Headmaster since 2007, Michael Punt MA MSc PGCE (late 40s), a physicist. Previously deputy head (academic) at The Perse School, Cambridge. Grew up in nearby Brentwood, did his physics degree at Oxford and his masters at Imperial.
‘You know, Michael, there’s always teaching,’ his mother used to say, which of course meant he set out to do anything but and originally headed for the electronics materials industry.
But the calling was too strong and when he finally did embark on a teaching career at St Dunstan’s College – later moving up to head of year and head of physics - he once again surprised himself ‘by falling for not just the teaching of my subject but the wider pastoral role.’
One of a rare breed of heads that made us a cuppa himself (the majority call on their minions), you feel this is a man who’ll take no persuading to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in whenever needed. ‘No airs and graces, no superiority,’ ‘Loads of gravitas but never in an “I’m better than you way,”’ ‘Tells you we’re all in it together and you believe him,’ say parents. ‘We loved him from the beginning,’ ‘He knows every family’ and ‘Our only worry is that he’ll ever leave,’ voiced others. Pupils agree that he’s a thoroughly decent, jolly nice chap that only the hard of heart could pick fault with. Still teaches, as well as doing mock interviews, and clearly adores the school, practically skipping round the beautiful, sun-drenched grounds during our visit.
Lives on site with his wife Gill and their three sons, all of whom attend the school – a fact that many parents say ‘keeps him in tune with pupils.’ In his spare time, you’ll find him supporting school events, serving as a school governor elsewhere, being a school inspector, or cycling, walking or sailing with his family.
He knows all of us, not just our names but what makes us tick said current students
The Good Schools Guide
Half of the year 7 intake is made up of junior school pupils (the vast majority move up), with the other half from a wide variety of local prep and primaries.
Around 400 apply for these 50-odd places (it used to be 40 but has slowly risen). Assessment by interview (separate ones for pupils and parents), along with tests in English and maths. Small number of vacancies at 13 (English, maths and a modern foreign language tests). At 16, those moving up within the school are joined by around 10 local entrants as well as around 14 overseas boarders. Entrants to the sixth form need 8s in the subjects they are studying at A level (occasionally 7s by discussion).
Teaching and Learning
A more positive, conscientious bunch of pupils you’ll be hard pushed to find, as we learned when we watched some of them going into an exam (flicking through text books outside the hall for that one last revision boost) and coming out again afterwards (‘What did you put for question 3?’ ‘I really hope I got it right,’ etc).
The hard-working group of skilful, collegiate, and caring teachers (all of whom are also involved in extracurricular activity) are also clearly ahead of their game and widely appreciated. ‘I have never come across any that you’d think, “I hope we don’t get that one,” and many are exceptional,’ said a parent. Both factors contribute to the excellent results, which have risen steadily.
Best suited to independent learners, although have no fear if your offspring isn’t at that point quite yet – ‘they get them all self-reliant one way or another, they’re brilliant at it,’ said a parent. Those allergic to relentless testing will be pleased to hear the school has done some trimming back on this front, but you’ll want to be sure they can cope with the fast academic pace. ‘It’s quite stressful at times, I won’t lie. They’re under constant scrutiny, so it’s not for the faint hearted, but most are fine with it,’ a parent told us. Teachers, too, are under the microscope, with a coaching system helping to keep teaching standards high (eg around developing their questioning techniques, stretching the most able or use of debating in class). Lessons are interactive and busy, and pupils looked reassuringly captivated during our tour (some sixth formers were so glued to live election results as part of a politics lesson that they didn’t even notice us at all). Huge drive on reading, with all pupils having daily time put aside to get stuck into their latest book.
On entry, five classes of 22 maximum, sometimes just a few in a class by A level. Latin and French from year 7, and all try German and Spanish at that stage too. French, plus one of the other three, from year 9, with at least one picked for GCSE. Some take Greek alongside Latin, and Mandarin is available as extracurricular. Gentle setting in maths from year 7, and a little bit in languages from year 7, then English and sciences from year 10. ‘But setting is all quite light touch and even in English, it is not by performance but dynamic in the group,’ says head. Homework manageable.
All take 10+ GCSEs, including triple science, and the lack of option blocks keeps choices nice and wide. Computing is the latest offering at GCSE and psychology has recently been added at A level, with economics, maths, sciences, geography and English among the strongest performers at this upper stage. Drama and DT popular at both GCSE and A level, enforcing Chigwell’s reputation as a place for the all-rounder. Around a third do EPQ – Will robots take our jobs? To what extent are changes in the cerebellum responsible for autism? etc. In fact, independent research is a biggie here at all levels, with HPQ pushed at GCSE and the school is piloting something similar for years 7 and 8 ‘where younger children can follow their nose and dig deep into a topic.’ Other enrichment opportunities include essay competitions and Olympiads and there’s umpteen academic societies eg law, social sciences, medics etc.
The music department is almost like a conservatoire, claimed a parent of a music scholar.
The Good Schools Guide
All praise to the transition from junior to senior school, according to parents – ‘couldn’t be more seamless,’ said one. No doubt helped by years 7 and 8 almost acting as a middle school/halfway house, still falling pastorally under the junior staff that know them so well. Pastorally strong for older years too, with one pupil pulling us aside to tell us about a personal tragedy that ‘the school could not have been more brilliant about’ – we were almost moved to tears.
