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No surprise that cricket and rugby union feature heavily; three teams are current county cricket champions. The girls are catching up; if not yet in cricket or rugby, they do compete strongly in lacrosse. ‘I look forward to the day we have a girls' cricket team,’ said one potential member, pointedly. Flourishing and dynamic art department, studios are flooded with natural light and every available wall space is adorned with some very impressive works... 

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What the school says...

Birkenhead School is an open and happy community in which endeavour and achievement flourish and where everyone is valued for his or her own personal qualities and talents.

The School offers a well proven route to academic success and, with superb resources and a highly qualified and dedicated staff, seeks to enable each individual to reach his or her full potential. We aim to make the experience of school challenging, rewarding and enjoyable, and thereby foster a life-long love of learning.

The School provides a caring and structured environment where pupils grow in self confidence and enjoy a wealth of opportunities for teamwork and personal development, both inside and outside the classroom. Activities such as sport, music, drama and dance, together with a plethora of visits and expeditions, are central to this rich experience.

As the only academically selective Independent school on Wirral, we want all children of ability and potential to be able to benefit from the educational opportunities we have to offer irrespective of parental means. The Birkenhead School Foundation Trust exists to maintain the Schools long tradition of open access through the award of bursaries.
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2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Boys taking Design & Technology Systems & Control at an English Independent School (GCSE Full Course)

Other features

All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since September 2016, Paul Vicars MA PGCE (40s). Previously 15 years as house master then deputy head at Shrewsbury School. ‘Birkenhead School seemed a natural progression for me and I want to be here a long time.’ Studied geography at St Andrews and ensures he stays in tune with the teaching aspect of his role by giving three lessons per week. He is also well equipped to deal with the business and managerial components of the job, having spent four years as an accountant at Ernst & Young. Soon after his appointment he commissioned parent, staff and pupil surveys and an audit of the school buildings - results will determine how the school develops over the next few years.

His mantra is ‘happy kids thrive’ and he is evidently well liked and approachable. As we walked around the school, he greeted all he met – staff, pupils even a parent who crossed out path – by first name. His three children all attend, so he is able to get an immediate insight at the end of each day as to how the school is performing from both the pupils’ and parent’s perspective. His almost seamless transition into the role is due, he is first to declare, to the overwhelming support and goodwill received from everyone associated with the school. Married to Vikki, a teacher of law and history at an academy in Oswestry. He enjoys coaching sports, especially cricket, and hopes to offer more than just touchline support to all the school teams.

Head of prep since 2013, Harry FitzHerbert (40s). Enthusiastic, dedicated and previously at British International Schools, in Madrid and Lima, he has expanded modern languages provision at the prep by adding Spanish and French to a programme that already teaches German and Mandarin. Married to Jo, an art teacher at the school, they have a son and daughter in the seniors.

Academic matters

Quietly proud to be the best performing school on Merseyside for A level results with 54 per cent A*/A, 88 per cent A*-B in 2016. In maths and history over half of all pupils secured A* or A. At GCSE students take an average of 10 subjects. Top set in maths can sit additional further maths at GCSE; separate and dual award sciences available. Results in 2016 were impressive: 67 per cent A*/A (over a third A*), 90 per cent A*-B.

Strong ethos of personal and academic motivation supported by co-curricular activities, tutoring and one-to-one sessions. The emphasis is to find your niche then achieve as well as you can. Pupils said they felt ‘able to talk to tutors and teachers’ and are encouraged to ‘read around subjects’ to promote detailed understanding. The school has its fair share of extracurricular programmes with catchy titles: Future Skills Development, Growing Up Talks and Beyond the Curriculum; but they do offer pupils the chance to learn more of the non-academic subjects, promote interest in current affairs and appreciation of art and drama as well as, perhaps, a flavour of the type of slogans they will come across later in their work life. Workshops have covered careers talks, lessons in etiquette, chapel readings, global issues, cookery, writing for publication and computer coding. Pupils with SEN benefit from small classes and by differentiated teaching. Support and interventions are also offered through the co-curricular activities and by identifying individual needs with the form tutor.

