Shiplake College, nr Henley
This day and boarding school near Henley has a stunning river location, fab facilities, nurturing vibe and a new head. It's also about to go fully co-ed. Read my updated review.
Big news at Shiplake College! Nestled by the river, a couple of miles upstream from Henley, this day and boarding school is going fully co-ed. It currently takes boys from 11-18 and girls in the Sixth Form. But from 2023, the first cohort of Year 7 girls will join Shiplake as it transitions to a fully co-ed senior school. With girls already attending from age 16, it feels like a natural progression.
Set in 45 acres of gorgeous countryside, with a mix of stunning red brick Victorian mansion (the Great Hall is particularly impressive) and more modern additions, including a new boathouse with state-of-the-art gym. Shiplake has what it terms ‘a holistic approach’ to admissions assessments, looking at the whole child and what they offer (and what the school can offer in return), with academic results only part of the selection criteria for its 500 pupils.
Shiplake isn’t short of good facilities but its major calling card is a beautiful riverside position with its own stretch of water for rowing – one of the reasons it’s now the UK’s No.1 co-educational rowing school. The U16 boys are National Schools Champions, but 2021 was largely about girl power! Shiplake’s female crew won the Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup for women’s quadruple sculls at Henley Regatta, they dominated at the British Junior Championships and the National Schools’ Regatta. A number of past and present Shiplake pupils have rowed for Team GB and the Director of Rowing Dave Currie coaches junior GB athletes too, so, you know, not bad!
Some serious money has been spent on the new boathouse that opened in 2020 – or to give it its official name the Davies Centre. The goal is to develop a world-class rowing reputation. Aside from storage for the college’s fleet of rowing boats (and there are a lot), it’s home to a state-of-the-art fitness suite including 30 ergo rowing machines – positioned to get a river view, indoor archery and rifle range, a two-storey climbing wall, storage for other watersports, outdoor education, CCF and Duke of Edinburgh’s Award equipment. Without question it is a breath-taking location, and it’s a new addition that will not fail to impress.
What else? Expect the usual array of sports fields, plus an all-weather astro, a cricket pavilion overlooking the front field, a large multipurpose sports centre, and weights and cardio fitness rooms. There’s a heated outdoor swimming pool that’s used in the summer months. Hockey, netball and rowing are the three main sports for girls with tennis as a summer option, lacrosse and cricket gaining in popularity. Boys play mostly rugby, football, and cricket. There’s also yoga, run club, Zumba, and the school will support the pursuit of individual activities out of school such as horse riding.
It’s not all about sport. It’s cool to sing and the arts are strong here too. The John Turner Building houses the Music Department with its recording studio, practice rooms and two ensemble classrooms, an airy Art Department (above) and also a Thinking Space within the library area where the kids can read, research and have quiet reflective time (oh god, can I have some?).
The recently opened Sixth Form Centre is swish and sits in the centre of the site. It’s a grown up, contemporary space with a café for Y12 and Y13, and four Sixth Form classrooms and smaller seminar rooms. There’s also a 140-seat lecture theatre, complete with baby grand piano. Whereas many schools have invested in high tech theatres, The Tithe Barn Theatre in the Grade II listed Stableyard area is an intimate venue. It’s solely used for drama, and a recent upgrade of lights, but is perhaps the weakest link in comparison to the first class facilities on offer here. They have started using the theatre in Henley for the whole school productions and auditions for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat were being planned when I visited.
Shiplake makes it clear on their website and prospectus that they are a selective all-ability school – putting the development of the ‘whole child’ above academics. Highly versatile staff with strong differentiation – a dynamic Master of Scholars challenges and stretches the most gifted, while there is plenty of support on hand for those who need it.
Results have improved in recent years, boasting record-breaking exam results this year. The old put down of ‘you’re so Shiplake’ is long gone! This year’s A levels saw 70% of children getting A*-A and an impressive 85% getting A*-B, solid grades. The GCSE grades? Nearly half (47%) were awarded grades 7 or above (A-A*), and 97% of grades were awarded at 4 or above, the equivalent of the former C grade. Also worth mentioning that BTECs are on offer here for kids looking for more practical qualifications.
