ACS International School, Cobham
An international day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 2-18 set on a stunning 128-acre campus. Non-selective and pastorally strong, there's a strong community feel.
ACS INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL, COBHAM, SURREY
ACS Cobham is an international school day and boarding school set on a sprawling 128-acre campus just outside Cobham in Surrey. It’s non-selective and non-denominational, and takes kids from the age of 2-18. ACS Cobham is an International Baccalaureate world school – and one of four in the ACS stable. The others are based in Egham, Hillingdon and Doha.
Until 2005, it was the American Community School and the US flavours are strongly felt in both set up and demographics. The school is set out in a similar way to the American system with an Early Years, Lower School, Middle School and High School. The curriculum is American and – unlike its Egham sister which teaches the IB all the way through – the IB Diploma is offered at ages 16-18. The US college Advanced Placement course is also offered at 16-18.
The international vibe is very much in evidence at the school – not surprising when you consider that more than 80 different nationalities are represented among the students. There are currently around 1,300 students, of which the largest contingents are British and American. The Dutch, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Australian and Canadian are also pretty well represented. Where once it was a fairly itinerant population, as global families moved around, children are now staying at the school for 8-9 years.
Of the British kids, many have lived internationally and returned to the UK (expats will often move to the area because of the school), but the school has also been catching the attention of local families looking for an alternative for their children’s education: those looking for a more worldy education. Kids are bussed in from as far as Richmond, Kingston, Guildford, Woking, Leatherhead, Walton-on-Thames and Central London.
Put simply, they’re out of this world with everything you’d expect at a school of this size and stature including a state-of-the-art performing arts centre with a 509-seat theatre at its heart, numerous sports pitches, a swanky sports centre with swimming pool, gymnasium, dance studio, basketball court, top class science labs, bright and light arts studios and a music studios.
The campus – on the former Heywood Estate – is sprawling and set a long way back from the Portsmouth Road. Entry is via a long driveway that passes through fields (as well as over the A3), past a security office and barriers. To the right of the security gate is the property’s original building, Heywood House, a Grade 2-listed Georgian mansion house dating back to the early 18th century, which now houses admin offices.
The Early Childhood village – for kids aged 2-6 – is in a separate set of buildings that have adjoining playgrounds. And the Lower, Middle and Senior schools are housed in a group of buildings that wrap around a large circular courtyard. The architecture of these purpose-built classrooms is firmly mid-century, looking from the outside more like a row of terraced ziggurat apartments with each level successively receding. Inside though, it makes for light and bright classrooms – which is particularly notable in the arts studios and science labs.
The boarding houses are without doubt the most modern and spick I’ve seen at any school, bearing a closer resemblance to a hotel than school dorms and offering a great option for students aged 12-18.
There’s a distinctly different feel to this school compared to more traditional British schools I’ve visited. For a start, it’s not all about the results – there’s a huge emphasis on producing happy and content children who can think independently. Interestingly, in the Lower School children are not given homework.
It strives to foster a global mindset in all students, and no doubt achieves that. The international approach to learning means it’s more enquiry based – so it’s all about encouraging pupils to question facts and ideas, rather than being simply spoon-fed information. Children are taught, from the Early Childhood years to contribute to society and the world, rather than just to learn.
As children move up from the Lower School, through the Middle School to High School, they’re encouraged to look at things in a much more global way. Also worth mentioning is that as a non-selective school, ACS Cobham supports SEN, with a small percentage of students having some SEN.
There’s a strong music and drama programme at ACS Cobham, which is unsurprising given the facilities. The EJ Poularas Performing Arts Centre opened only four years ago and includes an impressive 500+ seat auditorium, three music classrooms, four practise rooms, two drama studios plus a music technology suite. At least six theatre productions are staged across the school each year, as well as musical concerts and recitals.
The visual arts department is also pretty impressive and there’s evidence of the students’ work hanging throughout the school. There’s some serious talent going on here.
As you might expect of an international school, languages are important, and in addition to the language subjects offered, the school offers English as an Additional Language (EAL) specialist teachers for non-English native speakers.
The sports facilities are ACS Cobham are world class, so much so it was used as an official training facility for the 2015 Rugby World Cup and the London 2012 Olympic Games, including football and rugby fields, softball and baseball diamonds, a floodlit all-weather astroturf pitch, a 400m track and tennis courts.
