Wisbech Grammar School, Cambridgeshire
Muddy says: A forward-thinking co-ed school that really prepares students for life outside the classroom. Under a new and progressive headmaster it has undergone a complete transformation and now boasts modern facilities, impressive results and a cool sixth form centre.
Wisbech Grammar is a dynamic school for boys and girls aged 3-18, situated on the River Nene in the historic and agricultural fenland town of Wisbech. Although it’s only minutes from the town centre, it has 44 acres for the 583 kids to call their own and has a lovely, safe campus feel to it with all the main buildings facing onto the fields.
WGS is one of the oldest schools in the country, dating back to 1379, and started its existence as a school for local farmers’ sons to be educated. There’s nothing outdated about the educational offering now though, thanks to a progressive headmaster who has dramatically upped the school’s game, in terms of facilities, the academics and the forward-thinking outlook.
WGS is predominantly a day school, with most pupils travelling in from across Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire with an impressive 11 bus routes, but there is a modern boarding house for international pupils too. The school is known in the area for its all-round education and amazing pastoral care, helped by its small class sizes (on average 16-18 depending on year group and subject, with A Level classes typically made up of 6-12 pupils).
Not lacking at all! The school might date back to the 14th century (when it was housed in a church in the town), but the current buildings aren’t particularly old. You’ll find a mixture of high-ceilinged and light-flooded Victorian buildings and the brand new state-of-the-art Skelton Hall, which is used on a daily basis for dining, but doubles up as a space for shows, balls and exhibitions.
Since joining the school, Chris Staley (headmaster) has been working on a programme of ‘building for the future’ focussing on a number of projects across the school to update and modernise spaces so that areas like the previously dated humanities department are now much more in keeping with the rest of the facilities.
Being half way through a major regeneration, the classrooms are a mixture of traditional and really modern, including many Harkness rooms to encourage pupils to learn and co-operate with each other in the board room style environment they’ll encounter in the workplace.
SCIENCE AND MATHS
There are a huge number of both modern and older science labs given the amount of pupils, although being near Cambridge means science is a strong suit that attracts specialist staff (many of the teachers are doctors or have strong working science backgrounds).
All the classrooms have been brightened up with bold, striking colours in recent years to make them more vibrant places to learn and to give a sense of continuity to the entire Wisbech school journey. Plus, the school has been organised into functional zones, putting similar subjects together, like science and maths, languages and humanities.
I was particularly impressed with the Food & Nutrition department, which has a vast lab/kitchen and didn’t feel like an afterthought, as is the case in some schools. The Head of Food and Nutrition makes sure the subject is a key part of school life by organising banquets with top chefs such as Bryan Turner and Cyrus Todiwala, giving pupils the chance to cook with them and also work on their front of house skills.
There are still some improvements to be made, and the Prep School is the current focus, with a rather tired looking library set to be transformed over the next summer holidays and the classrooms all being given a makeover in turn. Classrooms that have already had a facelift are huge and full of colour, plus even the youngest pupils have access to all the mod-cons. You might think all this change might be disruptive for the current pupils, but my 6th form and Prep School guides are extremely positive about all the innovations, telling me that they simply come back from school holidays to find yet another room or department has been transformed.
The Prep School doesn’t feel like a separate school, thanks in part to being physically joined to the Senior School building, but also because quite early on, pupils share both the specialist teaching staff and the excellent facilities that the older pupils benefit from. This is all part of the WGS ethos and the staff’s drive to ensure that WGS feels like one united school rather than several separate entities.
Kindergarten was introduced back in 2018, and fits seamlessly into the school. The little ones are perfectly well behaved and attentive in class, and happy, loud and excitable as soon as the bell rings for break – just the right combination. The school is hosting a WIP (Working In Partnership) Festival when I visit, which gives children from local state schools the chance to enjoy some of the school’s excellent sporting facilities, and with all the extra children there’s a lovely happy buzz to the place.
At the other end of the school, there’s a brand new 6th Form Centre, which really reflects the school’s desire to make sure pupils are ready for their future careers rather than cosseted by the comforts of school. There are Harkness board room-style classrooms, a contemporary café and social space and small office style spaces for quiet study as well as collaborative study rooms. It all feels very grown-up compared to the main school and exactly like the executive city offices that pupils may eventually work in. While WGS still has close links to the local community, the school has most definitely moved on from its farming roots, with an eye firmly on the global market.
MUSIC, ART, DRAMA AND DT
The DT department is an impressive set-up, in its own separate building, with all the up-to-date machinery and gadgets a budding engineer could ask for. Talking of which, there’s also a well-attended young engineers club for pupils who want to expand their skills beyond the curriculum.
Music is popular, with well over 120 music lessons taking place each week and the annual highlight being the House Music Competition, where everyone has the chance to show off their talents, from soloists to ensembles, bands to choirs. Throughout the year there are a variety of orchestras, wind bands, ensembles, choirs to get involved in, as well as three steel pan bands and a concert grand Steinway piano for wannabe Lang Langs to play. Pupils really get fired up about the house music competitions, especially the annual House Shout, which was hosted this year by the world famous conductor, Dominic Ellis-Peckham for the second time running.
Drama and dance weren’t particular strengths here until recently but have come on leaps and bounds since the opening of a dedicated dance studio a couple of years back, freeing up the main theatre space for acting. If your child isn’t the jazz hands/ treading the boards type there’s also the chance to get experience on the lighting and production side of things. When I visited preparations were in full swing to create an impressive set for the school’s production of The Lion King. In recent years, pupils have taken part in the Edinburgh Festival performing their own show over the week, too.
