Absolutely Education visits Oakham School in Rutland and finds a place balancing traditions with the evolving requirements of a first-class education

This wasn’t the first year Henry Price had envisaged when he joined Oakham School as the 31st Headmaster last September – but he has clearly taken it in his stride. It is to his, and the entire Oakham staff’s, credit that when the doors closed on that sombre Friday back in March, they swung open again for virtual school the following Monday. It was, says Price, a necessity for the sake of all pupils and parents. “This was about maintaining rhythm, routine and structure – and also reassurance.”

When it came to providing reassurance and stability to a cohort of 1,000+ young people at a time of crisis, the odds were that Oakham was always going to be leading from the front. It has a longstanding reputation for going above and beyond on pastoral care. Parents talk about it being a kind place – they also mention the all-round nature of the education here. It has never hung its hat on catering only to top-flight academics or super-sporty types. In fact, it does cater for both exceedingly well – as well as offering superb opportunities for creatives – but letting children explore all the options and become independent learners is its raison d’être. Also worth noting: while parents may sing its praises loudly (becoming positively rhapsodic when music teaching gets mentioned), Oakham is not at all a diva-ish kind of place.

Oakham School Rutland rugby
Oakham’s rugby team

Price, who went to Eton and studied Classics at Oxford, is more than comfortable with Oakham’s all-rounder reputation. “I’m a classicist and it’s often said that is the discipline for the all-rounder – there’s the language, the history side, then the arts and architecture.” A career teacher (one who still tries to make a bit of space in his busy timetable for teaching budding future classicists), he began at Sydney Grammar School and then went on to Sherborne. At Rugby, where he spent over a decade, he became both Head of Classics and Senior Housemaster. He joined Oakham after five years leading Wellington School in Somerset – a smaller school but with some parallels in the rural setting and strong boarding tradition. 

Price feels strongly about the worth of boarding, not only for what it brings to pupils and their families in terms of practicality, but also in the breadth of learning opportunities and sense of community it fosters. Certainly, it is placed front and centre here – even the white liveried minibuses that ferry Oakhamians back to school bear the legend ‘boarding and day school’. So, what does boarding bring in today’s world? “I will always defend it. It is valuable for young people at any time – and especially after this extended period of being connected only virtually. It gives them the opportunity to be with their peer group, in and out of school, come together and simply chew the fat,” says Price. “It also enriches the Oakham experience for everyone, day pupil or boarder, because we are effectively offering 24/7 availability.”

Oakham School Science
Science in action

There is full boarding, always popular, but flexi boarding has become increasingly a part of the Oakham scene over the years. This offers up to five nights a week – a practical solution for pupils (and their families) who like the work and social balance it brings. The school manages this rather cleverly, with two of its eight boarding houses reserved for flexi. This means full boarders always have a full and busy place to go home to while flexi boarders have their own spaces reserved. An entirely separate boarding house is reserved for the youngest pupils (11-13), so they have a cosy retreat, their own social scene with fun activities and an easy transition to Senior boarding. 

Day pupils are certainly enriched by the many extras boarding brings to Oakham – actually, as one parent told me quietly – they are big beneficiaries. They have access to library and refectory in the early mornings and evenings and even to the school’s art and design studios at weekends, perfect for creatives following the muse in their free time. Day and boarder blend naturally in and out of lessons since every pupil belongs to one of the school’s 16 houses (a pillar of its pastoral approach). Saturday morning school is maintained, and the work hard, play hard approach means Saturday afternoons are about sports and extra-curricular. Multiple weekend matches (up to 45 teams are fielded) happen away or at home on its 40 acres of playing fields – including on the vast and beautifully tended ‘Donkey’ encircled by boys’ and girls’ boarding houses – and are a high point of the week socially as well as athletically, enthusiastically supported by parents too.

Oakham School Boarding
Boarding at Oakham School

The school mix is all part of the 50:50 principle. Price describes how, when he sought wisdom from former leads prior to taking up his post as Headmaster, this Oakham ‘formula’ was mentioned. Oakham is just over half boarding; it is half and half boys and girls; it draws its cohort pretty evenly from the local area and further afield – so there’s the 50:50 balance at work in the school environment.  Of boarders, roughly 15 per cent are international, while the rest are a good mix of children of local families and from families further afield. A highly active Old Oakhamians network (known, rather James Bond style, as ‘OOs’) speaks of a school with long-term, often multi-generational, loyalty. 

