Combining a distinguished history with a strong tradition for progressive education, Cheltenham College champions community values, strong academics and a have-a-go spirit. Absolutely Education finds out more about this winning combination

Words Libby Norman

Cheltenham College is a school that proves you can successfully balance tradition with a progressive approach. Founded in 1841, and with those Victorian pillars of classical teaching, sport and public service, it has long been considered among the really prestigious schools. Its setting, right in the heart of the Regency spa town, is breathtaking. But this is also a town full of high-achieving schools – and that adds both energy and a youthful spirit to the place.

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Cheltenham College was an early adopter of co-education – and with a wholehearted 50/50 approach

Cheltenham College nailed its colours to the mast on modern thinking a long while back, adopting co-education early. It didn’t dabble but embraced mixed education wholeheartedly. “One of the things that quite a lot of schools have done is still kept a higher ratio of boys to girls, but we made a very clear decision now, and before my time, that it was going to be a 50/50,” says Head Nicola Huggett. She says the secret to harmonious co-ed settings is co-operation between the sexes, not competition.

She adds that you have to focus on detail. “Even if it’s things like alternating whose sports results are read out first in assembly or making sure you have equal numbers of girl and boy prefects.” She is herself the mother of two boys and two girls – including a twin girl and boy – so is well placed to understand the razor wire of fairness, as played out in all families and all schools.

“Without good pastoral care you won’t get academic success so it’s absolutely the cornerstone”

Nicola Huggett became Cheltenham College’s first female Head in 2018 and perhaps it’s this wholehearted co-ed spirit here that means it wasn’t seen as a huge break with tradition. She admired its history, but it never felt like a weight. “You really have to respect the institution and respect the fact that when you join a school as the Head nobody in that school has signed up to you. You are coming into something totally fresh, and you have got to earn your spurs,” she says. “But it wasn’t a weight, it was just a great opportunity – I really have found my place.”

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Nicola Huggett became the College’s first female Head in 2018 and still enjoys putting in time in the classroom teaching

She has seen big shifts throughout her teaching career. Having been a housemistress and then head of boarding at Haileybury when it went co-ed, she became deputy at Downe House and then first female Head at Blundell’s in 2013, while it was progressing on its co-ed journey. There, she was described as “unpretentious and effective” in a Daily Telegraph article about rising-star school leaders, entitled: ‘What does it take to be a superhead’.

And Nicola Huggett is not at all starry. Yes, she started her career in advertising with J. Walter Thompson. But as this involved a fair amount of time managing puppies for Andrex adverts, it wasn’t all glamour. Feeling there was something missing, a sense of giving back, she abandoned the advertising exec life and headed off to study for her PGCE as a History and Politics teacher (she had studied PPE at Oxford).

Just two weeks’ work experience in schools had been enough to convince her this was the missing element. “I thought, ‘why did no one ever even suggest teaching to me before?’. I literally never looked back, ever. Not one single day did I think ‘oh I wish I was back in Berkeley Square’.” She is still a passionate advocate of teaching as a career path when she speaks to pupils about choices (“I’m a bit of a bore”), and still puts in the hours herself. “It’s such a wonderful place to be, in the classroom. And when you’re a Head, being in the classroom is even more wonderful because you’re escaping from your laptop. You’re doing a very different job with pupils who then get to know you in a different way.”

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With a balance of day, boarding and flexi-boarding, wraparound pastoral care is central at Cheltenham College

Knowing each pupil is an important element at Cheltenham College. With over 700 of them in the mix – a combination of day, boarding and flexi-boarding – the pastoral and house structure is key to ensuring young people quickly find their feet and thrive. Houses are vertical and tutor groups are horizontal, so students in Years 9-11 have a tutor group made up of people from both their house and their year group. From Year 12, tutor groups are co-ed and blend the two sixth-form year groups. “You have a new tutor in the sixth form, and we try and link people to the tutor of their choice and in their subject area.

“No parent sits on my sofa and says, ‘I don’t want good academic results’. Our aim is the very best results – and the support is very, very strong”

“Every child needs to have at least one significant adult in their school time who really gets them,” says Huggett. “And hopefully they will have a lot more than that. It might be their French teacher it might be their tutor it might be their matron. It’s important that we’re a really strong team.” With a strong background in pastoral, both as housemistress at Haileybury and deputy in charge at Downe House, it’s no surprise that this is central to her approach.

