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Enviable grounds run down to the River Cherwell, ‘but we’re not allowed to go further than those trees,’ said our guides, pointing. ‘Mollycoddling!’ Old Dragons huff and puff as they reminisce about learning to swim there ... Surprisingly low-tech, with fierce rules about mobile phones and other electronic devices (‘We’ve held firm for many years’). Pupils are resigned, ‘I’d prefer to have my phone, but it’s never been any different’; parents can’t believe their luck, ‘My mum just loves it’. The starry quality of its alumni network must make school reunions quite ...

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What the school says...

The Dragon is a highly renowned boarding and day school in Oxford for boys and girls from 4 to 13 years. The Dragons outstanding, all-round education encourages, enquiry, confidence, individuality and a love of learning. A creative academic curriculum is extended with extensive programmes of sport, music, drama, clubs activities. Family-style boarding in ten boarding houses from age 8 is at the heart of the school. Pupils of wide-ranging ability excel at the Dragon; this years leavers achieving excellent results at Common Entrance as well as 43 scholarships and awards to the countrys leading public schools. ...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2017, Dr Crispin Hyde-Dunn MA (Oxon), PGCE MA (Ed), NNPQH, PhD (40s). A reassuringly long string of letters after his name as befits the head of one of Oxford’s best-loved educational institutions. Comes from a clergy family in Sussex, his grandfather was a headmaster and both his parents trained as teachers. Previously head of Abingdon Prep, before that deputy head of King’s College School, Cambridge, and head of history at New College School. Perhaps not your typical prep school head (if there is one), but there’s steel behind his restrained, rather studious demeanour: ‘Don’t underestimate him, he doesn’t miss a trick.’

Despite such a pedigree, some wondered whether he would be tough enough for Dragon and its famously feisty parents (of whom, more later), but any doubts seem to have been dispelled: ‘There are some big characters here, it can’t be easy, but he’s getting things done.’ ‘He’s consultative, he genuinely listens to all opinions, but he’s also firm and decisive.’ One of his first actions was to commission a survey of parents, pupils and staff, and their responses have informed the school’s development plan. Accordingly from 2020 Saturday academic lessons will be replaced with a ‘bespoke enrichment programme’ called Dragon QUEST, an acronym which covers a multitude, the following are examples: Quiet – creative writing, chess, birdwatching; Understanding – museum and art gallery visits, photography, music; Exploration – bushcraft, science experiments, coding; Self-development – finance and business, school magazine, debating; Track – cycling, circus skills, dance, swimming. The programme will be compulsory for boarders but voluntary for day pupils. Pupils will be encouraged to choose activities from each group and can opt in or out.

Some scepticism from parents about whether reality will live up to hype, but Dr H-D says, ‘It will add value to pupils’ education in a way that after-school clubs and activities can’t because of time constraints,’ adding, ‘it also taps into staff and university expertise.’ It certainly looks both ambitious and meticulously planned, school is phasing the changes in over two years and keeping parents informed as things progress. ‘It looks fantastic,’ said one, ‘I just wish it was going to start before my child leaves.’

Parents have been reassured that all this comes at no extra expense (apart from trips) and without compromising academic provision; after-school activities will remain unchanged. Although Saturday attendance will no longer be compulsory, the reality is that sporting commitments and music/drama rehearsals will still make it a six-day week for many. Head has also met demand for flexi-boarding options, local parents can now book occasional nights at a few days’ notice: ‘We love it – and it’s pretty good value if you factor in the cost of babysitters etc.’

Despite growing numbers of preps abandoning Common Entrance for skills-based programmes such as the Prep School Baccalaureate, Dr H-D says Dragon’s colours are still nailed firmly to the CE mast: ‘There’s real value in a subject-specific curriculum, it’s also good preparation for the linear structure of GCSEs and A levels.’ He acknowledges it needs reform. ‘We’re keen to shape CE, to make the curriculum more relevant.’ One can appreciate how important the consistent currency of CE is to a prep which sends pupils to as many as 40 different senior schools including CE devotees Harrow and Eton.

