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Inspection Reports and Reviews

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Good Schools Guide Boarding Review 2015

About a third of pupils’ board, a fairly even split between full and weekly or flexi. Parents’ book flexi boarding (usually 1- 3 nights per week) at the start of term but school can, and does, accommodate pupils at short notice. Day girls can stay after evening activities such as trips to London or the theatre – bunk beds add to the sleepover excitement. We were told that news of major road works caused a spike in boarding applications – even fairly local parents appreciate the benefits when gridlock threatens Oxford’s already notorious traffic.

When we describe the boarding as ‘homely’ it’s a compliment as well as a reality check. Years 7 -9 have large first floor rooms – sash windows and high ceilings – with three to four beds in each. School says mixing the age group helps foster sisterly ethos; colourful curtains and duvets, bedside clutter and lots of family photos and posters add to the family feel. There’s wardrobe and under bed storage but no desks – homework takes place elsewhere under supervision.

Sixth formers have characterful single study bedrooms, mostly up in the eaves. Rooms have names such as ‘North Pole’, ‘Elysium’ or ‘Valhalla’ – harking back to earlier and less centrally heated times. What would their former occupants think about today’s comforts such as duvets and power showers?

During the week there’s a table plan for supper – another way of making sure everyone knows each other – but things are more relaxed at weekends. Girls can make themselves snacks – they just go down to the kitchen and ask for supplies. Activities include film nights, Oxford based bowling, ice skating and trips to Port Meadow along with regular forays to Camden and Bicester Village for shopping. Boarders also take part in community activities – most recently litter picking for Oxclean (voluntary but apparently rather popular). There’s a big trip once a year to somewhere like Thorpe Park that’s funded by Old Girls – day pupils can go too but they have to pay.

Good Schools Guide Review 2014

Head

Since 2012, Mrs Andrea Johnson BSc (50s). Comes from a family of teachers and doctors and intended ‘never to do either’. She read chemistry at Durham, did a PGCE ‘because it might be useful’ and unexpectedly fell in love with teaching. Formerly assistant head at Tudor Hall where she worked for 20 years, she is the first head of Wychwood not to be an old girl. Teaches chemistry to year 7 and 11. Married to a retired scientist, two adult children, at least one intends to continue the family tradition and is training to be a teacher.

Mrs Johnson is energetic, genuine and very friendly – her presence is reassuring, rather like a wise owl, and one feels she could cope with anything (parents tell us that she does). Just as well really, since that’s what you need to be able to do when you run a small school. And as far as Mrs J is concerned, when it comes to education, small really is beautiful. She sees Wychwood as a place that can be responsive to the needs of the individual, to educate girls who ‘want to think and achieve but would sink in the hurly burly of a bigger school.’ The school gets its fair share of ‘burn out’ refugees from some of Oxfordshire’s super-heated girls’ independents, but is equally a positive choice for many families from the word go. ‘We enable any child who comes here to get the best possible exam results.’

Parents we spoke to were extremely supportive of Mrs J and tell us that they welcome her sensitive moves towards modernisation and determination to raise the school’s profile.

Academic matters

With only 112 pupils in total, results would benefit from micro, rather than macro analysis, but they’re pretty respectable: in 2013 48 per cent A*/A at GCSE – the vast majority of pupils getting A*-B in all subjects, and 76 per cent A*-B at A level. Small class sizes mean teaching staff can give every girl individual attention and customise their approach. We watched year 8s getting to grips with evaluating historical sources and you could almost touch the intense concentration in the room. In fact quiet and studious pretty much sums up the atmosphere of Wychwood. A display of beautifully produced project work showed Jane Eyre’s end of term report, as well as prospectuses and other material from Lowood (somewhere that definitely wouldn’t make it into the Good Schools Guide).

In a smart and well-equipped lab we came across the head teaching year 7 chemistry and yet more rapt attention and eager answers. The biology lab was festooned with a long, pink papier maché tube, ‘That’s a life size model of the large intestine,’ we were told. Length, not girth, we hope.

