Moulsford School, Moulsford
Just back from a visit to Moulsford School - a boys' prep school in South Oxon with an idyllic riverside setting and a reputation for sporting excellence. Read my review here.
Moulsford School is an all boy’s prep school with weekly boarding in South Oxfordshire in a stonkingly lovely 30 acre setting by the river in the small village of Moulsford-on-Thames in South Oxfordshire. The original building is a grand red brick Victorian mansion, with a lot of wood panelling and stained glass, and a grand staircase that leads up to the boarding block. Sympathetic modern buildings house the classrooms for the 351 boys aged 4-13, of whom 36 are boarders.
Sport is a BIG DEAL at Moulsford and it’s no surprise to see why with these kind of facilities. At least 8 cricket pitches, 12 sets of cricket nets, one large hockey pitch on the astro (which can be divided into two small pitches), 4 tennis courts, up to 12 football/rugby pitches and a massive indoor gym that’s marked up for tennis, badminton and basketball with an indoor climbing wall to boot (not to mention a natty mezzanine with views over the river). Oh, and a 15 metre outdoor swimming pool.
But the biggest selling point sports wise for the school is its riverside USP. It offers comprehensive water sports including kayaking, canoeing and even dinghy sailing where kids can go up to ‘Goose Poo Island’ for the full Swallows & Amazons experience. No rowing though, as the boys’ bodies are generally not thought to be developed enough at this age.
If your child can’t catch a ball to save his life, but is a dab hand at Chopin études, there’s the usual range of music practice rooms and peri teachers. The dedicated music space is relatively small, though it doesn’t seem to put the kids off – over 70% of senior boys are taught a musical instrument at Moulsford and because there are no girls around, it’s not regarded sissy to play more girl-friendly instruments like the flute or harp (both of which are taught here), or to join the orchestra or choir. The performing arts are being taken seriously – last summer, the school introduced its inaugural dedicated summer music concert on the front lawn.
A new calling card for Moulsford is its Activities Programme, introduced in September 17, a radical new undertaking for Years 3 – 8 that uses activities to challenge and teach the boys life skills beyond the exam hall. I do hear a lot of guff from various schools about this kind of thing and all schools love to boast about their vast extra-curricular range, but I’m liking the sound of this one because it’s very much designed to stretch the kids and unlock potential. Basically, every half term the boys can choose an activity every day (45 – 60 mins, depending on age), anything from judo, dance and gymnastics, to rugby fit, kayaking, sewing and er, night running. The activities are treated like lessons – boys are expected to turn up on time, try hard and learn something new. I think particularly for boys who haven’t found their passion, niche or talent, it’s a great opportunity.
Drama-wise, the main school hall is small but well-appointed with all the theatre lighting and pull-out tiered seating you’d expect. The start of a comprehensive new after school activities programme in Sept 17 has freed and ring-fenced time for performing arts rehearsals in the school day, part of a desire by the head to send a message that the arts are just as important as sport at Moulsford and deserve time and funding. All kids get the opportunity to perform or be involved in a drama production each year, drama courses run in holidays and children in certain years being offered an introduction to film production. On the technology front, there’s a swanky new ICT suite, and after a successful trial where last year’s Y4 each had their own ipad to use in relevant classes, they are now keeping those ipads in Y5 and the new Y4s get shiny new ones.
Strong. Moulsford isn’t overly academic in its selection process (the school is oversubscribed and the school looks actively at ‘all round’ abilities) and in fact, 41 children of its children have 1:1 learning support, mostly for dyslexia/dyspraxia. So it’s academic record is all the more impressive – in 2017, 11 boys gained awards to Abingdon (2) Radley College (2), Magdalen College School (1), Wellington (1), St Edward’s Oxford (1), Shiplake (2), Pangbourne (1), and Cokethorpe (1), across a range of Academic, Sports, Music and Drama.
WHO’S THE HEAD?