The location, in arguably the prettiest bit of East Midlands farming country, means Oakham feels like a haven, all adding to the sense of being out of London’s orbit and accompanying hothouse atmosphere. It is surrounded by the reassuringly mellow bricks of the market town of the same name, with close links between school and town – not ‘town and gown’ at all. School classical concerts, plays and musicals attract locals as well as parents. The quality is high and it’s almost as if Oakham town had its own local theatre company and orchestra. There’s also the giving back element in the way Oakham works with local schools – especially on the music side. A driving force in Rutland Music Hub, its notable successes include a large-scale original performance of Pied Piper in Leicester’s De Montfort Hall that brought together over 400 pupils from across the county – all masterminded by the school’s brilliant Director of Music Peter Davis. 

Oakham School Music
Oakham’s musical performances attract parents and locals alike

Although miles from the sea, Oakham even has easy access to the waves at Rutland Water (location of much sailing fun and more organised training). On the drive into town, skirting this  vast lake, it feels rather like you are entering a secret oasis tucked away off the A1 and M1 that run up the country on either side of this bit of Rutland. The fact that Rutland, the smallest county in the UK, houses two of its leading independent schools – Uppingham and Oakham – is down to one far-sighted 16th century churchman who decided his county needed plenty of wise and educated men. The schools simultaneously share a long history, while having taken different paths. 

What is notable (radical, even) is that middle-England Oakham School was one of the very first independent secondaries in the country to take the leap away from single sex and into co-education. It welcomed its first girls way back in 1971. Forward thinking for the times, especially as it didn’t dip a toe in the water with sixth formers but welcomed girls from 11+. The even split between girls and boys has had several decades to settle in, which probably does much to explain the culture here. It certainly isn’t his and hers – and not even the merest whiff of boys first. As one example, the girls 1st XI carried off the Independent Schools Football Association Trophy in 2019. It was also females in the lead for last year’s ambitious all-girl production of Hamlet – bold stuff to set any audience thinking a little differently about Shakespeare’s troubled Danish prince. 

Oakham Art
Art at Oakham

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma is another area where Oakham was a notable early adopter, introducing it alongside A levels some 20 years ago. Consistently strong results show the success of the school’s IB Diploma teaching – topping an average of 36 points for the past five years. The Diploma syllabus, which encourages young people to take more subjects to a higher level and includes an extended essay, is certainly becoming more popular nationally, and Oakham stands firmly behind its value for expanding young people’s learning approach. Indeed, it has recently become an IB Middle Years Programme (IB MYP) candidate school for 11+ pupils – meaning pupils benefit from an interdisciplinary approach to learning before they start their GCSEs. On A levels, the school gets solid scores – 78% A*-B in 2020 – and with a good tally of leavers heading off to Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities, as well as medical and clinical training. There’s specialist guidance here on areas such as US applications, plus comprehensive advice from the in-house careers and HE advisory team – the quality of this leavers’ support gets very high praise from parents.  

Deputy Head (Academic) Leo Dudin – a chemistry teacher by training – joined at the start of this year from Uppingham and firmly believes in offering the right pathway for each individual student. He also knows the importance of keeping enthusiasm for learning going through the hard yards of public-exam years – high academic standards need to be the goal, but so too does the pastoral side. When he’s not leading on academic standards or teaching chemistry, Dudin may sometimes be found putting in a spot of sailing coaching for students out on Rutland Water. 

Crista Cullen Opens The New Hockey Pitch At Oakham School, Th September
Crista Cullen opens the new hockey pitch, 2018

Pupils getting to know their teachers and tutors outside the confines of the classroom is core to Oakham’s approach. Deputy Head (Pastoral and Co-Curricular) Sarah Gomm says it’s vital to do pastoral care really well, but becomes imperative with boarding. That is why the team look for teachers who can combine leading in class with supporting young people as a tutor or boarding house supervisor. Gomm has been at Oakham for some two decades (her own children were pupils here) and has extensive experience of tutoring girls and looking after boys’ boarding houses – she knows an awful lot about the ups and downs of teenage years. Having a team of caring adults on site keeping a discreet watching brief does work. When it comes to boys, interestingly enough, it can sometimes be girls in their peer group who spot trouble really early and then quietly pass on intel to adults – this shows a high level of pupil trust in the help on offer. There are also regular drop-in visits from the Chaplaincy team and easy access to school nurses and matrons, so plenty of kindly listeners to choose from.

