New College School, Oxford
The boys perform a Shakespeare play annually in the fifteenth century antechapel and the whole school is given the run of the College for a day every March
If you wander down Holywell Street at lunchtime or in the early evening, chances are
you will spot a small procession of boys in gowns and mortarboards, on their way to sing in the chapel of New College.
It is humbling to think that this sight will have been encountered every day in university term for over six hundred years.
These boys represent about one eighth of the pupils of New College School, founded in 1379 to provide choristers to sing services for the soul of William of Wykeham, and for the souls of the College’s other benefactors.
In a city such as Oxford, replete with centuries-old colleges, it can be easy to forget that there are some very old schools around as well.
New College School’s physical location has changed seven or eight times, either within the College itself, in houses on Holywell Street, in the Old Congregation House of the University Church, tucked under the Bridge of Sighs, or on its present Savile Road site. But its unbroken history makes New College School one of the oldest continuously functioning schools in the United Kingdom.
The school’s pupils have been peculiarly well placed to encounter some of the most dramatic events in British history. Royal visitations were sent to New College throughout the Reformation, for example, with an Elizabethan commissioner assessing the boys’ singing abilities. They were moved wholesale in the 1640s after Charles I made Oxford his capital and their schoolroom in the cloisters made way for a Royalist powder magazine. One of the school’s most famous alumni, the antiquarian Anthony Wood, witnessed this and noted that some of the boys ‘were so besotted with the training and activities … that they could never be brought to their books again’.
New College School pupils enjoy the College facilities today without quite so much disruption. The boys perform a Shakespeare play annually in the fifteenth century antechapel and the whole school is given the run of the College for a day every March.
Indeed the boys are given access to some spectacular artefacts. When being taught about William Caxton and the first printing press in England, they are able to see fragments from the Janua, a Latin textbook printed by Caxton c. 1489. If they are learning about Tudor monarchs, they can see letters signed by Lady Jane Grey during the nine days in 1553 that she was de facto queen.
A sense of history permeates the school, but the boys are taught that longevity in itself does not automatically equal competence. If the boys are to be self-improving, they need to look around them and take those elements from the past that are useful, while combining them with rigorously-tested new ideas.
So the boys may study the Reformation, but they share their ideas and structure their ideas using iPads and a Virtual Learning Environment. By taking this blended approach to archives and digital learning, the boys can get the best of both worlds, without being slavishly devoted to either.