Says it is a ‘privilege’ to lead The Dragon and its ‘inspirational community’. ‘There’s so much affection and enthusiasm coming from staff, parents, pupils as well as Old Dragons.’ We’re not sure how he fits it in, but he’s recently finished a PhD in art history (visual representations of Henry VII) and teaches different year groups about the ‘meaning of art’. Also goes on a weekly learning walk around the school and aims to be as ‘visible as possible’. It’s ‘crucial’, he says, to be able to hear the children running around at break time and chat to pupils and parents at pick-up and drop-off. Children have certainly noticed, ‘He’s really friendly, he talks to us lots, especially when we’re taking exams. He tells us not to worry.’

We first met him at Abingdon Prep and it seems that his love for Formula 1 and Italian cars is undiminished – as is his very youthful demeanour. What is his secret? Holidays are for travels in Italy. Lives on site with his wife, Lucy, a veterinary scientist and research fellow at Wolfson College: ‘She’s very supportive of the school – and the school dogs.’

Entrance

First come, first served in early years. Register as early as you can, school says ‘about a year in advance’. Usually full, with a waiting list, but Oxford is a dynamic city ‘so it’s worth going on’. Prospective parents urged to visit, ‘We really like to meet them.’ While we were there several hopefuls with babes in arms were waiting in reception to do just that. Boarding places possibly slightly easier to come by. Non-selective-ish but does assess English and maths to ensure candidates can cope. Means-tested bursaries available from year 4.

Exit

Near: St Edwards, Oxford plus Abingdon School and Magdalen College School (boys), Oxford High, Headington and St Helen and St Katharine (girls). Far: Boarding schools including Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Radley, Cheltenham Ladies’, Wycombe Abbey. Co-eds – Wellington, Marlborough, Stowe, Rugby. Big numbers, big names and plenty of scholarships too. Majority stay until age 13, ‘relatively few’ girls leave for day schools at 11.

Our view

This is one of the largest preps in the country with 800+ pupils, more than any of its neighbouring senior independents. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t feel like it. Established as a boys’ school in 1877 by a group of Oxford dons, it moved to its present north Oxford site in 1894. Enviable grounds run down to the river Cherwell, ‘but we’re not allowed to go further than those trees,’ said our guides, pointing. ‘Mollycoddling!’ Old Dragons huff and puff as they reminisce about learning to swim there.

Went fully co-ed in the 1970s and really feels it, although boys still outnumber girls, especially for boarding. Original name was Oxford Preparatory School, became known as Dragon in honour of St George – one of the principal founders was a Mr George. And those dragons are everywhere, etched into glass, wrought into ironwork and decorating the floor of the dining room. School motto is appropriately fiery: ‘Arduus ad Solem’ (Reach for the sun).

Average class size is 18, subject setting for science, maths and French. Parents told us that school manages setting flexibly and makes great efforts to mitigate academic divisiveness: ‘The atmosphere is not competitive and boasting about good grades is frowned on.’ However, this view wasn’t unanimous and we some heard grumbles about setting in maths in years 7 and 8 (by this time there are nine maths sets). Other parents we questioned about this were happy with the status quo although there were a few mutterings about ‘lack of aspiration’ in lower sets. School acknowledges some further clarification is required and says it has already improved information about its subject setting policy in response to parents’ concerns and tried to make the process more transparent. Adding, ‘Open communication is very important, parents are given staff email addresses and are encouraged to contact them directly with any concerns or questions.’

All do Latin from year 5, school’s eight-strong classics dept has designed its own teaching materials, Greek offered years 6 and 7. We enjoyed sitting in on some very active and diverting lessons, including a team vocab game in Latin, a year 6 English class who were looking at Betjeman poems (he was a pupil here) and a year 4 reasoning class who were all on their feet doing some pretty complex numerical sequencing which involved jumping up and sitting down (completely beyond us, but it looked great fun). In DT construction was underway of a wooden boat to go on the river. Prototypes had already been tested, ‘Everyone’s sank apart from ours!’ Library was full to bursting with an author visit, we passed by twice and he was still going (with a different year group), keeping his audience in stitches. Apparently, a pupil had won him for the day in a national competition. Did he know what he was taking on? A gig at the Dragon isn’t for the faint of stamina.

