Eaton Square upper school offers neoclassical classrooms in a Grade 1-listed building, and fees to suit London’s bankers and aristocrats.
School assemblies will be held in a state-room hung with original 1761 green silk wallpaper. History will be taught in neoclassical rooms designed by Robert Adam, and chemistry experiments will be carried out in basement laboratories being converted from what are amusingly described as “Mrs Patmore’s kitchens”.
This is Eaton Square upper school, the first new co-ed private school in central London for decades, which is preparing to open its doors to the children of the super-rich bankers, aristocrats and oligarchs of Mayfair and Chelsea.
On 6 September, the headteacher, Sebastian Hepher, will welcome 106 11- to 14-years-olds through the doors of 106 Piccadilly – a Grade I-listed townhouse, once home to Lord Coventry and for more than a century the location of the St James’s Club. The co-ed school roll will eventually number 450 and the building is currently undergoing a £5.2m conversion – backed by private equity funding – into what might be the most fancily located school in the world.
“How inspiring it will be for our pupils to learn about the neoclassical movement in an art lesson and rather than gain inspiration from styles in a picture book, they can quite simply look around them at their Grade 1-listed classroom,” the school says in promotional material. “Such rich and decorative surroundings will act as a constant source of inspiration and appreciation to those lucky few who will be able to call this beautiful building their school.”
The playing fields will be the royal park across the street. “In effect, Green Park will be the playground, which will be fantastic,” said Hepher, 52, who has been headteacher at Eaton Square’s six existing prep schools for six years. “Lots of space, lots of green, and it’s 10 yards from our front door.”
Hepher, whose headteacher’s office will occupy Lady Coventry’s gold leaf and wood-panelled 1765 octagonal dressing room, said he and the school’s backers have spent years looking for suitable space to open an upper school to cater for the increasing demand for an independent day school in London’s richest neighbourhood.
The school is owned by Minerva Education, a rapidly expanding independent school provider, which is part of a private equity firm run by former JP Morgan banker Philip Rattle.
“Are our parents super-rich?” It is a description that Hepher chooses not to use. He prefers to just say they are “certainly wealthy enough to pay the school fees … which are high.”
The historic building – on some of London’s most valuable land – is restricted by the council for use for social or community benefit. It was previously the London outpost of a Malaysian university. It was once the home of the French ambassador and for 110 years it was the St James’s gentlemen’s club, where Ian Fleming and Evelyn Waugh were members.
Hepher said “a lot” of his pupils live on Eaton Square, the most expensive residential street in the country where the average home is worth £16.9m according to Lloyds Banking Group, and a pleasant 15-minute walk around Buckingham Palace Gardens from the school’s front door.
Other pupils live “in Chelsea, on the Kings Road”, he said. “South Ken today is a hugely international population so the schools are populated by those families, which makes it the richest melting pot.”
Hepher meant rich in diversity, but the parents are also probably among the richest financially. Hepher said stumping up the school fees of nearly £22,500 a year would not be a problem. The fees are actually slightly cheaper than at Westminster School which costs £26,000 a year and St Paul’s, in leafy south-west London, at £24,000.
Eaton Square upper school said demand for places has been much stronger than expected and the school will open with three classes of Year 7s, two Year 8s and one Year 9 class. Hepher had originally planned on two Years 7s, and one class in each of Years 8 and 9.
“We had a tea party two weeks ago in the park opposite the school, and it was a fantastic event,” he said. “A real mix of nationalities from all over the world, lovely boys and girls and charming parents.” He joked though that none of them would be able to point to where he lives – Herne Hill – on a map as “it’s south of the river, isn’t it?”
Their jobs, he said, are also varied, but quite a lot work in finance and banking, others in their own or family businesses and some in fashion. When asked if any are famous, Hepher had an answer ready: “Not that I will share.”
Demand for a new senior school, he says, is high: “There has always been this bottleneck. There are lots of centrally located prep schools, but London has become incredibly difficult and very competitive for boys and girls to find a senior school.”
He said the parents, who mostly come from across Europe, the US and Russia, are increasingly seeking London day schools for their children rather than sending them away to boarding schools. And their children often haven’t reached “the point academically where they can get into a St Paul’s or a Westminster School”.
Eaton Square, Hepher said, would ensure the rounded development of children in all areas of life and would not be an academic “hot house”. “There’s got to be a balance between hard work and learning … not all children are exam machines.”