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18 July 2023
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Gresham's School, Wonderful All-rounder School in Stunning Location

Hello from a sweltering Richmond!
The sun is out. The skies are blue. And we are starting to put our legs up in readiness for the summer holidays. By now, we feel that we deserve a break: for the last month, we’ve been hitting the road almost daily to visit as many of our partner boarding schools before they close for the summer holidays.
It’s been fascinating, insightful and reaffirms our belief in the idea that British boarding schools have uniquely amazing things to offer.
Three weeks ago we made the trip up to the northern Norfolk coast to visit Gresham’s School. We were rather excited about this outing. We hadn’t been to visit since before Covid-19 and knew that a lot had changed at Gresham’s in the meantime. But it was the Dyson Building - Gresham’s brand-new STEAM building - that we were looking forward to most.
Read on for what happened! Oh, and please listen to our latest podcast episode “Tea With The Head”, which we put together about our visit to Gresham’s. The perfect audio accompaniment to this article.
Green as far as the eyes can see - Gresham's cricket pitch
The Setting
Very few schools we know benefit as much from their location as Gresham’’s School. The school sits just outside the picturesque market-town Holt, a stone’s throw off the North Sea coast in county Norfolk.
Holt itself is a lovely, sleepy market town with a few restaurants, hotels and - crucially for boarding life - a supermarket. At a leisurely pace, it won’t take you longer than 10 minutes on foot from campus to the heart of town.
Pupils at Gresham’s School have the run of 200 acres of stunning grounds that include extensive sports fields, state-of-the-art facilities and woodlands with an amphitheater and outdoors adventure center. No question, this is a proper rural boarding school. Green fields and forests to roam in under the huge Norfolk sky.
Grassy tennis courts
Be under no illusion, getting to Gresham’s School is a schlep. From Richmond, it took us four hours by car, including a quick lunch and bio-break. So London-fans or big-city types, this school is probably not for you. However there’s lots on offer here to attract pupils into this corner of the island. “ In fact, we’ve always had to be more innovative in what we offer to lure pupils up here ”, Headmaster Douglas Robb told us. And lots on offer there is!
The Bourdillon Tower: 25ms climbing for the pros
What (we think) Gresham’s School is about
Gresham School’s location is key. Tucked away in stunning rural Norwich, Gresham’s is off the beaten track. This selects for families that want exactly that for their children: somewhere away from the more frantic school life often found in boarding schools closer to London. Children here somehow seem gentler, a bit more relaxed and more community-minded. And they like being outdoors, whether that’s playing sports on one of Gresham’s many pristine playing pitches, perusing the outdoors activity center in the forest or exploring the Norfolk coastline.
Project exhibits in the Dyson Building
Gresham’s School really impresses with its amazing creative offer. Its music provision is fantastic and ranges from choral music via cutting-edge music technology to orchestras and bands. Its theater is renowned as excellent across the UK and has inspired world-class actors like Olivia Coleman, a Gresham’s alumn. But it’s the Dyson Building where a lot of the real creative magic happens these days. A place that houses the STEAM subjects natural sciences, maths, technology, engineering and art, this is where anything from architectural models, robots, bath-bombs (yes, you read that right) and electric cars are built.
A Steinway-school with fabulous music
All in all we are really impressed by how well-rounded Gresham’s School is. Its academics are strong, it punches above its weight in sports, its performing arts around music and theater are amazing and it has a wealth of great extracurricular activities and events - including what can only be described as an incredible outdoors adventure playground (more on that later!). This is a school that has quality in all areas and something for everyone!
Full STEAM ahead: a robot being built
The Academics
Gresham’s School is doing well academically.
In 2022, 50% of pupils achieved 9-7 at GCSE, 48% of A-Level pupils received A-grades and the IB average was a very solid 35 point average. The school achieves all this without being overly selective, albeit we at von Bülow Education detect a subtle tightening of the reins in this regard - we’ve had several introductions rejected over the last year due to weak English and Maths grades.
Very pleasant news is that the IB is going from strength to strength here. Gresham’s School has managed to up the average point count by a point every year in the last three years. Headmaster Douglas Robb reassured us that the IB is an integral part of the school’s offer. The cohort with 20-30 pupils each year is small, which results in even smaller class sizes. One of our pupils had a math class of only three students recently!
The wonderful Dyson Building from the outside
In 2021 Gresham’s School opened its doors to the Dyson Building, its very own STEAM center, where the natural sciences, mathematics, technology, engineering and art are brought together under one roof. Inevitably, seeing the Dyson Building was top of our visiting agenda. We were not disappointed: the creative energy is palpable and the projects we saw were amazing. Gresham’s has created a space where the STEAM disciplines are so close together so as to allow real collaboration. The maths department is but a corridor away for quick feedback on an arts student’s architectural model and chemistry and art pupils work together to make bath-bombs. This goes hand in hand with a real cultural change at the school. Pupils get permission to tinker in their free time, using machines like laser cutters, 3-D printers and flat-bed routers to create actual products. The results are not always successful, but always invaluable, real-world learning experiences! Alastair Grey, Head of 3D Design told us: “we aim to set our pupils on a course where they already do stuff that Second Year design & engineering students do at uni!”
We love this approach to learning and know only very few schools that provide the same high quality cross-disciplinary way of teaching STEAM. Chapeau, Gresham’s!
