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Insights into inspirational arts practice in schools: Magdalen College School and the Oxford Festival of the Arts

Written By: Helen Pike and Scott Crawford
4 min read
Magdalen College School and the Oxford Festival of the Arts

Magdalen College School (MCS) was founded in 1480 by William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England, to provide a solid grounding in Latin and Greek grammar to support rigorous humanist studies at university. It continues to fulfil that role but has expanded considerably over the years and is now an independent day school for boys from the age of 7 to 18 years, and for girls from the age of 16 to 18 years. There is the junior school for boys in years 3 to 6, the senior school for boys in Years 7 to 11, and the sixth form for boys and girls in Years 12 and 13. Formerly administered by Magdalen College, the school became a charitable trust in the mid-1980s, although it still maintains a relationship with the College.

The school currently has over 900 pupils on  roll, with approximately 140 of those pupils in the junior school. Pupils are admitted on the basis of academic potential. One in 10 pupils are in receipt of some degree of bursary support, and full bursaries are awarded. The school employs 260 teaching and non-teaching staff. MCS is located in a city centre location in Oxford, drawing pupils from across the city and the county.

The Oxford Festival of the Arts was an initiative of Magdalen College School in 2008, and the school remains its lead sponsor. The festival runs over a fortnight in late June and early July, with around 100 events taking place across the city. In addition, the festival is the culmination of a year-round educational partnerships project, with a different focus each year.

The festival is committed to fostering creativity and excellence in the arts, and to providing artistic opportunities for Oxfordshire’s diverse communities. The aim each year is to offer a broad and high-quality programme of artistic and cultural events. There is a particular focus on supporting emerging artists and young people who are developing their artistic talents or aspire to a career in the arts. The festival offers opportunities for guests to get actively involved and to try out new cultural activities or further develop skills they already have.

Believing that understanding may help us to enjoy cultural experiences to their fullest, the festival aims to embed events in opportunities for ongoing education in the arts. The keys areas of focus are:

  • supporting youth engagement in the arts, particularly for those without ready access to cultural activities
  • offering opportunities for active participation in cultural activities
  • showcasing regional talent and supporting developing young artists, and
  • celebrating Oxford’s heritage and forming bridges between Oxford’s diverse communities.

In 2019, over 2,500 children from 15 primary and secondary schools in and around Oxford took part in arts events allied with the Oxford Festival of the Arts. A brief outline of some of these events is given below.


Acclaimed puppeteer, Emma Boor, held a series of workshops in local primary schools to extend pupils’ literacy skills through puppetry and performance storytelling. Drawing on popular children’s stories for inspiration, the pupils developed scripts and crafted puppets before bringing their creations to life on stage. This project culminated in a joint puppetry session in the festival marquee, where the children from participating schools joined on stage to share their productions in a collaborative puppet show. A primary school teacher reported:

The children loved it and got so much wonderful learning out of it. I had lots of lovely feedback from other members of staff about how marvellous it was – we would definitely be interested in participating again.


Local primary school children were invited to take part in a fully immersive opera performance of the marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice in a Purefeo production as part of the festival. The children played the parts of wedding guests, and enjoyed the experience of music and dance being performed around them. For many, this was their first taste of opera and live orchestral music. In addition to enjoying the performance, the participants were given an opportunity to learn about the instruments used in the production, and the director provided a commentary to what was happening on stage. A primary school teacher commented:

Thank you again for such a wonderful morning of opera and dance. The children had a fantastic time and I am sure it will leave them with a hunger for more opera in their lives.


In association with Ethno England Summer Camps, a group of international young musicians delivered workshops to local primary schools to share the instruments and music from their combined cultures. The children experienced different instruments and enjoyed the opportunity to learn new songs from across the world. Following the workshops, all the participating schools assembled in the festival marquee for a concert to show how cultures can collaborate through the arts.


MCS and the Oxford Festival of the Arts were proud to work in association with Music for Autism, to host a fully interactive concert specifically designed to enhance the quality of life for individuals with autism. People with autism, drawn from the local community, visited the school to listen to music performed by musicians from the Orchestra of St John’s. This event was supported by MCS sixth form pupils.


MCS organises an annual poetry competition as part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts. In 2019, the theme of the competition mirrored that of the festival: Connections. Submissions were received from children across the city, and the winners were invited to share the stage at the Poetry Live event with the award-winning author and poet, Louis de Bernières. This competition highlights MCS’s continuing commitment to developing an enthusiasm for poetry in young people.

In addition to the projects listed above, the festival also hosts an annual schools matinee performance in the Oxford Playhouse. This year, 500 primary school children from across Oxford enjoyed an engaging and professionally directed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A further 400 children listened to the hip-hop artist, author and poet, Karl Nova, in the festival marquee as part of our year-long programme of author visits.

In summary, the Oxford Festival of the Arts, through its partnership and community engagement programme, aims to provide young people with opportunities and experiences that are not easily accessible elsewhere. The festival continues to evolve and develop, and new collaborations are sought each year to ensure continuing relevance.

For more information, please contact Dr Scott Crawford, Deputy Head (Education Development) or Dr Michelle Casteletti, Director of the Oxford Festival of the Arts.

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