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We see the work of one published poet also an artist in the stunning art studio, quite the biggest we’ve ever seen, allowing each upper sixth student to have their own ‘nest’. Fascinating projects in progress include one from a student developing her own religion and researching curses and another who is building a ‘city to the lost creativity of children’ in wax. Naturally, several are...

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What the school says...

Founded in 1842 by the Society of the Sacred Heart, Woldingham is a leading independent boarding and day school and one of the oldest girls’ schools in the UK. Woldingham is a purposeful, busy and happy community with a fully integrated mix of boarders, day girls and nationalities. Students come from all over the world and we maintain a good balance between British and international students. Woldingham is a Catholic school which welcomes families from all faiths. 'The strong spiritual foundation and its flow into the pastoral life of the school is of benefit to everyone, whatever their beliefs.'Y11 parent.

Woldingham School is set in a beautiful 700 acre estate with its own train station in the grounds providing a 35 minute connection to London Victoria. Gatwick and Heathrow Airports are 20 and 45 minutes away respectively.

At Woldingham learning and endeavour are highly valued by all; ‘Value Added’ scores, which measure academic achievement relative to initial ability, place Woldingham in the top 7% of all schools in the UK over the last five years. 'The amount of support and encouragement you receive from teachers is incredible, they are always happy to devote their time to helping you. I was delighted to exceed my expectations at GCSE and do so well.' Sixth Form pupil.

In 2012, the Independent School’s Inspectorate placed Woldingham in its top band, ‘excellent’, in all areas of activity.

Girls know that they can approach any member of staff with a concern and there are deliberately many levels of support available. The unique Thrive programme is embedded throughout the curriculum and Mindfulness sessions are available to all on a weekly basis.

Music and drama at Woldingham are well resourced, dynamic and busy, providing many and varied opportunities for pupils to perform. The choirs lead the singing at Westminster Cathedral for masses and the school Carol Service. The sports coaches are experts in their field and include a hockey Olympian. With over 80 co-curricular activities on offer in any week there is plenty to do and girls are encouraged to ‘have a go’ across a range of sporting, social, cultural and intellectual clubs.

Students spend their first two years in a welcoming junior house, moving into single-study bedrooms from Year 10 and en-suite accommodation in the Sixth Form. It is the strong community that boarders value, 'I feel proud that I was a member of this adorable family. Woldingham has offered me so many things. I couldn’t have achieved my results without the community here.' Sixth Form boarder
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 2016, Alex Hutchinson (40s) MA (Oxon), PGCE (Bristol); took on the headship after a year or so as deputy. Her first degree was in chemistry and she continues to teach once a week. Ever since her first post at Clifton College she has gained her experience in girls’ schools. Head of science at St Mary’s School, Ascot, she then moved north as head of sixth form at Central Newcastle High. Add to this her experience as head of sixth form at ‘out and out London day school’ Wimbledon High before joining Woldingham and she presents a very solid proposition in particular to the London parents looking to take their daughters out of the city.

Mrs Hutchinson believes in being ‘comfortable and clear about who we are: we’re very confident that we deliver an excellent education across all levels. Girls here are not just the academic stars but those who have different things to offer’. Still, she’s convincing that a girl destined for A*s will achieve those just as well here as anywhere – ‘we’re never going to take the foot off the pedal in the classroom.’

We meet in her parent-friendly office with plump soft furnishings, beautiful full-length windows and student artwork. We find her to be very friendly, engaging, carefully prepared with an attractive delivery that could see her a broadcaster in another life. In common with many pupils, her mother attended the school. She lives within sight of her office with her husband, also a head of a local independent school, dog and cat. She plays hockey twice a week. Somewhere amongst the rose pergola walk and lawns there must be a veg patch too as she likes to grow her own. The students feel warmly towards her and love the fact that she lives ‘just there’ and find her accessible in other ways: ‘she’s not like one of those heads where you walk past and just smile’. Parents tell us: ‘like a breath of fresh air, her enthusiasm for the school and the girls knows no bounds.’ Another: ‘fantastic, young, enthusiastic and very approachable.’

Academic matters

In 2018, 67 per cent A*-A/9-7 grades at GCSE. Highlights include Latin and all of the sciences, with consistently good results across English and maths. Meanwhile at A level, 61 per cent of grades were A*/A. Popular subjects include English literature, maths, biology and history whilst the artists in particular shine.

Girls are expected to study a language (not necessarily modern, could be Latin) to GCSE; Mandarin is a club. Most sixth formers take three A levels. Further specialism introduces A levels in textiles, psychology, media studies, government and politics and classical civilisation.

Oxbridge support starts in the lower sixth with girls assigned a teacher to support their applications one-to-one. There is no fear of being made to feel like a ‘geek’ for being good at something, say parents. Girls interact with their subjects outside of the grounds: a lower sixth student was joint winner of a recent Cambridge history prize, with successes also in 'teen tech' and poetry competitions.

