The Oratory Prep School, Goring Heath
On my hitlist for ages and finally I'm in to snoop! The Muddy verdict is in on this highly- regarded Catholic prep school in South Oxfordshire.
The Oratory Prep School is a Catholic day and boarding school for 430 kids (60/40 boys to girls), tickling the Oxfordshire/Berks border for children 2-13, with an average of 12 per class in pre-prep and 15 in prep. The school was established back in 1859 but only moved to its current location, set in 65 acres of gorgeous Chilterns countryside, in 1969. It is now one of 19 UK schools to be part of the Bellevue Education group. Built in 1910, the school is a bit Seventies in parts (internal wood cladding will not appeal to all) but with its black and white Tudor-style beaming, extravagant fireplaces and beautiful dining room, it still has plenty to recommend it aesthetically. An onsite Nursery/Pre-Prep opened in January 2014.
The Nursery/Pre-Prep site is very sweet, set around around converted stables and creating an enclosed, safe environment with a central play area. There’s the usual free flow play, large sand pit and a lovely art room, with a Forest School that utilises the formal gardens, woodland paths and gorgeous grounds and the kids dressed in all weathers outside so they can get mucky in their mud kitchen.
Class sizes are small – up to 12 in nursery, 16 in Kindergarten, 12-15 in Reception/Y1 and 12-19 in Y2 – all the better to teach the kids Mandarin; take their weekly swimming lessons in the heated indoor pool (yes people, no need to take them to lessons on a Saturday morning!); and after school activities including fencing, tap and street dance, ballet, lego and ‘Scrummy’s’ rugby.
The teachers were just lovely, and the children were bombing around perfectly happy, though if you have any concerns about your children pastoral care is high on the agenda (isn’t it everywhere now?) with a new Deputy Head of Pastoral Care and a school counsellor in place.
In a word, impressive. With no squeeze on space and healthy pupil numbers comes investment and there are 5 full sized rugby pitches, 8 mini pitches, 6 football pitches, 8 mini football pitches and 7 cricket pitches, plus a brand new astroturf for tennis, netball and hockey and a multi-purpose sports hall. A big calling card for The Oratory Prep is its indoor 25m swimming pool plus separate learner pool, which opened in 2009. All kids from pre-prep up have weekly swimming lessons, and there are special squad training sessions before and after school.
MUSIC, ART & DRAMA
There’s a 300 seater theatre with lighting rig and sound systems from where to loudly demand your child’s encores. Music appears to be taken very seriously here – roughly 70% of pupils take instrumental lessons, and in addition all children have class lessons in ukulele (Y3), recorder (Y4), clarinet (Y5) and keyboards (Y6). In Y7 & Y8 the kids compose on Garage Band and Sibelius. I’ve not come across such a sustained class instrumental programme before, particularly one where the children are each given their own instrument for a whole year, I think that’s impressive.
For the tra-la-la kids, there are three choirs including a specialist chorister choir, an orchestra, concert band and also jazz band where the minimum entry grade is 5, so it will be pretty good. There’s clearly kudos to being the leader of these bands as there are plaques on the walls with the leaders’ names etched on each year.
The Oratory Prep is not an exam-passing factory (the intake is non-selective for the prep school moving into streaming as the children rise up the years), though there’s a strong success rate for pupils moving onto top senior schools – five of the girls got into the super-academic St Helen’s & St Katherine’s last year which is no mean feat. Some boys choose to move onto The Oratory School for their senior years, though this last year has also seen kids go to Eton, Harrow and Downe House, with scholarships to Bradfield College and Wellington College.
The lessons I poked my head into seemed fun and interactive, and the kids well-behaved.
For those who struggle academically there’s a full-time learning support co-ordinator and visiting specialist teachers, and as I’m seeing more and more now, a counsellor has also been introduced to give wellbeing support to struggling, anxious kids. More investment is planned in pastoral care, plus money has been earmarked for expansion of classrooms (there’s a waiting list of kids here).
As with most prep schools I visit, specialist teachers are employed for french, music, DT and Latin, sciences are taught as three separate disciplines from Y6. Art and DT are particularly well catered for here.
From Y6 upwards, kids can board on the first floor of the main house, either full-time, weekly, regular part time or flexi. Basically, if you want to divest yourself of your child, you can. The dorms won’t be making it onto Grand Designs any time soon but they are perfectly clean, bright and fitted with standard bedroom furniture. Boarding provision was regarded as excellent in the ISI report of 2013 – talking to one older child who started boarding full-time in Y6 it’s a very full busy experience, with not much downtime, so if your child needs rest and quiet, bear that in mind.
Rob Stewart joined as headmaster from Eton College in Jan 2017. With two girls of his own at the school, the fast-improving girls provision has been credited to him, though he points out that the astro (with its facilities for netball and hockey) was down to the previous head Joseph Smith, now head at Oratory Senior school. Stewart has the confidence you’d expect of a former Eton housemaster, and his vibe is professional – I bet he’s running a tight ship here.
They Oratory Prep School is perfectly happy to admit that it is a traditional school and that’s right – though underwater hockey, a pet corner (chickens and rabbits vying for pole position) and a Saturday morning enrichment programme that includes Junk Percussion, Chair Upcycling, Digital Photography and Mountain Biking deserves some credit. The Enrichment programme has been in place since Sept 2017 for Years 6-8 and is optional, replacing the increasingly unfashionable idea of compulsory Saturday School. What else? Well, Catholicism isn’t a quirk, clearly, but it’s a huge point of difference and it forms the framework for the pupils to follow.
I’d say these fees are slightly below average for the area. Prep day pupils £5481 per term; weekly boarding £7051 per term; full boarding £8174 (per term).
WORD ON THE GROUND
The pastoral care is excellent here by all accounts, with the kids not pushed academically to within an inch of their sanity and the school has a warm, friendly vibe. There was definitely a historical niggle about girls not having enough sporting attention lavished on them as the boys, but the view is that this is being addressed. Academically parents seem happy.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a co-ed rural school with plenty of activities and roaming room for the kids. Sport and music are both strong here, as are art and DT. With a motto of ‘Heart speaks to heart’ the school is offers excellent pastoral care with good SEN provision.
Not for: The Catholicism underpinning The Oratory Prep may be a marmite moment for some parents, depending on how they feel about faith schools.
The Oratory Preparatory School, Goring Heath, Reading, RG8 7SF. Tel: 0118 984 4511.