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29 June 2020
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding School in Profile: Oakham School, a happy place with an extraordinary academic and extracurricular offer

Hello from summery Oxfordshire!
We hope that you and your family are well.
At risk of sounding like a broken record: all British boarding schools remain closed due to Covid19 and won't reopen before September. This has made writing our our 'English Boarding Schools in Profile'-series somewhat more challenging. Usually, we write our articles with fresh impressions immediately after a full-day visit.
But alas, visits won't be possible until September earliest.
Fortunately for us, the school we are dedicating this article to is one that we know well. We've been priviledged to work with Oakham School for over 20 years now and help several pupils to a place there every year.
Also, in preparation of this article, our MD Ferdinand Steinbeis caught up with Oakham School's Head of Upper School Simone Lorenz-Weir for a thorough update on everything that has been happening at the school over the last year.
In many ways, Oakham School is an educational consultant's dream school: we are able to recommend it to virtually any pupil, safe in the knowledge that it will nurture and support no matter what his/her personality, abilities or interests.
For how Oakham School achieves this, we suggest you read on.
School House. // copyright Oakham School
The Setting
Let's get this out of the way at the beginning: if you are looking for Hogwartian grandeur, Oakham School is not for you. The school, while far from unattractive, lacks the beautiful architecture of a Malvern College or the closed, rural campus of a Haileybury. Instead, the school is located in the heart of Oakham, a charming market town in county Rutland in the East Midlands of England. As the school grew it purchased more and more buildings around town. When we visited last, Oakham School was in the process of converting the town's former police station into a state-of-the-art medical- and well-being centre.
Gardens and Science Block // copyright Oakham School
That said, a boarding school's location in a small, safe English town has clear advantages.
Take the attractive amenities. Oakham town has a lively coffee culture. Its cute cafes are popular with the school's 6th Formers - never more so than after a night burning the midnight oil over their extended essays. There are grocery stores and the weekly farmer's market for food, boutiques for retail therapy and a train station within a convenient five-minute walk from school. Parents, on the other hand, are reassured about their kids safety, as teachers venture on regular patrols around town.
The friendly locals help, too. Oakham School enjoys an excellent, symbiotic relationship with the local populace. Being the biggest local employer helps, of course. Beyond providing jobs, the school is a source of entertainment, not least with the pupils' Lunchtime Concerts at the local church every Wednesday, which are open to the public!
Speech Day at Oakham School // copyright Oakham School
For the pupils a town is a welcome change of scenery. Boarding school life gets intense! Being able to take a quick coffee-break from it all can sometimes make all the difference.
Oakham School is well connected to international airports. A direct train goes from Oakham to Stansted airport, taking 90 minutes. A cab will take you to all London Airports within one hour.
Shiny, happy people! // copyright Oakham School
What (we think) Oakham School is about.
Oakham School exudes warmth and happiness; its size allows for an unparalleled breadth and depth of top-class academic and extracuricular offers and its pragmatism allows it remain relevant and modern.
Let's unpack this statement a little.
The overwhelming feedback we get from 'our' Oakham pupils is how genuinely warm the atmosphere at Oakham School is. This holds now as it did 20 years ago, when we started working with the school. Yes, yes, we know - statements about how 'warm a school is' tend to sound trite. With Oakham School however, this description fits like a glove. Our own, admittedly very subjective explanation for this is two-fold: firstly, Oakham's staff and teachers care for pupils' well-being and will go out of their way to help them succeed on their own terms; secondly the ilk of pupil that we see being attracted by Oakham School tends to be down-to-earth, collaborative and respectful.
Campus in bloom // copyright Oakham School
Also, we know Oakham School as a school that delivers for ANY pupil at the highest level, no matter what his/her aptitude, interest or personality.
Again, this sounds like a platitude that you will hear about other schools. Here, we know this to be true. How? We have helped place more than 100 pupils over two decades here. And no other group of pupils we have placed at similar schools has been as diverse: from academic wunderkind to dexterous artisan; from hockey superstar to music whizz; from the focussed go-getter to the late-bloomer - Oakham has given everyone the indivdual attenion they needed to make the most out of their time at boarding school.
The reason Oakham can deliver across the board is due to its size. With over 1000 pupils Oakham School is a relatively large school. Size matters in the world of boarding schools: the more pupils a school has, the more of everything at superior quality a school can offer. Take Oakham's academic offer. With a diverse group of nearly 400 6th Formers, it makes perfect sense to offer A-Levels, the International Baccalaureate AND several BTEcs. Just as it makes sense to field five hockey teams of varying quality.
More smiling faces.... // copyright Oakham School
Lastly, Oakham School isn't as tradition-bound as many other top boarding schools still are. Pragmatism trumps outdated mores. The guiding question that preceeds any major decision at Oakham School is 'will this benefit our pupils?'. This allows the school to remain agile in the face of a rapidly changing world with more complexity and uncertainty. Oakham feels like a breath of fresh air to us in this regard.
Oakham's library // copyright Oakham School
The Academics
Oakham School is not especially selective. Considering its broad intake the school's exam results are impressive: in 2019, 52% of GCSE-grades were 9-7, 38% of A-Level grades were A*/A and the IB-average score was 35 points.
As mentioned above, Oakham School's academic spectrum is broad, encompassing the IB, A-Levels and two BTecs in sports science and business. This allows pupils with very different academic aptitudes to choose a degree that fits them.
This September Oakham School will introduce the IB's Middle Year Programme (MYP) in order to prepare students even better for the IB. Beyond that its purpose is a larger one though: the MYP encourages pupils to become creative, critical and reflective thinkers.
