Ah, lovely Oxford: a city synonymous with blockbuster architecture, yonks of tradition and quite frankly intimidating heights of intellect. Little wonder, then, that it’s the setting for one of the brainiest schools in the country, educating the South East’s brightest buttons all the way from seven to 18. Boys have been coming here for more than half a millennium and girls started arriving in the sixth form just over a decade ago, marking the beginning of a brand-new chapter for this historic school. With its terrifically privileged position at the heart of one of the world’s leading universities, and a magic connection to the Oxford college with which it shares its name, this is the school to come to for an extraordinarily superb education on a par with Westminster or St Paul’s – for a fraction of the cost.
Smack-bang in the middle of the city, sandwiched between Magdalen College and Christ Church meadow, MCS’s location is a real stunner. The oldest and prettiest parts of the school – built from golden syrupy Oxford stone – back right onto the banks of the River Cherwell and from here, it’s a quick saunter over a white-painted bridge to what must be the world’s most idyllic sports fields, marooned in the middle of the river overlooking the university Botanic Garden with both Tom and Magdalen Towers in view. Head deeper into the senior school and an amalgam of architectural eras makes things a little more schooly and austere, but it’s well worth having a snoop around the mega new Richard Record sixth-form centre, which opened to much fanfare last year.
Helen Pike is the school’s first female master in its 540-year history and, boy, is she brilliant. She’d always had her eye on the job and her ties to the city run deep: she’s got a modern history degree from Christ Church, her partner was senior proctor at Oxford and two of her stepsons were pupils here. Tall, ridiculously glamorous and great fun, she’s a formidable character too: highly intellectual, a fantastic speaker and blessed with an astonishing knack for bringing together interesting people.
She’s got heaps of experience at high-flying schools (her CV includes stints at Westminster, City of London School and St Paul’s before a headship at South Hampstead High School) and everyone quite clearly adores her. Tim Skipwith oversees the day-to-day running of the junior school – a cosy, gentle introduction to the main event that shares grounds, facilities and specialist staff with the senior school.
Once you’re into the junior school at 7+, there’s a fairly rock-solid guarantee of a place the whole way up to 18, so it’s worth trying your luck early on. Everyone sits a rigorous exam and those that make the grade are invited back a few weeks later for an interview with the head. If you’re looking at senior-school entry, 11+ is the main intake, with roughly four times the number of places up for grabs as those offered at 13+ (when entry is via CE). That said, the 11+ entry test doubles up as the 13+ pre-test (and 40 or so boys from the junior school are likely to snaffle up half the spots), so it’s only the very strongest academically that’ll secure a place.
This isn’t the type of school anyone can just blag their way into: boys need to show an enquiring mind, varied interests and serious academic prowess. Girls arrive for the heavily oversubscribed sixth form (they need six or more A*s at GCSE but, in reality, most aim way above that); the majority are defectors from local single-sex day schools like Headington and Oxford High.
Academics and university destinations
Unashamedly academic, Magdalen rarely drops below the top 10 in the national league tables. Everyone studies for 10 GCSEs and in the sixth form, four A-levels are the norm (or five, if you throw in further maths). Last year’s results were a stupendous 96 per cent A*-B – pity those who let the side down. It doesn’t bother with subjects that won’t score points with the top universities (so no photography or psychology on offer), and classroom work is complemented with a dizzying array of societies, reading groups, debates and lectures from visiting speakers drawn from Oxford’s stupidly brainy gene pool.
Weekly ‘Lilium’ sessions tackle sensible stuff like business and enterprise, statistics, tax and how to apply for a mortgage, with modules in public speaking and research. And alongside the small matter of A-levels, these star sixth-formers somehow find the time to knuckle down to MCS’ very own version of the EPQ, the Waynflete Studies: a 5,000-word, independently researched topic on any topic they like – whether that’s post-quantum cryptography (eh?) or phantom limb pain. Everyone finds a tutor from the university to supervise them (often a world expert), with findings presented in front of a kick-ass academic panel. Little wonder this lot bagged an astounding 41 Oxbridge places last year.
Top-level ex-professionals have been brought into the sports department to give standards a boost and competition has been gathering pace against big-gun rivals such as Eton, Radley and Abingdon. Rugby is huge and football is on the up (dare we say it, the girls are even starting to outperform the boys), and although there’s plenty of rowing, it’s not as popular as you might think (sailing seems to be the water-based sport of choice here).
There’s no shortage of space or facilities. As well as those picture-perfect aforementioned pitches, pupils use the university’s Iffley Road Sports Centre, share Christ Church, Magdalen and Merton’s playing fields and have their own cricket nets, tennis courts and sports hall on site.
With 16 angelic young choristers of its own, Magdalen has a longstanding choral tradition and music and the arts are a bumper part of school life. Pupils perform Shakespeare from punts on the Cherwell, stage Greek epics at the Oxford Playhouse, produce a full-scale musical each year and spend summer stints at the Edinburgh Fringe. The MCS-founded Oxford Festival of the Arts – a two-week extravaganza of workshops, concerts, recitals, masterclasses and art exhibitions – is the highlight on the school calendar and draws an impressive star-studded line-up of speakers, playwrights and authors including Louis de Bernières, Germaine Greer and Tom Attenborough.
Clubs run the gamut from hillwalking to medieval reading, while an excellent community outreach programme sees sixth-formers heading out into the city each week to mentor pupils in local state schools, work in charity shops or lend a hand in care homes.
Some might worry that life at MCS sounds a little too all-consuming, but we were struck by the tremendous sense of community here. There are no lessons on a Saturday (weekends are reserved for family time) and pupils are split into houses based on where they live, so friendships follow suit (music to the ears of school-run- weary mums). Fees are kept enviably low to help out the squeezed middle and the parent body is emphatically more Oxford academic than Chipping Norton set (read: diverse, hardworking and a little bit geeky).
Pupils will travel; some come from as far afield as Cheltenham and Swindon and one or two even commute from London. We suspect most aren’t quite as streetwise as their peers in the capital (we don’t get the impression there are many problems with drink and drugs at the school) but, wow, are they on track for amazing things.
You’ve got to be a razor-sharp superstar to thrive here, but for the right child what Magdalen offers is second to none. We’d say it feels more like a junior university than a school – and with all the remarkable things going on, we think those Oxford dons better watch their backs…