Cheam School, Headley, nr Newbury
A top co-ed prep near Newbury with whopper facilities, surrounded by 100 stunning acres. What's not to love?
A smart co-ed day and boarding school for ages 3-13, Cheam School is a bucolic beauty set on the Berkshire and Hampshire border. It offers day or a thoroughly modern mix of flexi and weekly boarding. It’s a buzzy, energetic school with 408 pupils in total, with a balanced 50/50 split in girls and boys.
Cheam sits in roughly 100 acres of pristine grounds (props to the grounds staff, who clearly work their socks off) and is set back from the busy A339 that runs between Newbury and Basingstoke. Yes, it’s a busy road but it’s also means it’s easy to whizz the kids and offers good rail links to London from Newbury or Basingstoke.
Cheam was founded way back in 1645, making it the oldest private school in the country. It moved to its current site in 1932, dominated by the stonking grade II listed Georgian mansion. The school has a long tradition as a feeder to the top independents – Eton, Marlborough, Downe House, Radley, Wellington – and its former pupils include Prince Philip and Prince Charles. *Virtual curtsey*.
OMG, where to start? The huge school grounds are seemingly endless and their is not a single blade of grass out of place. You’ll find cricket pitches and nets, six hard tennis courts, a new full-size astro turf pitch, a nine-hole golf course, an adventure playground and mud kitchen for the littlies and an outdoor swimming pool. But it doesn’t end there. There’s a smart modern sports hall, a 20m rifle range and opportunities to fence, horse ride and learn bushcraft.
On the music and drama front, the chapel doubles up as a performance hall, with all the music rooms running alongside it. Bigger whole school events, like Division Music – when the kids competitively rock out in their Divisions (houses) – take place in the sports hall. The school has a strong performing arts contingent, with lots of opportunities to sing in bands or choir and play musical instruments. Juniors and Seniors both put on a big show each year, like Cats, Lord Of The Flies and We Will Rock You. There’s also a biennial tour to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The art studio is also outstanding. Light, bright, with space that many pros could only dream of.
There’s no shortage of things to do here. With over 100 activities up for grabs, including choirs, orchestras, string and brass bands, sport and quirkier clubs like Balloon debate, Rubbish & Recycling, Stage Makeup and Woodland activities.
I’ve seen my fair share of spruced up boarding rooms in my time, but nothing quite prepared me for Cheam’s. A local artist has painted murals in the rooms and they’re awesome. You’ll find big cats roaming the halls, rooms that are out of this world, James Bond makes an appearance… I won’t spoil the surprise. Fun for the kids (and comforting for parents to know), rooms here are not just a place to rest weary heads. And the fact that they’re in the main mansion house adds to the home-from-home feel.
With facilities this good, boarding is huuuuge the flexibility is super appealing for local families. Note it’s weekly or flexi rather than full, with everyone going home on a Saturday night. (‘Flexi’ here means one or two nights a week; ‘weekly’ means three, four or five). Boarding Housemaster Tom Chapman, his wife and the rest of the tea, go above and beyond to ensuring the kids are well cared for and a lot of fun – Prison Break, Spanish Fiesta, Deathtrap Dungeon, Fireworks as well as sports, arts and crafts. I suspect the boarding team have more fun than the kids. No judgement here.
The killer combo of being non-selective yet academically strong. The vibe is more prospering than pushy. Catnip for parents wishing to escape the London academic hot houses. There’s a dedicated scholarship class for the brightest buttons, and one of the best learning-support departments I’ve seen. Head of Learning Support Kate Hudson scoops up children who need a little or a lot of help to ensure they have the tools to thrive (rather than survive) school life. She’s mindful of the each individual child’s needs and the stigma attached and works incredibly hard to build confidence and instill that love learning. Her magic extends to the staff development too.
Cheam is regarded as a feeder schools for the top independents, which gives you an idea of the academic standards. Many were awarded places at many pupils winning places at Eton, Marlborough and Bradfield College. Other popular destinations include Wellington, Radley, St Edward’s, Oxford and Pangbourne. The senior-school destination list is broadening year on year. Day schools for 13+ are growing in popularity, but still pretty rare.
