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23 April 2024
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Hurtwood House, a Wonderfully, Uniquely Creative School

Hello from an increasingly summery Richmond!
At von Bülow Education it is completely unheard of that the headmaster of a school answers our emails himself. And yet, this is exactly what happened when we got in touch with Hurtwood House to request a visit. When, to boot, said headmaster is called Cosmo Jackson, you know that the visit will be fascinating. Nomen, after all, is omen.
So, with high hopes and a big portion of curiosity 50% of the von Bülow Education team piled into our company car to make the way down to county Surrey. Cosmo, the very affable headteacher, welcomed us and took an inordinate amount of time to talk to us and show us his school.
Absolutely no doubt, Hurtwood House is a fascinating, very unique kind of boarding school. Anyone interested in the performing arts, making music and anything to do with media will be in absolute heaven here.
Please read on if you would like to find out more.
Hurtwood's attractive Main House
The Setting
Getting to Hurtwood House from London took us a little longer than we expected. The school is located in the beautiful Surrey Hills. Purely in mile terms, this isn’t far from London. And yet, the last third of the way is all tiny, winding roads. We got stuck behind a glacially slow-moving tractor with no room to overtake. We advise you to add at least 30 mins to whatever your GPS tells you.
Hurtwood House is set on a beautiful 200 acres of lusciously thick Surrey woodland. It being a very small school, we walked across campus within five minutes. Let’s be completely honest: Hurtwood House will never win prizes for the beauty of its campus. The main house - the 19th Century Arts and Crafts House - is beautiful. The rest of the campus is a random mix of buildings with different architectural styles, ranging some prefab to an impressive two storey, big-windowed dining hall. It all feels a bit functional, a bit thrown together.
View onto Hurtwood's campus
We wondered if a school so well known for amazing performing arts, film and media had any special facilities or cutting-edge creative or technology equipment. It turns out that’s not the case. Hurtwood’s pupils have at their disposal what everyone else at every other school has too. The magic ingredients are found elsewhere…we’ll, of course, reveal what these are later.
The closest bigger town for pupils to access is Cranleigh, which is 10 minutes by car. Guilford is 20 minutes away, from where pupils can take a direct train to London, which takes about an hour. Gatwick airport is only 30 minutes away.
Stage lights!
What (we think!) Hurtwood House is about
Like all boarding schools worth their salt, Hurtwood House has a variety of academic and extracurricular strings to its bow. But the main focus is crystal clear: the performing arts and media. Anything to do with acting, dancing, film-making and music-making is top notch here. Unsurprisingly, Hurtwood House has some pretty high-profile alumni to show for. Most notably actress Emily Hunt and master film-score maker Hans Zimmer.
Hurtwood House also has a uniquely unstuffy and - dare we say - relaxed school culture. From what we could discern, there are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, because that’s what Hurtwood’s founders Linda and Richard Jackson had in mind when they set up the school in the 1970s. In contrast to the often overly formal, traditional boarding schools, they wanted to recreate the more relaxed, warm-hearted big-family-feel of a prep boarding school. Unlike at their stuffier competitors, you won’t find school uniforms, chapel-time and CCF here! Also, pupils and teachers are on a first-name basis. The school’s small size and focus on older pupils helps. Hurtwood 6th-Form-only and the older pupils can be trusted with more freedom.
Old school record player
Secondly, because this is a hugely creative place. Hurtwood House demands its pupils to freely express themselves on stage and on screens. This requires more freedom. That said, the school is anything but laissez-faire! There’s a zero-tolerance policy on drugs, bullying and theft, and the weekly “Grading Day” keeps everyone’s academic performance on track (more on the latter later!) . And yet, there are clear markers for a more informal, creative vibe here. No school uniform, for example. Instead, we saw lots of pupils in jeans and hoodies. A sort of self-chosen school uniform, if you will.
The Academics
Hurtwood House is a 6th Form- only school. No GCSEs here. Also, the school offers A-Levels only, so no BTECs to be had here.
The school’s academic results are very good. In 2023, 52 percent of pupils achieved A grades and 82 percent A or B grades. That is commendable for a school that is not academically selective.
By far the most popular A-Level subject here is Media Studies, which is taken by a third of the current year group. A close second is A-Level Drama And Theatre Studies. And yet, Cosmo was at pains to explain to us that it’s not all about the creative A-Levels. Maths, Economics and Business Studies are very popular here. “ We strongly encourage our pupils to pursue what they love. But they all instinctively know that they need fallback options in case their acting career doesn’t work out.”, Cosmo explains the interest in these more pragmatic subject choices.
Yes, Hurtwood has fabulous art also!
