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School’s raison d’etre is to supply the cathedral with its choristers and although this absolutely pervades the school we didn’t get the feeling that it defines it; one parent commented that it runs almost like ‘two parallel schools’. Pupils fall into one of three camps: cathedral choristers, a minority group of up to 20 boys in years 4 to 8; Worcester choristers: day boys selected to be part of the Worcester College choir (approximately another 20, viewed by many to have ‘the best of both worlds’), and the remaining cohort of around 110 boys who have varying degrees of...

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Choir school - substantial scholarships and bursaries usually available for choristers.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2014, Richard Murray BA MA PGCE. Educated at Bradfield College – a ‘profoundly inspiring’ experience which sparked his realisation that teaching was ‘one of the most important things a person could do’ – and Durham (English, history and philosophy). PGCE from Magdalene College Cambridge. Arrived at Christ Church after a 14-year stint at Teddies (10 as housemaster) to find a school with a ‘lovely, warm atmosphere’ – a palpable feeling that he has grasped and built upon. Staff and parents agree that ‘kindness has come to the fore and filtered down the school’ under his leadership. Has raised school’s profile, as well as the aspirations of the senior pupils, and built academic focus and rigour to create ‘a serious prep school’. Describes himself as a ‘choral music junkie’, just one of his cultural addictions; the other is reading (a passion evidently shared by the whole school).

Married with three sons; one at Magdalen College School, one off to Harrow where Mr Murray’s wife teaches classics, and another at Orley Farm School.

Entrance

Majority of day boys fairly local and enter from nursery or reception in a steady stream until year 3. A handful of girls in nursery. Assessment by participation in class for younger boys and academic tests for the older years. Cathedral choristers often (although not always) come from further afield and generally join in year 4, frequently having participated in one of school’s ‘chorister for a day’ events and been bitten by the bug. From there they are required to pass a voice trial and academic assessment. One parent made the point that even with the necessary skill set in hand, it is imperative for cathedral choristers to be ‘kind, generous, easy going and from a stable family background’ due to the pressures of being part of such a small, hard-working boarding community (‘it can have a negative tidal wave effect if not’). Full boarding for ‘made up’ cathedral choristers compulsory from year 5. Cathedral covers generous portion (sometimes 100 per cent) of choristers’ fees as well as associated international tours. Cardinal’s Scholarship for up to three year 3s who are expected to achieve well academically.

Exit

A handful of leavers most years at the end of pre-prep to local day schools – Magdalen, Abingdon et al. At 13 boys to a range of day and boarding schools including MCS, Abingdon, Cokethorpe and Teddies as well as Eton, Harrow, Radley, Shrewsbury and Haileybury on the boarding front. Cathedral choristers almost always win music scholarships or exhibitions, many with generous bursaries to boot. Non-music scholarships on the up – school now has a dedicated master in charge – although some parents commented that, when it comes to sports awards, success is driven by them.

Our view

Tucked away in a historic corner of Oxford, linked to the college itself by a small courtyard garden and under the imposing gaze of Christ Church Cathedral just over the road. Born from Henry VIII’s charter of 1546 which established the education of eight boy choristers and a master for the cathedral. Very much an urban school – and a totally different proposition to its local competitors with their magnitudinous acreage, muddy knee ethos and ‘something for everyone’ approach. Every available nook and cranny used and most drenched in history; buildings include the original Tudor residence of Cardinal Wolsey. Newer additions include a bright new classroom block and drama studio named for old boy (composer) William Walton. The net result is a cosy warren of surprisingly spacious and unsurprisingly characterful classrooms, labs and play areas.

Recent renovation programme has given school a bright, cheerful feel and there’s not a tatty corner, chipped skirting board or malodorous dorm in sight. Formerly down-at-heel boarding accommodation now sparkles with pristine paintwork, funky lighting and squidgy sofas and a delightful common room, packed with musical instruments, has a stunning dual aspect of Christ Church College. Pool table hosts ‘hotly contested’ tournament. Pianos litter the school – an antique Steinway positioned unceremoniously at the top of a back stairwell just par for the course. Food has reportedly ‘improved a lot’ too and boarders look forward to the weekend chef who whips up ‘beautifully presented’ fare. Outside space would be top of boys’ wish lists if they could wave a magic wand, but although playing fields are not on site, they’re just a short walk away and – overlooked by the dreaming spires of Magdalen and Christ Church – are more than worth the journey. Dilapidated pavilion, but watch this space for news of an upgrade. Adventure play equipment recently added to the school’s courtyards for use at break time, but there’s no chance of muddy knees outside of games periods.

School’s raison d’etre is to supply the cathedral with its choristers and although this absolutely pervades the school we didn’t get the feeling that it defines it; one parent commented that it runs almost like ‘two parallel schools’. Pupils fall into one of three camps: cathedral choristers, a minority group of up to 20 boys in years 4 to 8; Worcester choristers: day boys selected to be part of the Worcester College choir (approximately another 20, viewed by many to have ‘the best of both worlds’), and the remaining cohort of around 110 boys who have varying degrees of musical interest or, occasionally, none at all (although in the main ‘music is just what you do’, says head, adding that there are ‘more peripatetic music lessons per week than there are pupils’). All benefit from the school’s bijoux size and its ‘tailored education – our size is the clue to everything’.

