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What says..

Lessons at Withington cover a lot of ground at quite a pace so children who are lively and quick to catch on will fare best. School ‘saddened’ by the ‘arms race’ to tutor for entrance exams. The WGS tests do their damnedest to delve beneath the instructions of private tutors and canny prep schools to discover real potential. The interviewer won’t be impressed if your daughter goes quiet when she’s asked ‘What do you do when you’re not studying?’ Sample papers are available…

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What the school says...

Exceptional A-Level and GCSE results see Withington consistently ranked as one of the top independent schools in the north of England, with a proud record as a gateway for entry to Britain’s best universities. Withington’s pupils also benefit from superb facilities, an extensive co-curricular programme and they thrive in the School’s nurturing and supportive environment. ...Read more

What the parents say...

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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking English Language at an English Independent School (Level1/2 certificates)
  • Best performance by Girls taking English Literature at an English Independent School (Level1/2 certificates)

2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking Science: Double Award A at an English Independent School (Level1/2 certificates (double))
  • Best performance by Girls taking English Language at an English Independent School (Level1/2 certificates)
  • Best performance by Girls taking English Literature at an English Independent School (Level1/2 certificates)
  • Best performance by Girls taking Spanish at an English Independent School (Level1/2 certificates)

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 2016, Sarah Haslam, previously deputy head. Undergrad degree from Lancaster and postgrad teaching qualification from Sheffield; began her career teaching English in 1990 at a co-ed Manchester school and joined Withington Girls’ School in 1995. As well as teaching English, she has had roles including head of years 10 and 11 and, since her appointment as deputy head in 2007, lead responsibility for pastoral care and safeguarding. She is also an Independent Schools Inspector, an Independent Schools Teacher Induction Panel lead trainer and has been a governor of another independent school. She has a keen interest in the arts and also loves the outdoors, particularly hill walking and sailing.

Academic matters

By any standard, Withington Girls’ School is exceptionally successful academically. In 2018, over 90 per cent of all GCSE entries were graded 7-9, and 74 per cent of A levels were A*/A. Quite a few sixth formers complete Open University modules in the holidays – you know, just for a bit of fun. Pupils are regularly successful, often outstandingly so, in maths, science and linguistic Olympiads and Oxbridge essay competitions. We could keep listing the accolades but it’s notable that the school doesn’t.

Exam results are almost buried on the school website; they’re item number 16 on a menu that isn’t even visible from the front page. It may be a cliché for heads to gush about ‘educating the whole person’ but there’s evidence that Withington does take that ambition seriously. Many of the parents we spoke to had initially worried the school might be a hothouse – but all agreed that their fears were unfounded. Sixth formers told us that the only pressure pupils may experience is what they put on themselves – and that the teachers can be relied upon to calm them down; reminding them that a B may be below average here but nationally it’s a great result. One parent said she wished termly reports would rank the children in their class so that she knew how her daughter compared to her peers, but we suspect the school very deliberately withholds such information because it’s not interested in ranking children against each other.

It’s extremely rare for a child to leave the school because she’s struggling academically, although it does happen. Usually problems are nipped in the bud with close monitoring and one-to-one support. Whereas many similar schools maintain their place in the league tables by setting exacting GCSE targets for entry to the sixth form, Withington doesn’t exclude existing pupils from A level study on the grounds of relatively disappointing GCSE results. So long as a girl is happy at the school, they say they will honour their commitment to educate her to the age of 18.

All the parents we spoke to said they were very happy with their daughters’ achievement and nobody thought their child was overwhelmed with homework. One mother suggested that perhaps girls achieve so much in the lessons that the school doesn’t feel the need to set reams of homework. There’s a sense that the girls are such smart and focussed learners they know how to stay on top of their studies efficiently so that there’s plenty of time left for living. That’s certainly what the school wants. The selection policy is all about finding pupils who won’t just ‘cope’ with the pace and challenge of the curriculum; ‘they must flourish’. Adamant that they wouldn’t offer a place to a girl who would only get through the academic hurdles with hard slog and extra tutoring because they want everyone to have time to take part in whatever’s on offer.

