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Unashamedly gentler on the grey matter than the local competition and results are a bit of a mixed bag – not surprising given the mixed ability intake. Head acknowledges middle ground school status (‘we know our niche’) but keen to up the academic ante. Historically synonymous with rugby of the ‘guts and glory’ variety (is there any other kind?), but look a little closer and you’ll find that there are plenty of alternatives for boys less inclined to ‘drive for the line’...

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What the school says...

The Oratory is a unique school. Blessed John Henry Newman, its Founder, was a brilliant man, who synthesised two traditions: Christian pastoral care for the individual combined with academic excellence and intellectual growth. His personal motto became the schools Cor ad Cor Loquitur (Heart speaking to Heart) and this flows through the life of the school. He wanted to establish an all-round education that encouraged development of body, mind and spirit, so vital for success and happiness. Set in acres of exquisite Chiltern countryside, The Oratory is centred on a traditional English country house, giving it that family ethos for which the school has always been so well known.

A teacher: pupil ratio of 8:1 and a staff nearly all living on site or in the adjacent village reinforce this emphasis on individual attention. The Academic foundations of the school are centred around the needs of the pupil as an individual. The flexibility of our curriculum allows pupils to realise their talents and develop their interests within the framework of a sound academic base. The school maintains a rolling programme of boarding and classroom refurbishment to ensure that standards are maintained to the highest level.
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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Boys taking Art & Design at an English Independent School (GCE A level)
  • Best performance by Boys taking Art & Design at an English Independent School (GCE AS level)
  • Excellent performance by Boys taking Art & Design at an English Independent School (GCSE)

2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Boys taking Art & Design at an English Independent School (GCSE Full Course)

Curricula

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

Sports

Rowing

Shooting

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head Master

Since September 2016, Joe Smith BA PGCE MEd (40s), formerly head of Oratory Prep since 2010. Was ‘invited’ to take up current position following departure of Adrian Wyles who was in post for one year having taken over from the ‘very charismatic’ long term head, Clive Dytor. Educated at Catholic primary school and the local comp in King’s Lynn, then Liverpool University where he got a first in English. PGCE at Brunel, followed by his first teaching post at Colfe’s School then 12 years at Monkton Combe, Bath where he became head of English and housemaster.

Sees his role as ‘a huge honour and privilege’ and, armed with intimate knowledge of the perception of the so called ‘Big O’ (thanks to candid parents at the prep), has set about pruning dead wood (‘who you put in front of boys in the classroom is crucial’) and surrounding himself with a (mainly) young and dynamic senior leadership team – some existing staff, some newly appointed – with a strong focus on the senior part of the school, particularly the sixth form. First job was to shorten the school day by an hour to finish at 6pm to allow day boys an extra hour of family time. The second was to double the broadband speed ‘to allow boys the same access to social media as they would get at home’ – he knows his audience.

Youthful, extremely personable – we’d happily spend an hour or two with him chewing the educational cud in the pub – and popular with parents and boys, who parents say ‘hugely respect’ him. Apologised when we arrived for the smell of bacon in his office – he’d just finished breakfast with a group of pupils, a weekly event (‘getting to know them is incredibly rewarding’). Always ‘out talking to everyone’, say parents – and even occasionally serves coffee at school events. Lives on site with wife Debbie, his three children, two boys at the school (one at the OS; one at OPS) and a girl at nearby St Helen and St Katharine, and two dogs.

Devoted foodie, wannabe chef and has recently and reluctantly retired from village cricket.

Academic matters

Unashamedly gentler on the grey matter than the local competition and results are a bit of a mixed bag – not surprising given the mixed ability intake. Head acknowledges middle ground school status (‘we know our niche’) but keen to up the academic ante and has appointed new academic deputy to make it happen, and some new young staff who, according to parents are ‘spicing things up’. He remains insistent, however, that he won’t alienate the less academic all-rounder and will continue to accept some boys achieving 40 per cent at CE (50 is the usual requirement) provided they have ‘something else to offer.’ Pupils now sit the more challenging IGCSE in English language and lit, French, Spanish and sciences. Most take 10 GCSES, and although in 2016 40 per cent of these were graded A*/A, this stat is heavily skewed by stellar performance in art department, with B the most prominent grade across the board of subjects and a fair number of Cs and Ds in the mix – particularly, and somewhat bizarrely, in RS.

