Cumnor House Sussex, Danehill
Muddy says: Smart new classrooms, a pioneering wellbeing programme, a strong scholarship record and parental inclusion tick a lot of boxes at Cumnor.
Cumnor House Sussex is a non-selective co-ed school covering nursery to 13, with flexi-boarding offered for the last two years. Pupil numbers are capped at 365 – one for each day of the year.
It occupies a lofty 65 acre site at Danehill, with views to Glyndebourne and the Ashdown Forest. Cumnor has a more local catchment area than some independent schools and generally takes pupils living within a 40 minute drive time. Its relative closeness to the major train station of Haywards Heath is a boon to commuting parents.
Though it has a red brick building at its heart, the school has a built-for-purpose feel with plenty of new classrooms maximising space and natural light.
The relatively new nursery, which takes children from 2+, is in a beautiful open plan set of rooms with floor to ceiling windows and countryside views. It was launched three years ago in response to community demand and about half of its intake continue at Cumnor.
The children had met the police and looked round a patrol car on the morning of my visit and some were now creating some great animals from natural materials at Woodpeckers, Cumnor’s school in the woods, togged up in waterproof onesies, seemingly oblivious to January cold. One toddler rushed up with some super important news: “we’re having snacks!” To be honest, it’s the sort of thing that still gets me excited as an adult!
The swanky new STEM building was opened in 2017 by a member of Tim Peake’s NASA team. It is used as a hub by other local schools one afternoon a week. In a physics class, pupils were analysing the results of their running races as we looked around. I also saw some impressive scholarship design projects.
Sports facilities include an indoor and an outdoor swimming pool and a new astro.
The music barn, with cosy under floor heating (I’m told the pupils wanted to lie on when it was first installed), is a 17th century farm building that was transported to the site in 1980. Year three pupils have half-price music lessons for a term to encourage them to try out an instrument. All children learn to read music at an early age.
There’s also a purpose built theatre with raked seats and pupils from nursery up are used to appearing on stage often, so helping build public speaking confidence.
The dining room was recently expanded and older children can have coffee and tea here in their afternoon break.
A small lake allows for boating and rope swinging in the warmer months. There’s also a charming hidden outdoor theatre.
Cumnor is non-selective, with most children joining from the nursery, but still enjoys a good track record for placing children in what are perceived as the top senior schools. It has a 100% success rate at Common Entrance.
Scholarship candidates are identified early and allowed more time to pursue their best subject. In 2018, 27 of the 50 children moving onto senior schools did so with a scholarship of some kind, academic or otherwise.
Destination schools include Ardingly College, Bedes, Benenden, Brighton College, Bryanston, Eastbourne College, Eton, Hurstpierpoint College, Kings Canterbury, Radley, Roedean, Tonbridge and Wellington College.
There’s strong parental involvement in the school. A new coffee area in the dining room (with an enticing range of Teapigs teas) draws parents and guardians into the school to chat together after drop off, with the head or his wife dropping by regularly to address any queries on the spot. Parents’ evenings meanwhile end with a sociable meal.
Forums held at the school share tips for parents based on staff experience. Subjects have included ‘The Wonder of “no”’!
The school is justly proud of its wellbeing focus. The iSpace curriculum was devised by the school’s Director of Compliance Health and Welfare who is a qualified paediatric nurse practitioner with a Masters in Nursing Science with a mental health focus. Launched in 2016, it has since been rolled out to schools in Sussex, Kent and London.
iSpace…standing for ‘I stop, I pause, I calm everything’ uses space imagery with, for instance, a rocket analogy to support children’s emotional and behavioural self regulation. It’s a toolkit for children, teachers and parents to use to help pupils express their feelings, acknowledge the balance between their physical and mental wellbeing and build resilience. Calming practices like breathing techniques (some devised by the children themselves) are also part of the school day.
Boarding and wraparound care
Flexi-boarding is offered from 11+ in fortnightly blocks. The older children commonly board two to three nights a week as a taster for boarding at senior school.
Wraparound care for all age groups is generally available from 7am – 7pm, with day pupils able to eat with the boarders on days they stay late. There is also a holiday provision through nursery up to year three.
Year Six pupils strip and rebuild metal go karts and race them in an annual inter-school competition at Plumpton. I’m told it’s all about the taking part but they have picked up several trophies over the years.
‘Wake and Shake’ dances, created by an art and music teacher, are performed at the end of morning break three times a week with children and staff joining in.
Praise assemblies celebrate individual achievements.
The library has a cosy beanbag strewn area accessed through a climb-through hole and a secret garden with a tree bench.
Prefects were introduced to pre-prep last year and children apply for the job.
Head and ethos
Parents keen on stability will be pleased know the head Christian Heinrich has been in place 15 years with no intention of moving and describes Cumnor as the ‘life’s work’ of him and his wife Belinda, who teaches at the school.
He speaks of wanting every child to feel ‘safe and known’. Every five weeks a pastoral meeting opens with a scroll through pictures of each pupil and any news is shared on their hopes or worries. Each staff meeting likewise begins with child-related news shared first.
The head talks of protecting children from growing up too fast, hoping that, because they stay on to 13, they don’t become obsessed with social media and fashion from the age of 11.
He says Cumnor would suit the kind of parent who is ambitious for their child but also wants them to be a decent person. The school motto is ‘Aim High, Be Kind, Dare to be Different’ – the latter part embracing inclusivity.
Cumnor is ‘quite liberal with a small ‘l’, he says, with common sense prevailing over lists of rules and he jokes that though he may wear tweed it’s not a ‘ra! ra!’ school.
Unlike some other independents, Cumnor pupils come from the local community, so make friends they are more likely to retain into adulthood. A recent ten-year reunion of ex pupils had a near 100% turn out.
Cumnor has a separately funded Foundation Programme, which has been running for two years. It takes two ‘average intelligence’ pupils a year (soon, hopefully, to rise to four) from a background that would otherwise exclude them from public school and supports them through Cumnor and beyond from ages 8 up to 18.
Word on the ground
The children who showed me round talked about how they found boarding was helping them focus on their schoolwork as well as having fun with friends. The new astro was a big hit over the winter months in particular and an annual staff supper was also mentioned as a highlight.
Senior schools tend to remark that Cumnor children are open and confident, while ‘happy’ is a word that comes up from parents.
From £2,995 per term in reception to £6,510 for years 5 -8, with weekly boarders £7,545 and full boarders £7,750.
Good for: a protective ‘let children-be-children’ vibe. A high level of parental involvement and wraparound care. Modern facilities. A school rooted in its community. A strong scholarship track record.
Not for: If you’re seeking a full-time boarding provision. If you’re a staunch traditionalist looking for a sweeping driveway and mansion house idyll, or if you’d rather your child spread their wings at senior school before 13.
Dare to disagree? You can tour the school for yourself at the upcoming open mornings on Friday 22 March and Friday 17 May 2019.
Cumnor House Sussex, London Road, Danehill, Haywards Heath, Sussex, RH17 7HT
01825 790 347, email@example.com. cumnor.co.uk