One thing we kept hearing about Wychwood was that ‘teachers have time for you’ and that ‘they encourage us to follow our own interests’. The school will (‘within reason’) run a course for just one student; for instance, GCSE astronomy was taught for the benefit of a single star gazing girl. In the sixth form, some A level classes might just be two or three strong – more like the tutorial teaching that goes on at the university down the road. Individual tuition in particular subjects can also be arranged and in some cases girls may repeat a year.

Girls take maximum of nine-and-a-half GCSEs and different strengths and interests are accommodated: double or triple science; both Englishes or just English language; psychology; art, textiles and, unusually, photography. Most do French and Spanish, German offered privately, as are GCSEs in, for example, Chinese, Japanese, Persian, for native speakers. Exchange trips to Spain and France in alternate years. All do short courses in RS and ECDL in ICT. At A level most popular subjects are maths, the sciences, photography and history of art.

Games options and arts

Textiles, art and photography each enjoy their own light and modern studios in a converted stable block decorated with impressive examples of students’ work. As one pupil commented, ‘for our size we have so many resources.’ It was in the textile studio that we had a sneak preview of the new uniform ‘unshortenable’ skirt, designed by the textiles teacher. If it’s successful she should patent it and make her fortune, but since it doesn’t feature something that padlocks it to below the knee we fear that girls will always find a way. New uniform design has not been received joyfully, but is it ever? In fact, as far as we could see, Wychwood pupils seemed rather modest in their skirt minimising aspirations, compared to other schools we’ve visited.

Few mutters that Mrs Johnson isn’t as supportive of the arts as former heads have been. School says that girls may opt for more than one GCSE out of art, textiles and photography but since they only take nine-and-a-half in total they often only choose one. At AS/A2 girls can do all three if they so choose.

There’s a school orchestra and choir, a chamber choir and music lessons are offered in any instrument – harp seems to be a favourite. House plays, written, designed and directed by the girls, are performed competitively; LAMDA exams popular. D of E up to gold offered and Model UN.

If your daughter is sports mad and keen to play for the winning side then, with heavy heart, we suggest you look elsewhere. On the plus side, as a parent pointed out, ‘you always get picked for the team.’ Not that Wychwood is a complete stranger to victory: our guide was still buzzing from a recent and unexpected rounders success. As the head says, ‘Girls learn to lose with grace, but when they win …’ On-site facilities include tennis, basketball and badminton courts and fitness suite (in a rather gloomy basement room). Nearby off-site are an athletics field, Astro, and more tennis courts. Main opponents are Oxford High and St Helen’s; years 7 and 8 play against The Dragon. School does all it can to support girls competing at high levels (county and national) in particular sports by adapting individual timetables etc. Rather surprisingly we discovered that there is a Wychwood equestrian team. No sign of horses trotting down the Banbury Road, rather girls with their own steeds compete on behalf of the school. Recent ‘uproar’ when timetabled sport was reduced to an hour a week during GCSEs School say that this was to accommodate girls doing 12 GCSEs at the time. Timetabled sport will increase once option choices are rationalised. Quite right too.

Until the 1960s swimming took place in the nearby River Cherwell. Girls used to cycle down to a muddy pool called (for reasons lost in history) the Rhea where non-swimmers were initiated by being dragged through the water on the end of a pole. Punting was also on the curriculum. There are delightfully nostalgic accounts of the Rhea and its rather whiffy mud in the school’s centenary history book. Today’s Wychwood swimmers use the Kidlington pool, undoubtedly safer but much less to reminisce about in future years.

Backround and atmosphere

The school was founded by a Miss Lee and Miss Batty in 1897 and has always been on Oxford’s busy Banbury Road. Miss Lee, the younger of the two, was a pioneer, obtaining a first-class degree in English at St Hugh’s and going on to lecture and become vice-principal. She funded the school from her earnings and continued to lecture in both Oxford and London. The school was named after Oxfordshire’s Wychwood forest in 1918, having formerly been known unofficially as the ‘Battery’ or ‘Battery Lees’, and a uniform of forest green was adopted. One of the early teachers, the redoubtable Miss Rendall, went on to found another Oxford school, Rye St Antony.

