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Pilgrims’ is an academic school (‘we want the boys to excel,’ says the second master) but learning here looks like fun. We visited a host of lively lessons, where boys were brimming with enthusiasm. ‘Has everyone got their goggles on?’ quizzed the head of science as he guided year 6 pupils through a practical experiment on the states of matter. We observed a rapt English class where year 8 scholars were keenly analysing William Wordsworth’s sonnet, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge...

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What the school says...

Located in the heart of historic Winchester, less than one hour from London, The Pilgrims' School aims to educate its pupils well, to give them self-confidence and a delight in achievement. It aims at much more than this, however.

The Pilgrims' School is home to two professional choirs, the Winchester Cathedral Choristers and the Quiristers of the Winchester College chapel choir. In unique association with Winchester College, we have high academic standards and outstanding resources. As one of the major choir schools of the UK, The Pilgrims' School has many talented and budding musicians, Choristers and Quiristers aside, who inspire in all a love of music and the arts. As a church school, it has sound discipline and exceptional pastoral care. As a sporting school, it plays all the major games with almost daily rigour. High ambition, zeal and determination, an awareness of the worth of others, solid commitment, a deep faith; these are the fundamentals we try to instil.

Rather than open days, we prefer to offer an individual tour of the school with one of our senior boys as a guide, affording the opportunity to sample the working day character of the school, to see our style of teaching and to spend time with key members of staff. Visitors are always very welcome, please feel free to call us if you would like to book a visit.
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Other features

Choir school - substantial scholarships and bursaries usually available for choristers.

Sports

Unusual sports

Rowing

Fencing

Shooting

Sailing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2020, Dr Sarah Essex, formerly deputy head academic at Fulham Prep. She attended St Mary’s Convent School in Worcester, then Worcester Girls’ Grammar School. Her very impressive CV includes a first in natural sciences and a PhD in theoretical inorganic chemistry, both from Cambridge. She had a distinguished career as a senior partner director and chief financial officer of a number of international strategy consulting firms but switched direction after learning that UK primary schools didn’t have enough qualified science and maths teachers. ‘It really bothered me as a scientist,’ she says. She took Fridays off and began voluntary teaching at her local parish primary school and other primaries in London and further afield. Eighteen months later she decided to teach full-time and at the age of 45 did a PGCE in primary education at UCL Institute of Education. ‘Everyone thought I was a little mad,’ she adds with a smile.

A few misguided heads told her she was too over-qualified to teach but The Hall School, a boys’ prep in Hampstead, snapped her up as a maths teacher. Within four years she’d risen to head of maths, head of data, assessment and reporting and even head of GDPR. After two more years at The Hall and then two years at Fulham Prep she was appointed as head of Pilgrims’. ‘Coming here felt like coming home,’ she says. ‘I walked in on the first day and music was pouring out of every window. I loved the fact that the boys here can be whatever they want to be. Everyone is celebrated. We help them to find their passions and nurture them. It’s a very joyful place.’

She teaches non-verbal reasoning to year 6 boys and spends as much time in the pre-prep and prep classrooms as she can. ‘Our school is very verbal,’ she says. ‘Lessons here are like conversations.’ She firmly believes that dialogue with and between pupils drives learning – at her first prizegiving she quoted a line from Professor Christine Harrison of King’s College London: ‘Fostering dialogue and orchestrating discussion should be at the heart of what teachers do on a daily basis.’

In her spare time she enjoys running, Pilates and musical theatre, is a keen mono-skier and has taken up improvisational comedy. Warm and professional, she’s highly praised by teachers and parents. ‘She’s really skilled at managing a team and taking leadership,’ a mother told us. Another said: ‘She really takes time to know the pupils. I’m very impressed.’

Entrance

Main entry points are reception, year 3 and year 6 but a growing number are joining in year 5 to prepare for ISEB pre-tests, as well as other years. Before being offered a place boys sit assessments in maths, English, verbal and non-verbal reasoning to ensure they will thrive. Older boys have interviews with subject teachers. Choral scholars join in year 4 (choristers) and year 5 (quiristers).

Boys joining the pre-prep are invited to ‘stay and play’ sessions, where staff chat to parents and see how children interact with their peers. The intention is that boys joining the pre-prep will stay at Pilgrims’ till year 8 – and virtually all do.

