Kimbolton School (Snr), Huntingdon
Muddy says: You'll find 120 acres of glorious grounds and a stunning castle setting at this high-achieving co-ed day/boarding senior school (11-18), with a strong all-rounder rep.
School settings don’t get much more idyllic than Kimbolton School’s Senior School, which is centred around a handsome Tudor castle surrounded by a sprawling 120 acres of parkland on the eastern side of the charming rural village of Kimbolton. It is a co-educational day and boarding school for 11-18 year olds with 700 pupils (there’s a further 300 pupils in the Prep School, ages 4 -11, on the other side of the village). The boy to girl ratio of students is pretty much equal and there’s a big emphasis on both sexes mixing with each other in all aspects of school life, except boarding. The village is home to separate boys’ and girls’ boarding houses, both beautiful period houses on the main street (meaning boarders have freedom to enjoy the village’s shops in complete safety). Incredibly, the castle itself isn’t big enough to house the impressive list of facilities on offer, so lessons mostly take place in outbuildings like the Mews Quad, as well as more modern additions, that have been, for the most part, elegantly added into the estate.
Easy to reach from Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire by car (or there are 10 school bus routes serving all the nearby towns and villages), Kimbolton feels like it has been residing over the region forever, though it actually only moved to its current castle location in 1950, when the Duke of Manchester sold off his stately pile (before this it was located in the current prep school on the other side of the village). Many children start in the Prep School at age 4 and complete the full Kimbolton journey through to 18.
Kimbolton is blessed with its amazing story book setting, which clearly helps pupils to enjoy their academic experience. It’s not just a pretty backdrop though, the pupils here also have incredible state-of-the-art facilities at their high-achieving fingertips. There’s all the usual things you’d except from an independent school, such as the indoor heated pool, floodlit astroturf fields, football pitches, tennis courts, a cricket pitch (Kimbolton is one of the top schools in the country for this sport), a huge technology and design centre that feels like a professional workshop, and a brand new science and maths centre, The Queen Katharine Building, that my wannabe doctor/engineer tour guides were very excited about.
There are a few unexpected bonuses too, like a fully functional theatre, State Rooms used for events and concerts, two ponds, and a school shooting range. Combined Cadet Force is a major part of school life too, with the RAF section winning the national Royal Air Squadron Trophy three times since 2013. Other notable award wins have been in equestrianism, debating, canoeing, business, art and DTE.
MUSIC, ART AND DRAMA
Music is one of Kimbolton’s strong suits with a lot of emphasis on both individual lessons and groups (16 ensembles across both Prep and Senior) from an early age. In the Upper Prep school, 65% of children learn an instrument. Although this drops off quite sharply to only 24% in the Senior School, the three choirs are thriving, so much so that there’s also one for the parents and teachers – ‘Rise and Sing’ an early morning group.
The art department is highly regarded, and I happened to visit during the GCSE and A-Level exam exhibition in the State Rooms, which was seriously impressive stuff. Other students were also looking at the exhibitions with real interest, and it felt like the students are genuinely supportive of each other here, in what could easily become a competitive environment.
As for drama, there are drama clubs for first to third form, run by the older pupils if students want to tread the boards outside of their main drama lessons and there’s the chance to audition for the main school production in the spring.
With all those facilities and the vast grounds, sport is the standout strength at Kimbolton. Saturday school was stopped in 2010 to make way for match Saturdays (and extra art and outdoor pursuits if you’re not a sporty type). Headmaster Jonathan Belbin is clearly very passionate about his sport and can always be found by the sidelines cheering on his students, whether that be in the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, a sailing competition, or his clear favourite, cricket. This is the key sport here, with ex-England fast bowler Alex Tudor coaching the students.
In Year 11, students can choose from a dizzying array of sports – 20 in total – including team sports as well as things like pilates, golf and equestrianism if they’re more of a individual player. The school even runs sports weeks in the holidays for pupils who can’t cope without their daily fix of activity.
Academically, Kimbolton is the third best school in the county (after The Perse School and The Stephen Perse Foundation). The school is selective, but not an academic hothouse – they’re looking for more than just brain power during the admissions process. Children have to have genuine desire to take part in extra-curricular activities including at the weekends, so mini Einsteins with no enthusiasm for anything other than maths probably wouldn’t thrive here. The schools most recent results are impressive with 80.2% gaining an A*-B result at A Level and 93.9% receiving A*-C grades at GCSE. In the Sixth Form a Super Curricular 7th Period has been introduced to allow students to explore their subjects beyond the constraints of the curriculum. They can also take a Thursday afternoon activity that complements their core subjects, for example debating, digital media, cooking, creative writing, business trading, and astronomy. There’s also the chance to take an Extended Project Qualification, a significant piece of independent research outside of their studies.
