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The first thing you’ll notice is the lack of school uniform, with staff also casually dressed and most addressed by their first names – both approaches that provide a taster into the broad-mindedness and rejection of rigid educational ideology that mark this school out. ‘We take the view that at the centre of our job is providing an environment that feels comfortable because if children are comfortable, they’re much more likely to be engaged and confident,’ explains the head. The very ethos of the school is to provide a learning environment that’s all about…

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What the school says...

Dolphin School offers a 'hands-on' approach to learning, high academic standards and a unique field and walking trip programme both at home and abroad which takes education beyond the classroom and brings it to life.

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2015, Tom Lewis (30s), previously head of a prep school in Seoul, Korea. He grew up partly in Hong Kong, moving to Oxford for his school years, then read classics at King's College London. He worked in the City for several years before joining Papplewick as a teacher and stayed for eight years, becoming head of classics and deputy head, then worked for the Eaton Square Schools Group (now Minerva Education) before heading abroad.

An affable man with a calming influence, who is clearly passionate about the progressive approach of the school. But perhaps inevitably, given the quirkiness of the school, there were concerns when he arrived that he would ‘move the school more towards a classic prep school feel,’ as one parent put it. Staff too got a bit twitchy when he brought in traditional measures. But actually, there’s a consensus that he’s added clearer structures where required, without over-conventionalising.

Married to Catherine, who was a teacher before moving to an NGO and who has some involvement in the school. For instance, they co-wrote the school’s new earth studies course, which they teach to years 6, 7 and 8. They have two young children, both of whom attend the school. Interests include classical music and he still travels extensively with his family during school holidays.

Leaving in July 2019.

Entrance

The vision of the founder, who started this alternative (then Montessori) school in 1970 from the gardener’s shed in the grounds of her house (which remains adjacent to the school and where she still lives), was for Dolphin to cater for the more academically able. And while the school is still well suited to brighter children (and the Montessori approach still shapes nursery and reception learning), the pupil demographic has changed, with Dolphin now welcoming a wider mix of ability. Non-selective for entry into nursery and reception; pupils entering from age 5 upwards are assessed during a day of tests, including maths and English. Traditionally, parents have been largely academics, visiting Europeans and artists who are attracted to the school’s free-thinking ethos, but equally expect their children to gain places, if not awards, at top independent and grammar schools. Today, though, they’re just as likely to work for IT companies in the Thames corridor.

Exit

Roughly a quarter of pupils leave at 11 for local state and independent schools, the rest stay on until 13 for common entrance. The vast majority, according to the school, gain places at their first choice schools, which include Abingdon, Queen Anne's, Wellington College, Reading Grammar, The Abbey, Gillotts, Leighton Park, Sir William Borlase, Reading Blue Coat, Pangbourne College, Headington, Holyport, Luckley House, Shiplake College, Rugby and The Piggott Academy. ‘There’s no snobbery here about secondary school choices,’ reported one parent, who was opting for one of the many good local state schools. ‘Our options have been treated with the same respect and dignity as any fancier private school.’

Our view

You don’t have to spend more than about 10 minutes in this school to realise it’s unique, yet defining exactly what its magic ingredient is remains a challenge even the head teacher can’t rise to.

The first thing you’ll notice is the lack of uniform, with staff also casually dressed and most addressed by their first names – both approaches that provide a taster into the broad-mindedness and rejection of rigid educational ideology that mark this school out. ‘We take the view that at the centre of our job is providing an environment that feels comfortable because if children are comfortable, they’re much more likely to be engaged and confident,’ explains the head.

And engaged and confident these youngsters certainly are – no doubt helped by the fact that throughout the school is a total immersion approach to learning, the polar opposite of spoon-feeding pre-chewed lumps of facts that can characterise the national curriculum at its worst. In every lesson (all taught by subject specialists in dedicated classrooms from year 3), pupils are encouraged to take the scenic route down their own ‘avenues of thought’, with learning regularly going well beyond the usual boundaries. It’s the children who take the lead here, asking questions and discussing their ideas in a forum that gives them space to really be themselves.

Besides the usual range of subjects, there’s French from nursery and classics from year 3, which becomes Latin from year 4. Spanish and Greek are available from year 7, with other extra subjects including architecture, astronomy and – most recently – earth studies.