Learning support ‘excellent’, particular praise for the way they keep parents informed. Eight staff plus external specialists as necessary provide help for pupils with mild to moderate SEND; EAL also offered (around 30 pupils receive this). School says it looks for potential and takes a range of abilities, but the norm is ‘above average’.

Teams fielded in a huge range of sports. Girls’ hockey is on a high, the 1st XI were undefeated in 2018, as were the U13 A and B rugby teams. Dragon athletes also topped the medals table in the National Championships. Riverside location is great for sculling and school has its own regatta. There’s a 25-metre swimming pool and Olympic-size Astro for hockey. Football and cricket for boys and girls. Teams play a whopping 900 fixtures a year and players are bused off to away games on Wednesday afternoons, a couple of parents told us they thought it was sometimes a match too far: ‘Two hours travelling either side of a match is exhausting, they should restrict it to schools within an hour’s drive away.’ Sporting glory is the norm, rather than the exception – a win against Dragon is always cause for big celebrations at smaller preps!

Mass participation in music of all kinds to a very high standard, but facilities struck us as pretty cramped – dark, narrow corridors, particularly small practice rooms. Temporary classrooms (‘pods’) augment space and provide soundproof recording studios. Pupils don’t seem to mind, telling us that competitions such as Battle of the Bands and house singing are ‘fantastic’. Fundraising has begun for a new music school. Drama ‘phenomenal’, with plays, musicals, improvisation games and play writing opportunities for all. Around 150 pupils take LAMDA lessons. Leavers look forward to the ‘A Block’ (year four upwards known as E-A Blocks) end of term review, ‘We have a few songs and take the mickey out of teachers.’

Energetic charity fundraising, ‘we’re very into charities,’ our guide assured us, reaches a peak with the Dragon Sale, a huge festive market held in December, ‘there are stalls all over the school, it’s amazing.’ And it really is amazing, the last sale raised £169,000 for good causes (all family and children related) nominated by pupils. Raffle prizes donated by parents included use of a 10-person ski chalet (bids over £20,000). ‘It’s really the only time I’ve been aware of the income disparity here,’ said one of our interviewees.

Boarding from age 8, although only a few start this young. Boarding options are full, day (1-4 pre-arranged nights per week) and now, in response to parental demand, flexi (occasional nights arranged a few days in advance). Ten houses on either side of Bardwell Road, most single-sex but one co-ed for flexi/day boarders. All domestic scale with a home-from-home feel – guinea pigs and a bug hotel in the garden, lots of teddies and own duvets and a smell of baking rather than disinfectant. One Beano fan had papered his wall in covers! ‘We try very hard to make it a family atmosphere,’ said a house parent and that’s exactly what it felt like to us. New boarders are asked to agree house expectations, good behaviour is incentivised, points are awarded and add up to treats such as movies and hot chocolate. International boarders ‘feel very welcome’ and are encouraged to share their cultural traditions. Friends who are day pupils can come round, ‘they’re always intrigued.’ Always ‘100 or so’ boarders in at weekends to enjoy activities such as paintballing, laser tag and shopping in the Westgate Centre.

While traffic on Bardwell Road isn’t heavy (except at pick-up and drop-off), the school day requires a fair bit of travel across it, hence watchful member of staff in a kind of sentry box. Even so, we thought some Dragons’ road sense looked perhaps just a little blasé. Younger pupils do not cross unaccompanied and are escorted to and from houses. School is part of the Oxford Schools Bus Partnership but for some that’s an extra expense too far.

