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WCCS is now up there with the top London preps, sending a regular flow of boys to the most coveted senior schools. The curriculum – ‘amazing’ said one parent – takes boys through the ‘cycle of civilisation’ (ancient, medieval and modern) three times during their stay, and while the timetable covers all the essentials, its reach is far more ambitious. Teaching, too, is anything but to the test. (‘It’s absolutely inspirational,’ said one father.) A charming mix of ancient and modern – a Tannoy called a boy to a music lesson, while loos are labelled just that – WCCS is amongst the most spic and span schools we’ve seen and ‘runs like clockwork’. Diocesan school inspectors commend the ‘outstanding Catholic ethos’ while parents…

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

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Fencing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2007, Neil McLaughlan, BA, PGCE. Mr McLaughlan attended St Joseph’s College in Ipswich and Durham University, where he studied philosophy and politics. After a brief stint as a management consultant, he trained as a teacher at Stonyhurst College (through Manchester Metropolitan University), going on to Worth, followed by Downside, where he became head of English and director of admissions. When the post at WCCS came up, he’d never considered a prep school, but the lure of London was strong.

Since his arrival, he’s transformed ‘a gentle, friendly, eccentric’ school into a ‘secure, academic’ one. ‘I took the view early on that you don’t just put a cross over the door, you have to earn your reputation. I’m really proud of what we’ve done.’ A genial, relaxed figure (offering us wine at lunch, a rarity in the London education landscape), he’s clearly on top of the myriad demands made on the modern head. ‘He’s very approachable and extremely well organised,’ said a father. ‘Everything he does is spot on.’ He evidently strikes the right note with boys, too. ‘He’s very nice, very calm and kind,’ said one. With two teenage children of his own, much of his out-of-school hours are spent ‘acting as a bank and a chauffeur’, but he still finds time for poetry (T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins) and cooking. ‘I’m prepared to labour for a good meal.’

Entrance

Sixty or so apply for 24 places (two classes of 12) in reception, with applicants assessed in the November before entry. ‘They come for an hour of play and we look at how sociable they are, whether they can share nicely and concentrate,’ says Miss Lucy, who oversees both entrance and exit. At 7+, 15 to 20 are tested in maths and English for six places. Usually, a further two or three places at 8+. A maximum of six choristers enter year 4, with informal musical tests two years beforehand. ‘They have to love singing, have to be academic and have to have the potential to board.’ A package not easy to come by nowadays, and the school operates a wide outreach programme.

Exit

Though the head says modestly, ‘We know where we stand in the pecking order, we’re Russell Group, not Oxbridge,’ there’s no doubt that WCCS is now up there with the top London preps, sending a regular flow of boys to the most coveted senior schools. Most popular destinations in 2024 included Westminster, Dulwich, Eton, City of London, Harrow and King’s School, Canterbury. Six music scholarships in 2024. About half to board, though not many to traditional Catholic favourites, largely because of the distance. Choristers often continue to the Oratory and Cardinal Vaughan. The heads of leading senior schools are invited in to speak to parents and Mr McLaughlan offers valued guidance. ‘I mainly validate parents’ choice.’ Parents and boys are full of praise for the school’s management of the transition. ‘The headmaster and Miss Lucy visit to see if it’s right,’ said one boy. ‘Then they prepare you really well.’

Our view

One of the things the head is proudest of is his transformation of the curriculum. ‘I started with the question, what does a great education mean? What should they know by years 7 and 8? I always came back to the same answer – a liberal education.’ Boys go through the ‘cycle of civilisation’ (ancient, medieval and modern) three times during their stay, with the aim of ‘telling the story of human achievement chronologically so that they see who we are and what we’ve become’. The fruits are obvious. ‘The exit list is a by-product. They become interested and interesting people to know.’ The pace is rapid – about two years in advance of the National Curriculum – and while the timetable covers all the essentials, its reach is far more ambitious. ‘The curriculum is amazing,’ said one parent. ‘Each theme will be addressed through art, science, history. The children become really motivated.’ Teaching, too, is anything but to the test. (‘It’s absolutely inspirational,’ said one father.) In one lively year 3 discussion about the first man on the moon, the class were asked to volunteer a fact about the space programme, which quickly morphed into the spelling and pronunciation of Zurich and a wide-ranging digression on capital cities. ‘They love capital cities,’ confided the teacher.

Literature and creative writing are given a strong emphasis, with two well-kept libraries and plenty of encouragement to select both the fun and the challenging – one year 6 boy flourished a Robert Harris novel, while another in year 1 was digging deep into a large tome on dragons. Younger pupils have one-to-one reading daily. Latin taught from year 4, ancient Greek from year 7. Unusually well-equipped labs allow for sophisticated scientific investigation. Quite a narrow ability range, so no setting except for maths from year 4. A SENCo oversees one-to-one or group sessions where necessary.

Boys are hugely enthusiastic about what they’re learning. ‘My favourite lesson is science, and the study of the human body,’ said one aspiring medic. ‘Mine is maths,’ volunteered another. ‘I’m not amazing at it, but I still really like it, particularly after I got a good mark in my exams. If you’d told me last year I’d get that mark, I wouldn’t have believed it. It showed that I was learning a lot.’ The atmosphere is competitive, but not damagingly so. ‘Everyone competes with each other, but it’s playful,’ said one boy. Parents’ views on homework vary. ‘Not excessive,’ said one. Another felt hard work was essential. ‘It’s a lot of work for the parent, too. I sit down with my son every day.’ A homework club relieves some of the burden.

Exam preparation thorough and carefully gauged, starting with termly exams in reception. ‘The week after exams, we go through the papers and the teachers show us how the questions work,’ explained one year 5 boy. Preparation reaches a crescendo in year 6 and, again, for Common Entrance (‘because boarding schools still require it’). Parents kept fully in the loop with detailed revision packs. ‘There’s excellent communication and you feel your son is being really well prepared,’ said one.

