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Sitting amidst vast manicured pitches, the college is a gracious and intriguing south London landmark. A senior prefect told us he’s a rarity, having been at the school all the way from year 1, but has relished meeting new boys - ‘each intake year interests and friends shift’ - and although the school is large, boys feel they know each other within their year. Sartorial traditions define the college – ‘colours’ blazers are boldly striped affairs awarded in…

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What the school says...

Founded in 1619 by Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College our primary duty is to ensure that all our pupils fulfil their academic potential. We aim to inspire our pupils, and to build the confidence required to explore beyond the boundaries of the curriculum. Learning for its own sake is encouraged alongside focused and dedicated study.

We look to provide a wide range of sporting, cultural and adventurous activities for pupils to enjoy and through which they can learn to work co-operatively and to take a lead. Within its 70 acre site Dulwich Colleges excellent facilities support both the boys formal studies and their activities outside the classroom. Boys are encouraged to participate in expeditions and community-based activities.

Every boy is allocated to one of the eight Houses which encourages a fierce but healthy loyalty. The House system also supports the pastoral care of the boys. Boys proceed from Dulwich to the most competitive of universities, in the UK and in the world, and thereafter into all the major professions. The College has a long standing reputation for producing some of the finest actors, musicians, sportsmen and writers in the country.
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Curricula

Cambridge Pre-U - an alternative to A levels, with all exams at the end of the two-year course.

Sports

Rowing

Fencing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Master

Since 2009, Dr Joseph (Joe) Spence BA PhD (50s), a graduate in modern history and politics; the Irish histories and literature of his postgrad line his study walls. Previously headmaster of Oakham School and for 10 years until 2002 held the prestigious position of master in college at Eton, housemaster to the King’s scholars, ‘surrounded by the brightest’; it was here he found his vocation. His first decade at Dulwich College will coincide with the college’s 400th anniversary, entwining their legacies.

Grammar school educated, he describes his career path as the ‘story of accident’, a happy one. The turning point was a friend’s encouragement that one ‘no longer has to be behind a desk as headmaster’. Immensely warm and charming, putting one at ease, the embodiment of the oft repeated ‘Dulwich boys can talk to anyone’. He brings a sense of fun to those around him, appearing to wear his responsibilities lightly, preparing to ad lib a speech to a grand assembly as he says goodbye.

He is married to a lawyer, with two sons and daughter. He still finds time to write, recently penning a new libretto for a concert at King’s College Cambridge, turning a poem written by PG Wodehouse’s brother into a song. He wants these sustaining passions for the boys: ‘My duty is to make sure that every Alleynian leaves with something intellectual… a passion which will be with him for the rest of his life’.

Parents, seeming to have adopted the Ofsted phraseology, unanimously declare him to be outstanding. They enthuse: ‘a good orator, a great listener’; ‘as fiercely passionate about the arts as academics’; ‘a great presence and a motivational leader’; ‘excellent, effective and innovative’.

His vision for the transformations in progress – physical and philosophical – start with ‘get the classroom right, then everything else’, but quickly go beyond with the desire to create a generation of original thinkers. You don’t have to be a scientist or an artist here – ‘learning that is free from the syllabus’ allows boys to take risks in a dazzling (we’ve rarely seen such a weighty catalogue of riches) programme of challenges, national and international competitions, symposia, external prizes, performances and physical adventures.

Academic matters

It’s well known that improving the academics was top of the agenda. The college is now in the top eight per cent for value added nationally and the master is confident that the best is still to come. In 2017, 87 per cent of I/GCSE grades were A*-A/7-9. Plenty of A*s in sciences, English literature, maths, French and Spanish. At A level/Pre-U, 62 per cent A*/A, and (again including Pre-U) 86 per cent A*-B. Maths is most popular by far, followed by physics, history, economics and chemistry. High percentage of A*/As in physics, plus history of art, English, further maths, history and art. A levels remain as the core upper school offer but individual heads of subject have the flexibility to offer Pre-U.

Academic teaching is described by parents as solid lower down the college but inspirational higher up. Thirty-five per cent of teachers in residence for over 10 years. The master says candidly that now only a handful are perhaps not on message, and he won’t see boys stuck with them, which chimes with parents, who say, ‘very good standard of teaching, noticeable improvement’ and ‘incompetence would not be tolerated’. They also describe staff as ‘hugely committed’; ‘they understand a boy’s potential’; ‘they set the bar high academically’ and ‘the daily report system is excellent’.

