The Good Schools Guide review - Boys' Junior & Senior Schools

The Good Schools Guide review - Boys' Junior & Senior Schools

Head

Jo Anderson BA (modern languages; University of Leeds), PGCE, MEd (secondary curriculum leadership) became head of the senior girls school in 2015, then principal in 2016. She is now responsible for the strategic planning for the future of the entire family of the Bury Grammar Schools (boys’ and girls’, both junior and senior.  (Previously she worked at Stockport Grammar, Manchester Grammar, Queens Chester, latterly head of the girls’ division in Kings School Macclesfield and has worked across all age ranges and both genders).

Thoughtful and insightful in all her responses, very easy to talk to, she exudes a quiet efficiency under which almost certainly lurks much inner tungsten. Over the last year, she has implemented a great deal of change (‘seismic’ was a descriptive term used more than once during our visit), having initiated a far-reaching curriculum review across both senior and junior schools and overseen a couple of changes in senior positions. Prior to her appointment, though the boys’ and girls’ schools carried the same branding and were only a stone’s throw from each other, they pretty much operated as separate entities. This is no longer the case; in effect, there is now 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 2018). Mrs Anderson says pupils will now have twice as many opportunities going for them. And while both genders have the space to learn with no distractions or barriers, they get to do all their extra-curricular activities together. By the time they hit sixth form, they are ready to mix just as they would at university.

The changes seem to be paying dividends as the number of pupils entering in September 2018 at 11+ is up more than 40 per cent across both schools.

Devin Cassidy BSc (Hons) (Chemistry, University of Wales, Bangor), PGCE is Headmaster of the boys’ Senior School and Junior School. He has been at Bury since 1999, becoming deputy head, then head in 2017 (prior to that, Eirias High School, North Wales). He comes across as grounded and calm, qualities he may well have needed during this period of change for the schools. While aware that educating the boys in a single sex environment means they are not inhibited, he is very much in tune with the times; on International Women’s Day, he happily declared himself a ‘feminist’ in assembly, prompting a number of the staff to ‘come out’ as feminists themselves. It resulted in some fantastic pledges from the boys to support a more equal society. This is a boys’, not a lads’, school, Mr Cassidy says.  A sentiment reiterated within the school magazine in which he expressed his wish for the boys to be ‘grounded, articulate, intelligent and kind’. He recognises the social temperature has changed a great deal with movements like Times Up and is clear schools have a responsibility ‘to stand up as educators and lead the way’, ‘be the moral compasses’. Likewise, he refers to the school’s keenness on bursaries and emphasizes the school takes great care to monitor boys receiving those bursaries, to make sure they are looked after. Integration needs to be carefully handled, he says.

Since 2015, head of junior boys’ is Matt Turner (BSc Hons, University of Wolverhampton) - prior to that he was at Cheadle Hulme Junior School – whose great energy and enthusiasm is infectious; in fact a passion for teaching seems to flow from every pore. Mr Turner encourages an interactive learning style within the school and is keen on child-led learning, suggesting the staff need to be brave and flexible, let the children pursue off-curriculum questions, nurture their intellectual curiosity.  As with Mr Cassidy, he feels that single-sex education gives the boys space to ‘blow off steam’ but welcomes the fact that following the curriculum review, ‘nothing is off the table’ anymore , equal opportunities for both genders prevail (this rhetoric is something of a theme across this family of schools). He works closely with the head of the junior girls, sharing topics such as the ‘Great Women Who Changed the World’ book by Kate Pankhurst (doing the rounds in junior schools across the country). Parents say he has breathed new life into the school, ‘loves his job’ and has a genuinely open door policy, being keen that the relationship between parents and school is as good as it can be. A drama teacher, he still teaches and gets to know every boy in the school.

Academic Matters

The co-ed infant school, ages 4-7 (there is a pre-school from 2) has a play-based approach to learning, small class sizes and an atmosphere of irrepressible cheeriness. A broad curriculum includes science, geography, thinking skills, as well as the core subjects which 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 (and use of the school swimming pool too).

