You’re not going to find a school more central in Oxford! Christ Church Cathedral School (CCCS) is literally 200 metres from Carfax and directly across the road from Oxford University’s Christ Church.
A boys’ prep day and boarding school that also includes a Nursery and Pre-Prep (mixed until 5 years old) it houses just 140 boys, 20 of them Cathedral Choristers, in buildings that ooze Tudor history. The school’s roots come from Henry VIII’s 1546 commandment for boy choristers and a schoolmaster when he founded Christ Church and its Cathedral, whilst the Nursery nestles in the 16th century building where Cardinal Wolsey sketched the plans for his college.
Unsurprisingly then, the school has a Christian ethos, but welcomes children whatever their beliefs.
Set across a collection of buildings in Brewer St, Christ Church Cathedral School is compact and homely and ‘lived in’ – there’s nothing spangly or shiny or polished about it, it may even be scuffed in places, but it has a kind of likable, intellectual energy about it. It almost feels collegiate rather than a prep school, though does so without taking itself too seriously: there’s a sense of fun and the kids look like they’re having a blast. One class I peeped into went entirely off-piste when I came into the room, with the boys laughing and wanting to show me the class dog, but the teacher seemed super-relaxed.
This is an inner-city school so you’re not going to find an expansive site at CCCS. The Prep school boys (7-13 years) who need more legroom are mostly housed in the modern Walton Centre which is a bit flashier than the higgledy, stained glass and turned wood Tudor building.
Still, there are ten acres to boast of, including some plush meadows for bombing about in. Excitingly, the school has just secured planning permission to build a new Sports Pavilion in Christ Church Meadows. This will enable it to host more Sporting Tournaments with several schools at the same time, as well as opening its doors to more community philanthropy.
In terms of academic facilities, there’s a large DT/woodworking area and specialist teaching rooms in ICT, Science and Art.
Limited facilities within the school itself, with squash courts on site and various smallish outdoor areas for playing. By contrast, the facilities on the doorstep are extraordinary. Straight across the road, boys play cricket, rugby and football on the pristine pitch overlooking Christ Church, Corpus Christi, and Merton colleges – you have to see it to believe it (and you probably have seen it, it’s on a million postcards). Coming soon is a Pavilion and outdoor multipurpose facility for sport, outdoor learning, and social events with two changing rooms, kit storage and terrace with spectator seating.
Other sports on offer include weekly swimming for boys in Forms 3 and 4 at the University swimming pool, use of the University’s running track at Iffley Road, and hockey which is played on Christ Church’s astroturf.
With a school of 140, all boys are able to play in teams against other schools and CCCS does compete successfully against other small schools and has its fair share of high achieving sports stars. Football is the most popular sport over winter with fixtures over the last few months against Manor, Abingdon Prep and Dragon Schools. Cricket is the undoubted passion over summer months and the team punches above its weight here. Two of the current boys play in the Oxfordshire County team.
No room is too small for a piano!
Clearly music is a huge calling card at CCCS, though the school is emphatic that you don’t have to be musical to enjoy yourself here (and there’s plenty else on offer). On the basis of my look-around — my second time at the school in three years — I’d say that’s probably true, though there’s no question that music permeates every pore here, with the whole school acting as one huge musical rehearsal space. Pianos pop up in virtually every room including common rooms, double bases rest on landings, tubas sit ornamentally in fireplaces. This is a school where the Pre-Prep holds its own recitals with the children playing cello, flute, bassoon and even double bass.
Music is CCCS’s big calling card and it does create a cultured, creative atmosphere. The Christ Church Cathedral Choir is internationally renowned (the 20 choristers board full time) and there’s a second choir of 20, the Worcester Choristers, that sings twice a week in Worcester College Chapel and a third group, the Pembroke Choristers, that sing in one service a week. All boys sing in morning assembly, and more music lessons take place each week than boys who attend the school.
The weekly assemblies are at Christ Church Cathedral itself (parents are free to attend), and playing instruments, appreciating and performing music is part of the culture, and feels totally normal here.
Drama also gets decent attention – there are usually two performances put on across the school each year.
It’s a Montessori philosophy in the Nursery, so it’s very gentle and nurturing (and tidy!). The kids have weekly yoga sessions, have an outdoor ‘Mud Kitchen’ and visit Christ Church Meadow for Woodland School. All that said, the Infant Nativity for Pre-Prep and Prep involves foreign language and two-part harmonies, so even at this age there’s a musical and intellectual ethos at play.
There’s a dedicated member of staff in charge of admissions to senior schools and academic scholarships which should tell how seriously they take academics here. Class sizes are kept deliberately small to focus on the individual needs of each child. For Maths and English from Year 5, boys are streamed into two ability groups (up to 10 per set), with year groups never more than 20. French and Latin are set in a similar way for Years 7 and 8. I was really impressed by the teachers here – passionate about their subjects, but unstressed and benign in how they deliver it. There are at least five chilled-out dogs on site in various classrooms at this school and the whole academic package feels very relaxed but also academically stretching for the boys.
