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21 February 2023
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: St Swithun's, a top girls school with a broader outlook

Hello from spring-like Richmond,
January is finally behind us. The days here in Richmond are getting brighter and friendlier by the day. These are exactly the conditions we love for visiting boarding schools.
Last week we took the train to Winchester to visit the girls school St Swithun’s. This is a school we’ve only started working with quite recently, and we are always excited to get to know new schools. In this case not least, because St Swithun’s is one of the top academic schools in the country.
Would this school be too pushy for our girls? Would it be all late-night library visits and no fun and play?
Find out below!
Imposing: St Swithun's School when approaching from the street
The Setting
St Swithun’s School sits on the outskirts of the medieval town Winchester, famous for its schools, beautiful town center and 17th century cathedral. We hopped on a direct train from London’s Waterloo station and get off 45 minutes later at Winchester Station. From there it’s a brisk 15-minute walk to the school. St Swithun’s girls can count themselves lucky: there are few nicer towns to go to school in than Winchester. During the week the girls are busy with everything a top boarding school like St Swithun’s has to offer. On the week-ends the girls have access to Winchester, a beautiful, safe town with cafés, restaurants, shops and cinemas.
Winchester town is lovely!
Moreover, with the train-station within walking distance from school, girls can take direct trains to London or head in the opposite direction for the coast. Southampton is a mere 20 minutes away. London Heathrow Airport is a mere one-hour car-ride away. The school is set on a rather impressive 45-acre campus overlooking the open countryside. These wide, open spaces convey a feeling of freedom and the location on the outskirts of Winchester a sense of privacy and safety. Entering the rather imposing main house from the street on foot, we spotted tennis courts and lacross pitches, as well as the school’s impressive multi-purpose sports hall, complete with 25m indoor swimming pool and gym. The main building from the inside feels warm, quite modern and immaculately tidy.
Lovely boarding facilities here!
What (we think!) St Swithun’s School is all about
No doubt, St Swithun’s School is a top-tier girls boarding school with an excellent academic reputation. And yet there seems to be a genuine focus on the broader meaning of an education here. The choice of extracurricular activities is fantastic and, as far as we could tell, wholeheartedly embraced by the girls. Whether it’s sports, music, design technology, art or any of the manifold activities, the girls really get stuck in here. Truly, St Swithun’s School is an education for the whole person.
St Swithun’s School feels like a genuinely caring school, run by people that love what they do. We write this fully aware of how much this sounds like a well-trodden cliché. And yet, from our first interaction at reception via the in-depth conversations with department heads in Art, Design Technology and Languages to a lovely chat with a boarding house matron, St Swithun’s presented itself as a school on a singular mission to make its girls feel supported, inspired and comfortable.
Corridor to greatness: St Swithun's is doing very well academically
The Academics
It’s hard to fault St Swithun’s academics. In 2022, 85 per cent of GCSE grades were between 9 and 7 and 75 per cent of A-Level grades were A or A. In 2019 (the last pre-pandemic results), 80 per cent of GCSE grades were between 9 and 7 and 59 per cent of A-Level grades at A or A. Interest in STEM subjects is strong here with Biology and Chemistry the most popular A-Levels here, closely followed by Maths. We toured the school’s fabulous laboratories and sat in on a Biology lesson, where a Y12 class explored the growth of bacterial colonies. All petri dishes and energised dialogue, we got a great sense of a St Swithun’s science classes. St Swithun’s STEM offer clearly pays dividends: the school is very proud of alumnus Emma Walmsley, current CEO of UK pharma company GlaxoSmithKline, a perfect ‘poster-child’ for the school’s STEM education.
Very creative: St Swithun's Design Technology department really impresses
At von Bülow Education we see this interest at most top girls schools: girls can choose STEM subjects without the risk of being pigeon-holed as geeks or ending up as the sole girl in an all-boys science class, as is often the case at co-educational boarding schools.
Since 2020 St Swithun’s is a ‘High Performance Learning School’ and as such part of a global network of schools that subscribe to the ideal that “anyone can perform highly through practice”. As part of this initiative St Swithun’s offers girls learning techniques and support that allow them to live up to their academic potential. As a result St Swithun’s has a comparatively high value add and allows for a broader intake. So, no need to be an academic high-flyer to be considered here!
More than 10,000 books: St Swithun's library
Also, we simply have to mention, St Swithum’s ‘Stretch’, a weekly academic enrichment programme that happens outside the normal academic curriculum. Girls examine an extremely broad set of academic, philosophical and scientific topics from astronomy and experimental art to moral philosophy and current affairs. Stretch exists to inspire and to hone the girls’ critical and creative thinking skills. We LOVE this initiative!