The new Headmaster, Tyrone Howe, is a big believer in Shiplake’s core values – the so-called 3i’s: inclusive, individual, and inspirational. And his challenge to new pupils is always to be kind and bring their own bit of magic with them to school. Howe has been in the hot seat since September 2019 and is an energetic and charismatic head. He moved to Shiplake from Uppingham School in Rutland, having started his teaching career at Marlborough College. He left to become a professional rugby player, representing Ireland, the British and Irish Lions and the Barbarians. Oh, and he was a Sky Sports rugby pundit too.
It’s fair to say he fits right in; rugby is just as big as rowing at Shiplake. But Tyrone’s focus is not all about first team success (although everyone loves a win). He’s passionate about all sport and getting as many kids as possible to have a go, harnessing that competitive spirit and enthusiasm across all of school life. Inclusivity, community and kindness are the key to Shiplake’s success.
He’s fun too. During the pandemic Tyrone and his team worked hard to maintain and strengthen the school community. The family pub quiz at the virtual Viking Arms sounds brilliant. They had online talks from Olympians Matthew Pinsent and Kate Richardson-Walsh and entrepreneur James Timpson. He offers a Golden Ticket reward system for academic progress (not achievement). Get your mitts on one and you get a seat at a lavish lunch. But I think his Top Gun spoof entrance to the 2021 Prize Giving speaks volumes. He’s one of the good guys, a team player and someone you’d want in your corner.
Full, weekly, flexi-boarding and overnight stays are all possible here, with around 5% of pupils coming from overseas. There are five boarding houses, one of which is only for the Sixth Form girls. The boarding houses are homely, neat and pretty much as you’d expect – perfectly adequate to the purpose. The latest ISI inspection, back in 2015, gave the boarding provision ‘Excellent’ in all areas. Plans are afoot to extend the girls’ boarding provision for when girls reach Year 9 in 2025.
Quite a few as it happens. You’d better be a dog lover if you’re heading to Shiplake – there are around 30 dogs on site at any one time in offices and boarding houses! Not many secondary schools that I visit give every pupil in Year 7 and 8 free lessons in orchestral instruments, and then immediately hoiks them into the orchestra on joining in Year 7 (ear plugs at the ready for that one). It’s a bit cool that the school has a ukulele band, it’s own theatre company, Scruffy Penguin, that performs at Edinburgh Festival every year. There’s a great Outdoor Education programme from Year 7, which includes use of the new climbing wall, and Combined Cadet Force (CCF) from Year 10 too. And the Thinking Space in the library is quite ‘out there’ – inspired by companies such as Google and Innocent, and based on the idea that creative spaces help to encourage creative thought and includes ‘flow’ and ‘green’ rooms to encourage collaboration or quiet focus.
Pretty much in line with the other leading independent schools in the area I’d say. Day pupils £6,670 – £8,375 per term (which includes lunch and supper); Flexi boarding (up to 2 nights a week) £7,875 – £9,575 per term; Weekly boarding £9,350 – £11,690 per term (up to 6 nights a week); Full boarding £12,450 per term. Choking on your cornflakes? If you can’t afford the fees there is (means-tested) financial assistance available and also one 100% scholarship for an exceptional Year 7, aimed at boys from state primary schools. The deadline for applying for Sept 2022 entry is Tue 30 Nov – save that date!
WORD ON THE GROUND
Shiplake’s reputation has been on the up for some time, and the school is a strong option in the area. The kids I spoke to were happy here, describing the school as friendly and inclusive. Word is that the sixth form boarders would like a bit more freedom than they’re given (but really, my kids would say the same). Seriously though, it’s hard to get a bad word out of the pupils about this place. If anyone has any issues, they’re encouraged and feel able to call it out. There is a growing culture here of talking things through rather than sweeping problems under the carpet.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: The small class sizes (generally between 15-16 for GCSE) and ‘join in’ ethos means Shiplake suits kids who are bright and have a can-do attitude. Sporty types will be in heaven (rowers especially). Art and Photography are regarded as strong subjects. The number of girls is good in Sixth Form and will organically grow once the school transitions to co-ed.
NOT FOR: The all-ability cohort might not appeal to those looking to surround their kids with super brainboxes. The school has some innovations such as kids not taking notes during some subject classes ( Google Classroom is used heavily) that might not please traditionalists.
Shiplake College, Shiplake, Henley, Oxfordshire RG9 4BW. Tel:0118 940 2455