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 non-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 a Virginia Creeper across the grand porch and, though the interior could do with a bit of TLC in places (and is slowly getting 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, a newly resurfaced multisport court (currently netted up for tennis), 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).
Interesting times at Wychwood, which is demonstrating a new impetus with its sport – making a virtue of its small size. So rather than worrying about fielding large sports teams, it’s focusing on success at individual and smaller group sports. This summer Wychwood reintroduced rowing after more than a century in an ongoing partnership with Hinksey Sculling School, has two ergometers at the school, with another two on order, and has put rowing as part of the curriculum for years 7, 8 and 9 (and upwards as these girls progress through the school) and as an extra curricular option for older girls. Wychwood took part in this year’s annual charity fundraise ‘Big Row 2021’; completing a collective distance of 4,935km (basically, they rowed the Atlantic!) which ranked this tiny school an incredible number two in the country.
Wychwood is also forging a partnership with Oxford Harlequins rugby club to introduce rugby 7s to the pupils and is running an introduction to touch Rugby 7s coaching and tournament for local primary and prep schools.
Most excitingly, the head has dreams of building a subterranean swimming pool under the multi sport court. Not sure how many years she’ll have to work on that one, but seriously, how cool would that be?
MUSIC, DRAMA AND THE ARTS
Before Covid struck there were the usual variety of small music ensembles; Chamber Choir, string group, pop band, wind band, guitar club, and essentially any grouping 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 Vale 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.
There’s a new Saturday Club initiative at the school that focuses on drama for disadvantaged locals in association with renowned Oxford School of Drama (definitely a coup), where the Wychwood drama pupils also get involved and gain experience in helping to write, produce and perform. Pupils don’t need to look far for acting inspiration – alumni include the now super-famous, Oscar-nominated 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 printing press and an enthusiastic textiles teacher who has made her mark since arriving two years ago from St Helen & St Katharine in Abingdon. 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 non-selective. With average class sizes of 15 and in some cases (especially in the Seniors) substantially less, the calling card for Wychwood is individual attention. The teachers are clearly highly-invested in helping the children – the kids I spoke to couldn’t praise their teachers enough.
New for this year are Film Studies at A level, and potentially Politics and Sociology at A Level for next year (Sept 2022).
Results this year were as follows. GSCES: 28% Grade 9, 49% Grades 8-9, 68% Grades 7-9, and 100% pass rate. A Levels: 55% A*, 70% A*-A, 82% A*-B, and an astounding 45% of the girls are trying out for Oxbridge. If you’re thinking of sending your daughter, check out the academic and non-academic scholarships at 11+, 13+ and 16+ entry level – they include creative arts, drama, music, sports and all-rounder scholarships. Bursaries are also available.
Roughly a third of children board and of those around 20% are international students. The girls stay either in the main house (for the majority of senior students) and 2&4 (the postal address) used for the junior girls. All rooms have been refurbished over the summer and are all newly painted with new curtains and mattresses as well as hallowed USB plugs.
In the senior years, common rooms and facilities are shared by both 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.
Andrea Johnson has been head here since 2012, 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.
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. This year (2021) a new Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) and Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) department provision has been added – particularly relevant at the moment to help any students deal with the effects of the pandemic.
What’s the secret to Wychwood’s success? I think it’s that Wellbeing starts from the top here – Johnson is very hands on in talking to the girls and helping them navigate their teenage fall-outs, and 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 all 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.
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 which kind of surprised me but perhaps shouldn’t! Physically I think you’d describe this school as pretty quirky – very higgledy piggledy and ‘vertical’ (I seemed to go up a lot of steps and floors). But anyone who knows Oxford’s towering red brick Victorian mansions won’t be surprised – several schools near the city centre that I’ve reviewed in the past have this kind of set up.
You can find the latest ISI reports here.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
As the Head succinctly puts it, ‘See it, hear it, take it!’
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents love the fact that Wychwood really does put the child first, and is a school that personally knows each of its pupils and as one parent put it, ‘mapping out a path to support my daughter’s specific areas of passion… with uncommon kindness’. Some have said they don’t send their kids to Wychwood for sport — one mum laughed when I asked about competitive sport! — but others disagreed, arguing that the school nurtures talent across the board, and that sporty girls can be catered well for here. I guess the bolstering of sport over the next few months might put this argument to bed for good.
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.
DARE TO DISAGREE?! Have a look for yourself at one of the school’s upcoming events: the Open Morning on 9 Oct and the Sixth Form Open Evening on 4 Nov, or arrange an appointment to take a tour of the school by visiting wychwoodschool.org / contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.