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Good Schools Guide Review: Senior School

Good Schools GuideWhat The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2015, Mr Roland Martin (40s), cheerful, communicative, intellectual, and thoroughly likeable. Grew up in a council house and won a Foundation scholarship to Rendcomb College in Gloucestershire, where he was a boarder, got involved with everything and had a wonderful time. Read English at York and was about to embark on a PGCE when he was offered a job at Newcastle-under-Lyme School and decided to learn on the job instead. Six years there were followed by 13 years at Eton, where he taught English and drama, and was also 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. Married to Kerri, who works at the school as outreach officer, with two children.

Thinks that if he hadn’t become a teacher he might have chosen to be ordained as a minister (‘And I still might be!’ he adds), and certainly feels that teaching is a vocation. Delighted to be at Freemen’s – ‘This school gets under your skin really, really quickly.’ A theatre lover and true scholar, whose passion for all things 18th century was so infectious that we wanted to join his sixth form classes on tomb sculpture ourselves. Popular with students, who describe him as ‘humble’, ‘down-to-earth’ and ‘involved’. Parents concur, grateful for improved communication and commenting that he is ‘quietly confident and very approachable, with a clear vision of where he wants to take the school,’ and ‘incredibly kind’.

Academic matters

Extremely good results year on year at both GCSE and A level - in 2017, 88 per cent A*-A/9-7 for the former, with 64 per cent A*/A and 90 per cent A*/B for the latter.

Viewed by parents as pretty much the best in the locality, and students say that the school ‘feels very academic’. No feel of being a pressure-cooker, however, and parents and pupils alike praised the way that academic performance was achieved without undue stress. ‘You don’t feel that you’re lacking if you’re not in the top set. The teachers always encourage you to do well.’ Independent study skills a priority: ‘They give you the tools you need to work with, but they don’t spoon-feed you,’ was a typical comment. ‘My history teacher is so interested in everything about history, and is always up for a chat – it led to my choosing history,’ enthused one sixth former. ‘The opportunities for my son to challenge himself academically both in school hours and in terms of extracurricular provision are excellent,’ wrote a mother, ‘for example maths challenges, literary society, science and technology seminars. The small classes and tutorial group system work well and the children are all very motivated.’

Curriculum is traditional but broad, with all the usual subjects taught and enjoyed. School offers French, Spanish, German and Latin, and is looking at introducing Mandarin (‘We’re behind the curve on that one,’ admitted head). The lessons we attended were sound and solid, with all students keen to participate. Head not especially a fan of giving out iPads, but felt that the school was behind the times on the ICT front when he arrived and has worked to modernise the provision.

At sixth form the school offers A levels, plus the Free Minds programme, a kind of internal baccalaureate introduced by the head and aimed at helping students to go off-piste intellectually. ‘It has helped my children to broaden their interests and thinking,’ wrote one mother. Unless they’re taking double maths, all sixth formers have to do the EPQ.

A smattering of students with mild SEN are supported by a team of three SEN teachers across the junior and senior school. Support is ‘done quite subtly’ – at breakfast and lunchtime clubs, for instance – and students with dyslexia may do one foreign language rather than two. However, this isn’t the place for more than a minor level of need.

Games, options, the arts

Sport is very strong here and the facilities are stunning – huge hockey Astro is very impressive - but the emphasis is on inclusion, with a number of grateful parents praising the participation and enjoyment fostered by the school’s culture. ‘My son chose to play down a team in rugby because he was frightened of tackling and the school was happy to accommodate this, as the focus is on building the boys’confidence and enjoyment of the game,’ wrote one mother. Boys do rugby, football and cricket, girls do hockey, netball, tennis and rounders. A very traditional divide, and one mother, who was effusive in her praise of the school, did comment, ‘My only gripe is that the boys have no choice in the lower school other than to do football, then rugby, then cricket and don’t have the opportunity to experience tennis or hockey - which would suit some of them far better.’ Swimming suffered a bit of a setback when the pool burnt down in 2014, but there's a new six-lane replacement. Varied programme of extracurricular sports eg fencing, squash, pilates, kickboxing, archery, and coaching for these described by parents as ‘outstanding’. Ski trips highly rated by students. Cracking gym and fitness suite, where perspiring young men were pumping iron under the guidance of a trainer when we passed by.

