Led by one of our favourite heads on the prep-school circuit, this innovative co-ed does things a bit differently – in a good way – while still implementing traditional values such as good manners, kindness and leadership. We found a lovely balance between the two.
Walk through the black wrought-iron gates just off the high street in Brackley and it feels like you’ve entered a National Trust Tardis. Winchester House is set on 18 acres of land, and parts of the main prep school, dining room and boys’ boarding are all in a former hunting lodge, with the nursery, pre-prep and extensive pitches across a small road behind. The chapel is the oldest part of the lodge (pupils go to services once a week); outside, oodles of space includes walled gardens, an incredibly popular playground, a raised adventure playground for Years 3 to 8 called the Timber Trail and an outdoor swimming pool.
The beautiful wood-panelled dining rooms are in the former hunting lodge (our lunch was overlooked by a stag’s head, adorned with fairy lights). Some pupils eat along a corridor but with the most wonderful view over the gardens.
Prospective parents with tiny tots can ‘Come and Play’ in the nursery once a term so that by the time children start, everything feels very familiar. Just over 30 minutes on the train from London to Milton Keynes and around 40 minutes to Bicester make this an attractive choice for commuters.
Charismatic headmistress Emma Goldsmith arrived here in 2014 (she was previously deputy head at Bloxham) and was an immediately popular appointment. ‘Approachable and available’ is the consensus among parents, while pupils tell us she’s a good listener and aims to nip any problems in the bud straight away. She’s emphatic and hot on kindness and communication, working closely with parents so they feel supported.
She has streamlined newsletters (the website is one of the most informative we’ve seen), and takes wonderful assemblies with lots of role play on subjects such as the importance of eye contact. Her main message? She is a passionate advocate of country-prep school life. At an event for parents, their shoulders dropped as she waxed lyrical about the joys of country-prep life: prep done at school, parental guilt assuaged. Prep school is about so much more than good grades.
This is a non-selective school with the main intakes at 3+, 4+ and 8+. Register any time from birth. The school welcomes occasional applications providing they have spaces, making it as smooth a process as possible for those families moving into the area. Those pupils entering the school from Year 3 will have a gentle assessment for setting purposes. Also of note is the fabulous new scholarship programme in partnership with Stowe for Year 6 pupils coming from the maintained sector.
Academics and senior school destinations
The day starts at an energetic pace with the first lesson at 8.40am; the more passive activities such as assemblies are reserved for the end of the day. The school follows a creative curriculum, which means that academic lessons are delivered through themed topics (re-enactment of the Fire of London, the Amazon or the First World War, say). Pupils are given feedback on every bit of work, so they can see what’s correct and where they need to improve. Lessons alternate between 40 minutes and one hour.
Years 3 and 4 are taught primarily by their form tutor; Years 5 to 8 is all specialist teaching. Years 7 and 8 have independent-learning tutorials built into the timetable – a time for doing prep or seeking out help in one of the many clinics (there are four a week combined with enrichment to ready them for senior school). Learning development (WH speak for SEN) is at the heart of the school and it’s a large and valued department.
Mrs Goldsmith believes that Common Entrance is an important preparation for Year 9 at senior school, which often is the start of GCSE curriculum. She is reviewing the curriculum throughout Winchester House, focusing on communication and the Tool Kit for Success, which aims to give children life skills such as managing change, showing humility, developing inner strength and giving back. The school motto is ‘Not for Ourselves Alone’, and part of the leavers’ programme sees sixth-formers who attended Winchester House returning to tell pupils about their experiences at senior school.
Saturday school is no more and pupils tell us that they are delighted. More lessons are squeezed into an extended school weekday, with Saturdays reserved for skills or exam-based ‘Mastery’ lessons (of subjects pupils feel they would like to master) once a month for the top two years, and sports tournaments.
Mrs Goldsmith fundamentally believes in finding the right senior school for each child, and Winchester House is brilliantly positioned to access a variety of outstanding boarding and day options. Bloxham is popular, as increasingly are the day houses at Stowe and Rugby. Scholarships to senior schools are over 50 per cent in a wide spectrum of fields. Children do not tend to leave at Year Six.
This is a busy school with lots of music, drama and sports, all taught with an all-inclusive approach rather than best-is-best. Children are encouraged to sign up to perform in one of the many musical concerts (whatever their level) that take place in the Forum performance hall. We also like that there’s plenty of encouragement for girls to get more involved in science and D&T. One past project, named Tinkerbells, simply involved tinkering with things for the sheer fun of it. The House Shout singing competition is led by Year Eight as part of their Learn to Lead programme, to everyone’s great hilarity.
Sport is a real favourite among pupils – and it shows on the pitch (some see players as competitive; Mrs Goldsmith says they are simply enthusiastic), with sports scholarships featuring highly among the annual haul. The policy is sports for all, which means the number of teams stretches well into the early alphabet with fixtures to match in the traditional sports; rugby (rather than football), hockey, cricket and rounders in the main. Matches are on Wednesday afternoons in the main and we’re told the closest current rivals are The Dragon, Pinewood and Beachborough. The sports hall and nine acres of pitches are impressive.
The school offers weekly and flexi boarding, which works well as most children are local. Currently three-quarters of Year Eight board and they seem to love it, especially Friday nights. Boarding in Years Three to Six is occasional; in Year Eight the only option is weekly boarding for the last four terms in preparation for senior school. Home-from-home dorms are big, with 12 children in each – they’re the greatest of fun and everyone learns to be tolerant of each other. They are well staffed with house parents, tutors, gappers and matrons. Drayton’s, the girls’ boarding house, is just north of the Seligman Building and the boys are in the main house.
Once pupils reach Year Five, there is a tutor system in place (each tutor looks after 13 children) and they are the first point of contact for parents and children needing support. We love the THINK ‘cupboard’ (True, Honest, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind), a drop-in wellbeing hub run Tuesday to Thursday. Chapel is also a time for quiet contemplation but nothing is forced.
Mealtimes are both organised – pre-prep children munch on cold meats and salads before those in the prep school take their turn – and overseen by a member of staff at the head of the table who says grace and makes sure that everyone is minding their manners. The food is ‘getting nicer’, said one pupil rather diplomatically.
There is a blanket ban on all digital devices, including on school trips. Initially met with resistance, it has become a huge success, with children now chatting and playing games together. Soho Farmhouse is only 30 minutes down the road – a big attraction for families from London who happen to be members.
This is a wondrous prep school with a forward-thinking curriculum, a vibrant head, and comfort that the school will be true to its ethos of finding the right school for each child. If Emma Goldsmith's belief that a school’s location is key to its survival is correct, then parents are doubly blessed: they have quick and easy access to the capital so many of them have escaped – and plenty of super senior-school options around.