Almost 25 per cent of staff have been working at the school for more than 10 years. A parent commented: ‘The girls seem to relate well to both the male and female teachers. They respect them and feel that they can easily approach them if they need further explanation with a subject that they find tricky.’ A girl we met thought: ‘They are here to support you as a person, as you grow into yourself’. We watch an upper sixth economics class where the teacher sits inside the circle of desks giving detailed essay feedback.

Maximum class size is 22 up to GCSE then 14 in the sixth form. Lower sets have smaller numbers so that students can receive more support. One mother said: ‘During the first three years they do not believe in setting pointless holiday homework, they believe the girls work hard enough during term time’. Hurrah.

An experienced learning enhancement department provides support for standard numbers of girls with SPLDs such as dyslexia but also small numbers with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. All are screened on entry. The majority receive ‘light touch’ support, only a few receive direct support and a reduced curriculum.

There is a significant programme of carefully thought through support for girls with EAL needs. Unusually, some one-year GCSE students (usually girls from Spain and Mexico) are prepared for the Cambridge English ESOL examinations.

Games, options, the arts

Sports facilities are not lavish given the space – plans are afoot - and a parent’s view that ‘sport is average, but music and drama are outstanding’ and artists in particular shine, does seem to fit with the picture of the school on view today, although there are some noticeable sporting successes, recently in hockey and netball. Main sports also include swimming, tennis and athletics, with aerobics, lacrosse, table tennis and squash added in higher up the school. There is a dance studio and an indoor tennis dome. The school is notable in supporting its elite athletes, currently including cross-country, skiing, lacrosse, modern pentathlon, carriage driving – enabling them to take part in term time without falling behind. No timetabled football but soccer club is popular and cricket is coming.

Slightly less than half the school has individual music lessons, including singing. Some stand out performers have places in national orchestras. Musicians gave two concerts on a tour of Prague recently.

The most recent ISI report commented on ‘the quality of writing not as fluent as speaking, particularly in the sixth form’ – which the head finds incomprehensible, given the number of poets and writers the school produces. We saw the work of one published poet, also an artist, in the stunning art studio, quite the biggest we’ve ever seen, allowing each upper sixth student to have their own ‘nest’. Fascinating projects in progress include one from a student developing her own religion and researching curses and another who was building a ‘city to the lost creativity of children’ in wax. Naturally, several are heading to art school.

With Carey Mulligan a notable former pupil, it’s not altogether surprising to find drama facilities of such a high standard: the 550 seat theatre is stunning, with a flexible stage and space for a full orchestra. Helping girls to settle into year 7, everyone takes part in a production, most recently Roald Dahl’s The Twits and The Witches. Very professional-looking production posters from former years line the staircase. Higher up the school the number of shows is limited but there are opportunities to take part in backstage work. Drama available at GCSE and A level.

Pupils are far from just sequestered away in their valley. Computer science students have recently returned from a trip to Silicon Valley; year 11s and sixth formers spent four days in Berlin; year 9s visit the battlefields of Ypres and geography students enjoy an annual trip to Iceland. Eighty clubs on offer: Mandarin, archery, tap dancing, coding, dark room photography, rock-climbing and dissection caught our eye. Day girls are encouraged to stay for extracurricular activities but are free to go home from 4.30pm. Sports matches and supervised study with friends until 6.30pm. Transport is provided to facilitate this and many stay. On Saturday mornings, Saturday Active for year 7 to 10 boarders provides a range of activities.

Boarders

Year 7 and 8 boarders have a separate block, Marden. It’s tidy but plain, plentifully kitted out with sofas. Décor-wise, if we had been told the over-50s lived here we would have believed it, but what does that matter when you have all of your friends here to crowd around I’m A Celebrity and share in the odd yoga class? The upper sixth block is next door and they’ve recently initiated a year 7 movie night so that the older girls don’t seem in any ways remote or intimidating. Years 7, 8 and 9 share a room, from year 10 girls have their own, with sixth formers getting en-suites: compact, but modern, fresh and functional, perfect for studying. Boarders are free to go home at weekends from 4.30pm on Friday. There are often boarding house pets, whether that be elderly Doris or a new, highly anticipated puppy. Flexi-boarding on hand: simply sign up for one to two nights a week a term in advance.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1842 by the Society of the Sacred Heart, 100 or so years later at the end of the Second World War the school of 100 pupils moved to Woldingham from Roehampton. Main house is all highly decorative Victorian red-brick without and dark panelling within. Plainer 20th century additions and conversions form a courtyard and then a Millennium building smartly houses arts.

The grounds, complete with cattle, horses and the odd deer, extend to a staggering 700 acres, a secluded wooded valley on the edge of the North Downs. Along the two mile drive and you’re likely to encounter only the odd rider. The school does feel quite isolated, even if in reality it is not. Sixth formers are allowed to take the train into London at weekends (with planning) and clearly relish the privilege.

