An established educational community and 'blue health school' with innovative and grown-up facilities and a strong focus on teaching and learning, pastoral care and ties to the local community.
This well established, mildly selective day and boarding school for children aged 13-18 sits on the edge of Eastbourne and has a distinct campus feel to it, with boarding houses stretching out to the surrounding streets. Its founding mission statement, way back in 1867, was ‘to open a school here owing to the remarkable healthiness of Eastbourne’ and with a location a stone’s throw from the seafront and the South Downs, health and wellbeing comes to the forefront both naturally and by design. Billed as an educational community not just an academic institution, the college prides itself on its facilities, teaching and learning, pastoral care and its ties to the local community, including with cultural organisations and state schools.
The red brick frontage screams public school, and the vast playing field is pure strawberries and cream English pastoral – cricket matches are a joy to behold. Such a huge piece of land is a rarity in a town location and undoubtedly helps with the college’s place as part of the community, as locals can gather to watch live sport as well as appreciate the general olde English vibes. But behind the front it’s a different world of thoroughly modern. Independent schools often blend history with progress, but I’ve yet to see one marry both as well as Eastbourne. Head Tom Lawson explains he’s built underneath and on top of the site, so as to preserve the original features and characteristics, and this makes for an exciting if at times unexpected layout – a dining hall on top of an enormous new sports hall, and a six-lane, 25 metre swimming pool behind a door you’d expect to lead to another classroom. A state-of-the-art, £33m refurbishment formed part of the college’s 150th anniversary celebrations, in the form of the sports hall, pool, 32 new classrooms, two IT suites, a dance studio, school shop, dining and social facilities and fitness centre.
Phew. And yet it all flows together beautifully. It’s a grown-up site with the facilities to match – the economics department looks like a central London office, complete with live financial news feeds up on the flatscreen TV on the wall. Science has its own separate, three-storey building, an old-fashioned exterior for spacious labs where teaching happens both in-class and over iPads for the few students yet to return to school due to Covid. The library is all wood-panelled, intriguingly and generously stocked bookshelves and students work on their own and college computers – we ask one in passing what she’s working on, the answer involves ‘capitalist surveillance’. Art is taught in a series of airy studios with 80s style windows allowing light to flood in, design and technology has an open-plan space above a spacious woodwork lab where the head of department tinkers with projects in between classes.
Students follow an all-inclusive programme of sport and participation is just as valued as excellence. There is a lot of excellence though. The school’s a Top 100 school for cricket, and is also very strong on girls’ tennis. More than 96 per cent of the student body represented the college in a fixture last year. There’s strength and depth across all the usual suspects – cricket, football, netball, rugby, hockey, tennis, athletics and so on, along with equestrianism, Fives, fencing, golf and windsurfing. The college also counts a national boxing champion among its numbers, and he was glowing in his praise for the coaching he received and how the school encouraged him to pursue his personal goals.
The overall approach to sport – inclusivity, empowerment and excellence – is probably best demonstrated by the choice of Dame Katherine Grainger, Olympic medallist, to open the new facilities last year, part of a focus on International Year of the Girl and marking 50 years of girls being admitted to the college. As Mr Lawson noted, she captured the student’s imaginations far more comprehensively than ‘some minor Royal’.
Performing arts are housed in a range of studios, auditoriums, recording studios and other pro-level facilities near the cultural quarter of the town, in fact some rooms overlook the neighbouring Devonshire Theatre. Creativity is celebrated, developed and encouraged at the college – which even took a play to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018. Music is housed at the purpose-built Birley Centre, opened in 2011 and a high proportion of pupils study an instrument. They can also get involved with the Chapel Choir, Concert Band, Symphony Orchestra and the Singer-Songwriter club.
Although the head says academics is an area he’s looking to improve, they’re already impressive enough. Over the last 10 years, the average percentage of grades awarded A* or A or 9 to 7 (under the new GCSE grading scheme) has been just under 60%, and over the same time period at A Level almost 75 per cent of grades have been A*, A or B. Pupils go on to universities typically from the Russell Group, and there’s Oxbridge representation too, with 15 heading to Oxford or Cambridge in the last three years. Pupils also raved about the Futures Department and how the staff support them to access opportunities and help with applications, personal statements, work experience and networking.
The split of day pupils to boarders is fairly close to 50/50 and the house system is strong regardless of whether or not pupils board. In fact most day pupils stay until 8pm to enjoy the boarding ethos. The boarding houses are located around the main campus, and are thoughtfully set up with cosy and functional shared and single bedrooms, and communal spaces. Overall they felt like an upmarket university hall of residence, and pupils said they loved the independence and the freedom to move around the campus and the town and feel part of the community.
There’s no weekly boarding though – the school cites this as a strength saying it avoids the ‘mass exodus at weekends’ and keeps weekends full and busy.
This is a real strength of the school and I got the feeling that it wasn’t just lip-service either, the head really believes that character, wellbeing and mental health are every bit as important as academic results. The college thinks of itself as ‘the blue health school’ because of its seaside location and focus on development of what are sometimes called ‘softer’ or emotional skills and attributes. Mr Lawson lives onsite actually within the main school building, along with wife Jessica, children and boxer dog Roy. At least three staff members live in each boarding house – the housemaster or mistress, matron and a resident tutor. Pupils learn about life through visiting speakers who talk on typically teenage topics like alcohol, drugs, mental health, body image and self esteem. Acknowledging an issue often faced but seldom admitted by independent schools, Eastbourne has a diversity committee.
Tom Lawson joined Eastbourne College from Christ’s Hospital, where he was deputy head, and he’s one of those truly likeable individuals who you can’t help but feel at ease with. I also got the strong impression he’s deeply committed to the college and its place in the community. Influenced by his time at Christ’s Hospital, unique for a British independent school in that most students attend on bursaries, he’s now focusing fundraising efforts into bursaries and scholarships. He’s happy with the facilities after the recent mammoth refurbishment, so there are no major building projects planned.
He’s keen on service, and a high number of pupils take part in – and complete – the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Service is compulsory, either through Combined Cadet Force or Service At School programmes, and although pupils can opt out once they reach Sixth Form, he says most don’t. The Eastbourne Schools Partnership, set up by the college in 2014 and incorporating 12 local schools, is an award-winning initiative to collaborate across sectors and pool resources, and Mr Lawson says the chair role moves around the schools to ensure it’s inclusive, rather than remaining with the college in a more old-fashioned philanthropic model.
The building itself and the new refurbishment, and the way they blend together, makes for more quirks than it’s possible to list – think redbrick towers inside modern glass-walled buildings, and other unexpected feats of architecture. The college has just introduced a new uniform that has a distinctly coastal feel to it. Overall, the place is bursting with personality, a rare feat in the education sector.
Starting at just shy of £8k a term for day pupils in years 9-11, and maxing out at £12.3k a term for boarding in the Sixth Form. Scholarships and bursaries are available.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Pupils couldn’t praise the school enough – yes, we have to take our pinches of salt too but happy pupils are a dead giveaway the school’s on to a winner. And they were honest – saying they’d love to see more focus on diversity and more education about social issues, for example – while remaining positive and enthusiastic about the many strengths of the school. Wholesome, is the word that springs to mind.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Characterful kids who love being busy. The school has a lot to offer pretty much all children, from the academic types to the sporty, the arty and everything in between. It’s the kind of place that’ll work with your child, to help them become who they want to be.
Not for: I don’t think this is a school for kids who don’t enjoy getting stuck in. It’s also not super pushy with the academics, so don’t expect a hothouse. No weekly boarding.
Eastbourne College, Old Wish Road, Eastbourne, BN21 4JX, 01323 452300