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Talking heads: Christian Heinrich on Cumnor House’s unique teaching environment

‘This always had the reputation of being the school on the hill, which I wanted to get rid of’

8 September 2018

9:00 AM

8 September 2018

9:00 AM

It would be a cliché to say that Christian Heinrich fell into his career in education. But really, there isn’t any other way of describing his route into teaching. In his final year of a degree in American literature, he returned home to nurse his sick mother. When she passed away, his old prep school headmaster asked him for a coffee. ‘He played that wonderful trick,’ explains Heinrich. ‘He said, “Oh Christian, I’m taking a Latin class, come along.” Midway through the lesson he had to take a phone call. “Christian, just finish the lesson, and then come and find me.” I duly finished things off, and that was that. ‘“When are you going to start?” he then asked.’

Heinrich settled into teaching, meeting on the way his wife Belinda, also a teacher. She agreed to support him for a year while he studied his PGCE, and then both of them headed to Summer Fields school in Oxford. This all-boys, all-boarding school was a highly academic prep school: ‘a bit of a military academy in some ways.’ But ‘we loved it,’ says Heinrich. ‘We had this idyllic community in Oxford, where we taught all day and then had drinks or went to plays in the evening.’ Heinrich progressed through the ranks, becoming a house master at 30. At 38 he was made deputy head. By this point, the couple had four children. ‘It suddenly struck us that there was no way we were going to be able to afford to send them all to senior school.’ He started applying for headmaster jobs.

The school he chose next was Cumnor House in West Sussex. It was co-ed and boarding, but with more of bias towards the boys. ‘Being a girl at Cumnor wasn’t perfect,’ says Heinrich. ‘Girls’ sport was appalling.’ He and Belinda set out to change that, and to create a liberal teaching environment. ‘We wanted it to have more of a relaxed manner, and for children to be spoken to as children,’ he explains.


Over the next five years, the school grew to 400 pupils. ‘My wife and I decided that if we had any more, we would struggle to remember children’s names. It’s vital that staff know every child, so that every child feels secure.’ That is an important part of Cumnor’s ethos. Once a month the teaching staff sit down and go through each child form by form, so teachers can mention anything that the staff ought to know about a pupil. ‘I believe that a child who wanders down the path and has three adults in a row say, “Good morning Camilla, how are you feeling today?” or “Well done yesterday in rounders”, is going to perform better than a child who walks past three adults who are busy on their phones.’

Heinrich also introduced drama, design and technology and swimming and pushed to ensure that girls had as many sports matches as the boys. Everyone studies both French and Latin and he encourages an ‘erratic’ nature to the school day. ‘I don’t want children to get into the mindset that the important stuff is in the morning. It’s all important,’ he says.

The boarding aspect was something else that had to be considered. ‘We thought, “What is our USP?” It’s a friendly, nice little school on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, where a lot of people already live…’ Their answer was to turn it into a local school, with boarding banned until children reach year 7.

Heinrich has been headmaster of Cumnor for more than 15 years. Many people would have moved on. Instead, he became involved with the Independent Association of Prep Schools, before being made prep schools representative of the Boarding Schools Association, and then serving as its chair for a year in 2012. ‘It was about amassing as much knowledge about the sector as I possibly could,’ he says,   ‘as that could only bounce back positively on here.’

One thing Heinrich has tried to avoid is isolating the school from the wider community. ‘This school always had the reputation of being the school on the hill, which I wanted to get rid of.’ Heinrich started something unique, a foundation which offers two state-educated children per year a chance to join the school, and receive a free private education from eight to 18. The children must be local, and otherwise unable to attend a school like Cumnor. ‘For most of the parents, a private education isn’t something they’ve considered.’ Thirteen senior schools have agreed to accept a child from the Cumnor foundation, if they are picked as that child’s next school. These include local schools such as Ardingly and Worth, but also Radley, Bryanston and St Mary’s Ascot.

For Christian and Belinda Heinrich, this school ‘is our life’. So will they be moving along soon? Not to another school, that’s for sure. ‘When I retire I will do something completely different,’ he declares. His strategy paper for the school lasts until 2020; he is now writing the next, which takes them to 2025. When he does leave, he likes the idea of wine. ‘I have all sorts of wine qualifications. Maybe I could open a merchants? But what I really want to do is write’.


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