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30 January 2021
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: King William's College, a wonderfully grounded school on the wonderful Isle of Man

Hello from (slightly snowy) Oxfordshire!
The start of 2021 hasn’t been exactly as we would have hoped — schools are closed again and the UK is in its third national lockdown. But we’ve had some lovely snowy weekends, and the vaccine is being rolled out, so we are focusing on the positives!
This month we’ve been talking to King William’s College, a really wonderful school on the Isle of Man, a small island in the Irish Sea that’s equidistant between England and Ireland. We’ve visited the school before and have always found the island lifestyle entrancing. And it’s even more so now: the Isle of Man has been able to handle Covid outbreaks very well, and King William’s managed to stay open throughout the Autumn term last year. Right now, it’s the only boarding school in the UK that’s due to operate as normal from the 1st of February, while everywhere else is closed during lockdown.
Needless to say this makes King William's a very, very interesting destination for pupils around the world right now!
King William's as seen from the sea
The Setting
King William’s College has a very unique setting: on the Isle of Man, an island with a population of only 80,000, the school itself is just a few metres from the sea. The view from King William’s is green and blue — where the open fields and sports pitches end, the school’s own beach begins.
The view isn’t bad the other way around either. King William’s was built in 1830, and the main grey limestone building is a beautiful castle-like structure with an impressive clocktower in the middle. King William’s also has its own chapel, and much of the inside of the school has beautiful original features, including the The Barrovian dining hall and old library with wood-paneled ceilings.
The Quad - the school's inner courtyard
Despite its history, King William’s isn’t overly formal or flash — there are a few rudimentary outbuildings, and other areas inside the school have all that students could want, but are simple and unfussy.
The Isle of Man’s small population means that the space and nature that King William’s enjoys doesn’t have to come at the expense of nearby amenities. Down the road there is a little town with a medieval castle, and the school is a 12-minute walk (or four minute drive!) from the airport. Douglas, the island’s capital, is half an hour away on the bus.
The Isle of Man airport is within a 10 minute walk from school!
There are regular flights to the Isle of Man, via hubs like London City or Manchester. Joss Buchanan, King William’s principal, admits there is a psychological block about taking two flights, but he wisely points out that the short second leg is often quicker than the taxi or train you’d take from a London airport to a school on the mainland. And the small size of the Isle of Man’s airport means that the moment students touch down, they are literally only a few minutes away from their bedrooms.
Stunning vistas everywhere: KWC from the local golf course
What (we think!) King William’s College is all about
Talking to us last week, Joss told us that there’s a “gentle joke” about life on the Isle of Man: “When the plane lands they say, ‘Welcome to the Isle of Man, please set your clock back 30 years.’”
In some ways, this is what King William’s is all about. It’s not that it’s old-fashioned, but more that the school and the island’s ideas around community values, safety, and healthy lifestyles have not been swallowed by the hectic pace of modern society. The school is grounded, and wants to stay that way.
The small, close-knit island community is an integral part of King William’s, which doesn’t so much have community “outreach” projects, but is a seamless part of everyday life on the Isle of Man. As Erik, an Estonian student in Year 13, told us: “We’re on a small island, it’s such a small community. Everyone knows everyone and everyone’s friends with everyone. That’s the most notable feature of this island, the community. We’re all really, really close.”
Rugby poppular and very good here!
What is really refreshing about King William’s is how the school uses its small size (380 pupils) and tight-knit community to be forward-thinking — the island school is not at all insular. King William’s isn’t hung up on history or tradition, but is flexible and open minded. The school has the freedom to pursue what it likes, whether that’s whacky ideas for a school trip or accommodating an individual pupil's niche interests. Joss nicely summed up the King William’s attitude for us in our podcast: “If someone comes to us with an idea, we tend to think ‘why not?’ rather than ‘why’?”
The beautiful arts department
The Academics
A great example of King William’s open minded and forward-thinking attitude is its history teaching the International Baccalaureate. Nearly 20 years ago, when many UK boarding schools still viewed the qualification with suspicion, King William’s started teaching the IB for the first time. Now, King William’s no longer offers A Levels, and is IB-only, simply because the school thinks the IB gives students a much better education than A Levels. Joss’ response to the fact that you have to do a language as part of the IB? “So you should, so you should! That should be part of an education in the 21st century.”
King William’s is proud of its small class sizes: the average size across all year groups is around 13 pupils, but in the sixth form it’s significantly smaller than this. There’s a broad range of subjects on offer, including environmental systems, higher level sports science, and Latin — “we see it as gently part of our mission to keep Latin going,” Joss says.
The school's music department
For a school that is relatively non-selective (there are certainly some students “at the very top” but it is perhaps not for those “at the other extreme”, Joss explains) the results are impressive.
In 2020, the average IB score in the year group of 51 students was 32.8 points. Six students achieved 40 or more points, which puts them in the top 5 per cent of students worldwide. At GCSEs, 50 per cent of students achieved marks between 9 and 7, and 98 per cent of students achieved marks between 9 and 4.
