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25 November 2021
by Ferdinand Steinbeis


English Boarding Schools in Profile: Box Hill School, The Caring School With An International Mindset

Hello from Oxfordshire!
Our school visit this month has had the added pleasure of some beautiful autumn colours — it might be getting colder but the English countryside is looking as lovely as ever! We’re transporting you this time to Surrey, where we visited Box Hill School, a super friendly little school that we’re excited to share with you. So read on!
Box Hill School's attractive main house (picture courtesy of Box Hill School)
The Setting
Box Hill School is in Mickleham, a sweet village—think brick and flint walls and whitewashed pubs—in the Surrey Hills, between the towns of Dorking and Leatherhead. There’s no end of attractions near Box Hill for those that love the outdoors, as the Surrey Hills are one of the UK’s “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” and Box Hill, the hill from which the school takes its name, is a popular cycling and walking destination.
Football pitches in the late autumn sun.
The school itself is a bit of a mix in terms of its aesthetics. The main building is a beautiful gothic revival Victorian house that retains its grandeur inside and out, and there are well-kept lawns and dew ponds around campus to rival any traditional boarding school. But Box Hill School is actually quite a young school — it was founded in 1959. As the main building would never be large enough to cater for a school of 400, there are a number of new additions around the small but charming campus. Some of these are very chic and smart—the relatively new wood-panelled sports centre and the well-equipped modern music block, for example—but others are a little worn around the edges with a distinctly 60s or portakabin feel to them.
Box Hill School is only about an hour and a half by car to London and trains to Dorking (a 3-minute taxi from the school) take an hour from London Victoria. There is another station, Box Hill, which is right next to the school but trains only go there five or six times a day so most pupils choose Dorking. For airports, you’re spoilt for choice, with both Gatwick and Heathrow a 30-minute drive away and also easily accessible by train.
Box Hill's tree walk - to get yourself out of your comfort zone.(picture courtesy of Box Hill School)
What (we think!) Box Hill School is all about
Box Hill School is not your typical English boarding school. For starters, as we mentioned, it's relatively young; the school celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2019. It’s also quite small, with only 425 pupils. And it’s very firmly a modern, international school: around 30 per cent of pupils come from abroad, and around half speak English as their second language. Together, these characteristics make Box Hill a dynamic, cosmopolitan, caring school that heavily prioritises the individual. Everyone knows everyone, classes are small, and success is measured against each students’ personal potential rather than by grades or percentage points.
Hive of activity: Box Hill's buzzing arts department.(picture courtesy of Box Hill School)
Much of this ethos stems from the fact that Box Hill School was one of the founding members of the “Round Square” schools, a worldwide association of schools underpinned by the thinking of Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun in Scotland. Six ideals are core to all Round Square schools: internationalism, democracy, environmentalism, adventure, leadership, and service. This is not a school that is steeped in English traditions — from the sports on offer to the approach to Saturday school, everything at Box Hill School is a little different, a round square!
A typical science lesson at Box Hill.
The Academics
Simon Powell, director of admissions and curriculum, summed up Box Hill’s approach to academics very well for us when we visited. “It’s not important to us who’s top in maths or French, or whatever subject, because only one child can be that,” he said. “It’s much more important to us how each child does against their predicted outcome, and how they exceed their potential.”
Pupils clearly benefit from this personalised approach. Jason, a sixth former from Hong Kong studying maths, further maths, physics and geography at A Level, said his favourite thing about Box Hill School is the teachers — an answer also given by three other sixth formers we spoke to. “They’re all very supportive and have helped me a lot,” Jason told us. Of the lessons we saw, we got an impression of friendly, relaxed teachers, and an informal but mature attitude within the classroom. Schoolwide, there’s a ratio of about one teacher for every nine students. This means that class sizes are small—we saw quite a few with just two students in them—and there’s a really strong support system for students with special educational needs that includes one-on-one coaching as well as multi-sensory teaching.
Education in action - a design project in the making.
Box Hill School's Round Square ethos also means that lots of lessons happen outside the classroom, and there’s a focus on preparing pupils for later life, not just exams. There isn’t a desire for the school to excel in any particular subject or department, because, Powell says, that would be to the detriment of other departments. “We excel across the board, it’s about the flexibility of the programme that we have to offer,” he says.
Alissa, a Swiss sixth former that we spoke to, pointed out that the international student body means lots of different ideas are brought to the table in classes. “We have a lot of different cultures, people from all over the world coming together, so for example we have great discussions in history classes with lots of different views,” she said.
One-on-one academic support at its best!