Today’s Wychwood is still domestic in scale, the original brass plaque on the door (featured heavily in promotional literature) modestly announcing its presence in an area where a Latin primer, carefully launched, is bound to hit a venerable educational establishment. There’s nothing flash here, no plate glass or modern architecture, but everything is well loved and cared for. Head of boarding is from the hotel industry – what a good idea – and facilities have been upgraded accordingly, although The Randolph it isn’t. This was Mrs Johnson’s first undertaking on arrival, strongly backed by the ‘brilliant’ governors, the chair of whom is a former pupil.

Pastoral and discipline

Mrs Johnson says, ‘a child can’t learn if she is unhappy.’ Parents say that pastoral care is outstanding: girls who need it are given time and space but this doesn’t mean that the school can’t be tough when called for. In a small community one person’s actions can significantly affect all and Mrs Johnson will ask girls to leave if she feels that the school can’t accommodate their needs. As one parent put it, ‘Yes, your daughter is an individual but she is also part of a respectful community.’ Some grumbles that pupils arriving at odd times eg half way through a term can make things a little disjointed.

Famously democratic, girls are genuinely involved in decision making – much to the horror of the Daily Mail in the 1960s (plus ça change …). The founders’ original forward-thinking structure of councillors and ‘citizens’ with voting rights, responsibilities and privileges still operates today (albeit with a few modern tweaks). As Mrs Johnson says, ‘We’re so small that everybody can be involved.’

Lower ground canteen is as nice as a lower ground canteen can be. Girls mostly complimentary about the food – favourites are the breakfasts and Friday fish and chips. There are, and have been since the school’s foundation, buns at break time. Cook deserves honourable mention for skilfully adapting meals so that girls with eg dairy or gluten intolerance can eat the same as everyone else.

Some might discount a school such as Wychwood because of its small size, but consider the benefits: it’s responsive, girls notice there’s a play or event on down the road (this being Oxford it’s more than likely) and arrangements can be made to go double quick. Parents are very involved, professionals including medics from the John Radcliffe come in to talk to pupils – this happens in other schools but it’s more likely to be a lecture than a conversation. Parents told us that Wychwood was uncliquey and that foreign students integrated very well. One commented that it was very good preparation for work because you, ‘had to get along with everyone’.

All schools say that they nurture every child as an individual, but common sense tells us that this is easier to achieve in a school of 120 rather than an academic super tanker of 800 or more.

Pupils and parents

Used to be known as the ‘Dons’ school’ but draws from a wider pool these days. Majority of local parents are Oxford professionals – lawyers, doctors etc. Girls we met were thoughtful, independent-minded – lacking the swagger of nearby sisters perhaps – and fiercely loyal to their school and its ways. Lots of summer- born girls, fair few refugees from schools that were too big and girls going through upheaval eg parents’ divorce. And then there are girls who visited on an open day and ‘fell in love’ with Wychwood.

Former pupils include Margaret Casson, architect, designer and photographer; Joan Aiken, writer; Vicky Jewson, film maker; Rebecca Stockland, opera singer; Matilda Leyser, actress and aerialist; Izzie Lawrence, comedian; Honor Fell, microbiologist.

Entrance

Girls join at age 11 from local primaries/preps and there’s another influx from preps at age 13. Prospective year 7s spend a day at the school and are tested in maths and English.

External candidates for sixth form need minimum of six GCSEs at grades A*-C and A/A* in A level subjects. Places may be available in other years, subject to interview and assessment.

Exit

This isn’t a school that unthinkingly crams sixth formers onto the non-stop university express, although most girls do go on to further study. Recent destinations include PPS at Cambridge, law at Reading, history of art at Warwick, business at Edinburgh and art and design at Oxford Brookes. Girls have also gone on to be Norland Nannies, Montessori educators, farriers and business entrepreneurs.

Money matters

Day fees on a par with local equivalents – OK, you’re not getting the sports facilities but you are getting something pretty close to a customised education. Boarding comparatively good value. Academic, music and creative arts scholarships of approximately £1,200 pa available, as are means tested bursaries.

Remarks

Charming pint-sized power house. Much-needed alternative to the academic overdrive of some other Oxford girls’ independents (if it didn’t exist someone would certainly have to invent it). A positive choice for many relieved families, one of whom described it as ‘a jewel, we wouldn’t want our daughter to be anywhere else.’