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Many girls’ schools would wilt under the news that the long established and renowned boys’ school just along the street was starting to take girls into all year groups. But the Girls’ High seems to relish the challenge. One of the first things the head has done is to ensure that girls can continue with both sport and the performing arts so there are not the timetable clashes that can cause such frustration. Girls email individual teachers with small queries about work and staff send much appreciated short emails to parents when…

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What the school says...

Entrance examinations consist of: 7 & 11: Written test (involving numerical skills & reasoning) & interview. 16: 8 GCSEs at an average of grade B (including A/B grades in subjects to be pursued).

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since April 2016, Julie Keller (30s). Heads of single sex schools seem to fall into two categories – those who stress their school’s excellence with the single sex nature just being one of its characteristics and those who stress the excellence of the focused nature of the single sex education offer. Julie Keller is firmly in the latter camp. Not only is she passionate about single sex education but she has everyone in the school behind her vision. For Julie, only girls’ schools have the expertise to ensure the best education for the next generation of female leaders. And with her as a role model, Nottingham Girls’ High students should break every glass ceiling going.

Julie is a dynamo - fast talking, confident, absolutely on top of her game; she was deputy head at the school before taking on first the executive headship of the junior school and then the senior headship. She knows the Midlands well, having a degree from Leicester in economic and social history, and before she came to the Girls’ High, had worked in a demanding mixed comprehensive in Nottinghamshire. She has a background in pastoral leadership but has also been head of history. Staff tell us she is inspiring, approachable and good fun to work with and they respect her honesty and integrity. They say that since she became head she is really looking at every aspect of the school to hone development plans and up the game.

Girls love her open door policy. She has a study right off a central corridor and has encouraged girls to put their heads round the door and share news. ‘She knows all about us all’, say the girls in awed tones. On our brief walk with her to the dining hall, she must have exchanged a few relevant words with every single girl she passed. Her priorities are to stretch and challenge the top end, to ensure teaching and learning is absolute top quality and make extracurricular and enrichment activities work better - all of which are moving rapidly in the right direction with the whole school clear about the aims and behind them.

Academic matters

The intake is selective and results are very strong. At GCSE A* grades in 2016 were 44 per cent and A*/A grades 73 per cent. A Level results for 2016 are getting back up after a slight blip in 2015, with 14 per cent at A* and 51 per cent at A*/A. Being part of the Girls’ Day Schools Trust means the results are not only intensively dissected internally but also by the Trust as a whole, and the school consistently comes in the top few for value added calculations. Maths is outstanding but so are the humanities.

The head of educational support leads on learning difficulties, and parents whose daughters have had experience of this speak highly about it. Girls would not normally come out of lessons for this unless the decision has been taken leading up to GCSEs that they should take less than the standard 10 subjects. Programmes are individually tailored and there is no additional cost for this. Class sizes are up to 24 in the senior school and around 12 in the sixth form and it is expected that there will be sensitive differentiation within a lesson. Recent introduction of mentoring sessions, exam technique classes, subject coaches and peer mentors is resulting in a stronger support network for everyone.

Girls are identified for possible Oxbridge entrance in year 9 and well prepared from then on. Every girl is issued with an iPad and these are enthusiastically embraced by staff, girls and parents. Whether it is emails - ‘We can just send a quick email to our teacher to explain why we are going to be late for a lesson’ - or uploading text books and homework, or constant reference for research in lessons, these tablets are now seen as essential to maximising efficient progress for every girl. Girls email individual teachers with small queries about work and staff send much appreciated short emails to parents when someone has had a good day.

Games, options, the arts

The head has put excellence in sport, music and drama as a top priority. Sport in particular has not had the strongest reputation locally in the past. The head wants not just superb school performances but increasingly to see the girls succeed at national level. One of the first things she has done is to ensure that girls can continue with both sport and the performing arts so there are not the timetable clashes that can cause such frustration. Activities are now timetabled before school from 8.15am as well as at lunch times and after school. Girls can miss registration times for activities - ‘You don’t get excellence without giving it time’, says the head. You need facilities too, with a spanking new 350 seater performing arts theatre completed in November 2016. Money has gone into sports as well with an upgraded Astroturf and new sports hall boasting a splendid climbing wall which even the reception class uses. ‘We are building risk-taking and resilience all the way through,’ the head of outdoor education told us. There are grass pitches offsite used for lacrosse and other games. Outdoor education has a major through-school emphasis. From fire-pit Fridays, where groups of girls take it in turns to cook lunch outside, playing instruments, singing and just enjoying being together, to climbing Kilimanjaro or the new climbing wall which sixth formers are encouraged to use in their non-teaching time, to joining the exploration society, where they build shelters and make fires, girls have every opportunity to develop confidence in their ability to relate to the physical world.

There is similar encouragement to engage with the wider society. Lots of charity work going on and the school won the lord lieutenant’s award for voluntary service. They make videos to support local charitable causes, work on the national citizen service scheme as well as produce endless cakes for fundraising sales.