The school is particularly strong in maths and science. Nearly half the pupils do maths A level. But a good range of other subjects is offered at A level, including psychology, philosophy and drama. Across the board – in the arts, humanities, languages and sciences – there’s no subject where the number of A and A* grades awarded isn’t vastly above the national average.

A recent ISI inspection found that pupils with special educational needs and those with English as an additional language are well integrated into classes and that ‘they make excellent progress, in line with their peers’. Pupils with SEN or a learning disability or difficulty have full access to the curriculum, and benefit from the full range of extracurricular activities. All pupils are taught with skilful differentiation within mainstream classes. Additional one-to-one support and extra spelling and language support groups are organised (at no extra charge) by the learning support department.

Games, options, the arts

Each edition of the school bulletin – published four times a year – details student participation in more extracurricular events, of every description, than you would imagine could be crammed into a school year, let alone three months. Girls aren’t steered in a particular direction so much as encouraged to try whatever they fancy. One pupil told us she’d worried that the school wouldn’t be sporty enough for her but, since joining, she says she’s had excellent opportunities to develop and she plays in several school teams as well as at county level. The school offers weekly zumba classes and sixth formers also have access to a new, state-of-the-art fitness suite and a personal trainer. One year 13 student enthused about playing in the WGS orchestra and the Stage Band – her only gripe was that she couldn’t be in two places at once so had had to sacrifice her place in a sports team to commit to her music. Compulsory enrichment programme for sixth formers includes - alongside eg professional skills and finance - courses ranging from painting for pleasure to voices of dissent. Teams from the school have had outstanding success in national debating competitions, an international business challenge and the Model United Nations. The music and drama departments are lively and inclusive – most recently collaborating to stage a lavish whole school production of The Phantom of the Opera. Many students leave Withington having already completed their gold DofE. And all this really is just a taster.

If there’s one element of the extracurricular life of the school that really stands out, it’s what might loosely be termed service to the community. There are annual volunteering trips to the Gambia and to Uganda. Pupils from every year put huge efforts into charity fundraising. The sums they raise perhaps tell us most about the wealth and generosity of the school’s circle of adult benefactors, but the hard work and enthusiasm come from the children themselves. They really do care about their local community. They know they’re privileged and they think that brings responsibilities. Almost all sixth formers do community service locally. ‘Do you have to?’ we asked. A pause. ‘No but… well, everyone wants to.’ Recently a local state primary lost its playing fields. The WGS year 9 came up with a solution: they hosted and organised a sports day for them on their own playing fields. A sixth former spoke earnestly about how moved she was by a talk from a former substance abuser on her path back to sobriety, and the same girl said she will never forget the privilege of having met a holocaust survivor on a recent trip. You get the feeling that this is one aspect of a Withington education that lasts a lifetime.

Background and atmosphere

We parked outside on Wellington Road – and wondered briefly if that was a good idea. This isn’t really Withington. It’s Fallowfield. It’s not a rich area. The street is peaceful enough, but far from what you’d expect as the home of a centre of academic excellence. The school buildings are smart and welcoming, though. It feels secure but it’s no fortress. The entrance lobby, with its huge glass sliding doors, would feel like the reception area of a medium-sized business if it weren’t populated by busy-looking young women popping to and from reception with forms to hand in and messages to deliver. We’re guided to a sofa to wait for the sixth formers who will show us round the school. On a coffee table are today’s Guardian and Independent and a folder of press cuttings about the school. We’re struck that every girl who passes us, whether she’s 7 or 17, makes eye contact and offers a spontaneous, friendly smile.

