The precise date of Abingdon's foundation is unclear. Some believe the school to have been founded prior to the 12th century by the Benedictine monks of Abingdon Abbey, with a legal document of 1100 listing Richard the Pedagogue as the first headmaster. From its early years, the school used a room in St Nicolas' Church, which itself was built between 1121 and 1184.
The school now takes its anniversary from the earliest surviving reference to the school – 1256 – a charter of Abingdon Abbey recording an endowment by Abbot John de Blosneville for the support of thirteen poor scholars. In the past though, the school considered itself as having been founded by John Roysse in 1563. This led to the unusual circumstance whereby the school celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1963 (at which HRH Princess Margaret was guest of honour), and then its 750th in 2006. The focus on 1256 facilitated extensive anniversarial fundraising in 2006.
By the time of de Blosneville's endowment in 1256, the school had moved to a couple of rooms in Stert Street with a house for boarders at 3 Stert Street under the charge of a Dionysia Mundy. With John Roysse's re-endowment of 1563, the school moved to a site south of the Abbey gateway. Roysse was a prosperous mercer in the City of London, and through this association the school has received substantial benefactions from the Worshipful Company of Mercers. The name Roysse's School was used until the 1960s and many older Abingdon residents still use the term.
After the dissolution of Abingdon Abbey in 1538, the school passed through a difficult phase: the sixteenth century endowments by Old Abingdonians attempted to overcome the loss of monastic support. Thomas Tesdale, who had been a pupil in 1563, made provision for an Usher to teach six poor scholars from the Borough of Abingdon and offered support for thirteen Abingdon students to study at Oxford. This benefaction eventually developed into Pembroke College in 1624 by the re-foundation of Broadgates Hall.
The six poor scholars, known as Bennett Boys, or colloquially as the Gown Boys due to their dress, were financed by another Old Abingdonian, William Bennett. Between 1609 and 1870 the school maintained a dual management: the Headmaster, appointed by the Mayor and Corporation, and the Tesdale Usher and Bennett Scholars appointed by the Master and Governors of Christ's Hospital, Abingdon. Despite being penalised during and after the English Civil War for its royalist and Anglican tendencies the school survived and achieved somewhat of a revival under headmaster Robert Jennings (1657–1683). 1671 saw the expulsion of ten boys after they refused to attend Anglican services at St Helen's church.
The school experienced a period of success during the 18th century under headmaster Thomas Woods (1716–1753), known as "Flogging Tom". The school became popular among the local aristocracy and many OAs went on to successful careers in various areas. In 1743 The Old Abingdonian Club was inaugurated, it is consequently one of the oldest such organisations in the country.
At the turn of the century the school went into decline under the leadership of the "incompetent" headmaster Dr. John Lempriere. As a consequence Pembroke College, Oxford, used the University Reform Act of 1854 as an excuse to cut its links with the school.
The current school site in the Victorian quarter of Abingdon, adjacent to Albert Park, was designed by Edwin Dolby and was developed from 1870. Its architecture was described in The Builder that year as externally "of a simple character, the local material of red brick and tile being the chief material employed, relieved by bands of Bath stone". Extensions to the 1870 buildings were added in 1880. In 1901, a chapel and gymnasium were built. The adjacent Waste Court property was acquired in 1928. The Science School came in 1952. In 1963, to mark the Quartercentenary of the school's re-foundation, the big schoolroom was re-ordered as the Grundy Library (opened by HRH Princess Margaret), together with erection of further buildings east of the Science Wing, the whole becoming known as Big School. In 1980, the Amey Theatre and Arts' Centre was opened and the Sports Centre opened in 1984. Mercers Court was opened in 1994 by the Chancellor of Oxford University and Visitor of Pembroke College, Baron Jenkins of Hillhead.
In 1998, it merged with Josca's, a preparatory school four miles to the west at Frilford which since 2007 has been known as Abingdon Preparatory School, with both schools becoming part of the Abingdon Foundation. There are strong connections with the nearby School of St Helen and St Katharine in Abingdon. In 2003, the new Arts Department was opened (adjacent to the Amey Theatre).
On 4 October 2008, the newly completed Sports Centre was opened by MP Kate Hoey, with assistance from footballer Martin Keown, swimmer Robin Brew and pentathlete Kate Allenby. This multimillion-pound project took 5 years to complete and has increased the floorspace of the school by 40% Plans for the complex were formally launched by HRH Princess Anne in 2006.
In September 2010 Felicity Lusk, formerly headmistress of Oxford High School for Girls, a GDST school, replaced Mark Turner as Head of Abingdon. She became the first female Head of a boys' boarding public school. A recent addition to the School's facilities is a new Science Centre opened in October 2015 housing 21 laboratories, study areas and prep rooms. The previous science building was refurbished in 2016 with new rooms for history, geography and classics and a 3G pitch has been installed at Tilsley Park. In September 2016, Lusk announced her retirement and was replaced by Michael Windsor.
The Good Schools Guide called it "an impressive school which does what it sets out to do well", also noting that it was "likely to increase in popularity because of its location and increasingly sparkly achievements", while The Times described it as "an elite boys' boarding school".
The school currently has c.970 pupils aged 11–18, of whom 134 are boarders. The school is split into 10 houses, 1 of which is for boys in years 7 & 8 (Lower School, c.120 boys), 3 of which are for boarders and dayboys in year 9 and above, and 6 for day boys in year 9 and above. With the exception of Lower School, School House, Austin House (newly renamed from "Waste Court") and Crescent House, the houses are named after their current Housemasters and are thus prone to change. Boys in Lower School have a pastoral tutor within the house for two years before being redistributed to the 9 "senior" houses when they move into year 9 and are joined by c.100 boys from other schools. In years 9 to 13 (3rd year to Upper 6th) they have the same housemaster, but usually 3 different pastoral tutors, specialising in 3rd year, the GCSE years and then the Sixth Form years.
