Nestled in an epic 800 acres in a quiet, south Oxfordshire village, in a handsome red-brick, largely Victorian site that reflects its grand age this year of 175, Radley is one of the few remaining all boys full boarding schools in the UK. With 760 pupils from 13-18 years old, 15% of whom are international boarders, the school ranks with Eton, Harrow and Winchester in the elite band of English boarding schools where names are put down at birth and places can be hard to come by – though Radley is currently taking great strides in widening its cohort through the Open Entry scheme (apply in Year 6) and an enticing funded places programme that will see 20% of all places offered to those otherwise unable to pay the fees.
Radley’s reputation has historically been that of a good ‘all-rounder school’, and with pupil numbers around half those of Eton and 15% smaller than Harrow it retains a sense of smallness and intimacy despite its acreage.
Any school that can charge £40,000 a year had better have some incredible facilities and Radley steps straight up onto the podium with this one.
Radley is a sporty school, no question about that, and whatever you want to do, there’s a good chance Radley has it covered. Rugby is the main sport here, the distinctive cherry and white hoops of the school fielding up to 23 teams on a single day – for ‘Midgets’ in their first year, it’s non-negotiable! Aside from the 12 full rugby pitches, there’s a huge, stylish fitness suite for conditioning (loving those enormous windows looking out onto the Oxfordshire hills).
Rowing has grown massively in popularity at Radley – the boys who took me around pondered whether it was now the number one sport here. The school has its own boathouse on the Thames and a state-of-the-art Rowing Tank with a camera system that records boys’ technique from all angles.
Cricket is to the fore in the summer term and boys have 19 brand new nets to hone their craft ahead of the season. Radley’s cricket pro coached former England captain and Old RadleianAndrew Strauss, so the boys are in safe hands.
There are three full-sized astroturfs for hockey and lacrosse (yes, they field a team), five squash courts, football pitches, cricket squares, rackets and tennis courts, and a 9 hole golf course, and particularly impressive is the 25m 6 lane swimming pool, with its own diving pit – 3.5 meters deep and with 2 diving boards for anyone wishing to channel their inner Tom Daley.
Fancy a go at Real Tennis? Er, OK then! Radley has one of only four school courts in the country, with ex-world-champ Chris Ronaldson handily installed as head coach. And in the strongest nod to the mind-boggling land at Radley’s disposal, you’ll also find a fishing lake, countryside centre and a nine-hole golf course on site here.
With sport so central to Radley you might feel your creative, artsy son won’t be catered for, but my sense was very much that arts are a big deal here; and with the boys boarding there’s a lot of encouragement to get stuck into all elements of school life. The school has an excellent reputation for its drama, best experienced from one of the 400 seats in its theatre or in the smaller ‘black box’ drama space.
Chapel is central to school life at Radley, and music is taken seriously so you’ll find a purpose-built concert hall holding 260, a Music Technology facility and a recording studio. Copious numbers of boys learn to play instruments and, with three concerts every week, there’s always an opportunity to perform to a supportive audience.
Particularly impressive is The Sewell Gallery, a purpose-built gallery built in 2014 that hosts six contemporary art shows a year and is open to Radley pupils and the general public – the likes of Tracey Emin, Bridget Riley and Eduardo Paolozzi have had works exhibited here over the last few years, which isn’t too shabby. The paintings and sculptures created by boys that fill every wall are incredibly impressive too and a real talking point on tours of the school. Design Technology is also a very popular subject here with some seriously impressive kit.
Radley has seen enormous investment and expansion over the last 20 years, so you’llfind a series of modern buildings dotted around the campus that house dedicated subject areas – for example, the distinctive circular Queen’s Court, opened by you-guessed-it in 1997, is home to maths, economics, biology, geography and geology. Somehow Radley manages to feel both grand and quite intimate – the main part of the campus is quite easy to walk around and the buildings feel like a connected network.
The original Radley Hall building, from 1720, is used mostly for staff and office work (lucky staff), but central to school life is the Chapel, built in 1895 by Sir Thomas Jackson, where the boys attend a service 4 nights a week. The boys tell me this contributes to a real sense of togetherness and community that you really feel as you walk around the place. The Chapel has just completed a sympathetic extension so all boys can easily fit in the building, with a new organ being installed as I write. Opposite the Chapel, across the Quad is the Harry Potter-esque Hall where all meals are eaten together.
The library had an overhaul in 1996 and the boys who took me around seemed particularly proud of it and there’s a slick coffee shop adjacent to the Sewell Gallery that all boys can pillage at their leisure.
It’s possible to join in the Sixth Form here, with 15-20 places available (be quick, this year’s deadline for 2022 entry is 1 Nov).
The academic entry requirements for Radley are less onerous than the moon-skimming heights required by Eton and Winchester – but with a 10% of Radley kids heading off to Oxbridge and 89% going to Russell Group universities, seriously who cares? Class sizes here are small all the way through the school – an average of 16 boys up to GSCE and 8 for A-Levels.
Exam results for 2021 were strong for Radley and importantly the grades below equate pretty well to 2019 results, so they haven’t been unduly hiked by the teachers through Covid.
GCSE: 56% Grade 9, 79% Grades 8-9, 93% Grades 7-9 and 98% Grades 6-9. Classical Greek, DT and Music were particular successes with 100% Grades 8-9.
