Winchester College

Logo of Winchester College

Pupils Info

Gender – Boys' School
Age range – Age 13-18
Number of pupils on roll – 690 Pupils


Average Class Size: 16
Boarding School
Oxbridge Entrance Percentage: 35%
£33,750 p.a.
Pre-U Examination D1-D3 Percentage: 79%

To look at, Winchester College is what you might imagine when you hear the words ‘boarding school’. Found (unsurprisingly) in the town of Winchester, just outside the medieval city walls, the College is set in roughly 250 acres of grounds which includes 52 acres of playing fields and 11 of formal gardens. A further 400 acres of grounds are situated offsite, allowing the boys to have the use of their own golf course, plus five miles of water – maintained by 2 fulltime River Keepers. Ten out of the eleven boarding houses are ‘off campus’ – scattered throughout the town – so for the town’s residents, the site of uniformed boys making their way to and from the school or playing fields is the norm. The school buildings are nothing short of inspiring for its 700 or so boys. Winchester is made up of numerous Grade I, II* or II listed buildings and the breathtaking chapel is at the centre of all parts of the school, including its curriculum.

Background and Reputation

One of the oldest schools in the world, Winchester was founded at the end of the 14th century. Needless to say, old habits die hard and the school is arguably unrivalled (even by Eton) for its archaic, but often charming, traditions. The College’s website has its own glossary to translate the esoteric argot known as ‘notions’: ‘Ekker’, for example, is exercise, ‘Toytime’ is the evening prep period, ‘up to books’ means at school, and ‘quiristers’ are choristers. One of the lovelier traditions worth a mention is Illumina: on leaving the final lessons at the end of the autumn term, the school is treated to the sight of candles covering the whole of the enclosing wall of Meads, and then carols, mince pies, punch and a bonfire are enjoyed by boys, staff and parents alike. At the risk of pointing out the blindingly obvious, Winchester’s focus is very much on academia. Dr Ralph Townsend, Headmaster since 2005, is an academic with a very impressive résumé, and the School’s governing bodies are all handpicked from Oxbridge colleges. This is only the beginning of the Oxbridge connections: teachers are called ‘dons’, ‘porters’ guard the gates and hoist the flags, and the 70 scholars (as opposed to fee-paying ‘commoners’) are easily picked out from the crowd because of their black scholars’ gowns. William of Wykeham was also the founder of New College, Oxford, and it was there that his original 70 scholars were to go on to continue their studies. Today, although there is no longer a guaranteed place, many Wykehamists still do likewise.

Academic and Exit Results

Wykehamists are encouraged to love learning for its own sake, and the top notch exam results are supposedly a by-product of this. Many schools take this line, while in reality spoon-feeding their pupils to prepare them only for exams, however for Winchester this is not the case. The boys are taught to question perceived truths. Boy B, for example, remembers a Biology lesson in his first term in which he had been given a lit bunsen burner, a pelargonium and a ten-point list of criteria. Using the points on the list, the boys were able to prove that the naked flame was more alive than the plant. The school takes a flexible approach to public examinations – boys choose what suits them best. The norm is a combination of GCSE and IGCSE followed by Cambridge Pre-U in ‘Sixth Book’. This is chosen as it calls for more independent learning and a greater breadth and depth of the curriculum, with no coursework or exams that interrupt the course halfway through (as AS levels do). The teaching is exemplary across the board – Boy B was not able to name a weak department. At the heart of the curriculum is Division, or ‘Div’, a true liberal arts education, which is equally loved by boys and Dons. “One of the best things in Wincoll’s quiver,” according to Boy A, this unique way of teaching (although Marlborough’s recently introduced ‘Form’ is similar) covers English, History and Religious Studies in context and great depth. For example, Wykehamists might study Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then look at Roman Gods and the Roman social/political system. All three subjects are studied in Year 1, just English in Year 2 and just History in Year 3. Winchester boys do not take History and English Literature at GCSE level because of Div – an example of the school’s endeavours to encourage a love of learning rather than preparation for exams. “This is a great idea,” according to Boy B, “as it allows us to stray off the curriculum and study the things that really interest us.” On hand to help such studies are the School’s celebrated libraries and collections. This includes, for example, the typically eccentric Natural History Society and Scientific Collection – a vast range of artefacts from butterflies to fossils to scientific instruments, dating back as early as

