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[The Head]... Radiates energy, directness and humour. ‘The girls really love her,’ said a mum. ‘She’s right in there with them.’ Could be the most capable head this reviewer has interviewed in over 20 years of visiting schools for the GSG. Should be minister for education.
If we had a fiver for every school that describes itself as ‘highly academic but not a hot house’, we could retire early. But here it’s really true! School has courageously taken the decision that girls take nine GCSEs (10 if they add further maths or Greek). This leaves room for a mind-broadening unexamined politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) course in year 10 that should be a model for other schools.
Pastoral care is outstanding and was mentioned by several parents as a deciding factor in choosing the school.
In summary: Strong leadership + bright girls + fabulous new facilities + uncompromising academics + laughter = a successful 21st century girls’ school. Always hot. Never a hothouse.
You can read the full review via the links below.
Since September 2020, Fionnuala Kennedy (40s). Educated at Prior Park College, then read English language and literature at Exeter College Oxford. Worked in publishing before moving into teaching at Royal Hospital School Holbrook, where she worked her way up to deputy housemistress and then head of middle school, later joining Woldingham School as head of sixth form. Was deputy head (pastoral) and then senior deputy head at Wimbledon High School (WHS) for five years before seamlessly taking up the head’s baton.
Unusually, for the head of a thriving school, she maintains a wide range of interests outside the classroom. Was a choral scholar at Oxford and still loves choral singing – ‘There’s a magic to music-making. The shared endeavor gives you a sense of flow that just can’t be replicated online.’ Big fan of stand up comedy stemming from her university days. Has introduced an open mic comedy night at WHS – ‘It’s great for confidence and for gaining perspective. We want to get this generation to laugh a bit more, to appreciate the ridiculous. To take oneself seriously while holding oneself lightly is one of the great life skills.’ Takes part in Pilates classes given by an old school friend — on Zoom in lockdown. Voracious reader (‘I was one of those girls who hoovered up books’).
But any guesses as to the true passion of this poised and accomplished head? It’s cricket, which she describes as ‘the love of my life’. ‘I grew up in a cricket-mad household’, she adds by way of explanation. Has been building up the cricket programme at WHS with new cricket facilities installed at the school’s games fields at Nursery Road. ‘It’s a strategic game, so really appeals to our girls.’ The school had its first fixtures in 2019, was named in The Cricketer’s top 20 girls’ schools for cricket, and a girl cricketer features on the school’s website home page.
Radiates energy, directness and humour. ‘The girls really love her,’ said a mum. ‘She’s right in there with them.’ Could be the most capable head this reviewer has interviewed in over 20 years of visiting schools for the GSG. Should be minister for education.
Selective at 11+, tests in VR and NVR for all candidates. Second stage for those who reach required standard is creative assessment day with group activities to test problem solving and teamwork skills. An interview with the head may follow. Offers made at beginning of February. Covid compelled the use of the online ISEB test in 2021 (and might again in 2022) but the reasoning aspects of the exam were weighted and creative assessments were held online in small groups.
At 16+, register April through 15 October for entry the following September. Candidates will be assessed in November on VR and their three chosen A level subjects, plus interview. GCSE grades 8 or 9 required for the subjects to be studied at A level, and entrants are expected to have a minimum of eight 6s at GCSE. Those wishing to study art, music or drama are interviewed by head of department and are asked to provide portfolio work or audition pieces.
Around 15-20 per cent leaves after GCSEs, often to co-eds such as King’s College Wimbledon and Westminster which only accept girls in sixth form, or to boarding schools. Plenty of strong candidates are champing at the bit to take their places. No weirdness about looking around for 16+, indeed Ms Kennedy encourages girls to consider other schools – ‘We want them to see how strong our sixth form offering really is’. Provision will be even sharper once the new sixth form centre is open with its gym, cafe and other delights.
After A levels, most to other Russell Group universities. Bristol, Durham, Exeter and Bath all popular. Three to Oxbridge, plus seven medics in 2021. According to parents, the advice and guidance they are given about courses to follow and choice of university is second to none. Nearly all get to where they want to go.
In 2021, 99 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 94 per cent A*/A at A level. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 91 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 71 per cent A*/A at A level.
