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Up river from Henley, Shiplake has a serene, secluded and picture postcard setting befitting its reputation as a smaller, more nurturing school set apart from its showier counterparts. Fabulous new Davies Centre includes a state of art boathouse, an indoor archery/rifle range, a well-used climbing wall, weights room, gym and an ergo room/events space, with a balcony overlooking the river. Students courteous, not just in class, but everywhere between too. Keen to be role models, almost all…

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What the school says...

Shiplake College is an independent boarding and day school for boys and girls aged 11 to 18. Situated in 45 acres of beautiful Oxfordshire countryside near Henley-on-Thames, we offer an outstanding education based on small class sizes, excellent facilities and dedicated teaching staff. Shiplake has a wholly inclusive environment spanning all areas of College life. All pupils are valued regardless of academic prowess, artistic flair or sporting ability, with opportunities for all to join in and try new things. We are a small community where the upmost effort is made to get to know each and every person. We are renowned for providing exceptional pastoral care, underpinned by our traditional house system. Inspiration fuels every element of life at Shiplake and defines the unique culture of our College. The environment we provide encourages pupils to take inspiration from their teachers, their surroundings, and each other; stimulating all areas of personal development. ...Read more

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Headmaster

Since 2019, Tyrone Howe. Degree from St Andrews (German and international relations) and master’s in European literature from Oxford. Previously a housemaster at Uppingham, Shiplake is his first headship. Began teaching career at Marlborough before leaving to play professional rugby for Ulster (he’s from Northern Ireland). Also represented Ireland, the British and Irish Lions and the Barbarians. Spent five years in industry before returning to education.

Rugby was not his first love; he confesses to being a ‘frustrated singer’ who, as the son of an opera singer, grew up in the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Tells us he loves music ‘of all sorts’ while loading a phone video of year 9 performing Video Killed the Radio Star. ‘I popped in the lesson and was blown away. Isn’t that just the best thing?’ he grins. ‘Just joyful.’ A big fan of Desert Island Discs but, ‘It’s not just the music, I’m curious about the story they tell.’ His luxury item? A painting hanging in his study of him playing rugby by a rugby fan (recently deceased) who also features in the painting in his wheelchair. Head says, ‘I promised him I would put it on the wall wherever I went. It goes everywhere with me.’

Though no longer a rugby pro, the lingo slips in. He says, ‘Shiplake is a school of personal bests, not just in sport but across the board, and it’s in everything we do.’ When pressed he concedes, ‘I’m going to teach some year 7 (girls and boys) rugby in September so I can get to know the new students.’ One parent told us, ‘His rapport is particularly strong with lower school.’

Study is unfussy and lacks pretention. A few framed rugby line-ups on the walls and a bookcase with his favourite books and Spectator magazines. The door for students has a glass window ‘so they know that they can speak to me directly if they want to’. Very clear Shiplake is a place of community and tells us, ‘Kindness comes first and foremost. It’s non-negotiable.’ Not just words, he has excluded pupils unable to get on board but only as a ‘last resort’. After an infraction, one way of dealing with misbehaviour is an informal walk with pupil/s and teacher, often with a dog (take your pick, there are 30 on campus). Draws clear lines in sand: ‘I try to be open and honest and expect the same from everyone.’

He tells us Shiplake stands out from local competition because of the opportunities available here. ‘We get the little things right, like traditional manners, but we’re relatively young and so not too rooted. We can be flexible and adapt. We’re at the forefront of change.’ New to the role when pandemic hit, he led lightning response of online learning systems and fun online community events (check YouTube). ‘If anything, we bonded more as a school and keep strengthening that spirit.’ School Instagram shows dizzying range of things going on.

Excited about opening doors to girls, head says: ‘Going fully co-ed is a natural step for Shiplake. We’ve been busy getting ready for the extra intake of girls (more on this later). I’m thrilled that 42 per cent of year 7 will be girls. More boys applied than ever too.’

Lives on site with wife Alex, also a teacher, their teenage twins and Simba, the golden retriever, who is first to meet and greet in school reception. Shiplake is surely the most dog-friendly school in the world – there’s even lint roll on the coffee table!

Entrance

Pupils (now girls as well as boys) join in year 7 from a mix of prep and state primary schools, and there’s a further intake of around 30 into year 9. A full assessment day covers numeracy and literacy, extended creative writing task and group activity. Candidates interviewed by the houseparent or deputy and finish the day with a sports activity. School insists it is ‘all ability’ and that character and attitude matter as much. ‘We’ll turn down an able pupil if not right for the culture of the school. Much thought goes into the holistic process,’ head says. ‘We want children who will get involved, give to and benefit from what makes Shiplake special.’

