Oxford High School
A high-achieving girls' school close to central Oxford with strong academics and a popular drama department, Oxford High School is not one to be overlooked.
Oxford High School is a highly regarded Prep and Senior girls’ school, set across three sites close to the city centre in leafy North Oxford and a jaunty 10-minute walk from the city centre and its dreaming spires. Holding the accolade of being Oxford’s oldest girls’ school, founded in 1875, ‘the High’ teaches around 830 pupils from 4-18 years. Of those, approximately 230 are within the Pre-Prep and Prep, set within two traditional red brick 19th century mansions within walking distance of one another. By contrast, the Senior site, a few minutes’ walk down the street, is a purpose-built school from 1957 with modern additions for its 600 girls. Oxford High’s undisputed calling card is its academic excellence, and it has the small classes sizes to facilitate it – around 20 in Y7, whittling down to 7-8 for Sixth Form.
Oxford High is an academic school, but it takes its sport pretty seriously. At the Senior School there’s a 25 metre, six-lane indoor swimming pool; large sports hall; four outdoor netball and tennis courts; extensive fields including three football pitches in the winter; and a 400m athletics track plus two cricket pitches in the summer. Off-site, the school uses The Dragon School AstroTurfs two minutes up the road, as well as the pitches at Oxford Hawks Hockey Club. Main sports here are hockey, netball, football and cricket with many other sports also held in high regard, such as athletics, swimming and badminton. Some of the school’s results that are worth bragging about include being national finalists in the under-18 100 Ball Cricket Cup 2021, under-18 outdoor hockey national finalists AND under-18 indoor hockey regional finalists 2021/22, the under-16 Netball County champions 2021/22, and many more besides.
The big news here is the new Art and Sixth Form centre that opened in March 2020. In a school where practical Fifties architecture looms large, this cool contemporary building is a welcome injection of style (and has a firecracker of a café). The new Arts and Textiles facilities are excellent – with their light, airy rooms, animation and filming facilities and Mac suite and, unsurprisingly, there’s been a sharp uptake in the subjects over the last year.
Drama is popular at OHS and the school has the Miriam Margoyles Drama Studio to prove it (yes, she’s an active alumna). The studio is used for rehearsals, lessons and smaller performances, whilst the larger ones tend to take place in the Main Hall. The school puts on a wide range of productions a year – including one Senior school musical and one Lower school musical – but there are many other opportunities for students to perform. House Drama is very popular as are the year group plays for Years 8, 9 and 10. Students are encouraged to direct and produce their own plays and there are Drama scholarships on offer. Students can access Speech and Drama lessons for Trinity and Guildhall examinations with excellent results.
Music has its own separate building and there are the usual peri teachers, choirs and orchestras (to get into the senior orchestra pupils need to be Grade 6+ so the standard is high). Added to which there’s a relatively new Steinway piano to tinkle upon and a samba band that’s just struck up so there’s plenty of chance to play here and join in. Approximately 50% of the senior girls play a musical instrument here, with around 60% of those having lessons within school.
No surprise that the new Art/Sixth Form centre has been a huge success. Most of the Sixth Form lessons taking place on the top floor and Y12-13s enjoy a sort of ‘campus’ lifestyle – hanging out together, wearing home clothes, and heading off site to Summertown for lunch if they feel like it.
OHS hangs its Sixth Form hat on its exclusive Sixth Form Programme, revamped for 2021, which has been designed to ‘create the women leaders of tomorrow’ (talk about ambition!). What this means in non-school speak is they’re trying to look at the whole picture. So firstly, with academics, you can choose whichever of the 25 A level subjects you like – this is a big deal, as the ‘block’ timetabling at many schools prohibits a fully free choice of A levels. Secondly, OHS leverages its status as one of 25 Girls Day School Trust (GDST) schools with 70,000 ex-student alumnae to help with advice and placements. And thirdly there’s a focus on wellbeing, self-knowledge and the bigger picture – so Sport is part of the Sixth Form curriculum to make sure the girls are exercising (I like this idea), there are wellness tutorials, and also an emphasis on doing something for the community.
This is where Oxford High School lets rip. One in five students here have received an offer from Oxbridge since 2011. 90% of students receive offers from the top Russell Group universities. Girls come here with high academic ability and a desire to get top grades, and they do – GSCE results for 2021 showed more than half of all grades at Level 9 and at A level it was higher again with over 60% at A*.
GCSE 2021 – 53% Level 9; 83% Level 9-8; 95% Level 9-7
A Level 2021: 63% A*; 86% of grades at A*/A; 97% grades at A*-B; 100% grades at A*-C.
Modern languages are pushed at OHS to a level I’ve not seen elsewhere – there are six options – French and Mandarin are both taught from Year 7, and then further up the school Spanish, German, Russian and Italian are all on offer for both GSCE and A Level. At the classical end of the scale, Latin and Ancient Greek can also be taken.
