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Good Schools Guide

WHAT THE GOOD SCHOOLS GUIDE SAYS


Head
Since September 2016, Mrs Emma Pattison BA (30s). Previously deputy head (academic) at St John’s School, Leatherhead, preceded by spells at Guildford High School (four years as head of MFL for juniors and seniors) and Caterham (languages teacher and head of year 8). Experience in co-ed schools hasn’t dimmed enthusiasm for single sex education. ‘When you can tailor the curriculum for the kinds of things you know girls will enjoy, it’s so exciting,’ she says. 

Though teaching runs in the family (mother and grandmother) and Mrs Pattison had loved her year abroad as student languages assistant, it was only after a short spell as a management trainee that she saw the light and changed careers. Describes first headship as wonderful ‘in every way’, from school culture (‘sensational’) to buzzy, intelligent and engaging pupils - ‘had the year 8s in yesterday for tea and cake and just laughed with them for half an hour.’ 

Staff, too, are a thoughtful bunch, one giving her something ‘to help you spend time with your daughter’ (who is just approaching school age). Not, as we’d speculated, a cloning kit but a jar layered with pre-measured cookie ingredients. Well, it’s a start and no doubt a parenting essential given the long hours she puts in. Piano practice (she started her degree in music before switching to languages) is already confined to weekends. 

Makes it her business to know what’s going on – and it shows. She’s got a little to do list based on parent concerns. As far as we could tell (precise contents were undivulged) it was identical to ours. High flyers are being encouraged to aim for the stars, the keen to get their share of the sunlight. Unloved junior school lunches and moving up day (previously so disorganised that a couple of really irritated parents had removed children on strength of it) have both been transformed, while the current substantial fee hike between junior and senior schools is being smoothed out. Girls feel she cares what they think, parents are favourably impressed by her know-how. ‘Very on the ball,’ said one. 

Junior head since 2015, is Sophie Bradshaw BA (30s). Second time around – was head of KS2 here before a spell at Ardingly Prep – and is delighted to be back. Nor just an academic whizz - first class honours in primary education and maths – but RAF trained, original plan to fly helicopters scuppered by the realisation that only teaching would do. Family (who’d worked this out long ago) were unsurprised. 

A different breed from predecessors who were brilliant with girls but ‘a bit tweedy,’ reckon parents. ‘She means business,’ said another, ‘but in a way that convinces pupils they want to do it. They adore her.’

Academic matters
Focus, says head, is on selective but bespoke education. High teacher to pupil ratio (one to eight), small class sizes (average 17, maximum around 22 and often fewer, under a handful for A level) and solid support (drop-in or individually tailored in the senior school) all help. One pupil was taking maths, further maths and music (plus a science) for A level; another had opted for philosophy and ethics, drama and politics. GO (girls only) tagline (attached to much of careers-linked literature) reinforces the fact that anything is possible. 

Teachers span a range of personalities and ages – though a growing number are younger. ‘There’s something of a generational shift,’ says school. Maths staff are singled out for particular praise. Motivators for joining (and staying) include excellent facilities (labs in particular), though pupils’ attitudes are the clincher. ‘Can teach, don’t have to be a policeman, love practising craft and seeing the penny drop,’ said senior maths teacher. 

Junior timetable synced with senior school, some specialist teaching from nursery, more added as pupils move up. Ambitious languages – Spanish (years 1, 2 and 3) German (year 4) and French (years 5 and 6) build up to Latin in top year. Also run creative thinking days (focus on problem solving) and for older juniors, philosophy. 

Junior maths has been substantially transformed with dollops of fun, parents particularly keen on new passport (also covering reading and writing) that gives juniors (and parents) goals to achieve in their own time with a certificate at the end. ‘Not just everyday sums, it’s games - fun - such a good way of encouraging the kids to learn more,’ said parent. 

Pace, never sluggish (it’s individual sciences from year 7, for example), ‘kicks up a notch in year 9,’ said a parent. Gentle insistence on organisational skills pays dividends, say parents. So while there’s tolerance if homework not done or a test missed, pupils must be proactive with (credible) explanations – and a perceived lack of engagement is swiftly communicated to parents. 

