Chigwell School, Chigwell
Perched on the outskirts of London and fringing the great, green boughs of Epping forest, this selective co-ed is set in 100 acres of prime Essex countryside and offers a holistic approach to education.
Founded in 1629, Chigwell School may be just a 10-minute stroll from the tube station and leafy mansions that line Chigwell High Road (yep, Sir Alan Sugar is a neighbour and sent his own children here), but once you’re on the sprawling grounds and among the miles of patchwork playing fields, you feel a million miles away from buzzy west Essex and the London skyline beyond.
Set in a huge 100 acres and backing onto Epping Forest, this Anglican school is uniquely positioned to ensure its 994 pupils – a 50/50 gender split, from 4-18 years across pre-prep, junior, senior and sixth form – benefit from its city and countryside offerings. Each school is housed in its own building (seniors are served up handsome 17th-century architecture, while the sixth formers and prep pupils learn in more modern add-ons) – but all make use of the outdoor space as part of the curriculum with some seriously holistic back-to-nature vibes.
As you might expect from a school with such expansive outdoor space, Chigwell packs a punch when it comes to sports facilities. Alongside the dedicated sports hall, which incorporates a multi-purpose area, weight-training space and studios for cardio activities, there’s an outdoor pool (currently closed due to COVID); floodlit astroturf pitch for hockey; nine (yes, NINE) tennis/netball courts; indoor and outdoor cricket nets; a further nine football pitches, plus a brand spanking new 3G floodlit pitch and grass athletics track. Also in the pipeline is a cutting edge sports centre with fitness suite, which will replace the Eighties-built sports hall and serve up a top-of-the-range climbing wall and indoor pool within the next three years, subject to planning. Competitively, the school boasts some significant successes – the U13 girls netball team were national finalists, and the boys U11 and U13s made the national finals twice in the last two years. The U11 boys hockey team were national runners up in 2019 and county champs in 2020. And while there’s not currently a huge take up from the girls when it comes to football and cricket, the school actively encourages mixed teams, so watch this space.
MUSIC, DRAMA AND THE ARTS
The music suite offers up the usual variety of instruments and children are encouraged to pick up playing something from the get-go (there are 400 lessons per week and a concert every 10 days), while the spacious art studios are ideal for budding creatives looking to get their teeth stuck into something more tactile. But it’s the drama centre that seems to take the spotlight here. Interestingly, 30-50 percent of students at the school now take GCSE drama – that’s super-high – and, unlike many independents, Chigwell offers specialist training in light, sound, costume and set design at both GCSE and A level. Cue the centre’s 150-seat auditorium, which is decked out in next-gen lighting and sound systems and run by a full-time theatre manager for expert technician tutorials.
A strong all-round performer, Chigwell School predictably scores well across the results board each year, with 2020 yielding an 83 percent A/A* grade (or 9-7) at GCSE level (100 percent A*-C or 9-4) and 59 percent bagging themselves an A/A* at A level (96 percent A*-C). For those who leave the school at sixth form, 5-10 percent go onto to secure a place at Oxbridge.
Quite beefy for a pre-prep with 120 pupils aged 4-7, classes are limited to 20 and offer state-of-the-art, purpose-built facilities for enquiring minds. Alongside weekly woodland workshops, kids will love the dedicated nature area, ICT suite, music room and science studio. But make no mistake: emphasis here is placed on learning outside the classroom, which is supported by a specialist ‘forest school’ teacher, who leads an inspirational outdoor learning programme filled with problem-solving activities and team-building challenges for all those budding Bear Grylls. By all accounts, parents are particularly impressed when they realise their 7-year-old knows how to build their own fire and outdoor shelter.
With access to a purpose-built drama centre, science labs, art centre and music school, the 230 pupils aged 7-11 benefit from specialist teachers and a huge array of after-school clubs and activities, which range from the usual sports offerings to ‘Stock Market club’ and Astronomy. Alongside the core subjects of English, maths and science, children are taught history, geography, drama, ICT, art and RE as standalone lessons, French from Year 3, and provided access to senior school facilities, too. The school also operates a House system that includes juniors (there are four in Houses in total: the ‘Hanovers’, ‘Stuarts’, ‘Tudors’ and ‘Windsors’) which allows all Year 8s to be given the opportunity to become House ‘leaders’ and look after younger kids coming up through the ranks. Each House has its own character (yep, it’s all very Gryffindor vs Slytherin) and offers up integral pastoral care during junior years too, thanks to the intrinsic network of House tutors, year leaders and positive senior role models.
Housed in a handsome part of the original rosy brick building, the senior block boasts some of the school’s most interesting historical features (including the Swallow library dating back to 1629), plus a gorgeous floor-to-ceiling dining room extension – in which teachers used to sit on the stage like Hogwarts heroes, but now (quite literally) get down with the kids. This central area acts as the beating heart and hub of Chigwell School and by the time children reach their senior years here, the independent’s moto ‘aut viam inveniam aut faciam’ should be well and truly in-grained: ‘Either I shall find a way or make one’.