Sixth formers receive advice from head of careers as well as guidance from teachers and tutor groups when selecting university courses, preparing applications and practising interview techniques. ‘My tutors helped me with my application and to prepare for interviews, and now I have offers to study what I want to - dentistry.’ Co-curricular sessions in Oxbridge applications are available and those following the school’s well-travelled path into medicine and dentistry attend sessions at the University of Liverpool. Each Friday the school hosts the Nicholls Lecture Series inviting alumni and other guest speakers to address sixth formers on a variety of topics. There are also work experience opportunities with international industries of the calibre of Cammell Laird and UniLever.

Games, options, the arts

Pupils are expected to participate in sport throughout their time in school and encouraged to aim as high as their ability allows. No surprise that cricket and rugby union feature heavily; three teams are current county cricket champions. Recent tours have included Barbados for the cricket team and South Africa for rugby. The girls are catching up: if not yet in cricket or rugby, they do compete strongly in lacrosse. ‘I look forward to the day we have a girls' cricket team,’ said one potential member, pointedly.

A short walk across a quiet road takes you to the McAllester playing fields. All-weather tennis courts, rugby, junior cricket, football and netball pitches are all in good order, but although fit for purpose, the changing rooms could do with a makeover. Head admits that Mac Field does seem male-dominated but guarantees that, in time, it will be more representative of the school intake when the Astro hosts more hockey and lacrosse.

The school gym equipment is up to date and there is a climbing wall very popular with pupils – encouraging pupils to scale physical as well as academic heights. Prep has play areas with interactive surfaces and an outdoor classroom (built by the school estates team).

Pupils in all years put a school swimming pool top of their wish list – swimming currently takes place at neighbouring Birkenhead High School Academy. Top of the head’s list of priorities, however, is the school library, which is long overdue a re-fit into the digital age. The head seemed very determined to make this happen sooner rather than later. Maybe the building survey will mirror his ambition.

Lots of encouragement for girls to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects and 20 recently visited the NASA Space Center in Texas. The visit seems to have paid dividends as, after declaring it was ‘the best place I’d ever been’, one year 11 girl said she would definitely be taking physics in sixth form; another was impressed to have been 'training at the same time as the astronauts.' Pupils have also enjoyed cultural trips to New York and Washington, skiing in Canada, a music tour of Spain and a charity hike in Nepal.

Creative talent is nurtured from an early age. The school has a flourishing and dynamic art department, studios are flooded with natural light and every available wall space is adorned with some very impressive works. Children are encouraged to explore different mediums such as pottery, textiles and plastics. The small class sizes allow tuition to be more focused and in 2016 a third of pupils achieved A*.

Musicians of all abilities are given opportunities to perform in the school’s wide range of bands, choirs and orchestras. The choir, intrinsic to the identity of the school since its foundation, sings evensong in the school chapel which opens to the public every Sunday. It also performs across the diocese and recently sang with the choir of Jesus College, Cambridge. Individual tuition is available for most instruments as well as music theory and technology. The vibrant drama department has staged productions of Cabaret, Les Misérables and Hamlet in seniors and Jungle Book in prep. The posters and banners for these productions reveal a high standard of artistic endeavour and close collaborative ties with the art department.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1860 but on its present site in the very leafy suburb of Oxton since 1871, the school is enclosed on all four sides by lines of mature trees; the manicured cricket pitch adds to an atmosphere of tradition, ‘like a boarding school but without the dorms’, as one parent put it. The chapel opened in 1883 and the prep six years after. Further additions and developments occurred over the next hundred years until a wall was literally hit in 2001 with the installation of climbing version that has proved very popular with pupils ever since. The campus consists of over 20 buildings of various ages spanning architectural styles from aesthetic to functional. A strong communal thread weaves through each building, stitching together the academic stages and knitting friendships across year groups. For instance, year 7s and 8 occupy the same building (Overdale); this set up engenders close ties and a real sense of community throughout the school and helps to ease the transition of pupils from one educational stage to the next.

Uniforms change as pupils move up the school: black blazers and red and black striped ties for all, black checked aprons for prep girls in the summer. Lapel badges denote house membership, prefect and other positions of responsibility. We saw some caps and boaters on prep pupils, doffing them perhaps more in deference to fashion than tradition. The murmur from classrooms, the junior choir practice, the exuberant prep play areas, the uninhibited laughter and the noisy dining room all say this is a happy environment - industrious, inquisitive and expressive. Some students, taking advantage of the warm sunshine, were working at picnic tables or in groups on the grass while within the sanctuary of the school chapel a student was in recital with the head of music. Christianity plays a significant and visible role the daily life of the school and the chapel is open to the wider community for Sunday services throughout the year.

