Wells Cathedral School, Wells
Wells has been educating cathedral choristers for over 1000 years. Today it does that and much more: excelling in sport, the arts and academics as well as giving career musicians one of the best musical educations in the world
This year celebrating its 1111th birthday, Wells is one of the oldest schools in Europe. As well as choristers and musicians of every persuasion, the school now educates children from 2-18 years, in a co-ed, mixed day and boarding environment. It’s unique among the five specialist music schools in the UK to offer a general education as well as providing for its young and gifted prodigies. Its founding motto, Este Quod Es, “Be what you are”, feels surprisingly modern in our era of self-realisation. And that’s the trick of the school too – it might look like a National Trust property, but the 700 pupils making toast, using the climbing wall, or learning advanced digital mixing in Eavis Hall, seem reassuringly oblivious of the history on their shoulders.
There are all the facilities you’d expect from a major public school, but it’s the quality of its historic and contemporary infrastructure that causes the jaw to drop. With its roots inextricably linked to one of the world’s finest Gothic cathedrals, the school’s campus lazily stretches over the city, occupying Grade 1 listed buildings (medieval to Georgian) as well as small, once residential, little cottages. There’s more than a whiff of Hogwarts here, but without the turrets.
The school’s campus is inextricably woven into the city, just as much as its history, with boarding houses, music practice rooms and concert halls spreading into some of Wells’ finest buildings. Here you practise trombone in a 14th century building in Vicars’ Close, the oldest residential street in Europe. All the boarding houses are sited in historic houses.
This is a school that honours the arts in all forms – visual art, dance, creative writing. It isn’t monoculturally music. Classes are small (on average, 14 in the Senior School), learning is individualised, everywhere oozes casual confidence.
The city itself is surrounded by the dramatic gorges and ancient forests of the Mendips which gives the place an outstanding natural backdrop.
A swimming-pool with removable roof for al fresco swimming in summer, extensive playing fields including cricket, football and rugby pitches, all-weather hockey (hockey is big at Wells), tennis, basketball and a sports hall all provide plenty of opportunities for team sports.
For others there is a fitness suite, dance studio complete with a fully sprung floor and a climbing wall.
Concert halls plural – Cedars (Eavis), Quilter and Wells Cathedral – offer outstanding opportunities to play in different environments and endless practice rooms, as you’d expect, offer every possible reason to excel in any instrument or specialism. The school’s 350-seat Eavis Hall, completed in 2016, has standout acoustics and large technology suite for teaching digital mixing. The building has won two RIBA awards and is named after old Wellensian, Michael Eavis, founder of the Glastonbury Festival. The school’s concert venues are open to the public and Wells attracts musicians from all over the world to teach promising individuals and offer masterclasses.
But behind the photo opps are little subject fiefdoms, reigned over by their subject specialists. You fully expect Hagrid to emerge from the diminutive Geology room, for example, bursting with fossils dug out of the Triassic rocks that surround Wells and complete with replica ammonites stuck in its exterior walls.
NURSERY, JUNIOR SCHOOL AND LOWER SCHOOL
The school is divided into the nursery (2-4 years), junior school (4-11 years), lower school (11-14 years), senior school (14-16 years) and 6th Form, with boarding available to all from Year 4 on. At the earlier stages, you see children informally learning, growing sweet-peas, making butterfly feeders, writing stories, and, of course, practising instruments and singing together.
Occupying a large house on its own, Years 4 to 6 are taught in conventional classrooms surrounded by lawns for play and a little bower in which to share secrets. The vast majority will go through to the senior school, and although there are CAT4 entrance tests, the school doesn’t describe itself as selective. “The tests are more about aptitude without a pass mark,” says the Head Master.
Elsie (age 6) plays viola but at this stage thinks she wants to follow a career with animals (maybe being a vet) more than a professional musician.
Cole (age 10) on the other hand, is a committed trumpet player and hopes to play professionally. Favourite trumpeter? Dizzy Gillespie (without hesitation).
