Kingham Hill School in Kingham near Chipping Norton is an idyllically placed co-ed day and boarding school with a strong Christian ethos, a couple of miles outside Chipping Norton in North Oxfordshire. Driving up the sweeping drive is kind of like entering a village in its own right with pretty Cotswold houses around the various greens – it has the slightly unreal, cinematic feel of a Richard Curtis movie (just add snow and Hugh Grant).
There, 346 kids from 11-18 years roam in 100 acres (yes, you read that right) of handsome stone Victorian buildings, playing fields and woodland. The school welcomes children of all abilities into classes that average 15, so your child will get plenty of attention here.
Clearly there’s oodles of space (the staff need a golf buggy to get around – I’m not even kidding), but there’s also a cricket square, pavilion and nets, tennis courts, floodlit astroturf pitches, an assault course and a fantastic pool, fitness suite , dance and drama studio. There are horses in the stables too.
Newish investments have been a fabulous library to the tune of £1.5m opened in July ‘16 and a £4m Maths and Science building that opened the previous year. The big new calling card is a £6.2m brand new Sports Hall (below), officially opened in Jan 2020. It’s huge and includes a climbing wall, squash court, changing rooms and a whizzy viewing platform. In time, the plan is for the old sports hall to be converted into a 200 seater performing arts centre with all the bells and whistles you’d expect. In short, you’re not going to grumble about facilities here.
The final thing on the new build menu is an Upper Sixth House – a dedicated space for that crucial interim year between leaving school and starting university. Not currently past the planning stage but I’ll keep you posted.
Kingham Hill once had a reputation for average-at-best academic results, but Nick Seward’s headship over the last 12 years has seen teaching standards and exam results hoiked high, despite a proudly non-academically selective admissions process – in 2018 Kingham Hill was the highest ranked school in Oxfordshire for Sixth Form academic qualifications performance, and has been in the top 3% of Sixth Forms nationally for the last four years.
A level results for 2021 saw 80% of grades at A*-A and with 46% at A*. Great results by anyone’s standards. GSCE results included 61% 9-7 (A*-A). So anyone worried that Kingham Hill’s non-academic admissions policy affects teaching quality should relax.
Since March, ‘Virtual KHS’… (aka VKHS) was a winner during lockdown. The school transitioned to online learning smoothly and even the co-curricular continued with virtual sports day, music concerts and a massive virtual Speech Day.
A cohort of 346 is always going to be a challenge with sports teams, but Kingham Hill takes sport seriously, both competitively and as a learning process. A new initiative last year has seen rugby become compulsory for all boys as lessons in team building and leadership – though relax helicopter parents, if they’re more goggle-glasses than brick-house, they can choose touch instead.
Girls’ sport in particular has been giving a big boost in the last few years – hockey is the headline sport for them with specialist coaches drafted in and cool incentives like the Barcelona hockey tour. Aside from the headline sports, kids can take part in the likes of zumba, cross-country, mountain biking, climbing, swimming and tennis.
I was introduced to six Sixth Formers to have a chat about their school life. But to get to the dirt I had to firstly boot out the teachers from the room. Except it turns out there’s no dirt at all bar the occasional complaint about computer use being denied after 10pm. The kids here seem genuinely happy and well-balanced – they all went on about kindness and community, which is a clear cascade from the headteacher and also the overt Christian ethos of the school.
There seem to be real efforts to help Sixth Formers prepare for the real world with ‘business wear’ as the own-clothes uniform, special dinners where the Sixth Form choose and budget the menu, and a Sixth Form bar where the kids can go for a sensible drink (just the one!) on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with the teachers or headmaster serving behind the bar.
There are 7 boarding houses, and they’re all small in terms of numbers – the school prides itself as being very family-oriented, and pastoral care is one of Kingham Hill’s calling cards. They’ve decreased the number of pupils per house (25 to 35 max in each house) and increased the adult support, with each boarding house having two house parents, three tutors and a rolling internship scheme for recent graduates acting as role models before going on to PGCE. So that’s six adults to each boarding house – not much chance of your child slipping through the cracks.
The boarding houses are in the main lovely stone cottages, though be prepared that they’re not particularly flash inside. Shiny leather sofas, wood-effect beds in rooms, table football and the like. Each house has its own private garden.