  1. Div is carried on into Sixth Book as an aside to the examined curriculum, but remains at the heart of the school’s teaching. Topics covered include literature, music, current affairs, philosophy and ethics, and discussions can lead almost anywhere, according to the interests of the boys and their Div Don. Assignments come in the form of presentations and private essays, and a good deal of private research is expected – this is wonderful preparation for higher education. However Boy B describes the process of completing these tasks – which take up almost 2 hours of every Saturday night – as “the only slightly negative aspect of the school.” A boy’s Div Don remains the same throughout the academic year and so strong teacher-pupil relationships are forged.

Social and Pastoral

Almost all members of the teaching staff live on site, creating a unique atmosphere in which teachers and their pupils really get to know each other. Everyone dines in house and apart from exeats, boys are only allowed out on Sundays, which further accentuates this atmosphere. Parents should note though that Winchester is in its own, totally boy-oriented, world and thus while teacher-pupil relationships are its forte, teacher-parent communication is not. Admissions are largely in the hands of the Housemasters, who seem to have more control over school rules and regulations than elsewhere. This decentralisation is generally seen as a good thing, but by consequence, choosing the right house is of utmost importance. Boy A notes that the presence of a scholars’ house meant that ‘Commoners’ sometime felt they had something to prove and often did far better academically than most of the Collegemen. The standard of food is one thing that is mentioned a lot and not often in glowing terms: it varies from house to house but a “meat in a sauce is expected as much as twice a week, always tasting pretty much the same,” according to Boy A. There was a fairly recent crackdown on drug-taking, to which the School now gives due attention. Discipline is handled by the Porters and sounds predictably antiquated. For a first offence a boy serves a ‘Sargents’ (he must present himself to the duty porter by 7.45am) and for more serious offences call for a ‘Detna’ (manual tasks). Discipline typically works on a warning system basis (warnings last for a year, at which point your slate is wiped clean), although there is a zero tolerance policy towards drugs. Bullying at Winchester is all but non-existent. Boy A remembers that, “as scholars we had a barrage of tame insults for the first term or so, but after that it was plain sailing.” One parent adds, “It is a much kinder place than I’d ever have imagined and the boys really care about and support each other. They are of course, very able but are generally very grounded, with parents who live in normal houses and drive normal cars, which is very refreshing.”

Sport, Music, Art and Drama

Between two and four hours each day are given over to sports at Winchester, so it is by no means ignored. There is however the general feeling that work always comes first, “and sport is more of a necessity,” adds Boy B. Wykehamists tend to play football in the first term, Winchester College football in the second (inter-house competition only) and cricket in the summer. Boy B admits that, “We’re not the best, but at least we don’t lose every game.” Music, sport, drama and art are all encouraged as ways to broaden the mind, but you get the feeling that their importance is resolutely subordinate to that of academia. Nevertheless, the school boasts wonderful facilities and boys choose from a list of sports that goes on and on (right down to Aikido).


fishing and clay pigeon shooting. Winchester’s Clubs and societies reflect the high intellect of its pupils and the results of encouraging a love of learning for its own sake really shine through. To give you an idea, these include Mathma Magic, which meets once a week to discuss problems from the Maths Olympiad, and Illuminated Manuscript. “It still amazes me how huge the range of options is,” says Boy A, “and if there isn’t a society to match your needs, you can just set up your own.” Emphasis is placed on community service (boys choose between this and CCF) and interestingly, the number of scholarships is reducing while bursaries (means tested) are increasing – bright pupils can be offered up to 100% off their fees. Boys are allowed to take advantage of their proximity to the town on ‘half rems’ (Tuesday and Thursday afternoons) and weekends. There are close ties with Swithun’s girls (Winchester’s unofficial sister school), especially in Sixth Book when it seems any excuse – be it a fashion show, concert or lacrosse match – to link up is jumped at.

The School offers fairly decent and well-rounded preparation for later life: there is a decent careers department, organised careers days, SAT preparation courses and an optional Business Awareness Course. Gap years with a conscience are actively encouraged. A fair few boys head across the Atlantic to Ivy Leagues each year and an astounding third of each year go on to Oxbridge.

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