The number of girls in years 12 and 13 is now 60+. They’ve been key in preparation for co-ed and will be ‘big sister mentors’ for girls in year 7. Sixth form entry requires five good GCSEs including English and maths, with occasional exceptions.

Exit

Between 15 and 25 per cent leave after GCSEs, replaced by newcomers into sixth form. Forward-thinking careers advisor explores full options, including apprenticeships and entry to job market. Head says: ‘We’re fully aware university is not for everyone. Increasingly, students don’t want to be saddled with debt when there are other pathways to consider.’ School’s entrepreneurial spirit means a few leave with already lucrative ventures and ‘already earning more than us’, a teacher mock-sighs. This said, 95 per cent of leavers do head off to university – top choices include Cardiff, Exeter, Nottingham, Newcastle, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester, Durham and Loughborough. Regular Oxbridge and medicine support sessions. A few to the US, including Yale and Princeton (one to Harvard in 2023). Popular courses are sports science, journalism, graphic design and business studies. One medic and one dentist in 2023.

Latest results

In 2023, 33 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 30 per cent A*/A at A level (62 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last pre-pandemic results), 24 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 37 per cent A*/A at A level (64 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

Tiniest class sizes – maximum 16, mostly 14 – mean individual attention and accelerated progress. ‘It’s what most attracted my family to the school,’ one pupil told us.

At GCSE options of double or triple science. French and Spanish but not Latin or Greek, so maybe not for your future classicist. Wide range of sixth form subjects offered – 27 at last count. A levels, including sociology, photography and politics. Best results in history, biology and chemistry. BTECs (most popular are criminology, business, sport and music) all achieving strong results. Majority of sixth formers complete either an EPQ or a sports leadership qualification.

Subject-wide reviews have taken place but curriculum largely unchanged in preparation for co-ed as already forward thinking and ungendered. Small tweaks here and there including in PSCHEE and games. Drama and literature choices have been reconsidered to be more inclusive. Just under half of teaching staff are women and this is set to increase, including a newly appointed deputy head pastoral who has a background in developing and designing induction and transition courses for year 7 pupils.

Recent move to become a Microsoft school, every child has the same laptop and software for convenience and efficiency. Designated support for when IT goes wrong is a ‘lifesaver’. Digital learning embraced and all encouraged to be tech savvy. Cyber skills course taught at KS3 in addition to computing. Phones, however, must be kept in lockers, except for prefects in upper sixth. Head says, ‘We want students looking up and out, not down and in.’

The Thinking Space learning facility, inspired by Google, is divided into sections: a book nook for quite reading or work, a flow room which is intended for focused, independent work and a large central space with tables for collaborative work. Comprehensive digital library; growing number of physical books.

School runs cross-curricular trips to broaden experience and inspire. Recent ones include New York, Amsterdam and Venice. Head has improved results across the board with accelerated reading schemes and a scholars’ programme where each scholar has a mentor who meets with them half-termly to discuss their stretch and challenge targets (and also writes a half-termly report for parents). Weekly masterclasses are held in the café in which students, staff, parents and guests share their passions. Scholars must attend but all pupils welcomed and encouraged. Individual webpages display their ongoing achievements and special lunches are taken in the Old Viking room. There’s also an annual whole-school essay prize.

Learning support and SEN

Two full and two part-time SEN staff in several bright and well-equipped rooms. One parent confirmed the school’s reputation for ‘truly excellent provision for SEN – the staff are bulwarks: patient, kind, knowledgeable – brilliant.’ Support available for pupils with diagnosed dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and around 12 per cent of pupils are receiving extra help, in line with national average. All pupils screened on entry and, if identified, assessed to see if they can function in class with provisions but without a learning support assistant. If not, individualised small-group lessons (up to four) per week, at extra cost. From year 9 these sessions replace a modern language and in year 10 these pupils take eight GCSEs rather than nine. At sixth form it evolves to guided study support with a focus on preparation for adult life. Subject-wide clinics available for all pupils daily during lunch or after school.

The arts and extracurricular

Two large art studios in spacious eaves of one of the modern buildings. Varied artwork to a fantastic standard, we saw ceramic Amsterdam houses and intricate wire animals (year 8). In one room, industrious sixth formers worked with choice of (practically any) medium and subject – a sense of freedom and space for creativity here. Opposite, a photography studio with full editing technology. Striking and experimental work on show. One teacher specialises in the artistic, and another in the technical, aspect of photography. ‘Together we’ve everything covered,’ we were told. Teamwork a recurrent theme. Standout artwork is displayed throughout the year on the golden easel.

