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Sutton Valence Senior School

An idyllically placed co-ed, non-selective secondary school with good academic results and which punches well above its weight on the sports field.

WHAT? WHERE?

Sutton Valence School (named after the village in which it sits) is an idyllically placed co-ed, non-selective school which comprises a Prep and Senior school, situated on two close-by, but separate, sites.

This is our first review of the Senior School (for the Prep School review or Little Lambs Nursery review, click here). So it was high time this popular school – where new head, James Thomas, has now had his feet under the desk for two full terms (more on this below) – took its turn under the Muddy microscope.

There are currently 555 boys and girls on roll here – not too big, not too small – with slightly more boys than girls (rough split 60/40).

Incredibly, in 2026 the school will celebrate being 450 years old and there’s plenty being planned to mark the occasion.

The current school is a mixture of buildings accrued over all those decades. From the oldest historic stone facades (pictured above) to the main building – Centre Block & Prefects Lawn (pictured below) – and newer additions of course.

The overall effect is the grand, smart feel of a well-established school, while being thoroughly welcoming at the same time.

FACILITIES

Sutton Valence is a very rural spot and there’s oodles of space and facilities – including an athletics track, sports pitches, a cricket pavilion and nets, tennis and netball courts, floodlit Astroturf pitches, a fantastic pool, fitness suite, music hall, 200-seat theatre, (we’ve run out of breath so we’ll leave it there)…

Located in the middle of the pretty, sleepy village of Sutton Valence and having organically grown over centuries, the school has plenty of characterful pockets of space. Like this area, pictured above, which is the oldest, original Lambe’s Building where First and Second Forms have their own Junior Courtyard and Dayrooms (hangout zone complete with table football etc) for break time, and their own kiosk selling snacks.

The middle years have their own areas for socialising too – and the Sixth Formers have their own Study Centre and Café (more on this below).

There’s a Sports Centre (pictured above) with a large sports hall, (pictured below) – physical activity is certainly well catered for here.

At present the creative lessons – in particular Art and Photography – take place in Gulland Hall a striking, converted church in the centre of Sutton Valence village. Design Technology too can be found in another purpose-built building in the village, just a short walk from the school’s main buildings.

While this is on the one hand a rather charming, quirky feature of the school, in reality it’s not that practical. If a pupil has Games right up on the sports fields and then needs to be over in an Art lesson – it’s a bit of a distance to travel.

There’s even a shooting range, tucked away, for Third Form (Year 9) and up (pictured above).

SPORT

Sutton Valence School has an excellent sporting record. And when you consider that it’s half the size of many of the local schools it competes with – even other top co-ed independent schools in the area – the achievements are all the more exceptional.

If we’re allowed to be superficial for a moment it has to be said, the large pitches – used for rugby in the winter or cricket in the summer – have a pretty stunning view across the valley below. In fact the sports facilities are quite expansive – and have a map of their own – no doubt to help parents watching matches navigate the school.

However that’s not to say that less ‘sporty’ types won’t fit in here. I have personally spoken to a number of parents with kids that ‘just like to take part’ – or are less keen on team sports and more interested in individual activities. There’s plenty of scope for those too.

As well as the core sports of rugby, hockey and cricket or tennis for boys – and netball, hockey and cricket or tennis for girls – there’s a good number of specialists sports that pupils can select. From badminton, basketball, cross country, equestrianism, golf and skiing…

All students are encouraged to try new sports or activities and to challenge themselves – it doesn’t matter the level – more about a lifelong approach to simply enjoying physical activity.

And for those that do take their sport seriously, the Talented Athlete Programme gives students the opportunity to maximise their athletic performance through attending extra training sessions run by a dedicated team of sports professionals – building strength, conditioning, agility and so on…

But while there is no doubt a sports-mad child will thrive here – there is also very much an overall encouragement for a love of physical activity at whatever level suits your child best.

Rather than simply paying lip service to this concept (for the cynics amongst you) – you can feel this attitude flowing throughout the veins of the school. It’s likely your child will do a P.E. activity or Games session 4 or 5 days a week as standard.

Mark Howell is Director of Sport and an ex-professional rugby player himself – so no surprises that rugby dominates. However, from the Head of Cricket to the Head of Rugby, all sports teachers here come with pretty impressive credentials – having had competitive sporting careers of their own.

