What the Good Schools Guide says...
Since 2015, Roland Martin (early 50s). Grew up in a council house and won a Foundation scholarship to Rendcomb College in Gloucestershire, where he loved boarding. Read English at York, ‘where everyone said I should be a teacher, but I was stubborn and male and didn’t want to do anything I was told to.’ So worked as an assistant manager in a bar instead until his boss sat him down after a shift ‘to help me work out what I wanted to do’. Was about to embark on PGCE when he was offered a job at Newcastle-under-Lyme School and learned on the job instead. Six years later, he got ‘another lucky break’, this time at Eton, ‘which is not known for taking people like me but they said I had one of the best references they’d ever seen.’ And so it was he taught English and drama there for 13 years, as well as being head of year 11 and a housemaster. Returned to his alma mater Rendcomb in 2011 as headmaster, so well versed in the demands of the role before moving to Freemen’s four years later.
Spin is not his thing, so while some heads are PR-ed to the hilt, this one is as honest, authentic and reflective as his rows of framed pupil pictures depicting their future dreams. Intellectual but not fanciful, he must be the first head we’ve met whose office is in a purpose-built classroom, still complete with whiteboard – ‘I moved because it’s more central.’ Still no-frills, though well-loved sofa has replaced the desks. Well-liked by parents and pupils, though is more behind-the-scenes than some would like. ‘Clearly very bright and has lots of ideas where he wants the school to go but gives the impression of being uncomfortable speaking to large groups.’ ‘Goes to lots of conferences and very out there in that sense, but doesn’t seem to know the pupils well.’ Pupils agree that ‘you rarely see him’, though perhaps the tide is turning as he’s currently directing Twelfth Night with a sixth form cast, plus a few from years 10 and 11. We were struck by his kindness – ‘balancing mental health and aspirations’ is a major post-Covid focus. Collaborative too, increasingly partnering with other schools to ‘solve the sticky problems that schools have, eg how to bring on boys’ learning in a co-ed school.’
Thinks that if he hadn’t become a teacher he might have chosen to be ordained (‘never say never’), and certainly feels that teaching is a vocation. Has two children and loves theatre and all things 18th century.
At 13+, nearly all join from the junior school with automatic entry. An additional 20 (soon to be more) places for outsiders are keenly competed for via tests in English, maths and non-verbal reasoning, plus an interview and report. These applicants come mainly from local preps such as Downsend, Danes Hill, Cranmore and Homefield Prep and the process is described as more selective than local competition. ‘We are looking for spark and creativity,’ says head. At sixth form another 20 join, including overseas boarders. Applicants need 58 GCSE points or equivalent, with additional subject-specific criteria, plus interview and school report. International students sit papers in November in maths and non-verbal reasoning.
Between 10 and 20 per cent leave at 16+ for all the usual reasons – financial, they fancy a change or, increasingly, to the excellent local colleges such as Reigate College. At 18+, around 80 per cent to Russell Group. Popular destinations include Birmingham, Bath, Durham, Bristol and Exeter. Nottingham increasingly popular, as is York. Six to Oxbridge and six medics in 2021, plus three overseas – to McGill, Princeton and Trinity.
In 2021, 89 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 81 per cent A*/A at A level (95 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 83 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 65 per cent A*/A at A level (86 per cent A*-B).
Teaching and learning
Stellar results at both GCSE and A level give the school the reputation as the best in the locality academically, although any suggestion of hothousing is quickly scorned. ‘It’s a clever child’s school but doesn’t feel intense or pressurised,’ said one parent. Students report ‘excellent support’ from the teachers, as well as ‘a good rapport – you feel respected.’ School also praised for teaching the independence – ‘I have very little to do with the school because the kids just get on with it, it’s a brilliant skill that the school teaches them,’ said one mother. Head was delighted when a student in a recent unscripted film raved about the fun involved in learning here – ‘That’s what we really want to hear, and that was even with the pandemic,’ he exulted.
Classes are small, the tutorial group system works well, and students we saw were motivated and well-prepped for lessons. Expressive too, frequently disagreeing in academic debate. In an English lesson on dystopian texts a sixth form girl was so insightful and eloquent we wondered if she was the teacher. Not much setting – ‘We don’t think pupils benefit from being pigeonholed and we know they learn better when there is more of a spread of intellectual capacity.’ Broad curriculum, with sports studies and business studies recently added at GCSE. French, German, Spanish and Latin taught from year 9. History, geography, drama and art all popular at GCSE. All take 10 and all get first choice of subjects – ‘We have resisted blocking the timetable to make students do a certain number of humanities, languages and creatives (a) because it would be difficult logistically and (b) that’s not what we’re about – we want students to tailor their choices towards their passions,’ says head. Maths dazzles at all stages, say students.
Not a school where you start off with four A levels, dropping one later on – all take three, except those taking further maths. Leaves room for EPQ and Free Minds programme, the latter providing seminar-style exposure to teachers’ hobbyhorse subjects, eg Shakespeare’s tragic comedies, the importance of 19th-century architecture, origins of the Middle East crisis, seven inventions that changed the world, DH Lawrence etc. If they’re lucky they have them in the so-called James Bond room which boasts an entire wall of tellies via which different visuals can be shown simultaneously, as well as people from around the world joining remotely. The room is one of many magnificent learning spaces based in Main House. We have seen some sixth form centres in our time, but these sympathetically restored yet modern spaces are sensational.
