Winchester House School, Brackley
An excellent non-selective co-ed day and boarding school (3-13 yrs) on the Bucks/Oxon/Northants borders with a strong all-rounder reputation and an impressive head.
Winchester House School (WHS) is a nurturing, non-selective co-ed prep, pre-prep and nursery school for 3-13 year olds sitting in 18 acres in south Northamptonshire. Part of the Stowe group of school (including Stowe School and Swanbourne School, both in Buckinghamshire) since 2021 and as such an official feeder prep for Stowe, you’ll find its honey stone walls and huge wrought iron gates at the top of the high street in the attractive market town of Brackley. Respected locally as a strong all-rounder day and boarding option, WHS currently teaches 300 pupils, 90 of whom board either occasionally, flexi or weekly. Small classes sizes of around 18 are guaranteed here, and you’ll find a split of 55% boys to 45% girls.
The school was established in 1875 in Kent before moving to Brackley in 1918 to escape the coastal dangers of WW1 and into the current location in 1926. The half-timbered Manor house, originally designed in the 19th century as a faux-Tudor hunting lodge, retains a sense of grandeur with plenty of turned wood, wall panelling, a grand staircase, stained glass and Manor-house style gardens. At present it’s mainly used for dining, administration and – on the top floor – boy’s boarding, with lessons taking place elsewhere.
If your child like sport, it’s happy days at WHS, with access to 6 rugby pitches, 2 football pitches, 2 hockey pitches, a full size astro, 3 cricket pitches, indoor and outdoor nets, 2 squash courts, 5 netball courts, 8 astro tennis courts, a 400m 10 lane athletics track, a rifle shooting range and – go on, why not – an X metre outdoor swimming pool.
A massive benefit for children at WHS is access to the extraordinary facilities at Stowe School. Covid has meant that this relationship hasn’t yet flourished fully but I’m told the school will make much of its proximity in 2022.
Rugby, hockey and cricket are the main boys sports, while for girls it’s netball, hockey and cricket, introduced a few years back, and replacing rounders in popularity. Obviously school sports competitions were few and far between in 2020-21 but in 2019 the U13 Boys won both the Northants county hockey tournament and the Midlands In2Hockey championships, with the 1XIII rugby team were unbeaten, and in 2020 were medal winners in the St Edwards Rugby Festival. The girls were rocking it in 2019 – netball county champions and plate runner at the national finals; A team cricket winners at the Stowe Festival (and again in 2021); and IAPS regional winners in hockey, and plate runners up at the national finals (again with a repeat for 2021).
Extracurricular sports activities include riding lessons and a weekly ski club to MK Snodome. The new head is keen to add more choice for those kids who want to try non-mainstream sports.
In 2020 10 out of a total of 17 scholarships to top Independent Senior Schools were Sports related. That said, it’s a lovely touch that the sports department’s policy is that every child has the opportunity to represent the School.
Drama and Music seem to be well catered for with the usual singing and ensemble groups. Over 75% of the kids play at least one musical instrument which is very much on the higher side of what I usually see. There’s currently an orchestra of 23 members, which may sound small, but in a prep school of 300 kids, it’s quite an achievement to create an orchestra at all – I visit plenty of schools without one! There’s also an audition choir, Cantaris, which sings at school events and, before Covid, took biannual tours of Europe.
WHS’s performance facilities definitely need an overhaul but there’s massive investment of £2m+ in the planning stages for an upgrade to the performance hall, as well as boarding, Pre-Prep learning areas and classrooms. In the meantime, the show must go on, and the Drama department is currently recruiting a new head to inspire the kids in what appears to be a highly popular area – in 2021 a punchy 93 pupils took Speech and Drama Lessons in Years 5-8. with 82 of those taking LAMDA exams, and nearly two thirds of them getting distinction.
In terms of general facilities, there are 3 recently refurbished specialist science labs, a smart ICT room, and updated Art & DT areas. There’s a charming ‘Secret Garden’ set behind a green wooden door – a lovely private, walled space where the children from nursery upwards are able to roam or take part in outdoor lessons.
Winchester House School was an early innovator offering nursery places from 2014 in a modern setting, recognising that toddlers would eventually move into the school’s pre-prep and beyond. Its nursery department is thriving, with children able to start here in the term they turn three. They get to enjoy lovely weekly ‘Going Wild’ sessions in the Secret Garden, and they also use all the facilities of the main school, including specialist teachers who come over to the nursery to teach ICT, French, music and sport.
There’s specialist teaching in all subjects from Year 5, with Latin taught from Year 6 with Greek as a further option. There were no academic scholarships in 2020 (maybe it was just one of those years) but clearly the talent is there – 2019 provided three academic scholars to the like of Bloxham, Stowe and Uppingham. The school sees itself very much as an all-rounder, reflected in the wide range of scholarships won over the last five years in sport, music, drama and even computing.
Aside from the scholarships and senior school chase – bread and butter for all independent prep schools – WHS has a well-established Learn to Lead programme, a school initiative that encourages self-esteem, goal-setting, analysing personal strengths and weaknesses and becoming a good role model. There’s also an Independent Learning Tutorial system including drop in sessions and subject clinics.