Christ Church Cathedral
If your child is in the Christ Church Cathedral School Choir he’s almost guaranteed a scholarship onto other highly regarded schools – last year every single chorister was snapped up, but 63% of all students gained scholarships, which is pretty amazing, with the majority musical but also several scholarships for academics, sport and even art. Boys tend to win places at most of the leading schools in the UK: Eton, MCS, Abingdon, and St Edward’s just to name a few. Not bad!
Extra curricular clubs also show a widening of outlook, with the current list including Cooking, Film-making, Scalextric, K’Nex, Sewing and Squash clubs aside the more dusty Backgammon, Bridge, Chess, Greek and Philosphy clubs.
Boys with particular needs are offered one-to-one sessions with experienced learning support staff in addition to in-class help from the teaching assistants.
No afterthought, here — Christ Church Cathedral School knows how important pastoral care is, and keeps it as a priority. A school counsellor comes in a few days a week for the boys to talk to.
Until this year boarding was limited to the 20 full time choristers, but flexi boarding has been introduced to non-choristers over 8 this term (Mon-Fri for £55 a night), which might appeal to those who can’t get to school for pick up or who frankly want a night off. We’ve all been there. The dorms are in the main school building, and are light, bright with four beds per dorm.
Richard Murray has been in the hotseat since 2014, having previously been a House Master at St Edward’s School. He has a friendly academic air and a charmingly messy office, with its Morris Minor car wheel and organ against the wall but can still level with the children – he reads every week to the Nursery children (even managing it when he had Covid via video link), and last month for World Book Day he dressed up as ‘Awful Aunty’.
Murray is utterly in keeping with the intelligent, tolerant, rarefied surroundings of the school and has been responsible for upping the academic rigour over recent years. His genial approach has also strengthened the parental involvement and support that is so vital to a school of this size. Last month he met various parents from the school’s Parents’ Association at a local pub to discuss their ideas (a parent’s book club is in the offing), parents are invited to all weekly assemblies and music performances whether or not their child is involved, there are regular events that make use of CCCS’s VIP access to Christ Church College – a private tour and tasting of the wine cellar in February and next term, a visit to the Upper Library and its rare books.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
Strict! Boys are expected to hand in phones at the beginning of each school day, and there are firewalls to stop them from accessing social media at school.
Read the latest reports here.
If you’re a chorister it’s a gruelling schedule, but for day boys the days are relatively short with school starting at 8.55 and ending at 3.20 pm for Pre-Prep, and 8.25 to 3.25 pm for Form 1 and 3.30 pm for Form 2. There is, however a Breakfast Club from 7.45 am to 8.15 am and After School Club through til 6pm depending on age. After School Club costs £11 per hour for Pre-Prep and for the Prep children it is free.
Being so utterly central, biking and walking are popular but there’s also a school bus from and to North Oxford.
The choristers wear the famous ‘Wolsey’ hat and gown in black when they sing – they’re draped on coat hooks nonchalantly at school during the day. I haven’t come across a school barber’s before so that’s a new one for me – a clipper cut is £10 if you’re interested! The music teachers are performers in their own right – in February the oboe teacher Jessica Mogridge performed with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall (the music programme also included William Walton – an old CCCS boy as it happens). At around the same time one of the piano teachers, Maki Sekiya, made her Wigmore Hall debut and featured on Radio 3. If that doesn’t inspire kids to learn music, what will?
Fees are on par for local prep schools in the area. Pre-Prep through to Reception costs £4285 per term; Pre-Prep Form 2 Per Term £4495; Forms 3 to 8 Per Term day boys £6385 per term. The fees include morning snack, lunch, all standard textbooks and exercise books. However, there are whopping bursaries for anyone in the Cathedral Choir to cover much of the fee. Full boarding is £4025 per term for a Chorister, and £4460 for a Probationer (basically a chorister in training in Form 4, before ‘graduating’ in Form 5). Music lessons cost £380 per term.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Tolerance, friendliness, and a non-Alpha male environment seem to the calling cards here. The opportunity to be a cad, bully or a show-off in the school is small, and the kids are nurtured and supported. Lack of space is always an issue here and parents and children are excited about the development of the Pavilion. Parents rave about its family-friendly atmosphere.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Lovers of music (or sons of lovers of music!). Children who thrive on attention and nurture and are open to the arts and a thoughtful approach to education. Don’t discount CCCS if your child isn’t a Grade 8 child prodigy, there’s much to recommend the school ethos beyond the stave and clef.
Not for: The school does well to offer its wide sports provision, but the physical confines of the school might not fit with the rural idyll pictured by some parents. Kids who are resolutely uncurious or cynical about culture will struggle.
Dare to disagree?! The ‘Be a Cathedral Chorister’ Afternoon for boys in Years 2, 3, and 4 takes place on 7 May 3.30pm – 7 pm. Or, head along to the Stay & Play on 11 May 9.30 – 11.30 am, for children aged 4. For more info contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christ Church Cathedral School, 3 Brewer Street, Oxford, OX1 1QW. Tel: 01865 242 561. cccs.org.uk