The environment – inside and out – is neat, light and pleasant. It doesn’t feel luxurious, but the space is generous and fit for purpose. As you’d expect, impressive displays of student work line the corridors and classroom walls. The sports, science and drama facilities are all tip top. The sixth form centre is quietly buzzing. A few students are studying at tables, many more lounge on sofas chatting – it could be about work…

The sixth formers have their own exclusive café, the Bistro. It serves hot drinks, tempting snacks and light lunches and is host to the breakfast club for the whole school. School dinners for everyone are provided in the main servery. Money has been spent on improving the catering over recent years. There are plenty of options and the menus look tempting and healthy. But still there are a few complaints. One mum told us her younger child loves the food but the elder one won’t eat it. Although she thought her daughter was being picky, she wished the school would let her bring in a packed lunch because ‘she’s flagging by the afternoon’.

The founders stipulated that the school should be kept small, and nearly every parent we spoke to was attracted by the school’s size. One mum said of her daughter, ‘she was almost invisible at her old school but here she’s like a different child.’ The junior school is fully integrated with the seniors – there’s no separate block so older girls pass young children in the corridors all the time. Parents suggest this softens the behaviour of teenagers who might otherwise become a little self-absorbed. The atmosphere is gentle and warm. It’s on the quiet side, but individually the pupils are lively, confident and forthcoming. Maybe it’s quieter than other schools because they know how to listen. It’s also a very diverse community. Two in five pupils are non-white and there are lively faith groups from the major world faiths. Because of the bursaries, it’s far from a preserve of the rich. One mum said, ‘my daughter’s got friends from Hale and from Moss Side and I love that’. Another said, ‘I don’t believe a child could come out of that school in any way racially prejudiced’. What seems to bring the girls together is their genuine pleasure in being there. They know they’ve got a lovely school so it’s in their interests to keep it like that.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Parents say they feel their daughters are known personally and that teachers are proactively looking out for their well-being. A sixth former told us she was pleasantly surprised when a teacher casually mentioned that she’d noticed she’d made some new friends – it made her feel that they were keeping an eye on everyone and would notice if anything wasn’t right. When we asked the girls about friendship problems, they struggled to think of instances. One pupil said she felt as they got older she’d noticed a gradual shift towards more inclusive and less competitive behaviour. She said there was a notable change in how girls viewed a charity dance show they were involved in both in year 8 and then in year 10. ‘In year 8 it was a bit of a competition but two years later we’d kind of worked out ourselves that it didn’t need to be like that’. She said that in the sixth form ‘everyone’s friends with everyone – it’s not as cliquey as lower down in the school’. The girls say that if ever anyone sees a pupil being excluded or treated unkindly they would all step in to put a stop to it. Staff agree: 'We've had sixth formers come to us and say “We’re worried about X,” and normally we already know because we’re worried about X too, but it’s nice that they come to us’. A couple of the mothers we interviewed had seen their daughters bullied in previous schools but none had faced any such problem here. Staff aren’t complacent, though, acknowledging that it’s much harder to detect serious bullying these days as it so often takes place online. Childnet regularly presents to the juniors and to year 7; the school offers internet safety training to parents and the girls know all the different lines of communication and support open to them if they’re unhappy for any reason.

The pupils behave beautifully, apparently without being told to. External discipline is barely there, but self-discipline is everywhere. There are very few rules. Pupils are drilled in the ‘Three Rs of respect for self, respect for others and responsibility for personal actions’. One parent said she’d never heard of anyone having a detention. We couldn’t find a parent who’d received the dreaded ‘letter home’. School says that no indiscretion is ‘beyond redemption’ and, in the event of a major transgression, would aim to be proportionate and to understand the context. But there are clear policies about drugs, bullying and suchlike and the school wouldn’t rule out expulsion as a last resort. It’s all a bit hypothetical, though. ‘Oh, they can be terribly naughty sometimes,’ said one mum cheerfully, but we suspect it’s more Mallory Towers than Grange Hill.

