The Oratory School, Woodcote, South Oxon
Improving exam results and excellent pastoral care amongst 120 acres of verdant acreage puts The Oratory onto the Muddy radar. Read my review here.
The Oratory School is an independent boarding and day school for boys aged 11-18 with 56% of the children choosing to board in some capacity. A Catholic school that welcomes boys of all faiths or none (around 50% of the boys from Catholic backgrounds), the school was established in 1859, and moved to its current site in 1942, set in 120 acres of frankly stunning scenery, and with a grand Queen Anne mansion house at the end of a long sweeping drive. The school has relatively small numbers for its size – 300 boys altogether, with classes of around 20 for 11-16, moving to smaller tutor groups for A Levels, and the school prides itself on its family vibe. The co-educational Oratory Prep (ages 2-13) about 5 minutes down the road is the main feeder school.
There’s no lack of space here, and no lack of ambition to keep up with the Stowes, Shiplakes, Teddies and Bradfields of the world in terms of facilities. Whatever you think of the independent school ‘arms race’, if your child is here you’ll be pleased to see that your money is contributing to 11 rugby/football pitches, 6cricket squares, a boat house on the private Harwick Estate on the River Thames (the boys row in Lent Summer and Michaelmas terms), indoor rifle range, squash courts and 12 tennis courts including 6 grass.
A modern sports centre complex (above) opened in 2015, including a Real Tennis court (one of only 26 in the whole country), a 25 metre swimming pool, and a weight training facility. Oh, there’s a school 9 hole par 3 and 4 golf course, also open for public use. The Oratory takes sport seriously and boys are involved in games five days a week. Spindly children, you have been warned! Rugby and cricket are particularly strong – fans of willow and leather will love The Oratory’s inclusion into The Cricketer’s Top 100 schools.
ART, MUSIC & DRAMA
I’m not usually slack-jawed at facilities – I’m way too cynical for that – but I have to give The Oratory some serious credit for some of the best art facilities I’ve come across in the region. There are 12 studios, two galleries (and you’d happily wander around it in Shoreditch), check it out below!
Photography, mixed media, sculpture, digital and video arts are all offered – fine art is not held in higher regard than any other medium – and there’s also a fantastic DT department where they have a real focus on business and entrepreneurialism. No surprise that the subject has a bonkersly high take up for GSCE – 48%, nor that the Art & Design teaching has won a clutch of national awards.
I didn’t hear any music going on when I visited, though the school promises the usual array of jazz bands, wind ensembles, orchestras and rock groups, and there’s a Music Tech Suite and live room with two digital 8-track recorders, a PC with sequencing and notation software, microphones, processors, effects units and mastering units. The Schola Cantorum (school choir) is the big thing here, much in demand in chapel as you can imagine and they clearly have some musical chops – they performed Schubert Mass in G and Vaughan Williams ‘Five Mystical Songs’ recently.
Your kid loves drama? A Performing Arts Centre was opened in 2013, with retractable tiered seating, high-tech acoustics and an acting space.
A funky Sixth Form pavilion-style centre, built next to the cricket pitch with a cafe attached as a ‘stop gap’ to something more impressive to come. The mind fair boggles.
Helping the ‘middle-tier’ of children is the bread and butter for The Oratory. It’s not trying to woo students from the academic powerhouses of Radley and Abingdon, so it’s no surprise to see a wide variety in grades here. In 2017, the GSCE results showed 34% kids getting 8 A*-A; and 60% getting B grades or higher. Certain subjects like Art and Music show an exceptionally high attainment – 100% A*-B for both. For A levels, 12.4% of pupils gained A*, 37% gained A*-A, 59% gained A*-B and 72% gained A*- C Grades. In 2017 30% of leavers headed to a Russell Group university, with 77% of pupils achieving their first or second choice of university.
The pastoral care here is one of the big selling points for the school. Boys stay in one of five modern boarding and can either board full time, weekly (just started in Sept 2018) or flexi, between 1-4 days a week. Architecturally the boarding houses are not things of beauty – they have an Eighties look to them though they’re actually relatively new builds – but inside they are like most boarding houses I see, with bright, basic rooms, leather-sofa-ed common room areas, pine effect bunk beds and a mix of single rooms and sharing dorms.
Joe Smith is the man in the hot seat. Previously the head of the Oratory Prep and a current inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate, he took over in September 2016 and I liked him a lot – his candour is very refreshing. He’s on a mission to improve the academic side of the school and inject new energy, though he clearly wants The Oratory to remain a gentle place where children of a broad ability range will thrive. Smith also has one eye on investment for a new Sixth Form centre, a makeover for the teaching block, a major refurb of several boarding houses, and an extension of the library space.
There’s a quiet study room in the science area that’s full of plants, axolotls in tanks and a full skeletons where I’d have loved to hang out at school. Shooting is one of the major sports for Lent and Summer term along with football, rowing and cricket – I don’t come across that a lot! And though it’s not a quirk exactly, The Oratory’s Catholicism with its compulsory Vespers on a Friday and mass on a Sunday for boarders is relatively unusual. There’s a counsellor starting in Sept 18 – no longer a quirk unfortunately, but a modern necessity.
Compared to a day school option it’s on the expensive side, but it’s in keeping with other boarding schools in the area. Boarding fees per term are £11,100, and day pupil fees cost £8,080 per term.
WORD ON THE GROUND
There was some dissent with the previous head, but the arrival of Joe Smith has clearly steadied the ship. Parents of sporty and arty parents sounded super-happy, though a couple mentioned that the academics could be improved further. It’s definitely a ‘doers’ school – one of the boarders I spoke to told me he found the lack of downtime difficult at first. School lunches had some wrinkled noses! Interestingly on the subject of the school’s catholicism, the sixth former who showed me around was non-religious and his best friend at the school is Jewish, and neither found the faith aspect of The Oratory to be problematic.
DARE TO DISAGREE? Be my guest! The next Open Day is Saturday 6th October 2018, or you can have a show around on week days as well as Saturday mornings during term times.
The Oratory School, Woodcote, Nr Reading, South Oxfordshire RG8 0PJ. Tel: 01491 683500.