A class apart: inner workings of an exceptional school

St Swithun’s School is always a top performer and a hugely popular option for any parent with a daughter considering independent education. Head Jane Gandee has fashioned a school that excels academically but also stresses the importance of – and encourages participation in – co-curricular activities. Here she tells us all about the inner-workings of this exceptional school

JGBlessed with 45 acres of stunning Hampshire countryside, St Swithun’s is ideally located, as well as ideally suited to, marrying academic achievement and pupils’ personal development. In February the ISI were suitably impressed during their inspection of the school and acknowledged as much, judging the school excellent in both categories. Head Jane Gandee continues to encourage the girls in her care – 508 to be exact – to involve themselves in a host of varied co-curricular activities. She shares how this wonderful variation applies to day pupils and boarders alike.

 

Why are co-curricular activities at St Swithun’s held in such high regard?

We are proud of our academic excellence but also believe in the concept of being ‘appropriately academic’ which means encouraging the girls to work hard in class and also providing them with the opportunities to do something else. The ‘something else’ is as important as academic lessons and sometimes more so. In addition to music, drama and sports activities the school’s regular, weekly co-curricular programme includes drop-in sessions and societies across a varied range of subjects such as biology, maths, chemistry, linguistics and debating.

Polo club, scuba diving, karate and fencing are part of the weekly sporting programme as is the opportunity to take part in training with the Winchester and District Athletics Club. We run three choirs, three bands, an orchestra and instrument ensemble groups which reflect the girls’ interests at the time. Our most recent addition is a bassoon ensemble.

In addition, we offer a full and varied programme of cultural, social and recreational activities at weekends to suit all boarders. We believe the weekend is a time when girls should have the opportunity for some ‘downtime’, to try out new experiences and learn how to organise their time appropriately and effectively. The organised weekend activities are different each week; this term, for example, they included an art workshop, golf, a takeaway and movie night and a roller disco social with a local boys’ school.

How does the school tend to vary their co-cirricular programme?

The variety of activities on offer, in particular at the weekend where the programme offers different opportunities each week, keeps the co-curricular offering fresh. We welcome feedback from the girls about the trips they go on and are always interested in suggestions for future trips. The girls have just returned from a surfing weekend at Westward Ho! inspired by surfing lessons on the Spanish study visit.

Pupils commit to an after-school activity for one term. Form tutors help to ensure that the girls have a good balance of co-curricular activities and that they honour any priority sport, music or drama activities for which they are required. The weekend activity programme is scheduled prior to the beginning of term; typically there are two or three activities on Friday evenings and anything between seven and 10 options on both Saturday and Sunday. There are regular opportunities to develop a skill across the term and there are also many one-off activities – so each weekend is different and there are many new experiences to try.

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What role does your co-curricular offering play in the wider financial welfare of St Swithun’s – pupil recruitment for example?

The co-curricular programme a school offers is as important as its academic excellence and is always part of the conversation with parents. The girls will never again have such a broad range of opportunities so easily accessible. We are intent on developing rounded individuals who have learned time-management and how to prioritise. We expect girls to work hard and play hard and providing the right opportunities for them to do so is at the heart of what we do.

Might the future direction of co-curricular offerings in the sector be influenced by King’s College School, Wimbledon’s plan to introduce empathy lessons?

Our foundation values – caritas, sinceritas, humilitas – are painted above our front door and are as much a part of our community as the fabric of the building. We talk about how to make these values relevant to the 21st century, both within and beyond the school gates, so that every member of the school community makes a contribution to the wider world.

We will soon have an explicit and coherent seven-year programme to cover the whole of a girl’s time at St Swithun’s so that, by the time she leaves, she will have had ample, structured, challenging opportunities to develop character traits. I believe that being considerate, supportive, compassionate, forgiving, genuine and trustworthy are values that are not just taught, but caught from the wider school community and are at the heart of what we are as a school.

Other private school sources we’ve featured recently have spoken of developing a lasting entrepreneurial spirit in pupils. How does this compare with the ways in which you prepare girls for life beyond St Swithun’s?

We want girls to leave us courageous and with a strong moral compass. We expect them to make mistakes and learn from them, to develop commitment, perseverance, teamwork and organisational skills. It’s our responsibility to offer all girls the opportunity to try new things and to find them difficult, to stretch and challenge and to inculcate the understanding that simply repeating what you can already do is not only dull but runs contrary to everything St Swithun’s stands for. We also believe that confronting our fears is an important part of developing the characteristics that will enable us to make a success of our lives. We encourage girls to adopt the ‘as if’ principle – lift your chin, look the world in the eye and behave as if you are confident.

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