In the junior school, the broad curriculum continues. Following the curriculum review, Latin has been added to years 5 and 6 (alongside the other languages on offer). Mr Turner is a fan of cross-curricular themes, the Egyptians not just being for history but geography and art too. Teaching in class is differentiated with lots of assessments and targets and Mr Turner says they push the core subjects. The maths teaching, he feels, is especially strong. With pupils who are veering ahead, he says they push for mastery, not necessarily to stray into next year’s curriculum but for wider knowledge and skills. Two enthusiastic boys showed us round the school, pointing out their favourite parts; the science lab (which revealed an interesting project on genes) and the lovely art space (the boys’ favourite) housed an eco-village, along with marble runs made of wood, plus an interesting display of clay shoes. Lots of corridor displays give it a cheery feel. A rather impressive ensemble of the boys’ take on Monet’s bridge caught the eye.

In the senior school, year 7 follows a broad curriculum. Following the curriculum review, there have been certain changes (the study of three languages has been implemented) and for the first time drama is to be offered to the boys. GCSE study is now for three years; Mr Cassidy says they want to go slower and deeper. This has meant dropping one or two subjects; one parent lamented that GCSE PE had been dropped. 

Mr Cassidy is very tuned in to the emphasis exam boards now place on unseen material and is keen to develop pupils’ higher order thinking skills.  The boys still operate mainly to IGSCE but this is not cast in stone. GSCE results in 2017 were strong 44 per cent of grades were A*/A.
 A’ level results were very good, 45 per cent of grades were A*/A (71 per cent A*-B). Strong subjects were chemistry, biology, economics, maths and geography.

Following on from the curriculum review, GCSE and A’ level students are to receive extra teaching time (year 12, I hour 30 per subject per fortnight). The school now steers pupils to 9 GCSEs and 3 A’ levels.

EPQ is offered to all students. (The HPQ is also being introduced at GCSE).

Half termly assessment is key; based on this, they can see who might need support to achieve their potential or stretch to more. One parent told us there was a genuine endeavour to deliver personalised learning, referring to the practical lesson tweaks so her child could learn more easily. There are drop-in clinics and parents say the teaching is ‘second to none’ with lots of extra revision sessions after school and on a Saturday around exams.

There is a full time SENCO who is also able to do all assessments where a teacher might have a concern (though some pupils arrive with a report or an assessment). All pupils also meet once a week with a SEN assistant to identify any areas of difficulty, such as organization.
Games, Options, the arts

In the junior school, there are a variety of clubs from gardening to origami or scratch coding. Clubs that used to only be open to the boys are now open to both genders, such as climbing. Many activities like swimming or the annual cinema trip are also joint with the girls’. One parent praised the residential trips (which kick off in year 4) to places like York or Edale (the latter is all zip wires and fire-building), saying the change in the children, the growth of independence, was marked. There are numerous competitions, both external and internal, from Shakespearean verse speaking, Young Mathematicians and a region-wide general knowledge quiz. Sport is important and includes all the usual suspects, football, rugby, cross-country, athletics, cricket and hockey. Music is strong with orchestras and bands; the school’s entry into the annual Ramsbottom Festival usually results in a trophy or two for the choir.

In the senior school, there is vast range of clubs, including some quirky ones, ‘apps for good’, Mandarin, sign language, conflict simulation. Lots of competitions, such as the Crest Chemistry Award or maths’ challenge or latin-speaking. Some interesting opportunities too; the school sends a team to BBC’s media City to watch a programme being made (the rest of the year group remaining in school as a ‘news team’ for the day). Trips are wide ranging; classics trips to Italy, an annual trip to the First World War Battlefields (Bury school lost many boys during the war and this is remembered every year), and to some far flung places like Nicaragua.

