Rye St Antony School, Nr Headington, Oxford
Muddy says: A non-selective day/boarding school for girls 3-18 and boys 3-11 years a mile from central Oxford with a reputation for friendliness and a non-hothousy environment.
In a rich county like Oxfordshire – high on academia but low on free grammar education – it’s no surprise that there are so many brilliant independent schools. But like all good businesses, each tries to offer something different to the others. Rye St Antony, has been particularly successful in finding its niche. Read on, my friends, read on.
Rye St Antony is an Oxford independent day and boarding school for girls 3-18, and boys 3-11 years. Of the 330 children here, 45 are boys, and 45 are boarders, with boarding starting from the age of 8 for girls only.
Founded in 1930 as a lay Catholic school (it welcomes all nationalities and religions), Rye is just under a mile from the city centre and hidden away off a suburban road that leads to the JR Hospital. There is also a more readily accessible rear entrance from Franklin Road, (Sat Nav postcode OX3 7SA or you won’t find it!).
The main entrance to the school is behind electric gates and the site consists of two large Victorian boarding houses (including The Croft, built by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect who designed the Natural History Museum) and a clutch of new buildings amongst 12 acres of gardens and woodland. Compared to the sweeping driveways and heritage buildings of some rural schools, it’s a modest-looking school in many ways. The sense I had of it was one of practicality and modernity, despite its Victorian buildings, perhaps because the Reception buildings, below, are so new.
Decent provision with 6 tennis courts, 3 netball courts, a hockey/athletics pitch, and outdoor heated swimming pool – much utilised with all kids from Year 3 getting up to two swimming lessons a week during the summer months as well as the chance to join the swimming club. There are two halls for drama (one with full sized stage, lighting and sound equipment and seating for 600; the other a smaller space for workshops/ smaller musical performances) which is a big plus, and there’s an impressive art and design studio that includes a brand new photographic dark room.
There’s been substantial investment over the last ten years that includes the Performing Arts Centre (opened in February 2005) the purpose built Sports Centre (2008), a self-contained Sixth Form Centre and Boarding House (redeveloped 2010), and the school’s latest development, a £2m new reception area, ICT suite and Food Technology centre where the girls can take advantage of a Leith’s Certification in Food and Wine.
The school is particularly proud of their purpose-built Library – a 12,000 book beast, with added catalogue access to over 10,000 educational websites. Science is a big deal at Rye, with senior labs separately dedicated to chemistry, physics and biology along with another general science room. The Prep School facilities have been extended and revamped and currently they’re developing a new languages block.
Rye is a selective school, but not highly selective- it’s part of the school’s spiritual and moral ethos that everyone has a ‘God-given talent’ and that diversity is a positive – and so it caters to a wide range of abilities. 75% of the kids gained A* to B grades at GCSE with Geography and French the biggest A* winners. To give you an idea of the breadth of academic ability here, 13.7% of pupils gained A* GSCE, and 10.7% gained under a C grade which makes final the exam results all the more impressive. In A-levels, 53% of pupils gained A* to B grades (79% gained A* to C). The university destinations for leavers are varied with Oxford Brookes University the top destination, but there are also girls heading off to University of Kent, Worcester, St Andrews, Northampton and Nottingham Trent.
As a smaller secondary school, the usual caveats apply to music and sporting achievement – it is hard to compete with schools three times your size but the upside of that is that you do get a go! Everyone here is encouraged to join in and hockey and netball are both strong with the school holding its own against bigger schools in the county.
In 2016 Rye was the first school in Oxford to offer the Leith’s Introductory Diploma in Food and Wine and in has since rolled out a Leith’s course aimed at Prep School pupils too (just think, you’ll never have to cook again) that is now getting a good take up at the school. I like the idea of this more practical opportunity, particularly for those pupils whose talents are not strongly academic.
The music department has a choir, string group, jazz group and an orchestra. On the drama front, there are lots of opportunities for pupils to achieve LAMDA qualifications, and the proximity to the centre of Oxford means pupils get a chance to perform in professional theatres – the girls have access to the boards at The Old Fire Station, Oxford Playhouse and Garsington Opera. for example.
There’s a proper family feel to Rye, not least because the campus is relatively compact at 12 acres. There are two boarding houses – The Croft with its incredible wood-panelled interiors and homely layout, and The Cottage, updated in 2010. While many pupils board termly, there is growing demand for Occasional and Flexi boarding to accommodate school events, trips or exam time revision.
Like many of the boarding houses I come across, the rooms are practical rather than stylish – lots of oak veneer beds and sofa-strewn communal areas and basic bathroom facilities, with younger girls sharing roughly 6 to a room versus the Sixth Formers who all have total privacy.
Last summer (2018) headteacher Alison Jones retired after more than 25 years in the hotseat. Now Sarah Ryan (formerly Deputy Head of Mayfield School and an Oxford Uni graduate, come home to roost) is only the 5th head in the school’s 89 year history. She plans to protect Rye’s undoubted strengths of empathy, personal growth and spirituality – Ryan is upfront about Rye not being a competitive environment in which to learn, which is refreshingly honest. That said, my take on our meeting is that she has eyes on higher academic standards being achieved, a bit more rigour undertaken, with smarter use of data and processes. She also plans to talk up the school’s achievements more moving forward (well, did you know that the ISI report in 2017 judged Rye Outstanding in every area?).
Well, I’m not sure how many schools would attack Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas as the main school production! It reflects Rye’s charming, slight off-of-centre individual approach to learning, which I like.
Also, for a small school, they offer some interesting A-levels. How about Photography, Textiles (coming soon for both GSCE and A Level), Graphic Design, the Leith’s Introductory Diploma in Food and Wine and a BTech in Business Studies?
WRAP AROUND CARE
Care starts from 7.30am and pupils can stay until 6.30pm if they’re at an after-school club or joining the boarders’ supper. Rye is pretty much a 24/7 school in the term time as day pupils can board as occasional boarders whenever they need to. Loads of after school and lunchtime clubs – everything from Creative Writing to Taekwondo!
On the reasonable end of the independent school price scale. Day pupils (including lunch) £5,465 per term, weekly boarders £8,880 per term and full boarding is £9,335 per term.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The parents I’ve talked to choose Rye very proactively as a school that will nurture, support and give confidence to their children. The relaxed, non-confrontation environment suits children who might struggle in more intense, competitive, larger schools so these parents are less interested in rolling fields and endless facilities than the pastoral care which is excellent. Numbers have dipped slightly this year, which is probably due to the uncertainty of a change in head mistress, but the feedback on Rye remains positive.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Children of all abilities who want to be taught in a nurturing, positive environment. Parents who like the proximity to Oxford city centre with all it has to offer (I’m not talking cocktails here for once, I’m thinking educational extras), and the convenience of through-education. Anyone who wants to step away from the hot-housing approach to kids schooling. Music, drama and sport are covered off well for a school of its size.
Not for: Kids who are hard-wired to be super-competitive might find the cosy nature of this school a bit frustrating. Its rather suburban position might put off those who are looking for more grandeur and grounds.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it! Head along to the next Open Morning on Saturday 18 May 2019 at 10am – 12.30pm and let me know what you think.
Rye St Antony School, Pullen’s Lane, Oxford OX3 0BY. Tel: 01865 762802.