Good Schools Guide
Date of visit: 28th November 2013
Since 2004, Mr Andrew Fisher BA, MA, DipEd (fiftyish). A relaxed, breezy and natural educator. It’s in the genes – his grandfather headed Repton and became a bishop, his father was head of Geelong Grammar, a brother heads an international school in Belgium and other relations have run schools both here and in Australia. Mr Fisher – “Andrew” (everyone is on first name terms at Frensham) – still sounds Aussie, despite twenty years in the UK – the first ten spent at Wrekin College where he became head of English and, finally, deputy head (pastoral) and you can immediately see why – the pastoral aspect, that is.
This is a practical, hands-on head and one of the roundest pegs in the most circular hole we’ve met. He’s a motivator and a believer in people. Parents pay tribute to, especially, his skills as a communicator: “He is a complete star and inspiring,” “he can speak equally well to parents and children,” “extremely human and talks to everyone as individuals,” “he keeps you in touch, even on minor matters” and so on. Wife, Catherine, is deputy head at one of the local large sixth form colleges attended by one of his daughters, the other a pupil at a local comprehensive at time of our visit. A likeable, unpretentious head – we queued for lunch along with everyone else – no way, he’d jump to the head of the queue – and he clearly values highly his relationship with the pupils: “They treat me with great respect but it’s not based on traditional school values. I can laugh at myself.”
Not “selective” as normally understood – this school is more concerned that you join them for the right reasons than because you will help them soar to league-table-topping prominence. A smallish school so not the hugest range of subject options at GCSE or A level. Very high pupil:teacher ratio makes for lots of small group and one-one support. Impressive results in Eng Lit – 80 per cent getting A*/A; the three sciences, when taken separately, also impress though most take IGCSE double award. Blissfully small classes for eg RE, ICT. No Latin, no Greek. Photography taken – spectacularly – as an extra-curricular GCSE with huge numbers and great success – see below. All A level subjects taught in small groups – much appreciated by students. English, maths, geography, history and art most popular and most achieve A*-C with around 40 per cent of subjects getting A*/A only a few take langs, including some native speakers. Sixth form seen by some as being less rigorous academically than it might but the newish head of sixth is “driving up standards,” we were assured. And “we are upping our game in stretching the gifted and talented”. Parents concur. “Not hot-housing doesn’t mean they can’t achieve highly,” affirmed one. Disappointing library which doubles as cafe and place to sprawl in breaks with little evidence of its books being used.
Loads of support – eg maths clinic each lunchtime. Not great for wheelchair users as the site is huge, bumpy and has steps. Main House not wheelchair-friendly at all. But school will try to take anyone they feel will benefit – mild SEN are catered for with enthusiasm and dedication and some families shared between Frensham and nearby More House for those with greater needs. “My daughter had one-to-one for her reading and her reading age jumped two years in a term.” SEN support is careful and threaded through the school.
Games, Arts and Options
Think, Create, Explore is inscribed around the school and the vast menu of extra-curricular options should tempt the most sluggish teenager to do just that. Bike maintenance, American football, boules, tap dancing, barbershop and various dance forms – before, during and after school and at weekends. Excellent new music block; around half learn at least one musical instrument in school – “Frensham bends over backwards to find teachers if you want to learn some different instrument,” a budding soloist enthused. Masses of bands, orchestras, ensembles, choirs and performance courses through the veins of the school. Dance much praised and popular. Drama is well-provided for and central to the school. The theatre is a wonderful asset – it has everything and does everything – and is well used, as are the two drama studios and the little wooden outdoor theatre on the front lawn. Performance values are high with a healthy, pervasive culture of it being OK to perform. Creative drama team under innovative long-serving head of dept. Outstanding photography under even longer-serving, inspirational leadership and now with unique facilities for techniques old and new. Brilliant, diverse and poly-faceted artwork – we were truly struck by the rigour and values underpinning the skills and the freedom pupils were given to develop as they needed. Witty ceramics, clever textiles, wood and resistant materials productions with mind-opening themes explored with structure and solidity. “Art and drama must challenge me,” says Andrew. Arguably, the most impressively led art dept in the country.
Sports are enthusiastic, various and “improving” according to parents though some feel they could and should be better. “Outdoor education” is important – there is Forest School, the outdoor Terrace Theatre, the swimming pool in the walled garden and loads of activities to develop outdoor skills – D of E Gold Award taken here and the whole school breathes in its own glorious “outdoors”. Facilities – indoor and out – are certainly conducive to performance but one senses that real energies go into creativity rather than goalscoring.
Background and Atmosphere
Charles Charrington, the brewer, acquired Fir Grove House on the edge of Rowledge village, overlooking a panorama of Surrey woods and hills and transformed it into Frensham Heights – an imposing Gothic redbrick residence with turrets, leaded lights and stained glass, splendid Georgian-style interiors, cornices, architraves, fireplaces – the lot – in 1902, as a would-be ancestral pile. Alas, the first world war intervened and the house became a military hospital and, as the old order changed, was reinvented as a school by three redoubtable women – Edith Douglas-Hamilton and joint headmistresses, Beatrice Ensor and Isabel King. Ensor, an early proponent of Montessori education, was a theosophist, a vegetarian and an anti-vivisectionist. Fascinatingly, one of the teachers at the school in those early years was Krishna Menon. But the school’s progressive credentials, being coeducational and liberal, were integral to its ethos from the first. Strangely, every head since its pioneers has been male.
