‘You’re never not proud to be a Dragon,’ our pupil guide told us – and with praise like this, what more could you possibly ask of a school? This big, buzzy, hugely popular Oxford powerhouse does everything on a large scale and, with its incredible mix of characters, manages to teach everyone to rub along pretty well together too.
Where is Dragon School?
Located down a quiet side street in leafy north Oxford, Dragon School is sandwiched between a clutch of university colleges, The Dragon is not far from Oxford High School and Teddies. It doesn’t have a long driveway or grand façade; instead, its school buildings meld with the residential ones. Pupils quickly learn to cross the road between the main school site (where the academic, school bits generally happen) on one side and the boarding houses and dining room on the other, which creates a lovely sense of ‘going home’ each evening for boarders.
Dragon School's campus is huge, with stunning views to the hills beyond and a spread of facilities housed in attractive old buildings and up-to-the-minute science, art and music blocks. Despite the large number of pupils (585 in the prep, another 215 at the pre-prep just up the road in Summertown), it doesn’t feel the slightest bit overcrowded. This abundance of space feels like great preparation for leavers too, when they suddenly become small fish in very big-senior school ponds.
Headteacher at Dragon School
Head Emma Goldsmith arrived in September 2021 from Winchester House School – and she’s one of our favourite heads on the prep school circuit. Wonderfully charismatic, hugely approachable, a proper team player and hot on kindness and communication, Mrs Goldsmith is a stellar appointment for the school, and parents, pupils and staff are all delighted.
The door to Mrs Goldsmith’s bright office is always open (she even joins boarders for breakfast on Saturday mornings) and parents are already praising the renewed energy and vigour she’s injected into the school. She’s incredibly well respected on the educational circuit, too – Mrs Goldsmith is currently vice chair of the ISEB and an ISI inspector (although she limits the number of visits she makes to allow her to fully focus on her role at the Dragon School). It’s safe to say we’re enormous fans.
Admissions at Dragon School
The Dragon School's pre-prep is very popular, so apply early for a place in Reception. The school is broadly non-selective, so pupils on the list are invited to join a normal school day to meet staff and pupils and sit a very gentle assessment designed to measure potential rather than attainment. It’s much easier to get a boarding place than a day place, so if the school is your top choice, changing tack might up your chances. Entrance in Year 7 is possible for those keen to experience boarding before taking up their 13+ place.
Academics and senior school destinations after Dragon School
Studious hour-long lessons promote proper, knuckled-down learning (and less faffing in between), but there’s huge respect for a decent work-life balance (heads down in the week, chill out at weekends). Here, the focus is on nurturing natural curiosity: ‘if a culture of questioning is embedded at an early age, it will encourage an enthusiasm to lead a lifetime of learning’, says Mrs Goldsmith.
Classroom life is deceptively relaxed: teachers swish around in jeans; there’s limited setting early on (scholars aren’t singled out until Year 7); pupils get to scribble on walls with funky ‘ideas paint’; and Saturday school has been scrapped in favour ‘Dragon Quest’, an optional enrichment programme where pupils fling on their home clothes and do cool stuff like yoga, debating, animation and orienteering (more on that below).
Pupils are brilliantly prepared for senior schools, with thinking skills for Year 4 (great prep for the ISEB pre-test), drilling down in Year 5 (heaps of verbal and quantitative reasoning to pep up their brains) and bespoke interview practice in Year 6 to build up confidence. Mrs Goldsmith is a big fan of CE (‘it’s a really good curriculum’, she tells us’), and believes it’s a great goal for Year 8 pupils to aim for.
A handful of girls peel off at 11+, but as this is a standalone prep, the 13+ destination list is much more diverse, with Rugby, Headington, Wycombe Abbey, Eton, Marlborough, Cheltenham Ladies, Teddies and Wellington all proving popular next steps.
Co-curricular at Dragon boarding school
If you are sporty, your luck is in at the Dragon School: the sheer scale of the school translates to a silly number of sports on offer, and everyone gets a chance to represent the school. With the Cherwell meandering through the grounds, sculling is a biggie; then there are acres of sports pitches, a great indoor pool, Olympic-sized Astros and tennis and netball courts (often borrowed by neighbours Oxford High School). Quirkier options include riding, golf, climbing, archery and dance, and each year pupils head off on sun-soaked sports tours to South Africa and Mallorca.
