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04 February 2024
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: King's School Canterbury, All-rounder Boarding School with Fantastic Music in Medieval Setting

Hello from a sunny Richmond,
Every once in a while we at von Bülow Education stop working with a boarding school for a number of years. This could be because we don’t deem them “up to scratch” for our families. Or because the school does not offer appropriate entry and stay opportunities for our families to apply for.
With King’s School Canterbury it was firmly the latter. The school is a brand of repute in the world of British boarding schools and therefore in high demand. Thus, a firm two-year commitment for a stay in 6th Form was required of families. No flex. That’s often a bridge too far in the commitment-stakes for our families.
So, when our managing director Ferdinand Steinbeis received the call that King’s was softening this requirement, we immediately booked train tickets to Canterbury. Why? Because King’s School Canterbury is an absolutely fabulous boarding school, steeped in English history and located in one of the most charming towns in England.
Curious? Then read on!
The gates of King's School Canterbury
The Setting
King’s School Canterbury is located in Canterbury, a beautiful medieval town in county Kent. With hourly direct trains from London Waterloo Station, we had no excuse not to use public transport. It worked beautifully.
The train station, 10 minutes from school
Upon arriving at Canterbury train station, we sauntered towards the school whilst taking in town life. Canterbury is absolutely charming. It is especially well known for its stunning cathedral and very good university. After a 10-minute leisurely stroll past beautiful, old houses, a large theater (The Marlow), interesting looking shops, cafes and restaurants, we arrived at the gates of King’s School Canterbury. Beyond these gates we could make out the school’s ancient buildings, immaculate lawns and the towering Canterbury Cathedral in the background.
King's Street, just outside the school
King’s School Canterbury is old. Some even claim it’s the oldest school in the UK. It was founded by St Augustine when he arrived in the UK in 597 AD. As a World Heritage site, the school is inevitably constrained with regards to any architectural changes it can make to its campus. And that is exactly how it should be: pupils work, live and play on one of the most beautiful, historically significant boarding school campuses in the world. As we entered school we walked past beautiful gray-stoned houses complete with bay windows, down narrow, cobble-stoned pathways and into low-ceilinged classrooms. No doubt, a truly magical place!
Mint Yard with the Parry Building
But of course it’s not all ancient buildings at King’s. Like every top boarding school worth its salt, it combines the old and the new effortlessly. The sports center looks brand new and houses a swimming pool, climbing wall, squash and tennis courts, as well as a gym and even a café. We were especially taken with the new Science Center with state-of-the art laboratories and regular public lectures (at the time of our visit, a physics teacher held a talk about planets and astrophysics!)
The beautiful new Science Building
We met our tour guides Franky and Curtis, two very friendly, chatty 6th Formers from Hong Kong, at the school’s admissions office. What struck us immediately was the boys’ huge enthusiasm for their school. Often tour guides go through the motions and come across as a bit choreographed. Not Franky and Curtis! We’ll return to them later on….
A music lesson in progress....
What (we think) King’s School Canterbury is all about
Undoubtedly, King’s School Canterbury’s unique location, architecture and history shape the culture of the school. After all, having an attractive medieval market town at your door-step has clear advantages. “We are quite free to use the town’s restaurants and shops in our free time and week-ends, and that’s fantastic!”, our tour guide Curtis waxed lyrical. “ As long as you are responsible and trusted, at least!”, tour guide Franky chimed in. However, perusing an attractive town is one thing, living and learning on a medieval school campus is quite another. Pupils live in boarding houses from the 13th century with names like Meister Omer’s, learn in low-ceilinged, thick-walled class-rooms, walk around a campus adorned with little gardens, cobble-stoned passageways, grand performance spaces like the Shirley Hall and perform theatre plays in a beautiful and ancient theater called the Malthouse. “Knowing that Christoper Marlowe (a famous English playwright and poet) was a headmaster here is really cool!”, Curtis tells us. It’s truly inspirational. The pupils here feel a real sense of pride.
One of the may medieval corridors through school
Moreover, King’s School Canterbury is especially well known for its creative and performing arts offers. Music especially is phenomenal here with a strong focus on classical orchestral music, choir music, but also jazz and contemporary music. Theatre is going from strength to strength also with the Malthouse, a 350-seater theater at the heart of activities and at least two major productions in the school year. The art department, housed in a gorgeous 12th century priory produces some of the best fine art, pottery and sculptures that we’ve seen at any boarding school. And then there’s King’s Week, a one-week festival in the summer term with hundreds of events around music, drama and art that brings all the pupils’ creative fruits of the year together for the wider public to enjoy.
Shirley Hall, place of many stunning concerts at King's
Lastly, to all intents and purposes King’s School Canterbury is a classic all-rounder boarding school with excellent academic results, a large well-integrated full-boarding community, great pastoral care and a huge extracurricular offer. So far, so expected. We were struck, however, by how refreshingly unself-conscious and, dare we say, relaxed the school seemed to us. Pupils and teachers seemed on very friendly terms and house-parents genuinely caring and interested. The pupils we met were understandably proud to be here, but without arrogance and with real desire to show us their great school. Maybe the school’s explicit “Stretched but not stressed” ethos plays into this?
