Blissfully hidden amongst 15 acres of grounds next to the River Cherwell around 10 minutes from central Oxford, the Dragon School is one of the city’s most famous prep schools with an alumni list that could fill a red carpet – and frequently still does (hello Hugh Laurie, Emma Watson, Tom Hollander, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Dancy and friends).
Dating from 1877, the school was founded by a group of Oxford University dons for their own children, with the then-progressive view that education should be enjoyable for children and help them understand the world around them. Now The Dragon is one of the biggest co-ed boarding schools in the UK (around 180 of its 800 pupils call the school home) set on two sites – a compact but attractive site for 4-7 year olds in central Summertown, and a second larger site for 8-13 year olds, with a mix of traditional and more modern functional buildings, attractive playing fields and direct access to the river. Average class sizes are 16 in Reception, rising to a maximum of 21 in Y8.
One of the big benefits of choosing a boarding school, even as a day pupil, is that schools seriously invest in their facilities, so it’s happy days for kids at The Dragon. Academically, there are six separate science labs and three large art, design and DT rooms. The Library is a conversion of the old dining hall with high vaulted ceilings and a dramatic central iron winding staircase with some serious Dragon branding (a theme throughout the school – well you would, wouldn’t you?).
There’s an indoor studio space for dance and drama, though no separate performing arts centre as yet – see Music, Art and Drama below – and music pods that house recording studios and teaching space for the kids. Aside from the usual gym and astros, the headline sports facility is a whopper 25 metre covered pool. The cricket pitch that stretches out away from the school to the river is a jaw-dropper.
I visited last week mid Covid, and didn’t go up to the boarding houses so I can’t make any judgements on how they look or the feel of them (I’m revisiting in early 2021 when the pandemic allows so will update you properly then). For now I can tell you that there are five Junior Houses (co-ed and single sex) and five Senior, single sex Houses each with a distinctive feel.
A Senior boarding house
Flexi-boarding is growing in popularity though weekly and termly are the mainstay – with that in mind, Sept 20 sees the instigation of The Dragon Bus on a Sunday night to bring borders back to school from London.
No surprises that the mainstay sports at the Dragon are rugby, cricket (for boys and girls) hockey and netball. Post-lockdown, it’s anyone’s guess for Winter Term right now, but The Dragon does have the advantage of nearly 300 metres of River Cherwell winding through the school grounds, so at least skulling, canoeing and SUPPing can be on the agenda (the school has form for rowers, boasting two former world champions amongst its alumni).
In the summer term the school hosts its own internal Regatta. (Tip: The Cherwell Boathouse is a short walk away for a slap up post-river sport lunch!). Any parent who has had to spend an hour a week watching their children learn to swim in an sweltering leisure centre will appreciate the pool here – weekly swimming lessons for Years 5-8 children, and fortnightly for the Year 4s. Horse-riding and golf are also offered if that’s your bag.
MUSIC, ART & DRAMA
This is an area where the school has form. It’s no accident, surely, that so many of the alumni are now famous actors, and it’s kind of charming that this has happened without a super-posh performing arts facilities. The school is aiming to raise a cool £10m from donors to sort out that gap in facilities, with a new Music and Performing Arts Centre planned for 2023 completion.
Music-wise, the halls were silent of course on my look-around but the take up of music at the Dragon is incredibly high – 70% of children playing 2 or more instruments, usually schools are pretty boastful at 70% for a single instrument, so this is very unusual. Again I’ll feed back more on this in Spring 2021 when I can see it all in action but the school boasts over 60 music ensembles including choirs, rock bands and string quartets.
This is an area where the Dragon earns its bread and butter. A broadly non-selective school, it nonetheless manages to pings out children in all directions with scholarships to the top UK schools – this year 55 pupils have been handed out awards and scholarships to the likes of Eton, Winchester, Wycombe Abbey, Radley, Cheltenham Ladies College, St Edward’s Oxford, Harrow and Marlborough College.
This success has, over the years, created a reputation from those outside the school for elitism, a reputation that’s acknowledged but rebuffed by the jovial, likeable Deputy Head Ed Phelps. An Old Dragon himself (or OD for short – I’m not joking), he’s passionate about the school and its values, and sees the school as both collegiate and family-oriented. It’s hard to make a definitive decision on this without talking to the children in depth so bear with me until I can get to them to ask!
Dr Crispin Hyde-Dunn has been in the hotseat since 2017, having previously been Head at Abingdon Prep for six years and before that Deputy Head Academic at King’s College School in Cambridge. Thoughtful and considered, Hyde-Dunn has set his cap on improving the value-added element of The Dragon, combining the pursuit of all-round academic excellence with further expansive learning opportunities.