The master drives innovation. A key recent appointment is the director of science, formerly at lauded Brighton College, plus two new deputy heads. Turning things on their head, ‘flip’ lessons might give boys homework first, then the boys come in and discuss how they found it, or mini-whiteboards may enable a teacher to see at a glance whether boys have ‘got it’. Boys were initially consulted on their view of assessments, and came back saying they actually felt there was grade inflation – pupil voice has been used in every key decision since. Staff share with each other a ‘speciality dish’ ie what is working for them in the classroom.

Curriculum is largely as one might expect; choosing options is quite complex. Languages have a particularly strong focus throughout. French, Spanish, Chinese and Latin are taught in the lower school, later on there is the addition of German, Italian and Greek. Appealing language trips: year 9s to Salamanca, year 11s to Florence. The boys describe them as holistic, taking in both language and culture, raising their passion for the subject up a notch. Exchanges take place too, but with boys considerately settled in host families in pairs.

The only setting is for maths. All pupils study separate sciences up to IGCSE and the college doesn’t necessarily encourage the collection of an excessive number. Intellectual boys wishing to stretch themselves further between years 7 and 11 can enrol on the scholars' programme, described by one as ‘the highlight of my week’.

Quirkier A level options include critical and contextual studies and ancient history. Liberal studies in the upper sixth in conjunction with the girls at JAGS allows boys to try something new: modern poetry, yoga, book-binding, Italian cinema and even ballroom dancing.

Also for sixth formers, the Dulwich Diploma, which looks to offer the depth of A level with the breadth of the IB: the three components comprise academic study, including an extended essay or research topic of their choice – recent examples Who Killed Sylvia Plath? and Is Medical Research the New Imperialism? – engagement beyond the classroom and preparation for life after Dulwich.

Whilst all of this adds up to a very full plate, parents say there are ‘high expectations with excellent support through study skills sessions’ and ‘it’s pretty intensive in terms of workload but not too high pressure’.

A team of four well-qualified learning support teachers are shared with the junior school, and provide support to individual boys with a diagnosed learning difficulty – 20 per cent. Eight per cent of middle and upper school boys receive EAL support.

Games, options, the arts

In year 7, whilst skills are built and some sports tried for the first time, rugby, football, hockey and cricket are all compulsory. By year 8 choices emerge, one being dropping rugby for fencing. Tennis currently squeezed for space with only three courts. No single sport is compulsory in the middle school but a plethora of teams make it tempting to get involved – skiing, rowing, fives, squash, cross-country and basketball, to name but a few. Years 10 and 11 may try golf, rock-climbing, self-defence, taekwondo and rugby 7s, whilst upper school choices aim to involve boys in sport however that may be, perhaps officiating or coaching as well as trying gentlemanly pursuits such as croquet, horse-riding and sailing. The school has responded to the national appetite for competitive cycling and boys are able to use the superb facilities at nearby Herne Hill velodrome.

Seventy acres of playing fields recently reseeded, and rugby is the triumphant sport with 1st XV recently winning the NatWest Schools cup for the third consecutive year. Success, too, for the under 14s rowers, who are national champions, and the school supplies four members of the under 15 GB water-polo team. Boys we had lunch with laughingly said the only thing they didn’t like was swimming as there was no point trying to keep up with the Olympic swimmers and water-polo players.

Dr Spence continues to ponder how one achieves balance amidst such rich opportunities: ‘50 boys will have played at Twickenham, that’s a once in a lifetime experience’, but are there ‘boys who might have done better academically if they had not done so much?’

‘Arts, music and co-curricular are outstanding’. We arrived just in time to be treated to a sensitive rendition of W H Auden’s Stop All of The Clocks as part of that day’s house poetry competition. The school has a rich theatrical tradition, a flexible theatre space, Chewetel Ejiofor and Rupert Penry-Jones are OAs, makes the very most of the London theatre scene, and each year produces three drama festivals and 24 performance pieces.

A parent said, ‘What I really like is the drive to go beyond the curriculum and inspire’. This term’s Dulwich Creative week was produced with all of the finesse and confidence of a national arts organisation gone guerrillan and saw art hijacks where every pupil – astonishingly even the babies in the kindergarten – produce a clay self-portrait, which then came together into one installation. A surreal note remains overlooking the cricket pitches, giant polyurethane mushrooms by international street artist Christian Nagel. A new ‘found’ space, The Store, chills to the bone, but provides an edgy, white-washed, informal rehearsal space which boys can call their own, which also houses art exhibits.

Art and DT facilities are light and bright, and where we found some of the most exuberant classes in full flow. We admired Grayson Perry-ish vases produced in ceramics classes, and groovy dog kennels in DT.

