Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk
There's plenty to impress at this imposing co-ed boarding and day school with a down-to-earth ethos and big heart overlooking the Stour Estuary in Suffolk
The first thing you notice as you sweep up the drive of the Royal Hospital School are the seriously grand Grade II-listed buildings, the second thing are the wonderful grounds – a gloriously open 200-acre campus, five miles from Ipswich and just under an hour from London.
Founded in 1712 by Greenwich Hospital in London (hence the name!) to educate children of Royal Navy seaman injured or lost at sea, its retained plenty of past traditions and values, while simultaneously moving forward with environmental initiatives and some state-of-the-art facilities.
Academically robust, though sports, art and music shine particularly bright at this independent, selective school. There are 733 pupils; 402 boys and 331 girls and average class sizes are 24 in the lower school (11-16 years), dropping to between 8-14 in the sixth form. There’s roughly a 50/50 split between day pupils and boarders.
The recently renovated, double-storey library is stand-out, looking and feeling more like something from a university with its open-plan, modern design, break out glass-fronted study rooms and a coffee machine.
Sport is strong at RHS and it’s no surprise that there are more activities and facilities than you can shake a hockey stick at, including a refurbed sports hall, fitness suite and gym.
Other highlights are the music department, which has its own recording studio and concert hall complete with grand piano and the spacious, light-filled art department.
Most pupils in lessons I looked in on were using tablets, apparently the school’s in the process of rolling out Microsoft Surfaces to a number of year groups too. If you’re wildly anti-screen time though don’t panic, apps are limited and gaming and social media are obviously restricted.
The only bits of the school that looked a bit tired were the main building’s science department and upstairs classrooms – there’s nothing wrong with them, but they aren’t as wow as the recent refurbs.
Covid regs meant a full tour of the boarding houses wasn’t possible, but I can tell you that there are 11 houses including a junior boarding house (11-12 year olds), six senior boarding houses (13-17 year olds), three day houses and a co-ed upper sixth house, which day pupils and boarders can use.
Communal areas with large, comfy sofas, exposed brick work, colourful art and pool tables, create a home-from-home vibe which pupils appear to thrive in. And it’s evident there’s always something to do at evenings and weekends, from baking clubs to athletics, so boredom isn’t going to be a problem.
Boarding options range from full term to weekly (Sunday-Friday), three-night stays and a ‘boarding bundle’, which includes 15 flexible over nights per term. Apparently a growing demand for three-night packages is emerging as younger day pupils want to dip their toe in before progressing to full or weekly.
Sailing’s a big deal here, with a training centre at Alton Water reservoir a five-minute walk from the school (all year 7s are guided through RYA stages 1 and 2). Then there’s the £1.5 million refurbed sports hall, including a jaw-dropping climbing wall, fitness suite, martial arts and dance studio and conditioning gym – I was tempted to hop on a bike for a quick spin class. Horse-lovers are catered for with a programme of riding lessons and British Horse Society examinations at a stables close by, which also has livery if kids can’t be parted from their pony.
It’s sports fields as far as the eye can see from the school to the Stour, so if your kid’s into rugby, hockey et al, RHS is a safe choice. A passion for cricket is evident, with former Essex CC player Graham Napier heading up the department and alumni including England bowler Reece Topley. Little wonder The Cricketer magazine recently voted it top cricketing school in the country.
MUSIC, ART & DRAMA
The heart of the music department is a modern concert hall where lectures and performances take place throughout the year, alongside a recording studio, live room and various practice areas. There are 23 bands and choirs to join – during my tour, four pupils were voluntarily practising military-style drumming together and gave me an impromptu performance which was mighty impressive.
RHS has form with art, boasting an exceptional department with a beautiful high-ceilinged gallery space where we glimpsed GCSE and sixth form exam work that showed fashion and textiles are held in just as high regard as fine art. There were some quality pieces on display including a tulle dress I’d have snapped up if it were on sale – apparently the creator has been offered a place with Alexander McQueen, other alumni include textile designer Freya Richmond.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the school’s summer term play, dahling, performed outside to comply with Covid regs. The music and drama departments often link up to roll out productions throughout the year, including musicals and inter-house competitions. Drama’s on the curriculum until the end of Year 9 and then as a GCSE, plus there are extra lessons and exams on offer during lunch breaks and after school clubs.
Positive, with results taking a hike north and year-on-year improvement – in 2020 for GCSES 96.4% of pupils gained 9-4 (A*-C), while 45.4% gained 9-7 (A*-A). For A levels, 87% were A*-C pass rate, with 34% gaining A*-A grades. Out of 108 pupils, 23 achieved the points equivalent of three A grades.
A strong house system plus healthy eating (the shiny self-service canteen has plenty of veggie options and sides like kaffir lime leaf sweet potato on the menu), fitness and anti-bullying initiatives are the norm here. Every new pupil’s assigned a Buddy to show them the ropes and help them settle in, plus there’s s network of trained Peer Support Mentors in each house – they were a badge so are easily identifiable if things go sour.
Simon Lockyer, formerly second master at Portsmouth Grammar School, took the reins six years ago. I warmed to his humour and the down-to-earth culture he’s cultivating, ensuring most pupils are confident but don’t have a sense of entitlement.
His future plans for RHS range from reducing the school’s carbon emissions by converting to ground source heating to getting more kids through Oxbridge applications with the help of his newly appointed Head of Academic Challenge, George Johnson.
RHS stresses it’s not a military school and there’s clearly been a move away from its roots, however there are still plenty of quirky traditions which continue, including two pupils in naval dress daily raising and lowering the school flag (it’s a role that’s taken very seriously), calling lunch ‘mess’ and Divisions, a popular all-school parade in naval uniform which takes place seven times a year.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Pupils can stay until 6pm and there’s a flexibility that allows the school to work around a parent’s schedule rather than the other way around – pupils can be there full time if and when it’s needed.
Comparable to nearby competitor St Joseph’s College. Years 7-8, £17,097 (day), £22,992 (three-night boarding), £26,126 (weekly boarding) and £27,429 (full boarding) per annum. Years 9-13, £19,017 (day), £27,294 (three-night boarding), £32,433 (weekly boarding) and £35,319 (full boarding).
WORD ON THE GROUND
Pupils I met were polite and enthusiastic about the school. A couple I know who send their child there (sporty, loves it) say parents tend to get involved with the school, showing up for all the Divisions etc. I’ve heard it’s sometimes the parents who are in tears on leaving day.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: An all-round education that’s likely to in-still confidence but not pretension or snobbery. If you’ve got a super-sporty child, the facilities and choices are fantastic, ditto music and art and plenty of bragging points for those expansive grounds.
It feels inclusive and reasonably diverse, with pupils from more than 30 countries enrolled. I’m impressed with the alumni programme – pupils are nurtured and supported long after they leave – and by how well the school coped with the Covid situation; online lessons were up and running one day after the first lockdown!
Not for: If you don’t dig the military links, or you’re looking for a small, intimate school, this might not be for you. And if you’re seeking single-sex education before sixth form, it’s a pass.
Dare to disagree?!
The school was rated excellent in all nine key areas of its most recent ISI inspection.
Royal Hospital School Holbrook, Ipswich, Suffolk IP9 2RX.