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No uniform, first names for teachers, tree-hugging, non-consumerist, fiercely individual, unapologetically intellectual. Children here are encouraged to question ideas and teachers, to speak up, to resolve their own problems – all in a kindly free-range atmosphere. A small school, particularly in years 7 and 8; average class size is a diminutive 15. Could, perhaps, be described as...

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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 January 2019, Adam Hurst (40s). Educated at Kelly College; read English Literature at Reading. Began his teaching career at Shiplake College in 2004. He moved on to Caldicott Prep where he was head of sport, then became housemaster of the junior boarding house at Dauntsey’s before a short spell at The Oratory, Berkshire, and thence to Dolphin.

He grew up in a sprawling theatrical family founded by his grandmother, an Italia Conti-trained actress and dancer who ran several theatre schools. His father is musician and record producer Mike Hurst (one of the Springfields, alongside Dusty – worth a Wikipedia search, we assure you). He is one of seven children, many of them in the theatre world, including sister Muffin who runs the Henley Children’s Theatre Group (first started by her grandmother). As if that were not enough razzmatazz, he spends his free time running the highly successful Apache Sevens rugby team, one of the top sides in the UK. Also a keen player of hockey, tennis, squash and cricket.

Energetic and capable, he took the reins after a slightly rocky period with several changes in leadership. Parents seem thrilled to have such a solidly qualified leader — ‘A headmaster of Adam’s caliber can really lift a school’, one explained. ‘The kids just love him.’ Seems almost preternaturally destined to head Dolphin — from his surname (Dolphin is located in the village of Hurst, Berks) to his choice of life partner (wife, Jo, attended Dolphin and returned as head of English in 2017). When the head’s role came up at this unique school, he pounced. Now has two children at the school and a younger tot who will soon be joining them.

Entrance

Now welcomes any child who can ‘access the curriculum’. Tiddlers may begin at the nursery from ‘rising 3’. Pupils entering the school from age 5 upwards are assessed during a day of tests, including maths and English. Unusually, children can start here at all times of year and in all year groups.

Exit

Pupils move on at 11 or 13 to an enormous range of senior schools — comps (loads to nearby and well-regarded Piggott Academy), state grammars, independents, boarding schools, single sex, you name it. ’We lose a lot at the end of year 6, sometimes due to finances, but also to secure places at local state and grammar schools’, explains head. ‘Those who stay get so much out of those last two years.’ Excellent preparation is now given to kids moving on to independent schools or grammars who will be prepping for the ISEB pre-test or 11+. There’s a verbal and non-verbal reasoning club in year 5 and a timetabled reasoning lesson in year 6. Also interview practice. All pupils get where they need to go, often with scholarships (this year to Teddies, Abingdon, The Abbey, Queen Anne’s and Shiplake).

Our view

Dolphin’s American founder Ophelia Follett came to the UK in 1968 for a PhD programme at King’s College London. Two years later she was magicking-up this alternative (then Montessori) school with 25 tots aged 2-4 in the gardener’s shed in the grounds of her house in Berkshire. Half a century later the school is still going strong — it celebrated its 50th birthday in December 2020. Originally it aimed to cater for highly academic children (conjuring images of a past life something like Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in the X-Men). The school is still well suited to brighter children (and the Montessori approach still shapes nursery and reception learning), but there is now a wider mix of ability. ‘We’re less academically selective than we used to be’, says the head. ‘We want our school community to reflect the diversity of the real world.’

No uniform, first names for teachers, tree-hugging, non-consumerist, fiercely individual, unapologetically intellectual. Children here are encouraged to question ideas and teachers, to speak up, to resolve their own problems — all in a kindly free-range atmosphere. A small school, particularly in years 7 and 8; average class size is a diminutive 15. Could, perhaps, be described as the junior school Bedales wishes it had.

Pupils are thoughtful, engaged and confident, no doubt helped by the 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. Subjects are well-taught by academic specialist teachers with teaching flair and confidence in their subjects. Staff turnover is ‘nonexistent’ say parents. French, Spanish and Mandarin are offered, along with Latin. Academic focus has recently been tightened — ‘there is real rigour’, said a mum. Parents are keen to emphasise that this is ‘not a hippy school' — ‘It may have a whiff of the unconventional but there is a passion for learning, especially in STEM – maths and science is its great strength.’ In 2020 the school dropped CE and is now developing its own curriculum — ‘CE is outdated, and seems pointless when the independent schools are basing admissions on pre-testing in year 6’, says head. Children now have scope to work on a range of more relevant tasks which might include preparing a TED-style talk or delivering a business pitch.

Art and drama are outstanding. There’s great excitement among pupils about the annual production put on by years 7 and 8 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Music perhaps a less obvious selling point, but the school’s choir sang lustily at the Young Voices concert at the O2 in 2020. Lots of music lessons are delivered by a range of peripatetic teachers, and all children are encouraged to try an instrument.

Outdoorsy and unexpectedly sporty — the head certainly provides an example from the top. Most sport is co-ed, with boys and girls playing hockey, football and cricket together across the three terms. Netball for the girls and rugby for boys is included in the mix. There are weekly matches, and the school is said to punch above its weight on the pitch. Newish head of sport ‘has transformed the whole thing for the better’. Two on-site tennis courts and three grass pitches, and the schools uses Hurst Cricket Ground, a two-minute mini-bus ride away. Good use of the outdoors on the academic side as well, with classes spilling into the grounds and beyond.

Ask a current parent to describe the school, and the first thing they are likely to mention is the beloved programme of day and residential 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.

The school takes the usual range of dys spectrums, plus mild ADD, ADHD and ASD, but is not rigorous in screening or identifying need. ’You have to push for what you need. It’s available, but it could be more school-driven’, said a mum.

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. No mobile phones, but older kids can sign theirs in and out of the school office if its needed for travelling to school. Bullying is now well dealt with, and all children are immersed in the anti-bullying education. In true Montessori spirit, 13 year olds and 5 year olds — and everything in between — can be found interacting in the playground.

This is not a slick or polished school, and parents are quite happy with it that way. ‘We’re not the place for parents who want to brag about their child’s school at dinner parties’, says the head. ‘Parents here value education, not corduroy shorts, straw hats and capes.’ That said, Mr Hurst is conscious that Dolphin could do with a bit of spit and polish, and various improvements are on the cards. Parents mostly seem to like the status quo, and there’s a touch of inverted snobbery. ‘The school is nothing to look at’, said one. ‘The staff are what’s magic’.

Last time we were here we said that parents are evangelical about the school, and that remains unchanged. Choosing a unique school like Dolphin means taking a dive into the unknown, and parents who do it — and see their child bob to the surface bubbling with the joy of learning — want to spread the word. One mum who commutes a long way so that her children can attend told us she almost wish she’d never visited the school because once she did no other school would do. Quite a few current parents are former pupils. Other former pupils include Radio 4’s John Finnemore (Cabin Pressure), LSE professor of finance Alex Edmans, former England Cricketer Claire Taylor, actor Blake Ritson who played Mr Elton in the BBC’s 4-part adaptation of Emma, and TV presenter Matt Allwright.

Certainly deserves to be better-known. Strangely low profile for such a trailblazing school but valuable resources tend not to be squandered on promotion. ‘My PA is also the registrar and head of marketing’, head explained wryly. ‘We are the type of school we know people want — outdoorsy, hands-on, small classes. We just need to get the word out.’

The last word

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. Exuberant yet disciplined; quirky but oddly classical; alternative but non-woo. The sort of unique school people move house to be near. ‘If schools got stars for children’s engagement and happiness,’ said a parent, ‘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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