HAVING spent parts of her life in Jamaica, Portugal and Australia, you might expect Christine Cook to prefer a palm-lined beach to the lush Oxfordshire countryside.

Yet the educator said her return to Chandlings Prep School near Oxford, after 11 years working elsewhere, ‘felt like coming home’.

Ms Cook became head of the independent school in January, and has already proved to be a hit with the children.

As she shows me around the school’s ample grounds, which encompass an indoor swimming pool, stables and plethora of outdoor play areas, a group of girls run over to give her an excited hug.

Although Ms Cook is a relatively new face to all the pupils here, she is certainly no stranger to Chandlings, having worked at the school for 12 years when it first opened in 1994.

She said: “It was really nice to be asked back – the atmosphere in the school just felt like coming home.

“The school is so close to my heart.

“I love being around the children and that interaction with them – I don’t feel my age!

“They entertain me and make me laugh, and I learn from them. They seem to come and talk to me and know my door is open.

“I can stand in class assemblies and feel quite choked up listening to them talk.”

Ms Cook was born in Shropshire and lived for some time in Jamaica and Portugal, before moving back to the UK and settling in Dorset.

She then gained her teaching qualification at Westminster College in Oxford, and went on to work for four years at Peers School in Littlemore – now The Oxford Academy.

The teacher then flew across the world to live in Australia, where she taught English and coached hockey at Guildford Grammar, a boys' independent senior school.

She said that gave her a ‘taste for independent education’, and when she returned to England she gained a job at the acclaimed Dragon School in Oxford.

There she ran a boarding house and coached hockey, before moving on to her first chapter at Chandlings.

It opened in connection to Cothill House school near Abingdon, and the two institutions are now part of the same trust.

When Ms Cook started at Chandlings as a class teacher, there were just nine children on the roll, which has since grown to about 400.

She said: "There is a really welcoming atmosphere here and that’s something that hasn’t changed.

"There is a nice warmth here and the children feel appreciated and at home, and they know they can come and talk.

"From a child’s point of view, there is never a minute there is not something exciting going on or a speaker coming in – sometimes they don’t even know they are learning."

She worked her way up to become director of studies, before moving to Cokethorpe School near Witney.

During her 11 years there, she eventually became head of the junior school, and was invited back to take the headship at Chandlings in January this year.

Though she said the facilities have grown, she added that the school's academic success and warm atmosphere has always remained constant.

Ms Cook, who lives in Botley, said is important that children have fun and are happy, and feel they can have a go at whatever opportunities are presented to them.

She continued: “We want challenge and excitement in lessons, to make the little ones ready for the whole process of learning.

“At that younger age they learn so fast, and getting that excitement about education makes a real difference."

She said children become 'articulate' and 'interested in the world', and many stay in Oxfordshire to progress to other independent schools such as Magdalen College in Oxford and St Helen and St Katharine in Abingdon.

The school, situated off Oxford Road between Boars Hill and Kennington, was once a plushly-decorated home owned by a family from the Middle East.

It was converted and is set to celebrate its 25th year as a school.

Ms Cook said although academic results were a key focus, the school also has thriving music and drama departments as well as more than 60 clubs and activities.

She added: “There is something for everyone to find every individual’s niche.”

Tall trees at its entrance conceal the expanse of bluebell woods and lush green grounds that sit beyond its driveway, and Ms Cook said many Oxfordshire residents are still unaware of the school's presence.

She added: “There is a world of opportunities once you come through the gate.

“What surprised me was how, in the local area, people probably don’t know where Chandlings is.

“It’s a hidden gem, and it shouldn’t be. We want people to know about it – it’s a remarkable school and we want to get it out there in the community.”

The school has run outreach sessions with several state schools in Oxfordshire, offering use of its facilities such as the popular pond dipping pontoon.

Ms Cook and her team are currently preparing for a school open morning on Saturday, where prospective pupils will be able to try out activities such as 'dinosaur' fossil-hunting and archery.