The Good Schools Guide Review - Senior & Junior Girls' Schools

The Good Schools Guide Review - Senior & Junior Girls' Schools

Head

Jo Anderson BA (modern languages, University of Leeds), PGCE, M Ed (secondary curriculum leadership) became head of the senior girls school in 2015, then principal in 2016, making her responsible for the strategic planning for the entire family of Bury Grammar schools (boys, girls, both junior and senior). Previously she worked at Stockport Grammar, Manchester Grammar, Queens Chester, latterly as head of the girls’ division in King’s School Macclesfield. It is a trajectory which has seen her teach across the entire age range of 5-18, and across both genders.

Thoughtful and insightful in all her responses, as well as easy to talk to, she exudes a quiet (and indeed elegant) efficiency under which almost certainly lurks much inner tungsten. Over the last year, she has implemented much change across this family of schools (‘seismic’ was a term used more than once during our visit), having initiated a top-to-bottom curriculum review across senior and junior divisions and overseen a couple of changes in senior positions. Prior to her appointment, though the schools carried the same branded signs and were only a stone’s throw from each other, the boys’ and girls’ schools pretty much operated as separate entities. Now, in essence, the Bury schools have something similar to an all-through diamond structure. (Girls and boys are mixed at infants, single sex from junior through to senior, with both genders joining again at sixth form). The sixth form has, in practice, been mixed for some time but will be ‘officially so’ from September 18.

As Mrs Anderson puts it, pupils now have twice as many opportunities going for them. On a basic level this means pupils applying for medicine, for example, can talk to heads of science on both sides of the road. And while both genders have the space to learn separately with no distractions, they do all their extra-curricular activities together, share clubs and trips and so by the time they hit sixth form, they are ready to mix just as they would at University.

It may have all been ‘seismic’ but the changes seem to be paying dividends; the number of external pupils due to join in 2018 at 11+ is up more than 40 per cent across both Schools. No mean feat when you factor in that the pass mark for the entrance exam was raised, making the school more academically selective and bearing in mind this is not a wealthy area of the north overall.

Chrissy Howard (MCIPS Salford University and PGCE), head of the infants and girls’ junior school since January 2018 (she has been with Bury for 13 years; first with Bury Boys’ Junior where she became assistant head, then moving to the girls in 2017) is very approachable and clearly lovely with the girls. One expects heads to have every detail at their fingertips but she really did, all with an understated efficiency. She understands how crucial it is for girls to have an environment where they can question and explore and, as such, has driven the new outdoors aspect to the curriculum, allowing the girls to problem-solve in fresh air while getting down with nature…and perhaps a little bit muddy too.

Academic Matters

The co-ed infant school, ages 4-7 (there is also a pre-school from age 3) has a play-based approach to learning, small class sizes and an atmosphere of irrepressible cheeriness. A broad curriculum including science, geography, thinking skills, as well as the core subjects, means a nice balance between learning and enjoyment. The classrooms are beautifully and imaginatively decorated, a huge 3-D cardboard tree in reception reflecting changes in the seasons. There is specialist teaching for sports and music (use of the school swimming pool too).

In the junior school, the broad curriculum continues. Following the curriculum review, a new humanities programme is in place and Latin has been added to year 6, alongside the other languages on offer (although the school is currently still debating whether language tasters or a solid grounding in one would be best). IT is integral to teaching and also as a standalone. Outdoor education was introduced from summer 18 term.

Teaching in class is differentiated, Mrs Howard says, and interventions speedy where an extra bit of support is needed across spelling or maths. A SEN teacher will write personal pupil support programmes when required. Booster groups, with positive titles like ‘magical maths’, are another form of support. Lots of assessments and targets to ensure all pupils are up to scratch for the transition to the senior school; gaps are analysed and Mrs Howard says teachers bridge any gap through personalised learning.

In the senior school, class sizes are around 22. A wide curriculum prevails in year 7 and following the curriculum review, the study of three languages has been implemented in both schools. (Any outdated subject divisions (and there were a few) – such as food tech for the girls and CDT for the boys – has, happily, been scrapped. Both schools now offer both to each gender).

Following the changes in both GCSE and A’ level exams, the school now steer pupils to sitting 9 GCSEs and 3 A’ levels. Students are also to receive extra teaching time (year 12, I hour 30 per subject per fortnight). Over the three year GCSE course, students will have an extra 20 minutes a fortnight.

EPQ is offered to all students. (The HPQ, which also counts as a GCSE, is being introduced at GSCE stage).

Half termly assessment is key to see who needs support to achieve their potential or who could stretch to more. Mrs Anderson says they also look at the pupil holistically; at class feedback and any pastoral issues. There are drop in sessions near exams for anyone needing extra help. Parents attest to girls being encouraged to aim high but never being pressured.