Exit

Pilgrims' is not the prep school for Winchester College but enough families see it as a route for there to be a separate form in year 8 (13 went there in 2020). Winchester exams are earlier and different from Common Entrance, which accounts for another form, as well a third group for scholarship candidates. Prepares scholarship boys very specifically and successfully for the academic requirements of other major schools. Unsurprisingly, music awards and exhibitions are also plentiful.

Remainder to Eton (10 in 2020) and Sherborne (five in 2020), with one or two to eg Canford, Portsmouth Grammar, King Edward V, Harrow, Charterhouse, Wellington and Marlborough.

Our view

Pilgrims’ is an academic school (‘we want the boys to excel,’ says the second master) but learning here looks like fun. We visited a host of lively lessons where boys were brimming with enthusiasm. ‘Has everyone got their goggles on?’ quizzed the head of science as he guided year 6 pupils through a practical experiment on the states of matter. We observed a rapt English class where year 8 scholars were keenly analysing William Wordsworth’s sonnet, Composed upon Westminster Bridge. ‘The teaching is amazing,’ said a parent. ‘The teachers are really passionate about their subjects and get the boys excited about them too.’ Another described teachers as ‘reassuring and nurturing’ and said queries and worries were always acknowledged and acted on promptly. In years 3 and 4 boys do English, maths, history and geography with form teachers (plus science, sport, music, French, art and DT with subject specialists) but from year 5 up they have specialist teachers for every subject. French taught from reception and Latin and ancient Greek from year 6.

Classes are small – never more than 16 and often fewer. Pilgrims’ boys are able but there is a range of attainments and all are taught to achieve above and beyond their potential. Eighteen have specialist one-to-one weekly lessons for difficulties in areas like reading, spelling, comprehension, maths, attention, motor skills and coordination, processing speeds, working memory, executive functioning and anxiety. ‘Our son is dyslexic and was falling behind in the state-school environment,’ a father told us. ‘We moved him to Pilgrims’ and he has absolutely thrived. It has been transformative and wonderful.’

Pre-prep has its own purpose-built centre between the prep and the deanery garden, with a tributary of the River Itchen running alongside (fenced off for safety). The pre-prep playground has a superb view of Winchester Cathedral and boys play out in all weathers. ‘We are outside as much as we can be,’ says the pre-prep head. There’s also a forest school – we met a bunch of cheery boys collecting autumn leaves ready to paint them. Pre-prep has launched a drive to use natural resources where possible, with a concerted effort to reduce plastic, use less paper (the boys have digital learning journals) and recycle and reuse. Classrooms have hessian display boards – both practical and beautiful. Buddy system means the transition from the pre-prep to the prep goes smoothly. ‘The pre-prep is a really great place to start a child’s journey through education,’ said a parent.

Not surprisingly, with two professional choirs and a plethora of other choirs and orchestras, music is a joy. Twenty-two cathedral choristers, sing with the Winchester Cathedral choir and 16 college quiristers sing with the Winchester College chapel choir. Known as the Cs and Qs or ‘the reds and the blues’ (choristers wear red jerseys, quiristers wear blue), they sing daily to the highest standard. A chorister’s parent told us: ‘It’s a bit like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When our son became a chorister it was like winning a golden ticket.’ Eighty-seven per cent learn an instrument, and many boys learn two. Head of music asks year 7s and 8s to ‘sell’ their instruments to year 3 pupils – in other words explain why the younger boys should take them up. ‘We offer four free taster lessons and this year five of them went for the double bass,’ he told us proudly. ‘It’s fine until their parents say: “But our car is a Mini.”’ Music lessons are arranged on a rota basis to minimise disruption to lessons. A plethora of musical groups to join – senior and junior choirs, chamber choir, orchestra, big band, sinfonietta and many more. ‘We try to give boys the opportunity to be in two groups – one in their comfort zone and another to extend and challenge them,’ says the head of music.

Drama is on the curriculum but there are plenty of other opportunities to perform on stage, including plays, musicals, Pilgrims’ Got Talent and the Christmas cabaret. Large, airy art room where enthusiastic head of art has devised an exciting array of artistic pursuits. We admired Rothko-inspired paintings by year 3s, landscapes by year 5s and pop-art self-portraits by year 8s. ‘I embed art history in everything they do,’ he says.