Ben Beardmore-Gray hit the hotseat in 2014, taking over from the previous head who’d been incumbent for 20 years. Married with three kids (one of whom is still at the school) he’s affable, smart, private school educated, blazered up, and more English than a mid-afternoon cream tea. He has a sense of humour too – I’d have paid good money to see him belting out Don’t Stop Me Now at Moulsfest, the inaugural autumn school festival. Wife Sarah plays Brian May to the Head’s Freddie Mercury, overseeing the marketing, communications and the decor – over the last two years she’s overseen a tickle up of the main mansion house, plus the dorms.
I’m not sure I’d describe Moulsford as quirky really unless you count a bit of outdoor pingpong as outré– it’s the quintessential English prep school, big on sport, academics, the arts, and manners, though any school that sends children sailing off to a place legitimately called Goose Poo Island has me on side.
Maybe ‘quirks’ at Moulsford are really best re-labelled opportunities. Undoubtedly the watersports are a big Muddy tick. Sportswise there’s a non-selective cultural rugby tour of South Africa every year for Years 7 & 8 offered regardless of ability – nearly 70% of kids sign up for it. Plus an Art, DT and ICT cross-curricular Dragon’s Den project where kid have to create, market, advertise and ‘sell’ their product to the school dragons that sounds like fun.
Who’d be a kid these days? It’s just so stressful and pressurised isn’t it? In recognition of this one of Moulsford’s three (yes, three!) deputy heads has the sole task of ensuring excellent pastoral care for the kids. There’s also a counsellor who comes in weekly as a drop-in service, and AS tracking has recently been introduced to help identify pupils who are at a hidden risk of developing social and emotional difficulties.
On a different note, the school is keen to play up its ‘all rounder’ qualities, aware perhaps that it’s outstanding success at sport has somewhat dwarfed its ability to shout about drama and music over recent years. Unless your child is such a piano prodigy that he needs to play in a full sized concert hall every lesson my sense is that there’s decent arts provision here. A slight anxiety about these disciplines being overlooked will no doubt mean even more effort is put into these subjects over the next few years.
Also worth a mention were the children’s manners, which were excellent. I stuck my nose into loads of classes (which are small as you’d expect – between 16-18 children in each). All the kids were calm and well-behaved, stood up when we entered the room, and chatted with eye contact. Do Moulsford do summer courses in manners? If so I’m dumping my kids there.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Nearly all Moulsford’s kids come from a 20k radius of the school, nearly all boarders are local too – either kids who want to do a couple of days a week for fun or older children who are getting in the zone for the time when they board at Senior School. There’s been total refurb of the dorms with new carpets, repainting, blinds, curtains, and a new common room area complete with updated furnishings (below).
There are 36 beds and priority goes to weekly boarders (Mon – Fri, there’s no Saturday school), but it’s possible to board or single pre-booked nights too. In terms of afterschool care, all children can stay until 5.30pm for prep, and if the school is notified first thing in the morning, children can also stay for supper and play until 8pm. In holidays, there are week long (paid for) courses put on the for the kids in sport, art, drama, music etc.
Pre-prep day fees start at £3550, rising to £5300 per term for Prep day fees. With boarding the termly fees £6650, so I’d say the fees are broadly average.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The mums I spoke to are extremely pro Moulsford and like the head and the changes he continues to implement. Although it doesn’t have the flagship status of the sport, the music had a big thumbs up, as did the setting and discipline. One mum thought it was very competitive and that they take the A and B teams too seriously to the detriment of those in the latter stages of the alphabet, but that’s a personal judgement call for every parent.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Boys with energy to burn, who thrive on an outdoorsy, idyllic Swallows & Amazons-style school. Sporty kids will love it here, but the head is eager to promote an all-rounder ethos so expect big things of the arts too. Discipline is strong so a good option for anyone whose little darling is showing signs of dissent.
Not for: The relatively small pupil numbers means the orchestral capacity will be less impressive than that of a larger school so if your child has extraordinary instrumental ability it’s worth bearing that in mind, though learners and middlers will be fine. Vehemently non-competitive kids may not enjoy the give-it-a-go attitude at Moulsford.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it! Have a look for yourself at the Open Day on Fri 8 Feb 2019, or book an individual tour with the Headmaster during term-time throughout the year.
Moulsford School, Moulsford-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, OX10 9HR. Tel: 01491 651438. moulsford.com