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28 September 2021
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Winchester College, The Quirkiest Of The Top Boys Boarding Schools

Hello again from Oxfordshire!
After a relaxing summer break, we’re back touring the UK for you, visiting Britain’s finest boarding schools to find out what they’re really like. And it’s great to be back! This month, we kicked things off with a bang by visiting Winchester College, one of the oldest schools in England and a boys school so well known it hardly warrants an introduction. So welcome back, and let’s jump right in!
Stunning - flowers in the school's inner courtyard
The Setting
Winchester College is impossibly pretty — in the small town of Winchester in Hampshire, the school is all brick and flint buildings, cobbled courtyards, ancient stone quads, impeccably kept grounds and magical little gardens. Winchester College’s beauty isn’t imposing though; there’s no grand entrance and a main building to gawp at. Instead, through a cosy Oxbridge-esque porters’ lodge on a quiet street, you ramble around the campus gradually discovering its charms. (The school is relatively small, with around 700 pupils.)
School with a glimpse of Winchester Cathedral in the back
Winchester College is one of the oldest schools in the world, but the rest of the town can top that with the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, a five-minute walk from the school. While the town has plenty going for it in terms of aesthetics and culture (the English poet Keats described it as “the pleasantest town I ever was in”), it’s a quiet place. One pupil we spoke to, who grew up in Berlin, said he had enjoyed the “more cosy environment”. But, he added, “After five years, I’m definitely not planning on staying in Winchester forever.”
A few minutes drive outside of town, you’re deep in the rolling hills of Hampshire, and all of this is only around an hour away by car from London. Trains to Winchester also take one hour from London.
A library like no other we've seen at a school
What (we think!) Winchester College is all about
You can’t come away from Winchester College without realising that this is a school where academia and intellectual curiosity take priority. The teachers say so, but it’s the students that really show it — boys we spoke to enthused quite genuinely about their passion for physics or economics, and gently ribbed each other in political chatter at lunch time. In internet meme culture, you might label Winchester boys (or “Wykehamists”, as they’re called) as “intellectual softboys”. This is not a pushy, exam hothouse interpretation of academic success, but an old-school almost university-like education that emphasises curiosity and inquiry — going beyond — rather than rote knowledge of a syllabus.
The outer courtyard
Interestingly, while diversity of thought and opinion is of huge importance to the school, in their outward appearance and mannerisms, there is certainly a Wykehamist mould — a result, we think, of the school’s traditionalism. This is a classic English boarding school, and it holds its heritage close. Teenage boys here have impeccable manners (the school motto is, and we’re not kidding, “Manners Makyth Man”) and a gentle softness to their confidence that makes their desire to have their opinions heard interesting and engaging rather than brash and obnoxious. If Wykehamists were politicians, they’d be Rory Stewarts, not Boris Johnsons.
But watch this space: what Winchester College’s all about could change dramatically in September 2022, when the school will begin to take girls as sixth form day pupils in an attempt to “look into modernity, and the type of school we want to be in 20 or 30 years time,” registrar Andrew Sheddon tells us. Over time — while new boarding houses are built — there will be up to 50 girl boarders in the sixth form.
Chemistry storage - the natural sciences are extremely popular here
The Academics
In 2020, 93 per cent achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 81 per cent achieved A or A equivalent at Cambridge Pre-U. In 2019, (the last year when exams took place), 88 per cent achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 67 per cent achieved A or A equivalent at Cambridge Pre-U. (From September 2020, the school is changing from Pre-U to A Levels.)
Pupils say the style of Winchester College’s teaching is best represented in an unexamined subject on their curriculum, called “Div”. In Div classes, any topic of interest is used as a kaleidoscope through which to educate boys about the history of the world and intellectual thought — from culture and current affairs to history and science. The idea is for teachers — called “dons” at Winchester College — to spark debate amongst the group rather than teach as such, and boys say this feeds through into their normal lessons. “We learn things in the old way, by going to the library and reading books to find answers, rather than going to Google,” says our sixth-form tour guide, Leon. (Leon himself provides a good example of the intellectual curiosity of a Wykehamist. Asked why he likes economics, he told us: “I like thinking about the theory of stuff and how it applies to the real world — what are the discrepancies and where are they flawed.”)