Numbers learning instruments peak in the lower school at 45 per cent of boys, falling naturally enough to 25 per cent by the upper school. Standard of musicianship varies from enthusiastic beginners to boys who are leaders of section in the National Youth Orchestra or principals at Glyndebourne and the ENO. The music department is in the process of upgrading: there is a shiny new Mac suite for music technology, a new acoustic percussion suite, and small and large practice areas. Another funky new facility is the electric ‘shed’, fully sound-insulated, a great place to let rip with the electric guitar.

World class performances from a formidable debating team, who recently trounced the competition at the Oxford and Cambridge Unions. Where next for the boy currently ranked number one in the world?

Long lunch hours ensure even the senior boys feel they have time for clubs and societies, which continue after school. For the lower school these might include fencing, card games, woodwork and Scouts. For the middle and upper school a sophisticated list offers Japanese culture, alternative thinking, finance, Norse and Germanic, ultimate frisbee and rocketry. Poultry society boasts its own hens; whether they are ever eaten is set to be a college myth. Our curiosity was piqued as to what goes on at the Gentlemen’s Club (no-one seemed to know); presumably no cigars.

The careers office has a 2,000 strong network of former parents and corporate contacts: a recent event invited 40 such to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Boys were instructed to read up on everyone’s biographies then were sent off to network fiercely.

Boarders

There are 130 boarders, two-thirds in the sixth form, majority from China and Hong Kong but also Eastern Europe. The boarding houses are on the campus, modernised period houses decorated with OA sporting team photos: quite basic in our view, small-ish rooms with less than luxurious en suite bathrooms, but unlikely to worry most boys intent on studying and playing hard surrounded by friends. Common rooms with large screen for movie nights, table football and all-important toasters.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1619 by the wealthy actor and businessman, Edward Alleyn. He set up and endowed the Foundation, which distributes its surplus profits to a group of schools including Dulwich College, JAGS and Alleyn’s. The college moved to its present site in the 1870s. The main buildings are stunning Italianate red brick designed by the son of the architect of the Houses of Parliament. Inside, the panelled Great Hall lined with the names of Oxford and Cambridge scholars - up until the wall space ran out in the 1960s - has featured in a Hollywood film or two, more often the site of Old Alleynian dinners, the master’s library and the Wodehouse library (PG is an Old Alleynian), with a significant theatrical archive including a Shakespeare First Folio.

Sitting amidst vast manicured pitches, the college is a gracious and intriguing south London landmark. Closer up, the collection of modern buildings forming a large part of the teaching spaces, particularly in the lower school, are plain and nothing more than functional, quite possibly a bit depressing. The buildings housing the upper school feel fresher – Ned’s place looks like a commercial café, and there is a huge common room, whilst a second one was sacrificed to create a popular ‘work room’ with banks of computers. Ironically for a school that appears so stunning to the passer-by, it’s the fabric of the school which could currently disappoint parents if not boys.

However, we donned hard hat and work boots to inspect the then almost complete Laboratory, costing over £21m, which is now open and should put the college’s science offer ever more firmly on the map. Led by prestigious Grimshaw Architects – Cutty Sark, The Eden Project – It literally removes the divide between arts and sciences, including a 240 seat auditorium, as well as five IT suites and 18 glassy labs looking over the beautiful trees of Dulwich.

At its centre is displayed Shackleton’s boat, a treasured college possession previously residing appropriately enough with a stuffed penguin in a chilly cloister. Conrad Shawcross RA, with a committed team of 10 boys, worked on an installation. Naturally it leads the way environmentally too. The finishing touch, which may transform the feel of the college as much as anything, is the bright idea of removing the central car park, replacing it with landscaped recreational and thinking spaces.

The Dulwich College partnership schools overseas thrive, the latest in Yangon, Myanmar, but the master is clear that Dulwich is his absolute focus: he has delegated all but top level sign-off. Similarly, although he has championed outreach and partnership with a London academy group, a pie-chart of time devoted would see this account for only 10 per cent.

Sartorial traditions define the college – ‘colours’ blazers are boldly striped affairs awarded in recognition of achievement. ‘Buy a big size,’ advises the school captain – they will be de rigueur come OA reunions. You need a spotters' guide to identify old school ties, there are so many for every society and event. The master sees the Christmas fair attracting 3,000 local residents as a way to prove that the school isn’t ‘stuck up’. He is aware that the uniform gives off mixed messages, but wants the boys to wear it with pride. Believes the school is and should be ‘class, creed and colour-blind’.