A full time SENCO, who is also able to do assessments, works across both boys’ and girls’ schools. Mrs Anderson stresses all staff are trained to look out for the subtle signs. She feels passionate about this area, says there is no reason why a learning barrier means a pupil can’t achieve great things. All SEN pupils also meet once a week with a SEN assistant to identify any areas of difficulty, such as organization. There is more value added, head says, with SEN students than with others.

The girls’ school still operates mainly to the GCSE syllabuses (boys to International GSCE) but this is not cast in stone, Mrs Anderson says. GCSE results were very strong in 2017; 65 per cent A/A*. Particular strengths, English, maths, drama, triple science and humanities. Mrs Anderson says although they never print this on their marketing material, their ‘value added’ is something of which they are very proud. At GCSE, students routinely add a half or full grade above their ability.

A’ level results in 2017 were less impressive with 28 per cent A/A* (national average is 26 per cent). 64 per cent got A*-B). However, context might be all here; the data tracking (cognitive testing) done on students throughout their school years indicated only 8 per cent of girls could be expected to achieve A*/A at A Level in 2017. So while the published figures don’t look amazing, the substantial value add to students is notable. Those subjects which fared best were business, theatre studies, English literature, religious studies and politics.

It’s also worth adding that as a result of the curriculum review, the school is focussed on strengthening scholarship and so raising academic standards. Initiatives like the additional lesson time at A’ level, a new competitive course preparation programme are, Mrs Anderson says, all about achieving that (and looking long term, there is the raised pass mark for the entrance exam too).

Games, Options, the arts

Junior school library displays showed a regular stream of visiting authors. At the time of our visit, there was much excitement about Kate Pankhurst, author of ‘Great Women Who Changed the World’, who was due to arrive the following day. The year 6 girls who showed us round were fully conversant with all these great women, from Marie Curie to Rosa Parks (Mrs Howard told us the boys had also been studying this).

Clubs are numerous and wide-ranging from coding to puzzles to the ukulele. Those that used to only be open to the boys – fencing and climbing – are now open to girls also. The engineering club had a huge display in the hallway (their entry to a competition run by Manchester University) and the girls chatted enthusiastically about it…and also fizzed about school trips and participating in the local music festival. Additionally, they hosted and performed in the AJIS Music Festival (where ten schools perform).

Sport is strong and also excited pupils; it is frequently played out on a big canvass with juniors taking part in the Manchester Youth athletics or the Netball Association matches. Netball, tennis, hockey and swimming are the key pursuits.

Lots of joint activities with the boys, like a disco and annual cinema trip. They do not compete but are invited across to see each other’s annual art exhibition and verse speaking competitions.

Year 6 girls look after the school council and take it very seriously; at the time of our visit they were lobbying for a different sort of school bag to mark out their senior status.

At the senior school, there is a glossy drama department with big productions like Little Shop of Horrors, Annie, Beauty and the Beast. ‘You forget you are watching children’ one parent said. Music is popular with numerous chances to perform in choirs, orchestras and bands and, on a wider stage, in the Ramsbottom Festival.

With great facilities on a huge campus, sport is encouraged, the usual ones being netball, hockey, tennis, rounders, athletics and now more off-beat sports, like fencing and girls’ football. Many pupils are part of regional and national teams.

CCF is huge (the Bury School CCF being the oldest in the country) and recently extended so that is now on offer to girls in years 9, 10, 11. Duke of Edinburgh from year 9 upwards.

There are frequent residential trips, such as Adventure Days in year 7 and later even more adventurous trips linked to the curriculum, perhaps to study the Holocaust or a classics trip to Italy.

Clubs are wide ranging– 50 at the last count - running the gamut from ‘apps for good’, Irish Dancing, sign language, conflict simulation, science in focus, philosophy and film.

The sixth form pupil showing us round indicated a school-wide appetite for debate, enthusing about assemblies where ‘TED-style’ talks had started up around topics like space exploration. The responsibility for the talks had all been handed to the sixth form (the marketing, intro, press release and review). It is clearly a vibrant environment; in an assembly around International World Women’s Day, the headmaster of the boys declared himself a feminist, prompting all the staff to come out, spontaneously, as feminists, provoking much chat around what feminism means today. It resulted in some fantastic #pledges to support a more equal society, (more boys than girls showed up with pledges).

This school, with the many changes it has undergone, is gearing up for the modern age. Pupils said they felt they really had a voice and were listened to, especially the sixth form. Assemblies end often with the same message: we’re interested in your views, do you agree or disagree? Sixth formers often follow up, says head. There are also mock elections, debate clubs, Rhys Davies Mock Trials, all nurturing that extra spark.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1570, the school was originally only open to boys from poorer families. It was re-founded by Reverend Roger Kay in 1726 (a former pupil). Thereafter, Bury High School for girls opened in 1884. In 1906, the girls’ school moved to its current site (the boys’ school on the site had opened in 1903). The vast Buckley Wells playing fields were acquired in 1924.

