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03 July 2021
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Sedbergh School, a Full Boarding School in Idyllic Natural Surroundings

Hello from Oxfordshire!
As schools wind down for the summer holidays, this month we made our last school visit of the academic year, with an overnight trip to Sedbergh School in north west England. It might be the last trip for a few months but it definitely wasn’t the least — at Sedbergh, we finalised the new format of our Tea with the Head podcast, which we are super excited to share with you. In the meantime, read below for our thoughts on Sedbergh and a pupil suited to it.
Stunning nature: Sedbergh School is located in the Lake District
The Setting
Sedbergh School is all about its setting. In the north west of England, the school is within the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but has a Lancashire postcode and is actually in the county of Cumbria! It’s a confusing but utterly breathtaking location, right up by some of the most beautiful spots in the Lake District.
Picturesque tourist town: Sedbergh town's attractive high street
Sedbergh School is also the name of the small town that the school’s campus is spread around. Nestled at the foot of the Howgill Fells, Sedbergh is a classic Lake District tourist town — think beautiful stone buildings and white wooden fingerpost signs. The school is very much part of the town; students pop in and out for coffee and snacks, and the school’s exquisite cricket pitch acts as a central focal point. Winder, one of the lowest hills of the Howgills, rises up behind the town to provide a beautiful backdrop.
Cricket pitch and boarding houses as backdrop
The school buildings themselves are mainly old and cosy, with a few cleverly and sympathetically designed modern developments that blend into the surrounding environment.
Despite its remote and rural setting, Sedbergh is surprisingly easy to get to. A direct train from London Euston to Oxenholme Lake District (the nearest station, a 20 minute drive to the school) takes around 2 hours and 40 minutes. Manchester and Liverpool airports are both around an hour and a half away by car, and are also accessible via train.
Stunning - the school, cricket pitch and the fell Winder in the background
What (we think!) Sedbergh is all about
The obvious thing to note about Sedbergh is that it’s all about the outdoors and a “can do” attitude. This is not the sort of school that is going to call off a sports match or outdoor activity because of the weather. But the influence of the surrounding natural environment goes much deeper than that. The focus on the outdoors and an active lifestyle also creates a no-nonsense, friendly, down to earth school; resilience and teamwork are two of the most prized characteristics in a Sedbergh pupil.
Rugby game in progress...
Another key factor that shapes Sedbergh’s environment is that it is a proper, full boarding school (an increasingly rare breed!). Around 95 per cent of pupils board full time, all year round, no exceptions. This makes for an incredibly tight-knit community and a really strong school identity; go to Sedbergh and you really are immersed in all things Sedbergh. The same goes for the teachers as well as pupils, who really devote their lives to the school, the pupils, and the Sedbergh way of life.
Wooden class tables in the geology department
The Academics
Sedbergh School is not particularly selective but has an interesting range of subjects on offer. Highlights include geology (again, a natural influence of Sedbergh’s location), which is currently on offer at A Level. The geology classroom is spectacular — littered with rocks, fossils and crystals, the tiered wooden seating gives the impression of an old university lecture hall. Jewellery design at GCSE is another one-of-a-kind offer; Sedbergh is one of only two schools in the UK to have its own jewellery workshop that teaches traditional and modern methods, as part of a very impressive design and technology laboratory.
Tools for jewellery making!
For high fliers, there is the 9 Star Programme, where top academic achievers in Year 9 (normally around a dozen) spend four periods a fortnight with specially selected teachers. There they work on logical and philosophical thinking across a broad range of subjects, the idea being to emulate an Oxbridge-style education and academically stretch the pupils’ in a non-examined environment. There is also a newly developed sixth form centre, with collaboration spaces and a career advice centre.
One of the finest Design and Technology Departments we know!
In 2020, 48 per cent of pupils achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 44 per cent achieved A grades at A Level. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 40 per cent achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE, 22 per cent achieved A grades at A Level (44 per cent A to B).