Pupils and parents

Most of the mums we spoke to weren’t in receipt of bursaries. These were well-to-do families for whom private schooling was always going to be an option. More than half of them were first attracted by the size and ethos of the school – several of them looking for a cosy community for a shy child – but their second consideration was its academic reputation.

Your child won’t be happy at Withington unless she’s very bright. Beyond intelligence, it would help if she’s willing to work (although perhaps a previously lazy child would be spurred into action by the other children). There’s no ‘Withington type’. The school appreciates individuality. ‘They can be quirky here,’ said one mum. Outgoing children will have countless opportunities to enjoy the limelight but there’s certainly a common thread that painfully shy and quiet children, who were unhappy in other schools, have blossomed here. Some have found a new confidence and others remain quiet – but contentedly so. WGS’s reputation in STEM subjects must surely attract parents who know their daughter is gifted in maths and science, but for every old girl who’s a particle physicist or an engineer there’s another who’s an opera singer or a fashion designer.

Entrance

If your daughter is applying to join the school at 11, she’ll sit tests in English, maths and verbal reasoning. After the tests girls may be invited to interview – ‘an informal chat’. They’re looking for flair. Sometimes that shows itself particularly in one area – but she won’t get a place unless they’re confident she’ll be able to keep up in all areas of the curriculum. They’re interested not just in the answers your child gives but also in how she gets to them. Lessons at Withington cover a lot of ground at quite a pace so children who are lively and quick to catch on will fare best. School ‘saddened’ by the ‘arms race’ to tutor for entrance exams. The WGS tests do their damnedest to delve beneath the instructions of private tutors and canny prep schools to discover real potential. The interviewer won’t be impressed if your daughter goes quiet when she’s asked, ‘What do you do when you’re not studying?’ Sample papers are available from the school office but girls are advised just to look through them so they seem familiar rather than to practise.

Exit

Most girls stay on to join the sixth form although a few leave for financial reasons or because they want to board. Everyone leaving year 13 goes to university – although some take a gap year first (for which there are small travel grants available). Most students choose traditional academic subjects but a few take more practical or vocational courses, in the arts, for example, or with a business or management component to them. Medicine is consistently popular with Withington girls (11 medics in 2018). So is Oxbridge (14 places in 2018 plus two 2017 leavers). In terms of leavers’ destinations, it’s one of the most successful schools in the country, with over 90 per cent of pupils going to one of the 30 most selective UK universities eg Durham, Birmingham, Exeter, Nottingham.

Money matters

A 2012 Financial Times report named Withington the best value independent day school in the UK. Given that this is the only school in the north of England to be in the FT’s top 20 ‘best schools’ list, the fees compare well with those of its local competitors. They’re still way out of reach for most Manchester families, though. But about 90 girls in the senior school – that’s one in six – receives a means-tested bursary, some of 100 per cent. The bursary fund is protected by a trust and the current level of provision is secure in perpetuity – but fundraising continues to extend the scheme further.

Our view

This is an excellent school if you’ve got a clever daughter. It’s serious rather than showy. There’s no swimming pool or equestrian centre. It’s a cosy but energetic community, particularly good for instilling confidence in girls who’ve been overwhelmed by larger or less protective schools. It prizes hard work, learning for its own sake and concern for others. Whether she’s sporty, artistic, timid or fearless, if your daughter can get through the exams easily, she’s likely to love it here.

Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

All pupils take a short dyslexia screening test soon after entering the school. The SENCO and her assistants (one in the junior school, one with responsibility for gifted and talented provision across the senior school, and one with responsibility for EAL provision) liaise closely with pupils identified as having special needs, their teachers, parents, and, where relevant, educational psychologists. Extra time is granted in internal as well as public examinations, where appropriate. There are two statemented (one profoundly deaf) pupils on roll. Needs are addressed on an individual basis and met with the maximum of care and discretion. Whole-staff training is provided on a regular basis to ensure heightened awareness, understanding and appropriate action. One pupil has thallasaemia and one pupil has diabetes. Nov 09.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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