Pupils work towards good range of GCSEs and IGCSEs with options including computing and 3D design (range and specification constantly reviewed by school), spice provided by lots of trips (for computing as well as more conventional subjects). 

Most go on to three A levels (business studies a recent addition) and extended essay, four if have the appetite and ability. ‘Won’t damage their grades,’ says head. Ditto those who prefer to channel spare energy into sport. ‘Let them do what they want to do.’ Stand alone AS subjects, like photography, also on offer. Approach translates into consistently good results. In 2016, 63 per cent of GCSEs graded A*/A. At A level, 41 per cent A*/A and 74 per cent A*-B. 

Likely to be even better to come after change in approach that has followed 2014 inspection report. While glowing in many ways, it commented that independent learning didn’t always come naturally to the school. Watching year 4 juniors working out how royal barber would go about shaving Henry Vlll (very, very carefully, they concluded) and year 8s embarking on effortless improv themed to Taming of the Shrew with a complete absence of self-consciousness, it was clear that things had changed. ‘Not shy, not cynical – that’s a girls’ school,’ says head. 

For seniors, there’s the GO-Beyond programme for the able where teachers expand on off-curriculum topics – ‘How to develop your very own language,’ say, or ‘Russia’. The really exceptional (rather than merely gifted) juniors have Altitudo programme, resulting in impressively mature work, such as an imagined (and completely credible) conversation between Decartes and Locke. 

Pupils are left in no doubt about what it could lead to. From careers in the classroom event for juniors (bring a cryptanalyst to school) to Pathways Mentoring for sixth formers, the message is that no career is impossible. While doctors and lawyers pop up regularly to enthuse and inspire the next generation, head is equally delighted that one of current brightest and best sixth formers has heart set on agriculture college and a career in farming. No point pushing Oxbridge when it won’t suit, she says. ‘Some get there and are miserable because they’re not super academic though they are super bright.’ 

Communications are very effective. Emails for all (and highly active Twitter accounts – one per department), quick responses at all times. ‘Very reassuring and efficient,’ says a parent. 

School’s size and philosophy means no middle ground to get lost in. Head of learning support works across the school and all pupils are automatically assessed to see if there’s justifiable requirement for special provision (extra time/movement breaks) in public exams. Most pupils are highly able though support, for the 24 junior and 30 seniors with identified SEN – mild only (specific learning difficulties, autism, ADD/ADHD, sensory processing, visual impairment) is extensive and sensitively handled. Junior pupils, for example, often receive subtle in-class support rather than being singled out for lunchtime sessions. It’s ‘so girls don’t feel self-conscious,’ said mother. 

Whatever the goal, expectations are high, pupils thriving on challenge and with a prodigious work ethic. Homework comes in chunky amounts but is sensibly allocated, online as well as in planner, so no excuse for forgetting (one parent reckoned lure of the smartphone was significant factor in time management). 

Very laissez faire families might wish to consider their position. ‘Won’t suit those who aren’t prepared to work with their children,’ stressed mother. Buy in and pupils will do well. ‘Results are very good if you follow what they tell you to do,’ said another parent.

Games, options, the arts
Keen, committed and talented can be on the go non-stop. ‘Could join a zillion clubs,’ said parent. Can lead to a few lunchtime clashes, though sensible catering ensures that no one goes hungry. 

Queues could grow as options increase. Recent additions include rugby and football to existing line up featuring handball, dodgeball, swimming, athletics and golf with space and facilities to do them in both inside (dance studio, fitness suite, impressive pool - tiny flotation jackets await arrival of nursery class) and out (netball courts, Astroturf and a new pavilion). Successes include biathlon (national), hockey and tumbling (regional), and swimming, netball and cross-country (local). 