Music taught in excellent purpose-built block, complete with recording studio, Live Room for pupils’ own band practices, Mac suite and all the practice rooms you could desire. 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. ‘The music at Freemen’s is excellent, with very high standards of concerts and individual music teachers,’ wrote one parent, adding, ‘It is a shame they don’t offer a music tour abroad as other schools do.’

Drama is accommodated in the Ferndale Theatre, which is an odd shape but very well-equipped and staffed. Lots of scope for getting involved. School plays are ‘amazing!’ according to pupils – previous productions have included Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Romeo & Juliet and Laura Wade’s Alice set in a prop cupboard. School has just appointed a dramatist-in-residence to help extend the clubs and activities on offer. School scores regular successes in the Shakespeare For Schools Festival.

Art is flourishing, although the work we saw struck us as enjoyable rather than particularly inventive. CCF and Duke of Edinburgh offered from year 9. Generally, both parents and students were full of praise for the enrichment here, although a couple hinted that some of the opportunities on offer looked better on paper than in actuality.

Boarders

New and spruce boarding house opened in 2014 and can accommodate up to 30 boys and 30 girls in years 9 to 13. Attractive floor-to-ceiling etched glass entrance doors give immediately onto a big open plan common room, light and airy, although not, one imagines, particularly private. Students share two to a room until the sixth form, when they can have a room to themselves. Two kitchens for boarders’ use, plus very nice laundry facilities. There are plans to extend the provision to include a dedicated sixth form boarding house. Full, weekly and flexi-boarding are all offered.

The school was founded to care for orphans, so boarding is part of the original statute and must be provided. However, it’s fair to say that the current residents are rather different to those in 1854. Almost all today’s boarders are paying full fees and hail from overseas eg China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Kazakhstan. They have to have good English to start with, and a specialist EAL teacher visits three times a week, ensuring they make rapid progress. A very small number of weekly boarders, and these are usually from the UK.

Only two live-in staff, supported by a day matron and other assistants. This is a small community, and reading between the lines, a quiet one. We didn’t get to meet or talk to any boarders, and couldn’t detect the kind of buzz so palpable in other boarding houses we’ve visited.

Background and atmosphere

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 – applicants had to be aged between 7 and 10 and could stay until they were 15. So whereas many schools have added on boarders, girls and junior-aged children in order to survive economically, Freemen’s took them all from the off. In 1924, the school relocated to the 57-acre Ashtead Park estate in Surrey; fee-paying boys were now also admitted, with fee-paying girls joining them in 1933.

Oddly higgledy-piggledy entrance – the grandly named Gatehouse is just a modern Portakabin-style extension – gives little indication of the beauty and space that awaits just around the corner. 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. ‘It’s a very nice place to be,’ agreed our tour guide, as we paused to admire the wonderful wood-panelled entrance hall. Despite this, the campus has a modern feel to it: lots of new buildings – the Haywood Centre is the hub of the school and bang up to date. Even more is planned: a huge overhaul of facilities is set to take place over the next 8-10 years. No danger of anyone feeling cramped, though: there are space and green fields in abundance, stretching far away into the distance. We walked about at lunchtime and saw both girls and boys charging hither and yon in what seemed like a civilised pastoral idyll, laughing, shouting, playing, generally being active, healthy and noisy.