A windtunnel for physics experiments
Winchester College is quite traditional in terms of its subjects on offer — there’s no class civ or sociology, but instead nineteen “classic” subjects, including philosophy and theology and history of art. In the last year, two thirds of the year chose economics.
As you’d expect, boys are spoilt for choice with resources and facilities. The library is beautiful, old and oak-beamed, and complete with a snug reading spot in a stone bay window. In the science block, there’s a wind tunnel, a lecture theatre and even a dedicated explosion area. Each boy also has individual “Futures” sessions to discuss next steps in sixth form.
Because of its academic pace, the school makes sure international students join with a good enough grasp of English to be able to engage. However, Winchester College will also help once they’re in — Leon, for example, had nine one-on-one English lessons each week for the first few months when he joined.
Skater Art - the arts and music are amazingly well taught here
The Extracurriculars
While pupils acknowledge that the academics definitely take priority over extracurriculars (music lessons, for example, do not take pupils out of lessons but are held at other times), they’re keen to emphasise that this is not “to the detriment of sports and music”. One sixth-former, when asked what his favourite thing about Winchester College is, in fact said it’s the “variety of things on offer”.
On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons, four hours are specially set aside for boys to explore this cornucopia of activities, from sports to music and academic societies. Music is very popular — unsurprisingly in a school whose chapel choir has been singing for 600 years — with around 700 music lessons per week and all kinds of ensembles and orchestras. There are 55 rooms with pianos in the school, more than in Berlin’s Hochschule!
A snug reading cove
Other popular activities include football, cricket (both played on exquisite sports fields), golf (the school has its own golf club), pigeon shooting, mountain biking, CCF, community service, and a plethora of societies, including python club, politics (both the conservative and socialist societies) and mock United Nations.
A new sports centre is currently being built, which will house a swimming pool, squash and fives courts and a martial arts dojo. Boys also rave about the resources and expertise of the teachers in the art and design departments and DT studio.
Tellingly, all boys are exposed to debating at some point during their time at Winchester College. In first year, a year-wide competition begins in Div lessons, and extends to quarter finals, semis, and lastly a heated final.
The inner courtyard looking towards a boarding house
The Boarding
Boarding at Winchester College is traditional full boarding — boys we spoke to said very few of them go home on Sundays, even though they’re allowed to. This creates a strong sense of community, and is great for the international students (who make up just under a quarter of the year). So much so that boys told us they were concerned about the introduction of day pupils, for fear that they won’t gel as well in this tight-knit community.
Lucky scholars get to live in the school’s original 14th century buildings, while others live in boarding houses (around 60 to each house, 12 per year group) in mainly period buildings close to the main site. They are homely and quirky, with smarter spaces for entertaining guests and parents. The usual systems apply to rooms — shared at first, and then pupils get single or double rooms as they start to take GCSEs and A Levels. Each house has its own library and music room.
Textures of Winchester College - a chandelier
Meal times are all in-house and are smart, teachers and pupils are in suits (or CCF uniform), and a brief Latin prayer is spoken before boys take a seat (one of the many traditions that pupils seem to have grown completely accustomed to). They are used to hosting guests and teachers, who roam different houses at meal times. This is, perhaps, where the students learn much of their good manners and the ability to engage and lead adult conversation.
In the early years, life is quite disciplined at Winchester College, with strict 9.30pm bedtimes and punishments if you turn up late to lessons more than a few times per week. But sixth-formers say that as you get older, there’s lots of freedom and independence — as long as you’re “doing well”. After second year, they’re allowed to go to town any time they want, where they like to get McDonalds and play football in the park, as long as they don’t miss meals.
Art from the outside looking in: Winchester's stunning art department
Our view on a student suited to Winchester College
Any student who is curious about the world around them, keen on their studies, and would benefit from an environment where cultural interests are valued, would do very well at Winchester College. This might not be a school for “rugby lads”, but it is still able to satisfy all but the keenest sportsmen. Similarly, if the mind is the right fit, Winchester College can handle those who are a little rough around the edges — we’re confident they’d emerge as mature and sophisticated as the Wykehamists we met.

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