The vibrant drama department garnered much parental praise and runs with big productions like Little Shop of Horrors or Les Miserables. All very professional.

Sport, at all levels, is dominant and those on offer are the same as the junior school plus extras like basketball and badminton, all with lots of competitions, some international. Students also fundraise to go on international tours.

CCF is huge in the Bury schools (one of the oldest in the country). Parents felt the resilience acquired from the ‘fall down, dust yourself off, learn and move on’ mentality was invaluable. Duke of Edinburgh is on offer from year 9 upwards.

There is a steady stream of speakers to the sixth form, some from nearby Manchester University. Others, big names in their field, like Professor Michael Wood. There are also more practical work-related visits, such as a trip to the offices of Grant Thornton. One thing became apparent talking to the pupils (of both genders) at this school; they all had a sense that debate, open discussion and experimenting with ideas is an important part of life. A sixth former referred with enthusiasm to assemblies where ‘TED-style’ talks had started on topics like space exploration, inventions. The responsibility for these talks has been handed to the sixth form who must do the introduction, marketing, write the press release and review afterwards.  There are also mock elections, debate clubs, Rhys Davies mock Trials, all nurturing that extra spark.

Background and atmosphere

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

A new modern boys’ senior school (on the same campus) opened in 1966. From the outside, it is a fairly unprepossessing, all a bit Grange Hill. Inside, though, there are wall displays everywhere and sense of industriousness.

The boys’ junior school is housed in the old (and former) Court and Police Station and opened in 1993 (Pre-school and infants’ building followed in 2008). The school still retains the original cells, much to the delight of the boys, albeit going under the less exciting guise of music rooms.
Today, the schools are part of 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.

Pastoral care, wellbeing and discipline

In the junior school, leadership is ‘really pushed’ Mr Turner says, referring to the boys’ huge pride if they became house captains. There is, he says, an ethos of responsibility. When a boy slips up, they get issued a code of conduct, a list of positive behaviours. We asked the boys showing us round whether they had ever been issued one and there was an element of palpable relief to their: no but we know boys who have. They knew the code well.  There is also a buddy system and ‘boys of the week’ awards to reward and motivate.

In the senior school, Mr Cassidy considers pastoral to be very strong, saying the staff know the boys very well. Parents agree and describe it like family. Mr Cassidy alludes to the importance of extra-curricular in the pastoral, in sport, challenge, keeping the boys all busy. There is also the school health team, nurse and a counsellor for deeper issues.

Pupils and parents

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

Mr Cassidy said one of the aspects which first drew him to the school was the lack of any discernible arrogance in the boys. We would concur. The ones we met were down to earth, nurturing ambition but with no sense of entitlement. They seemed prepared to graft.

There is a parents’ forum across the boys and girls and many parent ambassadors.  The parents we spoke to were very much on board with the changes, especially the mixed sixth form (though all said they really valued the separate teaching of each gender, prior to sixth form).

Entry

Entry into infants is by observation in reception and 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) where pupils spend an assessment day (a short interview, a reading comprehension and maths assessment). It’s not just about testing though, the school 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. Transition is easier, knowing this but there are ‘experience days’ blending external and internal candidates together. Parents say the transition is handled incredibly well; the taster days and intros start early in year 6 so it is a very smooth passage.

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 come from primaries, 30 per cent from preps.

Exit

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

Around 61 per cent of the boys go to Russell Group universities (mainly northern or midland universities, though some to London). Most study humanities, politics, computer science, business (a couple English). Two went on to medicine and a handful for engineering.

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

Money matters

A lot more emphasis is being put on scholarships and the school is keen on means tested bursaries. Mr Cassidy says they visit the families of the latter and have deep understanding of their needs.
 
Comment

A vibrant school offering a fantastic array of extra-curricular and enrichment activities, as well as delivering excellent academic results. A school leading from the front in educating boys in tune with modern times. A boys not a ‘lads’ school.