Abingdon is notable in the region for its extracurricular activities, dubbed the "Other Half" (of the syllabus). The Other Half takes place at various times during the week, during some lunch times and especially after lessons end (so between 4 and 5.15pm on most week days but with an extended period from 2.30pm on Wednesdays). Lessons on Saturdays were dropped from the timetable in 2011, but Saturdays are still key times for boys to participate in school activities, most notably in sports fixtures but also in specific events, such as the Oxbridge preparation weekend and the "Big Sculpt" held by the Art Department.
Abingdon has a sporting tradition, especially in rowing, rugby union and cricket. In recent years the school has reached the later stages of the Daily Mail U18 rugby cup whilst also gaining places in the last four of the HMC national 20/20 cricket competition. Sport is compulsory at Abingdon School and each student must do at least two sessions per week.
The boat club has a long history with documentary evidence indicating rowing was a school activity in 1830. Roysse's School Rowing Club (1840) became the Abingdon School Boat Club.
The Debating Society is the school's oldest non-sporting society, founded in 1904. It debates a variety of motions in its weekly meetings, from the humorous to the serious, with many being political in nature. Abingdon takes part in a variety of national debating, public speaking and model United Nations competitions, often achieving notable success, as in 2009 when a group of Abingdon boys were national champions of the 2009 European Youth Parliament competition. The society also holds black-tie dinner debates with girls' schools, including the School of St Helen and St Katharine, Wycombe Abbey and Westonbirt School. David Mitchell and Colin Greenwood were chairmen of the society while at Abingdon.
In 2014, an Economics and Business publication, Griffenomics, was founded under the supervision of the Economics department. The biannual publication has received various honorable mentions from faculty and students, and inspired the later creation of several more subject-based publications in various other departments.
The School's Edmund and Roysse Societies hold talks for boys several times a term, inviting eminent speakers to lecture on a wide variety of subjects. Notable speakers include former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.
Abingdon has a Combined Cadet Force, which consists of RAF and Army sections. Although membership of the CCF is voluntary at Abingdon, it remains a large and popular activity. The CCF has achieved several successes with cadets in the contingent's Royal Air Force section winning the 2002 Ground Training Competition (South East) at RAF Uxbridge, Middlesex. The shooting team went on to become the top team at the National final that same year.
The Abingdon Film Unit (AFU) exists as part of the "Other Half" and has created nearly 100 films since its creation in 2004. Notable successes include the screening of two films at the BFI Southbank. These were Gravel and Stones, an emotional insight into the lives of various Cambodian landmine victims, and One Foot On The Ground, a documentary following the life of an aspiring Moldovan, basketball player. Festival screenings for various other films include Raindance, the London International Documentary Festival, the Bradford Animation Festival, and the British Film Festival in Dinard, France. Awards include Best Documentary, Best Fiction and Best Animation at the Future Film Festival in London and the National Young Filmmaker’s Award at the Leeds Student Film Festival. To date, the most decorated AFU production has been Blindside: awards include the BFI Future Film Award, Student Filmmaking Awards (Finalist), Grigsby Film Award, Depth of Field International Film Festival Award, Future of Cinema Film Festival Award and Nashville Film Festival Award. The film's success led to considerable attention from local media.
Abingdon is academically a strong school: the students regularly achieve excellent results and a significant number progress to the most prestigious universities, including around 20 to Cambridge and Oxford. At A Level, the yearly A* percentage over the past 5 years has been as high as 33% (lowest = 24%) and the A*-A percentage averages around 68% At GCSE, the yearly A* percentage over the same period has been as high as 60% (lowest = 43%) and the A*-A percentage around 81%.
At GCSE, most of the courses followed are at the iGCSE level (international GCSE) and all examinations are taken in year 11 (5th year), i.e. there is no "early" take of qualifications even for top sets. The top two Maths sets at GCSE follow the iGCSE and Additional Maths qualifications. In sixth form, A Levels are followed to AS and then A2 level, but following the reforms put in place under Michael Gove, the school has decided that, from September 2015, it will follow a linear system (i.e. courses will be completed over two years) and will not be offering the new stand-alone AS qualification. As a consequence of this freedom, some departments will be offering the Cambridge pre-U course instead of the traditional A Level.
The school holds a number of events, dinners and balls throughout the year.
The "Foundation Dinner", to honour the school's founders and benefactors, is held once a year towards the end of Lent term. It is normally attended by Abingdon Town Councillors, supporters of the school, governors, famous OAs, school prefects and upper sixth scholars.
The school also take part in an annual lacrosse match on St. Katherine's Day, between Abingdon 1st rugby team, and St. Helen's and St. Katherine's School.
A notable school event is the "Griffin Ball" held at the end of the school year. It is often attended by members of the upper sixth who are leaving the school as well as other students and many parents and teachers.
The ball itself is often preceded earlier in the day by the school's annual prize-giving ceremony.Degory Wheare, 1605–1606
Thomas Godwyn, 1608–1625
Henry Bright, 1758–1774
John Lemprière, 1792–1809
William Alder Strange, 1840–1868
William Herbert Cam, 1883–1893
Thomas Layng, 1893–1913
William Mitchell Grundy, 1913–1947
James Cobban, 1947–1970
Eric Anderson, 1970–1975