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One parent told us ‘there’s a little bit of magic at Rye’, and we definitely sensed a special and unique ‘girls own’ atmosphere – an inexplicable feeling of sisterhood that can clearly be traced back to the founder and very first headmistress, Elizabeth Rendall, of whom a wonderfully atmospheric photographic portrait (complete with packet of cigarettes in foreground) presides over the entrance hall. She and Ivy King started...

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All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since February 2020, Joanne Croft. Previously deputy head and has also held other posts at the school including head of languages and head of sixth form. Before that she taught in a range of selective girls’ and co-ed schools. With a degree in French and Italian, followed by MA (Maîtrise) in French literature at Université des Sciences Humaines in Strasbourg, Francophone literature remains her big passion.

Entrance

For entry into all year groups, parents and prospective pupils are interviewed together. It would be ‘hypocritical and silly’ not to admit all girls from the prep school. So parents can happily buy into Rye safe in the knowledge that it is a genuine all-through offering. About two-thirds of girls of the 30 or so moving into year 7 join from a mix of local state and independent schools – no particular feeder.

Exit

Boys peel off at 11 to a variety of local preps and secondary schools with almost all junior girls moving seamlessly up to the senior school. Up to half leave post-GCSE and, due to the broadest church of intakes, impossible to identify trends when it comes to higher education, with girls off to study at eg Nottingham, Cardiff, UEA, Bristol, Exeter and Kent on a range of courses including development and planning, classics, fashion marketing and management, biomedical science and drama with film. In 2020, one medic; none to Oxbridge.

Latest results

In 2020 GCSE, 54 per cent 9/7 at GCSE; 48 per cent A*/A at A level (70 per cent A*/B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 39 per cent 9/7 at GCSE: 18 per cent A*/A at A level (38 per cent A*/B).

Teaching and learning

You won’t see Rye hovering around the top of the league tables alongside the academic superpowers that populate the local school scene – but that’s just fine with them. And with their pupils’ families, for that matter. ‘We value the mix of ability,’ said one earnest sixth former; ‘it’s not judgemental and we all help each other.’ ‘Very nurturing,’ say parents. ‘What you see is what you get and it’s all about what’s good for the pupils not about what they can do for the school.’ ‘We are unique in a different way.’ As focused on instilling ‘a sense of duty and community’ in its pupils as sending them off in the right direction when it comes to higher education – which incidentally covers anything from Oxbridge to secretarial college in any given year group. Parents want a school that can look after all their girls, whatever their academic aptitude - and that is what Rye strives for. To this end, school is constantly seeking ways to enhance and expand opportunities with offers such as a BTec in business or the Leiths Introductory Certificate in Food and Wine at sixth form. Parents of the brightest girls choose Rye with every confidence it can deliver on the academic front but are also attracted by the unique quality of valuing the idea that happy people are the most successful.

Public examination results bear out the soundness of this approach with usually solid outcomes. Breadth of subjects on offer is impressive given school’s size, with maths and history top A level choices. All the usual suspects on offer at GCSE, plus food and nutrition, drama and Latin. At A level, girls can include Chinese, classical civilisation or government and politics in their choices should they be so inclined. The timetable is almost entirely – and uniquely – flexible, again a benefit of school’s size, with girls able to combine any mix of subjects without the restrictions of fixed ‘blocks’. A level classes tend to be tiny – just four girls were studying French and two religious studies when we visited – and it’s no sweat if just one wants to take any given subject at A level: ‘we just make it work’.

Class sizes in the senior school up to GCSE average 16 and with a pupil to teacher ratio of 5:1 there’s little chance of any stragglers slipping through the net. When it comes to SEN, we have catered for the needs of the extreme and the mainstream. Those needing the most support are given the flexibility to complete their schooling in the most appropriate way and emerge with a skill set that equips them for life. Learning support (charged as extra) is available to any pupil who needs it but outside of formal intervention little touches such as the fact that there are four maths sets help iron out any minor issues without a fuss. Strong links with several European countries means that specialist teachers support a significant number of pupils with EAL, with outstanding results: ‘sometimes after a couple of terms you can’t tell they’re not English,’ enthused one pupil of her international peers.

Sport

‘When it comes to games, we’re never going to win all the trophies, but we’re enthusiastic and inclusive and that’s what counts.’ It’s a traditional roster of netball, hockey and athletics at Rye plus a super range of clubs. An outdoor heated pool provides a popular summer term lunchtime club for pupils from year 3 up. Some success in fixtures – occasionally against much larger schools – but winning at any cost is not Rye’s raison d’etre, which is better described by one pupil as ‘competitive and fun’. Parents say girls are always a bit surprised when they win a fixture. School has grounds rather than acres of playing fields, but as with everything here, it does the trick and there are ample facilities for pupils to get sporty. School boasts ‘serious’ rowers and horsewomen amongst its cohort and celebrates victories won outside of school in assemblies. In fact, parents say school ‘celebrates everything’.

