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Cokethorpe School (Prep), Witney

A selective, co-ed independent school set in 150 acres of dreamy Oxfordshire parkland. Though academics are well looked after, there's a refreshing emphasis on letting kids enjoy being kids.

WHAT? WHERE?

Cokethorpe is an independent co-ed school for boys and girls 4-18 years, set in 150 pristine acres of West Oxfordshire parkland just outside Witney and 10 miles from Oxford. The Prep and Senior pupils at Cokethorpe number 650 in total, with 130 of those in the Prep school, and average class sizes running from 10-12 in Reception going up to 16-18 in older groups.

Historic buildings abound on this pretty site, including the 10th century church (in keeping with the Christian foundation and ethos of the school), 18th century outbuildings and even a dovecote, though the elegant honey stone Queen Anne mansion is its centre piece, oozing mini Brideshead vibes and full of gorgeous period features – Queen Anne herself added cladding to the Corinthian Room after a visit in 1713.

The mansion is home to the Prep School, which has its own head teacher, staff and timetabling separate to the Senior School. This review focuses on the Prep School, but you can read my review of the Senior School here.

FACILITIES

Er, immense probably covers it. The Prep school benefits massively from being on the same site as the Senior school, with all relevant facilities available to the Pre-Prep and Prep pupils. Check out the Prep school video here.

/SPORT

Sport is definitely a strong suit at Cokethorpe Prep and it has the facilities to prove it. There’s a huge sports hall, two full size Astros, three cricket pitches and six rugby/football pitches. Now add a golf course, 10 metre outdoor climbing wall, and enough room for the school to host its own show jumping competition and you’re getting the picture. There’s no swimming pool here, which is a bit surprising given the vast swathes of land, but the kids are taken offsite to neighbouring facilities once a week from Reception. Also offsite, the children sail (and gain RYA qualifications) at Farmoor Reservoir, kayak from the school’s boat house on the nearby River Thames. Beyond the sports curriculum and team play, there are 34 extra-curricular clubs and activities on offer here, with sport featuring heavily –Adventure Club (Bushcraft), Journalism Club, OSOBOTS Coding, Philosophy Club and Potty Potters Pottery Club are all on the list for Summer Term.

Boys and girls are taught sport together until Year 3. Aside from rugby and football (boys) and netball and hockey (girls) all pupils take part in cricket, athletics, cross country, and tennis, and are taught by specialist coaches. Recent team successes include the girls’ U11 being Regional Finalists for hockey.

CREATIVE ARTS

When you have a 200-person theatre at your disposal, a fulltime wardrobe mistress and a choice of 3,500 costumes, you can pretty much guarantee a strong turnout for drama. LAMDA is taken up by around 15% of pupils in the Prep school, with four performances throughout the year. Music wise, there’s a dedicated Prep School music room in the mansion, and various ensembles including orchestra (no minimum grade for entry), chamber choirs and ensembles and a samba band who all practise and perform mainly in the grand Corinthian Room. Across at the Senior school, there are Mac computers running Logiq Software for composition, editing and recording – if needed, pupils from Year 6 are able to get hands-on in the Composition Suite through their ‘Moving Up’ programme of events designed by Mrs Black.

There’s also a dedicated art room for the Prep School in the mansion attic with specialist teaching from Reception upwards.

/SCHOOL

The Mansion’s ground floor with its high ceilings and panelling shows off the Prep school to best advantage. The first and second floors are where you’ll find the classrooms – expect less architectural finesse (the corridors are a bit blank), but light, inviting spaces. There’s a lovely characterful library, recently given a makeover by the headteacher to feel like an Edwardian living room, with damask wallpaper, wooden mirror, comfy sofa and leather chair and a homely vibe that will no doubt really appeal to the kids.

Lunch is taken over at the Senior school’s posh Hall with its fireplace and minstrel’s balcony. The Prep pupils take DT in the two snazzy Senior school workshops, as well as Science in the Senior labs through their ‘Moving Up’ programme

With 150 acres to womble around in, it’s no surprise that outdoor learning is high on the priority list at Cokethorpe Prep, with the children regularly knocking about in The Woods for bird-watching, building bug hotels, weekly Adventure Club from Pre-Prep upwards, and bushcrafting led by the dedicated Head of Outdoor Education. There’s also an adventure playground here with mud kitchens and sandpits and all that jazz for the littlies.

The Reception and Year 1 will be re-locating for September 2022 to a snazzy, dedicated space with direct access to the woods, sports fields, and parkland. It will give them room to breath and expand into the school’s extensive outdoor spaces, before joining the rest of the Prep School in the mansion in Year 2 for the final year of Pre-Prep.

ACADEMICS

The Senior school once had a reputation as the home for those not academically gifted, but with 75% of pupils now going to Russell Group universities, including Oxbridge, that’s no longer a fair prod. The school is in the top 8% of value-added schools in the UK – this basically means that whatever academic stage in which your child enters Cokethorpe, they’ll progress here better than 92% of UK schools. There’s specialist teaching across Music, French, Drama and PE, and Art from Reception. From Year 4 Maths is taught in sets. Italian is introduced in Year 4, German at Year 5 and Spanish in Year 6. Years 5 and 6 are introduced to Latin.

