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Parents report ‘incredibly high’ workloads for the most able pupils – ‘a great deal is expected of them’ – with a far more nurturing approach to those less academically inclined. Technology used lightly where appropriate – pupils love the ‘pebble pads’ voting tool in history. Unashamedly ‘outdoorsy’, according to head (thank goodness for the sensible winter uniform of roll neck jumper atop shorts and kilts rather than shirt and tie), a plethora of activities awaits pupils at the end of their school day and if that’s still not enough older years can choose to take part in the optional Saturday morning enrichment programme...

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What the school says...

The Oratory Preparatory School was founded by John Henry Newman whose vision was one of an all-round education - developing each child’s mind, body and soul.

Newman’s vision and the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, kindness, compassion and forgiveness are key to shaping the moral awareness and convictions of our pupils. In all that the school does and teaches, children grow and learn under the founder’s motto of ‘cor ad cor loquitur’ – Heart speaks to heart.

We welcome children from all faiths or none and teach understanding and respect for the beliefs of others and different ways and places of worship, including visits to Gurdwaras and Synagogues.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2017, Robert Stewart (40s) BA PGCE. Educated at Dragon School and St Edwards, Oxford then theology degree from Durham followed by PGCE at Queens’, Cambridge and later a Masters in education management at King’s College London. First post at Ampleforth before moving to Eton in 2001. During his tenure of some 16 years he coached rugby and cricket, was head of divinity and ultimately a housemaster and master in charge of Roman Catholics. Open and businesslike, still with shades of public school formality but on his way to getting to grips with the cosy charisma required of a seasoned prep school stalwart. ‘Sincere, highly visible and approachable,’ say parents.

Was ‘immediately impressed’ by staff upon arrival, so was it a case of a new broom doing the proverbial at this well established local favourite? Reportedly more of a gentle (but thorough) spring clean. The big – and surprisingly controversial – news was the scrapping of compulsory Saturday school in favour of a voluntary programme of enrichment activities, with pupils from years 6 to 8 able to join for some or all parts, or not at all. Following the initial parental protests from a significant, vocal minority though, it’s actually gone down rather well – try as we might, we couldn’t find a pupil who missed it and even some of the most vehement protestors have performed a volte face after trying the new arrangement.

Introduction of hot snacks – sausage and bacon sandwiches – at morning break also a hit, ‘a bit like scoring a hat trick’, and report cards are just twice termly now – a popular move with staff. High on mid-term agenda is retaining more girls in years 7 and 8, a strategy kicked off with a brand new Astro in 2017, lending itself beautifully to netball and hockey, and an ‘absolutely superb’ new head of girls’ games, ‘crucial in creating a sense of being genuinely co-ed’.

Head still teaches RE to years 4 and 6 and English to year 7. Lives on site with wife, Sam, a GP, and their three children – two daughters and a son – all now installed at OPS. Full-time dad in holidays, oft found at the family home in Somerset, either cheering on Chelsea FC or dreaming of finding the time to train for his fifth marathon.

Entrance

Non-selective, although tinies now moving up to reception in numbers from on-site nursery, Little Oaks, established 2014, makes it worth getting names down early as most year groups oversubscribed. Assessment morning and report from current school for entry to pre-prep and prep.

Exit

Conversations start as early as year 4, particularly for girls planning to leave at 11. Parents say school ‘does not encourage’ departure at the end of year 6 so don’t expect tons of coaching for 11+ entrance exams. A small handful of boys leave at 11+ bound for local day schools, with now about a third of girls choosing to stay put and numbers rising. Despite boarding angle, parents mostly want co-ed day schools next. Between a quarter and a third of boys move seamlessly up to the Big O, with Abingdon and Radley popular alternative single-sex options, St Helen and St Katharine or Queen Anne’s for girls and Pangbourne, Wellington and Bradfield on the co-ed front. Broad range of awards: all-rounder, drama, art and multiple sports.

Our view

Approached down a seemingly endless drive that winds through some 65 acres of grounds, before opening out to reveal the lovely Arts and Crafts main school building, with its wealth of original features including oak staircase and panelled, Hogwarts-esque, dining hall. Modern additions from assorted decades, the most recent a beautifully designed wood-clad nursery for pupils from 2+ set in the heart of the woodland. Pre-prep housed in former stables with top-notch outdoor facilities and jolly classrooms adorned with examples of pupils’ written and artwork. Outdoor learning, including forest school, strongly in evidence with an enviable abundance of fields, ponds and woodland lending itself beautifully to the cause.

With just 35 per cent of the cohort RC, it’s catholicism with a small c: ‘parents buy into our strong pastoral ethos and we’re keen to make the school as accessible as possible to all religions and cultures,’ says head. Daily prayers, hymns in assembly and the charming Father Ken – also chaplain at the senior school – are the only obvious indications of school’s religious foundation, although all pupils attend mass once a week in delightfully compact school chapel (termly for pre-prep). Parents praise the overwhelmingly ‘kind and thoughtful’ culture of the school, streaming down from a number of ‘genuinely spiritual’ senior staff members modelling Christian values. Any pastoral issues reportedly ironed swiftly out with parents ‘impressed’ by the way things are dealt with. New cognitive screening tool helps identify any pupil concerns and anxieties to allow for early intervention.