Punches way above its weight when it comes to extracurricular activities with a good array on offer for all ages. Books feature widely, with A Book a Month and Carnegie Medal Shadowing Club building on the fantastic foundations laid in the junior school by Rye’s devoted librarian (when we visited she was outside with some of the youngest children drinking pumpkin soup and reading Halloween stories). For prep pupils there’s forest school, indoor climbing, small animal care and even a festive decorations club (Christmas is huge at Rye, but more of that later). Seniors throw themselves into everything from dissection, mindfulness and Minecraft to psychology, DofE and Young Enterprise. There are choirs aplenty (happily, almost all non-selective) as well as an orchestra and chamber music group. Additional optional activities for boarders cover baking, power walking and climbing and there are further opportunities to join external clubs such as the Oxford Fencing Club and Oxford Isis Korfball Club. No wonder school feels the need to produce such a beautiful booklet to showcase its plethora of activities.

Arts taken seriously and ‘very strong’. Drama on curriculum from reception, LAMDA and ABRSM results alike are very good and there’s no shortage of opportunities for pupils to flex their performing muscles. From termly teatime concerts for novices to drama festivals, the halls of Rye are certainly alive with the sound of music. And it’s not just local performances on the agenda – notice boards in the smart music block advertise past and future musical tours to far-flung regions including Paris and Venice.

Lovely drama studio gives girls all the space they need for performances with the light and bright art studio, festooned with high quality paintings, 3D work and textiles, the cherry on top of the arts offering.

Boarders

Boarding officially available for girls from year 5, although when we visited the youngest were in year 7. The idyllic Croft, boarding house for girls up to year 10, is straight out of Enid Blyton with its parquet floors, sweeping staircase and spacious dorms. Communal areas are vast and beautifully furnished, years 7 to 9 are in mixed-age dorms and the eldest girls aspire to quirky attic rooms, up endless flights of stairs, sleeping just two or three and with panoramic views of the grounds. Years 11 and up are housed in The Cottage – also home to the sixth form centre – in single study bedrooms with a halls of residence feel, perfect preparation for uni. Maximum 65 boarders at any one time and there’s full, flexi or weekly boarding on offer – even occasional nights if beds are available. Good chunk (70 per cent) of boarders are from overseas – lots of South East Asian names on study doors, particularly in the upper year groups, but also a few Europeans (mainly Spanish) – three or four per year. Girls really value the opportunity to build international relationships: ‘it makes for the best friendships,’ they told us. Breakfast and lunch taken in houses, with dinner for all boarders in the main school dining hall. On top of special boarders’ after-school clubs, good provision over weekends with school making the most of proximity to London and Oxford, plus sports, art and drama, film or cinema nights. Each year kicks off with a team-building weekend away and girls can venture into Oxford in groups from year 10 upwards.

Ethos and heritage

One parent told us ‘there’s a little bit of magic at Rye’, and we definitely sensed a special and unique ‘girls' own’ atmosphere – an inexplicable feeling of sisterhood that can clearly be traced back to the founder and very first headmistress, Elizabeth Rendall, of whom a wonderfully atmospheric photographic portrait (complete with packet of cigarettes in foreground) presides over the entrance hall. She and Ivy King started the school in a house on the Woodstock Road in 1930. Many saw out the war here, growing fruit and veg in the gardens and taking fire warden duties at night. Girls learned to scull on the Cherwell and swimming was taught at Dame’s Delight (ladies’ counterpart to Parson’s Pleasure). Miss King took over the helm on Miss Rendall’s retirement, succeeded by Miss Sumpter, from whom Miss Jones took the reins in 1990 and Ms Ryan in 2018. It is from these formidable females that the school still takes its lead and the bravery and progressiveness of the founders – who were as competent in site maintenance as teaching Latin, all whilst persuading parents to allow their daughters to go to university – lives on. It’s no wonder that Old Ryes are so dedicated to their alma mater to the point that there were, at time of writing, five on staff.