Set in extensive woodlands and the older children trail ten minutes through the woods to the village with its supermarket and sweetshop. Immense and meticulously kept grounds – Andrew pays tribute to the excellence of the financial management and, indeed, it is admirable that the place is so well maintained with so small a population of fee-payers. Newer buildings nestle in trees and witty sculptures sprawl on the lawns and in foyers – we loved the slumbrous wire rabbit (“the little kids curl up in its ears”) and the jokey wax mushrooms, as well as the huge black panther.
Boarding arrangements set to change in September 2014 to become coed throughout the school. Hamilton House will accommodate the 11-13 year-old boarders – boys and girls housed on different floors. They will share a breakfast room/kitchen and a large garden. Main House – will house the older boarders – girls and boys in opposite wings and with entry codes. Roberts House, the sixth form centre – coeducational from its inception, is unchanged and is everyone’s base all day – day pupils share studies and workspace. We knocked at a random door and found two lads in hoodies actually working and blinking at the disturbance. Whole school on fibre-optic broadband and Facebook etc blocked till tea-time. Boarding is good – decent sized rooms in the main though some singles are tightish; nice bright shower rooms and good kitchens. Exceptionally welcoming sitting rooms – especially “The Sit” which looks like home. Food – very good, we tried it – served in big dining room with tables and banquettes and everyone eats ensemble. Around a third stay in at weekend and are busy – see note about extra-curricular above. Powerful cleaning fluid smells almost knocked us over in several buildings.
No uniform – so everyone bar a few – in uniform of hoody, leggings/jeans, sweatshirts, boots/trainers. It looks relaxed and sane – enhanced by the amount of linked arms and hugging we saw – more like a bunch of French children, we thought. Central to the ethos is personal maturity: “they are given real responsibility,” one parent told us, “and can take the initiative – the school’s approach to that is excellent.” This extends to falling in and out of love, which, of course, they do but we were impressed by the compassion and mutual respect with which this is handled. “It does happen but anything more than a hug or kiss in public is frowned on and people are respectful of what others want to see… if people break up, we look after each other,” a wise mid-teen averred. “It’s not for everyone,” said another. “If you need real structure and routine it’s not for you.” “Conventional parents need to look beyond the informality and recognise that the pupils respect the teachers because of the way they treat them rather than because of the rules,” a less conventional parent asserted.
Pastoral and Discipline
Everyone agrees about the staff: “it’s almost personal tutoring – they know how I learn so they explain it to me they know I can understand,” a bright sixth former told us. “They encourage pupils to excel in music, art, sport – whatever they’re good at,” said a parent. Also a sense of a recent tightening of discipline – especially on illicit fags and booze. “Some people were getting cocky – they’ve cracked down on it now,” we were advised. But pastoral care universally praised: “They’re not heavy-handed over minor transgressions – they see them in a learning context but if you cross a line you’ll be suspended.” And another parent: “if you’ve got that much freedom you need the support to go with it.” A strong sense that mutual respect and mutual support is central to the ethos of the place.
Pupils and Parents
Around 75 per cent day pupils who come from a radius of about 40 miles – Petersfield, Goldalming, Farnham. Boarders are weekly eg from London or from overseas and school has wise policy of not taking more than four pupils who speak any one language into any senior year. So penny nos from eg Russia, Germany, Croatia, Spain. Intensive EAL available though needed by very few. Notable Old Frenshamians include performers Bill and Jon Pertwee, Jamie Glover, David Berglas, Rufus Hound, Hattie Morahan, Noah Bulkin; also Sir Claus Moser and Uber-fraudster, Edward Davenport.
All candidates for years 7-9 are interviewed. Exams a week or so later – 11+ take tests in reading, writing, spelling, maths and non-verbal reasoning. Same plus a science test for 13+ candidates. Similar for occasional places which do occur. Sixth form places require six GCSEs at A*-C, ideally with Bs in A level subjects “but we’re flexible,” says Andrew. School also sets its own papers for sixth form entry. Oversubscribed by 4:1 at this stage.
Around 40 per cent leaves at 16 – mostly to the several large state (free) sixth form colleges round about, some few for the IB or for subjects not on offer here. All who stay get to their first choice university which suggests good guidance and realistic applications. To one of the widest range of tertiary education establishments we have seen. Many to creative courses – arts, design, music – but also the odd Cambridge entrant and others to study everything from architecture at Nottingham to geography at King’s, London. Different, diverse, distinctive.
Sibling discounts for third and subsequent children of 10%. Scholarships and exhibitions in academics, performing arts, creative arts and sport up to £750 pa – so glory rather than gold. Means-tested bursaries in case of need but school has no endowments so not plentiful.
A place to grow up in. Every kind of opportunity to become the person you are meant to be and to learn about others while you’re at it. Civilised, liberal values with wraparound care and support. We loved it.
Arguably, the most impressively led art dept in the country. A strong sense that mutual respect and mutual support is central to the ethos of the place. Different, diverse, distinctive.