Hello from a decidedly autumnal Oxfordshire!
Braving the UK’s fuel crisis, this month we visited Felsted School in Essex, where we spent the day absorbing the school’s family-friendly charm.
We not only have a written profile of Felsted School for you, but we’re also super excited to welcome the return of our newly revamped podcast, Tea with the Head! The podcast has come leaps and bounds since we first started, and now not only includes our usual interview with a headmaster, but also a tour around the school and conversations with other teachers, students, and staff. It’s a full aural profile of the school in question! So read on, and listen on, to understand what Felsted School is all about…
Felsted School in all its glory from above
Felsted School’s 80-acre campus spreads across a small village of the same name in Essex, just east of London, with quiet roads quickly turning into green fields on either side.
The approach to Felsted School isn’t particularly grand, but once you get there it’s a very pretty campus, with an impressive turreted red-brick main building and immaculate sports grounds that act as the centrepiece around which school buildings are dotted.
Felsted's beautiful meeting hall (picture courtesy of Felsted School)
Despite the fact that the school’s buildings date from the 1500s to the present day, there’s harmony in the architecture, with modern additions built in a traditional style or to contrast and complement the surrounding Tudor buildings. Other perhaps more rudimental outhouses are a little less smart, but clearly much-loved for it, and the overall atmosphere is relaxed and cosy, like a well-loved, traditional country house.
Felsted School is really well-connected. Chelmsford, the nearest station, is only 30 minutes by train from London Liverpool Street, and then either a 20-minute taxi or 30-minute bus to the school gates. Stansted airport is about a 15-minute drive away, and again there are reliable and frequent bus routes too. If you’re driving to London, it’s about an hour and a half, or Cambridge is only around 45 minutes away.
...and once more from the front: Felsted School
What (we think!) Felsted School is all about
Felsted School is very definitely a family school, and we mean that on multiple levels. First, because it also has a junior school, there are quite literally lots of brothers and sisters throughout the school that have been at Felsted School for years, which means communication with parents and pastoral care is top notch. But more generally, Felsted School really feels like a “home away from home” for pupils. Multiple students and staff spoke to us about how Felsted School’s community feels like “one big family”, and while we know a lot of schools lay claim to this, at Felsted School, we really sensed it too.
Sports is big here: Felsted's Cricket Pavillion (picture courtesy of Felsted School)
The school’s priority is to be successful and dependable across the board, rather than pushing and excelling in one particular niche at the expense of others. Felsted focuses on the simple things — pupils’ happiness, their quality of life, and the boarding experience, rather than shiny new facilities or flashy extracurriculars. Like real family life, Felsted School can sometimes seem a little scruffy and chaotic around the edges. But more than anything, it’s warm, welcoming, unpretentious and focused on caring for its community.
Art a forte - Felsted's great art department (picture courtesy of Felsted School)
In 2020, 55 per cent of pupils achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 46 per cent achieved As at A level (and 76 per cent A to B). Pupils scored 35 points in the IB on average in 2020. In 2019, the last year when exams took place, 47 per cent of pupils achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 27 per cent As at A level (and 55 per cent A to B).
About a third of students at Felsted School take the IB, and the school is really invested in the qualification, so much so that it’s taken concepts like the IB’s extended project into the A Level curriculum as well.
No doubt an attractive school, especially when the sun shows itself!
Felsted School isn’t a particularly academically selective school, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have big ambitions in this department. When we spoke with deputy head of academics, Sarah Capewell, she spoke about how Felsted has recently introduced media as a sixth form subject and broadened the art curriculum in response to pupils’ ambitions. “I think, as a school, we’re quite strong across the board, and I think one of the things that we're really proud of is the range of subjects that we can offer and the different specialties that we can accommodate,” she said. In the future, Sarah said, she’s keen to see the curriculum expand to include computer science, politics and international relations, “to get our pupils looking outwards a little bit more” and as a fitting response to the modern world. The curriculum doesn’t sleep at Felsted School! For those who are particularly academically able, there’s also the Andrews society, where pupils research a topic of their choice, and then present and discuss their findings with their cohort, before entering their work into an annual competition. We also particularly liked the sound of Felsted’s Women in Science programme, designed to combat the gender divide in STEM — or STEAM, as headmaster Chris Townsend reminds us — subjects.