Lunch is staggered, youngest eat first and classes sit with their form tutors. ‘They don’t run out of food, there’s always enough to eat,’ our guides said, favourites being lasagne and treacle tart. Apparently, lunch used to be ‘a bit dodgy’ but is now ‘really nice’ (Dr H-D changed the catering arrangements in response to parent and pupil feedback). We certainly enjoyed a delicious creamy stroganoff. No clubs at lunchtime, they’re all after school – cookery is ‘really popular’, as is judo; we liked the sound of ‘Toast and Translation’ (Latin club). Friday afternoon lecture programme, Spectrum, has a pretty impressive line-up, ‘There’s no problem getting speakers (many from deep pool of illustrious former pupils) or audience questions,’ says head. Day pupils can stay for tea and do homework until 6pm. Long-established exchange programmes with schools in New York and Tokyo sound pretty special.

Surprisingly low-tech, with fierce rules about mobile phones and other electronic devices (‘We’ve held firm for many years’). No portable screens at all in boarding houses or in school (apart from in IT suites), iPads available but ‘not the default’. Day pupils must hand their phones in at the lodge every morning. Boarders are allowed Kindles but must ask before they download material; Skype or Facetime used to contact parents with permission. ‘It takes away the pressure,’ we were told, ‘and it encourages children to talk to each other. There’s no social media, no comparing of latest devices. Everyone is in the same boat.’ Pupils are resigned, ‘I’d prefer to have my phone, but it’s never been any different’; parents can’t believe their luck, ‘My mum just loves it.’

School’s founding values are kindness, courage and respect and it seemed a very friendly place to us. Pastoral system ‘incredibly well-coordinated and responsive’, house parents, teachers, tutors and a buddy system for younger children all mesh together to ensure that no one feels lost in the crowd: ‘They handle integration of new pupils very well, the buddy system also fosters friendships between year groups.’ A large team of gappies (most from Australia and South Africa) work as boarding assistants. Female members of staff are known as ‘Ma’, plus their surname; chaps used to be ‘Pa’ but are now ‘Sir’.

There’s a parent portal, lots of events for new parents and Saturday morning parent forums, but probably because it’s mainly a boarding school, no PTA or class reps. This has clearly left some parents believing that their voices are not heard. School says it is looking at ways to improve this situation. Dragon parents are a pretty tough and diverse crowd and it’s unlikely that school could please all of them all of the time. Nevertheless, even if the vast majority of parents are delighted (and that was overwhelmingly the case among those we spoke to), it looks like there’s still room for improvement when it comes to communication and transparency (school doesn’t disagree with this point). Any other criticisms? A couple of parents said they’d like some kind of senior schools event, ‘choice can be a bit overwhelming’ and a pupil declared: ‘I would make the lost property system work better.’

The starry quality of its alumni network must make school reunions quite an occasion and many former pupils return to support fundraising events. Thespian Old Dragons alone could form their own branch in Hollywood: Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Hollander, Emma Watson, Dom Joly, Jack Whitehall. Big names in the literary world too including John Betjeman, James Runcie, Alain de Botton, William Fiennes, Nevil Shute, Nicholas Shakespeare, John Mortimer and Antonia Fraser. It’s tempting to go on, but let’s finish with just two more: Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, and London Mayor hopeful, Rory Stewart.

Thus far we’ve held back from mining the fertile seam of dragon-related metaphors, but the force of nominative determinism is strong. The school does have a somewhat mythical status and we were keen to see the reality for ourselves. Big? Yes, but friendly and big-hearted, not scary. High-profile? Yes, but definitely not flashy or corporate. As for magic, there’s always something magical about a really good school and the Dragon is no exception.

Special Education Needs

The learning support department offers assistance and support to children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. The department works in close conjunction with subject and form teachers to ensure that support is provided when and where necessary, and within the context of the broader curriculum. The department is situated at the heart of the school with a central area and specially designed teaching rooms. All those who teach in the department have a qualification in teaching children with specific learning difficulties. Children are generally withdrawn for individual lessons once or twice a week but some group lessons also are provided. There are also speech and language therapists who support children with speech, language and social skills.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
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 Y
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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