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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head master

Since 2004, Cosmo Jackson BEd, son of founder Richard (who remains involved in the school, but from a distance). Educated at Charterhouse, his first experience working at Hurtwood was helping to run the school’s summer camp when he was 18 years old. Spent two years at the University of Bristol ‘not enjoying economics’ and thence to Bristol Poly (now University of the West of England) to earn his, probably inevitable, BEd. Joined the ‘family business’ properly in 1994, starting on the shop floor (digging out sewage pits and driving the minibus) before moving up to teaching (business, economics and accounting).Possibly the most candid, unguarded and self-deprecating head we have had the pleasure of meeting. A breath of fresh air, in keeping with the effervescent nature of the school he leads. More head figure than head master, but prospective parents’ first port of call in Cosmo’s expansively gorgeous study sets the tone for the unconventional excellence they can expect from the school. Ironically, at this temple to the arts, Cosmo’s interests run heavily to sport, especially tennis, golf, football and cricket.

Wife Tina taught A level history for many years, then ran the life skills department (careers, uni and extracurricular activities). She is now head of admissions, helps with marketing and does ‘a bit of academic mentoring’ (putting her Oxford PPE to work). The couple’s daughter attended Hurtwood House after finishing GCSEs at a top nearby girls’ school. Son stayed all through Cranleigh: ‘he was sports obsessed,’ says Cosmo by way of explanation. But all roads lead to Hurtwood and so, naturally, Harvey is joining the school staff in 2024.

Hurtwood House is a labour of love and a sort of cottage industry, with hats changing frequently and everyone lending a hand where help is needed. Not only are Cosmo’s parents, wife and son involved, but his sister organises the housekeeping. Hurtwood calls itself ‘the most exciting school in England’ and, while it may well merit that accolade, there is something gloriously old fashioned and earthy about the length, breadth and depth of this family’s enlightened leap of faith.


Half the school is replaced every year, so around 180 places up for grabs. No entrance tests. Places are offered based on school references and interviews, with the latter carrying exceptional weight here. Drive, maturity and a clear idea of what they wish to achieve count for a lot. Increasingly selective as demand has risen and academic results have soared. Day places particularly sought after.

Students come in ones and twos from huge range of schools. Nearby Duke of Kent can usually be counted on to send a firm handful. A few enter from the state sector. A third come from abroad. Several students we spoke to had first encountered the school via its well-loved musical theatre summer school.


Lots head to drama, media, music and film production courses at places like Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Mountview, Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, University of the Arts London, Met Film School, Leeds Conservatoire and Urdang. Be warned though: ‘Drama school can be a let down after Hurtwood,’ a teacher told us wryly. Around 20 to art foundation courses. Others head to traditional universities, nearly half to Russell Group. Chunky numbers to Durham University, UCL, Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Manchester, Loughborough and Nottingham. A few to LSE and Imperial and, some years, Oxbridge to read eg economics, maths, business management, architecture. Around 12 went overseas in 2023 including to Spain (IE University and Universidad Pontificia Comillas), France (Parsons Paris), USA (UCSB, AMDA, USC, ArtCenter College of Design, Berklee College of Music) and Canada (Toronto), almost all of these to study creative degrees including acting, filmmaking, photography and fashion business management.

Latest results 

In 2023, 52 per cent A*/A at A level (82 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last pre-pandemic results), 53 per cent A*/A at A level (83 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

A level specialists. If you want the IB or BTECs, look elsewhere. GCSE maths and English resits are offered, to improve university prospects, and EPQs round out the school’s offering. But A levels rule.

Vast majority do three subjects (from a choice of 21) though keen mathematicians may add further maths. The most popular subject is media studies (taken by a whopping third of the school, and rising) followed by drama and theatre studies. But maths and psychology currently spar for third place. ‘It’s easy to think it’s all about theatre, but lots of students do no creative subjects,’ a teacher told us. And indeed, there is a wide range of ‘vanilla’ A levels including sciences, languages, business and economics. International pupils tend to take a (fourth) A level in their native tongue.