Parents, however, praise teaching staff – in some cases for helping their son pull a C grade in maths out of the bag when they never thought he would – and, uniquely for this most academic of geographical enclaves, are fully accepting of the mixed bag of innate ability. We even heard of one parent who turned down a place at Magdalen in favour of The Oratory, confident that their high-flying son would do equally well here, on the basis of its ‘relaxed atmosphere’. The bright and focused, however, are not an endangered species and we spotted one or two boys who had achieved seven or more A*s (identified by their special striped blazers, known as ‘deckchairs’) during our tour. Head explains ethos thus: ‘Boys in our top leagues would be average elsewhere – but we believe that to be a big fish in a small pond can be incredibly beneficial for many children’s confidence.’ Also: ‘We do really well with boys who need a bit more time to mature’.

Trad curriculum with French, Spanish and Italian in the languages department (no German but parents report boys picking it up from their international schoolfriends), plus ancient Greek and philosophy to A level for those so inclined. New for 2018 is computer science GCSE, on offer to lower sixth formers. RS (Catholic syllabus) compulsory at GCSE and into sixth form, when boys do not have to work towards an A level but enjoy informal sessions discussing world issues with Father Ken. A level results, as with GCSE, are representative of the mixed ability cohort: 36 per cent were graded A*/A in 2016 (although only 18 per cent broke the A* barrier and, again, almost all of these in art) and 60 per cent at A*/B. No significant change to trends in results over the years – we’ll watch with interest to see how, as head ‘raises expectations of staff and boys’, things ramp up. Just one or two take the EPQ each year.

No makeshift former broom cupboard for the learning support department here – it actually is, well, a department. And one that means business too – with 29 per cent of boys on the SEN register it needs to be. A full time SENCo, supported by eight subject-specific part timers, who use a combination of in-class and one-to-one support strategies – and where appropriate a reduced timetable – to bring boys with mild to moderate learning difficulties, dyslexia or ASD up to speed. Super EAL teaching for international pupils – we met several (one who had just achieved an A* in his English GCSE having arrived from Germany with ‘school English’ in year 9) who could pass as natives. One UK born boy joked about his international friend ‘speaking better English than me’.

Games, options, the arts

Historically synonymous with rugby of the ‘guts and glory’ variety (is there any other kind?), but look a little closer and you’ll find that there are plenty of alternatives for boys less inclined to ‘drive for the line’ (their words not ours). Nestled amongst pitches and fields galore that fall away into glorious woodland, plus 90 minutes of sport at the end of the day four days a week (the fifth day is CCF – compulsory to year 10), any boy would find it hard not to throw himself into the plenitude of games on offer. There’s everything you would expect (rugby, football and cricket are major sports) plus seriously competitive shooting, rowing, badminton and tennis (played not only on hard courts but also grass in a heavenly walled garden), plus activities including basketball (coached by head), swimming (in super modern indoor pool complex) and golf (school has its own 9-hole course, natch). A separate mention for real tennis: Oratory has one of only five courts in UK schools and has hosted the national championships – get any member of staff talking on the subject and take your seat for a comprehensive education, all the way back to Henry VIII. All abilities represent school in fixtures: ‘We’re great for the keen but average as well as the superstars’, says head; ‘our size means we need everyone to play to make up team numbers.’ There’s that big fish/small pond advantage again. Head says that past marketing focusing heavily on sport ‘is a problem’ and assures us that school has ‘loads of gentle, arty types’ but it seems to us that even those boys tend to enjoy casting the paint brush aside and getting stuck into something physical – and if they really don’t then this probably isn’t the school for them.

