brought fame to the history-steeped city (including a starring role in The Crown), regularly lauded as one of the best places to live in the East of England. The school is set right in its shadow (the cathedral doubles as the school chapel and a well-used performance and concert space), surrounded by 75 acres of gardens, green space and pitches, while the boat club – five minutes’ walk from the school gates – gives pupils uninterrupted access to a stretch of water running for over 15 miles in each direction and shared with rowers from the University of Cambridge Boat Club.
With Cambridge just a 15-minute train ride away, this is a hugely popular all-through, co-ed choice for families looking for an alternative to the city’s incredibly oversubscribed schools.
HOW TO GET THERE: Ely train station is half a mile from the school, with fast trains running to Cambridge in 15 minutes and London in just under an hour.
Langley Prep School, Tavenham and Langley Senior School, Loddon
Circled by flint-clad villages, fields, farms and forests, a stone’s throw from Sandringham and boasting the title of the driest region in the UK, Langley’s location parcels up all the best bits of Norfolk. Split across two 100-acre campuses, both the prep and senior school are real head-turners: the senior is a Palladian beauty in the middle of Capability-Brown parkland, and the prep – 30 minutes down the road and just a few miles outside Norwich – is a neo-Jacobean mansion seemingly taken straight out of a period drama (it also has the River Wensum running through the grounds, providing opportunities for fishing).
We love the real focus on the individual here. It’s fervently non-selective, with excellent support for pupils with SEND, and total flexibility for sixth-formers to choose their A-levels and BTECs to best suit their strengths and interests. There’s even a football academy at the senior school, headed by a former Norwich City player and attracting pupils from all over, with many going on to join national clubs and bring home stacks of silverware.
HOW TO GET THERE: Langley’s prep and senior schools are both located an easy drive from Norwich, with a shuttle running between the two schools. A network of school buses stops off all over Norfolk, and Norwich airport is just 15 miles from the senior school. For boarders, Stansted is less than two hours away.
Ipswich Prep School and Ipswich School, Ipswich
'Suffolk is a country of stunning countryside, beautiful woodlands, far-reaching views and a wonderful heritage coast – and it really can offer the best of everything, either on our doorstep or just a short journey away,’ says Ipswich School, which, in tandem with its prep school, offers a seamless all-through education. Importantly, its centre-of-town location doesn’t come at the expense of space to roam – it sits directly opposite 33-acre Christchurch Park, which pupils make use of for anything from weekly wellbeing walks to running club. There’s also a slew of sport facilities in a vast wooded area just off site – so good that they’re used by various county teams to train, including the Suffolk cricket first XI, who regularly pop in to borrow the ground.
Families come from a broad Suffolk catchment area, while those living further away can join the small boarding community and make the most of weekends spent mooching around Ipswich or Cambridge and enjoying blustery walks along the coast.
HOW TO GET THERE: Ipswich train station is 20 minutes’ walk from the school gates, and a school-bus network brings pupils in from up to an hour away. Trains from Ipswich zip passengers to London in less than an hour.
Framlingham College Prep School and Framlingham College, Framlingham
Many will know Framlingham College’s village setting thanks to its starring role in Ed Sheeran’s hit ‘Castle on the Hill’. But there’s a lot more to shout about this rural Suffolk location than its moment in the musical spotlight. ‘There is a sense of freedom and rootedness of having the space to think, to breathe, to grow and to gain perspective,’ says the school. The royal family was rather taken with the location too: the school was founded by public subscription as Suffolk’s memorial to Prince Albert.
A proper all-rounder, Framlingham gets solid academic results but, rather than chasing league-table positions, it puts the emphasis on pupils finding their strengths. And with stacks of space on campus, facilities are top-notch: an indoor pool, nine-hole golf course, endless pitches and Astros, and even provision for shooting and riding too. While there’s a strong day contingent, the school is becoming increasingly popular with families further afield, taking advantage of the easy train links to London by signing up for weekly boarding and trading a city education for Suffolk’s big skies.
HOW TO GET THERE: School buses run to and from local towns and villages including Aldeburgh, Lowestoft, Bury St Edmunds and Diss, while shuttles from Cambridge, Norwich and Colchester run every Monday morning and Saturday evening. For international boarders, there’s a transfer service to Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted at the start and end of term.
Old Buckenham Hall, Brettenham
Old Buckenham Hall has got pretty much everything you could ask for from a country prep school: 90 acres of park and woodland for pupils to run loose in; outdoor classrooms, mud runs, ponds, chicken coops, beehives and even an orchard, all in the heart of rural Suffolk. And while a significant number of families come from East Anglia, it’s certainly not cut off from the rest of the country – in fact, the train line to London is less than 10 miles away, and from there, it’s an easy journey to Liverpool Street in under an hour and a half. The school is popular with French and Spanish children who often come for a term for a taste of the muddy-kneed, British prep-school experience and to soak up the real home-from-home boarding atmosphere.