Surprisingly, boys outnumber girls two to one; school has genuine co-ed vibe, and the girls certainly make their presence felt. This helped by uplift in those continuing into year 7 (over 30 girls in combined years 7 and 8 at the time of our visit), who operate as single entity for sports and social events and ‘really have each others’ backs’. ‘Not a glitzy school,’ according to head, with large number of first-time buyers and a down-to-earth feel, pupils coming from a radius of up to 30 minutes. Little racial diversity (less than 10 per cent non-Caucasian) and head says there are ‘occasional issues’ amongst pupils reacting to difference, but all faiths are represented in (sometimes very) small numbers.

Solid academics in classes averaging 16. Pupils couldn’t choose a particular favourite department, just that ‘whatever your favourite subjects are, you can be sure they’re covered well’. In the languages department it’s French from reception, with two native speakers on staff, Spanish in years 3 and 4 and Latin from year 6. Mandarin on offer as a club. Setting for maths from year 3 with ‘plenty of movement’, and thereafter in year 7 when a small scholarship set is formed. New perspectives course taught by head to years 7 and 8 – everything from historical facts about British society to rules of law and ethical dilemmas around freedom of speech. Parents report ‘incredibly high’ workloads for the most able pupils – ‘a great deal is expected of them’ – with a far more nurturing approach to those less academically inclined. Technology used lightly where appropriate – pupils love the ‘pebble pads’ voting tool in history as well as mathspace on the school iPads. The upside of a very long school day (8.15 am to 5.00 pm including a compulsory hour of prep, followed by optional activities until 6.00 pm) is that very little work goes home – a great relief for parents.

Two dedicated learning-support teachers in prep school and one in pre-prep offer extra one-to-one lessons up to twice weekly for pupils needing SEN support, charged as extra. Parents describe department as ‘a supportive constant in the background – always there to help’. School can support mild to moderate dyslexia, dyscalculia or dyspraxia and mild ASD. Excellent EAL provision offers eight hours of specialist integrated teaching per week for international (mainly Spanish) boarders who typically join for year 8. Performance ‘a big thing’. ‘Almost everyone’ sings in the non-selective senior choir, although choristers, of course, audition and ‘are quite another thing altogether’. We loved the fact that music department (described by head as ‘very inclusive’ and parents as ‘incredible’) embraces imperfection with its ‘beginners concert’ for new instrumentalists, and experienced musicians are inundated with opportunities to perform. Orchestras and bands abound; there are numerous music practice rooms and many pupils achieve at least grade 5 in an instrument by the time they leave. Drama ‘really fabulous’, according to parents. Senior pupils take a play annually to the Shakespeare Schools Festival and there are combined plays for years 3 and 4, and 5 and 6.

As at the Big O, it’s mostly about rugby for boys, although footie results are not too shabby and cricket’s also big. Definitely one to beat on the fixture list. Director of sport told us it’s ‘sport for all’, sometimes with two fixtures a week and as many as six teams fielded in years 7 and 8. Parents less convinced that quality coaching is ‘for all’, though, with grumbles that C and D teams tend not to benefit from the outstanding instruction on offer to the more able players and are often lumped with an inexperienced gappie: ‘not a very encouraging message’. Football and cricket also for girls alongside netball, hockey and rounders, now with fixtures and, on occasion, girls playing on boys’ teams. Additional options, including tennis, athletics, triathlon, darts (darts!) and recently a mini mudder, mean that even the most comfortable of couch potatoes should find something to float their boat. According to pupils, though, it’s the co-curricular opportunities that are the real cherry on top of the OPS pie. Unashamedly ‘outdoorsy’, according to head (thank goodness for the sensible winter uniform of roll neck jumper atop shorts and kilts rather than shirt and tie), a plethora of activities awaits pupils at the end of their school day and if that’s still not enough older years can choose to take part in the optional Saturday morning enrichment programme that offers everything from talks on philosophy and climate change to visits from senior school heads to three or four weekly modules run by teaching staff on eg cookery or upcycling.

Boarding totally flexible, with all boarders having their own bed, regardless of how many nights they choose to stay and the majority, living locally, doing it ‘just for fun’. Boarding houses in main school building, with boys on one side of the staircase and girls on the other. Lovely quirky dorms with up to 10 beds get top marks from us for decoration – unusually, even on the boys’ side. Cosy common rooms offer both mixed and single-sex socialising areas and are kitted out with table football tables, air hockey, board games and TVs. Quite the most inviting san we’ve ever seen – and house staff of matrons, nurse and gappies give the place a happy family feel. There’s ‘loads to do’ for the international full-timers who get trips to local attractions at weekends.

Prefectships galore for top two years – compulsory duties assigned to pupils according to their interests: art, music, class, ICT, library. Minibus routes morning and afternoon from Reading, Shiplake and Henley. Active parents’ association (FOPS) organises coffee mornings, fundraisers and class reps. In the words of one parent: ‘OPS is a school for all sorts of children.’ A place with a palpable buzz and vibrancy that gets the balance between giving children the freedom to be themselves, whilst maintaining a focus on traditional values, excellent manners and respect, absolutely spot on. No longer a ‘boys' school with girls’ but a truly co-ed option, one for the list for parents of boys and girls who want their children to reap all the opportunities that a genuine 13+ prep can offer.

Special Education Needs

The school has its own full-time special needs co-ordinator to cater for children with learning difficulties, and this support is furthered by other visiting specialist teachers. Where necessary, pupils may be withdrawn from class to receive special tuition. We regard it as our duty to satisfy the educational needs of all children in the school, including those who are particularly gifted academically or in any other area of activity which the school can foster.

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