Have we mentioned sports yet? Felsted's renovated swimming pool
Felsted School is well known for its sporting prowess — Monty, a GCSE student we spoke to, for example, was drawn to the school specifically because of its sporting offer which an old pupil recommended to him, he told us. The school has particular success in rugby, hockey, netball, cricket and tennis. And Felsted knows that to have the best teams, it needs the best teachers. That’s why the head of cricket is an ex-England player, and the girls’ cricket coach has played in the Women’s Super League. “I think particularly with the girls’ cricket, it was crucial to have a role model that the girls could relate to in order to get the sport to take off properly,” says headmaster Chris, who happens to be a bit of a cricket aficionado himself.
One of the boys boarding houses
More unusual sports are also catered for — there’s polo, linked to the local polo club, squash, golf, badminton and a host of others, depending on teachers’ interests. “Once you get one or two members of staff who’ve got a passion for something, it doesn’t take much for the boys and girls to follow them,” says Barney Berry, a housemaster and PE teacher at Felsted.
Music, art and drama are also very popular at Felsted School, and the school’s music department is known for sending pupils to Guildhall music courses and the National Youth Orchestra. Alongside sport, it was the music department that Monty singled out to us as being particularly well led.
One of the boys boarding houses - from the inside
Boarding at Felsted School follows a slightly different model to most schools we visit. Pupils are in single sex houses until the end of lower sixth (their penultimate year). Then, in their final year, there’s a single boarding house for boys and girls, that allows Felsted to properly prepare the leaving cohort for life in the real world. This includes activities like learning how to change a tyre, which we love!
Before sixth form though, we got the impression that boarding life at Felsted School is definitely focused around the school rather than the attractions of nearby London and elsewhere. Every Saturday, after lessons, there are sporting fixtures and then a “one weekend in, one weekend out” activity programme, which sees houses rotate between “in” activities at school like zorb football or arts and crafts, and trips “out” to Chelmsford for the cinema, adventure parks like Thorpe Park, Cambridge, or London. There’s a big emphasis on parental permission and keeping kids’ safe — even in the sixth form, pupils need parents’ permission to spend the day in London on the weekend.
The school's fabulous dining hall. The food's good too!
However, Monty said he was pleasantly surprised by how much freedom increases as you go up the school. “You get much more independence as you get older,” he told us. “You just slowly get turned out into the real world, it’s really good.”
Around 75 per cent of the senior years board at Felsted School, so there’s plenty of pupils in house over the weekend to keep a strong sense of community. “The boys see themselves as brothers, they do refer to themselves as brothers,” Barney tells us of the boys in his house. “Those in the sixth form in particular really see themselves as looking after the young lads.” House competitions are a big event — there were some lively (!) rehearsals in progress for a house song competition when we poked our noses in. There’s also a real emphasis on celebrating Felsted’s international student community, with regular themed nights, such as Oktoberfest, for Saturday night socials in the dining hall.
Only for the older kids: the brandnew 6th Form Center
Boarding houses we visited had a really homely feel to them, with sports kit and students’ belongings dotted around the place. (This wasn’t unpleasantly messy, but rather felt cosy and lived-in.)
As well as the pastoral support offered by house masters and mistresses, who seemed to us to be surrogate mum and dads, Felsted has also recently opened its new Wellness Centre. The centre has a large room with relaxing music and low lighting, that provides a calm space for students to drop in for a bit of rest and relaxation, as well as private rooms for counselling or other services. Staff have been hired in especially for the Wellness Centre, which we think shows how serious the school is about its pupils’ wellbeing.
School chapel in the autumn evening sun
Our view on a student suited to Felsted School
The large majority of students would be happy at Felsted School — it’s a warm, friendly, down to earth environment that has plenty going on in terms of sports, music, drama, and academics. This is probably not the place for those that really want to flex their intellectual muscle the whole time or those that want state of the art facilities and out-the-box boarding socials; rather, this is a school that focuses on doing the simple things well, with due love, care and attention. Felsted is a school that will dependably develop a child across the board, fulfilling everything but the most extreme demands, and give them some very happy years in the process.
Felsted School’s family feel also means the school is all about mucking in, and it’s looking for pupils that align with that ethos. “I always say to students, whatever age they’re starting at, that they almost certainly haven’t yet done in their lives the thing that’s going to be most interesting to them for the rest of their life,” says headmaster Chris. “And if they say no to opportunities, they might never find that. So always try, even if you don’t like it, you can file that one away, and try something else.” Quite!