It no doubt adds to the family feel that the girls we meet are emphatic about. When the head tells us about a year 7 pyjama day we imagine the whole school wearing pyjamas to lessons every day – who would know? As for snow days, we can’t think of anywhere better. As the head says, ‘we’re good at relaxing – staff v girls "Would I lie to you?", pancake race, inter-house go-karting…’ A mother confirmed: ‘There is a charming sense of fun about the school – even amongst sixth formers if they think no-one is looking.’

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

‘We are absolutely a Catholic school’, says the head – just the odd statue and religious painting on view. One third of girls are Catholics, but almost more integral to the school are the values of the sacred heart: faith, intellect, community, personal growth and social justice – ‘it’s very tangible for us, it’s how we make decisions,’ says the head. Girls no longer wear uniform to mass on Sunday but all faiths attend, even if it is just for a moment of quiet reflection.

Day and boarding pupils are allocated to one of four houses and tutor groups are also arranged by house. The first Saturday of the autumn term is a house festival of dance, music and costume making.

The health centre is staffed by qualified nurses and a counsellor is available. With gender in the news we quiz the head on gendered vocabulary: ‘I say "girls", but I would say that I’m aware of this every time I use it, which was perhaps not the case a year ago’. Each parent mentions the relative lack of pressure their daughters find here. Marden has an adventure playground and the head agrees girls may be able to ‘stay younger for longer’.

Parents are all praise for the pastoral care: ‘Excellent. If there is an issue the problem is dealt with kindness and discretion. Invaluable,’ is typical. Little need for sanctions. Digital matters are the greatest challenge now, with posting something inappropriate online warranting an immediate suspension. In years 7 and 8 the school takes away devices, from year 9 girls are allowed to self-monitor, and boarders in years 7-10 hand in their devices at night. Sixth formers enjoy some uniform privileges such as their own suits, shirts and jumpers as well as taking on responsibilities as ‘ribbons’, one of the most charming traditions of the school, where they wear sashes and take on house or school leadership roles.

Pupils and parents

Who might the school suit? ‘Not one stereotype of girl’, says the head. Parents agree upon ‘girls who respond to encouragement rather than pressure.’ A predominance of west Londoners and those from nearby Surrey and Kent. More than 100 from overseas, predominantly from Hong Kong and China but comprising 30 nationalities. ‘A complete mix of backgrounds, ethnicity and relative wealth, from the daughters of Russian oligarchs downwards but all part of the school community,’ said a parent.

A perusal of old girl careers throws up a number of mum-preneurs as well as a varied clutch of famous names. Interior designers including Neisha Crosland, also Louise Mensch, Vivien Leigh and Clarissa Dickson-Wright. And Carey Mulligan. Old girls may get married in the school chapel and come in for business breakfasts to share their experiences.

Entrance

There are 60 places available at 11+, 30 at 13+ and 20 at 16+. Occasional places at 12 and 14+. Candidates for 13+ may apply in year 6 for deferred entry (same online test as for 11+) or in year 8 for standard entry. Assessment day includes an English writing paper, group interview and fun creative activity. The school is looking for pupils with interests beyond the academic, with reasonable adjustments for SEND. Sixth form candidates are examined in two of their chosen A level subjects and a general paper.

Exit

Around 20 per cent leaves after GCSEs, with places filled by incomers. An incredibly broad range of university courses, which speaks of inspiration well beyond the purely academic – quite a few budding criminologists, digital media specialists, vets, anthropologists, electrical engineers, land economists and art historians. Three medics in 2018; Bristol, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Durham, Cardiff and Exeter popular. Five off to the US in 2018 and one to Hong Kong.

Money matters

Not prodigiously well endowed so bursaries and scholarships unlikely to play a major role. Academic and co-curricular scholarships are offered at 11+, 13+ and sixth form, designed to recognise exceptional achievement, intellectual curiosity and persistence. Awards typically cover five to 20 per cent of day fees. No need to be stratospherically accomplished for music scholarships as potential also recognised. One scholarship to a local girl each year and two in science. Bursaries are intended for girls who demonstrate strong academic potential and where the financial circumstances of the family will make attending Woldingham impossible. Forty students are in receipt of a bursary, a few up to a life-changing 100 per cent of fees.

Our view

Girls are sure to find a home from home in this Catholic school which welcomes all and promises fun, fabulous dramatic and artistic opportunties, strong academics and the chance to be young for a little longer.

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

Woldingham is able to cater for students with a variety of mild specific learning needs. The Learning Enhancement department provides support to enable SEND students to reach their full potential; the department’s approach is highly collaborative, involving the student, their parents, and teachers. The needs of most SEND students are met with ‘light touch’ support, provided mainly through the high quality teaching, dedication and commitment of staff and delivered daily in the classroom. Those students needing additional support receive targeted individual or small group intervention by highly specialist staff.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
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 Y
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment

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