Background and atmosphere

Occupying several houses, in an increasingly gentrified Nottingham suburb, the school has capitalised on what is a relatively limited space to Tardis-like effect. The old sits next to the new creating a smart, imaginative yet unpretentious feel. Evidence of massive upgrading and modernising is everywhere – a new DT resistant materials suite, food lab, graphics studio, textiles and refurbished labs. The sixth formers have their own labs, art studio, library study area and sixth form building with common rooms and tutor spaces. Technology is everywhere with LED screens in useful public places announcing the myriad of events taking place. The dining room is light and modern with impressive food. Most city day schools are not offering chilli infused extra virgin olive oil to go with fresh salads. There was particularly delicious syrupy flap jacks too the day we visited.

The girls and staff all know they are in a modern, forward looking and confident 21st century school where there is an expectation that they will become tomorrow’s leaders. The atmosphere is very aspirational and very individual. ‘You can be the best you want to be here’, say the girls. No gender stereotyping or any other sort of channelling of girls. Without labelling it as such, the school is giving the girls experiences of how to network, an area that research suggests lets women down at senior level. Here the girls learn about it through the buddying systems, mentoring, even drama competitions which the sixth form write and then work with the younger ones. Everything is about expanding who they know all the time. The Girls’ Day School Trust is part of the networking. Girls say they get to know girls in other trust schools at trust sports rallies for example, and then continue to build the friendships online. The trust alumni events allow sixth formers to start forging those all-important professional connections.

Relations between girls and staff are conspicuously warm and relaxed, as indeed are the relationships between staff. ‘We all get on and it's good fun’, said staff members. The leadership team is relatively young, all at the top of their game and brilliant role models for young women. Well-being of the girls is high on the agenda but so is staff well-being. There is a sense of the spirit of good learning rather than the law – no-one sets homework if there is not a real point to it. ‘We say to parents if the girls say they haven’t got any homework tonight, then talk to them and go out and do other things.’ We were pleased to hear that there is a determined attempt to fight the perfectionism that often dogs very bright girls. No-one has work sent back because it is messy. Girls feel listened to by the staff and therefore take ownership of school structures.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Pastoral care is highly rated by all, in part because of the palpably strong relationship between girls and staff. There is a group of pastoral specialists who have lots of experience of year 7 and the sixth form. In years 8, 9, 10 and 11 the girls stay with the same tutor who gets to know their strengths and foibles in considerable detail. They can’t swop out of a form just because they have fallen out with their best friends. ‘We want to show the girls that you can rebuild relationships and sort out difficulties,’ the head tells us. The school nurse is top quality and fully involved in the pastoral side as well as health. Families who had suffered emotional challenges couldn’t speak highly enough of the whole staff’s support.

The girls had considerable difficulty of thinking of any disciplinary breaches. The best they could come up with was being ‘on report’ for late homework. The head, however, says she is firm and will exclude for bullying and e-safety issues. But this is not a school where there is any sense that bad behaviour gets in the way of purposeful activity.

Pupils and parents

Articulate, lively, confident girls who know they are going places. Parents cover a fair cross section, both in ethnic and socio/economic terms. Many families with both parents working. Bursary support widens the range of families that come. Quite a number of families where mothers and grandmothers are old girls. Parents are buying into the school’s aspirations and they support wherever they can. New formal parent groups are being trialled with parent reps. Excellent communications is high on the agenda and all the technology, which goes alongside traditional methods, is helping tremendously, though it is the strong motivation to make it all work on a personal level that tells.

Entrance

Unusually, there is no entrance exam for the girls in the junior school to enter year 7. Other girls sit papers in English, maths and verbal reasoning and there is an informal interview plus references from current school. The emphasis is on looking for potential.

At sixth form level, girls are invited to spend a day at the school, sample preferred A Level classes and have an informal interview. References are requested from the current school and conditional offers are made from December onwards. Generally the school is looking for an average of grade Bs across eight GCSE subjects, including English and maths, with grade A in some subjects to be taken at A level.

Exit

Although more girls than the school was comfortable with left after year 11 in the first year the boys’ school took girls into the sixth form, this tide seems to have been halted and the vast majority are now staying through to university. They go to a range of strong universities, a few each year to Oxbridge (two in 2016) but the school is ‘not obsessed with it’. Medicine and engineering very popular (six medics in 2016) and other than that, a wide span of the disciplines. On the rare occasion something goes wrong on A level result day, parents say the school is spectacularly good at working with the family

Money matters

As with other GDST schools, fees represent very good value for money. It is clearly not a school dripping money and endowments but on the other hand there is a style that money can’t buy. About six per cent of income goes on means-tested bursaries.

Our view

Many girls’ schools would wilt under the news that the long established and renowned boys’ school just along the street was starting to take girls into all year groups. But the Girls’ High seems to relish the challenge. It has allowed them to celebrate their expertise in girls’ education and there is no doubt everyone in the school sees their school as the one that is forward-thinking, energetic and innovative. There was more of an exodus than they would have liked in the first year but it has not taken the hit some thought it would and the novelty seems to have worn off. This is a first rate, 21 century offer with academic rigour but informal in feel, without establishment stuffiness. The new strapline is ‘Be Extraordinary’ and everyone believes they can.

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