Inspirational director of music oversees bustling department. Shiplake specialises in soul, rock and pop jazz and there’s Camerata (chamber choir) and the auditioned-for First VIII a capella group, alongside big band, various choirs and several rock and jazz bands for all ages. For techies, new John Turner building has a recording studio with all latest computer equipment. Music lessons feel cool and relevant; we enjoyed a lesson where year 9 students were making tense, eerie music to play, second by second, with a scene of Stranger Things. We squeezed in a lower school lunch concert with a lovely solo from Matilda and funky piano recitals on a baby grand piano. Does anyone sit down? A parent told us, ‘Upbeat concerts are a highlight, whether highbrow or experimental. Concerts at fancier schools seem stuffy and predictable in comparison.’ Formal concerts take place throughout the year culminating in v. popular Shiplake Rocks – a festival where current pupils, staff, families, and Old Vikings (alumni) perform. As one pupil told us, it’s ‘a vibe’.

Tithe Barn theatre in the old stable yard area is an intimate performance space with black wooden floorboards and black stone walls. Productions are put on for each year group to mark events such as Pride, Black History and Women’s Day. Bigger performances use the Kenton Theatre in Henley, with wine and popcorn for parents. Lower school perform a pantomime each year and there’s an annual big whole-school show – next up is The Wedding Singer.

DofE is popular and well organised, or there’s community service and CCF (good take-up and the start of a career path as a helicopter pilot for one sixth former we spoke to). Range of after-school clubs in all things from cookery to archery.

Sport

With its sweeping riverside location, no surprise rowing has top billing at Shiplake. Pupils (both boys and incoming girls) start in year 9 and specialist training programmes mean success at local, national and international level. A shout out to the girls’ quad who won the Diamond Jubilee Challenge cup in 2021 at Henley Royal Regatta (another girls’ team also qualified). Current pupils and Old Vikings (former pupils) regularly represent GB at junior and senior levels in the European and world championships. Fabulous new Davies Centre opened in 2020 includes a state-of-art boathouse, an indoor archery/rifle range, a well-used climbing wall, weights room, gym and an ergo room/events space, with a balcony overlooking the river. Female pupils said to us they appreciated ‘the girls-only gym hour’.

The Lynch, an island owned by the school, is used for adventure and outdoor education, alongside mainland provision for rafting, camping, archery etc on alternate Thursday afternoons. One parent said, ‘My child isn’t sporty but loves the other options.’ Shiplake holds good to its sporting reputation with rugby (seven rugby pitches), football, cricket, netball (more courts being built), hockey and tennis players, many at country and some national level. However, no special allowances in classrooms; match bans if behavioural or academic standards fall. On recent rowing camp in Spain, students were doing intensive GCSE revision each evening. A parent told us, ’They get the sport/academic balance right.’

Boarders

Five clean, well-equipped houses for years 9-12 with games, football tables, sofas for TV and hanging out. Separate day and boarding houses (with mix of flexi, boarding and full). A sixth form girls’ house with some en-suite bathrooms (Gilson). Year 13 boys are in College House. Years 7 and 8 join Olympians, Titans or Spartans (lessons in year 7 will be taught co-ed with plan to remain so throughout), and then pupils join one of the main houses from year 9. Cosy dorms are for two to four students in lower years and most year 13s get a single room. A parent told us boarders were ‘enveloped by everyone in the school’.

Around a third of pupils board, majority are flexi and weekly rather than full. Flexibility suits largely local families, keen to see kids at the weekend. Full boarders, a few international and a few Forces, are kept entertained at weekends with trips to nearby attractions, restaurants and events. No Saturday lessons, just matches, to allow more family time at the weekend for day pupils and weekly boarders.

Ethos and heritage

Up river from Henley, Shiplake has a serene, secluded and picture-postcard setting befitting its reputation as a smaller, more nurturing school set apart from its pushier, showier counterparts. Shiplake Court, the red-brick, turreted main building, was built as a private residence in 1889, becoming a boarding school in 1959. Architecturally sensitive extensions have been added over the years.

Lower school has moved into newly modernised Stableyard where facilities such as changing rooms and toilets have been built to accommodate girls. A new sixth form block with stylish café was supported in design stage by former pupil, Nick Jones, the Soho House proprietor.

We asked if school ethos expected to change when co-ed. Head thought not: ‘We’re an inclusive community which recognises and celebrates the individual.’ Parents consulted over move and most but not all on board. One told us, ‘We’d prefer it to stay but are assured it won’t become just about the girls. Let’s see.’

Staff have a research group where teachers lecture and write a paper on an area of interest which is then published in a quarterly journal. ‘As a school we’ve all become more aspirational,’ the head tells us. ‘We want our kids and our staff to go as far as they can go.’

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Shiplake’s reputation for pastoral care is strong as ever. Broadly CofE (but welcoming and celebrating all faiths), chaplain is bedrock for all. School uses pretty on-site church and all students attend chapel once a week, with communion an option. A parent says, ‘It’s just a warm and friendly place.’

