Hello from Richmond,
Weatherwise our Mai here in the UK can only be described as a wash-out. Rain, rain and more rain. As ever, this does not deter us from seizing the quieter days of this moment in our season to visit as many of our partner schools as possible.
Next to old favorites that we know well and love, we always visit our lesser recommended schools also. Often these schools drop off our radar for a little bit. Not because they are in any way inferior, but because they just don’t fit 100% with our families’ perceptions of what a British boarding school ought to be.
Frensham Heights School is one of these schools. Fresham Heights School is a so-called progressive school. And we think that this is a school that merits a closer look for sure. We spoke to the former headmaster Rick Clarke about the school for our podcast “Tea with the Head” a few years back (check out Episode 10). Even though - or maybe exactly because! - it is not a boarding school in the classic sense.
Frensham's beautiful Edwardian main house
Frensham Heights School is located near the village Rowledge, close to the bigger Farnham in the county of Surrey. It took us no longer than 40 minutes from Richmond to get there, so assume about a one-hour drive from London proper.
The school’s campus is beautiful. The huge, lusciously green 120-acre estate is home to a range of impressive facilities, including a magnificent theatre, two boarding houses, art studios, science labs, a music department, and a design and technology workshop. Pupils here get to experience the best of both worlds, with access to London, while being surrounded by a rural idyll. The campus also boasts extensive sports facilities, including tennis courts, a sports hall, a swimming pool, and sports fields. Moreover, outdoor activities are big here and kids have the run of a high-ropes course and a bike trail. And with Frensham being a creative, artsy place, you will find beautiful, sometimes cooky sculptures all over campus - from huge mushrooms to a massive sculpture of a hand.
Sculptures across the campus - here, of huge mushrooms
One of the most remarkable features of Frensham Heights School is its stunning Grade II listed main building. This Edwardian country house has been extended over the years to accommodate the growing student body. Today, it serves as a beautiful backdrop to the school's modern facilities, blending history with modernity in a way that is both charming and unique.
Most memorable in our minds is the view from the main house over the stunning Surrey countryside, all the way to the Southern Downs, beyond which lies the sea. Rarely have we seen a more beautiful view!
What a view!
What (we think!) Fresham Heights School is about
On the surface Frensham Heights School looks like most other boarding schools. There’s the Edwardian manor house reminiscent of Hogwarts; the sports pitches, theatre and art rooms. Spend only five minutes here however, and you’ll see rather quickly that this school is quite fundamentally different. For starters, pupils don’t wear school uniforms here. They also have an easy-going, quietly self-confident air about them. Conversations with teachers are relaxed, informal and on a first-name basis. All this is very, very different from the more traditional boarding schools.
Amazing art everywhere: Frensham has one of the UK's best art departments
What’s driving this is the fact that Frensham Heights School is a so-called progressive school. The term progressive has been politicized rather heavily in recent years. At Frensham Heights School it simply means that pupils should have a say in what they learn and how, and how their school is run. That does not sound too out-there, right? Maybe not, but in an educational world that over-indexes on conformism, academic performance and a top-down style where “education happens to you”, Frensham’s approach is a breath of fresh air! How all this manifests itself will become clear below.
More beautiful art...
Frensham Heights School is also an incredibly creative school. We got a good look into the art and design technology workshops and were bowled over by the facilities and the amazing quality of pupil work we saw! Also the theatre is one of the best we’ve seen at any boarding school and the school has bespoke dance and drama studios with sprung floors. So, both creative and performing arts are massive here.
The school's cozy library
So, what does ‘being progressive’ mean in an academic context?
Right up front it’s crucial to mention that pupils here prepare for GCSE and A-Level exams just like everywhere else. Inevitably this constrains the pupils’ freedom to direct their education quite fundamentally. That said, we thought it was fascinating to witness how, even within the given curricular constraints, teachers and pupils here manage to create something uniquely different.
Beautiful from the back also: the main house
Example - an Economics lesson. We were allowed to attend a Y10 Economics class for about 10 minutes. A class of 15 pupils were animatedly discussing the risk of cyber fraud in the financial industry. Now, we know that classroom discussions at British boarding schools are more interactive than elsewhere. Here it was positively lively! The teacher was at odds with two pupils with very strong opinions on the subject. The pupils were not pulling their punches, but in a friendly, respectful fashion. Then more pupils chimed in and it got a little chaotic, prompting the teacher to restore calm.
We left the class in awe of the teacher. Not only had he been impressively knowledgeable on the subject of corporate cyber fraud, he had also been supremely cool and patient. He had asked great probing questions of his class, which ultimately led to what seemed a satisfactory outcome. When we interviewed former Headmaster Rick Clarke about teachers at Fresham Heights School he told us: “ they have to work harder here than at most other schools! They have to establish good relationships with each pupil and often coach pupils to success. It really is a form of coaching!”
Corridor leading to art department...
In essence, pupils have a lot more freedom to question things in Frensham Heights School’s class rooms than anywhere else we’ve witnessed. They are encouraged to get creative with subjects and take risks with points of view that might be unusual, even unorthodox. Classes are much less formal here and can get a little noisy, but this is from excitement about a topic not distraction. Also pupils were respectful at all times!
Also learning here is very tailored to the individual pupil’s needs and interests. Everyone is in charge of their own education here and teachers are there to facilitate and support on this individual journey. Rather than focusing on academic competition between pupils, the school prioritizes individual success, where students succeed according to their own goals and targets.
Stairs to the music department...
OK, stimulating for sure, but does it get results? The answer is yes: In 2022, 41 per cent of pupils achieved 9-7 at GCSE and 40 per cent A/A at A level (67 per cent A-B). Given that Frensham Heights School is academically non-selective, these are very decent results indeed!