This is an area where WHS is strong but has also bolstered since Covid. The ‘Winchester House Way’ is embedded into all aspects of the school with values such as forgiveness, sharing and ‘being my best self’. There’s a Wellbeing Mentor on site, based in The Cupboard (not literally, though it’s not far off), a small room located between the School Office and Chapel where the kids can talk about their feelings when they need to, and there have been two other recently introduced roles – Head of Years for Years 5/6 and Years 7/8), each of whom works closely with the tutors and two Assistant heads on pastoral matters.
With a total of 80 children boarding, there’s a homely atmosphere here that the new head see as as the ‘beating heart’ of the school. There’s certainly a desire to put boarding back at the heart of Winchester House School, whether that’s occasional, flexi, or weekly boarding. The boys dorm in the main manor house is earmarked for a significant upgrade though I’m betting most of its residents only notice the table football and pool table. The girls’ boarding house is more modern, in a separate building, with wide screen TV and comfy communal sofas. Kids can board weekly from Year 3 onwards, and it’s the only option boarding available in last four terms, no doubt to prepare kids for Senior school.
Antonia Lee joined WHS in Jan 2022 from all girls’ day school St Helen’s in Northwood where she was Head of Prep, though her CV also includes co-ed and all-boys schools, and teaching in comprehensive secondaries, so nothing should phase her here!
With her own children now away at university and freedom to make a move with only herself to please, this is what Lee describes as her ‘forever school’ – in other words, she’s here to stay. Friendly, down-to-earth and clearly keen to make her own mark on a school after Emma Goldsmith’s successful tenure, Lee’s ambitions include increased sporting provision (her first appointment will be a head of Sport and she’s a self-confessed cricket nut), along with an emphasis on leadership skills for the children and mindfulness timetabled and taught within the curriculum.
Winchester House School isn’t a place I’d associate particularly with quirkiness or eccentricity. It has tradition. It wants to demonstrate, as the new head says, ‘standards without stiffness’. It places a lot of emphasis on manners – you can win a cup for manners here! Not to mention cups for being a ‘Good Egg’, having an optimistic outlook (the Sweetnam Cup Half Full), cups for perseverance (the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On!’ in the Face of Adversity cup) and others for initiative, leadership, good values, and selflessness.
Also worth mentioning the fact that at WHS there’s in-house laundering of every child’s PE and Games kit. Quirk or miracle? Maybe both!
WRAP AROUND CARE
Once upon a time Winchester House School was a full-boarding school, but more kids using the nursery and pre-prep has meant that increasingly families come from the local community. Now it’s all about super-flexibility – early starts and a choice of end times to the school day. Kids can be dropped as early as 7.45am for breakfast club and picked up at 6.30pm after prep and supper. with no extra charge. I can’t think of another prep school locally with such steel-reinforced wrap around care for day pupils.
Children here can board weekly, occasionally, or come as a day pupil to the school. Boarding seems very popular – 41% of all children in Year 3 and above board at least one night a week. The boarding houses look fairly standard to my eye though the girls dorms, as is so often the case, are in better nick than the boys dorms. Whilst WHS no longer offers morning academic Saturday school, kids can still sleep over on Friday nights. WHS have also introduced Mastery Mornings for Years 7 & 8 with workshops and classes and Sporting Saturdays take place each term so parents will be able to attend competitive sporting fixtures on selected weekends.
The school has literally just been inspected , but until those results are made public in the next few weeks (FYI the new head looked pretty happy!) here are the two most recent inspection findings, a regulatory report from 2017 and a full inspection from way back in 2013, so take it with a 9 year old pinch of salt.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
Travel wise, a daily minibus picks up from Chipping Norton, Banbury and Bicester areas.
From £3,600 for pre-prep (Nursery – Y2) to £6,345 (Y5-8 day pupil) and £8030 (Y5-8 boarding)– I’d say that’s on the upper side of average for this neck of the woods.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The parents I’ve spoken to are pro the school, happy with the academic side, and the music, drama and sport. There are loads of opportunities for all kids to take part in sports teams (the school regularly fields A, B, C, and D teams). Like most schools I visit there are corners of scruffiness but there’s plenty of investment going in to solve that, and those I spoke to don’t mind it, and see it as part of the charm.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Anyone looking for a traditional local prep-school with positive values but with all the extra curricular trimmings, with the ability to feed into all the top national senior schools. The relationship with Stowe School means that the extraordinary facilities at that school are now available to WHS pupils – a huge boon. The central town location is a plus for older children – the school actively outreaches to the community and other local schools. Anyone who likes the ethos of a non-selective school.
Not for: Parents looking for English eccentricity, or expecting pristine teaching blocks or bucolic country views from every direction may wish to look elsewhere.
Dare to disagree?! Have a look for yourself at the 2022 Open Mornings on 11 March, and 13 May. See further details and book yourself in here.
Winchester House School, 44 High Street, Brackley, Northants, NN13 7AZ. winchester-house.org