Teaching and learning
If we had a fiver for every school that describes itself as ‘highly academic but not a hot house’, we could retire early. But here it’s really true! School has courageously taken the decision that girls take nine GCSEs (10 if they add further maths or Greek). This leaves room for a mind-broadening unexamined politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) course in year 10 that should be a model for other schools. Modern languages a particular strength, with Spanish, French, German and Mandarin all offered at GCSE, plus loads of girls doing an exam in their family tongue eg Arabic, Polish, Italian, Russian, Japanese, modern Greek. Otherwise, a pretty standard slate of blue chip academic subjects.
School has undertaken a ‘wholesale review of how we teach A level’ and is to introduce more uni-style tutorials and challenging lectures. Exam results are always fabulous, all subjects. Parents say English, humanities, classics and languages are the stand-outs — let’s see if the increased emphasis on STEAM, especially DT and engineering, broadens this. Music an unusually popular A level choice in comparison to most schools.
In common with most high-octane London schools, parents can be a competitive bunch, with great expectations and night sweats about whether their daughters are ‘sufficiently pushed’ — mental health be damned! Some told us that they would like to have a better idea of how their girls’ achievement compares to others in their class, but this isn’t going to happen. ‘Girls don’t need another stick with which to beat themselves,’ says the head. ‘Constant comparison is incredibly corrosive — they get enough of that on social media’. And what a waste of time – ‘We don’t believe in focusing staff’s energy on constant assessments rather than teaching.’ The same goes for setting – WHS sets only in maths (from autumn half term in year 7) though very able girls can be given extension material. ‘We’re a top ten school!’ explains Ms Kennedy. ‘That’s the context. We differentiate, we don’t set.’
Parents heaped praise on the school’s lock-down provision: ‘they went from zero to 100 immediately. It helped that the school community was already tuned in to online learning.’
Learning support and SEN
An area of growth and innovation, with a neurodiversity assistant now joining the SENCo. The school is well aware that capable and high achieving children can often mask their need for support, so it must be vigilant. Has had assemblies run by girls eg on the autistic spectrum — the aim is to celebrate differences, not to hide or stigmatise. Sixth form subject leaders help teachers lead and deliver the subjects of their passion.
The arts and extracurricular
Music is a huge strength here. ‘In the junior school anyone can play in the orchestra; it’s different in the senior school,’ said a parent. ‘In the senior there are auditions, rigour and discipline.’ Some 75 per cent of senior school have individual music tuition. Several girls reach grade 8 in their choice of instrument and even beyond. That said, there’s plenty of inclusivity and lots going on, not just classical eg ‘Friday Jamming’. The Cadogan Hall concert each spring and Nine Lessons and Carols at Christmas are particular highlights. Would like to increase choral music, perhaps increasing collaboration with the wider community. Plays, musicals, plenty of dramatic opportunities for everyone, on and off stage. The newish Rutherford Centre, named after Old Girl Margaret Rutherford, is a great facility for all the performing arts. Sixth form drama students are now regulars at the Edinburgh Festival. Art will be based at the top of the STEAM Tower from 2022, symbolic of its rightful place at the heart of STEM. ‘We don’t want girls to think you’re either arty or you’re into science, as if they’re mutually exclusive — what a load of rubbish’.
Clubs galore – the list is endless and imaginative, from art to biomedicine, debating to DofE, scribbling to engineering and many more. Keen for the girls to compete with male peers when it comes to tech – gaming, coding and shaping technology. A busy, buzzy school where idling is not encouraged and plenty of time is given to co-curricular activities.
There’s been a big push on sport over recent years, with terrific results. Upped the coaching staff from six teachers, when Ms Kennedy arrived, to 30+ teachers and coaches now. Sport is compulsory all the way through sixth form. A fantastic swimming pool and large sports hall sit in the grounds, alongside great games facilities 10 minutes' walk away in Nursery Road on the site of the old All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
They are rightly proud of their swimmers who include county and regional prize winners; their netball teams, currently county champions; their hockey players; cricketers and tennis players; and recently, their star rowers – J14s won silver at 2019 Nationals (rowing is coached by a former Olympian). Judo, equestrian, cross country and fencing have also produced winners and there is the annual ski Racing to Flaine and a regular tennis tour to Portugal. So, a great range of sporting opportunities, and the school is now able to attract some seriously sporty girls. Of course, they are also proud to ballgirl at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships every year.
Ethos and heritage
This GDST school had its 140th birthday in 2020. Once upon a time may have been perceived as the slightly reserved auntie of more sophisticated London girls’ schools like St Paul’s, Godolphin and Latymer, and JAGS, but no longer. Expansion under the previous head took the 4-18 school roll over 1000, to the point that the school was bursting at the seams. Enter Project Ex Humilibus which is addressing the practical sides of this expansion: more lockers, an auditorium and spanking new dining provision. It’s also transforming the school’s top end by providing a swish new sixth from centre with cafe and gym. The centerpiece of the building programme is the drolly named STEAM Tower (There’s no steam! There’s no tower!). New classrooms may allow slightly smaller classes in years 7-9 (currently up to a whopping 28 pupils).