During my visit, I got the impression that while exam results are rightly deemed important, it’s encouraging a lust for life-long learning that seems to be most valued here. Students aren’t pushed to follow academic subjects if their passions lie in creative fields, but it goes without saying that all pupils take English language, English lit, Maths, at least one foreign language (French/German/Spanish/Latin) and /three sciences from Year 10. There’s also plenty of provision in place for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Offering up a dedicated sixth form block built in 2016, which features a modern, arched-glass frontage, light and spacious rooms plus contemporary common area, Chigwell School’s range of A level subjects is broad. From economics and politics to psychology and classical civilisation, students are encouraged to think creatively and there’s a current push for pupils to look into degree-level apprenticeship schemes alongside the trad uni route, too. That said, the vast majority of graduates go on to study at Russell Group universities, with some gaining places at prestigious overseas Unis (hello, Harvard).
There are four boarding houses in total, but with just 28 international pupils living on campus full-time, the set-up is boutique and family style. Think snooker tables, cosy lounges and lots of language learning: the school deliberately tries to mix up nationalities to increase diversity, and typically attracts students from across China, Russia and Europe. There is scope for UK-based children to board too, but places are limited and decided on by a case-by-case basis.
Warm, charismatic, inspiring: three words that spring to mind when you chat with Chigwell School’s confidence-boosting head, Michael Punt. A local-lad-done-good (he grew up in nearby Brentwood; attended Brentwood School on an assisted place; and went on to study physics at St Peter’s College, Oxford), Michael exudes the kind of enthusiasm for life and interest in others he aims to instil in all his pupils. He’s been at Chigwell for 14 years – and has sent each of his three sons to the school during that time. Ensuring the school becomes something of a community hub is clearly a passion project for him and while he’s had his eye on improving the sports centre facilities (yes, there’s that climbing wall and indoor pool again) from the start, now the vision is to share these resources as much as possible when works are complete.
With a beautiful stain-glass chapel on site, all children visit the Chapel once a week. Worship here may be framed by Christian hymns, traditions and values, but the talks and school philosophy draws more broadly on spirituality and world religions, with pupils encouraged to grow in their own faith traditions whilst appreciating and respecting the beliefs of others. During lockdown, Father Scott even launched his own YouTube channel to keep spirits high, which has been such a huge hit with the Chigwell community that his ‘A Service From The Chaplain’ platform is powering on post-COVID. Amen to that!
For specialist mental health support, the school has a dedicated nurses and a part time in-house nurse on standby. There’s no formal, computerised system in place for monitoring students, though they are currently developing their own use of the Warwick-Edinburgh wellbeing scale to assess and monitor the children’s mental health). For now, if you’re after a more structured approach, it’s certainly discussing during your tour/pre-selection talks.
Good value for the area. Rates per term are: Reception, Y1 and Y2, £4,250; Y3-4, £4,750; Y5-6, £5,250; Y7+, £6,295. Full-boarding, while generally only taken up by international students, costs from £10,995 per term. If your pockets won’t stretch that far, take a look at the bursaries and scholarships available for students at 11+, 13+ and 16+.
Having started life as a boarding school for 16 boys, who learned, eat and slept in what is now the library, Chigwell School comes complete with its very own underground tunnel to what was once the second oldest pub in the UK (sadly, the tunnel’s no longer in use but the pub is still alive and kicking, albeit in the form of TOWIE haunt, sheesh). The oldest parts of the school are also reportedly home to a friendly female ghost who wanders the halls at night. See? No one ever wants to leave!
The school seems to be on great terms with Old Chigwellians with many coming back to give talks of their own to students looking for career advice – previous speakers have included architects, artists and TV presenter Ben Shephard, who returned in 2016 to open the Risham Sarao Sixth Form Centre, itself named after a former student in memoriam.
A handy and unusually early start here with breakfast running from 7am. Students from Reception upwards can try around 50 different after-club activities until 5.30pm (or up to 6pm for older pupils. There’s currently no flexi-boarding available.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Community is king here. Despite being a selective independent on the outskirts of London, Chigwell School seems to have fostered a village feel that encompasses not just the students and their families, but the entire area. Neighbours join the school quiz nights; parents have been known to nip into the canteen for a coffee together; the headmaster visits bursary application families at home rather than school. In short, this is a hands-on, there-for-everyone approach.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Kids who love to get in the mix. Offering co-ed learning from pre-prep to sixth form, Chigwell School is a thoroughly modern set-up and the seniors’ impressive drama suite is particularly standout. If your child is naturally inquisitive and into everything, they’ll excel here: introverts will be brought out of their shell, budding environmentalists will love the focus on outdoor learning, and the school’s unstuffy, down-to-earth values cultivate adventure, independence and empathy over keeping up good appearances. There’s a palpable family vibe here sociable kids and parents will love – some mums even pop in for a cuppa after drop-off.
Not for: Parents expecting a Harry Potter-style independent with sweeping staircases and opulent interiors. Yes, the grounds are gorgeous and the Swallow library, in particular, oozes historical charm but there’s nothing here that’s going to blow the barn door off a period drama. The mood is very much family-first. And the school is big. So, if you’re moving your child from a much smaller set-up, or they’re incredibly shy by nature, it’s worth bearing in mind that Chigwell’s high-energy vibe and ‘have a go’ ethos could prove overwhelming.
DARE TO DISAGREE?
The school offers guided tours, contact email@example.com to arrange. Alternatively, you can watch a virtual tour for 7+ and the 11+ virtual tour here. See chigwell-school.org for further details.
Chigwell School, High Road, Chigwell, Essex IG7 6QF.