The past few years have seen a spate of exceptional new facilities springing up around campus. The Mehra Faculty of Science is ultra-modern and includes a lecture theatre for up to 250, replicating pretty closely the kind of environment young people will find in higher education. The Smallbone Library is vast (2,400sq m) and surely in the running for most impressive school library in Britain. It incorporates a seminar room, space for teaching higher level research skills and areas to display art and other ‘happenings’ on the ground floor. In a pleasingly old-school touch, total silence is insisted upon on the lofty-ceilinged Upper Library floor.  

Absolutely Education - Oakham School
Students in the grounds

The Jerwood School of Design (named after alumnus John Jerwood of the Jerwood Foundation) has all the CAD and 3D printing kit you would expect. Oakham has very strong links with the design and art worlds – all Art staff are also practising artists – and a strong track record of sending its creatives on to top schools. What is most impressive here is the sense that this really is the students’ ‘work in progress’ space – half-finished masterpieces, hugely ambitious canvases, scribbled designs on scraps, textile samples; nothing too tidy about it.  The almost brand-new Faculty of Social Sciences is engaging and quirky with its politics/world events timeline wall (a wall you could argue about all day), TV screens, world time clocks and ‘pods’ for small huddles, group work and meetings. Best of all is the replica Number 10 Downing Street door that leads into the boardroom-style teaching space – no dearth of ambition dare enter here! 

All the facilities in the world do not make a great school (although they most certainly help), and Henry Price says the value of Oakham is always in its people.  The teaching has to be exemplary, and so does the support, but it’s also about opening young people’s minds to the possibilities and the excitement of learning. “Our aim must be to ensure our young people are as good as possible at as many things as possible,” he says. “Whatever they choose, we want them to get involved.”

Oakham Girls

Learning fit for the future is key, but so is Oakham’s sense of stability – of everything being back in its rightful place. The rousing weekly chapel service (a fine Oakham tradition down the ages) is one of the things – when it returns – that will be most warmly welcomed. What Price wants for his year two at Oakham is a slow and steady return to school life. Safety is paramount, and so is giving young people back their sense of purpose and pleasure in learning and in being among their peers – the simple pleasure of ‘chewing the fat’. Price says: “They have to get back to living in the now and enjoy their time here”. 

There is no doubt that Oakham pupils are in a safe, forward-thinking and fortunate place. Henry Price believes there’s a duty of care to teach all Oakhamians (indeed, all independent-school pupils) the responsibilities that come with that good fortune. “I want our young people to be aware when they go out into the world. It’s about wearing it lightly, but taking it seriously.” As ever, you can’t help thinking, Oakham will find a way of keeping things in perfect balance.

Oakham School At a Glance

Founded: 1584 by Archdeacon Robert Johnson

Head: Henry Price, since September 2019

Gender: Co-ed

Number of pupils: 1,024 (376 in Sixth Form)

Day or boarding: Day. Boarding – Lower School, full or transitional boarding; Middle and Upper full or flexi boarding. 

Ages: 10-18

Points of entry: 10+, 11+, 13+, 14+, 16+

Admissions: 10-11+, Assessment Day with written paper (also available via exam in home country) plus detailed report from current school; 13-14+, Common Entrance or Oakham Entrance Exam; 16+, minimum four 6/B grades and three 5/C grades IGCSE/GCSE. 

Religious affiliation: Church of England

Fees: Lower School per term – day, from £6,405; boarding, from £7,640. Middle/Upper School per term – day, from £7,225; boarding, from £11,305. 

Address: Oakham School, Chapel Close, Market Place, Oakham, Rutland LE15 6DT; oakham.rutland.sch.uk

Further reading: The benefits of music