Senior nurse on hand in medical wing with five beds. A parent told us, ‘She’s just lovely and goes above and beyond in her vigilance and care.’ Counsellors, chaplain, mentors and staff on hand to talk through problems and the atmosphere is one of openness and transparency. Head extols healing powers of exercise and fresh air. We saw a student collecting a dog to walk to escape exam pressure.

Sixth formers are mentors for the new year 9s – mutually beneficial for giving responsibility and security. Sixth form girls will also be mentors to new girls in year 7 and they tell us, ‘We’re delighted they’re coming and we’re ready for them!’

Usual PSCHEE programme alongside visiting speakers to talk about matters such as consent, illegal substances, wellbeing, mental health and resilience. Behavioural expectations are high and there’s a point-based system to differentiate between major and minor issues and for providing praise and rewards for excellent work and behaviour. One parent told us, ‘It gets the child sitting silent at the back to engage and contribute.’ For infractions, a scale from 30-minute lunchtime detention to Friday and then Saturday detentions. School strongly believes in giving second chances and allowing pupils to learn through experience and guiding.

Staggered lunch in the Gothic, wood-panelled great hall has as much option as you have imagination. Signs tell you to say what portion size you’d like to avoid waste, but no-one goes hungry here.

Pupils and parents

Students courteous, not just in class, but everywhere between too. Keen to be role models, almost all sixth formers compete to be a prefect, a process which involves writing a letter of application, an interview and an assessment-centre style afternoon.

Parents are ‘not all Ferraris and swimming pools’ but mostly middle-class first-time buyers who want best academic results but not at the cost of mental health. One parent told us, ‘We see the bigger picture. Our child is doing well but it’s not the be-all and end-all.’ Shiplake families care less about being seen at the smart schools than being at the right place with the right values for their child. One parent told us, it’s ‘hardworking parents and a hardworking school’.

Most families live close enough to be day or flexi boarders (five per cent international) and most travel from east of Reading (avoids dreaded Reading rush hour). In a 20–30-mile radius, school coach stops include Goring, Sonning, Watlington as far as Gerrards Cross, Beaconsfield, Bourne End, Windsor. Those further away face long school days – 7am to 7pm including travel, it's manageable although often hard at first. Some comfort that prep (5-5.45pm, and additional 8-8.45pm for boarders) and supper are at school. A coach from west London ferries weekly boarders.

Alumni include actor Alex Pettyfer, Chris Standring, jazz musician and, predictably, some Olympic rowing medallists: Will Satch, Ben Hunt-Davis, Richard Lester and Malcolm Carmichael.

Money matters

Art, drama, music, rowing and general sports scholarships alongside academic awards. All potential scholars interviewed, and academic applicants deliver short presentation on a subject of their choosing. The standard financial remission for a scholarship is 10 per cent and up to 50 per cent for truly outstanding candidates in rowing and academics at sixth form. Sixth form academic scholarships assessed by a written exam in a subject they will take at A level as well as interviews to determine suitability as an academic ambassador. Means-tested bursaries awarded at the school’s discretion and hardship fund for families whose financial situation changes.

The last word

A modern curriculum jam-packed with events and opportunities, this is a fizzing hive of a school. Shiplake understands that learning takes place out of the comfort zone and its traditional moral foundations help pupils build the confidence to get there and stay there. The new intake of girls will love getting in on all the action.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Shiplake has a reputation for providing support for bright pupils with mild learning difficulties and every academic year a small number of places are allocated to pupils with these difficulties. These are called Core Places. The initial entrance assessments screen all pupils who wish to come to Shiplake, and pupils are offered one of three types of places: Core, Monitor or Main. Core pupils receive Core Learning Development Support. This entails dedicated timetabled support in the Learning Development Department in place of a modern foreign language in year 9, and in place of one GCSE option subject in years 10 and 11. We believe that the quality of grade is better than quantity of exam subjects. In years 12 and 13 support is provided on a daily basis and is student-led rather than teacher-led, with students bringing the work they have identified they require support with. This helps them to be more independent and also helps to bridge the gap between support in school and support in Higher Education settings. Pupils who are in our Monitor category may have had a history of special educational needs, but are now able to function independently without support in class. We know, however, that these pupils may require examination access arrangements and therefore we keep them monitored in order to ensure that we have the necessary evidence for these arrangements to be put in place where necessary. The majority of pupils are in our Main cohort. Whilst it would be very unusual for a pupil to move out of the Core Group, all of the groups are fluid in nature, as we take account of how pupils change and develop over time. The promotion of pupils' self-belief, self-esteem and self-confidence to become successful and independent learners, is a key aim.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
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 Y
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment

Who came from where


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