Having landed in Bangkok just two years ago, and already reaching the gold standard for Junior School design and pedagogy, Wellington College is now about to turn the Senior School world upside down, with the most remarkable marriage of design and educational philosophy you are likely to see anywhere in the region.
With very successful sister schools in the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou and Tianjin, not to mention the groundbreaking original, in Berkshire, UK (founded by Queen Victoria), Wellington College Bangkok has an undoubtedly impressive pedigree.
But name value, ultimately, is not enough. You can find a ‘100% genuine’ Patek Philippe on Lazada for 1,200B – but it won’t be long before you see what’s missing. It’s easy to open a new school with a fancy name, but it’s not at all easy to make it genuinely great.
That’s why the next phase of Wellington’s development here in Bangkok is so exciting. The Senior School is truly one of a kind. The curriculum is the English National Curriculum, IGCSE and, at least initially, A-Levels (inventing an alternative curriculum would be folly – snake oil for the gullible). So, in that case, how is it different from all the other British Curriculum schools in this city?
‘Start with what you really want to achieve, rather than what you think you’re supposed to do, then work out how to achieve it,’ says Chris Nicholls, the visionary Founding Master of the College. We are sitting in his study, a remarkably pleasant place to spend time, with comfortable chairs, sophisticated lighting, a Persian rug that really ties the room together. ‘If you start with a wish list of classrooms, corridors, canteens and so forth, you’re going to end up with a typical school. If that’s what you want, there’s already enough of them. This city doesn’t need another.
‘So I wanted academic excellence – of course – but also I wanted our students, all of them, to feel inspired at school, to enjoy the intellectual world, to develop real independence of mind, to understand themselves as individuals, and still, with all that, to be inclusive enough to recognise everyone’s value, not just the value of their friends or relations. The question was how to make that happen.’
As we pore over the Senior School plans Chris has laid out on the coffee table, the vision becomes clear. There isn’t a corridor to be seen. Floor after floor, staircases curve grandly up from sweeping, airy, beautifully-designed learning spaces towards a glorious skylight in the top floor roof. Wide classroom doors open directly into the library area, linking what is studied formally to anything that can be studied, or thought about, in the world.
There are touches everywhere in these plans of the unique attention to detail which is already the hallmark of Wellington’s Junior School – witness the cheeky mid-century design of the Exeter Harkness Room, the pure fun of the Library slide, the extraordinary sophistication of the Learning Studios. The Senior Dining Hall (which sounds as if it might be a stuffy, wood-paneled relic) will look very much like the breakfast room of a sumptuous resort hotel. Complete with charming lakeside views and indoor/outdoor flexibility (useful when the occasional seasonal downpour lashes in from the adjacent Unico Grande Golf Course – the College’s ‘home course’).
With the very recent opening of the 600 seat grand Theatre, completion of the delightful Lagoon area of the campus, and the laying of another outstanding sports field, the Centre Court, Wellington is quite clearly developing into a most extraordinary school. And the pace does not slacken: the Senior School will undoubtedly cement their reputation as one of Asia’s most exceptional academic institutions.
When I ask him what’s next, he grins wryly. ‘There’s another building, that will go next to this one,’ he says. I suggest that twin buildings along these lines would be an extraordinary statement, but he demurs. ‘I don’t know what that one will be like. We aren’t pre-judging at this stage. After a couple of years in this first building,’ he says, casually indicating the papers strewn across the table, eyes betraying the passion and excitement he evidently feels about the whole massive project, ‘then we’ll have some idea of how to design the next bit. I’d be letting everyone down if I did it now. How can we tell what the world will be like, what our students will need, what our teachers will want? The school has to create itself first – then I’ll design it.’
There’s no doubt about it: Wellington College Bangkok is a school of the highest quality, and one that should be considered seriously by any parent who wants the best for their child. As they say, the difference really is everything.