The cornerstone of Hurtwood’s academic success is its weekly attainment and effort grading system. Every Monday morning, students (and parents) are presented with their current A level attainment and their marks for effort in each subject quashing any scope for coasting. And every Monday evening, tutors discuss these grades with their tutees. ‘They are incredibly supportive,’ a student told us. ‘But they are blunt and tell us exactly when and how we aren’t reaching the mark.’ ‘We can only do this because we don’t have 12-year-olds,’ one of the senior management team explained. ‘Cran-ban’ (not allowed to visit nearby Cranleigh) or staying in school over the weekend, loom if the standard is not met.

‘At my old school you didn’t know how you were doing until you sat a big exam. Here you get almost instant feedback,’ said a student. ‘It was scary at first,’ another told us, ‘but it really works.’ ‘It’s so specific,’ explained a parent. ‘They know their exact weak points and what they need to do to improve.’ ‘They work soooo hard,’ said another, in wonder.

Staff are committed, quirky and enduring. Their enthusiasm is ‘infectious’, pupils told us. Subject clinics give students unencumbered access to teachers – useful when revising for exams or doing homework.

The careers department is very good, very important and very huge: remember, half the school leaves every year. Parents praised the excellent careers advice, particularly for those aiming for the entertainment industry, traditional university or art school. ’The school is on it,’ said a mum, ‘but they don’t spoon-feed them.’ Leavers who take a gap year are welcomed back and supported with as much zeal as current students.

Learning support and SEN

Around 15 students work directly with the learning support coordinator, mainly for dyslexia and ADHD. Another hundred or so students get tailored support directly through the academic subject teaching. It’s an unusual model, but the results speak for themselves. ‘Learning support is excellent,’ a student told us. ‘They don’t promote it in their literature, but it’s amazing.’ The weekly grades help enormously. Around 60 international students receive IELTS tuition. NB: Quirky buildings and hilly grounds are not well suited for students with mobility issues.

The arts and extracurricular

‘We’re a very creative school,’ Mrs Jackson tells us, with fine British understatement. Theatre permeates the whole school and the annual Christmas musical is Hurtwood’s pride and joy. The school was recovering from a stellar production of Legally Blonde when we visited, with a cast of thousands and professional lighting, costumes, set design and musicians. Agents attend these blockbusters to scope out the newest talent. ’It’s not a school play,’ a teacher explained earnestly. ‘It’s the West End!’

Beyond this extravaganza, there are almost 40 other productions per year, ranging from A level devised pieces to a Shakespeare project, acting showcases and a big, bold rock and pop production – think musical theatre rather than Woodstock. There is also the ‘gig of glory’ for hardcore musicians who don’t care for theatrical razzmatazz.

‘If you want to be in it, you’re in it,’ said the head of performing arts. Eighty auditioned for Legally Blonde; 79 were in the show. And 19 worked backstage. Altogether, almost a third of the school were involved. The school’s theatre holds an intimate 170 – well appointed with professional lighting, green room and all the trimmings.

Music tech and dance A levels are superb. No straight music A levels, but plenty of private music lessons, especially singing. All singers try out upon arrival and are matched with an appropriate teacher. Unlimited access to dance classes for £100 a term. We saw beautiful work in the dance studio where tap, jazz, ballet, street, hip hop and contemporary are all taught.

Art is housed in a quaint outbuilding – duck or you will brain yourself on the tastefully weathered beams. The artwork we saw was so good, we briefly wondered if it was genuinely produced by students until we saw the young artists working on their paintings with quiet absorption. Textiles is another feather in the Hurtwood cap, with the A level here focusing more on construction than fashion. Photography also soars.

But the mother of all creative subjects here is media studies. Forget everything you think you know about the subject – this is a hands-on, practical, high-octane course with a beady eye on future careers and marketable skills. As we said last time, the department is undoubtedly the most professional media set-up we have ever seen. Anywhere. ‘None of the ritzy schools offer media studies,’ a parent pointed out. ‘They don’t want to do it,’ says Cosmo. ‘But it’s a perfectly respectable choice and sits well with two more traditional academic subjects.’ Media here is afforded serious respect, enormous physical space and the cutting-edge equipment students will encounter working in the industry. ‘We have better facilities than the London Film Academy!’ our student guide enthused.