Today, the girls’ school is still on the site of the original boys’ school but the boys have moved across the road (a new modern boys’ senior school was opened in 1966.) The building, as you’d expect, has the look and feel of an old grammar, especially in the beautiful old Roger Kay Hall. The relatively new arts centre (the school won a fund raising award for its ingenuity) is a wonderful space for sixth formers to work, faint strains of music filtering from the music department. Great common room too and coffee place with a relaxed grown up vibe.

The girls’ junior opened in 1997, next to the girls senior. Pre-school and infants followed in 2008. The junior school, modern and airy with lovely reading areas strewn with cushions. A light octagonal hall, little gym (they also use the senior school sports hall). Classrooms all with interactive whiteboards. Lots to stimulate, a Secret Garden theme around the library and super corridor displays; we particularly liked one on a fictitious Museum of Fun, a utopia of attractions galore, all for free – and very panglossian.

The family of schools is now an all singing all dancing 45 acre campus (25 acres of which is a short walk down the road), with swimming pool, sports halls, multi-playing surfaces, sports courts and playing fields.

An ex-head girl showed us round the school and while there was a faint whiff (in the best possible way) of ‘give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life’, her enthusiasm about her experiences at school was evident and life-defining. She is not alone; Bury may not be on the global map but its alumni has its share of razzle dazzle, listing Victoria Wood, presenter Victoria Derbyshire, actress Kate O’Flynn and TV producer Nicola Shindler.

Pastoral care, wellbeing and discipline

In the junior school, Mrs Howard fully recognises that young girls can be sensitized to what others think of them so there is a lot of education around being considerate. Mobile phones are locked away and online education is considered crucial. There are buddy groups and the playground is full of activities, should a girl find herself on her own for 5 minutes (which Mrs Howard knows feels like hours in child-time). Parents say that if they have ever sensed problems, a quiet word with the teacher is all it takes, the problem ‘goes away’ and the children come home happy. ‘It’s just dealt with’.

At the senior school, a culture of openness is encouraged. After the 2017 Manchester terrorist attack, where certain pupils were present, there were open discussions around how society could pull together more, how to combat terrorism and start fundraising. They are, Mrs Anderson says ‘really lovely students’.

There is a very strong pastoral team and heaps of assemblies on wellbeing, resilience and failure as a learning tool. No mobile phones at school and teachers are alert to wellbeing issues – there is ‘constant monitoring’ Mrs Anderson says. One parent whose child, for personal reasons, needed that extra bit of care at school said the school were always ‘spot on’ in their judgement calls, could identify any problems and stop them from escalating. There is also a school health team and counsellor.

Pupils and parents

The pull is wide, chiefly from the northern parts of Manchester, Salford, Rochdale, Oldham, some from Bolton. These areas have very poor parts within them so parents and pupils tend to be very socially aware and religious tolerance is a given.

Junior school parents are described as supportive and active. Comms are in the process of being improved (emails and texts). Half term assessments and grades shared with parents. There are parents’ forums and coffee and cake sessions. Most significantly, Mrs Howard says parents are on board with the changes rolled out.

In the senior school, Mrs Anderson says parents are a ‘really friendly’ group and fully appreciate what the school is seeking to do. There is a parent forum and many act as ambassadors to the school.

Entry

Entry into infants is by observation in reception, in years one and two by spending half a day. Junior school is a two class entry to a maximum of 40 (15 or 20 per class). Entry is via an assessment day, a short interview, reading comprehension and maths assessment. The school, however, is looking for intellectual curiosity and a lot of that is gauged around observation and conversation. (Those moving from a previous school will need to provide references).

Any pupil joining the junior school prior to year 5 has automatic entrance to the senior school. Virtually all stay on. It is a very rare that it is felt a pupil will fare better in a different school. The transition is eased via ‘experience days’ blending external and internal candidates together.

External candidates now sit papers in maths, English and verbal reasoning. As of 2018, the decision has been taken to ‘up the pass mark’. 120 extra pupils enter the school, 70 per cent from primaries, 30 per cent from preps. In 2018, there will be more external candidates than internal.

Exit

Virtually all junior school children go on to the senior school.

In 2017, 55 per cent of pupils from the senior school went on to Russell Group universities, most opted for universities in the north and midlands. Humanities seemed popular, a few for science (none for medicine).

Oxbridge candidates have not fared so well over the last year or two (though prior to that, there was a trickle) but this may change; Mrs Anderson says they are introducing Oxbridge lessons, alongside other support.

Money Matters

Fees in line with those of other schools in the area.

Plenty of means tested bursaries and there is also a drive towards increasing scholarships across a range of areas.

Comment

A vibrant school, offering a fantastic array of extra-curricular and enrichment activities. Currently delivering good, solid academic results, especially around value-added to pupils. A school leading from the front in its emphasis on gender equality and nurturing mutual respect. A positive, uplifting environment for girls.