I like Nick Seward a lot. Very smart and self-deprecating and witty and now with added beard since I last met him, he has real academic pedigree, having come from Magdalen School in Oxford, he’s been in the hot seat here for almost 12 years and during that time has overseen the investment in the library, science block and sports hall, acted as Grim Reaper to the teaching old-guard, developed an ambitious plan for more new development and knocked off Saturday school, (not wanting children to ‘flog through another six lessons’ when they should be relaxing after a busy week).
Interestingly he’s not a fan of AS Tracking (technology that identifies kids who might not be happy or thriving) nor the idea of the ‘progressive’ child-centered learning – he believes teachers should be seen as the experts, and stand up and teach, not discuss for hours. I have some sympathy with that view actually and I’ll leave you to debate at leisure!
Oooh, quite a few I’m pleased to say! Clearly the Sixth Form bar, with the headmaster as landlord is a master-stroke for starters. But Kingham Hill is the only British school in the UK that also has a US State Department Program running at the school, with 10-15% of US students at the school at any one time. It’s ostensibly so that US pupils can study in the UK whilst meeting US educational requirements, but the upshot is that the British students can study elements of the US curriculum too.
Farm club is a huge hit where pupils can spend time with Alpacas, ponies, pigs, sheep, rabbits and even guinea pigs.
There’s a Combined Cadet Force that is compulsory for all children in Y9 where they undertake basic training, such as drill, command tasks, weapon training, fieldcraft and map reading. Then there’s Tucker, a tuk-tuk that delivers tuck shop goodies to the pupils and is used for refreshments at sports matches – tea, sandwiches, cakes even the occasional glass of Pimms. Now that’s genius.
You want more? Well, Nick Seward’s obsession with motor-racing has taken hold with a school motorsport team. There’s a fleet of 10 karts, and twelve times a year he takes a team around the country in National School Karting Association races. Yes, apparently it’s a thing.
And finally – arguably most importantly – Kingham Hill School has a charitable aim of offering places for 12 vulnerable children per year – last year’s head boy and rugby first XV player, previously homeless and living on the street as a child, was in the papers recently as a poster-boy for the scheme.
The school day starts at 08.30am and children can stay for after school activities until 5pm, although parents can drop children off at the day houses from 8am and they can stay on site to do their prep until 6pm, free of charge.
Fees per term are £6175 rising to £7,030 for day pupils and £8,745 – £10,800 for weekly boarding (Sun night to Fri morning). Full boarding starts at £9,025 rising to £11,850. Day pupils and weekly boarders can stay over ad-hoc for £50 per night. Music and dance/speech/drama lessons are extra, with the exception of Y7 & 8 both of which receive free music lessons.
The deadline to apply for scholarships for Year 7 and Year 9 entry is Monday 11th October 2021. For Sixth Form entry the deadline is Monday 10th January 2022.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Happy parents at this very inclusive, non-hot-housey school. The head is popular and the parents I talked to dismissed the idea of Kingham not being academic enough and it’s easy to see why – 87% headed off to their chosen unis, in 2019 to Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, London School of Economics, Queen Mary, Warwick, and York. I hear Kingham is also popular with city families relocating to the Cotswolds (it doesn’t hurt that Daylesford Organic Farm and Soho Farmhouse are neighbours).
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents who are looking for a pastorally strong, all-round education for their kids. The school is small in numbers so children are known and cared for well and there’s a pervading ethos of kindness and consideration that is genuine and, I’d say, unusual. There are good travel connections – Kingham station is only 3 miles away and links straight to Paddington in just over an hour – it’s about 30 minutes to Oxford too. Gazillions of bus options locally too. There’s excellent dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia provision here if your child needs some extra help.
Not for: The Christian ethos is strong, so you’ll have to accept that aspect of the school to go. My own sense was that it’s about Christian principles being followed – tolerance, forgiveness, etc rather than anything more evangelical. Being in a gorgeous 100 acre site in the Cotswolds, there’s a slight Kingham Hill ‘bubble’ that’s more rural idyll than real life, though I’d also say large efforts are being made to step past the movie set campus into the real world too.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! The next Open Days are on Sat 22 May and Sat 12 June 2021. Register to attend here.
Kingham Hill School, Kingham, Oxon, OX7 6TH. Tel:01608 658999.