‘Project YouTube’ gives students the opportunity to create professional music videos, which are then showcased on a YouTube channel with 50,000 subscribers. Members of the school’s elite film academy make high-level documentaries and promotional videos that take months of planning and professional coaching. ‘This is our rugby,’ says Cosmo.

And quietly, in the background, the school’s extracurricular programme, Enigma, offers a super range of more prosaic actives, eg investor trading, Dungeons and Dragons, Model UN, crochet club and driving skills.


‘I chose this school for the sport,’ said nobody from Hurtwood ever. Team games and fitness opportunities exist, and are rather jolly, but there is no required physical activity. That said, there are regular football, basketball, netball and hockey matches against other schools alongside recreational games. Boarders are taken to the local sports centre for additional activity and there is a gym in every boarding house. School makes use of its location in the Surrey Hills with weekly guided woodland walks, mountain biking and a running club.


Around 85 per cent of students are full-time boarders – it’s a core feature of the Hurtwood experience and something that differentiates it from London crammers or state sixth form colleges. Day pupils are capped at 65, ‘and we’re trying to reduce that slightly,’ says the head.

Boarding is ‘very nice but it’s not a hotel’, says Mrs Jackson. Most boarding houses are co-ed and off site, a minibus journey away. Students have to plan for the five minute ‘commute’ to school, and no popping back for forgotten dance shoes. Some girls, particularly those from abroad, prefer to board ‘above the shop’ in the main building. All have communal areas for socialising and provide encouragement for independent living (eg students are in charge of laundering their own clothes). B Webb is on a particularly grand scale with oldy-worldy flair, a hunting-lodge-style hearth, common rooms galore and all dormitories either doubles or singles. We heard a few grumbles about the water supply in one of the houses.

No flexi boarding, per se, but boarding here is a moveable feast and permutations can be accommodated within reason. There’s a mass exodus on Friday afternoons at 4.30pm with most students back on Sunday nights by 10pm. A bus takes them to Guildford station (cost is added to the bill) from where they fan out far and wide. Around a third of pupils remain in school any given weekend.

Ethos and heritage

Richard and Linda Jackson started Hurtwood House in 1970 a house rented from the National Trust with one classroom. Their modest ambition was to bring the magic and excitement of a prep school to sixth form education. ‘Preps were warm and cosy, chummy and friendly,’ explained founder Richard when we met him, ’while public schools were bleak.’ Another aim was to introduce fizzy subjects which seldom saw the light of day in traditional boarding schools. And everyone would start together at age 16, making friends and beginning afresh, rather than having to fit into a preexisting school community.

And the ethos? No chapel. No assemblies. No prefects. No governors. No CCF. No uniforms. No surnames. Instead, it was to be a golden combination of informality and high standards. ‘Boutiquey,’ summarises Cosmo.

Now based in a stunning 1900s Arts and Crafts house set in 200 acres of deepest, darkest Surrey – who knew such eerie wilderness exists in the home counties just ten miles from Guildford? On approach, we found ourselves trapped behind a rubbish lorry, crawling along as the minutes ticked painfully by. ‘My advice to people driving here for the first time,’ a dad advised us solemnly, ‘is to look carefully at the time predicted by your satnav, and then double it.’

The rest of the school is made up of a mishmash of outbuildings – some more aesthetically pleasing than others – housing various subjects and classrooms, common rooms etc. Meals (excellent) are taken in the modern Scandinavian-tinged two-storey dining hall. We were impressed by the abundance and presentation of fresh fruit set out like a market stall. The Pavilion offers a flexible space for eg art exhibits, visiting speakers and lunchtime concerts. There is also a small outdoor amphitheatre. New medical centre on its way along with some new classrooms.

Four franchise schools in China are nice earners but do not share the Hurtwood name, structure or ethos.

