Head Emma Goldsmith arrived in September 2021 from Winchester House School – she’s one of our favourite heads on the prep-school circuit and our most recent visit has only served to further gild her already glittering credentials. She is warm, measured and incredibly stylish, radiating energy in a decisive yet amiable way – absolutely the kind of woman you would want to be both your board director and your best friend. Mrs Goldsmith is a stellar appointment for the school, and parents, pupils and staff continue to be delighted.
Communication is a recurring theme here and the school has totally and utterly embraced the new wave of parents who want to be fully informed. ‘I embrace it as a proper relationship with parents,’ says the head, and ‘if we are open and confident with everything we do, we shouldn’t be concerned’. The economic climate has undoubtedly impacted the independent sector but if numbers here are anything to go by, Mrs Goldsmith is right to be confident. But she also recognises that parents want value for money, ‘While we appreciate that we are expensive, we can demonstrate exactly what parents will get’ and in fact, Dragon has taken transparency to a whole new level this year by sharing its strategic plan with parents. The end of the academic year will see a follow-up report delivered with outcomes against the year one targets – this is a thriving school utterly unafraid to be scrutinised.
Mrs Goldsmith is also incredibly well respected on the educational circuit – she 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.
The Dragon (both the pre-prep down the road and the prep school itself) is very popular, so apply early for a place in Reception if you can. The school is broadly non-selective, so children 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 as well as current 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.
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 casual clothes; 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 of Dragon QUEST, an optional enrichment programme where children fling on their home clothes and do cool stuff like yoga, debating, animation and orienteering.
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.
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, so there’s usually around 300 pupils boarding at some point over the week. 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. There are five junior boarding houses for pupils in Years 4 to 6, housing up to 25 each for a more cosy homely feel. Seniors hang out in bigger houses, accommodating up to 50 with two houses for boys and two for girls but still with plenty of home-from-home touches. Weekends are filled with matches, plenty of organised fun and the odd special meal or house breakfast – ordinarily, all meals are eaten centrally in the school dining room.
Speaking of food, no review of the Dragon would be complete without an appraisal of their culinary reputation – the food is phenomenal. From the plate of beautifully made petit fours on arrival to the Argentinian steak with rice on offer for everyone in the canteen for lunch, it’s a gastronomic joyride. The clever head of catering understands the balance between materials and labour and devises ambitious and creative menus that require limited prep time, leaving budget to splurge on quality produce to nourish the bodies (and epicurean souls) of delighted staff and pupils alike and enticing parents from miles around to sample the legendary match tea.
No personal devices are allowed in the boarding houses – ‘It’s so much more social without them and we make deeper bonds as there’s no second option,’ noted one astute pupil. Instead, children 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 – with a weekly bus returning children to the school on a Sunday afternoon.
Don’t panic! We have more than ten years’ experience of visiting schools and advising parents, and we are all parents ourselves – we can make this easier for you.