Learning support and SEN
A team of three SEN teachers across the junior and senior schools supports a small number of students with mild SEN, mostly dyslexia and ASD. ‘Both of my children have had one-to-ones and I feel confident the school keeps a close eye on them, which is very reassuring as I don’t want them to struggle. All included in the fees too,’ said a parent. However, this isn’t the place for more than a minor level of need, and one parent added, ‘If you had really high expectations of every teacher understanding exactly how your child should be supported I think you’d probably be disappointed, but overall it’s good and better still if your child has already found their own coping mechanisms.’ Specialist EAL teacher visits three times a week to support mainly the international boarders.
The arts and extracurricular
DofE is massive – only four year 9s didn’t do bronze this year, and lots go on to silver, then gold. CCF (army and RAF) small by comparison with a contingent of around 100 but again it’s available from year 9, and impressively the head himself is undergoing training. Over 90 clubs and societies post-Covid, when head insists they’ve been ‘more important than ever because the students are passionate about doing things they’ve missed’. Everything from Minecraft to debating (the latter is big and getting bigger) and from philosophy to eco society.
We’ve lost count of the number of schools that make do with some musty old hall as their musical performance space. Not so here, where the purpose-built music block contains its own professional acoustic concert hall (where we persuaded our grade 8 pianist tour guide to play for us on the Steinway grand – a real treat, we can tell you). The department also contains recording studio, live room for band practice, Mac suite, practice rooms galore and music classrooms. Orchestras, choirs, ensembles – always plenty going on, including collaborations with the other City of London schools and the chance to play at venues such as Milton Court and St John’s Smith Square. But one parent commented, ‘My children play instruments but don’t participate in any groups – I’d like to see more encouragement there.’
Drama takes place in Ferndale Theatre, where we watched GCSE students immersed in small play practice – stirring stuff and in the spirit of a true fourth wall, they seemed completely oblivious to us. ‘Teaching is really high class, as are the facilities and opportunities for light and sound,’ said a student. There’s even a club for special effects. ‘I went to see Alice in Wonderland and it blew me away – they do brilliant Shakespeare too,’ said a parent. Lord of the Flies recently performed in the new outdoor classroom. Regular trips including to Edinburgh Fringe.
Large, double-storey art department is industrious, varied and inclusive. Textiles, ceramics, painting – you name it, there’s an example or 10 displayed around the school. ‘We work to their strengths,’ we were told, and strengths they most certainly have. Over in DT, students were watching a live streamed annual lecture from London that in non-Covid times they’d normally attend. Glass cabinets are packed with metal, wood and plastic exhibits of varying usefulness, though the first prize must go to the beautiful pair of slatted chairs that slot inside each other, having been made from equipment the DT teacher bought from ‘another school that didn’t embrace it’.
Every parent we spoke to described sport as the school’s weak point. ‘The coaching could be better’, ‘they’re not massively successful’ and ‘they seem a bit disorganised with sport – for example, putting students into an athletics day with no build up training,’ were among common grumbles. On the positive side, ‘there is plenty of opportunity to represent your school’, ‘lots of variety including fencing, squash and Pilates’ and ‘fantastic facilities including the beautiful swimming pool’. Students thought it all a bit harsh - ‘They really encourage you in sport and the teaching is strong, although I agree there are not as many elite young sportspeople as at some other local schools,’ said one; another told us, ‘It is true we lose a lot, I’m not sure why that is.’ School responded by sending us a long list of near wins (but no first place spots), as well as country and regional representation among individual students. Boys do rugby, football and cricket and have the option of hockey and football. Girls do hockey, netball, tennis and cricket. Basketball, badminton, squash, cross-country and table tennis also available at a competitive level. Excellent facilities include hockey Astro, magnificent new pool, vast pitches and cracking gym and fitness suite. Ski trips highly rated by students.
The school was founded to care for orphans, so boarding is part of the original statute and must be provided, these days to a maximum of 30 boys and 30 girls. Around 70 per cent are full boarders (mostly international, until recently hailing almost exclusively from China and Hong Kong but now also from eg Russia, Nigeria and Kazakhstan), the rest weekly and the odd few flexi (‘where you have to bring your own duvet, which can be a bit annoying,’ according to a parent).
The floor-to-ceiling glass entrance doors of the centrally located contemporary boarding house open straight into a manned reception area and open-plan IKEA showroom – sorry, common room. More private (still IKEA-like) spaces upstairs where girls’ and boys’ rooms are at opposite ends of the corridors. ‘That’s usually where you’ll find me, I love cooking,’ said a pupil when we passed the well-equipped kitchen space. A new creative hub has been set up with keyboard, paints etc. Students share two to a room until the sixth form, when they get a single. Bedrooms tidy to the point of military precision (‘they remind us it’s a life skill’), but don’t lack personality and one girl’s room looked interior designed. Just two ensuites (the golden tickets?) but multiple and spotless bathrooms. Laundry facilities good – ‘I prefer to do my own although you don’t have to,’ said one sixth form boarder, music to the ears of most parents.