For a smallish school Pilgrims’ fields an astonishing number of sports teams – soccer, rugby, hockey, cricket and athletics. PE all year round and swimming lessons in the open-air pool in the summer and up until the October half-term. Other sports offered through the co-curricular programme, including judo, karate, fives, rowing, squash, sailing, tennis, golf, fencing, fishing and water polo. Extensive games pitches have views of the Bishop’s Palace and the ruins of Wolvesey Castle. Lots of after-school activities, known as ‘commoners’ – everything from computer coding to knitting. Chess is big at the school – there’s an outdoor chess board with giant-sized pieces and boys compete against other schools. The aim is for boys to follow their passions – ‘be it Tiddlywinks or first XI football,’ says the second master.

The school, tucked in a quiet close between Winchester Cathedral and Winchester College, has been on its present site since 1931 and is a wonderful mix of ancient and modern. Light, airy classrooms and library blend with the neighbouring medieval and Georgian houses. We were very taken with the Pilgrims’ Hall, used for assembly and dating back to the 14th century. The school has services at Easter and Christmas in Winchester Cathedral and in the chapel at Winchester College.

Very sensible policies on mobile devices. Day boys can’t bring mobile phones to school but boarders can use them for 40 minutes in the evening. After that devices are locked away. Device-free nights on Mondays and Thursdays. If they want to ring home at other times they can use the school’s iPads or landlines. Boarders write postcards home every Sunday. Pastoral care very well structured – mainly through form teachers until the last three years, when boys are in tutor groups of up to nine. ‘There is a real camaraderie and sense of happiness here,’ a mother told us, while a father said: ‘Kindness and consideration are woven through the school like a stick of rock.’ PSHE for all year groups and head nurse has recently introduced ‘Group’ for year 7s, an informal 45-minute gathering where they share thoughts, feelings and concerns. ‘It helps to develop the boys’ emotional literacy,’ she says. House system – boys belong to one of five ‘sets’, with lots of inter-set competitions.

Food gets the thumbs-up. Breakfast and supper for boarders (and day pupils if they want it) is cafeteria-style while lunch is table service, with a member of staff sitting at each table to encourage good manners and conversation. Option of wrap-around care from 7am to 6pm fits in well with parents’ working hours. A tuck shop – the delightfully named Num Nums – is open twice a week for boarders. Year 8 boys have an annual social with girls from St Swithun’s although one parent said they’d like to see more interaction with local girls’ schools – either drama productions or a joint sports day perhaps.

Past pupils include novelist Patrick Gale, comedian Jack Dee, broadcaster Jon Snow and four BBC choirboys of the year since 2000.

Boarders

Boys can board from year 4 (Forces children are occasionally allowed to board in year 3). Full and weekly boarding available, but no flexi. By year 8 three-quarters board. International boarders from the US, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, Nigeria, Luxembourg, Turkey, Spain and Italy. The two boarding houses originate from the choristers’ and quiristers’ needs, with choristers in the main school and quiristers in Q school. The dorms are the nicest you’ll find anywhere – six or eight bunk beds in imaginatively decorated rooms (themes include sports, Dr Seuss, Superheroes, Tintin and Beano). The sports dorm, for instance, has a vast mural of a football pitch painted on one wall and bookshelves made from skateboards above every bed.

Teaching houseparents, with their own boys in school, create a family atmosphere, and the three paediatric nurses are very approachable. The san has recently been renamed R & R, short for rest and recuperation (it was named in a competition by a boy). Choristers who stay on over Christmas and Easter for choir clearly have a whale of a time – with a Christmas story on Christmas Eve, secret Santa and Christmas stockings. ‘It’s full-on but it’s magic,’ we were told.

Money matters

Choristers and quiristers are awarded choral scholarships of 40 per cent of the full boarding fee. Means-tested bursaries sometimes available.

The last word

A stunning, distinctive and very caring school, Pilgrims’ combines a forward-thinking outlook with an incredible heritage and history, excellent academic results and breathtaking music. There’s something special here for almost every boy, especially for those who are bright, intellectually curious and eager to learn.

Special Education Needs

We offer one to one tuition for boys who have specific learning dificulties. 10-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health Y
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment

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