About 50% of Wells pupils board in single sex boarding houses that are also the houses for day pupils. Since COVID-19, the houses are also the student bubbles, meaning that students can’t easily spend time with anyone outside their house. Until the 6th Form, houses for both boarders and day are strictly single sex – something that the Senior School students we spoke to feel is a little restrictive.
The boarding houses are clustered around the school’s main campus but integrated into the city. This gives the whole school a strong connection with the outside world and makes the boarding houses look and feel like a normal residential house rather than a locked-up institution.
Because all the boarding houses are in historic buildings, rooms are individual and not too institutional. House-parents aim to give each house a family feel and there are the usual arrangements for weekly boarding and some flexi-boarding.
The school is multicultural and draws its intake from all over the world, (23% of the school is international) making boarding a vibrant and well-supported option.
Its 175 teachers, small classes and a refreshingly individual approach to teaching, pays off. In 2020, one in five GCSEs taken by Wells pupils was awarded the super A* grade 9, and over three in four grades 6-9. Science shone with 100% of grades in the top 7-9 bands across Biology, Chemistry and Physics.
The A level performance is no less impressive. Over a quarter of students achieved straight A and A* grades and half got AAB or better and there were five successful Oxbridge entrants.
When Wells says it offers an excellent all-round education – on top of its outstanding musical provision – it’s not bragging.
This is Alastair Tighe’s third year as Head Master of Wells and he looks very much what he is: a career music teacher, having started as a chorister, gained music scholarships, been the Organ Scholar at Magdalene College, Cambridge and then held various posts directing music in public schools across the UK. He’s quiet and precise; not flashy, not full of soundbites. You feel he is a detail man, rather serious, compassionate and considered. White socks worn with suits in the 6th Form are his bêtes noirs. We asked in advance of our meeting how the school helped its music specialists cope with the stress and pressures of performing and competing at a global level. He handed over a closely-typed four-page answer to this question that he’d prepared in collaboration with senior staff. It would make the basis of an excellent piece in the TES, filled with engaging examples as well as well-argued principles. Now that’s taking things seriously.
For all his own career as a music specialist, he is passionately committed to Wells’ all-round educational provision. “Everyone knows us for our music,” he says. “It’s in our DNA, and 100% of our music applicants succeed in winning places at conservatoires across the world.” But that’s not what fires up Mr Tighe. It’s all the other things the school does – “to be a school that celebrates all talents” – that he wants to talk about. The school follows a ‘sport for all’ policy which encourages everyone to get away from academic study or music practice. There’s a major emphasis on ‘welfare’ and sleep, (mobiles are removed before lights-out in the Junior School boarding houses), on down time and an active guard against any ‘us’ and ‘them’ that might arise from having 120 exceptional young musicians as part of the school.
There are three broad paths through the school: non-musicians; general musicians and music specialists. These are not set in stone, and pupils can and do move between streams as they progress. Wells offers a range of scholarships and bursaries, not just in music. There are 80 music places funded by the Government’s Music and Dance Scheme (MDS). He believes that music is “an important part of life” and therefore open to everyone to enjoy. Playing together “helps you be comfortable in each other’s company”.
He believes the school is about “the long game” of preparing students for when they’re 25, not on next year’s exams. While tradition “seeps through” – the choristers process every day in poetic cloaks down Vicars’ Close to the cathedral, just as they have for over a thousand years – he doesn’t think pupils feel dwarfed by the school’s immense history. Rather, it gives its pupils a sense of security and confidence that allows them to be who they are. “There is no typical Wellensian,” he says. “Quirkiness isn’t just tolerated, it’s celebrated.”
Team sports – cricket, rugby, football, basketball, netball and hockey (especially hockey) – are open to all and the school has an active programme of inter-house and inter-school matches.
The school’s ‘sport for all’ policy means the emphasis isn’t just on developing excellent sportsmen and women but also on inclusion. There’s a positive emphasis on physical exercise for those who hate team sports with dance, the gym, yoga, pilates, aerobics, ultimate frisbee and the very popular climbing wall all supported.