Activities are cleverly embedded into the timetable, so no one is too busy to miss out – and masses of extra clubs after the final bell give pupils the chance to try everything from bridge to beekeeping. The art room brims with paint-splattered mini-creatives; everyone learning an instrument must join an ensemble (so there’s no excuse not to practice) and each term is packed with drama productions. Work on a brand-new performing arts centre is due to begin soon – it will include a smart music and drama studio, plus a dedicated performance space.
Last year, the Dragon launched its new enrichment programme, Dragon Quest, which focuses on developing pupils’ broader interests and skills in a creative and vocational way. Initially aimed at pupils in Years 4 and 5, it’s been such a resounding success that it’s now been extended to all. Every Saturday morning, pupils pick from a dizzying array of activities driven by three key principles: ‘discover’, ‘develop’ and ‘dare’. Children can head off on an architectural tour of Oxford, spend a messy morning mucking out the animals at a local farm or stay on campus to tear apart and repurpose wrecked bikes, under the guidance of a member of staff with a particular passion or hobby. It’s compulsory for boarders and entirely optional for everyone else – yet around 90 per cent of pupils currently opt in. If we were a day pupil, we’d certainly be rushing back.
Boarding at Dragon School
The boarding model has been recently altered to suit a growing appetite for more flexible options – but full boarding is still thriving here, with many boarders from the UK and overseas. Alongside the full and weekly boarders, there's a growing cohort of day boarders who choose up to three nights a week to stay over. Flexi boarders can ring up and book in as late as the week before. Around two-thirds stay in (with numbers peaking in the top two years), so this feels like a proper 24/7 school. Best of all, if a weekly boarder wants to stay on after Saturday morning Quest, they’re more than welcome to. Weekends are filled with matches and plenty of organised fun (lip-sync battle evenings are the best, our pupil guide tells us).
No personal devices are allowed in the boarding houses – instead, pupils are encouraged to read or play card games after supper and prep, and can call home from the carefully-monitored desktop computers in the common rooms.
An escorted coach service ships pupils up and down from London, too - with a weekly bus returning pupils to the school on a Sunday afternoon.
School community at Dragon School
The philanthropy here is phenomenal. The annual pupil-and-parent-run Dragon Christmas sale often raises up to £100,000, and everyone from current parents to ODs gets involved. ‘It’s a huge community effort and really embodies the Dragon spirit’, one parent tells us. Proceeds go to pupil-nominated charities (nominated via a Dragon’s Den-style pitch). During the lockdowns, Dragon caterers provided 250 school meals a week to the local community, and children love bagging service credits via the Dragon Award scheme, which might see them helping out in the library or assisting junior games. They take environmental issues seriously here, too, and Mrs Goldsmith is in talks with the local council to find ways to work together to achieve their aim of becoming a net-zero school.
Most day pupils tend to live within a 45-minute commute, with lots of Oxfordshire-based families. The school is part of the Oxford Schools' Bus Partnership
, a bus network which brings children in from the surrounding area to a number of Oxford schools including Teddies, Headington and Magdalen College School.
Pupils at Dragon School represent 25 nationalities, so there’s a healthy diversity too, and a clutch of ‘transformative’ bursaries targeting local children – so do enquire. Word on the parent grapevine is this is a seriously warm, friendly community (and financially secure too – generous parents donated several millions for the music school). The Dragon School has a huge OD network, and a fair percentage of alumni send their children here too. On our tour, we met the delightful school archivist, Gay, who enthusiastically regaled us with tales of the school’s history and former pupils. She, like all the staff we met, was charm and humour personified – the real icing on the Dragon’s dazzling cake.
The Dragon has a real knack at building the confidence its pupils need to thrive at senior school, and they’re often having so much fun they’re unaware of how much work they’re actually doing. This is a fun, carefree, happy place – and, as if by magic, produces the most fantastic results too.