Although this is not a hugely techy school (staff are more interested in getting children outside in muddy fields than getting them to tap away on iPads in classrooms), there’s a good IT suite and – joy of joys – touch-typing is taught from year 3. Maths is a stand-out subject and juniors and seniors regularly arrive home counting awards won in the UK Maths Challenge. Reading is another big focus, with 15-25 minutes a day dedicated to heads in books for children and staff alike. Homework is set weekly, with pupils expected to do four to six hours of homework per week by year 8. Exams are held off until the end of year 5.

Drama is big, with pupils often gaining drama scholarships to their senior schools. Almost every year group is involved in some kind of annual performance, and there’s great excitement among pupils about the annual production put on by years 7 and 8 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Many of the plays are written by the drama teacher and they’re often thought-provoking, with one recent example being These Fragments, a poignant production about refugees. Around 10 peripatetic staff teach the usual range of musical instruments and there’s a school choir, ukulele band and various ensembles, with children regularly performing during assemblies, house music competitions and a concert in summer.

Then there’s the school trips, of which there are at least three a term from nursery upwards. Forming the very cornerstone to the school’s unwavering approach to experiential learning, the pinnacle is the year 8 Alps trip – an eight-day hike, which involves pupils warming up several years beforehand. Field trips are also common – building up from a three-day trip to Sussex in year 3 to a nine-day trip to Italy in year 8. All trips except foreign ones (where parents pay about half) are included in the fees, with the occasional contribution to food requested on top.

In terms of SEN, the school is relatively inclusive, taking on the usual range of dys spectrums, plus mild ADD, ADHD and ASD, although it’s honest about what it can’t cope with and does turn children away if it feels they won’t keep up. Pupils and parents praise the diagnostic abilities of the SENCo, as well as the one-to-one support provided in break-out classrooms, which is used to supplement what goes on in the classroom.

Sport is more about cooperation than competition. That said – and despite Dolphin’s numbers - it competes successfully against some much larger schools, and some children achieve regional and national representation. Boys mainly play football, rugby and cricket, whilst girls focus on netball, hockey and rounders, using the two on-site tennis courts and three grass pitches, as well as the school hall and Hurst Cricket Ground, a two-minute mini-bus ride away. Tennis is a strength too. Twenty after-school clubs supplement the timetabled sport along with the gentler exertions of yoga, ballet and dance.

Don’t expect wonders when it comes to facilities, which – with the exception of a shiny new science lab - are pretty average, with some on the shabby side. Parents are also unflashy, with only a sprinkling of the big black 4x4s that you get at many local preps - many work their socks off to get their children an education here. For those who want to be involved with school life, there’s no shortage of opportunity to volunteer on the school trips, even driving the minibus, as well as getting stuck into fundraising via events such as curry nights and the annual summer fair.

Pastoral care is highly praised by pupils and parents alike, with the school appearing to achieve that tricky balance of being nurturing, yet also encouraging maturity and independence. In addition to the form teacher, who is seen as the primary conduit for pastoral care, pupils in year 6 upwards have a mentor – someone who, ideally, isn’t their form teacher and who doesn’t teach them at all, whom they meet every other week informally over lunch. It also helps that the school is small – with two classes per year, with an average of 12 children in each (although one class had 19 when we visited). This, together with a buddy system, leads to cross-year friendships, as well as helping to prevent bullying. There are clear warning systems for poor behaviour - of which the worst tends to be around missing homework, being rude or unkind and not putting in enough work - which culminate in breaktime detentions.

No wonder the pupils we talked to – all of whom were eloquent, chatty, sharp and witty - were familiar both with the word ‘kinaesthetic’ and its meaning. Also no wonder that so many parents are evangelical about this school, with many moving to the area solely to get the kids in.
All schools say that they treat every child as an individual but this school actually does it, producing cheerful, humane, confident, mature and thoughtful children with a life-long love of learning ahead of them. As one parent put it, ‘They bring education alive.’ ‘If schools got stars for children’s engagement and happiness,’ said another, ‘they’d be off the scale.’

Special Education Needs

At Dolphin there is an Individual Needs Co Ordinator who helps to identify any children who may need support or, in the case of the most able, extension material. The curriculum at Dolphin is challenging and consequently the majority of children are of average ability or above. We do not have a learning support unit, but some children do have weekly one-to-one lessons with qualified support staff where necessary, the cost of which is in addition to the termly fees. 09-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
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
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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