School spotlight: St Swithun’s School
Jo Golding visits St Swithun’s School in Winchester, where impressive academic results go hand in hand with quiet self-confidence – producing strong, independent women of the future
“I love talking about the school,” the headmistress of St Swithun’s School told me as we wrapped up our interview. Jane Gandee started at the independent girls’ school nine years ago and embodies the values of the school that she heads up; she strives for academic excellence but understands the importance of sport, speaking your mind and, importantly, having a sense of humour.
She says: “We have three words above our front door: caritas, humilitas and sinceritas (charity, humility and sincerity). For me it’s about kindness, compassion and a quiet self-confidence. We try hard to make sure that we don’t overpromise; we do what we say we do. We also don’t take ourselves too seriously. I think it’s important to have a sense of humour and laugh at yourself, as well as having a sense of perspective; not to worry about the small things.”
The school, which educates girls from three to 18 years old (both day and boarding), has both senior and prep buildings, with ongoing refurbishment important on both sides. At the Prep School, outdoor play is very much encouraged, with beautiful outdoor gardens to play in and even an outdoor classroom for learning.
Founding year: 1884
Pupils: 520 (Senior School),
200 (Prep School)
Percentage of international boarders: 15–17%
Ratio of boarding to day pupils: 45:55
Senior School fees per term: £11,200 (boarding), £6,855 (day)
Both schools share some fantastic facilities such as a swimming pool, gym, sports hall and outdoor courts for activities such as netball and lacrosse, giving the students plenty of opportunities to be active.
Leading the way
The school is relatively unselective yet its pupils continue to achieve incredibly impressive exam results, with 52% of A-level students in 2018 achieving all A* or A grades.
Gandee explains: “The reason we don’t interview is because we don’t just want to choose one type of girl. It’s not fair to judge girls on how well they can speak to an adult they don’t know, which is what you get from an interview. We have girls who creep down the side of corridors who are a bit shy, and then we have girls who run around the school – and that doesn’t matter to us.
“We do say ‘don’t run so much’,” she jokes, “but the point is, it doesn’t matter. We are welcoming and accepting of all of these individuals, no matter who they are.”
I think it’s important to have a sense of humour and laugh at yourself, as well as having a sense of perspective; not to worry about the small things
The school has also recently started High Performance Learning (HPL), a pedagogy-led framework that teachers can integrate in their schools.
“High Performance Learning is a programme that a number of schools are doing at the moment and the ethos behind it is the belief that everybody can reach a high level of performance, even if it takes some people longer than others. The way in which we can reach this is by asking about the different types of academic skills and characteristics they need to have.”
At the heart of the framework are advanced cognitive performance characteristics (ACPs), and values, attitudes and attributes (VAAs), which together create high performers.
There are numerous studies that show that girls’ academic performance can be enhanced by studying in a single-sex environment, although I expect the school’s ethos has a large part to play in their pupils’ success too.
“The key thing is to forget that it’s girls,” Gandee says when I ask her about the key to teaching girls and preparing them for the world of work.
“They have no sense that there’s anything they can’t do as a girl, and that’s key. They all have a go at everything and if they don’t like something it’s not because they’re a girl, it’s because they don’t like it. Everything is open to them as women.”
Bucking the trend
The underrepresentation of girls in STEM is a widely discussed topic in education, however, at St Swithun’s STEM is particularly popular, with 68% of students taking one or more STEM subject at A-level. Head girl Mia Bajer, a full boarder, tells me that biology is the most popular A-level at the school, and that the school is looking at bringing in a computer science GCSE.
Gandee discusses how St Swithun’s encourages the girls to consider all different types of subjects, even ones where women are in the minority: “We’ve got great teachers across the range here, which is one really effective way of encouraging the girls. In terms of STEM we happen to have a lot of parents who are medics and I think that can help. But I started here nine years ago and STEM was popular then, and it’s popular now.
“The range of topics discussed in our assemblies, talks and clubs mean that there should be something for everyone. And we try really hard to congratulate everybody equally, whether it’s giving out maths certificates or talking about a play, we try to give children a sense that all these things are equally valued.”
Daily assemblies, which Gandee describes as a “great advantage”, provide the girls with the chance to speak their mind. “The girls can take assembly if they want to and we’ve been quite strong on girls standing up and talking about issues such as LGBT or mental health, especially if they have personal experience with it. They still feel like they can talk about it, even though there’s 500 girls in the room. The speaker might talk for 10 minutes but it can spark an interest.”
1. St Swithun’s is set in 45 acres of countryside, overlooking the South Downs in Hampshire
2. Over the last five years, over a quarter of leavers have gone to either Oxbridge, Durham or Bristol universities
3. There are 160 co-curricular activities every week
4. There are 387 instrumental music lessons each week
5. There are 81 sports teams
There are many other opportunities to increase confidence. Bajer says the roles available for students are a good chance to practise leadership skills, with many of the girls who went for her role taking on other important jobs now.
A positive education programme at the school also looks at the strengths of the girls, rather than weaknesses. As Gandee says: “Part of that programme is the idea that life’s a bit tough and you’re going to feel a bit rubbish some days, but pick yourself up and get on with it, rather than the idea that you should be happy all the time, which is unrealistic and unhelpful.”
These words give me the impression that St Swithun’s is doing a lot more than preparing girls academically, but also preparing them to navigate the world as adults; I don’t blame Gandee for relishing the opportunity to talk about it.