Review: Cottesmore School, Pease Pottage
A quintessential prep and pre-prep on the Sussex/Surrey border where fun is taken very seriously and children are meticulously prepared for the UK's leading public schools.
An undeniably grand co-ed pre-prep and boarding prep for children aged 4-13, set in sprawling grounds just outside Pease Pottage, near the Sussex/Surrey border. Consistently award-winning – in 2019 it scooped Boarding School of the Year in the TES Awards, and Prep School of the Year 2020 in the Tatler Schools Awards – the school has also become known for its innovative response to lockdown and use of digital and social tools to connect with families and remain active and influential in the wider education space.
The school occupies a Victorian brick mansion house that was once the country home of a rich merchant who made his fortune when he found a diamond lodged in the throat of one of his farmed ostriches. It’s quite the origin story, and Cottesmore retains an air of the remarkable and fantastical to this day – squint a little and there’s more than a hint of Hogwarts about the place particularly during the numerous and lavish feasts that take place each year.
Rather than local independent schools and colleges, destinations for Cottesmore pupils include Eton, Harrow, Winchester College, Cheltenham Ladies College, Benenden, Marlborough and Wellington. This is definitely a haven for those who value the heritage and tradition of independent schools – headmaster and Old Etonian Tom Rogerson’s father and grandfather were also heads of Cottesmore.
Occupying around 35 acres, the site itself is surrounded by a further 1,000 acres of parkland and forest. The outdoor facilities, then, are pretty special. ‘Copious amounts’ (the head’s words) of football, rugby, cricket and hockey pitches are complemented by three grass tennis courts, numerous Astroturf (including covered and floodlit), a heated 25-metre indoor swimming pool, a shooting range, an adventure playground, a quiet reading garden, a nine-hole golf course, a lake, and a farm complete with pigs, quails, ducks and chickens. Phew.
As well as the manor house itself, learning takes place in a purpose-built academic quad based upon Oxford tradition, complete with its own fountain. ICT, design and science are all housed in the Sopwith Centre, named after former Cottesmorian and World War I aircraft engineer Tommy Sopwith best known for inventing the Sopwith Camel. A Sopwith propellor sits outside the state-of-the-art centre, proudly referencing the school’s history in STEM.
The 25 dormitories are housed in the manor house itself and many staff live onsite, including the head and his family and dogs. There’s also a chapel.
Although the facilities are second to none, what elevates them further is the way they’re used. This isn’t a ‘look but don’t touch!’ and ‘no walking on the grass!’ kind of school, it’s more of a ‘let’s go and jump in the lake on the last day of term!’ and zorbing across the sports pitches place. As Mr Rogerson says, ‘fun is taken very seriously at Cottesmore’.
Copious amounts of pitches means copious amounts of sport! All the usual boxes are ticked here – cricket, rugby, hockey, netball, athletics, swimming, tennis – along with more unusual additions like foot golf, archery and paddleboarding on the lake. The standard of teaching is high – the golf teacher, for example, is a professional PGA golfer.
Swimming is a particular strength and Cottesmore pupils compete at national level, regularly taking first place. It’s also one of the top three prep schools for shooting. Sport is now co-ed, and the traditional game of rounders has been relegated as an extra, not a core sport, representing something of a move with the times.
It’s not all about competition though, and there’s a huge range of activities for children including outdoor pursuits, squash, judo, basketball, ten-pin bowling, rowing, fishing and much more. Pony-mad boys and girls benefit from close links with nearby showjumping hotspot Hickstead.
The head is a big fan of music and frequently performs at school events – alongside the resident drum teacher who happens to also be a professional drummer for rock band The Mission. When music is taken seriously at the top level, it’s taken seriously all through the school and some 90% of children study an instrument – a specialist bagpipe teacher was even hunted out to fulfil requests, so no instruments are off-limits! There’s a school orchestra and four choirs, including a rock choir and a chapel choir that performs internationally.