Our previous reviews referred to WHS as ‘hidden away’ and ‘a surprise’, but no longer – the building programme will be excavating an entrance smack onto Wimbledon Hill Road. Facilities, lectures and events will be increasingly available to the local community. Teachers will no longer be able to rush from car to classroom – the school is living its eco-friendly principles by tearing up the teachers’ parking lot in favour of trees, greenery and a bit of tranquility. Wimbledon’s extensive rail, tube, light rail and bus hub is a handy five minutes’ walk away.
The senior school has a different feel to the junior school which enlivens the experience of moving up, say the girls we spoke to – ‘It’s like the continuing girls and the new girls are all starting fresh together.’ Parents describe the school staff as ‘approachable, helpful, accommodating, not up-tight, open for conversation’. The girls are allowed to wear their own clothes from the Easter of year 11 onwards.
Notable former pupils include Rosie Millard (journalist and broadcaster), Samira Ahmed (news presenter), Professor Marilyn Butler (first female rector of Exeter College), Michelle Paver (author of Chronicles of Ancient Darkness), K M Peyton (author of Flambards series), Eboni Beckford Chambers (played netball for England), Amara Karan (played hot totty Peaches in St Trinian’s) and, perhaps most thrilling of all, Lara Croft — famed British archaeologist and treasure hunter extraordinaire.
Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline
Pastoral care is outstanding and was mentioned by several parents as a deciding factor in choosing the school. Lots of slightly click-bait mental health initiatives which are no less valuable for featuring in the Sunday papers. These have included a focus on handling ‘toxic friendships’ (via talks by Emma Gleadhill), a ‘Fail better’ campaign that encouraged girls to take risks, and, more recently, discouraging parents from obsessing about ‘clean eating’ and fad diets (think paleo, keto or fasting!).
Girls are urged to resolve their own problems and apply the Three Before Me question: which three things have you tried yourself before going to an adult for help, and why do you think they haven’t worked? The idea is to encourage independent problem-solving and resilience. Similarly, there are group mediation and conciliation sessions. ‘Parents will often want us to come charging into a situation from on high,’ says the head. ‘But we aim to help girls develop the tools to fix problems for themselves, an important skill for university, work and even romantic relationships’. The house system encourages a good mixing of age groups and, parents believe, increases confidence and crosses all boundaries.
Much attention paid to LGBTQ+ and BLM issues (‘maybe even too much’, said a parent) and to increasing diversity. Shine, a Saturday morning programme for local year 4 children, run by WHS sixth formers aims to reach out to the community. It’s one example in a wide-ranging partnerships programme that sees 200 students go off timetable and off site for the afternoon once a week.
A couple of parents mentioned that lack of a designated brother school as a possible weakness. But the school says it runs ad hoc activities with boys’ schools without being ‘reliant’ on them. ‘When we discussed having a more formal relationship with a boys’ school the girls didn’t want it!’ says Ms Kennedy. ‘They see boys all the time. It’s almost relentless. The school gives them a bit of space away from that. They come to school, lock their phones in their lockers, and off they go’. The younger years have discos with King’s College School and the like, but the older girls ‘don’t want me organising their social lives’, says Ms Kennedy wryly. ‘They’d find it horrifying, to be honest.’
Pupils and parents
Exacting parents keen to get the best education possible for their daughters, usually both working. No school transport, so either live within walking distance (about half), or on a good public transport route. Foreign accents a-plenty – some 15 per cent speak a language other than English at home. Girls are bright, open-minded and (mostly) self-motivated. A school that encourages individuals, so anyone could fit in.
Scholarships worth between five and 20 per cent of fees are available to both current pupils and new entrants at 11+ (academic, music, sport), 13+ (academic; mainly for internal candidates) and 16+ (academic, music, drama, art and sport). Bursaries up to 100 per cent of fees (plus help with transport, uniform, meals, etc) available from the school and also via GDST. Finding pupils who would most benefit from a WHS bursary is ‘an action point’.
The last word
Strong leadership + bright girls + fabulous new facilities + uncompromising academics + laughter = a successful 21st century girls’ school. Always hot. Never a hothouse.