Our Lady’s Abingdon school is a Catholic co-ed day school close to the centre of Abingdon (10 miles south of Oxford) for children 7-18 years old. Originally founded in 1860 by the Sisters of Mercy – a religious order of Catholic sisters established in Ireland to provide for the poor and uneducated – only 27% of children who come here are now Catholic, with all religions/non-religions welcome. The school houses 280 senior children and 70 juniors on a compact 7.5 acre site that is dominated by a grand red brick Victorian mansion block, with more recent additions bolted on over time.
It’s a small site, so the roll call of facilities isn’t huge. Sportswise, the onsite 25 metre indoor swimming pool is the star attraction here, with all kids having lessons twice a week for Y3-6 in lower school and once a week in the senior school and kids as young as 9 able to join the after school swimming club. This is a major boon for the school – how many of us struggle to get our kids in the pool every week? There’s a relatively new multi-use games area and a field across the road that’s used for a variety of sports, plus Abingdon Vale cricket club and Tilsey Park are used for cricket and hockey respectively.
All children in senior school play a musical instrument in their first year and the orchestra is small but keen (an extensive music scholarship programme encourages the talented). There’s definitely a sense of everyone pitching in here, a necessity no doubt with the numbers that also makes it a strong plus – everyone gets a go. Similarly in drama, there’s a ‘give it a go’ mentality, with productions on a stage in the auditorium, though the PTA has just donated £5k for a lighting rig, so your child will be up in lights Mrs Worthington.
Costumes at the ready
Other developments include a new DT centre, new science labs, refurbed dining area (below) and a major redevelopment of the Sixth Form Centre which looks pretty natty.
The school has been successful in adapting to the brave new world of online learning. After parents’ feedback – remote learning surveys were sent out weekly to parents – the school decided to strike a 50/50 balance between delivering lessons via Zoom and on Microsoft Teams (Zoom fatigue is real for kids too!). On the pastoral side, to keep kids connected, OLA introduced Wellbeing Afternoons which involved watching films, quizzes, playing sport and art, including a project based on The Wizard of Oz that has gone on to be used as a competition challenge video by local Primary Schools.
Take one small school, deliver small class sizes – only 17 per class (smaller still at GSCE and A level) – and bonza, OLA delivers some healthy GSCE and A level results. In 2020 for GSCES the scores were Grades 9-7 (55%), and A levels A*- B (75%) and A*- C (91%). Students regularly gain places to Oxford and Cambridge, so top-end students can be guided through in this non-selective environment. That said, there’s no question that the major selling point for Our Lady’s Abingdon is its pastoral care, judged ‘Excellent’. Download the full ISI report of 2015 here.
There’s definitely a gentle, inclusive, family atmosphere here – unusually children are encouraged to come for two taster days to make sure they like the school and settle in well. The ethos is strongly anti-hothouse, and the head was upfront that pastoral care comes first and everything else follows. A few years ago I’m sure that view was unfashionable, but in the light of today’s stressed anxious children it’s becoming a selling point for the school.
The Principal of the school, Stephen Oliver, seems jolly and upbeat and honest about where the school is at – he’s not trying to push OLA up academic league tables. Principal since 2012, he has one boy at the Senior school and two other children at the Lower School and has overseen many of the recent investments, with ongoing murmurings of a Performing Arts Centre or an all-weather pitch.
I’m not sure Catholicism counts as a quirk exactly but as one of only two Catholic day schools in Oxfordshire it’s certainly a USP. There’s twice termly mass for the older kids and a Catholic-strong RE curriculum but the emphasis is on inclusiveness and Christian virtues.
Slightly under the Oxfordshire average I’d say. Years 3-4: £3,835 per term; Years 5-6: £4,605 per term; and Senior School fees £ 5,715 per term. Learning Support Individual lessons start from £450 per term.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Pastorally excellent is the feedback from parents, who delight in their happy, non-nutty kids. The physical constraints of the school site can be frustrating (terrible drop off issues on a morning as the car park is tiny) but most parents I’ve been in touch with know what they have bought into here and are happy with the mix of small classes, individual care and a lack of pressure.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Kids who could benefit from a nurturing, supportive, non-hot-house style school. Joiner inners – with small numbers, comes opportunity (and necessity) to play instruments, have a go at sports and be part of the community. The central town location gives older children the chance for some autonomy.
Not for: Big fish who need an even bigger pond – this small, gentle school might not deliver the thrashing space your child needs.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! There are in-person whole school open mornings (Covid permitting) on 25 Sept and 24 Nov.