School lunches seem due for a make-over, but boys won’t starve. Students we spoke to in the lower school were amusing, boisterous; those higher up articulate, but not at all arrogant, and all with different interests. A regular visitor to the school said, ‘The boys appear relaxed and happy, there’s always plenty of banter and camaraderie in evidence’.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

A senior prefect told us he’s a rarity, having been at the school all the way from year 1, but has relished meeting new boys - ‘each intake year interests and friends shift’ - and although the school is large, boys feel they know each other within their year. The transition points are handled thoughtfully, ensuring boys get to bond with each other, for instance on a Welsh adventure when joining the lower school.

Houses are named after great Englishmen, and wooden boards throughout the school see Drake, Spenser et al jostling for position – house competitions facilitate new friendships as well as much rivalry.

We were on the look-out for indifferent pastoral care, but found no evidence for it whatsoever, instead much praise. A parent – ‘Boys know where they stand with the master, and whilst he’s friendly and approachable, boys know he won’t tolerate certain misdemeanours…hard line on bullying’. Another, ‘He strikes the right note on being nurturing but also seeing that the boys get on with being independent’. ‘A caring atmosphere which celebrates the individual,’ said a parent of a child diagnosed with ASD. One noted realistically that ‘pastoral care is good, but the biggest problem is to get the boys to overcome male pride and admit they need help.’ Gross misconducts such as possession of drugs or bullying would result in consideration for exclusion, whether fixed term or permanent, rather than an automatic exclusion.

Pupils and parents

The college is academically selective and socially inclusive, with a very culturally and ethnically diverse population, augmented by the boarders. Lots of multilingual children who might speak Chinese, Russian, Spanish or French at home. Boys mentioned pupil-led assemblies: recent topics include homosexuality and discrimination. The school captain said: ‘There is no Dulwich way. You don’t have to conform.’

A parent: ‘It takes boys who are sporty, academic, musical, artistic and a mixture of all those things. If your child is gifted in one area, they will soar here. If they are a good all-rounder they will be encouraged to be a great all-rounder.’ And it may come as a surprise to find that parents describe each other typically as ‘a good bunch of mixed, non-stuffy parents’, ‘un-snobbish and not cliquey.’

Alumni include Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bob Monkhouse, Raymond Chandler, P G Wodehouse, Nigel Farage, Lionel Barber, Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Entrance

Not the ultra-elite intake of a few London schools, but still a top 15 per cent ability profile. At 11+, half of the 75 boys arrive from Dulwich College Junior School and half from a variety of local primary and prep schools including Hornsby House, Blackheath Prep, Rosemead, Dolphin School, Oakfield, Honeywell, Belleville, Corpus Christi, Dulwich Hamlet, St John’s and St Clements. Parents are asked to send a letter from a registered professional regarding SEN needs to ensure appropriate assistance with the entrance exam. At 13 + the main feeders are Dulwich Prep London, Northcote Lodge and Fulham Prep. Non-refundable registration fee of £100 for Brits and £200 for overseas candidates.

A good number come from the immediate vicinity of Dulwich, but Foundation coaches brings pupils from as far away as Notting Hill, Canary Wharf, Wimbledon and Chislehurst.

Exit

Recent leavers to over 47 universities including Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Imperial, KCL, LSE, UCL, Warwick and York; 18 to Oxbridge in 2017. Increasing focus on global destinations, particularly Ivy League - 10 to US in 2017 including Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton. Also Dutch universities and Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Money matters

Nearly a third of boys have some financial assistance: two-thirds of these from scholarships (from a third of fees to 105 per cent), a third from bursaries (up to 100 per cent of fees). Dr Spence has stated his ambition for for college to provide financial support to up to 50 per cent of its pupils in year 7 and above. ‘Superb value for money,’ said one parent of three privately educated children. ‘Quite simply, Dulwich College far outstrips the rest in terms of communication, professionalism and results’.

Perhaps most exciting of all in terms of evolution is the college returning to its early 20th century past in launching a New Dulwich Experiment, championed by the master, which will see up to 50 per cent of pupils coming from families who cannot afford to pay full fees, opening up admissions to some of the brightest pupils from all backgrounds. In some ways it is a protective measure against becoming a school for the global super-rich, and the master freely admits it is ‘enlightened self-interest’, but partly funded by OAs keen to give something back, it sits very well in this already socially enlightened place.

Our view

A school with a long tradition, with all of the prestige that comes with it, but now with a thrilling new dynamism which is raising the academic ante in every way, creating glittering new learning spaces and delivering a stunning co-curricular vision. Far more inclusive than one might imagine, the new bursary scheme needs to be trumpeted far and wide to ensure the school is on the radar of the brightest from all backgrounds.

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