The Good Schools Guide Review of Birkenhead School, Prenton, CH43 2JD
A confident, humane, non-flashy school in the best grammar school tradition, offering an astonishing array of opportunities for personal development in and out of classroom. Not as driven as some famous ex-grammars in urban areas. It feels nearer Chester than Liverpool, more like Bootham than, say, Bolton. Head's claim of an 'open, happy community' rings true, but parents of young thrusters shouldn't be put off.
Since 2003, Mr John Clark MA (fifties); read modern languages at Exeter College, Oxford, taught at St Paul's School, head of department at Whitgift, deputy head at Birkenhead 1996. A charming, civilised man; apparent diffidence masks a quiet authority; 'Outstanding,' says a happy parent. He knows exactly what goes on in the school, is respected by pupils for this. A good listener; compares favourably with more pushy and gimmicky heads in his concentration on the proper business of education, his excellent communication skills and readiness to take his position seriously, but not always himself. Not to be detected talking or writing about 'learning platforms'. Loves the 'huge family' of his relatively small school in a realistic, grounded way. Ably backed up by energetic deputy, Mr David Edmunds.
Strong pretty well all round, results well ahead of local selective grammars, its main competitors. 2012 A level: 70 per cent A*-B (81 in 2011) with 44 per cent A*/A. Majority opt for maths and science (excellent results); largest humanities entries in history, economics and English. GCSE 56 per cent A*/A. Clearly policy of offering (and staffing) wide option range across only three-form entry pays off in terms of small classes and sets, eg language choice from Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish. Separate sciences for most to GCSE.
Special needs coordinated by staff member, now helped by three part-time learning support teachers. Parents pay for one-to-one tuition. Not much staff turnover - very nice place to teach and live. A general impression of fervent commitment to setting high classroom standards - and indeed to life outside the classroom.
Games, Options, the Arts
Games record amazing for size of school: cricket and rugby have been strong in the recent past. Most of the usual sports, soccer in sixth form. Since 2008, senior girls' teams in hockey, netball, lacrosse and rounders. Policy of sport for all, through which individuals find their niche and improve fitness: 'We're not simply interested in natural athletes'. Enormous range of outdoor activities: CCF (all three sections), shared with local RC girls' school; D of E (25 taking gold level); 'biggest scout troop in Birkenhead'. Usual tours and expeditions.
Lively music: choral concerts with Liverpool Sinfonia; much instrumental tuition; chapel choir, claimed unique among day schools in holding weekly evensong during term, involving pupils from age 10 to 18. Active drama.
Background and Atmosphere
Founded 1860, became direct grant, then independent in 1976. An unusual campus, hinted at in suburban address. Walking along the four comfortable, tree-lined roads that define the school, you won't guess at the existence of a lively school of 700 lurking behind the screen of large houses and sundry buildings. In fact an agreeable jumble of old and new, including a handsome Victorian chapel and fine cricket field. Years 7 and 8 housed in an elegant mansion, with its own playground and year 8 prefects, helping transition to serious senior school.
At present a handful of girls in the sixth, but they're building up in the prep school and through the school. Co-education originally planned with Birkenhead High School, which has now become an academy, so school is going it alone - to everyone's relief, it seems. Integration of girls has gone smoothly, and should continue; campus is a civilised place, and supervision of all ages discreet but effective. Recent ISI inspection noted 'exemplary' pupils' behaviour.
Liverpool proper may be just across the water, but it feels miles away. The Wirral is a pretty conservative place, and the school is happy with its own traditional elements: little boys wear caps, prefects wear gowns, and the head enters assembly to the head of school's cry of 'School!', whereupon all stand up. Trendy potential parents may not like this.
Recent developments include more prep school classrooms (including science and IT), an extension to sixth form block and improvements to pavilion; a swimming pool is a gleam in the eye. Superb termly newsletter, In Focus, full of pictures, is the brainchild of the head's former PA, who continues to run the school's marketing.
Pastoral Care and Discipline
Traditional day school system; interlocking staff responsibilities mean it's very hard to fall through the pastoral net - commended in ISI report as outstanding. Report also quotes a boy: 'We don't do bullying here'. One expulsion for drug use in last five years; pupils can be temporarily excluded for rudeness and vandalism - hooray!
Pupils and Parents
Pupils mostly from the Wirral and as far as Chester; some walk, some use public transport, many use school bus system shared with Birkenhead High. Pupils seem articulate, confident, happy with work ethos, and yes, a touch conventional. Their alternative sixth form prospectus is worth a read, though hardly very shocking. Parents mostly professional and business, heavily committed to all aspects of school. Flourishing former pupils' society, sharing In Focus with school. Most famous old boy was FE Smith, Lord Birkenhead.
Increasingly from own prep - existence of local grammars draws state primary pupils away at 11+. May have been a brief wobble over numbers before the co-education decision, but situation now seems to have steadied, as many parents opt for independent education from the start. Prep pupils not tested at 11+ unless applying for a scholarship - assessed internally, and those not likely to make grade flagged up in good time for parents to find alternative schooling. External candidates tested in English, maths and VR. GCSE hurdle for A levels.
A few leave at 16+. Vast majority to good universities - most to Russell Group, especially Durham, a handful to Oxbridge each year - to read hard subjects: law, medicine/dentistry, engineering popular.
Was hit by end of assisted places scheme, but now stable. About six academic scholarships a year, a few at sixth form level, some limited-term for music; usually ten per cent of fee. Birkenhead Foundation Trust bursaries support about eight pupils a year - full remission possible.