Review: Cumnor House Sussex
This day and flexi-boarding pre-prep, prep and nursery has a privileged and spacious village-like campus, unique features, excellent academics and an ethos that focuses first and foremost on children's happiness, confidence and wellbeing.
An independent day and flexi-boarding school and nursery for children aged from 2 to 13 in Danehill, a pretty village on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, located between Haywards Heath and East Grinstead. Billed as one of the leading schools in the country, Cumnor occupies a breathtaking and enviable site that feels like more of a mini-village than a school.
Visiting just before the school broke up for Christmas, Muddy was welcomed with a roaring fire in the main reception and an absolutely enormous Christmas tree, not to mention some rather good homemade white chocolate and cranberry fudge. Cottagey buildings around the main site and a Covid-induced one-way system added to the villagey feel. Facilities and space wise, Cumnor is one of the most impressive schools I’ve visited.
The school’s ethos is ‘Aim High, Be Kind and Dare to be Different’ and the focus on achieving this is, first and foremost, on creating happy, confident and secure children. New head Fergus Llewellyn and his family joined in September – we’ll get to that later but first, let’s take a tour.
Cumnor House Sussex really has to be seen to be believed. The site itself occupies some 60 acres and with 350 pupils on roll, that’s a lot of space per child! It’s worth noting that the school’s website describes the site as ‘privileged’ and this really is the word that springs to mind.
Beginning with facilities for the very little ones, then, the award-winning Cumnor Nursery is a spacious and purpose-built centre that occupies its own bright and colourful world. A new extension has just been completed to offer even more space and a quiet sleep room for some of the teeny tinies. Pre-prep also has its own dedicated space, right at the heart of the site. Visiting during Covid I was unable to see the classrooms and setup inside, but it’s hard to imagine them being anything other than impressive given the rest of the site. The main redbrick school building has been extended, and is now fronted by a modern-looking glass-walled bistro where under normal non-Covid circumstances parents would congregate after drop off to catch up over a coffee.
Right in the middle of the site sits a gorgeous 17th century barn which houses the music department. Inside it’s huge and acoustically inspiring, with high ceilings and a mezzanine level for performances.
Further up the site sits the jaw-dropping prep school. The separate art and ceramics studio is an incredible facility, flooded with light, with a rooftop space for the older students to perfect their craft. It’s staffed by teachers who double up as professional artists, with gallery spaces in London.
Then there’s The Peake, the state-of-the-art STEM building complete with three laboratories and a design and technology space so large it could be a sports hall. It’s an extremely grown-up building, with a senior school feel to it. There’s no danger of Cumnor children feeling intimidated by the size and scope of facilities at their chosen college.
Other notable highlights include the 300-seat theatre with professional sound and lighting, an absolutely magical outdoor theatre tucked behind a building that looks like Shakespeare’s Globe but is in fact for prop storage, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a dance studio and a boating lake.
With seven sports pitches, Astroturf, four courts, a nine-hole golf course, a climbing wall, an athletics pitch, cricket nets and a sports hall, Cumnor is well-served for just about any sport you care to name. The curriculum covers all the usual suspects – football, cricket, rugby, hockey, netball, athletics, swimming and hockey, alongside more unusual additions like yoga, golf and cross-country. Pupils participate in sport daily, and many go on to win sporting scholarships to destinations like Brighton College, Charterhouse and Roedean. Former pupil Freya Kemp is a cricket superstar who has been selected for the England Women’s Academy.
I think you can always tell how a school feels about the creative arts by its investment in this area. Cumnor House Sussex has the art, music and drama facilities of a professional-level performing arts school. All pupils perform a Shakespeare play in the outdoor theatre before leaving Cumnor – it’s something of a rite of passage and must be an absolutely magical experience for all involved, given the atmosphere and setting of the theatre. Pupils from Cumnor go on to win scholarships across art, music and drama to local senior schools as well as further afield. All pupils take part in performances and study musical instruments, and those who become passionate about these disciplines are given ample opportunities to explore their full potential.