William Phelps took the reins from April 2022. He’s fun, charismatic, a little bit eccentric, but also vastly experienced. He’s moving from The Beacon School in Amersham – one of the UK’s leading and largest boys’ prep schools – to Cheam. He was also headmaster of the British International School in New York (BIS-NY) for five years and Senior Housemaster and Head of Boarding at Abingdon School. Impressive, non? William comes from a family of teachers (his brother is deputy head at The Dragon in Oxford and his dad was an Oxford Don), so it runs in the family.
His motto has always been ‘be kind, be kind, be kind’, so you can expect to hear that phrase a lot when he arrives at Cheam. He’s a big believer in service, giving back so to the community and partnering with charities. He think there’s room to expand boarding. Flexi is popular locally, weekly with the London crowd, but he’s confident Cheam’s offering will appeal to parents in Winchester and Oxford, to name just two.
Despite lots of chatter around the relevance of Common Entrance exams, new head William Phelps is a big fan. In fact, he describes them as the ‘kite mark of excellence, unparalleled in its detailed knowledge’. He does concede, however, that with offers being handed out in Y6 it perhaps it should now be called Common Exit. But he’s bullish that the current curriculum allows for ingenuity and innovation, with the freedom and luxury to select as well.
First thing in his inbox? Well, the kids want a new indoor pool. With a price tag of about £4m that may have to wait. But their other request was ‘time’. They feel a bit rushed right now. Although ‘Digest’ is time set aside for reflection and reading, this is often used up for catch-up lessons. So Phelps is keen to look at whether they can look at the timetable and slow the school down: extending lessons from 30 to 40 minutes and replacing some of the academic lessons on a Saturday with activities.
I don’t think it gets more quirky than being given special permission to perform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical School of Rock, before it premiered in London’s West End. Lucky for them, Lord Lloyd Webber is a neighbour. The kids then bagged opening night seats for the pro show. Impressive, eh?
The gleam at Cheam is real. It is super-slick and the attention to details is phenomenal. Every notice board is fun and creative, the classrooms are bright spaces, particularly in the pre-prep and there’s 101 things to do. From traditional sports and music to the more unusual Ultimate Frisbee, yoga, ceramics, fishing, chess and debating – there’s something for everyone.
Glowing reviews! Frazzled parents constantly juggling work and children, will appreciate the after school clubs available to Pre-Prep kids. You can drop off from 8.10am and lessons end at 3.30pm – after-school clubs run until 4.30pm (5.55pm for Y3s). In Prep, if your kids aren’t boarding, it’s 8.10am – 6pm, Monday to Saturday.
Fees: Nursery sessions are morning and afternoon and you can choose how many days your nippers attend. However, 5 full days per term is £3,715 (£2,965 after EYE funding). Reception-Y2 Day: £3,975; Y3 £6,220. Senior Y4-5 Day fees £7,195 to £9,445 full boarding and Y6-8 £7,530 day only to £9,775 full boarding. There are lots of boarding options and ad-hoc flexi is £52 per night.
WORD ON THE GROUND
In the past, Cheam has had a bit of a rep for being a bit punchy – a pressure cooker environment, egged on by parents. But that’s not the Cheam today. A couple of the mums I spoke to gave it an A* for its ambition for the kids, opportunities but also the emphasis on wellbeing. The social scene is pretty hot too. And there’s plenty of extra curricular for kids and their families.
It’s a nurturing environment where the wellbeing and mental health of these youngsters are as important as the academic rigour. And the inspectors love it too. The latest ISI report struggled to find fault, pretty much saying the Cheam is excellent and outstanding across the board.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: It has the rolling acreage and pristine playing fields. It’s fair to say Cheam is sporty, with the silverware to prove it. It’s academic enough for the pushiest of parents but the quality of teaching and extra-curricular activities mean the kids have a ball.
Not for: If you have a very sensitive, shy child you a smaller, more nurturing environment might be better suited. But class sizes are small here and the brilliant staff can coax anyone out of their shell.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest! The next Open Day is 20 May (10am-12.30pm). Places are limited so book your spot by emailing registrar Juliette Moore or telephone 01635 267822.
Cheam School, Newbury Road, Newbury, Berkshire RG19 8LD. Tel: 01635 268381