The school's own recording studio
The Extracurriculars
Where to start?
Gresham’s School has an exceptionally broad offer of high quality activities that cater to a broad range of interests and tastes. At von Bülow, we send musicians, thespians, sports enthusiasts and budding scientists to Gresham’s. All return with positive feedback.
The Auden inside
Let’s take a look at theatre first. The school’s Auden Theatre hosts an audience of 300 people and is stage to a major theatre production in the Michaelmas term, a major musical production in the Lent term (this year: Phantom of the Opera) and a further big theatre production in the Summer term. Bridget O’Neil, the affable Director of Theatre at Gresham’s School, told us with great enthusiasm about the pupils’ “10-Minute Plays”, where they write mini-plays and even musicals to be performed in front of the school. Then there’s the amphitheater in the woods behind the school. This stage is used in the summer for speeches, concerts but also Shakespeare productions like A Midsummer’s Tale. Evidence of the Gresham’s quality in this area is the impressive list of thespian alumni Gresham’s has produced, including no other than Oscar-winning actor Olivia Coleman.
The school's recording studio
Music is very strong here, too. As a Steinway School, most of Gresham’s 20 practice rooms in its beautiful Britten Building sport upright pianos or grand pianos by the legendary piano maker. Ample opportunity to play and sing is provided through various choirs, ensembles, bands and an excellent orchestra. Gresham’s even has its very own cutting-edge recording studio and record label Strathmore, via which it records, markets and publishes the pupils’ music. Like this budding pop superstars create a first buzz and learn the tricks of the music industry trade early. Very, very smart!
Pupils en route
On to sports. No doubt, for a school of Gresham’s School's size it punches above its weight. Especially successful is the shooting, for which the school has consistently won major competitions in the UK. Boy’s hockey, cricket and rugby are also very strong with the U16 hockey team getting to the quarter-finals of the national hockey championship of independent schools. Also the school does not lack variety: good tennis, badminton and squash, great fencing, swimming, riding (local riding center close by), cross-country running and of course sailing. For relaxation there is yoga and pilates on offer.
High ropes!
But it’s Gresham’s Woodland Activities Center that had us especially excited. Five minutes from campus is a little forest. And into this forest the school has built something that we can only describe as an adventure playground for (nearly) grown-ups: a high-ropes course with 22 different elements, abseiling facilities on two climbing walls and a 25 metre climbing tower - the Bourdillon Tower - with a 220 metre zip wire. The school uses it for all kinds of team-building and leadership activities, but pupils are free to use it in their free time. Needless to say, it’s a huge hit!
Robots made from Lego
And finally, we return to the Dyson Building. This space is as busy during off-timetable hours as during normal class times. Pupils work on their own creative projects here. They team up to build electric cars which they then race in the UK-wide Green Power Race against other schools. Or they build sumo robots out of Lego Mindstorm kits that fight each other. A key space for this activity within the Dyson Building is the Maker Space.
Maker space in use, sometimes messy
Imagine a large, bright room, in which pupils have free permission to tinker, to build, to experiment, to be messy. They use 3D-printers, laser-cutters, flat-bed routers or just a hammer and a glue-gun. They work with spray-paint, wood, plastic, metal and paper. The outcome is less important than the process itself: projects can end in anything from a big old mess to drone-steered rockets that safely deposit uncooked eggs back on the ground. The point is to experience being creative in all its facets. We love this and really think that Gresham’s has an edge on most other schools we know in this regard.
Fairfield boarding house's common room
The Boarding
Gresham’s Senior School is a proper boarding school with over 60% of pupils boarding as either full- or weekly boarders.
There are seven boarding houses in total, four for boys and three for girls. All the houses we saw were in great repair, unusually spacious and very cozy.
We got a proper tour through Fairfield House. Fairfield is home to 70 boys and run by the friendly, competent, no-nonsense housemaster Tom Burnett. This is a lively, cozy boarding house with a big common room complete with sofas, an upright piano, a huge flat-screen TV and table-foosball. Bright, spacious, cozy and in super condition!
Spacious single room in Fairfield's
The boys struck us as very friendly and are clearly keen to foster an inclusive, supportive community.
The rooms were relatively large for boarding rooms. Boys in Y9 share dorms of five to seven. For the Y9s homework prep happens in dedicated study rooms on the lower-ground floor. In Y10, the boys share a bedroom of three. From Y11 up, boys get single rooms.
Another single room in Fairfield's
On week-ends, boarders have organized outings to nearby towns, the seaside or fun events like paintballing, go-karting or a cinema trip. Housemaster Burnett emphasized how important it is to ‘get out of the Gresham’s bubble’ and experience life outside the cloistered boarding environment at least once a week.
Exhibition shelf in the Dyson Building
Our View on a Pupil Suited to Gresham’s School
Maybe first off, who this school ISN’T for: anyone who thinks they need to be close to the action in or around London or a similar big city.
If this isn’t you, you should at the very least consider this school. Gresham’s has so much breadth and depth to offer, so as to cater for the interests of every conceivable type of pupil.
But it goes beyond that. Gresham’s has a calmer, gentler, slightly slower pace. This lets pupils stop and take a breather once in a while. This combined with the stunning location in one of the most beautiful corners of the UK, makes this a thoroughly healthy school. We loved our visit and highly recommend this school!

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