Wellington College’s Ed Wai is building for the future

Meet one of our growing network of partners in the education sector. Ed Wai has big plans for updating the facilities at one of the UK’s top independent boarding schools, with us lending a hand from early on.

Wellington College is one of the UK’s best co-educational independent day and boarding schools, focused on an historic core of buildings set in 440 acres of beautiful parkland in the heart of Berkshire. Fans of Netflix’s The Crown will recognise it as the set used to depict Kensington Palace. But the estate isn’t simply an architectural joy. It also provides cutting-edge education to over 1,100 students aged 13-18.

We’re always eager to learn more about how the education sector is expanding and building, so we sat down with Ed Wai, Wellington’s Group Estates Bursar, to find out more. Ed’s role covers everything you’d expect from an estates or facilities director, from overseeing the team that manages the estate, to coaching students directly.

That gives him a unique insight into where Wellington is heading as an institution. How does a site founded in 1856 stay true to its heritage while moving with the times?


Creating a balanced learning environment

Ed explains: “We’re in quite a fortunate position of being able to maintain the old, while building for the future. We have a significant new build programme covering the next 10 years. A new boarding house and day house are under construction at the moment, and we’re planning a sixth form centre and wellbeing centre. Those are due for completion by 2026.”

Despite these ambitions, the size and setting of the site and its buildings mean that all its existing splendour remains perfectly preserved. “The original public school was like a series of courts, and the focus of Prince’s Court is this large oak tree. That’s my favourite part of the school. It gives that balance of formal grandeur, as well as somewhere you can relax and have a cup of coffee.”

With settings as picturesque as these, why expand at all? The new builds are driven by Wellington’s ambition to achieve a planned 50/50 split between male and female pupils by 2024, re-shifting the balance from the current 60/40 split of boys/girls. This requires some changes to, and expansion of, the facilities and pastoral care on offer. Whilst ‘wellbeing’ – of students and staff – is already high up the agenda at Wellington, with it being the first school in the UK to put the teaching of wellbeing on the curriculum, this doesn’t mean that the College doesn’t wish to continue to enhance its offer.

Ed and his team are used to exploring new frontiers if it means giving students a better head start. “With the co-ed boarding house, people know what to expect from a boarding house. But you can’t google ‘what’s in a wellbeing centre?’ – it means something different to every school.

Ours is going to include medical and fitness centres, as well as physical rehab facilities. We’ll also be teaching wellbeing; our counselling department will be in there. We’re trying to address physical and mental health in one space.”

The way Wellington already looks after its students has brought it recognition at home and abroad. As well as being one of the UK’s top independent schools, its International Baccalaureate Diploma results are top 10 worldwide.

This makes the College a respected global brand. Since going international in 2011, Wellington’s sister colleges now educate over 5,000 students across China and 500 in Bangkok. Plans for an 800-capacity Indian college to open in 2023 are nearing completion.

Helping the next generation thrive 

That’s a lot of expansion, and Ed is candid about the challenges of building when you’re in the education sector. “Safeguarding is a big issue, how we manage visitors and contractors coming on to the grounds. It’s not like back in the old days. And these sites are always live; we have around 750 staff living at the school, some with their families.”

Add on to that the ongoing volatility in the construction sector and you have a series of projects that call for a measured approach to cost management to ensure projects remain deliverable over a reasonable time frame. John Rowan and Partners have been lending Wellington the benefit of their experience for over two years now. Our relationship began with cost management on the boarding house.

“John Rowan and Partners have a very approachable senior team. They have a lot of knowledge in their disciplines, cost management in our case currently. What’s key for me is they listen, they adapt to our sector and our needs, they value our priorities. I’d recommend them for other projects in education, based on what I’ve seen.”

Wellington might already have ambitious plans, but notwithstanding this, it will continue to look for new ways to continue to excel in the educational environment. For Ed, the next step might be research. “If I could build anything, it might be a facility to examine how the classroom environment helps teaching quality. A space to think differently about things like changing furniture and a room’s layout. To physically carry out that research on site would be interesting.”

Whatever the future holds, Ed’s team are sure to meet it head on. We’re looking forward to learning even more about what’s driving the education sector to expand as our successful relationship with Wellington College continues.