This progressive and vast co-ed day and boarding school is steeped in history, offers modern teaching, impressive facilities and great pastoral care.
You’ll find the high-achieving co-ed boarding and day school Oakham School just behind the Market Square in the middle of Oakham, the handsome county town of Rutland. The school teaches 1040 boys and girls aged 10-18 years across two sites of 70 acres – a medley of heritage buildings reflecting the school’s 437-year-old history, along with more recent practical red-brick additions across both the Lower School (10-13-year-olds) and the Upper and Middle School campuses that sit across the road from one another. Oakham School admitted girls 50 years ago and boasts a rare and true 50%/50% split between boys and girl pupils with class sizes varying from 4 to 24 pupils. Locally Oakham is regarded as a strong all-round school as well as educationally progressive – it was one of the first in the UK to introduce the IB Diploma in 2001. A strong Christian tradition continues here, with a regular chapel for all children, though all religions are welcome.
In 2021 over 100 Oakham pupils made sports national finals – around 10% of the school – which gives you an idea of how seriously sport is taken here. No surprise then to find excellent and eclectic facilities here across 30 different sports, including a recently refurbished sports hall with indoor swimming pool and fitness centre, two cricket grounds so dandy they’re used for first-class county matches, a multi-purpose sports centre, two floodlit all-weather pitches for hockey and tennis, squash courts, fives courts and a strength and conditioning room with video performance analysis and full-time coach. More unusual offerings include golf, sailing on nearby Rutland Water, and clay pigeon shooting. Oakham also offers a further extensive activities programme that includes aerobics, pilates, canoeing, climbing and sub-aqua.
The main sports are, as you’d expect – rugby, hockey, cricket and athletics for the boys and netball, hockey, tennis and athletics for the girls, though it’s good to see that the girls also have the opportunity to compete in football and cricket and lacrosse. Leicester Tigers rugby team have used Oakham School for their training, and a stream of rugby stars have guest-coached here including Austin Healey, Graham Rowntree, Martin Johnson, and Geordan Murphy. No surprise then that rugby, along with hockey, cricket and athletics are the main trophy-garnerers, though sailing is also popular here – Rutland Water regularly hosts the National Championships and the school, which has membership at Rutland Sailing Club, owns Tera, Feva and Firefly dinghies.
Another strong string to Oakham’s bow (I’ll get my coat). Over 80 concerts take place each year across chapel, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, main school hall and external venues, with around half the school involved in musical ensembles. That’s a huge level of involvement for a Senior school, I’m struggling to think of a higher percentage that’s not in a specialist performing arts school. Over 20% of children at Oakham sing in choirs, with the audition-only chamber choir being runner up in BBC Songs of Praise School Choir of the Year in 2012 and 2016. There’s an audition-only Symphony Orchestra that tours every two years (or did before you-know-what), a chamber orchestra, a Big Band and various ensembles. If we’re being snooty, there’s only one Steinway – you’ll find it in the chapel – with Yamaha uprights making up the majority of pianos. But they do have harpischords here, and also the ability to learn the organ. It’s also one of the few schools I’ve come across that has, not only a Head of Music, but Heads of Piano, Brass and Percussion and Strings.
The Queen Elizabeth Theatre, now a grande dame at 32 years old, will have played host to famous Oakham alumni Matthew Macfadyen (Succession, Pride & Prejudice) and comedian Miles Jupp over the years. Drama scholarship students are able to access workshops by the likes of old Oakhamian actor Richard Hope (Poldark, Broadchurch, Orlando), and there are six staged productions each year across the school. Plus there’s a new purpose-built dance studio, The Courtyard, where pupils of all standards can access free dance classes which is a pretty awesome facility.
The Richard Bull Centre houses the art department, and its 6 dedicated spaces for art, sculpture, textiles and photography, and there’s a beautiful dedicated art space – the Wheelhouse Gallery – open to the public that was fully renovated in 2015 and now shows work by students and visiting artists. There’s a separate DT facility with large workshops and special studios for CAD design and electronics. The GCSE provision for art is wide-ranging – pupils can take GCSEs in Painting & Mixed Media, 3D Design and Textiles here.
Aside from the usuals you’d expect, the school is particularly proud of the Smallbone Library which it claims is one of the best school libraries in the country. It makes a good case – the library covers 2400 square metres over two floors, with 30,000 books and periodicals, a seminar room, and a bountiful 4 Librarians and 4 Library Assistants. In other facilities, there’s a recently completed Social Sciences Faculty and a purpose-built suite of classrooms for the Learning Support Department and a completely quiet study room. Also noting that Saturday School is still alive and kicking at Oakham – lessons in the morning, and sport in the afternoons.
The big privileges of Sixth Form happen in Y13 for both day and boarding students, when they move from their current houses into a dedicated Y13 building that aims to ready them for life beyond school. To that end, out go the uniforms and in come boys wearing suits, and the girls dressing for the ‘office’. There’s a head boy/girl and a deputy boy/girl here and they have greater freedom to go into town during the School day. The boys regularly compete to grow a moustache in Movember for charity.
Any independent school not delivering on academics isn’t going to survive long – with a founding date of 1584, Oakham is doing just fine! The IB is offered in addition to to A levels and has a relatively strong take up of between 15 and 20%pupils (FYI they start them young at Oakham – since 2019 the school has been running an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IB MYP) for pupils 11-13). Good to see, too, that those more practically inclined are catered to with a range of BTECS including Business and Sports Science.
Surprisingly for such an academically progressive school, the subjects offered here are largely traditional (only French, Spanish or German for GSCE languages for example), though Citizenship and Greek & Latin (known as Gratin) are possible.
RESULTS FOR 2021
A level: 65% A*/A grades; 85% A*/B.