Sutton Valence School is an official partner school with Saracens Rugby (the only Independent Senior School in Kent to be an official partner school). Their U18 team recently reached the Final of the Rugby Union Vase competition – the conclusion of a national contest which took place at Twickenham (complete with Live commentators). The whole school took the day off to watch and support their team in this achievement.

MUSIC & DRAMA

Music here is strong – the orchestra is good – and I’m told with a refreshing honesty that it’s not yet outstanding – but working its way towards being so.

Students are actively encouraged to take up individual music lessons or form part of an ensemble – such as in the Chapel Choir, Orchestra or Strings Group. Concerts regularly take place in the Chapel, as well as the Groves Hall performance space.

If you’re into drama – there’s something for everyone from the scholars to the less confident types. There are two big productions a year – one for the Juniors and one for the Seniors. These alternate between a play and a musical – The Sound of Music (pictured above) being a recent example – and take place in the 200-seat Baughan Theatre. Everyone is invited to audition and most interested pupils feel comfortable enough to give it a go.

Every week in assembly one of the older pupils will present current work, or a project, to the entire school – from a maths project on smarties, to a wind tunnel invention created in Design Technology. The aim is not only to build the public speaking skills of those involved, but to inspire the younger children to think widely about the breadth of opportunities open to them.

ICT/DT/ART

The standard of Art is high here – as is demonstrated by the work on display around the school – everywhere from the Gulland Hall to the headmaster’s office. I mean, these are just some examples on one wall (pictured above) – and this is GCSE (not even A Level).

There’s a photography studio too, pictured below, and Photography is on offer for both GCSE and A Level.

ACADEMICS

The school welcomes children of all abilities into classes that average 15, at GCSE, and 10 at A Level, so your child will get plenty of attention here.

Staff had just undergone digital training not long before Covid hit, so the school did well in the online offering during Lockdown. Technology is fully integrated in the teaching process and laptops are part of daily life.

As well as the usual subjects available at most senior schools SVS also offer a rarer range – including Design Technology, Film Studies, Media Studies, Psychology and Photography – not just at A Level, but GCSE too.

Academics are solid – particularly impressive after the challenges faced by teenagers taking big exams over the last two years. Let’s let the numbers do the talking – A Level results from 2021: 92% achieved A*-C Grades and at GSCE: 75% achieved 9-6 Grades.

But most impressively SVS has impressive Value Added (the measure of how much a school adds to the child’s academic/grade attainment). The school is in the top five per cent nationally for improving students grades from when they start.

There are roughly 60 children in both the First and Second Form (Years 7 & 8) and anywhere from 50 – 75 per cent of children at Sutton Valence Prep School will move up to the Senior School. Meaning that places are in high demand. In Third Form (Year 9) there’s a further in-take of 30 pupils, putting the number in the year up to 90 pupils in total.

THE HEAD

James Thomas took over as headmaster in September 2021, succeeding Bruce Grindlay, a well-respected head who had been in the role for 12 years. Thomas appears just the right person to take over the baton, with lots of plans and enthusiasm for the future and a relaxed, approachable air. With three young sons of his own at the Sutton Valence Prep – he and his family are heavily invested in the school.

Having previously worked at Dulwich College, Wellington College and Harrow International School (in Hong Kong) James Thomas has certainly got the right experience. Local family ties in Kent drew him to the area and coupled with SVS’s excellent reputation he jumped at the role (well it’s not been up for grabs for over a decade!). Thomas exudes genuine pride and passion when he talks about the school and his plans for building on the current successes.

WRAP AROUND CARE / BOARDING

The boarding offering is currently split across Westminster Boys’ House, St Margaret’s Boys’ House and Sutton Girls’ House – with a total capacity for 150 borders across the three houses. The two boys’ houses are located at the heart of the School campus – and are at the end of a refurb project, which will be finished in time for Sept 2022. And options cover the full range, from Flexi to Full Boarding.

Internally they are designed well – with different year groups having their own floors – and lots of break out spaces with their own sofas and TVs. So if you wanted to move away from the large common room (where the big children presumably get to decide what’s on the TV) – you can!