Within the 44 acres there are rugby and football pitches, an astro turf, netball courts, and various play areas so there’s plenty to get stuck into on the sports front. Indoors, there’s also a large sports hall, a dance studio and a gym, but no swimming pool, with pupils using the local pool next door.
There are no “boy” sports and “girl” sports here. Everything from rugby to netball has a very co-ed approach and the school certainly holds its own in both the regional and national stakes.
The school has links with Northampton Saints Rugby Club, which gives any rugby-loving pupils an extremely exciting insight into the pro world of the sport. In fact, many of the heads of sports are pros themselves, with rugby, cricket and netball being particularly strong sports for the schools. Recent sporting successes have included both the boys and girls U18 teams becoming county hockey champions, three boys being selected to play rugby for the Independent Schools Lambs, plus alumni include a Scotland scrum half and a Formula 1 Driver.
The sports department was given a real boost in 2015 when the Sports Development and Sports Elite Programme was introduced to support the very best sportsmen and women. This programme gives access to physio, strength and conditioning, nutrition advice and sports specialist programmes, with player pathways to national and county sides, like Northampton County Cricket and Rookies Netball.
Chris Staley was appointed to the top job back in September 2014 and hasn’t been shy about making his mark in his first ever headship. In fact, in less than six years, he’s completely transformed the school. He took the job, having previously been Deputy at Milton Abbey in Dorset and working in various roles at Cranleigh in Surrey, for this very reason: “There was a huge amount of potential for growth here. It was one of the few independent schools left where a lot of that change hadn’t already happened.” And, change it he has. Major overhauls like these usually have a mixed response, but none of the parents or pupils could complain about the vast improvements here.
The list of improvements Chris has already made is quite frankly exhausting (when does this man sleep?). In no particular order… in 2015 a new refectory opened; in 2016 the new dance and drama studio opened; a new reception and pupil service area was unveiled in 2017; the new Kindergarten was opened in 2018; the music rooms were refurbished in 2019; a new 6th Form centre opened in 2019; the new humanities hub and boarding house opened in 2019 and Chris unveiled his international strategy, bringing in Chinese students to widen the outlook of the school’s current pupils and prepare them for the world in which they will work. The programme is in its first year and it’s already a success with another boarding house in the pipeline. Chris has also aligned the Prep and Senior School timetables, making the day 20 minutes longer and the individual lessons longer to help both pupils and parents. This also meant he could introduce a Period 5 activity (more on that below). Wow!
Chris doesn’t seem to be resting on his laurels, and still has plans for further changes to promote the all-rounder education he’s passionate about including opening learning centres in international schools in China. Pupils and parents that are only interested in the academics, should take note – getting involved in the many co-curricular activities and taking an interest in the outside world is very important at this school.
WGS is a selective school and while you don’t have to be the next Stephen Hawkins to snag a place here, it’s still competitive with entrance exams even for prep pupils, and some pupils in the younger years don’t progress into the senior school if they’re not getting the grades. The school isn’t an academic hothouse though. The focus is on an all-round education and identifying the strengths of each individual child appears to be a much bigger priority. That said, the results aren’t exactly shabby. The 2019 GCSE results showed that 90% were graded A*-C (or 9 to 4). An impressive 50% achieved A* to B (9- 6), with one bright button going home with eight 9s and one 8! A-Levels were just as good with 62% gaining A*-Cs and 85% of pupils attending their first choice of university. Up to 5 pupils interview at Oxbridge each year and around 3-5 pupils go on to become medics after their time at WGS.
As part of the all-rounder education offering the school has introduced Period 5, straight after lunch, which allows pupils to spend time pursuing a co-curricular passion for example archaeology, Rock Choir, robotics, creative writing or having a one-to-one cricket coaching session. And there’s a huge co-curricular offering here run by both staff and pupils, with everything from the traditional clubs like Young Enterprise and all the sports, to more quirky clubs like Warhammer Club, Otaku Club, three Caribbean steel pan bands, a battle re-enactment club and a Grow-Cook-Eat club that raises funds for cooking related charities or initiatives.
There are loads of opportunities to go on trips, too. In fact, the number of excursions each school year (around 50-60) is particularly high considering the number of pupils.
The school is divided into four houses (Holmes, Peckover, Sparks and Clarkson), which are a major part of daily life. The houses meet on a weekly basis to encourage pupils in different year groups to interact. The houses compete in sports, music and arts competitions, work together to raise money for charities and are also used as a way to help pupils develop the leadership skills the school is so keen on for later life.
Boarding isn’t an option at the school for pupils other than the international cohort, but there are clubs and activities to extend the school day for parents who work. There’s a breakfast club that starts from 7:45 and homework club after school, with the late buses leaving at 17:35.
Fees are in line with other schools in the area from £9,597 in Prep School to £13,737 per annum for the Senior School.
Another seismic change for the school was the introduction of scholarships in 2016 – the first time in its 600 year history. There are both academic and all round scholarships (Music, Art, Drama, Sport) available at 1st form (Year 7), 3rd form (Year 9) and 6th form.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for an all-rounder school. Academically WGS is robust, but the huge extra curricular programme offers plenty of opportunity beyond the classroom. If like the sound of your little darling being perfectly prepped for the big wide work world by the time they leave, you’ll also love the forward-thinking outlook of the school.
Not for: Parents looking for a boarding school. The plans to open another boarding house are only to accommodate international pupils.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! The next Open Day is on 21 March 2020.
Wisbech Grammar School, Chapel Rd, Wisbech, PE13 1RH