Hello from an autumnal Richmond!
For this month’s newsletter, we headed north to visit Oakham School, an old favourite of ours at Von Bülow. We’re sure you’re going to enjoy it as much as we do. So read (and listen) on!
School seen through trees
Up in the East Midland county of Rutland, Oakham School has a very special setting that is partly what makes the school one of our firm favourites. Oakham School sits in the heart of the traditional English market town of the same name, Oakham. Since the 1500s, the school has grown organically alongside the town, spreading across its lanes and alleyways, so that the school community and its buildings are completely baked into market town life, both physically and culturally.
Oakham town - a typical, idyllic English market town
Oakham town has plenty of old world charm, with Georgian cottages and thatched roofs abounding. The school is less grand than some British boarding schools—it’s not the most obvious “looker”, if that’s what you’re after—but all buildings are in tip-top shape and have a cosy and welcoming atmosphere.
Down the road is Rutland Water, a vast reservoir that is a birdwatcher’s or water sports enthusiast’s heaven, and which is regularly used by the school. For urban sights, the nearest cities are Leicester and Peterborough—to the east and west respectively—both an easy 30 minutes from Oakham by train or car. Cambridge is an hour away.
Two and a half hours drive north of London, Oakham has three major airports to choose from that are all around 90 minutes away: Birmingham, London Luton, and London Stansted. Trains to Oakham also take about 90 minutes from London.
One of the school's many courtyards
What (we think!) Oakham School is all about
On our podcast, we ask all interviewees to describe their school in three words. At Oakham School, it’s no coincidence that one word crops up more than any other: grounded. Partly due to its northern location, away from the pressure cooker schools in the South West, Oakham School is refreshingly down-to-earth, friendly and tolerant. It provides all the top class facilities and opportunities that you’d expect of a top British boarding school—a seriously broad extracurricular offering is one of Oakham School’s real strengths—but without the airs and graces that give some schools a somewhat stuffy atmosphere. As one teacher at Oakham School told us: “We’re not a school that lives off a name or very impressive Harry Potter-ish buildings.”
Green - courtyard outside the science block
Oakham School is instead all about community and being a home away from home — as shown by the number of teachers we encountered who had been at Oakham for ten years (or more!). That sense of community and grounded ethos is also indebted to the fact that the school is “really rooted in this lovely community” of Oakham market town, as opposed to “in a bubble” on a remote countryside estate, as headmaster Henry Price explained on the podcast.
A school truly buzzing with creativity: pottery
An understated school that is at ease with itself, Oakham Schoolisn’t trying to prove anything to anyone — and with over 50 years of coeducation under its belt, it doesn’t have to.
Molecules - Oakham has a strong reputation for the natural sciences
As well as being very experienced with coeducation, Oakham School is also a favourite of ours at Von Bülow because of its strong handle on the IB, which it has been teaching for 20 years. The school’s commitment to the IB is evident in its new “IB Middle Years Programme”, which aims to replicate the IB framework for pupils lower down the school.
View into design: Oakham School sports one of the best DT labs we know!
Results are impressive for a school that is not heavily selective. In 2021, 66 per cent of pupils achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 59 per cent A or A at A Level (85 per cent between A and B). That year, the IB average point score was 35. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 52 per cent of pupils achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 38 per cent A or A at A Level (64 per cent between A and B).
Textures of Oakham School: ceiling at the fabulous art department
Latin and Greek are popular, and subjects which headmaster Mr Price teaches himself. For those with their sights set on Oxbridge, there’s a programme of intellectually stretching seminars and talks. Most importantly, students we spoke to raved about the way in which the extracurricular programme at Oakham School allows them to pursue their academic interests at a deeper—or more entertaining—level, whatever the subject and whatever the student’s academic level. “You can do much more than just in the classroom,” sixth-former Zoe told us.
A huge extracurricular offer, including first-rate sports
Oakham School’s extracurricular offering is seriously impressive. Sport leads the way, thanks to the school’s extensive facilities, which include over 40 acres of grass pitches—plus two all-weather surfaces—a vast sports hall, squash and fives courts as well as a swimming pool and gym. It’s definitely one of the sportier schools in the UK (three afternoons of sport are compulsory for most year groups) and more than 1,000 pupils means that Oakham School can field multiple competitive teams as well as those for students who are less concerned by the scorecard.
