Winchester College review by University of Cambridge student. I arrived as a scholar at Winchester College in September 2001. The reputation of the school as an institution of academic excellence preceded it, as it still does. However, the atmosphere was never one of high pressure and strenuous expectation. Although we were encouraged to do many and various different subjects, the public exams seemed to be more of an after-thought than a necessity. The class sizes varied from twenty students down to about eight in the more specific and challenging subjects, which meant that teachers always had enough contact time to explore outside and beyond the syllabus. When I was fifteen, for instance, preparing to take maths GCSE, we were already comfortable with all the basic calculus, though it was not required by the syllabus for another three years. Classes were always based around discussion, no matter what the subject, and student participation was ubiquitous in the form of projects and presentations. Almost all the teachers are hugely intelligent and very enthusiastic to share their knowledge with the boys. I ended up taking forty different A-level modules in nine subjects, but because of the way I was accelerated in different areas and held back in others, I never felt over-worked, sometimes the opposite. Those less capable at any particular discipline had access to one to one tutoring and other types of professional learning support. I understand that some things have now been changed and that fewer people are accelerated, giving all students even more time to receive a full and broad education. At the centre of this is Div, which is an unexamined subject that everyone studies compulsorily and in which the teacher has absolute autonomy over the subject matter. In my time I studied everything from medieval sporting history to the art deco movement. Sciences and maths are also incredibly well catered for, with Winchester regularly represented on at least one of the British Olympiad teams. The science faculty is in a separate building, about three minutes away from the main teaching area, equipped with all imaginable facilities. The boarding houses are at different distances from the teaching areas (maximum eight minutes) but ample time is given for getting to and from lessons. Being a few centuries old the school has had to work hard to provide good disabled access throughout but this is now at a more than acceptable level.
Because the school is split into boarding houses, each with a live-in house master and numerous house tutors, counseling on further education and careers was split into houses. Most of these tutors and masters were educated at a top university and many were still in touch with them. Potential courses and colleges were casually discussed as early as the third year (15-16). Because of this your 'counselor' was someone you saw all the time in and around your house and normally knew very well, making them very responsive. As a result all recommendations were expansive in how they described the student in question but also, due to the amount of contact time, personal in a way that would not be possible at many secondary schools. If extra help was required from someone else within the system who had a good contact at a particular college, or a close knowledge of an alternative, it was always given willingly and enthusiastically. The ethos at Winchester dictates that everyone receives the same amount of help in gaining a place at the university of his choice and that anyone has the right to apply for a top institution. Even the most ambitious were given two or three mock interviews, extensive tutoring for any pre-entry exams (SATs included) and lots of time to work on personal statements. Those who applied to Oxford and Cambridge received an extra hour of tuition every week in the term leading up to their interviews. As a result the school has been very successful in sending large numbers of students to Oxbridge and also quite a few to the Ivy league universities. I would say this is the section which most differentiates Winchester from many schools, who see the good exam grades as the end result. Everyone at Winchester would agree that the job of educating students at that level is not complete until they have achieved the place they deserve at the university of their choice. Sadly, because of the horribly undermined public examinations system in England, there is a certain lottery aspect to applying to a top university, but from Winchester more people achieve beyond their perceived abilities, thanks to the help and encouragement on offer, than fail to gain a place.