House system helps to build positive relationships across the school. A pupil told us, ‘I absolutely love it here. It’s really friendly and welcoming,’ and another added, ‘Everyone’s really open-minded. It’s a happy school.’ A parent wrote, ‘There is none of the razzamatazz and sales manner of some other schools.’ We agree – if anything, the school was a little too unconcerned about showing us its best side, with the result that it came across as successful and contented, rather than dynamic and self-searching.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Universally praised as a kind, non-judgmental place where children can flourish. ‘I am a single mother and the school has been nothing other than supportive to myself and my sons, who have had a massive adjustment period over the last year,’ was a particularly heartfelt testament we received. This is all the more praiseworthy given that it runs alongside the school’s longstanding emphasis – commented upon by many - on students thinking for themselves. ‘Freemen's children are expected to be independent from arrival in year 3 onwards and as a result in the main the school produces very confident, organised individuals and we feel that our children have benefitted from this,’ wrote a parent, adding, ‘There is little hand holding though, and the onus is on the child to seek out help.’ Students agreed: ‘There’s a lot of support in place if you ask for it.’

Behaviour is like the uniform: sensible and smart. Tutor system ensures that everyone is known and supported, rules are clear, and children say they know what’s expected of them. Pupils can bring their own lunch, but most choose the school meals, which are very good (‘much better than they used to be,’ confided a sixth former), and served in the main house dining room under the beneficent painted gaze of former school dignitaries.

Head has open door on two mornings a week for staff and two mornings a week for pupils. A delegation of girls came to talk about their concerns for PSHE – they’d felt the school was stuffy on topics such as sex and sexuality. Head listened and acted – ‘We’ve worked a lot on pupil voice.’ No issues with transition from junior to senior – Freemen’s operates as one all-through school, and the younger children are familiar and comfortable with the site and senior staff well before they move up at 13.

Students say: ‘The balance is good here. It’s academic, but they let you get on with it. The homework load is manageable. Most people do stuff outside school and the teachers are aware of this.’ ‘My children have thrived since joining the school and are very happy there,’ was a typical parent comment.

Pupils and parents

This is classic commuter country, and Freemen’s families are mostly professional but from a range of backgrounds nonetheless; some affluent, some making large sacrifices to pay the fees. Parents Association is proactive and supportive of the school. Pupils predominantly from surrounding Surrey towns of Ashtead, Epsom, Banstead, Leatherhead, Esher and Cobham, and school offers a return coach service to these areas and more. Shuttle bus to and from Ashtead station also a great help, particularly to those travelling from further afield.

Freemen’s students are able, cheerful, polite and grounded. Very little ethnic diversity, reflecting the area’s demographic, but all the children we saw were mixing happily together regardless of difference.

Entrance

At 13+, the overwhelming majority come up from the junior school. There is absolutely no academic barrier between junior and senior school, something which is a huge draw for parents: entry from year 8 to year 9 really is automatic. ‘Once you’re in, you’re in,’ confirmed the head, ‘The children arrive at age 7, and our expectation is that they’ll still be here 10 years later.’ An additional 20 places for outsiders, all keenly competed for - applicants mostly come from local preps eg Downsend, Danes Hill, Cranmore and Lanesborough. At sixth form around another 20 join, including overseas boarders. Sixth form places for UK students are offered on current academic performance (applicants must be sitting at least eight GCSEs), school report and interview, although offers are conditional upon GCSE grades achieved. International students sit papers in January in English, maths, non-verbal reasoning and the A level subjects they wish to study.

Exit

A small number at 16+, either for financial reasons or because they fancy a change. At 18+ the majority to Russell Group unis. In 2017 the most popular destinations included Oxbridge (eight places), UCL, Exeter, Birmingham, Warwick, Bristol and Durham.

Money matters

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 and often tied to certain professions. A very small number of children of Freemen who have lost one ‘family breadwinner’ parent attend completely free as Foundationers, whether they are day pupils or boarders.

Our view

A school that produces confident, motivated, happy young achievers. A blessing to parents looking for a high-quality stress-free educational route that will take their academically able sons and daughters from age 7 right through to 18. Almost unique in this neck of the woods.

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