“Without good pastoral care you won’t get academic success so it’s absolutely at the cornerstone.” And the team here is wraparound, with houseparents plus two other residents in each house. Two people are on duty at all times, so there’s always someone to turn to. The health centre (earning glowing praise in the school’s recent ISI report) includes physiotherapists and psychotherapists alongside two GPs and a nursing team. “It’s a team effort – the team around the child.”

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The mix of international, UK-wide and more local adds to the richness of school life and friendships and the facilities make this a 24/7 community

The space and the facilities lend themselves to boarding, with some 80% of families choosing that option (roughly 15% of these are flexi-boarders). There’s a good mix of local, national and international – it’s still popular with military families and UK families working abroad, and they make up around 20% of the full-boarding cohort. But a lot of children here are reasonably local, within two-hours of the school.

“We have a lot of local full boarders. We don’t officially do weekly boarding. But flexi is definitely very popular – we always have overdemand for places.” Day pupils are wholly and harmoniously in the mix. “My two youngest were both day pupils and they had access to everything, and they had lots and lots of friends who were boarders. We have these two lovely day houses which are kitted out exactly the same as the boarding houses. They look and feel the same and have families running them. You can stay overnight as we have a small dorm in each.”

With eleven houses, and more than 700 children on site, the life of the school is 24/7, and that’s a big draw. “Obviously, what is most attractive is having these wonderfully buzzy evenings, and flexi boarders love that equally. We’re one of those schools where every night of the week there will be a society (every subject has a society), concerts, plays, extra rehearsals, speakers coming in, fun things. Evenings and weekends are very, very busy.” This, plus Saturday school, gives Cheltenham College pupils the opportunity to try just about everything and find their passions. Breadth is, in Nicola Huggett’s view, the vital energy of a full and satisfying school life.

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Sport is a longstanding strength, and with opportunities at every level in both the school classics and more niche activities

The sports offer is, as you’d expect, comprehensive. With a professional sports teaching team numbering in the high teens, plus a really strong athletic development programme led by a former NHS specialist and focusing on nutrition, sport and fitness, pupils can aim high – and many do. But that’s not the point. “I walk around on a Saturday afternoon and can see girls and boys’ Pilates, badminton, rackets, swimming. Our U14 D rugby team are only playing touch rugby but have a fantastic fixture list. We have horse riding, polo, clay pigeon shooting – you name it, we probably do it.”

“We want pupils to be able to play in the orchestra, play in the team, do their prep and still enjoy having some down time with their friends”

Nicola Huggett, still a keen runner herself, loved her school days at Marlborough and sees sports and drama and debating and music opportunities (there are something like 40 school clubs) as another vital part of the whole-child building mix. “The focus on confidence is key,” she says. If you score a goal in the First XI football team, you’re going to do better in your maths test. If you come somewhere in the debating competition, you are probably going to do better in your geography or science practical.”

Of course, academics are the critical consideration for the vast majority of families when they consider a school. “No parent sits on my sofa and says, ‘I don’t want good academic results’. Our aim is to get children the very best results – you’ve got to be there with your academics, and the support is very, very strong. And then around that is where you’ve got your elite sport, your drama, your debating, and so on.”

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Academics have to be strong, says Nicola Huggett, but here at the College there’s also a vast choice of subjects offered

Academic choice is a selling point – Nicola Huggett can still recall not being able to do exactly the A levels she wanted. Here, there’s a comprehensive set of options, with no ‘blocking’. But then it’s all changed at universities too – she cites a Cheltenham College student who recently got to medical school with Art, Biology and Maths – and that, for her, is a wonderful thing. “It’s just a fantastic chance to explore different parts of your personality in the sixth form and then go on to university and beyond,” she says. “We’re obviously very into the EPQ. Everybody in the Lower Sixth does the Extended Project Qualification and that is like our fourth A level. That gives someone total free rein to do what they want. We’re wedded to that – it’s important to us.”

The opportunities to ‘top up’ skills and knowledge and refine interests are there throughout – from the thriving (and growing) CCF and DofE and Year 9 Wilson Diploma to the mini-MBA for sixth formers. “I would be very disappointed if I ran a school for children where it was all about success and nothing about the journey,” she says. There’s even a sixth form travel scholarship available to adventurous groups who successfully pitch a purposeful plan (Nepal, Shetland Islands and Berlin are among recent grant-supported trips).