The Last Word
Anyone who spends time in this school couldn’t fail to pick up on the academic rigour, family feel and have-a-go ethos. Possibly wasted on bookworms who rarely look up from the page or tunnel-visioned sporty types (although they do have both), but for those who want to take advantage of the widest possible education, it’s a clear winner.
SENCo is actively involved, knows the children, listens to parents and gives just the right input, remarked a parent.
Good Schools Guide
Pre Prep and Junior School
Head of Junior School
Since 2016, Andrew Stubbs BA (history from Sheffield) PGCE (50s). Previously deputy head of junior school. Practically part of the furniture, having first joined the school in 1993, and still teaches history right across the school – ‘means you can really get to know the children,' he told us. ‘Really nice’ and ‘very funny,’ according to pupils.
Married to Victoria, they have a son that went through the school and recently finished university. Walks to school from his home in Buckhurst Hill, a couple of miles away – ‘often my only chance of exercise.’ Given his long working hours, one can only presume he carries a torch. When spare time allows, history still lights his fire more than anything else (lectures, museums etc), with cinema and theatre other interests. Doesn’t miss a chance of dusting off his suitcase to attend school trips whenever possible eg Berlin, battlefields, Isle of Wight.
Head of Pre Prep
Head of pre-prep since its inception in 2013 is Evelyn Gibbs BA, PARICS, PGCE. Previously acting head in St Mary’s Catholic Primary School, Chingford. Also has a history degree, though started her career as a chartered surveyor, retraining as a teacher, after which she worked in the state sector, teaching year 6s and under, before moving into educational leadership. Adept at getting right down to children’s level while retaining an underlying air of authority and has a very loyal fanbase among parents - ‘Mrs Gibbs is one of the reasons we chose the school,’ ‘Her energy and passion really drive through the school,’ etc.
Lives locally with her husband, David, and has two grown-up children. Enjoys sailing and cycling in her spare time.
Nestled among the myriad senior school buildings on this most attractive of school sites is the red brick 1990s edifice that houses Chigwell’s junior community.
It means, as you’d hope, that these youngsters benefit from the extensive array of senior facilities, notably around science, sport, art, DT, music and drama. Meanwhile, back at junior HQ the three-storey building (the recent loft conversion allowing for the expansion of two to three classes per year) has modern, airy classrooms, ICT room and spacious library.
Teaching and Learning
‘Drop everything and read’ is more than a mantra here – it’s a literal demand to kick-start every afternoon.
Reading isn’t just big, it’s huge, with reading schemes, awards, competitions etc part of the lifeblood of the school. Later, in other classrooms, we saw pupils equally immersed in maths challenges. You can be left in no doubt, wandering through the long blue-carpeted corridors with their vibrant displays (a poetry one literally jumped out at us), as to both the academic expectations and the sharp focus on English and maths, especially in year 6 where children sit both Sats and the 11+. Not that the pupils seem fazed by the latter – they’re well used to assessments, having previously endured the CATs test and 7+, along with termly assessments (national standardised ones for English and maths; school’s own for everything else). All teachers are trained in the latest maths techniques eg maths mastery, as well as in new ways to teach literacy and writing. They are also adept in helping high achievers via eg additional homework, maths and writing competitions, reading awards etc.
Clubs and Societies
‘Shall I show you?’ was the response the head gave us when we asked about clubs and societies.
A first-rate idea, it turned out, as it would have taken an age to list out all the options – many subject related - shown on a large noticeboard in the corridor. Astronomy, creative writing, science, art, LEGO – you name it, it’s all there for the taking.
The Last Word
This school stands out for its can-do approach, friendliness, hard work and lack of pretention.
The informal, happy vibe that pervades the senior school, as well the focus on an education well beyond the classroom, spills neatly over into this community of younger learners, while more academic pursuits are also tip top – they have to be to get these pupils prepped for the more hardcore teaching and learning in senior school.
Best Schools Guide by Muddy Stilettos
Perched on the outskirts of London and fringing the great, green boughs of Epping forest, this selective co-ed is set in 100 acres of prime Essex countryside and offers a holistic approach to education.
Community is king here
Despite being a selective independent on the outskirts of London, Chigwell School seems to have fostered a village feel that encompasses not just the students and their families, but the entire area. Neighbours join the school quiz nights; parents have been known to nip into the canteen for a coffee together; the headmaster visits bursary application families at home rather than school. In short, this is a hands-on, there-for-everyone approach.
Warm, charismatic, inspiring: three words that spring to mind when you chat with Chigwell School’s confidence-boosting head, Michael Punt.
Kids who love to get in the mix. Offering co-ed learning from pre-prep to sixth form, Chigwell School is a thoroughly modern set-up and the seniors’ impressive drama suite is particularly standout. If your child is naturally inquisitive and into everything, they’ll excel here: introverts will be brought out of their shell, budding environmentalists will love the focus on outdoor learning, and the school’s unstuffy, down-to-earth values cultivate adventure, independence and empathy over keeping up good appearances. There’s a palpable family vibe here sociable kids and parents will love.
It’s encouraging that a lust for life-long learning seems to be most valued here.