The sports programme is positive and inclusive with an emphasis on enjoyment and well-being with 75+ teams under the banner of ACS Cobham Cougars, participating in a huge range of sports: including track and field, football, rugby, cross-country, volleyball, basketball, softball, tennis, dance and golf. The incredibly swanky sports centre that houses a competition-class 25m swimming pool with seated gallery for 178 spectators, and the ’Arena’ with an international-sized basketball/volleyball court with sprung beechwood floor and tiered seating for 280 spectators.
But for all of these fancy pants facilities, the school values participation as much as sporting victory. Although it does pretty well with the wins, with some of their athletes even go on to represent their country. Sports is a fundamental part of life at ACS Cobham and they regularly host ISA regional championships as well as numerous International Schools Sports Tournaments throughout the academic year.
In 2019, the school achieved a 92% IB Diploma pass rate, against the world average of 79%.
As you’d expect of students moving on from an international school, they head off to universities all over the world. Recent ACS Cobham graduates have gone on to prestigious universities in the UK, including Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Exeter, Durham, Imperial College London, LSE, UCL, Warwick, Cardiff, Manchester, Surrey, University of London, Bath, Loughborough, Queen Mary, MetFilm School, City and Guilds of London Art School.
In the United States, places have been accepted at MIT, Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Princeton, Dartmouth, John Hopkins, University of California, University of Chicago and New York University. Students have also gone on to universities in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Toronto, Montreal and Munich.
Boarding is offered for students aged from 12-18, at ACS Cobham, and like the rest of the school, facilities are excellent. A brand new senior boarding house opened in August 2017 and it is impressive with light and airy common rooms and clean modern kitchens. All bedrooms are ensuite – mostly twins – but students in Year 12 have the option of a single.
There are 160 boarders, mostly full time (although flexi boarding is an option). A large number of different nationalities are represented, although half of all boarders come from the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France and Ukraine.
Barnaby Sandow is the new Head, bringing a new perspective to the school. His drive, enthusiasm and commitment to the school is immediately evident and his three children have also joined the ACS Cobham campus. He says they have all found friends with similar interests quickly and are flourishing and his 4 year old girl is thriving in the nurturing environment in Early Childhood.
He started his career in education at Abingdon, then went onto Stowe School, before spending the last 15 years at Jerudong International School, a British international school in Brunei. His aim is to produce caring, effective, confident graduates that are ready for the global stage.
Throughout his career he has been a keen sportsman, relishing new physical challenges and stepping outside his comfort zone. In his spare time he is a keen sailor as well as recently taking up surfing, feeling it’s important to continue to challenge yourself, believing that it is only by doing this that we enable ourselves to grow
There’s a separate pre-school and nursery here, with its own separate playground.
Stuffy British traditions like uniforms are left behind here, and it’s one of the first things you notice when you see the students. It’s all part of the ethos of creating independent children – and according to staff, there’s no issue with children competing in the fashion stakes. From what I could see, that rang true – most kids were dressed in jeans or tracky bottoms and sweaters.
WRAP AROUND CARE
After-school clubs are offered at ACS Cobham, but there’s no formal afterschool care programme. The numerous co-curricular activities range from flamenco dancing to fencing, music lessons, jazz club, debate and robotic club alongside the DofE award and Model United Nations.
At the higher end of the scale. Tuition fees start at £8,070 a year for kids aged 2-3 rising to £28,200 a year for Grades 11-12 (ages 16-18). Bursaries and scholarships are available.
Boarding (including tuition) for five days costs between £40,390 (ages 12-14) and £43,250 (ages 16-18) a year, and for seven days it’s £45,960 (ages 12-14) rising to £48,820 (ages 16-18) a year.
Flexiboarding is available for Grades 7-12 (ages 12-18) for £85 per pupil per night, full-board.
The door-to-door bus service will cost between £1,920 and £3,510 extra each year, depending how far away you live and if you travel to and from school. A shuttle service also operates, at a cost of between £495 and £1,840 a year extra.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents are obviously attracted to the international learning at ACS Cobham. It’s the flexible learning system that’s individually focussed and relevant to the world in which each child lives. Of course, the facilities are also pretty amazing, so that’s a clear benefit too.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Expats looking for an international education for their children, but also locals looking for an more worldly approach to education than the conventional British system.
Not for: If you’re wedded to the traditional British educational institution, ACS Cobham may not be for you. There is an established international approach here, that may not suit everyone.
Dare to disagree? There is a whole school virtual open day on Sat 13 March from 10am-12noon. Personal virtual tours are also available.
ACS International School Cobham, Portsmouth Road, Cobham, Surrey KT11 1BL. Tel: 01932 867251. acs-schools.com/cobham