That said, the emphasis at Cokethorpe Prep is very much on children being children and having a full experience across all areas learning, sports, arts and extra-curricular. ‘AOB’ is a huge co-curricular programme with activities at lunchtime, after school and during every Friday afternoon to make sure the pupils have a breadth of interests and experiences, and the Prep head Nicky Black has been explicit about wanting the kids to hold onto their childhoods as long as possible.

In 2021, 95% of pupils from the Prep moved up to Cokethorpe Senior School on passing an internal exam, with the remainder fanning out to local state secondary schools and independents.

PASTORAL CARE

In a school of just 130 children, the bulk of the pastoral support is provided by the form teachers themselves who know their pupils so well. There’s no computer AS tracking programme here. Instead Cokethorpe Prep since 2018 has implemented RULER, an emotional literacy programme from Yale University that teaches a programme of emotional literacy and positive learning environments for teachers, parents and pupils.

There is a full-time counsellor on site at Cokethorpe should the children need it, and an ELSA. For parents there’s a weekly Parent Surgery for any worries.

THE HEAD

In 2018, Head Teacher Nicky Black came direct to Cokethorpe from a Prep headship at the renowned Dulwich College, one of the top schools in the UK – a huge coup for the school. She’s warm, approachable, clearly very professional, smartly dressed (liking the Chanel-style bouclé suit!) and is forthright about wanting to give the children some freedom, fun experiences and teaching creatively rather than by rote. Since she started Black has made moves to ease the transition to the Senior school by synching the Prep time table with the Senior, making it easier to use the Senior facilities, teachers and get the children used to mingling in the ‘bigger pond’. She’s introduced a new uniform, and also changed the name from ‘Junior’ to ‘Prep’.

Other initiations to brag about: Black brought in the above-discussed RULER, introduced the Creative Curriculum, and in recognition of the need for more space, will be creating a new home for Reception and Year 1.

QUIRKS

How many prep schools do you know that have a full-time wardrobe mistress? There’s also a lovely café at the school for teachers, parents and Sixth Formers, so once you’ve dropped your kids off, you can go for a restorative double espresso.

A small point but one worth making – the Senior school here starts at Year 7 (11 years old) and not Year 9, so for those thinking of sending their kids on elsewhere at 13 years old, they will need to do two years of Senior school here first.

WRAP AROUND CARE

Wrap-around care here is relatively restrained with breakfast club starting at 7am and after-school activities ending at 4.45pm — though there is the option of remaining after this on grounds until 6pm. Not so great for commuting parents perhaps but if your child is coming from further afield (see Transport) it does mean the children can get home in decent time and not be too exhausted which is a plus. The school day itself runs from 8.40am – 4pm (apart from Pre-Prep, which ends at 3.30pm) Monday to Friday, and in line with the current trend, there’s no Saturday school at Cokethorpe.

SEN PROVISION

Cokethorpe has roughly 5% of pupils on the SEN register. Its SEN provision is what you expect from this calibre of school: one-to-one lessons for children who need extra assistance within the Prep School environment.

ISI REPORT

Nothing very current (seriously, Independent Schools Inspectorate, get going with this stuff) but you can view the latest reports here.

MOBILE PHONE POLICY

There is a no mobile phone policy at Cokethorpe Prep, in that they cannot be kept on the pupils’ person during the school day. However, phones may be deposited with the Prep School Office and accessed on requirement.

TRANSPORT

Cokethorpe pulls in from an extensive catchment area – from Thame to Bourton on the Water, Wantage to Chipping Norton. To facilitate that there are 22 transport routes, available for Pupils from Year 3 upwards. The cost is a buttock-clenching £420 – £550 per term so factor that into your annual fees.

FEES

Good value I’d say – both in terms of the facilities on offer, and in comparison to other independent local day schools. Reception to Year 2 (Age 4 to 7): £4,560 per term. Year 3 to 4 (Age 8 to 9): £4,890 per term. Year 5 to 6 (Age 10 to 11): £5,100 per term

WORD ON THE GROUND

The head has been very well received by parents who love her warmth (she’s out every morning to welcome in the kids) but also her experience. Parents talk about the family focus and relaxed atmosphere at the school. Some dissent on making better use of the Senior facilities has been offset by Black’s timetable improvements to allow greater ‘flow’ between Prep and Senior.

THE MUDDY VERDICT:

Good for: Those looking for a nurturing, small school that encourages active children. The grounds are stunning, facilities are strong and there’s an all-rounder focus that will appeal to many. Sport and drama are particularly well catered for at Prep school level. As a co-ed through school, Cokethorpe is a neat option for families who don’t want the hassle of juggling multiple schools for their sons and daughters, or the strain of navigating where to send them once they finish at the Prep. Aesthetically, you’ll enjoy the view as you drive through the school gates!

Not for: The comparatively short day won’t suit some working parents. The school’s size inevitably means that there are fewer kids to populate orchestras, drama productions and sports teams which may compromise quality and competitiveness in some cases – though the positive flip side of this is much more attention for the children. (Plus, with full lists and team successes, it seems to be managing alright…!)

Dare to disagree?! Go and take a look for yourself. The next open morning is Sat 21 May 2022, 9.30-12.30pm. You can book your place by clicking here. Other Open Mornings during the next academic year are: 15 Oct 2022; 25 Feb 2023; and 20 May 2023.

Cokethorpe School, Witney, Oxon, OX29 7PU. Tel: 01993 703921. cokethorpe.org.uk

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