Cathedral choristers start their commitment aged 8, when they join school as weekly boarding ‘probationers’. From year 5 they operate as professionals, singing in up to four services almost every weekend, including religious holidays such as remembrance, Easter and Christmas when they stay in school until they have sung both at matins and the eucharist services (games socks hung up on Christmas Eve and filled by matrons a lovely touch and ‘loads of fun and games’ in the lead up). Demanding rehearsal (up to three hours a day) and performance schedule means no exeats but there are ‘out’ weekends where they can go home from Friday afternoon until Saturday afternoon. We arrived for our visit wondering if it was a somewhat niche existence for boys of such a tender age, and left at the end of the day convinced that the discipline, patience and concentration instilled in them during the course of their time of a chorister (‘so often lacking these days’, pointed out head) would set the right kind of boy up for life. With all musical commitments taking place outside of curriculum time, though, it’s a rarefied existence and not for the faint of heart. With a requirement to study two further instruments (compulsory piano and one orchestral) on top of choir commitments, academic studies, sport and other selected activities (one chorister parent told us his son had a total of just 60 minutes unscheduled time a week), boys’ hearts need to be absolutely entrenched in their music and the journey needs to be driven by them alone in order to be a happy and successful one. International tours during school holidays are part and parcel (recently China and USA) and boys are constantly photographed by tourists as they process to the cathedral in their Tudor style caps and gowns. Too much pressure and responsibility? For an average boy, undoubtedly. But the choristers we met were extraordinarily mature and self-assured for their years (‘10 going on 19,’ said one parent – our thoughts exactly), although still with broad smiles, tousled hair, wonky ties and the occasional untied shoelace. Their outstanding achievements infuse the entire school: ‘all our pupils aspire to that excellence in whatever they do’, says head, and school aims to relieve pressure when the heat is on at the cathedral.

Seamless transition into reception for littlies from the idyllic nursery setting, with parents praising the teaching that ‘borders on individual tuition’ in tiny classes (seven in reception when we visited). Trad curriculum, with French and Latin in the languages department, plus now Spanish and Greek as clubs. And what better way to incorporate all the languages spoken at the school by learning carols in as many as possible – even Korean? ‘We like to celebrate diversity,’ says school. Teachers are ‘most brilliant’ and ‘fantastic’, say parents – particularly head’s newer appointments. Regular off timetable themed days, recently focusing on WWI with an animals at war workshop, trench digging and an insight into the German side of the conflict. Proximity to Oxford’s wealth of offerings maximised with trips and outings, and visits from fascinating academics are the norm. Programming recently introduced to curriculum and IT, French, art, DT and games all specialist taught from reception. Reasoning on curriculum in year 5 to ensure boys’ readiness for ISEB pre-test. With 10 per class, ‘they have to knuckle down and can’t get lost’, say parents – some of whom (delightedly) report dramatic turnarounds in academic achievement having moved their son from larger preps or state primaries: ‘Christ Church picks up their potential’. Head says success is due to the ‘family atmosphere – we really know the boys.’ Those at top of academic heap are sometimes working up to two years ahead of their age. School experienced in managing mild SpLD and makes good provision for a variety of SEN children, with a full time SENCo plus three TAs who are assigned where needed.

Atmosphere ‘not testosterone fuelled’ – boys participate in two games afternoons a week. Cricket and football fight for top popularity ranking depending on who you speak to (cricket: the head; football: everyone else) and boys also play rugby. The beauty of school’s size is that everyone who wants to can play on a team and often it’s whole year groups rather than just an elite group that get on the school minibus hoping for glory at inter-school tournaments. Although some parents feel that their boys are often outclassed on the sports field by larger schools, results are respectable considering the limited number of boys from which to choose; the CCCS A team will sometimes play others’ B or C team to ensure a fair match. One dedicated full-time games coach, now supported by a part-time colleague (a professional football coach) and some ‘very solid’ members of the academic faculty, but families with the mindset that boys, like puppies, need to be rigorously exercised daily, should probably look outside of school for their sporting fix. Clubs take place as part of the school day. Real tennis hugely popular, as is chess which is played ‘seriously’ and to a very high standard. The ‘herd energy’ of the choristers also drives excellence in musical performances by orchestras, bands, choirs and groups for every instrument going. An art room festooned with props and canvases and DT lab homed in a charming former stable block testify that the creative child is well catered for and although there’s no drama on curriculum, thespians are kept busy with bespoke plays often written by head of drama with particular pupils in mind for key roles.

Renewed focus on pastoral care recently: ‘it’s much better organised now’, says head. Three resident dogs including one trained in literacy support and one in pastoral. ‘Well used’ counsellor visits one day a week and staff are all made aware of children on the red or amber lists that may need extra pastoral support or just a close eye. Boys understand the disciplinary code and in the main commit only minor transgressions, with the result being conduct cards to be carried for a week. Bullying a rarity but relationships between boarders can occasionally become ‘explosive’ due to the intensity of their living and working relationships. Older boys noticeably nurture and mentor the younger. Houses named after dignitaries associated with the school: Carroll, Wolsey and Sayers. Fiercely fought house competitions include enterprise day, music, sports, merits and prizes and, as culmination, the Dean’s Cup. Parent association reportedly ‘a lovely group and very organised’.

With boys from all backgrounds, many from hard working, dual income families, plus a range of cultural origins (more than half are fluent in another language), Christ Church offers what the head calls a ‘unique educative experience’ that sets it apart from the other local options. One parent described it as ‘really normal and grounded with just the right set of values’ – we agree. For an affable chap who would benefit from life in a tight knit community with intensely focused academics, provided he can either fulfil his sporting ambitions outside of school or has a limited need for such rambunctious frolics, then Christ Church might just fit the bill.

Special Education Needs

We have a SENCO and staff qualified to deal with any problems as they arise as boys move through the school. We view sympathetically requests for boys' entry with some mild dyslexia, dyspraxia or physical or visual problems.

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