Roedean School, Brighton
Muddy says: A creative and progressive all-girls school in stunning surroundings with sensational facilities, strong academic results and a holistic and nurturing ethos.
With an impressive castle-like set of Bath Stone buildings, backed by the rolling green South Downs and facing imperiously out to sea, the long-established day and boarding school for girls in Sussex undoubtedly looks the part. Stepping through the huge wooden doors and up the imposing entrance staircase to Roedean is like entering a different world. Built during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the school has the grandly sombre feel and dark, wood-panelled features of many listed buildings, but its long, carpeted corridors hum with youthful bustle and activity.
Roedean was founded in 1885 to provide a ‘thorough physical, intellectual and moral’ education to girls from 11-18 years. In recent years it has grown exponentially, from 360 pupils in 2013 to the current 630, with an even split of boarding, flexi-boarding and day girls on a 45-acre campus, with a further 75 acres of spectacular hillside land – so basically it’s a whopper. An £11m refurbishment project kicked off at the same time, beginning with the boarding houses and sixth form centre followed by sports and outdoor facilities. The next wave will see the library overhauled, followed by a huge project to upgrade performing arts, and concluding in 2022 with the STEM facilities.
In a word: covered! An all-weather pitch was recently added to Roedean’s collection of floodlit courts which stand below the main buildings on the hillside overlooking the sea. A low building houses a 25-metre indoor swimming pool, and there’s also a gym. On top of curriculum PE, there are clubs and activities ranging from athletics and badminton through cricket, football, hockey, golf, netball, lacrosse, rounders, rugby and swimming – and more. Horsey girls can hop aboard the twice-weekly minibus to Lancing Equestrian Centre to hack on the South Downs and train in the arena.
To inspire girls, the school has rounded up Olympic hockey gold medallists Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh to visit regularly as official Sports Ambassadors. Roedean is increasingly competitive in a range of sports including football, rugby and cricket, and counts among its numbers a current European speed-skating champion and street dance champions, and recent alumnae national champions in athletics, table tennis, along with girls representing the county in netball, water polo. and cross country.
Roedean’s performing arts facilities are due an overhaul next year, though there’s already a 320-seat theatre, dance studios and 18 music practice rooms. Creative arts are a real strength at Roedean – the art studio is impressive and looks the part, beautifully lit and appointed (I loved the unique vintage printing press alongside its more modern, less picturesque, compatriot). Former pupils have gone on to study at institutions like Central St Martins and work for the likes of Jimmy Choo.
Academic attainment at Roedean is important (ever been to a private school where it’s not high on the list?) but it’s not the be-all and end-all – holistic learning is the buzzword here. It’s definitely no hothouse and the girls seem relaxed and happy – the abandoned bags scattered at the front of classrooms during lunch, that their teachers’ long-sufferingly despair of, are testimony to that.
Alongside the traditional curriculum, there’s an interesting vein of more out-there subjects on offer – classical civilisation, dance and business. GCSE Russian is an unusual addition. Alongside the sports ambassadors Roedean has recruited Anabela Chan, alumna and jewellery designer worn by Rihanna and Lady Gaga as creative arts ambassador, and Dr Suzie Imber, professor of space physics at Leicester University as STEM ambassador. These women visit the school regularly to inspire and work with the girls.
And exam results? Strong. In 2019 55.9% of all A Level grades were A or A* (22% A* if you’re wondering) and at GCSE, 52% achieved the highest grade 9-8. You’ll find higher in some of the grammar schools and super-selective hot houses, but the school clearly stretches the girls. Plus 31% of Roedean’s leavers are going on to study maths and science at university – one of the recognised bonuses of all girls’ schools where normal subject interest stereotypes don’t apply.
The school is divided into four houses, simply numbered one to four as a nod to the school’s original site in Sussex Square, where it occupied house numbers one to four. The common rooms are cosy and homely and each is colour co-ordinated to its respective house. Sixth formers live separately in the breath-taking Keswick House, so named because Roedean girls were sent to Keswick in the Lake District during wartime when the school was handed over to the military for training. Keswick House has been refurbished with thoughtful retention of original features and is a light, airy and thoroughly grown-up extension of Roedean itself.
Boarding in the stylish, ‘boutique hotel’-esque houses is available on a full, weekly or flexible three days a week basis, with fee structures to match. For weekly boarders coming from London, the Victoria Escort chaperones girls through the 55-minute train journey from Brighton to the London hub.
Oliver Blond joined Roedean from Henrietta Barnett in North London and brought considerable academic kudos and experience with him. Numbers have almost doubled during his tenure, with recruitment focused on opening the school up to local families who may have thought it beyond their reach, so unlike many boarding schools, there’s a strong local feel to Roedean. That said, there’s also a thriving international element with students from 35 countries here. He’s spearheaded a strong community and outreach programme including working with local St Mark’s Primary from the nearby Whitehawk estate, one of the most deprived areas in Sussex.
Well, Roedean has its own farm for starters. Yes, you read that right. Created two years ago to encourage girls outside and broaden their experience and skills, it currently houses chickens, goats and sheep – Woolamina and Coco Chanel among others.
And how about the cricket pitch that only bats one way? The school’s incredible location makes it rather exposed to the elements and the conditions are sometimes too tricky for teams to bowl from both ends of the wicket. On very windy days the girls are not allowed outside onto the campus and minibuses take them from one part of the school to another.
Day girl fees start at £5,670 per term and increase by academic year to £7,415. For flexi boarding fees start at just over £8k per term, weekly boarding £10k, and full boarding begins at £11k and rises to £13,305 per term for years 10-13. Local alternatives are less expensive, and it’s a judgement call on how much you value Roedean’s facilities, authentic holistic offering and national reputation.
Talk of wellbeing and mental health can come across as lip service, but it feels like Roedean does walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Girls in years 7-11 hand their mobile phones in every morning and spend the day without them – a controversial move when introduced in 2017, but now accepted by the vast majority. Mindfulness and life-skills are built into curriculum time and girls learn self-defence, cooking, juggling, sign language, traditional spinning and other seemingly arbitrary but undoubtedly useful and nurturing skills.
Pastoral managers are situated in the heart of the school site, acting as a first port of call for girls with any issues or problems. A team of senior school girls are trained by the school’s counsellor to act as dedicated Peer Listeners for individuals or groups of younger girls.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Lunching with some of the Roedean girls my impression is that the school has a friendly, inclusive spirit – the staff, including the head, all eat lunch in the hall with the students. Pupils are proud to belong, with those who’d found themselves a little lost in the school’s vast corridors in in Y7 said they’d been helped by older girls, and now took pride in returning the favour with younger pupils. Not surprising in a girls’ school, the pupils would like a bit more interaction with the opposite sex, a privilege largely reserved for sixth formers outside the classroom, although students from local state-schools (including boys) take part in the Roedean Academy with Y10 girls, and this programme of academic enrichment is very successful.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Bright all-rounders who are open to trying different things. Roedean has so much to offer girls in all areas – it has a creative, progressive feeling to it that I really liked. Girls are free to choose how and what they wish to learn and are supported rather than pushed or steered. They are equally free from expectations as to what is and is not appropriate for girls and allowed to be themselves.
Not for: If you aren’t convinced of the many benefits of single-sex education, you’re not going to want to send your daughter here. Equally though, those who hope single-sex education will lead to hot-housingly superhuman grades might find Roedean’s holistic ethos too wide-ranging if they’re looking for purely academic results.
Dare to disagree? Book onto the next virtual Open Day on Sat Feb 27.
Roedean Way, Brighton BN2 5RQ 01273 667626