When Wimbledon High School’s founding mothers established our school in 1880, they declared that “girls have minds as fine as men’s which are worth educating” – a revolutionary statement in its day. 142 years on, we’re keeping true to that pioneering, progressive spirit in SW19. The school’s first headmistress Edith Hastings would be proud.
Visitors, perhaps arriving with preconceived ideas of what a highly academic school “should” look and feel like, are surprised at the warm welcome and relaxed atmosphere that they experience. It is a hive of activity and purposeful endeavour, of course. But crucially, there is lots of laughter as staff and students embody the head Fionnuala Kennedy’s mantra of “taking ourselves seriously while holding ourselves lightly”.
It’s easy to write that “we do things a little differently” but we are a school of lots of “firsts”. Back in 2012, we held our first “failure week”, hitting headlines internationally for daring to suggest that in a high-achieving environment we should talk as much about failure as success. That we should learn to take intellectual risks, to have a go, perhaps to fail, and then to pick ourselves up and try again.
“It’s easy to write that ‘we do things a little differently’ but we are a school of many ‘firsts’.”
Conceived to combat a tendency, in bright girls especially, towards perfectionism, the initiative led to other themed weeks to build confidence and resilience. The everyday language of the school developed around these, encouraging a “can-do” ethos and a sense of fun.
That fun is seen in the weekly informal Friday Jammin’ sessions of our musicians, the student stand-up comedy and the charity dress-ups. It can also be seen in the “Mad4Padz” collections of sanitary products to fight period poverty, and the House competitions where older students cheer on and inspire the younger ones.
Students themselves love to refer to “Wimbledonian spirit” – an elusive thing capturing a delight in silliness and irreverence yet with a steely core of determination to keep going when the chips are down.
The latter comes into play in sport particularly – just this week our Year 8 tennis star, Hannah, enters Junior Wimbledon on a wild card, following recent national success. She will be the youngest in the draw and we’ll all be cheering her on from just down the road.
And back to that pioneering spirit: you encounter it in the STEAM Tower, comprising the labs and workshops that bring together science, technology, engineering, arts and maths in cross-curricular lessons.
“Wimbledonian spirit is a delight in silliness and irreverence yet with a steely core of determination.”
Shunning the stereotypes, girls at Wimbledon High choose science in spades – GCSE Product Design is a new favourite, as more young women head into engineering degrees, and maths is the most popular subject at A-level.
And in embracing STEAM, we emphasise that we are preparing students for the problem-solving and creative skills needed in workplaces in the future. It’s paid off, with two students last year winning an award in the Amazon Longitude Explorer Competition for their design “BioClear”, attempting to tackle the problem of plastic in our oceans.
In a separate initiative, a student’s novel independent research was published in an international journal. (We particularly enjoyed the letter of congratulations referring to our 18-year-old school student as “Dr”- such achievements, typically PhD level, are indeed rare for sixth formers.)
“We are preparing students for the problem-solving and creative skills needed in workplaces in the future.”
The STEAM tower opened as part of Project Ex Humilibus, a build funded by our owners, the Girls’ Day School Trust, a network of 25 schools nationally. September 2022 will see a new sixth form centre open on the Wimbledon Hill Road side of the site. This will create independent study and common room spaces for the oldest students in the school and providing a hub for the local community as our partnerships work is extended further.
Alongside the sixth form will sit a new auditorium, to enhance performance space for the spoken word as well as music and drama, and a playground in the sky for our Juniors.
A new dining area has brightened the site and reinforces our message about the value of pausing in the school day to relax and eat together with friends, while giving space and time for the over 140 clubs that run weekly. And these clubs are truly co-curricular, thriving and popular, valued next to curriculum time for the opportunities for growth and personal development they bring.
“I want students to look up and out beyond their individual subjects to reflect on the world around them.”
As well as STEAM, innovation of the curriculum is seen in our introduction of a non-examined bespoke course on Politics, Philosophy and Economics in Year 10.
“Most students do nine GCSEs– this is because of not despite our being a highly academic school” says Fionnuala Kennedy.
“I want students to look up and out beyond their individual subjects to reflect on the world around them. A world which could do with more bright young women like our Year 13 leavers to shake it up a little.”
“I wouldn’t advise on choosing a school now on the basis of Russell Group or Oxbridge numbers alone.”
With the future in mind, we are building our links with people in industry and seeing our first students head to degree apprenticeships and vocational courses as additional possibilities to more traditional paths.
As Fionnuala Kennedy says to parents at our open events: “I wouldn’t advise on choosing a school now on the basis of Russell Group or Oxbridge numbers alone. There is such an incredible range of courses and institutions, more fluid routes to what are likely to be portfolio careers… Choose a school on the qualities it engenders in its young people: curiosity, creativity and a willingness to work hard, yes, but also, crucially, listening skills, openness and kindness.”
We think Edith Hastings, while maybe putting a stricter emphasis on discipline back in the day, would certainly approve of these qualities and the “have a go” spirit of our community as it looks ahead to its 150th birthday and another 150 years beyond.