Former students include actors Emily Blunt, Emily Beecham. Harry Lawtey (Industry and the forthcoming Joker: Folie à Deux), Ben Radcliffe (Masters of the Air), Viveik Kalra (Blinded by the Light), Fabien Riggall (Secret Cinema), composer Hans Zimmer, DJ duo Eli and Fur, country duo Ward Thomas, entrepreneur Ella Mills (Deliciously Ella) and director Rose Glass.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Inclusive and accepting. Comments we heard from students and parents: ‘community-based’, ‘family environment’, ‘we live together and work together and socialise together’, ‘it’s great to be with similar people who share your interests’. Boys and girls work side by side, all dressed much of a muchness with very little makeup or straightened hair in sight – who has time? ‘My favourite thing,’ said a mum, ‘is how boys and girls are not segregated like they are at most co-ed boarding schools. They all muck in.’

Less scope for misbehaviour than at traditional boarding schools which are bursting with 13 and 14-year-olds free from the parental yoke for the first time. A levels, weekly grades, and looming university applications create a bit of a damper on potential hi-jinks. And every student has made a positive choice to be here, often researching, selecting and lobbying for the school in the face of parental perplexity.

Once upon a time Hurtwood had a reputation as a haven for troubled teens. ‘We did take some ruffians and ne’er-do-wells back in the 70s and 80s,’ admits Cosmo, ‘and did very well by them.’ Alas, no more. Rules are few, clear and reliably enforced. Students understand the three ‘red line offences’: drugs, bullying and theft. Breaching one of these means you’re out. Consequences for drugs infractions are particularly reliable: zero tolerance. And the school will not accept kids that were ejected for these offences elsewhere.

Parents praise the ‘discreet’ handling of occasional expulsions. ’The school doesn’t sweat the small stuff, but the kids know where the boundaries are,’ a mum said. ’We wanted a school that encourages independence and that’s what we got. We couldn’t be happier.’

Pupils and parents

Students are a confident, independent and verbal lot, many of whom outgrew their senior schools. We wondered if a very shy or introverted child would be able to make the most of the school. Ditto kids without clear interests: ‘You need to know what you’re passionate about. You need to be driven,’ a student admitted.

Many will have also visited specialist performing arts schools, like Tring, Arts Education and Sylvia Young Theatre School – but will have chosen Hurtwood. Cosmo is at pains to point out that Hurtwood is more than a performing arts school. ‘We’re much broader here. And our drama is better!’ he grins. More girls than boys (roughly a 60/40 split).

Every single parent we spoke to praised the school’s diversity. Well, yes, up to a point. Students arrive from a wide range of geographical, cultural, educational, social and ethnic backgrounds – all united by an ability to pay the school fees (though often after making huge sacrifices, though some fee assistance is available qv). International students come from all over, but especially China, Ukraine, Russia, Nigeria, and Germany. Does wonders for the school’s maths and languages results, though many of these transplants come for the creative vibe.

Not a school for helicopter parents. But if you’re willing to loosen the reins a tad, the results can be phenomenal. ‘It has transformed him,’ said a mum describing the positive changes in her son since coming to Hurtwood. ‘My son is completely focused at Hurtwood. He wasn’t like that at his old school.’ Charmingly, former students make a point of returning to their old school. ‘They can’t get enough of it,’ a parent chuckled. ‘They’re like homing pigeons.’

Money matters

Famously and unashamedly expensive. A few scholarships, mainly for performing arts, maths and sciences. School is a bit vague on what assistance it offers. In keeping with the spirit of the school, the process is free-form and eccentric with an element of first come, first served. But we spoke to several parents whose children are receiving fee assistance. Do ask.

The last word

The one, the only, Hurtwood House. Informal, creative, eccentric, personal, and above all, bursting with brilliant teaching. Think tiny university, with dashes of Bedales, RADA and Pinewood Studios in the mix. Few schools deserve the word ‘unique’ in this identikit era with a million financial pressures to fall in line. But here we have a true maverick proudly marching ever onward to the beat of a different drum.


Hurtwood prides itself on the warmth of its relationships and its ability to engage closely with the hopes and aspirations of each individual student.