Wychwood School, central Oxford
Looking for a school with an emphasis on pastoral care and personal development? Say hello to this Oxford bijou day and boarding option for girls.
WYCHWOOD SCHOOL, OXFORD
Wychwood School is a selective day and boarding school for girls aged 11-18, with a teeny tiny capacity of just 165 pupils, 30% of whom are boarders. A mere 10 minute walk from the centre of Oxford, the school, established in 1897, is based around two compact red brick mansions typical of the Victorian villa buildings up the Banbury Road on a small 1.25 acre site. The exterior is attractive, with vines across the grand porch, and though the interior could do with a bit of TLC in places (and is about to get it – there’s a major new investor in place) the overall feeling here is homely and comfortable.
No expansive greenery and huge purpose-built concert halls – there’s one of those called The Sheldonian down the road. The school has one grass pitch where girls play football, hockey cricket, rounders and athletics, access to an astroturf at the next door Dragon School, 7 netball courts, 7 tennis courts, and, pre-Covid, used the Oxford University pool. But to focus on facilities entirely misses the point of Wychwood which is its outstanding pastoral care and Exocet focus on the girls, some of whom arrive at Wychwood having had poor experiences elsewhere (for example, bullying, low self-esteem, eating issues).
MUSIC, DRAMA AND THE ARTS
Before Covid struck there were the usual variety of small music ensembles; Chamber Choir, string group, pop band, harp ensemble, guitar club, essentially any theme the girls are interested in. Over half the girls play instruments and have music lessons and Orchestral players are ordinarily catered for by the Thames Valley Youth Orchestra.
With take up every year for Drama GSCE and A level drama provision is inventive here – there are annual form plays in which every year group writes, produces and presents, and at the end of the summer term every year the lower school timetable is suspended to explore a explore a cross curricular theme. At the end of the week the girls write monologues based on what they have learned that are then written into a play by a local playwright. The following week the play is cast, rehearsed and performed two days later to an invited audience. Pretty cool. Alumni include the BAFTA-winning actress Florence Pugh – not too shabby!
However, Art is where Wychwood really shines – you can take GSCEs and A levels in textiles, photography, fine Art, and History of Art. There’s a new printing press installed this year and an enthusiastic new textiles teacher (ex St Helen’s & St Katharine’s). A student from the school has just won a place at Central St Martins, with another going to the University of Arts in London and a third recently gaining an art foundation place at Abingdon & Witney College.
Really good – even before you factor in that this school is selective. With average class sizes of 15 throughout in some instances less in the Seniors ,the calling card for Wychwood is individual attention and the teachers are clearly highly-invested in helping the children – the kids I spoke to couldn’t praise their teachers enough.
Results this year were GSCES: 24% Grade 9, 47% Grades 8-9, 65% Grades 7-9 and 100% pass rate. A Levels: 36% A*, 58% A*-A, 84% A*-B. If you’re thinking of sending your daughter, check out the Academic and Non-Academic scholarships at both 11+, 13+and 16+ entry level, plus bursaries are available.
Andrea Johnson has been head here since 2013, and is pretty much as I’d expect the head of a small, intimate boarding school for girls to be – approachable, friendly, bustling, and protective of her brood. Under her tenure she’s raised the academic standards without comprising the pastorally-driven USP of Wychwood and is clearly thrilled with the new investment and what it could mean for her school and pupils (firstly – tidy up the boarding houses; do more dance and cookery; smarten up the classrooms). In a school of 165 kids, she also has a keen idea of the kind of girl who will be happy here – basically, the queen bee or pushy girls with ‘too many elbows’ as she puts it, need not apply.
Roughly a third of children board, either in the main house (for the majority of senior students) and 2&4 (the postal address) used for the junior girls. In the senior years, common rooms and facilities are shared by boarders and day girls, and day girls can stay for prep during the week and often sleepover at short notice. Unusually there are mixed-aged bedrooms at Wychwood, which in many ways makes sense for the girls to mix this way, with older ones supporting the younger like ‘big sisters’ and the children learning to make friends outside their peer groups.
In terms of interiors, the junior boarding rooms are pretty standard I’d say – large, multi-bed, and with the usual pine/plyboard bedroom furniture. There are some easy wins to raise the boarding provision, so watch this space once the investment gets going.
What’s the secret at Wychwood? Wellbeing starts from the top here – Johnson tells me she spent two and a half hours talking to one tearful pupil the other day, but it’s this kind of dogged patience and support from all teachers that ultimately pays off with the girls. When I asked a group of sixth formers what was the best thing about Wychwood, they said ‘the teachers, with Mr P (the head of sixth form) just one example of someone ‘good at spotting if something is up,’ with no pressure on the girls to conform or be anything other than themselves. Case in point the two girls at the school currently identifying as male, one of whom would have been Head Girl this year. Instead, the school is electing the child as Head Councillor instead with no fuss or fanfare, and no-one is batting an eyelid.
In a nod to the equal emphasis now placed on wellbeing and brainpower, there are now two Deputy Heads at Wychwood – one for pastoral and one for academics.
Often when I come to this question I scratch my head as many schools remain stubbornly traditional in approach – but Wychwood is definitely not one of them! The school’s size makes catering to individuality its core promise, so it’s no surprise that kids can do some very funky subjects. GSCEs are possible in Astronomy, Photography and Psychology, and for A levels they can offer almost any language. In recent years, Farsi, Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Mandarin have all been taught. That said, the most popular A level results at the all-girls’ Wychwood are actually Maths and Biology!
The physical set-up of the school is unusual, very higgledy piggledy and ‘vertical’ (I seemed to go up a lot of steps and floors). Wychwood’s calling card of pastoral brilliance, nurture and personal development was quite unusual when I first reviewed in 2016 but it’s right on the money now – mental-wellbeing is a huge issue at schools and Wychwood seems to have it nailed.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents don’t send their kids to Wychwood for sport – one mum laughed when I asked about competitive sport! – though clearly there are kids who are talented across the board. But that’s not why children come to Wychwood – it’s a happiness thing.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Excellent for children who have fallen through the cracks in big beast schools and are looking for nurturing, positive alternative –Wychwood is a place, as one girl put it, where it’s ‘cool to be yourself’. Flexi-boarding provision makes it a particularly good option as children go up the school, with Oxford on the doorstep.
Not for: The claustrophobic! It’s a small, intimate site and with such a small cohort there’s not much privacy to be had. There’s not a huge amount of exercise on the curriculum so super-sporties might be frustrated and the general vibe here is about teamwork rather than winning – competitive kids and tiger parents be warned.