En route to sport
The Extracurriculars
Sedbergh School’s extracurriculars really give a sense of the school: there are 22 outdoor activities on offer, including caving, fell running, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing, mountaineering, and gill scrambling (a wetsuit-clad scramble up a steep river). As Dan Harrison, Sedbergh’s headmaster, said in our podcast interview: “I think it's really important that we don't let red tape hold us back. As long as things are safe, we will go and do them.”
Any school worth its salt needs a gym!
Running — specifically fell running, which means following a tough course through the Lake District hills — is one of Sedbergh’s core sports and is very popular with pupils. This is partly because it’s a whole school affair: the yearly 12-mile Wilson Run (the “longest and toughest school run” according to the Guardian) is a highlight of the school calendar and a rite of passage for sixth form pupils.
A placque paying credence to the (in)famous Wilson Run
Sedbergh has a nationwide reputation for being excellent at rugby, and it certainly is. But in recent years the focus has expanded to include the likes of hockey, netball, cricket, athletics, tennis and shooting. “I think the reason we’ve done well is because we are a full boarding school,” says Stuart Oliver, a housemaster and the director of sport, who we spoke to on the podcast . “We have the time: if we want to train at 6.30am, we can do. If you want to train or go to the swimming pool at 9 o’clock at night, no problem.” But, Dan is also quick to point out that “our music is as strong as our sport”, despite it not being what the school is known for. Drama is also very popular and of a high quality; tickets for performances are sold to the local population in Kendal as well.
Sedbergh School's stunning library
Whatever the specific activity, extracurriculars are really the heart and soul of Sedbergh. Two sixth form pupils we spoke to, Molly and Clemens, both listed sport and the general extracurricular offering as one of the key reasons they chose Sedbergh School. Dan enthuses about the mental and academic benefits of exercise, and how the resilience learnt in these tougher outdoor pursuits also helps pupils to develop resilience for the modern world.
Girl's football as seen from one of the boarding houses
“If someone doesn’t want to go running in the pouring rain, or hockey and netball isn’t for them, there’s no compulsion,” says Stuart. “We do things like pilates… There is a compulsion to do an activity every day. But there’s not a compulsion to do a certain activity.”
One of Sedbergh's stunning boarding houses
The Boarding
Full boarding at Sedbergh is one of the school’s key selling points. Not only does it mean pupils actually have the time to make use of all the amazing activities and facilities on offer, but it also creates very close, familial bonds which are felt throughout the school.
Old from the outside, cozy and modern from the inside: a girl's boarding house
Unsurprisingly, given how much time pupils spend at school, Sedbergh’s nine boarding houses really do look and feel like homes away from home. They’re very “lived in”, with boots lined up at the back door and the gardens littered with games and outdoor hang-out zones pupils’ have built. As Molly told us, “you don’t get Sedbergh pupils spending hours on their phones.”
Front of Sedgwick House, one of the boys' boarding houses
Clemens, a student originally from Germany, said full boarding (which means full houses on the weekends) was what drew him to Sedbergh, and has really paid off. (He certainly didn’t have a German accent to our ears!) He did add, though, that shared rooms until sixth form does mean that term time is exhausting and quite intense. We imagine privacy in-house is quite hard to come by — but when you have the great outdoors at your fingertips, perhaps that’s not a problem.
Never too far from sheep!
“The reason why I've been here for so long and will continue to be here for the next few years is that I want my own children to have this incredible environment,” says housemaster Stuart.
Quo vadis?
Our view on a student suited to Sedbergh School
Sedbergh’s full boarding makes the school ideal for many international students. And apart from the extreme urbanites, we imagine a broad range of pupils would benefit both in mind and body from its outdoorsy lifestyle and warm, family feel. The school is perfect for those that enjoy running around and being in the middle of a close-knit community that is exhausting, but incredibly rewarding. As Dan says, Sedbergh can “perhaps keep children younger for longer”.

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