Weekend activities include ice skating, cinema and for shopping and – these must be a first – Sainsburys and the local service station, both surprisingly popular! Massive noticeboard and display of leaflets dedicated to mental health. Two live-in staff, supported by a day matron and other assistants, who have succeeded in integrating boarders with day pupils, not always the case in the past.
Ethos and heritage
The second of the three City of London schools to be created, Freemen’s opened its doors in 1854 with a remit to educate ‘orphans of the Freemen of the City of London’. Housed originally in Brixton, it could accommodate up to 65 boys and 35 girls aged 7 to 15. So whereas many schools have added on boarders, girls and junior-aged children in order to survive economically, Freemen’s welcomed them all from the off. In 1924, the school relocated to the 57-acre Ashtead Park estate, when fee-paying boys started to also be admitted, then fee-paying girls from 1933.
Entrance is so unremarkable that we wondered if we’d taken the tradesmen’s route by mistake. It belies the space (and, in the case of Main House, the beauty) within. Most of the teaching areas are in modern buildings in a fairly tightly packed campus, with the Haywood Centre the hub of the school. Junior school also central, rather than tucked away, with year 7s and 8s (still officially juniors) making especially good use of senior facilities – all helps with seamless transition. No danger of anyone feeling cramped, though – there is space and green fields in abundance, stretching far into the distance. And the main house, built in the 17th century and given the Bonomi treatment in the 18th, is flanked by Palladian balustrade, topiary, manicured lawns and is simply gorgeous – what lucky sixth formers getting the whole thing to themselves, orangery and all. ‘It was all set up for dorms when I joined but I said, “Why would you only want 30 people to experience this?”’ said head, who set to work on a restoration bonanza. Junior school and dining hall next on the list for ambitious development.
Uniform more sensible and smart than posh, with sixth form boys still wearing school ties. Food good – we had a lovely curry – plus there’s a tuckshop in a red converted bus.
Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline
Latest remembrance service demonstrated just how supportive, reflective and respectful these pupils are – almost complete silence throughout and smiles, pats on backs and whispers of ‘don’t worry’ to those feeling nervous about laying wreaths. ‘Friendly’ was the single most uttered word used to describe the school by students, while parents report that their offspring are ‘happy’. ‘Kind’ and ‘non-judgemental’, we also heard, with ‘support on tap’. ‘My daughter suffered from extreme anxiety and they have been brilliant with her – access to the counsellor whenever she wants and all staff know to look out for her but not draw attention to it, and if she can’t handle school one day they’re okay with that,’ was a particularly heartfelt testament we heard. Another told us how ‘well the teachers understand the children’. Tutor system helps, as does the fact that most teachers teach years 7 and 8. House system helps build positive relationships across the school.
Despite the many grumbles we heard about student voice – ‘They only ever get past consideration stage most of the time and they even vetoed sanitary products in the toilets for ages,’ said one student – everyone agrees the head acted quickly when students told him the school was stuffy on the topics of sex, sexuality and consent. He was equally quick to react to a mention on Everyone’s Invited – ‘We went straight to pupils and surveyed key year groups.’ Was all over Black Lives Matter too, so far addressing aspects of the curriculum and reading material in the library. ‘When I walked into the kitchen recently and someone said, “Happy Diwali!” I felt that was a real breakthrough,’ says head.
Rules are clear, but watch this space regarding uniform and haircuts: ‘In all honesty, I couldn’t care less if boys have their ears pierced and I’d rather nobody wore a tie – I hate wearing one myself,’ admits head, who is soon to meet SLT to gauge other views. No permanent exclusions recently, although there are usually a couple of temporary ones a year; generally the school prefers a more restorative rationale to discipline.
Pupils and parents
Pupils are sparky, polite and easy company. ‘I just had a load of them over for a party and what a cracking bunch of kids – polite, nice and really able to communicate with adults,’ lauded one parent. Parents mainly professional – finance, doctors, lawyers through to entrepreneurs – but from a range of backgrounds, not all affluent. Catchment widening, now reaching up to Guildford, Reigate, Dorking and up into Wimbledon and Kingston, with a school bus service (and a shuttle bus from Ashtead station) much appreciated. Has led to greater ethnic diversity, though this is still rural Surrey. ‘Some of the parents are helicopter-esque and slightly exhausting – inevitable at an academic school, perhaps - but the majority are sensible,’ reckoned one parent. ‘Communications could be better,’ was a common gripe, ‘you email the school and it goes into a void.’
Fees are competitive alongside other comparable schools in the area. Academic and music awards at 13+ and sixth form available to current pupils and incomers. Means-tested bursary awards, sponsored by the City livery companies.
The last word
A down-to-earth, friendly school that’s comfortable in its own skin rather than relentlessly trying to show off its most polished side – and is all the better for it. Just the ticket for parents after a high-quality, stress-free route for their academically bright sons and daughters from age 7 right through to 18. Almost unique around here.