Only minimally selective, Box Hill School’s exam results are testimony to the dedicated teaching that pupils receive. In 2020, 30 per cent of pupils achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 27 per cent achieved A or A (59 per cent A/B) at A Level; and the IB average point score was 33. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 20 per cent achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 19 per cent A or A at A level (46 per cent A-B); and the IB average point score was 31.
There’s a roughly 50/50 split between IB and A Level, with a choice of ten A Levels on offer, but if pupils want to study languages they have to do the IB. New subjects include things like Computer Science, introduced this year for one student to take at A Level and with an already popular uptake at GCSE. And, of course, catering to international students is second nature at Box Hill — programmes are well structured, and English as a second language is embedded into all of them.
21st century schooling: pupils learn how to create podcasts in the school's own podcasting studio.
The Extracurriculars
Because of its proudly international angle, Box Hill School has a slightly different sports offering to traditional boarding schools. As deputy head of academic, James Thomson, told us: “We’re not a big rugby-cricket school with loads of fixtures on a Saturday… We’re international, we focus on tennis, football, hockey, netball, that kind of thing.” Lots of pupils, day and boarders, join sporting clubs outside of school in nearby towns that they can be driven to and from.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a strong sporting presence at Box Hill School though — it’s just that they cater to their students’ more varied interests in sports such as basketball, tennis, and rounders. Fixtures at other schools take place on Wednesday afternoons, and Alissa said they were one of her highlights so far. The sports facilities are impressive: there’s a new sports block with indoor courts, gym and zumba/yoga/kickboxing studio, a half size astro, large playing fields, a summer swimming pool, basketball courts, and much more.
Box Hill offers great performing arts, staged in its own multi-purpose space.
Small school numbers mean everyone gets a chance to muck in, and participation is key. Box Hill School is unlikely to satisfy those who want to play at a seriously competitive level, but pupils seemed happy with what’s on offer.
The arts, music and drama are also popular, especially with a new hugely enthusiastic art teacher brought on board. We would say this, but we were particularly glad to see Box Hill has its own podcast studio for pupils to use, complete with hanging mics and proper soundproofing — a good example of Box Hill thinking out of the box!
Cozy boarding houses: a girls' dorm.
The Boarding
There are about 150 boarders at Box Hill, and around 275 day pupils. In the boarding community, 70 per cent are international students from over 32 nationalities. But teachers insist you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between boarding and day pupils — houses (six in total) are “just where they sleep” and year groups have lunch together in the main dining hall or hang out in the sixth form centre, so boarders aren’t separated from their cohort until the day pupils leave at the end of the school day.
What’s particularly appealing about Box Hill School is that there are no exeats — pupils are welcome to leave on the weekend to visit relatives or stay with friends if they want, but there are no times when they’re forced to go. The school is also currently staying open over half terms and is likely to continue to do so next academic year.
Cozy boarding houses: a girls' dorm.
Unlike most other boarding schools, there’s no Saturday school at Box Hill School. Boarders must use Saturday morning for some prep time, but are otherwise free to go on arranged activities—go-karting, museums in London, ice skating at Somerset House, Chinatown, Harry Potter World and the like—or take themselves off as long as they’re back at a reasonable hour. Arman, a sixth former from Iran, said that the boarding community was his favourite thing about Box Hill School and that in lower years, the nearby towns of Dorking and Kingston are popular weekend spots, while in the sixth form they’ll head to London. “It’s a really supportive community, you feel very comfortable, it’s like being at home really,” he said.
The arts department once more.
Others echo this sentiment. “It’s a really familiar, really small school, you know all the year groups and the sixth form is very close,” Alissa told us, while Ella, an IB student in the sixth form, added that she felt the school was “really inclusive”. All sixth formers we spoke to characterised the boarding set up as relaxed and mature, with things like alcohol purchase allowed for over 18s but under an appropriate supervisory eye.
Pupils do admit, though, that some boarding houses are possibly due a refurbishment.
Box Hill's spectacular new sports hall in the autumn sunshine.
Our view on a student suited to Box Hill School
Box Hill School is an incredibly caring school that is not going to let any pupil get lost in the crowd. For that reason, we really recommend it to pupils that would benefit from an extra helping hand and more attentive pastoral care or teaching methods. Many pupils we’ve sent to Box Hill School who were struggling at their previous schools have flourished, exceeding what they were deemed capable of beforehand.
Box Hill School might not have all the world-class facilities, acres of space or promises of top grades that some larger more traditional schools boast, but it’s truly devoted to its pupils and offers what’s best for each one of them. This personal attention, combined with the relaxed, international and slightly more modern outlook makes Box Hill School an ideal place for those who aren’t suited to the traditional structures of British boarding school and those who are seeking a global, liberal outlook on the world.

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