Music – unsurprisingly – is outstanding and not just for choristers (who train for 20 hours a week). A year 6 class we viewed were studying the pentatonic scale in oriental music, before composing their own oeuvre to be transcribed onto the computer. The majority do some form of singing, many learn two instruments, with a multitude of practice rooms available. Drama is also successful with a popular school play in the Lent term, as is art. ‘My son is not very good at art,’ said one mother, ‘but he loves it.’ Wide variety of clubs, from sports and traditional pastimes, such as football, board games and Airfix, to the more obviously academic (reading, interview practice, Mandarin).

The school is unusually well endowed with outside space with a vast all-weather playground at its heart (plus a separate well-equipped space for the pre-prep). ‘It’s the best playground in London,’ says the head. (On the day we visited, hordes of boys in white kit were kicking balls and – in a scene straight out of a school story – when one landed in the head’s study, he returned it without a pause.) Games are played in Battersea Park and nearby Vincent Square, with regular matches – about 60 a term – as well as in-house competitions.

Cardinal Vaughan, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, founded a choir school for 30 choristers in 1902, and fee-paying day pupils were added by Cardinal Basil Hume in 1976. The current head launched the pre-prep in 2017, taking advantage of a vacant building a few steps away: ‘We needed a feeder and could see which way other schools were going.’ Now a light, welcoming, well-equipped space with its own head (the admirable Mrs Rodgers, Miss Lucy’s sister).

Both schools are a charming mix of ancient and modern – a Tannoy called a boy to a music lesson, while loos are labelled just that – and amongst the most spic and span we’ve seen. ‘Order inspires confidence,’ says Miss Lucy, and this order permeates every aspect of school life. ‘The school runs like clockwork,’ said one parent, ‘with an incredibly helpful weekly newsletter, which gets the level of information about what you need to know just right.’

WCCS is, of course, a Catholic school, with a long corridor linking it umbilically to the cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic faith in England. Over 70 per cent of families are Catholics, meaning ‘everything from Opus Dei to worship once a year’. Other faiths are welcome, but this is not the place to state that Catholicism is not your cup of tea. Prayers are said at the beginning and end of the day and religious instruction occupies about 10 per cent of the curriculum, with the diocesan school inspectors commending the ‘outstanding Catholic ethos’. Certainly, it inspires some, as one year 7 boy told us he’d decided to proceed to a school nearby because he wanted to continue with the church. ‘It’s had quite an impact on my life.’

Parents give particular praise to the care given to their children. ‘The staff know every boy and even know all the siblings by name,’ said one. ‘My son was doing a lot of sport after school, getting back late,’ commented another, ‘and the teacher immediately contacted us to say he seemed a bit tired.’

Traditional good manners prevail – all boys leapt to their feet on our entrance – and behaviour is exemplary. ‘They’re as good as gold,’ said one mother. Misdemeanours result in demerits, detentions and – super-rare – internal suspension. One notorious miscreant apparently received two internal suspensions, but ‘he was going through a phase,’ said one boy kindly. ‘He’s much better now.’ Fear is not the driver. ‘If you get a detention, the head will say he’s a bit disappointed. That makes you feel guilty.’ Boys belong to one of three houses, competing for an annual trip, with plenty of positions of responsibility from prayer monitor and library monitor to school council and eco committee. Parents value the approach. ‘The carrot and stick seem to work.’ Whole-school assemblies are held in the beautiful, wood-panelled clergy-house library, when topics like ‘peer pressure’ are explored, poetry declaimed, and the head’s weekly commendations distributed. Staff and pupils eat together in the cheerful dining room, where three in-house chefs prepare a hot meal including a vegetarian option.

Parents are often European – mainly Italian, Spanish, French. ‘They say it feels like coming home.’ Most are professionals, mainly in finance and the law, with both parents working, and plenty of nannies line the gates at afternoon pick-up. Choristers are generally from more modest backgrounds. Families tend to live fairly locally, but a school bus fetches from further afield. ‘Parents are involved but pretty hands-off,’ says the head. ‘They appreciate we’re a traditional school and we look after them. They trust us to do the job.’ Those we spoke to could not be more thankful for what they receive. ‘I understand if I sound a bit too effusive, but I love it,’ said one. ‘It’s a really lovely school,’ said another. ‘Every boy is nurtured, and there’s a good balance of work and fun. I wish I had another boy so I could send him here.’

Boarders

Choristers board weekly, leaving for home on Fridays after mass and returning Sunday morning before song school. ‘It used to be 24/7, but parents are much happier now they can be involved in their sons’ lives.’ Attractive, light dorms at the top of the school come with an attached common room (with table football and snooker) and direct access to the school nurse. Boys tend not to get homesick after the first few weeks. ‘I like being a chorister,’ said one. ‘You have a bit more freedom, you get to play football after school and play on the computer.’

Money matters

Choristers pay reduced fees, which can be topped up with bursaries.

The last word

A traditional, academic prep school with an outstanding curriculum, pastoral care and results, helping every boy to thrive in a Catholic environment.

Special Education Needs

The school's SEN policy gives staff guidelines to help them identify children with possible specific learning difficulties. These individuals are screened by the SENCO and a further educational psychologist assessment suggested to parents if necessary. Limited remedial help can be offered within the school, by withdrawing children with recognised learning difficulties from classes. Otherwise remedial tuition is recommended at a centre outside school. Staff are made familiar with any new SEN diagnosis, and Individual Educational Plans issued with specific recommendations.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia
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
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty Y
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
VI - Visual Impairment

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