On the trail of spires and a curious girl

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Ah, Oxford's dreaming spires.

Yes, but there's much more to this shire than "that sweet city". Oxfordshire is a lovely rural county, with towns such as Henley, Abingdon and Banbury.

Oxford itself has long been synonymous with the university, and Waugh-esque images of students sipping sherry by the fireside in oak panelled rooms and punting on the Cherwell (as opposed to downing beer in the city's pubs and jumping in the river) still persist. The city is also a huge tourist magnet. Latterly Oxford has become popularly associated with a grumpy old cove driving a Jag.

You mean John Prescott?

No silly, Inspector Morse.

If Colin Dexter's erudite detective were still around, his latest case might be the death of three-tier education in Oxford. Oxfordshire County Council found itself in the High Court recently when campaigners mounted, but lost, a legal challenge to the authority's bid to abolish middle schools in Oxford. The authority wants to introduce a two-tier system in the city in line with the rest of the county.

What is the local education authority like?

"Very lean and well run" is the Office for Standards in Education's description.

Oxfordshire, although largely affluent, has had a problem with under-performing schools, stemming partly from the fact that no party has had overall political control since the mid-Eighties. Education has also been funded below the level indicated by central government, with an impact on class sizes in junior schools and on the pysical state of schools. However, OFSTED praises the authority for improving the structure of its services and for beginning to tackle the under-achievement issue.

The county covers a wide and varied area and has a mix of schools: 234 primaries, 10 middle schools, 29 secondary schools, six upper schools, 14 special schools and six pupil referral units.

Oxfordshire, like the rest of the South-East, is short of teachers, with some schools having had to send children home.

Much to do when the school bell goes, apart from piles of marking?

Oxford is a truly great city with fine buildings, museums, theatres, pubs, restaurants and live music of every variety. It is handy for London: there are regular, round-the-clock coach services. And nearby is the splendour of the Cotswolds and the Chiltern Hills.

Bet I can't afford to live there.

Probably not. Houses in Oxford are expensive. In the leafier parts of the city, a three-bedroom semi can cost between pound;180,000 and pound;250,000. Prices come down in the surrounding towns such as Witney, where a similar property would be between pound;125,000 and pound;150,000.

Renting a three-bedroom semi in Oxford can start at around pound;850 a month.

Any famous sonsdaughters?

Lots of famous former students, of course, including poet and social critic Matthew Arnold (of "that sweet city with her dreaming spires") and 'Alice' author Lewis Carroll, who went on from Christ Church College to lecture there too, in maths.

Martin Whittaker

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