They make no bones about the fact that if a prep school pupil is struggling they probably won’t progress into the senior school (although in reality this is rarely the case). As well as the impressive results, the teachers here seem most confident and proud of their ability to produce really delightful well-adjusted human beings. Classes are shuffled every two years and boys and girls are always mixed together, ensuring that they are sociable and learn to get along with everyone. Every member of staff I speak to has children who are at or have been at the school and all comment on how delighted they are with how their kids have turned out thanks to this approach.
LEARNING IN LOCKDOWN
With iPads in day-to-day use since 2014, there was a pretty seamless switch to virtual learning at the Senior School during the Covid-19 lockdown. The pupils were already used to having homework set online so this was scaled up to provide lessons plus assemblies, tutor contact and more, all based on their usual timetables. By encouraging them to collaborate on some tasks they maintained social contact with each other, as well as sharing regular feedback with staff. The result? Pupils’ academic progress was more than maintained during the lockdown, which is more than you can ask for in the situation.
Jonathan Belbin has been headmaster for an incredible 17 years (following a long line of long-serving heads), but doesn’t appear to be resting on his laurels, having transformed the classrooms in the Senior School and opened the new maths and science centre, he now has building works underway to massively improve the Prep School and is launching a new school development plan.
He’s the sort of man that the pupils really want to impress, but he’s a great sport too, and most impressively seems to know every student by name (that’s 1000 ever changing students!). He seemed completely baffled by the idea that I went to school with someone who left Kimbolton midway through the senior school – I assured him it was purely for relocation purposes – such is the rarity of any pupil not going all the way through the senior school.
Day pupils can join the boarders for breakfast from 8am and most Senior School students will find their evenings become packed with after school clubs, homework sessions and sports too, that can be supplemented with boarders’ tea until 6.20pm. The most useful aspect of pastoral care is the ad hoc boarding the school offers. With a bit of notice the boarding houses are pretty flexible and happy for pupils to board as a one off (adults-only holiday here you come!) or just once or twice a week. Around 50 pupils from 11 upwards regularly board and enjoy the relative freedom of their own space – bedrooms only have three beds in at most, which is unusual, particularly lower down the school years – as well as a kitchen and cosy lounge. There’s all the home comforts too though, with a house mistress/ master on site just a knock-on-the-door away, as well as boarding staff who take care of the washing and mundane tasks like making doctors appointments.
- Children here really can fill their lungs with the fresh Cambridgeshire country air on a daily basis without ever having to step foot into the outside world, thanks to the huge acreage and the fact that both the Prep and Senior school are linked via a tree-lined avenue, The Duchess Walk, through the pretty parklands.
- History classes boring? Not a chance at Kimbolton when you learn incredible facts like that the castle was a hospital during the war and Katharine of Aragon passed away here (the Queen’s Room where she took her final breath is now the headmaster’s rather impressive study that would be worth breaking the odd rule for just to have a nosey around).
It might be a castle fit for a king, but you don’t have to have royal family-sized funds to send your little prince or princess here. Considering the incredible opportunities and high academic standing, the fees are on par with other independent schools. Many pupils’ parents work hard to send their children here and there’s a grounded feel to the place (ok, apart from the whole shooting range thing and the fact that having a resident pupil bagpiper who plays from the castle rooftop on special occasions is seen as a completely ordinary thing!) Currently fees are £16,545 per annum for day pupils, and £27,525 per annum for boarders and include books and public exams. Scholarships are available in the Senior School and are purely merit-based. The majority of these are academic, but sports and leadership, plus art-based scholarships are awarded at 13+. Most amount to 5-10% of fees, with a few up to 20%. The School also provides assistance with fees in the form of means’ tested bursaries with the equivalent of seven places per year group available.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: All-rounders, joiner inners, and sports lovers. Ideal for parents who want their children to grow up and learn in a bucolic setting, while still having all the best facilities within a family-orientated environment. The school seems particularly strong at churning out really kind and personable young adults. I was so impressed by the students I’d happily send my own son there.
Not for: Nervous, shy children might find the large college-like campus a bit overwhelming, especially as there’s a lot of focus on being independent and not spoon-fed here. That said, the class sizes are small and there are extra-curricular activities to suit all types, so it might just be the environment wallflowers need to be in to grow. Kids with no interest at all in sport might struggle, as everyone is encouraged to join in the various sports on offer and a lot of the bonding of students and house competitions centre around it.