A Level: A* 52%, A*-A 84.9% and A*-B 97.1%
Subjects here are largely traditional – aside from the usuals, you’ll find Latin, Classical Civilisation, Classical Greek, Computer Science and Electronics are all on the table for GSCE – but if you have knowledge of particular language (Chinese seems popular) you’re able to study that for GSCE. This year Portuguese was part of the roster.
A neatly designed curriculum extension programme is timetabled for Sixth Formers so they can flex their intellectual muscles by studying Chinese or international relations, and those with entrepreneurial ambitions can study for a Mini MBA.
In a full boarding school pastoral care is in the spotlight and perhaps an advantage for Radley here is its relatively small cohort. Each boarding house (or ‘Social’) has a dedicated pastoral team – the house master (or ‘Social Tutor’), resident assistant house master (‘Sub-Tutor) and matron (‘Pastoral Housemistress’). The senior boys mentor the new boys and settle them in. Beyond this structure, there’s a counsellor who comes in twice a week and the school also works with a psychiatrist when necessary.
Pretty flash, as boarding goes. All kids from their second year onwards have their own rooms, though in the first or ‘Shell’ year, the boys share a large dorm with their own personal ‘cubicles’ – the smart idea being that they have privacy of course, but they’re not alone, and feel part of their year group. There are 11 boarding houses or ‘Socials’ (A-L), all recently renovated and infinitely slicker than the boarding houses I usually come across. But hey, they’re teenage boys, they probably won’t even notice!
No surprise that the Socials are competitive with each other, but with the shared dining hall space, the ability to pop into other Socials as they wish, and the physical proximity of the buildings, the boys seem to mingle well.
John Moule became the 18th Warden of Radley in Sept 2014, inheriting, as he saw it, a happy school, but one that needed a shot of dynamism, a more global outlook, a more diverse cohort (rather than exclusively the sons-of sons-of sons of Radley alumni), and a lot more independent thought. This vision has come together neatly with Moule’s scholarship programme which currently offers 16 funded places across each year group (so 80 in total within the school) but the ambition is much bigger than this, and to fill 20% of the school with these children – smart, ambitious, talented kids from a wide range of backgrounds who will benefit from the school (and from whom the school will also benefit). It equates to about £20million spent on bursaries over the next 5 years.
Moule comes from a comprehensive school background which, in a school as privileged as Radley, is a precious asset in anchoring the kids to reality. Meeting him, you get the feeling he has a firm hand on the school tiller. Energetic and friendly, he’s honest in his assessment that there’s been too much ‘spoonfeeding’ education in the past and that he’s on the push for more entrepreneurial spirit, meaningful community partnerships where boys get out of the Radley ‘bubble’ and greater independent thought. But he’s also quick to defend Radley as much more than an ‘all rounderschool’ – he wants it known that this is a place where talented boys excel.
You’d better get used to a whole new language at Radley. The first years are ‘Shells’, boarding houses are ‘Socials’, first year rugby players are ‘Midgets’, the nightly social gatherings at the boarding houses are called ‘Cocoa’. In some ways it feels like an Oxford University college, with its quads, boys in sub fusc gowns and even a JCR (Junior Common Room) for the Sixth Formers.
What else? Well, the exeat system remains in place at Radley – two exeats home for the weekend per team, one either side of half term. Not particularly quirky for full time boarding schools but it might take some getting used to for parents of day boys.
Finally, the games pitches are reputed to be the largest continuous area of mown grass in the south of England. Just look!
The most recent report is from 2019, where Radley College achieved Excellent in all areas. See all the reports here.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
In the ‘Shells’, all boys are given an iPad and many teachers (or ‘dons’) use them in lessons. Boys are allowed to use their phones outside of class within reason although Cocoa – the evening gathering in every Social — is strictly a no-phone-zone with boys encouraged to enjoy more traditional entertainment like ping pong, pool and real conversation!
The fees for the academic year 2021/22 are £13,900 per term, very much on the upper end of the scale.
WORD ON THE GROUND
I know quite a few parents at Radley and they talk about the children being kind and grounded – none of the “noisy swagger” you might expect of a top private school. Credit for this goes to the Warden, who they described as being “on a mission” to stamp out a sense of entitlement – apparently the partnership programme with local schools is profound and ongoing. The Warden is liked and respected and ever-present around the school, but isn’t a “warm and fluffy” presence – he’s not interested in being obsequious to parents! The view from the inside is that academics are taken very seriously at Radley now – the parents were aware the kids were expected to do well from the off, and they get a lot of homework. Some boys complained at the lack of freedoms they had between 15-16 years old to meet girls, but that seemed to sort itself out in Sixth Form with the greater freedoms to hang out in Oxford. A couple of parents would prefer that mobile use is restricted more.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a top all-rounder school that focuses strongly on kindness and responsibility and sidesteps arrogance. Its unusual combination of immense rural site and proximity to Oxford (literally 15 minutes) means it offers the best of both worlds. There’s a robust CCF programme here that will please armed forces parents.
Not for: Academically Radley’s reputation is now robust – great for league tables, but not so pleasing for any boys who aren’t prepared to work hard. There’s no hiding in corners, and this is a school that expects results. Any parent thinking about sending their child to an all-boys full boarding school, even one with great pastoral care, requires a certain amount of steeliness, so very sensitive boys need not apply.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Book into one of the Visiting Days published on the website or, if you’re looking for a funded place (full or part), then there’s an Open Day 6th November.
Radley College, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 2HR