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Young people are offered exposure to a wide range of opportunities within and beyond the curriculum to let them find their interests and passions

This pupil journey – whether in or out of school – is about far more than furnishing and burnishing the CV (although that is, as every school and parent knows, increasingly important). This is about giving young people depth. “You only have your school days to grow intellectually and to grow in curiosity. Once you get to university you’ve chosen one direction and then obviously you have many years to work after that.”

“I would be very disappointed if I ran a school for children where it was all about success and nothing about the journey”

The school helps children with planning – even stepping in to help ‘declash’ for younger pupils. “We want pupils to be able to play in the orchestra, play in the team, do their prep and still enjoy having some down time with their friends – and that’s where the tutor system is so helpful,” she says. “They have what’s called a Reflection Meeting with their tutor every week – and that’s where we can spot if they are overloaded.”

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Elements such as CCF and DofE are part of the mix – and hugely popular with boys and girls

Cheltenham College has a thriving little sister – Cheltenham Prep School – complete with delightful new nursery, and the all-through option is a clear draw for the many parents who want continuity of education (and the majority of prep families do). But that’s certainly not a given, and the prep is self-contained on its own delightful site, sharing only chapel and sports training and facilities. It is headed by Tom O’Sullivan and operates on a “separate but together model”. Nicola Huggett oversees as College Head and prep and senior share the same governing body, but the school exists as its own entity. “It’s a lovely integration but we do work separately. It’s very important to us that the nursery and prep school both have their own remit – an adventure in education.”

While in many towns, such large and thriving schools (Cheltenham College and Prep add up to some 1,150 pupils) might seem dominant, this is a lively learning-centric place where town and gown are not a concern. There are 12 schools in the town and a thoroughly collegiate approach across the board, as demonstrated by the Cheltenham Education Partnership (CEP). This is a model of how things can work when clever Heads get together, with all schools as equal partners. “CEP run opportunities for children across the town and further afield, but totally on an equal basis – state schools, private schools – we just offer what we feel we can offer and what we feel we’re good at.”

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Design Technology class; the College offers opportunities for students to mix subjects to suit their interests and ambitions

There’s “bespoke” partnership, too, with All Saints Academy, involving multiple collaborations (its principal is also a governor at Cheltenham College). This sees regular interaction between pupils of both schools for coaching, mini-MBA activities and the like. Nicola Huggett describes this as a holistic relationship that benefits everyone. There are partnerships, too, with schools in Kenya and Nepal – all mind broadening stuff to get young people thinking beyond their own lives. “We’re so lucky here – we’ve got the time, we’ve got the pupils, we’ve got the energy,”

Energy could sum up the whole Cheltenham College approach. If there’s one overriding mission it’s to get children up to speed on every front, enjoying success, having fun and being ambitious for their future, whatever path (or paths) they choose. “Once they go to uni, they have got to be self-starters. That’s our whole reason for being,” says Nicola Huggett. “We want to introduce our pupils to everything so that when they walk out of our door for the last time they can make a list of all the exciting things they want to do with their life beyond.”

C Cheltenham Grounds
Cheltenham College sits in the heart of Cheltenham and is part of CEP, an innovative partnership of schools across the town


Founded:  1841

Head: Nicola Huggett

Gender: co-educational

Number of pupils: 730

Day or boarding: Day, boarding, flexi-boarding

Ages: 13-18

Points of entry: 13+ 16+ and occasional in year entry (subject to availability)

Admissions: [email protected]

Religious affiliation: Christian foundations, and welcoming all faiths

Fees: £33,990-£46,500 per year, depending on age group and boarding option

Address: Cheltenham College, Bath Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL53 7LD

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Cheltenham Prep School and Cheltenham College enjoy a ‘separate but together’ model


Founded: 1841

Head: Tom O’Sullivan

Gender: co-educational

Number of pupils: 420

Day or boarding: 3-7 day only; 7-13, day and boarding

Ages: 13-18

Points of entry: 3+ 7+ and occasional in year entry (subject to availability)

Admissions: [email protected]

Religious affiliation: Christian foundations, and welcoming all faiths

Fees: £10,000-£29,580 per year depending on year group and boarding option

Address: Cheltenham Prep School, Thirlestaine Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL53 7AB

I N S T A Ab E D Autumn C O V E R
Cheltenham College is Focus feature in the Autumn 2023 issue of Absolutely Education

Further reading: Focus on Framlingham College, Suffolk