Social sciences at Oakham School // copyright Oakham School
One aspect of Oakham School's academic offer we at von Bülow Education especially love is the inquiry-led learning. The school is a pioneer of the so-called FOSIL-approach, where pupils learn to learn independently by asking the right questions, doing their own research, assessing evidence and synthesising information. FOSIL runs like a red thread through all year groups and subjects. Obviously this comes especially handy when writing the extended essay that all IB students have to do. Yet, again, the benefit is way, way larger: in a world beset by increasing uncertainty, complexity and false information FOSIL sounds like the perfect preparation to a life after school!
Concerned about pupils taking too much on? Fret not. Oakham's tutors and houseparents make sure that extracurricular engagements are getting in the way of the latest history assignment. The weekly tutorials give pupils academic direction and initiate them in the art of time planning.
Sailing on Rutland Water // copyright Oakham School
The Extracurriculars
As mentioned earlier, Oakham School has over 1000 pupils. That is a lot of pupils that have to be stimulated, pushed, entertained and inspired every week!
Oakham School doesn't disappoint here either. The school's extracurricular offer is incredibly broad and provided to a very high standard.
Let's start with theatre. Oakham School's drama productions are renowned for their amazing quality. Having enough passionate thespians is half the bill, of course. But what the school offers in terms of additional support is impressive. For example, the school employs professional stage designers to make the productions extra special. A recent Shakespeare play, was staged in a round tent, mimicking traditional productions in Stratford-upon-Avon! Another example we love is Oakham regularly hiring a dialect coach to help pupils deliver their lines as authentically as possibe. Wow, that's commitment!
Cabaret! // copyright Oakham School
Oakham is teeming with great music. Whether it is the school's orchestra, big band, concert band, chamber orchestra, chamber choir, big choir or the many, many rock, pop and jazz bands, there's a home for every musician here. With music being an integral part of everyday life at Oakham, there is ample opportunity to be involved also - whether as accompaniment to a theatre play or as part of a Wednesday lunch-time concert at the local church.
Hockey is huge at Oakham! // copyright Oakham School
Then, there is the huge range of fantastic sports. From popular team sports like hockey, rugby, cricket and football to more exotic ones like Eton Fives and Lacrosse; from competitive athletics, cross-country and tennis to the restorative pilates and yoga, Oakham School has something to offer for everyone.
Oakham's hockey deserves a special mention here. The boys' and girls' hockey is consistently in the top 3 of Britain's school teams, regularly beating top dogs Repton School and Dean Close School at indoors- and outdoors-competitions. Girls and boys football is very strong, as is Oakham's rugby.
...for girls and boys. // copyright Oakham School
The golf is also fabulous, especially thanks to the multitude of top golf clubs surrounding Oakham. The first team gets to play at the legendary Luffenham Heath Golfclub .
Thanks to Rutland Water, Europe's largest freshwater reservoir, Oakham School sports its own fleet of sail boats and competes at an advanced level.
Again, the beauty of being a relatively large school is that Oakham School is being able to offer any of these sports to pupils with varying experience levels - no matter whether top-drawer athlete or novice.
Oakham's swimming pool // copyright Oakham School
Beyond sports, music and drama there is a plethora of other amazing activities on offer. Oakham School broadly differentiates between general activities and those preparing for specific careers. General activities include anything from learning how to cook to robotics. Career-oriented activities can include anything from learning to type on a computer and using Microsoft Excel to preparing for medical school.
Oakham School is big on voluntary action projects, where pupils give back to the local community. This can be anything from planting trees as part of the school's Environmental Group to working in nurseries or with the elderly. Pupils are asked to lead these project, which hones their leadership skills and social awareness.
Rugby big, too // copyright Oakham School
Lastly we must not forget Oakham School's truly stellar careers department. A team of three experienced full-time advisers help pupils plan their next steps into higher education or work-life. The range of needs they support is astonishing: you want to learn how to create a stand-out CV? Unsure about which university to choose and where in the UK, the US or Europe offers your dream course? Unclear about your employability skills and where to focus? Oakham's careers adivsors have you covered.
A boarding house right by the canal. // copyright Oakham School
The Boarding
Approximately 50% of Oakham School's pupils board. Some flexi boarding is allowed, yet pupils that do live in their own boarding house to avoid full boarder being left by themselves on week-ends.
Boarding here starts at age 10 in Y6. The school has four boarding houses in lower school, two for boys, two for girls.
Senior school boarding houses are run across several year groups with L6th pupils being the oldest. L6th pupils learn to take responsibility for the younger ones, making sure that a proper, harmonious 'house family'-spirit prevails.
The Round House - only for final year pupils! // copyright Oakham School
Pupils in their final year live all together in boarding house Round House - day pupils, flexi-boarders and full-boarders. Round House feels already a lot like a university dorm with U6th'ers enjoying a lot more priviledges. Beer & Pizza nights are common (the beer in very controled quantities, of course!), pupils don't wear school uniform any more and conversations about life after school abound. Four housemasters and a team of tutors help soothe exam nerves, give advice on uni- and gap-year plans and gently intervene if they detect any self-sabotaging behaviour.
Oakham's cricket pavilion. // copyright Oakham School
Application process
For Y9 entry it is advisable to apply two years in advance. For all other year groups one year in advance is sufficient.
From this September Oakham School accepts applications into Y11.
As mentioned above, Oakham School is not especially selective. For 6th Form entry an average GCSE grade of a 6 is required. The school requires a visit including an interview with a senior staff member. With visits not possible due to the corona pandemic, Oakham conducts the online application process online.
Admissions tests in English and Maths to follow the visit.
The school shop. // copyright Oakham School
Our verdict
Oakham School is amazing. A modern, happy school with an unparalleled academic and extracurricular offer, quietly confident about its achievements and acutely conscious of its role to prepare pupils for an uncertain world. We love!
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