IB Diploma 37.5% 40+ points (equivalent to 4 A* A levels). A*/A grades equivalent (7-6) 65%; A*-B grades equivalent (7-5) 89%.
GSCE: 66% A*/A, 83% A*/B, and 99% A*-C grades.
In terms of Oxbridge, four students made it into the hallowed honey stone quads in 2021 – while 93% made it into a university of their choice.
Oakham is a fast-paced, joiner-in kind of school so pastoral care is paramount. To its credit, Oakham’s pastoral offering doesn’t appear to be Covid bolt-on and is central to the school’s ethos. Aside from AS tracking and the normal PHSE, work is done in houses to encourage ‘self-checking’ which includes working on routines like developing a healthy sleep routine. All Form 3 pupils do a course in mindfulness but good mental health is also promoted by a Lego or craft club.
The system of support is similar to many other boarding schools I see – a live-in Housemaster or Housemistress, a matron (sometimes two) as well as a tutor for each student and the older kids mentor the younger ones, plus trained nursing staff in the Medical Centre. There’s the added benefit of the Chaplaincy team dropping into Houses regularly to lend support from on high.
Oakham’s flexi-boarding is a big draw – 50% of the pupils board here, with 2-5 days per week possible from the Lower School upwards, along with termly boarding for those further afield. There are two flexi- boarding houses (one for boys, one for girls) and a further other four Boarding Houses for full boarders that are clustered around the playing fields at the centre of the school, while Lower School boarders stay in a house on their Lower School (Jerwoods) campus with their own dedicated outside area.
I dropped into one of the girls’ boarding houses, and can report the usual mix of cosy and spacious rooms, a common room complete with a TV, snuggly sofas and a football table.
Bedrooms are shared in small groups of four in the younger years, moving to twin rooms higher up the school. There are also single rooms for the older kids which can be requested in advance.
Day pupils are well integrated with their own Day Houses – all the same facilities and experiences as the boarders (kitchen/common rooms) just without the beds. Day pupils from Lower School upwards can arrive for breakfast or stay on for supper at no extra cost – a huge help for busy parents.
Henry Price joined Oakham in Sept 2019 after 5 years as headmaster at Wellington School in Somerset and before that 13 years as Senior Housemaster at Rugby School so it’s safe to say he knows boarding! He has four kids, three of whom are studying in Oakham (always reassuring for other school parents I think) so he acts and reacts as both a headmaster and a parent himself. Warm and approachable, his vision for the school is about fusing pastoral learning with academic attainment to arm the children with the emotional smarts for when they leave the school bubble and do battle in the real world.
The last inspection was in 2019, it makes happy reading for Oakham with excellents peppered everywhere. You can read the latest school report here.
Oakham isn’t a school that plays a trump card on eccentricity but there’s plenty of character here. How many schools still use the sole original classroom from 300 years ago? The Old School was restored in the 18 century and is still used today. Ask for the shutters to be opened so you can see the frescos painted by the sister of 1902-1929 headmaster Tom Sargant.
The Y13 boys play outdoor quad cricket at their house (records of quad cricket at the school going back to 1902).
Oakham’s Combined Cadet Force (CCF) is well-established, with weekly parades in School, weekend training, field days and annual camps during the summer holidays and includes an Adventurous Training (AT) Programme that includes taster sessions in climbing, kayaking, caving, canoeing, abseiling and hill-walking.
Finally, Congo happens in the Chapel every week – don’t get too excited though and start shuffling down the nave, it’s short for Congregational practice
With 50% non-boarders, many Oakham working parents need decent wrap-around care provision and Oakham has it signed, sealed and delivered with its Extended Day option – from Lower School up pupils can join the boarders for breakfast at 7.30am and also stay for supper and supervised prep until 7.30pm at no extra cost. Middle and Upper School pupils can stay at the School until 9.15pm when the library closes (for ages 13+).
Six bus routes run to the school from Stamford, Foxton, Leicester, Gaddesby, Balderton and Medbourne. Oakham’s location has good road and rail links to London, Stansted and Birmingham so it’s handy for out-of-towners and international students (36 different countries and counting) as well as those from the surrounding countryside.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
Lower School (10 to 13 years) right through to Form 4 (13 to 15 years), no phones during the school day or overnight for boarders. Form 5 (15 to 16 years), phones allowed during the school day but are to be used sensibly and Form 6 and 7 (16 to 18 years) can have the phones on them at all times.
Day pupil fees are on the higher side I’d say, perhaps reflecting the extended day provision, whilst full time boarding seems better value than other elite boarding schools. Day pupils £6,150 – £7,610, flexi-boarding: £7,395–11,950 and full boarding: £9,400–£12,600 per term.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Ambitious for the kids but not too pushy. A warm, friendly feel here and good to have the parent-centric thinking of wrap-around care and flexi boarding.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Joiner-inners and go-getters will love the all-round facilities and opportunities at Oakham. The central town position offers a good middle ground between the often unwelcome freneticism of a city and the remote ‘bubble’ of a rural setting. The school is competitive, not cut-throat, and hits a friendly, inclusive note despite its size.
NOT FOR: The large campus and relatively large cohort might be overwhelming for some. Depending on your views on how boys and girls learn best, you may not think co-ed classes lower down the school to be such a great idea. Though the school is centuries old, the campus is not as striking as many other independent schools. Palladian manor house fans need not apply.
DARE TO DISAGREE? Be my guest! Join them for their 2022 Open Days on 30 April and 11 June for the Middle and Upper School and 21 May for the Lower School. Call or visit the website for the details and let me know how you get on!
Oakham School. Chapel Close, Market Pl, Oakham LE15 6DT.
Tel: 01572 758500