Astonishingly good: Oakham's pottery
Arts (creative and performing) are also very strong, and the reason why some pupils chose Oakham School full stop. DT labs (yes, there’s multiple of them) are stuffed to the brim with everything you could wish for, while there’s dedicated internal and outdoor spaces for exhibiting students’ art in a professional context.
As with all things at Oakham School, the extracurricular offering also involves the local community. Throughout the week, there are free recitals and concerts held in the town church, attended not just by pupils, teachers, and parents but by members of the public as well — a great introduction to solo performing in an intimate environment before many pupils step onto the stage of the school’s vast theatre.
Art project in progress: trousers hanging from the art dept. ceiling
But where Oakham School really stands out is in what our tour guide Zoe mentioned previously — its ability to extend the classroom, and pupils’ enthusiasm, into the extracurricular, and vice versa. As James Robinson, deputy head of extracurricular told us: “it’s about the stuff you don’t have time for in the classroom”. This means getting the science enthusiasts into the kit car or dissection club, the gaming enthusiasts into coding, and the philosophers into debating.
Cricket is only one of the sports Oakham excels at
The broad and rich number of activities on offer does mean that pupils have to watch that they don’t spread themselves too thin, or get too tired. Zoe told us on the podcast that so much choice can sometimes be a source of frustration: “Because there’s so much you can do, it’s hard to pick which bits you have enough time for in the day,” she said. Not too tough a problem to have though, really!
Oakham's amazing 6th Form Boarding House
Oakham School is a large school. It has more than 1,000 pupils, including 500 local day pupils. In other schools, if 50 per cent of the student body didn’t board, it might leave the place feeling a little empty in the evenings and over the weekend. But the size of Oakham’s student body means that it still feels like a full boarding school, with hundreds of pupils on campus all weekend doing all sorts of activities.
Of the boarders, 200 are weekly boarders who live within an hour or so; the combination of them and day pupils means that international students (from around 30 countries) are well and truly absorbed into a local British life, often spending weekends or evenings at friends’ houses nearby. “It is wonderful that we have day students,” Simone Lorenz-Weir, head of upper school and director of IB at Oakham, told us on the podcast. “A lot of friendships really blossom between day boys and girls and boarders.”
5th Form boarding, no less impressive
The safety of Oakham market town and the way in which it is physically interwoven into the school’s campus means that pupils are allowed quite a bit of independence, and are free to pop to Tesco, the cafés, shops, or restaurants a couple of times a week. Trips to Leicester, Peterborough and Cambridge are common, but pupils seem plenty satisfied with all that’s on offer closer to home.
There are eight boys’ houses and eight girls’ houses, reflecting Oakham’s commitment to true 50/50 coeducation, which is a somewhat rarity in the UK. As pupils get older, their freedoms increase, and the top years live in houses off the town’s main market square, which act as a stepping stone to the independence of university or beyond.
Aprons: for cooking, DT, art...
Our view on a student suited to Oakham School
Given Oakham School’s welcoming, grounded atmosphere, you would be hard pressed to find a student not suited to the school. Oakham’s size, impressive resources and extensive facilities means that all interests can be catered to, whether sporting, academic, artistic, or otherwise. The friendly family atmosphere would benefit any pupil, while the school’s large size means this community won’t smother or feel insular to pupils used to big cities.
Oakham School perhaps isn’t the place for those who wish to channel their energy into one specific niche or those who always have their noses tucked into textbooks; with so much on offer here, this is a school that appreciates pupils who are all-singing and all-dancing, with the enthusiasm—and the energy—for a variety of activities.
But otherwise, the words of Oakham School’s very friendly chaplain perhaps provide the best explanation of which sort of student would be suited to Oakham School.
“I’ve got three children, and they are all very different,” he told us on the podcast. “I’d be perfectly happy for them to come to Oakham School because they’d be able to find their own way, and go on to do extraordinary things if they wish to… You can come out of here and go in any direction.”