From September 2021, the new Head will be Emma Goldsmith, who has enjoyed notable success previously as Head of Winchester House School, winning ‘Best Head of a Prep School’ at the 2019 Tatler Awards.
The school’s passion about expanding learning opportunities has resulted in a huge initiative: a curriculum enrichment programme called Dragon QUEST that newly launched in September. Saturday school is being phased out, starting with Y4-5, and in its place is this wider-curricular ‘QUEST’ programme of ‘deep dives’ into a huge range of options chosen by the kids in five week ‘blocks’. The programme will be rolled out for all Prep year groups by Sept 2021.
Take up of the optional programme has been huge – 88% last term – and its popularity is no doubt aided by the ‘weekend’ vibe of home clothes and the originality of the choices on offer, from anthropology to cultural walks through Oxford; from film-making to mechanical engineering; or paddle boarding to culinary skills. This kind of programme isn’t unique to The Dragon but underpinning Dragon QUEST I do sense a desire to create new opportunities and spark new interests for the kids – Tim Knapp, the Director of Dragon QUEST, sees it as ‘relaxed but purposeful’. It’s also being seen as a pastorally effective tool, where teachers can encourage the children to try things that will benefit them in different areas of their school and personal life.
In a quiet setting off the main Woodstock Road (and next to Squitchey Lane – surely the cutest road name in the UK?), the pre-prep is attractive and compact, though if you’re 4-7 it probably feels enormous. There’s a sweet central play area, currently zoned off in Covid bubbles, the classrooms are light and bright, and brand new interactive tech was just installed.
Littlies can make use of the Prep school’s facilities, and are able to learn an instrument from Y2 with a potential second added in Y3 (blimey). School sports fixtures start from Y3. There’s a Forest School for Reception, known as ‘Muddy Dragons’, where the children really enjoy trips to the woods and getting close to nature. The Head is Annie McNeile, who joined the Dragon in 2005 as Head of Year 4 before taking the top job. The school day here is shorter than in some schools I’ve visited, with the day running from 8.45am to 3.30pm followed by Activities from 3.35pm to 4.10pm. Wraparound care is offered until 5.30pm, with early drop off available from September.
The Dragon operated what it called a ‘Virtual Holistic Curriculum’ throughout lockdown with online lessons, form time and enrichment challenges. It made the decision to allow every year group back to school on various days in June (as opposed to R, Y1 and Y6 only as many other schools chose to do) to allow the kids to reconnect with each other and their teachers. Overseas boarders or those far from school were kept involved through online learning and live-streaming of prize-givings and assemblies.
It’s kind of surprising in a prep school so chockful of tradition that the uniform is so relaxed – I saw no ties or blazers here in summer, and that goes for the teachers too (though smart-suited Hyde-Dunn bucks the trend). Not so much a quirk as a selling point to many is the 30 different nationalities represented at the school, a combination of the large boarding provision and Oxford’s international draw. There’s also a Director of Social Impact (gotta admit, I’ve not come across one of those before) and, pleasingly, Philanthropy is on the curriculum.
Prices are on the squeaky bum side, in keeping with the top echelon of UK independent schools. Boarders £10562 per term, Day pupils £7256 per term, Pre-Prep from £4166 (R), £4710 (Y1&2) and £5411 (Y3). Flexi boarding is offered between 1-4 nights a week at £61 per night or £55 per night if the same night is booked for every week for a term or half-term. Music lessons are £31 per half hour, and learning support is also charged extra here at £31.
WRAP AROUND CARE
The Senior Prep day runs from 8am to 4.15pm, with a wide range of afterschool clubs until 5.30pm. Day pupils are able to stay to do supervised Prep until 6pm with a light tea at 4:15pm. They can also spend the night in a boarding house as a day boarder (on the same nights each week) or flexi border (which parents can handily book at a few days notice).
WORD ON THE GROUND
It’s a game of two halves for the Dragon. Those who don’t go there talk about it being elitist and unapproachable, those whose kids go there seem to love it. Undeniably there’s a definite ‘celeb’ parent contingent here but regardless of whether you blush madly and jibber at the approach of an A-lister or take it in your stride, the general vibe is that there’s a strong family community, with a massive Old Dragon network that is regularly mined for the children’s benefit.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Joiner inners. It’s a busy school day here, and suits those who throw themselves into the fun. Parents looking for academic success have come to the right place, and the school’s boarding contingent makes The Dragon a liberal, global choice.
Not for: Children who like a gentle school rhythm may want to look elsewhere. Those who hanker after hulking heritage buildings look away now – practical modern brickwork has quite a presence here amidst the occasional historical gem.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest! You can sign up to their autumn open events now: 17 Sept for Prep, 18 Sept for Pre-Prep, and a virtual event on 2 Oct. Book yourself in via the form here.
Dragon School, Bardwell Rd, Oxford OX2 6SS.