Lots of gorgeous outdoor activities on the Isle of Man
The Extracurriculars
As you’d expect, extracurriculars at King William’s make the most of the environment surrounding the school. Sailing, all sorts of surfing, and swimming are all popular, as well as rock climbing and Duke of Edinburgh expeditions to different parts of the island. There’s even a small flying school at the airport, just a few minutes walk away, which past pupils have taken the opportunity to join.
Rugby is the biggest sport for boys, and the school’s most successful sport is girls hockey. It’s common for the teams to fly off every weekend to play matches against schools in Ireland, other islands, or the UK mainland.
Joss recognises that King William’s doesn’t offer as many extracurriculars at a high level as some bigger schools do, but says he’d rather everyone was able to take part than have certain activities off-limits to those that aren’t the best at them.
More stunning vistas...
Laora, a student in the upper sixth, says she’s really grateful for this attitude at the school, which led her to discover drama. “I did theatre for the first time here and I didn’t know I liked it, and now it’s my favourite thing,” she says. “The main thing of the school is that you don’t have to be good at anything, you just have to be willing to participate.”
This participation is also often outside the school itself; pupils will regularly join local clubs or play in leagues on the island, which the school encourages.
King William’s also has a big focus on travel and exciting trips. “The school is a bit quirky, and although we’re on this small island we’re outward looking,” says Joss. “One aspect of that is that we do travel enormously.” King William’s is the only school in the western hemisphere, for example, to have supplemented its history lessons on dictatorship with a school trip to North Korea!
Simple yet cozy - boarding at KWC
The Boarding
Boarding at King William’s is, above all else, relaxed and familial. At the start of every year, teachers pile the international pupils into a minibus, take them up to Douglas, the Isle of Man’s capital city, and tell them to make their own way back. The point, Joss says, is to make pupils realise how safe and easy it is to get around the island, and encourage them to use that to develop their independence and curiosity.
The slow pace of life on the island means pupils “can relax, perhaps take greater liberties” than they would be able to elsewhere, Joss says. And he’s “very conscious of how to run the boarding on the weekends” — which at King William’s, means taking a flexible, relaxed approach.
Good food! The school's dining hall.
“For teenagers, when you’ve had an intensive week at school, what you want actually is to chill. You want opportunities there if you want to tap into them, but you don't want every hour of your week organised,” he says. ““Boarding schools, for all concerned, can be very claustrophobic… I like to see students walking along the road to the town, or taking the bus to Douglas, taking some time out.”
Only 20 per cent of the school are boarders, but they’re concentrated in the older years, so in the sixth form as much as half the year could be boarding. “In senior year groups, there is very much a sense that this is a boarding school,” Joss says.
Of the 100 or so boarders, around 50 are from the island and the other 50 are international. (Interestingly, they currently have no students from the UK mainland.) This means there’s a great amount of mixing between locals and international students, who will often stay at friend’s homes on the islands over the weekend or holidays.
Stunning, no?
“It’s really cool because of course you have international friends but being an international student doesn’t stop you from having loads of friends on the island,” says Laora, who joined King William’s last year. “There’s no real division between the day students and the boarders, it’s all the same.”
The island’s ethos and the normality of joining local clubs or sports leagues also means that pupils at King William’s mix with other students at schools around the island. It’s not uncommon for teachers to bump into old international students in the pub, who are back to visit their friends on the Isle of Man!
Laora only had good things to say about boarding life in the sixth form (and the sea view from her bedroom window!). “It’s a really amazing experience to wake up and see the seashore,” she says. “Honestly boarding life is so exciting, there’s always something happening, you never have to be alone in your room, you can always go chat to someone and there’s always something going on.”
And she’s noticed how the island’s safety has made her more independent. “Even if you’re 13 or 14 you can go alone for a walk with your friends, take the bus to Douglas… It makes you feel like you’re an adult because you can be really independent.”
KWC in all its breadth and beauty
Our view on a student suited to King William’s College
King William’s is a school with a genuine community, and would provide a home away from home for almost anyone. We definitely think the fact that King William’s is IB-only and quite small makes it more suitable for all-rounders, rather than those with specialist needs, but the school is clearly also very good at accommodating each pupil’s quirks and dreams.
Island life isn’t for everyone, but it would be a mistake to assume that an island education creates an insular mind. When we asked Erik what type of pupil was suited to King William’s, he told us this: “It would suit all kinds of people, from all around the world, because it's an international school, there’s loads of different languages and cultures and perspectives. And the school respects that a lot.”
To us, more than anything, King William’s and its community felt very grounded and genuine. There are strong guiding principles, and warm, open hearts. As Joss said, “you can put a lot of the cares of the wider world aside, and you can focus on the community.” Any pupil who thrives in a down-to-earth, natural environment — or any child who is in need of one! — would certainly excel at King William’s.
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