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St Mary’s School, Henley, Oxfordshire

Looking for Oxfordshire primary schools? Check out this small, nurturing, high-achieving co-ed option in central Henley.


St Mary’s is a co-ed independent preparatory school for children from nursery (2.5 years) to 11 years in central Henley. Founded in 1926, the school is set on a relatively small site, in a residential street in an attractive brick and turreted Victorian building with additions. The USP at St Mary’s is its nurturing, non-selective, all- inclusive atmosphere ( the school values are Honesty, Independence, Collaboration, Respect and Courage) with the 145 kids given plenty of attention in small classes of 16 to 18.


It’s not unusual for a town-based school to have an issue with space, and St Mary’s gets around its acreage deficit with a refurbed sheltered courtyard playground and sports space with climbing frame, and use of local sports clubs’ and schools’ facilities, including Shiplake College’s impressive facilities for rowing and Reading Blue Coat School’s swimming pool.

Within the school there’s a science lab, dedicated music room, stand-alone art room with onsite kiln. Further afield, there’s use of an outdoor classroom with fire pit, log circle, nature trails and fields at Swiss Farm.

The nursery has just completed an expansion project to offer more internal and external space.


Like all independent schools St Mary’s knows it has to deliver academically, and it does: this year, 100% of Year 6 were offered places at their first choice of senior school, with a number of scholarships and awards also being offered. The students are heading onto the likes of Abingdon School, Queen Anne’s, Shiplake College, Pangbourne and Blue Coat School. Not bad! The school introduces specialist teaching from Nursery in French, music and PE, adding specialist drama from Reception onwards, and specialist Maths and Art teaching from Year 1. However, I would say that St Mary’s, though hot on academics, is even stronger on the pastoral side of things – it’s a very calm atmosphere here.


That there are only three houses (Neptune, Mars and Jupiter) is testament to the size of the school. There are clear advantages and disadvantages to small school numbers – with a small cohort success depends on the luck of the year. Last year the U11 Girls were finalists in the ISA London West Girls Football Cup. In 2015 St Mary’s were South Oxfordshire Schools U11 Tag-Rugby Champions. But I’d say St Mary’s feels comfortable choosing inclusivity and joining in over raging regional success.

Musically, there’s one choir and one orchestra, peri lessons. Drama, with its specialist teacher, is given a lot of attention at St Mary’s, seen as a way to boost confidence in the kids.


Rob Harmer is only the fifth head at this school in 92 years which is some feat – I guess they like working here. Harmer turned to teaching in his thirties, and worked as a class teacher here before becoming Head of the Lower School and finally the Head role in 2009. He’s charming, down to earth and like all good heads, very approachable.


Often it’s the smaller schools that have to think more creatively, and with little outdoor space of its own, St Mary’s offers some groovy clubs that don’t require much space – parkour club, judo club and fighting fit for starters. Family Camping (via the PTA) is a fun tradition, reflecting the strong community feel to this school. And though it shouldn’t be called a quirk – more an environmental necessity – it’s great to see St Mary’s becoming a single use plastic free school and placing the pupils centre stage on that journey.


You’re not going to be waving your kids off for 12-hour days here but there are extra-curricular clubs before and after school and Tea Club after school from 3.30 – 5.30pm.


Good value comparatively at £3,825 per term. Nursery places are very flexible – from £37.50 for ad hoc sessions through to £3,547 full time.


Good for: Children wanting a nurturing, pastorally strong school, with an absence of hot-housing. The school has a lot of warmth and a homely, lived-in feel that won’t please design mavens but I’m sure makes little people feel very comfortable.

Not for: Lack of space and architectural grandeur might not appeal to all. The small cohort might not suit super boisterous kids, and extra curricular is more about inclusion than super-success if medal hauls are important to you.

Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Take a virtual tour of the school here, or sign up to the Virtual Easter Open Morning for Nursery and Reception on 19 March. The school is also now open again for private tours out of school hours, on any day.

St Mary’s School, 13 St. Andrews Road, Henley, RG9 1HS. Tel: 01491 573118.

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