We were especially taken by Hurtwood’s very own grading system. Pupils get weekly grades for effort and attainment. Every Monday is “Grading Day”, where pupils and their parents (!) see the progress that’s been achieved in the prior week. “Grading Day” ends with 1:1 tutor sessions where grades are discussed, recommendations made and - in the worst case - sanctions introduced. The regularity at which grades are dispensed keeps pupils laser-focussed on their academic work and teachers accountable for how they teach and support. Also, let’s face it: at a school that allows as much creative freedom as Hurtwood does, a countermeasure is needed to potentially reign in the, erm, overly zealous creative minds ;-)
Lastly, we appreciate that part and parcel of a creative school culture is a healthy portion of academic pragmatism and flexibility. Cosmo explained it beautifully: “ when our pupils start filming their film projects, it’s all hands on deck. The geography teacher turns into the mafia boss for an afternoon and Geography classes are suspended for a couple of hours!” It’s a small price to pay for art, we think!
Music technology is huge here!
The Extracurriculars
Unsurprisingly, the lionshare of pupils’ energy is invested in creative pursuits. Theater, dance, film, music production, photography, textiles and art are the mainstays of Hurtwood House’s extracurricular arsenal.
Let’s discuss Hurtwood’s drama first. The school stages a whopping 40 theater productions a year! That is by far the most of any British boarding school we know. Most recently the school put on a production of Legally Blonde that featured a cast of over 70. And as you might imagine, the productions are top drawer - both on and off stage! With a combination of acting nous and technical expertise, Hurtwood House regularly attracts agents to come down from London to scout talent.
The school's film room with green-screen
Film’s next. As we sat in his beautiful office, headmaster Cosmo Jackson spent nearly 20 minutes showing us videos of pupils’ past film projects. Truly, the acting and cinematography were astoundingly good. Our usual qualifier ‘it’s great…for a youngster!’, didn’t apply here. The quality really was a different level and could - we suspect - easily compete with a first- or second-year university film student. Cosmo explained how all pupils taking film studies have to create a 5-minute trailer to a thriller. They work in teams of four, create a screenplay and then film. This year 26 teams created 26 trailers! “For a week there was mayhem at Hurtwood! Teachers played baddies, corners of campus were cordoned off for filming…it was hugely exciting!”, Cosmo told us with justified pride.
Inevitably, the academic and the extracurricular blend into each other here. Some pupils spend most of their waking hours on film projects. And more often than not, the blood, sweat and tears pay off: last year a pupil created a documentary about a famous vineyard in Southern Tyrolia, whilst another shot a documentary about a Nazi concentration camp in Holland. Amazing! Inevitably this quality will not go unseen for long: currently 10 pupils are under representation of film agents.
The school's dance studio
Another string to Hurtwood’s creative bow is music technology. This is often pursued in conjunction with dance here. Looking over her shoulder, we were privy to a young lady piecing together a music composition in Hurtwood’s recording studio. The music was stunning. Cosmo took us to the school’s dance studio, where for 100£ a term, pupils can take unlimited lessons in jazz, ballet, street, hip hop and contemporary dance.
We mentioned our surprise at the school’s relative lack of facility oomph. Don’t misunderstand us. Hurtwood’s facilities are fine! We saw the snazzy media suites with state-of-the-art Apple computers, the massive, adaptable film space complete with green screen and cutting-edge film gear, as well as the school’s own bustling 300-seater theater. But none of it was out of the ordinary. In fact we’d seen better, newer and shinier at other schools. To us this just shows that ultimately it’s the people - students, teachers and headteachers - and the culture - creative, free and daring - that make the real magic happen!
There is a good reason why we only mention sports now. It exists at Hurtwood, too, but it’s nowhere near as much of a priority as at other, more traditional boarding schools. The focus is on fun and fitness, not performance here. That said, the school ferries pupils to the local fitness centers and each boarding house comes equipped with a small gym. Also, pupils can play tennis, football, basketball and hockey here. Lastly, the beautiful rural location lends itself perfectly for running, mountain biking or simply a head-clearing walk.
Pupils waiting for their class to start
The Boarding
Of the 350 pupils, 80% are boarders. Given the fairly remote location, most of the boarders will be boarding 24/7.
Boarding is mostly off-campus. Pupils are picked up at their boarding houses by mini-bus in the morning and ferried back in the evening. The transfer takes about five minutes.
Alas, we did not get the chance to visit one of the boarding houses this time around, so everything we report here is hearsay. Headmaster Cosmo Jackson told us that the houses are “imperfect but very cozy”. They are all old country houses with ample space for socialising. Pupils room in double or single rooms here.
Cozy: the main house from the inside
Who, we think, would be suited to attending Hurtwood House
One of Hurtwood’s many beauties is that it has such a clear-cut profile. This is a school for the creative types. For pupils that love either being on stage, in front of a camera, or working behind the scenes to make the creative magic happen on computer screens and loud-speakers. We did not get the sense that massive self-confidence is essential. We met several pupils briefly and spotted both extroverts and introverts among them. What they all share though is a love to create in a school that will pull all the stops out to make that happen. We at von Bülow Education watched from the sidelines for a day and came away as fans.

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