It all starts early, from participation in the whole school play (some year 5s share the stage with seniors - enjoyable for all) to free lessons in year 3 on the violin or (a boon to parental ears) the cello. It’s in addition to the 150 individual lessons a week, from beginner to diploma level, and (literally) leads on to bigger things and sometimes huge ones (half a dozen or so double basses are lined up in the senior school music room, shelves of colourful ukuleles forming a musical frieze above them). 

Art, too, evolves from inclusive junior school displays representing every shade of talent to impressive senior school work (like the GCSE picture where painted legs meet fabric trainers with real laces). 

Even charity work goes way beyond cake sales. The goal is to produce girls, says head, with ‘compassionate ambition’. Choice of charities a case in point: pupils select preferred good causes and pitch their case for share of the funding. Results in close (sometimes lifelong) links with local groups, which include Women’s Aid and knife crime reduction. Fundraising highlights included a fashion show, male models courtesy of local boys’ school (one wearing a high end frock, tastefully accessorised with a plaster cast after day before rugby injury). 

One mother’s perception is of school having to hold back the keenest and encourage them to keep at least two lunchtimes a week clear. Another felt a bit of gentle prodding to persuade the less gregarious to commit to rather more would be helpful.

Head has already zoomed in on concerns. With dance club - raised by several parents - on the way, and more focus on the keen but non-virtuoso sporting and musical element, nobody should feel sidelined.

Background and atmosphere
Founded in 1874 and part of the Girls Day School Trust, school moved to current base in 1966. Boasts 20 hilly, attractive acres in south Croydon (with a natural amphitheatre in the dip), buildings wearing their architectural vintage (red brick and white fascias) with pride. 

Uncompromising on the outside but inside one of the most efficient and welcoming schools we’ve ever come across – and that includes the parents, available just about instantly to extol the delights of this small scale haven for girls, and come to its defence (criticise at your peril). Nothing like the friendly reception – door holding, wonderful behaviour as matter of course – to convert prospective parents. ‘Just felt right,’ said one, who had instantly succumbed. 

Junior block classrooms are generously proportioned suites. Star attraction is the 4D room with touch sensitive floor, soothing sounds and projected images – used to inspire stories (we could have stayed all day). There’s one oddity - the weird, claustrophobic staircase (Mrs Pattison prefers ‘quirky’) leading to year 4. There is an alternative route, she stresses, but ‘the girls love it.’. 

Otherwise, school is spacious and generally easy to navigate. Keep going and, broadly speaking, you should end up back where you started. Plenty of halls along the way, light and large (main – for school assemblies); huge and impressive (sport) and attractively teamed with green chairs, light wood tables and colourful piles of fresh fruit (dining). 

Refurbishment is underway, blue carpets being replaced with businesslike grey, ivy leaf motif (used to garland pupils at very first prize giving) much in evidence. In among the pristine modern science labs, one old era survivor (wooden benchtops and a faint aroma of long ago experiments) lingers on – for now at least.

Sixth formers’ attractive area features waiting-room style blocks of expectant-looking chairs (it’s occasionally co-opted for assemblies) and walls packed with quotes. ‘It is never too late to decide what you might have been’ (go to it, George Elliot). To the other side, there’s less earnest exhortation and small round tables, two girls working together in squashed but companionable silence.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline
Strength of care felt to be exceptionally strong and a reason – above academics and manners – why school is chosen. One pupil cited teacher at another school turning away a pupil in difficulties. ‘Said he had too much marking. That couldn’t happen here.’

School’s mantra (often repeated, we’d suspect) is making girls feel responsible for looking after each other (strong buddy scheme in place). ‘Will assist so nobody feels all alone,’ thought parent. Size normally a huge advantage - only downside the small friendship pool to choose from. ‘Can get tired of the same faces,’ said a parent. Posters in junior school extol pupils to ‘tell how you feel, tell a teacher, tell a friend’ while effective house system (juniors and seniors have their own) has inner layer – smaller group of 15 ‘families’. 

