Home to the largest school chapel in the world and famed for its music school, this academically selective South Downs haven is open-minded and inclusive, with strong credentials across the board.
An academically selective co-ed day and boarding school for 13-18 year olds occupying a self-contained campus within the South Downs housing some 600 pupils. Although it’s easily accessed via the A27 and overlooks the coast, the campus itself is charmingly rural. It’s famed for the largest school chapel in the world with an imposing Gothic Revival building that towers imperiously over the surrounding area, a veritable king of the hill. Exceptionally visually impressive, Lancing has a distinctly open-minded and holistic feel to it.
You can’t really go past the chapel – literally, it’s an absolute show-stopper. Founded in 1868 and finally completed in 2021, when Architect Michael Drury designed the architecturally harmonious three-arched porch, which was funded entirely by donations and legacies.
Inside it’s pure Hogwarts, down to the dangling chandeliers that resemble floating candles. It’s also undeniably atmospheric, regardless of faith or lack of, it’s hard not to be moved by the presence of such an awe-inspiring building and the thought of solemn choral services brings goose bumps. As well as services, it’s also used for weekly assemblies and major occasions, for which parents are invited. It’s no surprise then to learn that pupils develop strong relationships with the chapel – positive and negative – and it features highly in exit interviews as an integral part of life at Lancing.
Inside the school itself, (where there is ongoing classroom refurbishment), there’s a fair bit of wood panelling and brass, giving a traditional and studious feel to the various versatile spaces, including a lecture hall, the imposing Great School and a dining hall that could rival any wedding venue. The site never feels overcrowded – in total there’s actually one acre per pupil on roll, which is quite a prospect. My overwhelming feeling when visiting was that students have space to breathe in this privileged position.
The breathtaking main buildings are supported with a range of striking and thoughtfully-designed buildings housing a swimming pool, science, design and technology, music and art. The art studio itself is another show-stopper of a design, with a glass frontage looking out over the Downs to the sea, in a view that couldn’t fail to inspire. A Level art students are given their own permanent studio space for the duration, allowing them to really make it their own.
Lancing is also home to its own Equestrian Centre, established in 2017, as well as a fully working farm, and within this, a smaller farm for the pupils themselves which is beloved of many, especially those wanting to go on to study veterinary medicine.
The sports pitches are mainly to the front of the campus, set within the seemingly endless acres of grounds that include Astroturf. I’m told Lancing is ‘a football school not a rugby school’ but given the abundance of pitches and facilities and the range of sports on offer I’d say it’s an everything school.
All pupils are encouraged to compete, at whatever level to which they are suited, and the school excels at all the usual suspects of football, netball, hockey, rugby, cricket, tennis, athletics and so on as well as more unusual sports like Fives, fencing, croquet and water polo. For pony-mad girls and boys, the equestrian centre is a huge bonus, with acres of gorgeous hacking on the Downs and no need to go anywhere near a road. Swimming is also a major strength, with the pool used by Olympians and other national-level competitors.
Given that the head taught Shakespeare at Oxford, it’s not surprising that creativity and performing arts are invested in, and valued, at Lancing. It’s a hotbed of musical talent, the chapel draws in choristers from around the country but contemporary musicians and future rock and roll stars are also catered for. As well as curriculum teaching, pupils are encouraged to study instruments and the Music School hosts around 300 lessons per week. There’s also three orchestras, two choirs, A Cappella Club, Big Band, rock and chamber music plus composition classes. The school also runs around 40 concerts a year which the public can attend.
Drama is equally well catered-for and there’s a 156-seater theatre as well as a smaller studio space for exam pieces and workshops. Productions are many and varied – Legally Blonde has featured alongside Shakespearean classics – and pupils have taken productions on tours of local prep schools. Dance is another big creative offering, from ballet to tap, street and contemporary as well as yoga and Pilates to complement.
The school is academically selective, and the results are consistently outstanding. In 2020, 67% of GCSE students were graded at 7 or above, 43% at 8 and above and 23% at 9. Under the previous system that’s the equivalent of 89% at grades A*-B. At A Level, 85% of all grades awarded were at A* to B. Pupils go on mainly to Russell Group universities, and in 2020 nine went to Oxbridge.