We chatted to six Senior School and 6th Form students, a mix of day and boarders, some non-musicians, some preparing for conservatoire entry. They were articulate, easy in their skins, keen to praise the school for being understanding and flexible, for valuing a range of skills (not just music) and being entirely free of prejudice. They mentioned the support that old Wellensians offer current pupils, the unpopular fishcakes, the “fantastic” hockey coach. There was a strong sense that you could find your mojo here at Wells and support would be there to help your progress whatever it might be.
Where to start? This year there were four Wellensians in the finals of the BBC Young Musician competition (more than any other single school in the country).
Three Lower 6th pupils won gold in the 2020 British Physics Olympiad; another Upper 6th pupil won one of the prizes in the Peterhouse Kelvin Science Competition.
A Year 8 pupil won the 11-13 age category in the Antarctica Creative Writing Competition; two Upper 6th pupils won prizes in the Lucy Cavendish Essay Competition.
Winner of the Performing Arts category of the Independent School of the Year Awards 2020. The impressive Drama dept puts on annual productions, alternating plays like The Crucible at Cedars Hall with big musicals like Les Miserables (with Sir Cameron Mackintosh in attendance) at Strode Theatre.
The list goes on – poetry, dance, art, science, sport – if there’s a competition, you can bet at least one Wellensian will be up there on the winning podium.
Fees per term 20/21: Reception from £2,636; Pre-prep from £3,081; Junior School Year 3 from £3,970, Years 4-6 from £4,415 (day), from £7,011 (weekly boarding), from £8,093 (full boarding); Lower School Years 7-9 £6,126 (day), £9,050 (weekly boarding), £10,220 (full boarding); Upper School Years 10-11 £6,338 (day), £9,392 (weekly boarding), £10,614 (full boarding); 6th Form Years 12-13 £6,486 (day), £9,606 (weekly boarding), £10,885 (full boarding).
WORD ON THE GROUND
We spoke both to parents of children who are specialist musicians and those who are not. Overall, the school’s described as nurturing, enthusiastic, encouraging, kind, inspirational and as having a family feel. Everyone appreciates the stunning setting, which instills a sense of well-being; “you can feel the history”, said one.
Parents say the school gets the right balance between encouraging children to be the best they can but not overloading them with either work or performance pressure. Everyone – musically gifted or not – is given opportunities to try new things, whether that’s in sport, in music, to apply for a position of responsibility or for a lead role in a play.
Teachers are seen as passionate about their subject, well-liked by pupils, and very approachable, dealing with any worries or concerns – however trivial – immediately. Lines of communication with parents are good. Adapting to each child’s different needs and abilities, staff encourage them out of their comfort zones, challenge them academically and focus on them becoming independent learners.
Those parents of children who are musicians talk about inspirational, challenging specialist music teachers, masterclasses and high profile professional musicians playing at the school but add that these musical opportunities are not at the expense of academics or sport.
The school’s seen as super organised, with a timetabling system linked to Alexa and with a dedicated member of staff set to deal with any clashes, removing the stress for busy pupils (and their busy parents).
The barbecues, dinners, balls and pizza nights get five stars too.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for Achievers in any sphere, not just musicians; fantastic for the musical, the quirky, the individual.
Not for: The lazy or coasting, the unambitious, the narrow-minded.
Don’t take our word for it: See for yourself. There’s a Virtual Open Afternoon at the Nursery & Pre-Prep (ages 2-7) on Weds 14 October at 1pm. A Virtual Be a Musician for the Day on Weds 11 Nov 9am–3pm. For more virtual events, including including scholarships open days and music auditions, see here. For more info or to arrange a virtual visit, call admissions on 01749 834 441 or email email@example.com.
Wells Cathedral School, The Liberty, Wells, Somerset, BA5 2ST. 01749 834200. wells.cathedral.school