Staff (particularly in senior school) recognise mental health issues as big (and daunting) responsibility. Teachers with their own daughters there (fair few) felt school’s efforts – peer listening, links to Young Minds and close dialogue between parents and staff all help. ‘No school will say it has no problems and would be lying if they did but staff and girls care and are looking out for you,’ said one member of staff. Eating disorders - ‘heart-wrenching,’ says head – supported in whatever way is best – often staged return when pupil is ready. ‘Very flexible.’

Pupils and parents
Many current parents work, majority from Croydon, others as far away as Caterham, Oxted and Dulwich. ‘We are not just a local school,’ stresses head. Minibuses are a useful addition to trains and trams – nearest stops a slight hike away. Around half from minority ethnic backgrounds - British, European, Pakistani, Indian, African, Caribbean, mixed background, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Turkish and Asian – languages (Tamil, Farsi, Swahili among them) equally varied. EAL support is provided where needed. 

PTA’s sense of mission is to forge ever closer links between senior and junior parents. Not everyone is keen on this - we heard tell of small element who feel responsibility ends with setting up of fees on direct debit – but we’d suspect are a small and rapidly dwindling band given sense of purposeful accomplishment that dominates life here. 

Alumni include obstetrician Wendy Savage, novelist and commentator Jill Tweedie and - best known of the lot – much missed cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

Entrance
Main entry points (juniors) are nursery, reception and year 3. In year 7, half the intake is from own juniors, half from over 20 local primaries and preps. Additional places in year 9 and sixth form, though a steady trickle outside these. Non-refundable registration fee, deposit on acceptance of place. Overseas applications welcomed, Chinese students in particular (accommodation/guardian must be arranged separately). Head impressively addresses them in – we assume – Mandarin on the website, where the final page of international section is also printed upside down (either layout glitch or appeal to Antipodean market). 

Assessments at every stage. For nursery, 45 minutes of structured play (informal, can’t be prepared for) under watchful eye of the head. Designed to make sure pace won’t be a problem and ‘don’t turn many away,’ says school. Five mornings from the off, full time attendance the goal for all. 

Proportionately longer assessments further up the school. Reception – an hour in small groups - picture matching and sorting objects, co-operation and good use of spoken language. Seniors tested in maths, English (writing, reading, VR) plus interview and reference (look for approximate minimum score of 105 in year 7 but often much higher – some siblings may not make it). Limited sample papers – year 7 only available on line. At sixth form, external candidates will need minimum of six GCSE passes at grade B or numerical equivalent, depending on A level choices. 

Academic scholarships (year 7) based on entrance exam performance and interview. No percentages given but think small - it’s all about the honour. School’s own juniors (who otherwise have automatic entry) must sit exams to be considered. Art and design, drama, music (minimum grade 4 in at least one instrument but usually much higher) and sport (outstanding in at least one area). 

Similar range in years 9 and sixth form, where also offers Jacqueline Du Pré scholarship (music), and – unusually - for year 13, Jenny Park Award (English and the arts ). Additional awards in range of subjects.

Exit
Expectation is that vast majority of juniors will continue into year 7. Discussions from year 5 focusing on how transition might be accomplished with additional support rather than giving notice to quit. 

For seniors, a very few depart post-16 (mostly to local co-eds) and though school reserves right to ask pupils to leave at the end of year 11 or year 12, in practice it doesn’t happen without much prior discussion. ‘Not about saying you’re not welcome but asking if three A levels are the right profile,’ says head. Unscheduled departures for other reasons very rare. Sixth form numbers will be boosted as numbers rise through the school – and three form year groups become the norm once more (2008 recession hit hard). University destinations included three Oxbridge places in 2016 and three medics. Range of courses – accountancy apprenticeship to zoology. Similar range of unis – Durham, York, Exeter, Bristol all feature.

Money matters
Bursaries, some via GDST for years 7 and 9, two sponsored by HSBC for state school sixth form candidates, available. May be more help for deserving leavers.

Our view
‘They’re so happy there – and that’s all I ever wanted, to have a lovely environment where they didn’t feel threatened and teachers are more like their friends,’ said junior parent.


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