A King's classroom
The Academics
King’s School Canterbury is doing very well academically. In 2023, 75 per cent of grades were 9-7 at GCSE and 53 per cent A-grades at A level. It achieves these percentages despite not being overly selective at admissions. The range of subjects on offer at King’s is very broad. 32 A-Level subjects are on offer, which include Computer Science, Geology and Psychology. As you’d expect from a school with King’s historical pedigree, Latin and Greek are on offer also.
In 2023, the strongest results at A-Level were English, Art, French and Maths. The most popular subjects were Economics, Biology, Chemistry, Art and Maths.
One of the stunning art pieces we saw in the art department
We were introduced to five different teachers from the arts-,music- and science departments. All struck us as genuinely friendly, approachable and caring individuals. Our affable tour guides Curtis and Franky confirmed that this was the case with teachers pretty much across the board at King’s School Canterbury. “They really want you to succeed and bend over backwards to help”, Franky told us.
Class sizes are 15 on average at GCSE stage and 7 on average at A-Level.
Beautiful Mint Yard
The Extracurriculars
In terms of the breadth and depth of its extracurricular offer King’s School Canterbury is a fairly typical all-rounder boarding school. If it’s sports, music, drama or art, pupils get more than their fill here! And as you’d expect, there’s an abundance of afterschool clubs and activities to get involved in. Some are wonderfully eccentric like the Knitting Club, Cryptic Crosswords or Sanskrit.
A bustling art department
But if there’s one thing that truly stands out it’s the music. As a “Cathedral School”, King’s choirs are first rate. The elite Crypt Choir is so good it gets invited to sing anywhere from the Whigmore Hall in London to the Vatican in Rome. The school’s Symphony Orchestra is reputed to be very, very good also. Tour guide Curtis - who plays four (!) instruments - told us about recent rehearsals for Mozart’s Requiem. Neither Curtis nor Franky could tell us exactly how many string ensembles, bands and choirs were currently active. The jazz ensemble, we were told, was first-rate also and encouraged many of the more classically-trained musicians to get involved with this exciting musical genre.
Art essentials!
Theatre is also hugely popular and gaining in followership and quality by the year. The Malthouse Theatre sees at least two major productions a year, with recents being The Crucible and A Streetcar Named Desire.
And then there’s King’s Week, the school’s big cultural week at the end of the school year, where pupils get to show off all their musical, thespian or otherwise creative endeavors in hundreds of events to the public. In over thirty locations around Canterbury, pupils perform jazz concerts, dance- and poetry recitals, art exhibitions and theatre performances. What an amazing opportunity! Have a look here for what happened in 2023.
King's campus at sundown
Sport is of course another key aspect of King’s School Canterbury’s offer. However, we are told that the focus overall is more on health, fitness and fun, rather than performance. This might be true for conventional boarding school sports like rugby and cricket, but more niche ones shine bright. For example, King’s is very strong in fencing, shooting and squash for the boys and lacrosse and sailing for the girls. Rowing is another sport that is getting a lot of traction here. Hockey players with ambitions beyond what King’s can offer have two great local hockey clubs they can join also. Good swimming is also on offer.
King’s over 30 clubs and societies round off the extracurricular offer with activities like Young Enterprise, Ceramics, CCF, Duke of Edinburgh, Linacre Society for pupils interested in medicine, debating, coding, mountain biking and photography to name but a few.
One of the midieval cloisters at King's
The Boarding
Of the roughly 800 pupils at King’s School Canterbury 80% board. And whilst most pupils stay seven days a week, the possibility to return home on week-ends exists here. That said, international pupils are never alone on week-ends. “There’s too much fun stuff going on at school that no one wants to miss”, Curtis told us.
Cozy common room in boys boarding house Galpin's
There are six boys boarding houses and seven girls houses. Architecturally the houses could not be more different, with everything from 13th century Meister Omer’s boys house to 21st century Kingsdown girls house. Eclectic and very cozy. We get to see Curtis’ boarding house Galpin’s, where as 6th former he lives in a cozy single room. We meet Mr Sanderson, the housemaster, whom we instantly like. Rather than giving us short thrift, which can sometimes happen when busy houseparents meet a touring gang of agents, Mr Sanderson takes us on a tour of his house whilst amiably chatting about King’s, the prowess of German hockey players and his plans to visit Berlin in the not too distant future. Curtis hurries us on…
Curtis' single room in boarding house Galpin's
We also got a quick peek into girls boarding house Lady Kingsdown, which was opened in 2017 and is modern yet cozy. 6th form girls get to live in single rooms here, whilst 5th formers share rooms.
Single room in girl's boarding house Lady Kingsdown
The food, we are told by our trusted tour guides and self-confessed foodies Curtis and Frankie, is very good. When it isn’t there’s kitchens in all boarding houses that are getting used very frequently for spaghetti orgies and bake offs (Curtis proudly showed us his very own freshly baked sourdough bread!). And if everything fails, there’s a world of restaurants just outside the gates in Canterbury town.
Entrance to King's admissions department
Our View of a Suitable Pupil
We really liked King’s School Canterbury and believe it is a rather broad church. We can see the very academically able, the very musical, the thespian-minded and the very artsy be over the moon here. As ever with proper all-rounder boarding schools a willingness to dive right in and get busy is absolutely essential!

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