Tabby the Turtle is an essential part of Biology life here
Lastly, a special mention is due to Swithun’s academic staff: we have rarely met a set of teachers that struck as as engaged, affable and passionate as the ones we met here! All took the time to stop for a proper chat. The Head of Design Technology took a full 15 minutes of her time to explain DT at the school, the different machinery and tools used and projects done; The Head of Drama gave us a whirlwind introduction to the A-Level drama syllabus and The Head of Languages talked passionately about her singular mission to stem the decline in interest in languages at Britain’s schools (not the case here, by the way!). We came away really impressed!
A truly amazing swimming pool!
The Extracurriculars
As mentioned previously, St Swithun’s places a lot of importance on the girls getting involved as much as possible outside of the classroom. No hiding away in the library or even behind a smart-phone. Girls muck in here!
And wow, where to start?
St Swithun’s School's music department is top-notch and renowned as such. All girls are encouraged to play at least one instrument. 80% of girls do. The opportunities to get involved in high-quality music are endless. Here are but a few: The Swithun Choir, Chamber Choir, Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Band, Strictly Strings (chamber orchestra), Concert Band, Wind Ensembles, Saxophone Ensemble, Senior Clarinet Choir, Lower School Clarinet, Choir, Flutopia (flute choir), Flute Quartet, Bassoon Ensemble, Gospel Choir, Baroque Ensemble, Recorder Ensemble, Rock Group - The Morrows, String Ensembles, Brass Ensembles, Horn Ensemble, Percussion Ensemble.
Fashion design, anyone? Textiles is very popular here
We also loved touring through St Swithun’s School's amazing design technology workshop, all abuzz with girls working on product prototypes for anything from a cello music stand to a novelty alarm clock. The girls start with pencil and paper for rough sketches, move on to 3D CAD software for more refined designs, create prototypes using different materials and finally an actual product. Along the way they learn how to use buzzsaws, welding and electronic equipment, 3D-printers and lazer-cutters. We could have stayed here for hours!
In Design Technology the girls build their own go-cart race cars
Art is special here, too. The girls’ really impressive masterpieces are on display throughout the school. But it’s the art studio where the magic happens. A stunning,light space with creative chaos in all four corners, where girls have their own spaces all year to pursue projects in painting, photography, textiles and pottery. Boundless creativity!
We'd try trampolining in a heart-beat!
Inevitably for a school of St Swithun’s format there’s lots of great sports happening here. The school keeps an impressive Sportshall, complete with gym, huge convertible in-door space, a stunning 25-meter swimming pool and 12 outdoors tennis courts. Team sports are popular here with lacrosse and netball real competitive stand-outs, winning trophies all over the UK. Football, cricket and tennis not far behind. Beyond this, the choices are endless: riding, golf, archery, surfing, trampolining, aerobics, basketball, volleyball, health-related fitness, Pilates, Zumba and dance to name but the most popular.
Lacrosse is hugely popular and very successful here
In this age of digital inertia and mobile phone overuse St Swithun’s provides activities to raise the most avid couch-potato off the sofa. Next to the classics like Duke of Edinburgh and M.U.N there’s a drone club, knitting club, Young Enterprise, Science Journal, German club, touch typing, cooking & baking and, wait for it, a True Crimes Society on offer. Life-skills development is not just a buzzword here. St Swithun’s Character Development Programme teaches the girls essential things like leadership/followership, public speaking and debating.
Textures of St Swithun's
The Boarding
45% of girls board here, mostly as full boarders. Approximately 75% of girls are British, the remaining 15% from 17 countries, including Spain, Nigeria, China and India. From Y8 on every girl has her own room. The rooms are quite small but very cozy.
Cozy single-rooms for everyone. Often beautifully decorated!
The four senior boarding houses Earlsdown, High House, Hillcroft and Hyde Abbey are cozy, spacious and very well run under the guise of teams of house-mothers and matrons. We met the friendly matron at High House and got an immediate sense for how well cared for the girls are here - she was in the process of baking three cakes for that day’s tea time!
One of the bigger rooms
On week-ends girls can either chill or participate in an optional programme of cultural excursions, trips to the beach, art workshops, mini-golf tournaments, roller disco socials with the boys school down the road or pizza & movie nights. Being five minutes on foot from beautiful Winchester town center is of course a massive plus also.
Ever unhappy, stressed or strung out? St Swithun’s full-time clinical psychologist is on site and happy to help.
St Swithun’s has one exeat weekend in the summer term.
The fabulous art studio
Our View on a Girl Suited to St Swithun’s
With it’s focus on academic excellence and wealth of amazing (!) extracurricular activities, St Swithun’s is a school strictly for girls who like learning and get involved. For those girls, however, this will be an absolutely amazing school full of fun, stimulation and phenomenal pastoral care.

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