A full-boarding and day senior co-ed of nearly 780 pupils set in acres of lush, trickling rural idyll but minutes from the amenities of Oxford, St Edward’s is very much hitting its stride. While it may have the look, layout and manicured lawns of an Oxford college, the school is unstuffy, unpretentious and notably forward-looking, and its academic reputation and innovation are soaring.
"Teddies”, as it’s affectionately known, is also one of the leading IB schools in the UK, with, on average, around half of the sixth form choosing it over A-levels. What used to be a slightly softer choice academically has become a tougher admissions nut to crack.
Located off the pretty Woodstock Road, a mile from the city centre and minutes from the trendy Summertown shopping area. It takes under 10 minutes to reach two train stations that connect with London and Birmingham within an hour. The M40 and M4 are quickly accessible, and Heathrow is less than an hour’s drive away.
The 100-acre site is divided into ‘Quad Side’, where most of the action takes place, and ‘Field Side’, reached via a tunnel under the road and where the sports centre, fields, pitches and further boarding are located. As this is technically an urban school, there’s no grand entrance and parking is tight, but around the gatehouse corner you’ll find fine Victorian red-brick buildings surrounding Oxford’s second-largest quad (dug up for air raid shelters in World War Two).
The school recently wrapped up its biggest project in a century, with the construction of the Christie Centre – an extraordinary new space complete with a stunning library, sixth form social area and a reading room that aesthetically echoes Oxford’s colleges – and the Olivier Hall, a magnificent oval-shaped performance and assembly space with room for the whole school to gather together. Both come with all the sustainability credentials you would expect.
Alastair Chirnside, the 14th Warden of St. Edward’s, took up the post in 2021. Mr. Chirnside arrived from Harrow, where he was deputy head; before that, he taught at Eton and did a stint as a city fund manager. He’s also a keen rower and coached the U16 squad at Eton, which no doubt comes in handy: the sport is a very big deal here.
Full of English charm, parents suspect he harbours exciting visions for the school (notably his ambition to make this the best co-ed boarding school in the country).
Teddies is an increasingly popular choice, with about 450 applicants for 145 places in Year 9 (aka ‘Shell’). Prospective pupils sit the Independent Schools Examination Board exam in Year 6, with Common Entrance results in Year 8 taken into further consideration. The minimum entry requirement for Sixth Form is six GCSEs or equivalent at grade 9 - 6. Pupils should gain a 7 or above in subjects they hope to study at A Level or at Higher Level in the IB (grade 8 for maths or the sciences). There are over 40 nationalities here, and we were impressed how easily everyone seemed to rub along in the classroom, on the pitch, on stage and in-house.
Academics and destinations
There’s a real culture of hard work and achievement here, and results are going from strength to strength (last year, pupils bagged 61 per cent A*-A at A-level, and an average IB score of 36). There’s almost an even split between students picking A-levels and IB in the sixth form.
One of the key aims of the new Christie Centre is to encourage and foster university-style learning – and we were impressed by the wealth of private and independent study spaces for pupils to pick from (the sixth form reading room looks and feels more like a university library). There’s a small, well-integrated team of learning support staff available to provide extra help to pupils who need it.
Beyond ramping up its results, the school has implemented a broader, more holistic approach to its middle-school programme called Pathways and Perspectives. Pupils take two of the School’s own Pathways and Perspectives courses (ranging from sports science to entrepreneurship and global society) alongside eight or nine GCSEs, with the ultimate objective of stirring passions and equipping children with invaluable ‘soft-skills’. We’ve seen the details – five years in development and linked with several university departments – and they’re impressive.
Leavers go on to a range of universities, mostly Russell Groups, with Exeter, Edinburgh, London and Bristol the most popular destinations in 2021; four pupils gained Oxbridge places. Several went to Central St Martins, Leeds School of Art and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
As one of the top three rowing schools in the UK and with the Thames close at hand, coaching and facilities are at international level. Cricket is also particularly strong – the minimalist pavilion by John Pawson is marvellous – and recent successes have enhanced its reputation as one of the top schools nationally. But there’s something for everyone, and those who aren’t chasing places on the rugby or hockey A teams can find their niche in anything from athletics and sailing (there’s a reservoir nearby) to dance, squash or golf.
Strong art, design, drama and music have long been a feature of Teddies (Laurence Olivier was a pupil, and more recently, actors, Florence Pugh and Emilia Clarke) and stellar facilities help keep standards high. A superb new music centre was completed in 2017, across the road from the North Wall Arts Centre, a RIBA award-winning 200-seater theatre and exhibition space used by the school and open to the public. Teddies plays and musicals give a few West End shows a run for their money – when we visited, a team of professional set designers and artists were toiling away ahead of a much-anticipated production of Sweeney Todd.
The school’s music department not only benefits from an energetic and passionate leader, it has a close relationship with the music community in Oxford and has collaborated with the English Chamber Orchestra and Garsington Opera Festival, among others. Lockdown mood-lifter ‘Friday at 5’ concerts have continued in person, by popular request. There’s a fantastic jewellery-design workshop and the design and technology space is a maze of machinery, with dynamic, on-the-ball staff – one an experienced and talented joiner.
Teddies’ longstanding ties with the army manifest in compulsory CCF in fourth form. Those opting out after this year can select a life skills course: think finance, mindfulness, research and presentation skills (genuinely useful stuff). Adding to this rich mosaic of learning are a cluster of mostly student-run clubs and societies, from bee-keeping and debating to journalism and psychology.
Very firmly a boarding school, with 83 per cent of pupils living in, though you’d never know who’s day or not. Pupils are allowed to sign out on Saturday after lessons and matches, but about half stay in for the weekend as there’s a massive amount – from informal BBQs to cinema trips and jaunts into the centre of Oxford – to keep them occupied.
There are 13 houses – five for girls, five for boys and three co-ed (an increasingly popular choice) – Apsley started welcoming girls to become the newest co-ed option. In a delightfully inclusive spirit, day pupils, even if they live minutes away, are allocated a space in each house to stash their belongings or have a well-deserved break: they don’t leave until either 6.30pm or 9pm, after clubs, activities, supper and homework. All meals are taken in the main school dining room, but pupils regularly pop back to their house for rounds of toast and catch-ups at break. The newer houses are very impressive (Jubilee poses as a feature from Architectural Digest) – but there's a rolling programme of refurbishment underway on some of the older ones too.
A school-run coach service returns pupils from London, making a stop along the M40, every Sunday evening, and is available to transport pupils into London on exeat and leave weekends.
Getting to know his parents is high on Mr Chirnside’s agenda – and to help him do so, he’s opened Sunday evening chapel services up to all. Parents are widely involved – there’s a strong turnout to matches and a busy roster of events (from wine tasting to book clubs) run by the Friends of St Edward’s PA.
There’s a very strong school community too – pupils quite clearly look out for each other, and some are trained up as ‘peer listeners’, receiving training from the Samaritans. Mr Chirnside is extending the PSHE programme to upper sixth pupils, and he’s working on embedding it even more firmly in the existing tutor system.
We were impressed, not only by the world-class facilities and bursary provisions, but the dedication to and level of pastoral care, as well as the real sense of a “Teddies community,” giving parents as much chance to foster friendships here as the children. This is an inclusive, lively and creative school that would suit an all-rounder ready to dive into a dizzying roster of activities and classes. Parents for whom the happiness and mental wellbeing of their offspring are as important as exam results would be happy with their choice. And the benefits of close access to a city will appeal to many pupils – and make the transition to the real world less of a shock.