Bristol, Exeter, Durham, UCL and Imperial College London are also popular destinations and in 2020 four leavers went on to specialist music conservatoires.
Boarding houses are single-sex and span all five year groups, giving a mix of ages and friendships. Houses vary from the adapted Headmaster’s House right at the front of the school, which has a charming and quirky layout, to the more modern and purpose-built houses. There is a rolling programme of refurbishment and the girl’s day house has recently had a very smart £1million makeover.
All boarding houses have housemasters or mistresses who live on site with their families, as well as matrons and tutors. There’s a dedicated health centre too, which boarders can use if they’re feeling poorly or need extra care. They are kept busy during the evenings and on Saturdays but get the run of the school’s 550 acres and a more relaxed Sunday.
Sixth Form boarding at Lancing is currently particularly popular among girls, many of whom come from all-girl schools to experience a co-ed setting before university.
Options include full-time boarding and flexi, (where day students can spend the night with advance notice up to three days a week ).
As well as housemasters and mistresses, matrons and academic tutors, pupils have access to health centre staff, school doctors, a counsellor and the Chaplain. Sixth Formers are also trained as peer supporters and all new joiners are assigned a buddy to help them settle in.
PSHE is timetabled for every year group and parents have the opportunity to join a similar programme on Saturdays to support them with any issues their children may be facing.
In Sixth Form there is a programme designed in consultation with pupils to enhance self-sufficiency and confidence and prepare students for life after Lancing. Recent sessions include cookery and nutrition, mindfulness, and budgeting & finance.
Access to mobile phones and social media is restricted, with younger year groups unable to access sites like Insta while older children are given timed access and more independence and freedom as they grow. Pupils I spoke to said they felt the school had the balance right and were appreciative of the approach. Students are also recruited as Digital Ambassadors to help their year groups navigate the brave new online world.
In March 2022 in an effort to raise sustainability ambitions and engage the entire Lancing community the College held their first Sustainability Week as a launchpad for a comprehensive, long-term programme across all departments.
Lancing’s a bit of a contradiction – a grandiose chapel and a working farm aren’t natural partners but somehow, there’s space for both. An outdoor theatre for productions when the weather allows is a nice touch.
Students were effusive about the range of activities on offer outside the curriculum – clubs range from the traditional, like debating and chess, to the thoroughly modern, like esports. Debating is embraced in full spirit at Lancing, and have even included US Presidential debates in full Donald Trump fancy dress.
Dominic Oliver joined Lancing in 2014, after four years as managing head at Bedales School. His office is decked out with a range of artwork from college students and Shakespearean billboards, a visual reminder of his days lecturing at Oxford. Well-spoken and thoughtful, he has a slightly playful air about him and he seems the kind of person with whom you’d be guaranteed an interesting discussion about just about anything. He speaks passionately about developing the children as individuals, not just churning out exam-taking machines, and he’s clearly very open-minded and forward thinking with a keen sense of fun.
He wants to make the good things about Lancing even better, and he also seems to enjoy the simple answers to the seemingly difficult problems – sport, for example, is timetabled into the afternoons and he says when objections were raised about it getting dark earlier in winter, he simply installed lights.
He also has a commitment to transformational bursaries, and the school has a substantial foundation available.. My overall impression was that he seems open to being challenged, and actively encourages new and different perspectives. Walking back across the site he confessed the spectacular view of the chapel and the South Downs, although inspiring, can also feel like a reminder of the level of responsibility he has to the college and its community. He seems more than up to the task.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Pupils were enthusiastic about the range of opportunities and activities on offer at the college, and seemed to thrive on being kept busy. A broader range of subjects at A Level was highlighted as one area for potential improvement.
At £8,780 per term for day students, £10,800 for flexi boarders and £12,850 for full boarding, Lancing is pretty much bang on standard price for Sussex.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Academic achievers, as it’s selective. In terms of aptitudes and character, Lancing has space for all and the ethos to support a really diverse mix – I’d put it high on the list for the quirkier kids too. It also boasts a wonderful cosmopolitan cohort with international pupils making up a third of the student population.
Not for: Town or city slickers. This is a very self-contained rural campus. Christian ethos won’t appeal to all.
Lancing College, Lancing, West Sussex, BN15 0RW, 01273 452213 lancingcollege.co.uk