Whilst on the subject of paint brushes, we were welcomed to the creative oasis (the words ‘art department’ simply don’t do justice) by the positively effusive head of art with the words: ‘Why give a boy a paintbrush when you could give him a powertool…or a mop?’ And why indeed, when with such tools and alternative techniques such as collage, printing presses, 3D photography, ceramics and modelling can deliver such masterpieces as those by the swathes of boys who choose to take art GCSE, A level and Pre-U? ‘We take students much wider than mere draughtsmanship – if they can’t handle representation, we get them into abstraction and really engaging with the materials – it’s very much a boys’ course’. And not a still life in sight. With this ethos in place, results unsurprisingly outstanding. Around half the sixth form cohort take the Cambridge Pre-U rather than A level, with all achieving at least D3 (equivalent to A grade) in 2016 and every student taking A level achieving A*. Several each year to art college or degree courses – most skipping the foundation stage having surpassed the standard in school. DT adjoins art and is similarly impressive both in terms of facilities and teaching – ‘another of our crown jewels’ according to our pupil guide. ‘Gone are the days of making a coffee table’, we were assured. Using industry standard software and equipment, boys are encouraged not to merely design products but to make and, crucially, sell them too, with entrepreneurship encouraged to the extent that more than one boy has a business running on the side outside of school. As with art, exam results are superb and the half dozen or so who choose to pursue the subject after school are typically given very low offers from colleges and universities keen to snap them up.

Dramatic productions performed in very smart recently renovated studio, complete with soundproofed prop room and swish sound and lighting suite. Recent annual junior, middle and senior school productions have included A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oklahoma and Amadeus, with female roles played by girls from nearby Queen Anne’s School. Lots of music too: the inclusive Schola Cantorum sings at masses, vespers and school functions (plus, recently, a tour to Hong Kong) and all the usual bands, orchestras and ensembles are present and correct. Plus one for bagpipes. Nothing out of the ordinary on the extracurricular activities list – although we love the sound of the very popular ballroom dancing class for sixth formers in conjunction with Queen Anne’s which culminates in a ball.

Boarders

Junior boys (years 7 and 8) housed in St Philip House which has its own recreation, social and teaching areas. Boys join one of four senior boarding houses in year 9: Faber in the main building is ‘more like a family’ with its smaller numbers, according to our guide; Norris, FitzAlan and St John are purpose built, the former two modern, well kitted out (table football, table tennis and darts) and spacious (if a little soulless) with younger boys four to a room, doubles for GCSE students and singles for the sixth form. Housemasters deliberately mix nationalities, and boys’ rooms are moved every term. Boys in senior boarding houses expected to manage their own laundry – even the ironing (taken particularly seriously before a social, apparently). We approve. Quality and quantity of food a common grumble by parents and pupils and the pizza delivery scooter is not an uncommon sight – tuck box required.

Boarders and day pupils take part in a full schedule of evening activities on week nights: sports, public speaking, debating or academic societies. Wednesday is house night with trips out to cinema, go-karting or trampolining. Weekend activity schedules for the hundred or so who stay are kept deliberately light, although some parents would like to see more on offer. As all boys finish their week after Saturday fixtures, on Sundays there’s mass (compulsory for all) followed by brunch and then they are free to do their own thing – either relaxing in school or taking a bus into Reading.

Boarding is full or weekly, no flexi, although school has recently introduced occasional boarding – a maximum of 10 nights per half term.

Background and atmosphere

Founded 1859 by Cardinal John Henry Newman, Christian thinker and educational pioneer (beatified in 2010) to create a Catholic boarding school along the lines of the major English public schools (‘Eton minus its wickedness’) to serve the Catholic community. He provided the school with its motto: ‘cor ad cor loquitur’ (heart speaking to heart). School remains proudly Catholic (‘Catholicism is central and fundamental to our identity – it affects our pastoral and moral side’, says head) although there are none of the ostentatious shrines or symbolism so often found in Catholic schools on show (we were actually surprised and delighted by lack of austerity) and pupils from all faiths and none are equally welcomed. Head too refutes any trace of a formerly austere reputation and institutionalisation: ‘I want school to be joyful – formality’s really not my style.’

Twenty minutes from Reading and situated just off a main road, and yet the setting is the quintessential best of Britain: rolling hills, woodland and playing fields tipping off into farmland. The 400 acres of grounds are spectacularly well maintained and atop it all is the Queen Anne style manor house which has homed the school since 1942. Beyond the rather severe marble foyer and ‘black room’ used for concerts and teas, corridors and classrooms rather wash over you – remarkable only in their ordinariness – and for a school so prolific in producing outstanding art work, the main buildings are somewhat bereft of displays of creativity (‘the art department probably wants to keep it all’, said one of our guides). Safe as houses for any parent concerned about errant sons tripping off to the local – there’s not so much as a shop for miles around and school and overall feel is of a slightly other-worldly, idyllic and wholesome bubble – we wonder whether this is at the expense of preparation for real life, though.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