Drama is another big hitter, with around seven school productions a year and the opportunity for pupils to prepare for LAMDA examinations. Theatre trips are part of school life, as are visits from performers and productions. An annual Arts Week is held in the summer term with children working in groups to produce projects and performances.
Cottesmore is selective and the pace of learning is described as ‘brisk’, but pupils are given the support and attention to ensure none are left floundering. Destination schools include the creme de la creme of the UK’s public schools, and academically Cottesmore has the track record to get children to these sought-after institutions through Common Entrance and scholarships. Class sizes are small, with around 14 pupils per class and a teaching ratio of 9:1.
It’s very obvious that third-generation Cottesmore head Tom Rogerson lives and breathes the school. He describes the view of the site during the golden hour before sunset, when the red brick building is bathed in light, as his favourite and most enduring image of Cottesmore and his love for the school and its inhabitants is palpable.
He’s clearly a great character, and his use of Instagram reflects a witty and fun-loving personality. There’s much slapstick humour and he jumps into the school lake so often (traditionally at the end of the school year) that he has a specific suit just for this purpose.
He’s also clearly supremely well-connected, and Cottesmore frequently welcomes the heads and staff from all the major English public schools, including the heads of Harrow and Cheltenham Ladies’ College, for talks, events and more recently, as part of the Cottesmore Connected virtual series. He’s equally well connected with the local community and state primary schools are invited to Cottesmore events and to use the facilities.
As well as help all children at Cottesmore excel in some way, whether that’s academically or through sport, creativity, extra-curricular hobbies and clubs, Mr Rogerson is committed to creating happy memories for the children, so they can look back to their schooldays at Cottesmore and their overall childhoods with great warmth, the way he very obviously does himself.
School life is filled with special occasions, celebrations, feasts, an annual World Awareness Week where a relevant country is studied and celebrated, particularly culturally, and a host of warm, fun and friendly events and activities from barbecues where the senior children serve the juniors, and wholesome outdoorsy activities like tree climbing and animal care club. Everything is done to the highest level, children are expected to work hard and play hard and are rewarded with heaps of good clean fun.
The school has won several high profile awards for its boarding offering including Boarding School of the Year in the TES Independent School Awards.
Full boarding is the norm at Cottesmore from the age of eight, and 90% of staff live on site themselves, most within the same big building, so it has a real family feel and doesn’t empty out at weekends.
Dorms are four to a room for seniors, but bigger for juniors who are put in dormitories close to the nurse and matron who read them a story every evening.
Weekends at Cottesmore are packed with fun and are where many of the happy memories Mr Rogerson speaks of are made. Activities range from the sublime – games, barbecues, skiing, bouncy castles – to the ridiculous. Axe throwing has been known to feature.
There are nine exeat weekends besides the regular school holidays. For children using the Gatwick Express service to reach home in London there is a staff escort service.
A Happiness Charter sits in every room at Cottesmore, with a flow chart of people the children can speak to or actions they can take if they feel they need support. The strong network of pastoral care encompasses a house system, form tutors, peer mentors, a school counsellor and many more, alongside teaching staff and the head and his wife. The school has an extensive range of policies including a mobile phone policy, antibullying policy and peer mentoring policy.
The school has a robotics team and has won trophies for robotics. The giant chess set in one of the playgrounds is one of the more popular features, along with the lake of course. Pancake throwing from the tower is an annual highlight. Life skills like wiring a plug, changing a tyre on a car and tying a tourniquet are taught to leavers.
Pre-prep: £3,360 – £4,480 per term. Prep: £6,290 – £9,950 per term.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those who respect and revere the traditional English public school while recognising that even the greatest institutions have to move with the times. Cottesmore is the quintessential setting for pre-prep and prep where children are given not just an education but a childhood bathed in golden light.
Not for: Children from families front-loading a limited investment in schooling may struggle to adjust to the state sector following a Cottesmore education. Boarding isn’t flexible.
Dare to disagree? Book a slot at the next virtual Open Morning on Sat 8 May.
Cottesmore School, Buchan Hill, Pease Pottage, Crawley RH11 9AU, 01293 520648