And all that fresh country air rubs off on children in the classroom – leavers head off to prestigious boarding schools both in the East of England and further afield, many with a scholarship in tow.
HOW TO GET THERE: School-bus routes fan out in all directions, towards Saffron Walden to the west, Bury St Edmunds to the north, and Stowmarket to the east. Trains run from nearby Colchester, Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds direct to London Liverpool Street.
Orwell Park School, Ipswich
As first impressions go, Orwell Park wins hands down. Its knockout setting – 110 acres of parkland overlooking the Orwell estuary with a stunning 18th century mansion in the centre – is enough to make many parents sign up on the spot, and sets the tone for the reassuringly muddy-kneed education offered here too.
Children are brilliantly prepared for senior schools thanks to a busy and varied curriculum that makes the absolute most of the superb facilities on site, from a dedicated bushcraft forest camp to an outdoor pool ensconced in a pretty walled garden. There’s even a nine-hole golf course and working Victorian observatory (which hosts the hugely popular astronomical society), plus plenty of opportunities to develop outdoor and leadership skills via regular forest school sessions, with a friendly herd of deer often making an appearance too.
HOW TO GET THERE: The school is just 10 minutes’ drive from Ipswich train station, where trains run to London in under an hour. Stansted Airport is 40 miles from the school, and a daily school bus network brings pupils in from nearby towns and villages.
Saint Felix Prep School and Saint Felix School, Southwold
There are few better places for a child to spend their school days than the Suffolk coastal town of Southwold, with its pretty pier, working lighthouse and sandy beach lined with pastel-coloured huts. St Felix is walking distance from the seaside, backed by 75 acres of countryside – and here, learning is taken outside wherever possible. Forest school is a firm fixture on the curriculum for everyone up until Year 6; there’s den-building and stargazing for nursery and pre-prep pupils; and sixth-formers regularly take their A-level geography lessons out onto the beach. Pony-mad pupils can bring their own horses to school to gallop around its very own cross-country course, and boarders have endless opportunities to soak up the British seaside atmosphere on the weekends, whatever the weather.
HOW TO GET THERE: Norwich is just under an hour’s drive away, and the nearest train station, Darsham, has trains running to London in just over two hours.
Brookes UK Prep and Brookes UK Senior, Bury St Edmunds
Brookes UK brings a brilliantly international vibe to a lovely pocket of rural Suffolk: the school is part of the global Brookes Education Group, which boasts 52 different nationalities across its seven schools everywhere from Moscow to Kochi. Full marks for its hugely inclusive admissions policy – pupils of all abilities are welcomed, with no need for children to leap through academic hoops to gain a place.
Boarding kicks in from Year 5, and is particularly popular with the school’s international cohort, who – as well as making use of the seven acres on campus – can pop into the market town of Bury St Edmunds or head a little further afield to Cambridge. Many choose to stay over with local families during the weekends, which is a brilliant way to get under the skin of life in the UK.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Located just off the A14, Brookes UK is within easy reach of Cambridge, Newmarket and many villages in West Suffolk and East Cambridgeshire. Trains run from nearby Bury St Edmunds to London (via Ipswich) in under two hours, and Stansted airport is less than an hour from the school.
Bedford Prep School and Bedford School, Bedford
Bedford really does have the best of both worlds,’ says the school, which boasts a stunning 50-acre site right in the heart of the historic market town with which it shares its name. Bedford School has been around for centuries, but more and more Londoners are sitting up and taking notice of this confident all-boys, all-through school, with trains to St Pancras taking just over 30 minutes and weekly- and flexi-boarding options making it a compelling alternative to some of the more hothouse schools in the capital.
And despite being so close to the bright lights, it smacks of rural bliss too. Keen rowers can decamp to the River Ouse for training sessions (the school’s boathouse is on the banks of the river, right in the centre of town); close links with nearby Woburn Golf Club give pupils access to three championship courses; and Bedford’s very own nature reserve, Ickwell Bury, opens up heaps of outdoor education opportunities, from pond-dipping to survival skills and conservation. And with the school such a key part of the town, there are plenty of community partnerships too – its Quarry Theatre is open to the public, while pupils volunteer in old peoples’ homes and with local charities, and regularly help out at Bedford primary schools.
HOW TO GET THERE: Bedford is the perfect commuter town: London is 30 minutes away on the train, yet the school’s vast site is just a five-minute walk from the high street. Cambridge is an hour to the east, and Luton airport is 45 minutes to the south.
While it’s impossible to list all of the top schools in the East of England here, we’ve included a few more of our favourites that are well worth adding to your list: