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The energy and friendliness of PGS are what strike you first: ‘It’s a buzzy vibrant place’, said a parent, another adding that ‘it’s a big school, but doesn’t feel like it, with small tutor groups helping pupils feel secure, and always plenty of people around that you know’. Pupils describe a strict working environment, where you are encouraged to work hard. ‘That’s how we want it to be’, one added seriously. Music is a focus at this school, with…

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Curricula

International Baccalaureate: diploma - the diploma is the familiar A-level equivalent.

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.

Choir school - substantial scholarships and bursaries usually available for choristers.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since September 2018, Dr Anne Cotton, PGS's first ever female head. Studied classics at Christ Church, Oxford, where she was awarded a double first and later completed her DPhil. Was head of classics at The Henry Box School in Witney before joining Magdalen College School in 2009, where she was head of lower school, head of upper school and assistant head. She became director of Oxford Festival of Arts in 2013, forging partnerships with creative partners and businesses, as well as launching an extensive programme of outreach with Oxfordshire schools.

Married to John, who is assistant director of music at Abingdon School, with two young children. Her interests include voluntary work, swimming, and walking, and she continues to enjoy research: wrote Platonic Dialogue and the Education of the Reader.

Academic matters

Most parents are attracted first by PGS’s stellar academic reputation, and results are consistently excellent: in 2018, 52 per cent A*/A at A level, and an average of 38 points at IB. At GCSE, 67 per cent A*-A/9-7. Maths and sciences are particularly high performers, but excellence across the board here. The line locally is that it is terribly selective; but one parent said, ‘not as much as all that’, and the parents we spoke to agreed that average or better would thrive here. Pupils describe a strict working environment, where you are encouraged to work hard. ‘That’s how we want it to be’, one added seriously.

Pupils and parents appreciate the availability of both IB and A level, although A levels are a great deal more popular: around 50 do IB, 250 A levels. The IB is seen as more challenging and rigorous (‘definitely harder’, said a parent), and A levels as a safer option. But those who take IB are glad they did: ‘a global and outward looking course,’ said a parent, while a pupil described how easy it had been to move to the IB from the US system. Another described the IB as ‘pressured, but valuable’, adding that her ‘daughter got a tremendous amount out of it’.

PGS Extend takes place over the summer break between lower and upper sixth, similar to the EPQ, but this in-house version allowing greater flexibility of approach - recent entrants included a presentation on the Tanzanian health care system, a composition based on musical styles from around the world, and the creation of an animatronic hand.

The school produces a rough guide to sensible subject combinations to help pupils take the right subjects for particular career paths, keen to help pupils consider not just which university to attend, but where they will be at 25.

Both pupils and parents commented on the calibre of teaching and commitment of staff: ‘I’ve experienced no better’, said one pupil who had arrived for sixth form; ‘It’s incredible how hard the teachers work’, said a parent; ‘the quality of teaching is amazing’. This is a school which invests in its staff, and has developed a bespoke leadership course with the university.

A wide range of subjects from ancient to modern: ‘we are committed to providing minority subjects’, and those who take Greek do extremely well; though there is appetite for even more, one pupil suggesting that the curriculum could benefit from the inclusion of Mandarin. RS here comes with a P - philosophy: ‘It really encourages kids to consider ethical conundrums of modern life’, said a parent. Maths and sciences are very popular, pupils relishing the smart new science labs. Pupils from year 9 upwards use mobile devices, which are particularly useful for collaborative work in lessons, and homework is often set in google classroom. Every break time there are clinics for the struggling, and pupils are comfortable emailing teachers if they need extra help.

Lessons have recently got longer, and the six 50 minute lessons have apparently lead to a calmer pace of day, much praised by a sixth former - ‘It allows you time to get into a subject’.

Once a year the timetable is suspended for enrichment week, this year’s curriculum enhancing activities including a mini Apprentice style competition to market a new drink for year 9 money management pupils, and a year 8 trip to a theme park to design and programme a new ride, combining business, ICT and physics.

Years 7 and 8 have much less to worry about than their peers at prep school, who are busy preparing for the CE. The focus in middle school here is on learning how to be independent: working out strategies for learning, and taking responsibility for themselves, and a reasonable amount of communication home to parents. One parent commented that her year 7 son initially struggled to fit in rugby matches, rugby training and all his homework, but as year went on, he worked out better how to organise himself.

The SEN unit assists pupils with mild to moderate dyslexia, although it is possible they could meet the needs of a pupil with severe dyslexia. No extra charge for SEN help, including one-to-one. There has been a lot of work done to ensure access arrangements for exams meet individual requirements.

Games, options, the arts

Pupils are bused to the Hilsea playing fields for most of their outdoor sport, around four miles from school. ‘Bit of a trek’, said a parent, ‘but it’s an inner city school’. The legendary Hilsea match teas take the edge of the drive (‘I don’t have lunch on match tea days’, confided a parent). One pupil wistfully told us how much he would love a pool on site (the school uses the local Navy pool); but it is likely that the school will benefit from any new university facilities in the vicinity.

Not a football school: there are a couple of club options, but serious football players play outside school. Boys at this school play rounders as well as cricket - a rare thing. For those less keen on teams, beach running is available.

‘Grades open doors’, says school, ‘but often pupils are more inspired by their co-curricular activities’. Pupils are encouraged to join at least two clubs in middle school, and keep up their extracurricular until they leave. Options range from the stock market club to Pride, with over 50 activities to chose from.

Music is a focus at this school, with an array of ensembles and orchestras. ‘Children are taken very seriously as musicians’, said a parent; ‘the first violin is always introduced at concerts’. They will find a teacher for whatever instrument your child wants to learn, and the music school has ample practice rooms and a beautiful wooden ceiling rotunda. PGS forms partnerships with other musicians, composer Alexander Campkin challenging the choir with high notes and close intervals in his new work World of Merriment, while the London Mozart players do masterclasses for pupils. PGS is the choir school for St Thomas’s cathedral.

Annual drama productions are immensely popular with pupils. Performances often take place in Portsmouth theatres, giving productions a professional edge, a parent commenting how much her daughter relished being part of the tech crew in productions.

A sculpted plaster head with a lollypop in its mouth stands near the door door of the art studios. Art is not splashed all over at this school, but there’s an impressive array in the art department. We watched year 10s drawing dead things, Death in Venice playing in the background to get them in the mood. Art GCSE is heavily dominated by girls - ‘boys don’t quite get its purpose,’ said art teacher; although the A level class is more balanced. Teachers are introducing more graphic design at GCSE, which they say boys relate to better.

Background and atmosphere

The energy and friendliness of PGS are what strike you first: ‘It’s a buzzy, vibrant place’, said parent, another adding that ‘it’s a big school, but doesn’t feel like it, with small tutor groups helping pupils feel secure, and always plenty of people around that you know’. The strong feeling of community was mentioned by several parents, and indeed it was one of the few schools we have visited where one of our guides intervened with some younger pupils’ misbehaviour. There is nothing lax about this school.

Pupils dress in different combinations of the school colours of black and red, depending on their house and seniority, the blazers black with red piping (somehow avoiding the feeling of public school precious that often accompanies piping). Even sixth formers wear some uniform here, the girls apparently loving the sixth form tie (which they can pair with any smart jacket). In a piece of open discrimination, sixth form boys have to wear a blazer.

The house system is very lively here, the ‘healthy rivalry’ reaching its peak in the house croquet tournament, with other competitions throughout the year, and each house having its own base within the school.

‘C of E, but not pushily so’, said a parent. There are services at the cathedral a couple of times a term, but ‘it’s more about decency, and a moral framework’, nowhere more evident than in the enormously popular club PGS Pride, busy changing minds in the three years since its inception: now 69 per cent of pupils think it would be easy for a pupil to come out (just 47 per cent in 2013). Pride has hosted speakers on living with HIV; being Muslim, gay and a drag queen; and being gay, a priest and a dad. ‘It’s had a tangible impact on self worth’, say staff, embraced school wide, the canteen even producing rainbow cup cakes. Diversity is accepted here, a parent happily describing her three very different children who were, or are, all very happy at PGS.

Food is excellent - not a single criticism to be found. Pupils can pay by card or thumbprint, which impresses everyone, the system also recording what kids choose to eat for the benefit of parents. Breakfast is available from 7.45 every morning.

Splendid old buildings mingle with the modern (though the one time barracks are a little foreboding from the street). The new sixth form centre is the glassy jewel in the crown, with sixth formers enjoying their own café, library and a glass bridge which connects to the rest of school, so the sixth can keep their gadgets dry while the rest of the school scurry across the playground in the rain. There are plenty of places to work, from the project room designed for collaborative work, its walls lined with research books, to the senior library, and strictly no talking Memorial library, pin drop silent, sixth form and teachers only - or with special permission. Well cared for interiors, everything spic and span. PGS is home to the first twinned toilet we have ever visited, its sibling a remote latrine in Uganda.

PGS plays an active role in the Portsmouth community: it runs the Portsmouth arts festival with a range of local partners; organises a community beach clean every term; its ensembles play out and about; and it connects with local state schools - a number of sixth form pupils join PGS on bursaries every year, and they exchange staff to develop experience and expertise. The PGS gap year programme attracts applicants from across the country, gappers combining teaching with singing daily services at the cathedral.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

‘It’s known as an academic school’, said a parent, ‘but it’s the pastoral care and extracurricular which make [it]’; ‘it doesn’t sacrifice children’s well-being for the need to do well academically’, said another. Parents are pleased at the new emphasis on PHSE as a specialist lesson, not just a chunk of tutor time (whose quality depended on the skills of your tutor).

Tutors have big role in pastoral care, and are likely to be the starting point for a child with a problem: ‘I feel they really “got” my kids’, said a parent. ‘There’s always someone looking out for them, usually their tutor’, said another, commenting how the school made sure things ran smoothly for her children when she was unwell.

Pupils can also talk to a peer listener (selected and trained sixth formers, who attach to tutor groups between years 7-9), or a counsellor. Children can be referred, or refer themselves by email or telephone. Counsellors can meet with families if this would be helpful and will deal with any issue which effects a child: we heard how helpful they had been to a pupil coping with bereavement, and a sixth former struggling with anxiety.

Pupils said they would go to their tutor with any concerns about bullying behaviour, and parents feel that any problems are dealt with promptly. Incidences of bullying, both homophobic and other, have fallen since PGS Pride came into being: it has helped foster an atmosphere of tolerance and equality - for instance, pupils are clear that saying ‘don’t be such a girl’ is not acceptable.

Drug related problems are rare. They will test if necessary, but haven’t had to for a few years. If perpetrators show remorse, respond and learn from their mistakes, they will probably be given a second chance. Parents think that bad behaviour and don’t give a damn will be asked to leave, and indeed the only recent (temporary) exclusions have been for antisocial behaviour.

Pupils and parents

Traditional types, said one parent, with lots of hardworking professionals.

Stations are 15 minutes walk from school, and pupils travel in from all over the south coast, from Petersfield, Haselmere, Guildford, the Isle of Wight and Chichester. A private coach service brings pupils to the door.

Communication from school is good, say parents, and although information coming via children has a less reliable arrival rate, but there’s always plenty of warning by direct methods about trips and concerts.

Entrance

Most pupils at the junior school progress to the senior school, without exams, and make up around 50 per cent of year 7. The rest come from state primaries and local independent schools.

For external candidates, at 11+, assessments in English, maths, comprehension and non verbal reasoning and interview. At 13+, as above, with additional assessment in a modern foreign language.

For entrance to sixth form, at least six GCSEs at grades 9-6, to include 9-7 in the subjects to be studied at A level or IB higher level, and at least grade 6s in subjects to be studied at IB standard level. External candidates also sit papers in non-verbal reasoning and comprehension.

Exit

A handful leave in year 11, mostly to sixth form colleges. In 2018, 70 per cent of year 13 leavers to top universities, with four to Oxbridge and 14 medics (including one to Universidad de Navarra, Spain). One off to South California University to read economics.

Money matters

Means-tested bursaries may be awarded to those with outstanding academic potential, and may be up to 100 per cent of fees. Scholarships are typically 3-6 per cent of fees, but more significant awards are made on a discretionary basis. depending in the level of achievement.

A parent told us, ‘You can really see where your money is going - on things which directly benefit the children, like quality teaching and food’.

Our view

‘Come here for the variety’, said a pupil, and those who like to be involved would certainly thrive at this busy school, which succeeds across the board, excelling academically, and in sports, music and drama. But more than this: PGS is a school where diversity and tolerance are part of its lifeblood, not just a tag line. As one parent said, ‘The school makes its claims, as they all do, but here they are all true’.

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

Parents are asked to inform the school at the time of entry of any additional educational needs. All members of the teaching staff are informed, by means of the school’s information management system, of pupils requiring support, the nature of support and possible strategies to help. Staff take account of this information in the classroom. The school endeavours to identify other pupils who may have a learning difficulty by screening all new entrants to the school in the autumn term or at time of entry. Referral by subject teachers of individual pupils to the Head of Learning Support may occur throughout the year. Pupils will be assessed in school for access arrangements while diagnostic assessments must be sought externally. Access arrangements are granted across the school according to the criteria specified by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) Pupils may be referred for additional support either via teachers or parents. The Learning Support department has an open door policy and pupils may also self-refer. Pupils may be seen weekly on an individual or small group basis. The Portsmouth Grammar School provides outstanding pastoral support. This includes on-site counselling for pupils who may be experiencing social or emotional difficulties.

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

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