SIXTH FORM

The Sixth Form is a popular time at SVS and a number of external students join for those final two years. Sixth Formers wear their own clothes, (with Blue gown, if awarded) and have their own Study Centre, (pictured below).

The usual step up in terms of responsibility and maturity is expected here – and rewarded with independence and privileges – like enjoying their own Sixth Form Café, called TC’s, (pictured below).

As well as a broad, flexible menu of 23 A Level subjects, where appropriate, SVS encourages pupils to take up Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). This qualification is an increasingly popular addition for Sixth Forms – acting as a useful bridge between A Level and university-style study – and helps applicants gain university places (it carries up to 70 UCAS points).

QUIRKS & USP

The school has a very effective, cohesive reward scheme – called The Blue. Everyone is involved in it everyday – from your Form Tutor to your Games teacher. Good behaviour gets a Blue Point. You accrue these as you go up the school – with various points of recognition and reward along the way.

Accumulating in the ultimate honour – any pupil who earns two ‘Blue’ badges in their School career will be awarded a Sutton Valence School Dark Blue Gown (similar to a Prefects’ Gown). As you walk around the school you will see many of the older children wearing theirs with pride.

There are also vertical tutor groups here – meaning that your tutor group for registration at the beginning and end of every day is mixed between years (quite unusual). Building bonds between year groups and encouraging the positive influence/role model status of older children on the younger ones. This, combined with the House structure (4 houses), gives children more chances to get to know each other across the school and age groups.

ANYTHING ELSE?

The Junior Leadership Course runs through the First and Second Forms (Year 7 & Year 8) on a weekly basis and the two-year programme involves everything from community-based projects to wild bushcraft skills. It’s all aimed at encouraging pupils to challenge themselves and develop their characters at the school, not just their brains. From Third Form (Year 9) the time-tabled ‘Leadership’ periods become Combined Cadet Force (CCF).

Sutton Valence School is fortunate to have all three sections; Royal Navy, Army and RAF. And they all have a common core of drill, navigation and skill at arms. The Royal Navy section specialises in life-saving, sailing and power boating, the Army section in infantry skills and tactics and the RAF in flight training, including gliding and flying. Membership of the Signals and Shooting teams is open to all, from any section.

Also, if you’re carrying with you any of the old guard perception that SVS is the next best choice for boys that didn’t get into super-selective Tonbridge (boys school) – think again. SVS is now very much a first-choice school – with a reputation for strong value-added when it comes to academia (while being able to remain non-selective). The sheer number of prospective parents visiting the school and applying in recent years speaks for itself.

But while the school is very popular and places are at a premium, headmaster James Thomas is adamant that it won’t blow up on size. Despite the popularity of SVS – he is firm in his conviction that the school will remain non-selective – and will never go significantly above its current ideal size.

FEES (per term)

Junior Tuition in First Form – £6,250 Junior Tuition in Second Form – £6,660; Senior Tuition from Third Form –  £7,740.

Additional Boarding costs (all include lunch) for Full Boarding – £4,430; for Five nights per week – £3,472; for Four nights per week – £2,745; for Three nights per week – £2,171.

WORD ON THE GROUND

On the whole parents rave about SVS. Parents with creative, rather than sporty kids were just as positive about all the chances to shine and ‘skill development’ was mentioned on a number of occasions. Of course, as with any school, issues come up – but they are quickly resolved, according to the dozen or so parents I contacted. The overriding consensus is – kids are happy here – they seem to have a lot of fun.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

GOOD FOR: Parents who value a school that achieves great things while keeping smaller on size and therefore a true sense of community. While sport is at the forefront of much of life here, art, drama and music certainly hold their own too.

NOT FOR: Children lead busy lives at SVS – and there’s Saturday school from Third Form (Year 9), so for kids who like their time to be their own it’s probably not the best choice. Weekends can involve activities – even for children who don’t board.

GO SEE FOR YOURSELF: Open mornings are popular at SVS so if you’re keen to look around book up early. Bookings for the Sat 1 Oct Open Morning will open in July. Click here for more details.

Sutton Valence Senior School, North Street, Sutton Valence, Maidstone ME17 3HL, Tel: 01622 845200, svs.org.uk

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