Birkenhead went coeducational in 2008 and although the boy/girl ratio is decreasing there is still a perception, at least outside, that it remains a boys’ school. However, the girls we spoke to said it never mattered to them and the boys never even give it a thought. One girl said ‘it was probably because there are no pupils left in the school who remember it being all boys.’

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Head believes that ‘the best learners and contributors to school life are those pupils who are happiest’ and he actively leads the way in making sure all children feel known and valued within the school by frequently speaking to pupils throughout the day. Pupils' success is not measured solely by academic achievement but also through participation in other activities. Prep and senior pupils are seen at least twice a day by form teachers or tutors to discuss academic progress and personal issues; these members of staff are also the first point of contact for parents. Heads of years coordinate the duties of form tutors and act on matters of care, discipline and academic progress. In turn, they meet regularly with the deputy head of school who is also available should more serious matters need resolving. School chaplain is also a key member of the pastoral team.

As part of personal development, senior pupils take active roles in pastoral care. Year 7 pupils are assigned a sixth form mentor who they meet once a week for lunch and maintain contact at other periods via email. There are also PHSE Focus Days (when the normal timetable for a particular year group is suspended) in addition to weekly form sessions.

Poor behaviour and conduct are dealt with in a number of ways ranging from verbal reprimands, negative entries in record books through to temporary exclusion from lessons or school. All misdemeanours are closely monitored and parents notified in ample time. ‘Teachers quickly learn’, said one, ‘to pick the right phrase or write a terse note in an exercise book to produce the desired effect in errant pupils or raise an alarm to their parent.’

Pupils and parents

We found pupils to be polite, articulate, confident, inquisitive and conscientious. ‘The teachers understand us and you can talk to them easily’ was a much-shared sentiment. Older pupils value the opportunities the school offers not just for academic success but also how the co-curricular activities prepare them for the wider world. Enthusiasm for these activities suggest there is something to catch everyone’s interest. Initiative is actively encouraged and some of the teachers declared they were often ‘surplus to requirements at some clubs and attend only as supervisors because the pupils ran them very successfully themselves’. One pupil said that it was the co-curricular activities that had instilled him with such self-confidence he hardly recognised the boy he had been in year 7.

One parent suggested his child’s excellent GCSE results had been achieved not just through study and good teaching but because the school had turned him into a considerate and responsible individual. Others highlighted the smaller class sizes as a major factor in sending their children to the school: ‘some sixth form classes remind me of my college tutorial days.’

Pupils are mostly Wirral residents although Liverpool, Chester and north Wales also feature in the school address book. Since the abolition of the assisted places scheme and direct grants the school can only offer bursaries to about a quarter of the number it once could, which has diluted the social make up of the school in recent years. Head is making additional efforts to increase financial independence and redress concerns about this. School is able to call on parental involvement via enthusiastic fundraising committees or even when a simple helping hand is needed for open days or sports events.

Active ex-pupils' association – The Old Birkonians. Famous former pupils include creator of the Greenwich time pips, Frank Hope-Jones; historian Henry Pelling; Andreas Whittam-Smith, co-founder of The Independent and Tony Hall (Lord Hall of Birkenhead), director-general of the BBC.

Entrance

Birkenhead selects on academic aptitude but equally important is the capacity to fit in with the ethos of the school. Many go seamlessly from nursery and prep as long as they meet certain academic levels and show potential. Parents of those not likely to make the grade are notified in plenty of time to make alternative arrangements. Students selected at age 11 are done so on academic potential for higher education by assessment in verbal reasoning, English and maths. Some join at sixth form while admission in other years is through interview, school references, reports and tests.

Exit

After sixth form many go on to Russell Group universities – one to Oxford in 2016 – to study subjects including: mechatronic and robotic engineering, aerospace technology, medicine (4), dentistry (1), design, music, and fashion marketing - a not exhaustive selection that illustrates the extensive mix of talents the school was able to nurture. Some leave at 16 to attend local sixth form colleges or take apprenticeships.

Money matters

Bursaries currently make up around 10-11 per cent of fees and the Birkenhead Foundation Trust support about eight pupils per year. Music scholarships are available at 11 and 16.

Our view

A happy school consistently producing confident and considerate individuals as well as top results. Birkenhead may appear traditional from the outside but there is a strong streak of innovation running through all areas that shows it does not rest on past successes.

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