However, Frensham Heights School’s education does not stop with the traditional academic repertoire. Two additional courses we liked especially: Firstly, ‘The Edge’ is a selection of courses to help them expand their practical skills - from leadership to commercial awareness; from creativity to team work. Specifically, pupils learn a wide range of skills from cooking, enterprise and construction to theatre lighting. And secondly ‘Expanding Horizonts’, which gives pupils the opportunity to learn about and discuss what is happening in the world today. Pupils discuss topics from politics, philosophy, ethics and religion to engage critically, to reflect and to challenge. We love!
Frensham's Green Power Race contender!
Frensham Heights School offers an impressive range of extracurricular activities, but its absolute forte are no doubt the creative and performing arts.
Evidence of the school’s creative nous abounds all over campus. There’s sculptures all across the campus and the pupils’ astonishingly good fine art displayed on many of the school’s walls. The art department has a proper art school feel and has a unique, tent-like outdoors space for pupils working on projects requiring more room. Especially popular here are fine art, photography, pottery and furniture design and we had chats with a few pupils self-confidently explaining their projects-in-progress.
One of the best in the UK: Frensham's Aldridge Theater
And then there’s the theatre. Unfortunately there were GCSE exams in progress, so we could only catch a glimpse, but even from this we gleaned that this is an amazing and integral part of extracurricular life at Frensham Heights. The theatre itself is modern, stylish and spacious - a stunning space to perform. Behind the scenes is a vibrant thespian community creating at least two major productions a term, as well as performances at the famous Edinburgh Festival.
Very, very good creative offer: a pupil's sculpture on campus
Music and dance are strong here, also. Whilst we did not witness any dance classes during our visit (there’s contemporary dance, ballet and street dance on offer!), we saw the beautiful music department and heard some rather stunning piano practice going on. Moreover, one of our recent pupils at Frensham Heights left school having composed and recorded several pieces of music there and raved about the school’s music offer!
None of this is too surprising, of course. A progressive education with the individual freedom to develop at its heart goes naturally with a strong creative offer. At the end of the day it’s all about self-expression and taking calculated risks.
One of the school's dance and theatre studios
Whilst Frensham Heights School did not immediately strike us as an especially sporty school, sports is very popular here - both competitively and recreationally. Also, Physical Education is compulsory of course! Traditional games like cricket, tennis, football, hockey, swimming, athletics and netball are on offer, as well as less conventional sports like trampolining, gymnastics, handball and basketball.
Oh, and of course there’s an abundance of cool clubs and activities on offer here. Befitting of a school with acres of space, Frensham has a fantastic outdoors offer with its Eco Heights tree walk, climbing tower and external programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh Award Programme. For those less keen on the muddy delights, there is always things like creative writing, chess, unicycle & juggling and martial arts to get involved in.
Serious horsepower: one of Frensham's Esports computers
Lastly, we were especially fascinated by Heights School’s E-sports offer, which - as we understand it at least - is a very competitive and elaborate way of playing video games. We were granted access to a darkened den with several desks with what looked like very advanced computer technology. A select few get chosen to play games like Overwatch against other schools. Curiously E-sports is offered as part of Frensham’s Business BTEC course. Apparently pupils learn how to market their team effectively vis-a-vis the competition.
Sure, sure ;-)
One of Frensham's cozy boarding houses
About 25% of pupils at Frensham Heights board, 50% of which are weekly boarders, the rest full boarders.
At von Bülow Eduation we tend to prefer a somewhat bigger boarding cohort. However we got the sense from talking to various boarders that this wasn’t much of an issue. Sarah, one of the pupils we spoke to, described it thus: “we love the smaller boarding community here! It has more of a big family feel like this and - to be honest - it is nice to get some peace and quiet after a busy school week with fewer people around!”
The school has two separate boarding houses. Hamilton House is for the juniors and Roberts House for the 6th Formers. Pupils in Y10 and Y11 reside in the main house.
One of the kitchens in Roberts House
We got to see Roberts and liked it a lot. As you’d expect from a progressive boarding school like Frensham Heights, Roberts is co-ed. Boys and girls share communal spaces like kitchens and living rooms, live on different floors and different wings however. The communal spaces are spacious, clean and in very good shape. The rooms we saw were of a decent size, clean and surprisingly tidy for boarding accommodation!
Great, healthy, delicious food
On week-ends, the boarding parents organise activities from baking to sushi-making, as well as outings to local attractions including trips to the cinema, paintballing, Harry Potter World or shopping trips to nearby Guildford or London. Moreover, with a nearby village 10 minutes from school campus, boarders have access to a supermarket.
Cozy, spacious rooms
A quick word about mobile phone use: pretty much like at any other school we know, endemic mobile phone use is something Frensham Heights has to grapple with. True to style, the school has a ‘tech code of conduct’, which is written by pupils, teachers and staff! All in light of not banning anything, but working out what works for everyone.
Another word about discipline: unlike at most other schools, there are no detentions here! It’s all about pupils, teachers and tutors working things out through intensive coaching with calm discussions, to allow for open dialogue and questioning. Don’t worry though: drugs and alcohol are banned here too and in most cases an expulsion offence.
Our View on a Pupil Suited to Frensham Heights School
No doubt about it, Frensham Heights School is a fascinating school. We really enjoyed the warm, friendly, easy-going atmosphere there and really felt the passion of pupils and teachers alike for their rather unique school. Is Frensham for everyone? No. If you are looking for a more classic, traditional boarding school then this is not for you. But it is perfect for those who want their children to be in the driving seat of their passions, direction and education. With excellent academics, extracurricular activities, and boarding options, Frensham Heights School is an outstanding choice for any student seeking a self-directed, well-rounded education.