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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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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


Since January 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.


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 whilst the school is still well suited to brighter children (and the Montessori approach still shapes nursery and reception learning), the pupil demographic has changed, particularly since the recession, 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. If parents entering the school higher up have concerns around their more traditionally educated offspring settling in, there’s really no need. ‘There hasn’t been a settling in process,’ laughed one parent. ‘Thanks to the welcoming, informal atmosphere, caring teachers, smaller classes and buddy system, almost immediately it felt like my son had been there forever.’


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. ‘There’s something intangible that’s special about this place, but I’ll admit I can’t quite put my finger on it,’ he says.

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.

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 classroom we visited, children were engaged – no, engrossed – as well as hands-on and busy, with teachers (of whom, by the way, there’s a good gender mix) dedicated to enabling and encouraging independent thought and learning, with no subject ever dumbed down. ‘In every science lesson this term, we’ve done an experiment,’ one year 5 pupil told us, whilst a younger one told us about geography being taught almost entirely outside. ‘It means that even if you don’t like a subject – I didn’t like maths, for instance – you get to like it because it’s never repetitive or mundane,’ said one pupil.

Also key to the school’s approach is the fact that subject specialists teach in dedicated rooms from year 3 upwards, with pupils so adept at making their way from lesson to lesson that the level of independence and organisation among Dolphinians is noted by senior schools they go onto. ‘There are other benefits to having subject specialists,’ says the head, ‘not least that we are exposing children to people who are really passionate about their subjects.’

Within these lessons, pupils are encouraged to take the scenic route down their own ‘avenues of thought’, with learning regularly going well beyond the usual boundaries. ‘If that means going off on a tangent for a whole lesson, so be it,’ says the head. 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. One can’t help feeling teaching here must be all-consuming, but incredibly rewarding too. In fact, several members of staff who have joined from other schools enthused, saying it had restored their faith in their vocation.

If you’re worrying that this means subjects are inevitably taught in silos, don’t be. Far from it; the cross-curricular approach to learning knocks the socks off most primary schools. ‘For instance, we were learning Mary, Mary Quite Contrary in Latin, then being taught what it’s all about in history,’ said one pupil. ‘My son loves how everything is gelled together to create the big picture,’ said a parent.

The upshot of all this is that school life can seem, to the onlooker, somewhat chaotic and disordered. ‘But,’ as one parent pointed out, ‘it’s a misconception, because everyone knows exactly where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing. Whilst at my daughters’ previous school, they learned how to toe the line and do what they’re told – which is what you expect to see in a school - here they have the space to figure out who they are and what they’re interested in.’

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. ‘We are a humanist school, so there is no divinity or RE on the curriculum, but what earth studies does is incorporate philosophy and morality with current affairs to explore big questions like, Why are we here? Why is there so much suffering in the world? What can be done about the situation in the Middle East?’ explains the head.

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. The head also points out that programming has become the most popular after-school club. 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. ‘Reading and literacy is your passport to accessing the curriculum, so we take it very seriously,’ says the head, who adds that 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. Not for these pupils a day’s outing to a museum, after which they’re told it’s now back to business as usual. Trips here - of which there are at least three a term from nursery upwards - are business as usual, with the whopping 120 of them per year forming the very cornerstone to the school’s unwavering approach to experiential learning.

A highlight of the school trips happens in year 8, when pupils embark on an eight-day hike through the Alps, although in order to reach these heights, children must warm up with a trek on the South Downs in year 4 and ascend year by year through the likes of the Brecon Beacons, Lake District and Snowdon, each trip a day or two longer than the last. For the field trips, children begin with a three-day trip to Sussex in year 3, followed by a four-day trip to Dorset in year 4. Year 5s get a four-day trip to Ironbridge; year 6s get a five-day trip to North Wales; year 7s get a six-day trip to Northumbria or Normandy, finishing with a nine-day trip to Italy in year 8. These visits are ‘threaded’ into every subject and a wall of photos in the assembly hall provides encouragement along the way. 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. Meanwhile, the gifted and talented are helped by a variety of methods including tailoring work, setting in maths and French from year 5 upwards and English from year 7 upwards, and extracurricular activities such as scholarship science club and debating club, which particularly (although not exclusively) attracts the more intelligent.

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 particular 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. There are some space issues too, including the tiny (but well-stocked and well-run) library and small (but charming) art room. Children used to eat packed lunches in the classroom – an ongoing bugbear of parents - but hot lunches are now provided. The swimming pool is just about indoors but only used in the warmer weather because it lacks changing rooms - not even these intrepid children fancy a bathing suited dash across the tarmac in February. But none of this seems to impinge on the quality of teaching or learning, which just goes to show that in the end it’s about the teaching, not the facilities.

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) – meaning children know the names of pretty much everyone else. This, together with a buddy system, leads to cross-year friendships, as well as helping to prevent bullying, which is quickly nipped in the bud on the rare occasion it does happen. The school’s charitable focus, meanwhile, helps prevent the school being a bubble of privilege, with children regularly encouraged to think about others around the world. 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, without a shred of arrogance - were familiar both with the word ‘kinaesthetic’ and its meaning. The very ethos of the school is to provide a learning environment that’s all about moving around and working manually with ideas. Sitting still in class and just listening simply doesn’t happen here – underlying everything that happens is the principle that the more activity you experience while doing a skill, the better you learn it. This, along with a genuinely cross-curricular approach to learning that’s coupled with traditional academic rigour, is what seems to set this school apart, the result of which are 250 self-motivated children with a love of learning and an enquiring mind.

Also no wonder that so many parents are evangelical about this school, with many moving to the area solely to get the kids in. ‘My son was unhappy at the state village school, yet the self-belief he has now is wonderful,’ said one parent. ‘We have two very different children – one who prospers in challenging environments and the other who is far more sensitive and gentle, and we struggled to find any school that could accommodate them both. But here, they’re both flourishing. It’s hard to exaggerate how much it has transformed both their lives,’ commented another.

It’s not for everyone, with one parent describing the school as having the ‘Marmite’ effect. ‘If you’re after the established, traditional prep school experience, you’ll walk away thinking, “No way!” as one friend of mine did,’ she said. Another pointed out that children who thrive on routine and take comfort in the security of the same classroom might struggle here. But if you like the concept of a school that never straightjackets children, enabling them to take the lead and work at their own pace within a context of high expectations and indeed aspirations, this is a school with a wow factor.

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
Aspergers Syndrome [archived]
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders [archived]
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Delicate Medical Problems [archived]
English as an additional language (EAL)
Epilepsy [archived]
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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