Otherwise, subjects are pretty traditional. DT was removed some time ago, much to the chagrin of the pupils, but Sport is being touted as a possible GCSE and A Level for 2022-3, subject to demand.
Extra curricular is strong at OHS and seems to be driven by pupils as well as teachers – a new chess club, for example, had been instigated by one of the girls. There’s a broad mix of clubs for the brainboxy (Robotics, Coding and Biodiversity Hub) through to relaxing (Origami, Gardening, Cookery, Poker Club – yes really), creative (Theatre Props) to more active (Sailing, Dance, Beekeeping).
Any high achieving girls’ school is wise to having a close eye on pastoral care, and OHS like many others has upped its game further since Covid. There’s a Deputy Head of Pastoral here, two counsellors who visit weekly, the usual deck of form tutors and peer mentors, an extra-curricular Wellbeing Club and Wellbeing reps.
You may have noticed the conveyor belt of head teachers over the last few years at OHS. New head Marina Gardiner Legge, previously head of girls boarding school Heathfield School, in Berkshire, strode into the school in January 2021 and has made herself very comfortable very fast – I don’t see her leaving any time soon! Taking over after what she tactfully describes as the ‘tumultuous leadership’ of recent years, Gardiner Legge is charismatic, warm and jaw-droppingly passionate about girls’ school education.
Pupils already approve of her (there’s much admiration for the way she’s asked for the pupil’s views and acted on their wishes). Sparky and open, she clearly loves a good debate, and I think she’ll be like a dog with a bone on projects she wants to push through. It’s early days for any judgements on her efficacy, but she’s already working on creating a better connection with parents, reinstating the Parent – Teacher Association that was disbanded a few years ago. She’s also highlighted a desire to make sure that all children at OHS get the attention they deserve, looking beyond the elite 10% to making sure the remainder of what is already a talented cohort are supported too.
I haven’t come across a girls’ school that ‘owns’ its all-girls school status as confidently as OHS. The website is littered with powerful adjectives talking of the girls as fearless, outspoken, original, brilliant. It’s unusual; it’s not for everyone, but I like it. The virtual student-led conferences hosted at the school are pretty unusual too. The kids come up with the concepts, organise the conferences themselves, set up the speakers and invite other schools to come. The recent Psychology Conference was attended by nearly 5000 pupils from 90 different schools. And going back a few years (OK 134 of them), before the recent celebrity alumnae of Maggie Smith, Miriam Margolyes, Mel Giedroyc and Emma Bridgewater walked through the school gates, a certain Lewis Carroll taught maths here before falling down a more lucrative rabbit hole.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Students are allowed into the block from 7.30am, and can relax in the Crush Hall or meet friends in the Dining Hall. After school, students can stay in the library until 6pm.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
Girls aren’t allowed to have their phones on them during the day, and are encouraged to keep them in their locker. If they need to contact home, students may do so during afternoon break.
OHS is a member of the Oxford Schools Bus Partnership, which offers plenty of routes into the school from Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire – 11 of them to be exact including Bicester, Reading, Goring, Lewknor, Gerrards Crosss and Faringdon. View the full network. There are direct trains from London Marylebone to Oxford on Chiltern Railways. Those in the centre of Oxford know better than to drive – it’s walk, bike or bus if you want to get to work before midday.
Comparatively reasonable. Reception starts at £3089, moving to Y1-2 £3629, Y3&4 £4144, Y5&6 £4184 and the Senior school Y7-13 at £5521 per term.
WORD ON THE GROUND
There’s the reputation (super-academic, highly pressured environment) and the reality – which on my look around was – yes, absolutely non-apologetically academic, but also more balanced and relaxed and confident than I thought it would be. The kids seem happy, they like the staff (gold star to Mr Sobey in Science – apparently, you’re very funny) and, according to the seven pupils I nobbled, the homework isn’t overwhelming – though it’s 1.5 hours a night so it’s no walk in the park either. School food is good, not brilliant. The Sixth Formers would like more integration with other local schools please. I’ll leave you to decipher the nuance in that!
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Academic girls with an eye on the prize. Parents looking to foster confidence in their daughters – several of the girls I talked to talked about ‘coming out of their shell’ here.
NOT FOR: Girls hoping to cruise it academically will struggle here. Parents who picture historic buildings, rural landscapes and ‘traditional’ views are looking the wrong place – OHS is liberal and progressive, and world, you’d better catch up.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest! You can visit Oxford High School at one of its upcoming Senior School Open Mornings: 28 April, and 25 May. Register here.
Oxford High School, Belbroughton Road, Oxford OX2 6XA. Tel: 01865 559888