School ‘really excels’ in pastoral care according to parents, to the point of staff supporting not only the child but the parents and visiting family homes in extreme cases. The four senior houses engender ‘incredibly strong house affiliation’, says head, to the point that sixth formers recently rejected the idea of their own separate house, although a sixth form centre is in the planning. The Rose Bowl competition – the annual house competition comprising everything from drama and music to sport and debating – is fiercely fought and the most common reason for day boys to take up the occasional boarding beds. Relationships between pupils and staff ‘really strong,’ say parents – we lunched with a number of senior staff members and can concur we would be happy to entrust our male offspring to their care on the grounds of inspiration, enthusiasm and humour. The resident priests are praised as approachable sounding boards for both parents and boys in need of a chat.

Junior chapel takes place in a former tithe barn with the senior services held in a less charming modernish building. Daily prayers in houses, Sunday evening mass for all boarders (optional for day boys) with RC and non-RC boys welcome to serve at the altar.

Few sanctions required, according to head, and traditional methods when they are: head’s detention on a Saturday night pretty much as bad as it gets, and there’s ‘not a huge amount of drinking or smoking’ but occasional suspensions for eg violence or repeated defiance. All sixth formers given the honour of prefecture ‘unless they have seriously blotted their copybook’. Very little in the way of bullying: ‘we are such a small community, the bully themselves would be ostracised’, one pupil assured us and boys said that diversity in terms of race or sexuality was well tolerated, although head admitted to school being ‘a bit behind the times’ when it came to supporting any LGBT pupils.

New appointment of girls’ school co-ordinator aims to build strong and meaningful links with the likes of Downe House, Queen Anne’s and Rye St Antony. Events include language dinners, guest speakers and rowing competitions (oars not arguments) as well as ‘good old socials’, where the boys get to showcase those ballroom dancing skills.

Pupils and parents

Traditional with the proverbial capital T is the order of the day here with not a shaggy head, thin tie or pointy shoe in sight. If you like your boys clean cut and preppy then look no further. We are told that quirky boys do exist here but failed to spot any. Established, professional parents in the main with fewer first time buyers than many other schools. Twenty-five per cent of boarding cohort is international, with boys from European Catholic countries, Russia, Nigeria and Asia. Locals come from around Reading and south Oxfordshire villages – a radius of up to one hour.

Entrance

Entry not very academically selective. Around 15 to 20 places at 11+ with boys tested in English, maths and VR/NVR plus informal interview. Applicants largely from state maintained sector at this point, plus 11+ preps like St Piran’s, Chandlings and St Edward’s in Reading. ISEB pre-test introduced for entry in 2018 and beyond with around 50 per cent CE pass required at 13+ plus prep head’s report and interview. Around 25 out of 35 boys move up from the Oratory Prep school each year, accounting for about one third of year 9 cohort (head aiming to up the numbers to half). Other feeders are Moulsford, Woodcote House, St Andrew’s Pangbourne, St John’s Beaumont and Papplewick.

Scholarships at 11+ and 13+ for academic, music, sport, art and all-rounder.

Exit

Between six and 10 leave after GCSE, mainly in search of a co-educational existence, with nearby Henley College a big draw: ‘They are attracted by the lack of uniform and co-ed culture, but it’s a battle we’ll win,’ says head, and parents in the know say the boys in question often miss the ‘roundedness’ of The Oratory.

Not vast numbers to Russell Group universities (around 25 per cent in 2016) and only the occasional one to Oxbridge. Popular destinations over past few years include Bath, Exeter, Oxford Brookes, Royal Holloway, Swansea and West of England. All manner of subjects with a strong bias towards vocational over academic.

Money matters

Full boarding fees in line with top public schools, now topping £30K. Generous scholarships and exhibitions up to half fees, plus means-tested bursaries.

Our view

Somewhat overlooked by local people in recent years but now’s the time to look again. Still not the obvious destination for a single-minded scholar, but for the arty, the sporty, late developers and just those who prefer a lower temperature environment, definitely one for the list.

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Special Education Needs

A small team of specialist teachers withdraw pupils on a one-to-one basis mainly for specific learning difficulties.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
Not Applicable
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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