Winchester has two separate admissions processes; the scholarship exam option or the normal entrance option. Every year about sixty people apply for the fifteen scholarship places on offer. These papers are as hard as any papers I have taken in my academic career, comparative to the average ability of the age group. Bu they are also there to be enjoyed. A good mark is necessarily based on an overall paper, but may be given due to a individual glimpse of genius. The top scholar normally gets five or more As from about ten papers (some are optional - I advise taking as many as possible) while the lowest on the role may only get one or two. A C grade really is the average and bearing in mind the quality of pupils taking the exams, no mark is a bad one (many scholars got a couple of Ds and Es). The scholars live in a separate boarding house at the centre if the school, but this separation is only felt by those with incredibly thin skin, or a chip on their shoulder. They are, of course, streamed in the same classes as the 'commoners'. Winchester opts out of the Common Entrance exams at 13+ and sets its own, harder entrance paper instead. A C grade on these papers probably equates to about a high B or a low A at common entrance. Again, however, everyone is encouraged to apply as it often takes just one particularly good paper to gain entrance. Winchester, though offering a broad education, delights in nurturing specialists. I recommend that parents do get in touch with the school early as some boarding houses fill up very quickly a couple of years in advance of the entrance exams. Do some research to find a house which seems to suit the child and organise a visit directly through the house master. Though there are no official feeder schools, The Pilgrims School and Twyford, both in or near Winchester, and Milbourne Lodge, in Surrey, have very good relationships with the College and often send a generous handful of boys. Though the scholarship still exists it no longer holds a financial prize. The school has rightly decided to use that money to find and fund those who are intellectually but not financially capable of attending. This means that entry from the state sector is increasing, which adds to the atmosphere as well as the competition. No certain type of applicant is preferred, as long as they are male. There are often many international students, who tend to thrive in the open environment of the school.
The support available within the houses is extensive, as has already been described. As well as the tutors each house has a matron who is available to speak to whenever the need for a sympathetic, motherly voice arises. The school also has two or three chaplains at any one time, should students feel more comfortable talking to a man of the cloth. The culture of Winchester College is hard to pin down. As it is a single sex school there is little social pressure, so everyone is much more relaxed. Tradition is ever-present but not oppressive. The school dates back to the fourteenth century so it comes with a certain amount of history attached. It was used a bed and breakfast by the royalists in the English civil war, while the library houses documents about the ownership of local land signed by king Cnut. Traditionally there is no school uniform - boys wear a shirt, tie and jacket of their choice to classes. Winchester has developed its own kind of slang language, which goes back centuries but is being constantly updated. I still catch myself saying 'up to books' rather than 'in class' and 'goive' rather than 'it doesn't matter'. There are various large ceremonies, candlelit vigils in winter and garden parties in the summer, which are very enjoyable. But there are little things as well, like the way the scholars stand up and stride over the long tables in hall at mealtimes, instead of shuffling around them. As described already, contribution from peers is a must. Even the renowned school magazine The Wykehamist, which comes out twice a term, is entirely written, edited and printed by the boys. There are numerous other more light-hearted or creative publications, none of which have any teacher involvement. Eccentricity and excellence are encouraged by the existence of various clubs, societies and prizes. There are translation prizes for most languages, ancient and modern, recitation prizes, creative writing prizes, historical writing prizes, art prizes, music prizes, theatre prizes and more. Societies range from bell-ringing to debating and bookbinding to water-polo and if you have an idea for a new one you're free to start it up. As a result of much liberal and imaginative encouragement, it is almost impossible not to get involved.The general sentiment is that no one must do anything, but they'd be silly not to try everything.
Everyone from the third year upwards does one hour of community service or CCF (Combined Cadet Force) per week. The school also has a number of musical, theatrical and artistic projects which it shares with other local schools. Though no extracurricular activity is compulsory beyond the first year, house masters are constantly on the lookout for anyone not getting involved in something. The school offers a vast range of sports, from soccer to archery, including its very own and much loved sport, Winchester College Football. There are leagues for most sports in which the eleven houses compete against each other, giving everyone the opportunity to play, even if they are not good enough to represent the school. Theatre plays a large part in school life. Their is a theatre on campus which puts on up to eight shows per term, many of which are entirely produced, directed and even written by students. Each year there is an inter-house competition in which a pair or trio of fourth years from each house direct their entire first year on stage in a short performance of their choice, normally which they have written. Art is heavily funded, with studios and workspaces open to anyone with an interest. A few students have gone on to art schools rather than mainstream education. The Music school recently had a very expensive makeover, which has opened up a lot more space. Details of this are available on the website. I'd estimate that about a third of boys at Winchester learn at least one musical instrument. Those who aspire to a career in rock or pop rather than classical are free to form as many bands as they like (there are normally half a dozen or so around) and practice in the new studios. The school also has an excellent choir. There are no sports scholarships. Art and music scholarships still exist, to the best of my knowledge, and should be applied for separately. The financial benefits of these are little but musical aptitude may increase the chances of receiving a bursary to help pay the fees.