Oft described as a ‘hidden gem’ and very different to the first impressions made by the heavy-hitting schools in the area, but this is where books by covers should never be judged, as past the little car park lies a charming, leafy – albeit bijoux – campus. The main school building is a fine example of late Victorian splendour with immaculate modern additions nestled amongst beautifully tended gardens and ancient trees. Signs of investment and updates abound. A lovely new reception area provides a warm welcome to the main school building with its tall ceilings and wide, light corridors, bedecked with works of art and colourful notices. The modern library, among the most inviting we’ve seen, is well stocked and furnished with a mix of cosy beanbags and more formal tables and, presided over by a dedicated (and dare we say dynamic) librarian, is hub to the many literary activities (author visits, creative writing workshops, book clubs, trips to Oxfordshire Author Awards) on offer. Plus the views across the lawns are to die for. Other new additions have been skilfully integrated, delivering the necessary facilities without ruining the quaint original architecture. Refurbishment of the science facilities has begun - good job as labs were rather basic.

School has a genuine ‘all-through’ feel, with juniors and seniors taught in a collection of charming buildings separated by just a winding path. The nursery is housed in King House, in quirky, rambling classrooms up in the eaves that can’t help but inspire young imaginations. Nursery open from 7.30am to 6.30pm – useful for the working parents that largely make up the Rye cohort. Juniors housed in Langley Lodge, part of the original collection of school buildings that retains its Victorian charm with winding staircases (complete with colourful giant papier-mâché giraffe at the bottom), giant sash windows, fireplaces and high ceilings, yet with all the requisite classroom technology present and correct.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

School has a lay Catholic ethos, meaning that while Catholicism is integral, it is outward looking and inclusive of all religions (or none) and cultures, and focused on spirituality rather than doctrine. Indeed, staff reported one Muslim girl ‘gaining the confidence to wear the full hijab’ in sixth form, thanks to her supportive experience at Rye. In this vein, pupils are expected to understand and observe certain principles of tolerance and consideration to prepare them for adult life. There are no frocked clergy or nuns on the teaching staff and the lovely little chapel is an understated stand-alone building open throughout the week and used in particular for the weekly Sunday mass.

A more contented cohort you couldn’t hope to find. Absent are signs of pressure, stress and ferocious competition, and instead smiles abound. There’s a genuine feeling of girls looking after each other, but the support infrastructure is built upon a friendly and down-to-earth (largely, from what we saw, youngish) staff room: ‘the support we get from teachers is amazing,’ said one pupil. Patricians (senior prefects) are trained in basic child protection and advise staff and governors as well as organising a mentoring system for all new pupils which involves each girl being allocated a ‘housemother’ – an older pupil – to help her to adapt to school life and answer any questions or concerns. And for when things do go wrong, there’s an ‘independent listener’ – a retired teacher at the end of the phone – to help put things in perspective.

Girls say they know every other pupil at least by sight, if not name, and talk about the school’s ‘family atmosphere’. ‘We love it when the whole school comes together,’ they say. Which, as promised, brings us on to Christmas. As with any family, it’s the unrivalled highlight of the calendar, and even on a dull day in early November, enthusiasm effuses from staff and pupils at the mere mention. Girls say they’re ‘hoarse by the end of term’ with all the singing that goes on, from the staff panto (male teachers in drag an apparent highlight), the Christmas lunch, classroom décor competition, traditional ‘tangerine party’ and carol service. Much enthusiasm too for the house system (‘house points really matter,’ according to one earnest year 7) with its many year-round competitions from charities day to sports day with the top house winning a house barbecue.

Discipline takes a magnanimous approach with head often consulting with offenders’ peers to ‘get an insight into family matters’ and ‘steadily unpick the issues to find the reason’. Open discussions are key and resolution rarely involves suspension or harsh sanctions. Even detentions are unheard of.

Pupils and parents

‘Representative of local fluid population.' Happy mix of locals and overseas pupils with many parents working at nearby BMW, the university or John Radcliffe Hospital. Largely down to earth, dual income – plenty of first-time buyers mixed in with old farming money and the children of old girls. Strong links with European countries (Italy, Spain, France and Germany), with pupils visiting from these countries for part of the summer term most years.

Money matters

Fees comparative with nearby ‘league table’ girls’ schools with all their gleaming facilities might raise eyebrows from some. Scholarships and some means-tested bursaries available at 11+, 13+ and 16+. Pupils can apply for a King Award for up to £300 to enable them to further an interest or learn a new skill.

The last word

Above all, a most civilised and humane school which achieves good individual outcomes for its girls wherever they sit on the academic spectrum. Although not an obvious choice if your girls are all high academic flyers, parents select Rye for all the girls in their family, safe in the knowledge that their daughters will have their individual potential developed whatever their ability. In the words of one happy sixth former: ‘Rye accommodates everybody. We all have a chance to shine.’

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

The school has a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator and a team of five learning support teachers, of whom two are teachers of English as an Foreign Language. The department also supports specific learning difficulties, examination skills, and counselling. Learning support tuition is available, at an extra fee, for any pupil, whether for help in a specific area or with wider study skills needs.

Who came from where


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