I’m almost surprised, given the astounding facilities, that Cumnor is non academically selective. Children are encouraged to achieve their potential, without the hothousing associated with some independent schools. At Cumnor one also really has to appreciate how the environment plays a part. Educational philosophies often cite the environment as ‘the third teacher’ because of the impact your surroundings have on what you do.
Learning happens both in the classroom and outside it – the school has a dedicated woodland school called Woodpeckers, which makes use of the fantastic outdoor space. There’s also a learning support building, called The Treehouse, where pupils of all ages can be supported one-to-one by specialist teachers in a fun way.
Leavers go on to all the local seniors including Hurst, Eastbourne, Ardingly, Brighton and Lancing Colleges as well as more high-profile national destinations like Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse. Last year nearly half the Year 8 leavers secured scholarships.
Previous incumbent Christian Heinrich was in situ for more than 15 years and his contribution to the school was marked with a boat named after him on the Cumnor House Sussex lake. His successor Fergus Llewellyn joined with his family in September, from Kenya where he was head of St Andrew’s School in Turi. He tells me it would have taken ‘a very special school’ to lure him and his family away from Kenya, but that Cumnor was too good an opportunity to pass up.
It’s a difficult time to join the school and it’s clear Mr Llewellyn and his wife, Tamsyn, are used to being very involved in the community. They’re being creative with ways to make sure they’re getting to know the parents and families. When I visited, Tamsyn joined us fresh from a 10km run with some of the school mums, in preparation for a fundraising 15k later in the week. The couple’s three children all attend Cumnor.
I will be very interested to see the direction Mr Llewellyn takes with Cumnor, as on the face of it he’s inherited the perfect school, with state of the art facilities and a palpable sense of happiness and belonging among staff and pupils. He’s open about the lack of diversity, saying whilst the school is representative of Sussex and the local area he’s conscious more can be done to improve diversity. He’s also committed to bursaries and scholarships, the Cumnor Foundation exists to pay for the private education of outstanding pupils from the state sector and bursaries are also available for existing parents.
Overall it feels like the trajectory of Cumnor House Sussex is pointed firmly upwards, with fantastic foundations and a fresh direction from a new head.
BOARDING, WRAPAROUND AND PASTORAL CARE
All children from nursery upwards are offered wraparound care from 7am to 7pm, which is still a rarity in the more rural Sussex schools. It’s clear parents’ needs are taken into account. The nursery even offers ‘jim-jam sessions’ where children are dropped off still in their PJs at 7am and returned fed, watered, happy and back in their PJs at 7pm ready for bed. This sounds like an absolute godsend for busy working parents, and as the children grow different kids of care are offered including breakfast and after-school clubs, activities, and flexible boarding for children from Year 6 upwards.
Pastoral care and wellness starts with the ethos that a happy, content child will be best-placed to reach their full potential. Cumnor House Sussex is a leader in mental health and wellbeing support, as the first school in the UK to introduce the innovative iSpace curriculum. This has been developed by the school’s Director of Compliance, Health & Welfare. Pupils from Cumnor recently appeared on CBBC’s Newsround talking about the curriculum and mental health. iSpace is now being adopted by other schools in the area and further afield, and a separate curriculum, iWonder, has been added for Year 7 and 8.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The school is highly regarded both in the local area and further afield. The thing parents really seem to pick up on is how happy their children are. It’s hard to imagine childhood being anything but golden and idyllic here.
Starting at £2,340 per term for nursery and reception and rising to £6,745 per term in Year 8 for day pupils. Additional fees for boarding.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: I can’t think of a child who wouldn’t thrive here. Amazing facilities, a great ethos, academic rigour, a wealth of opportunities and a focus on wellbeing – it’s got the lot. And a golf course and boating lake to boot.
Not for: Intake is from the local area as there’s no full boarding. It’s probably worth positing that children leaving Cumnor for anything other than a top-flight independent senior school or college might find they come back to Earth with a bit of a bump. This feels relevant for families front-loading an investment in education.
Dare to disagree? Go ahead and book a chat with the head and virtual tour of Cumnor.
Cumnor House Sussex, London Road, Danehill, Haywards Heath, RH17 7HT, 01825 790347