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Reception class is delightful; play is integrated with learning, with an outside area for growing vegetables, a mud kitchen, a shed ‘garden centre’ and ‘farm shop’. Year 1 was hearing about zebra stripes being unique like a fingerprint, when we visited. One older infant class was learning about oceans, another about fractions (by doling out marshmallows). New rigorous systems tracking academic progress with targets for each pupil. Parents welcomed this... 

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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking English Language at an English Independent School (GCE A level)
  • Best performance by Girls taking English Language at an English Independent School (Cambridge International Certificate Level 1/Level 2)

2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking French at an English Independent School (Cambridge Int Certificate Level 1/Level 2)

Curricula

Cambridge Pre-U - an alternative to A levels, with all exams at the end of the two-year 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.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since September 2016, Helen Jeys BA (Durham), PGCE (Cambridge), previously deputy head at Manchester High for Girls. Visiting in the third term of her first academic year, we were blown away by the energising gusts of positive change sweeping through the school’s corridors. Nothing to discompose existing pupils or parents, but nevertheless a deceptively strong current which looks set to take this school to a completely new level academically.

Her vision is not for any clichéd ‘off the peg’ hothouse, though. No, she wants something altogether more bespoke: a school which places well-being (about which she is passionate) at its centre, allowing girls to flourish and follow those ascendant academic pathways which she is laying down at remarkable speed.

How is she doing this? Well, she is looking afresh at the ‘gifted and interested’ (her words) programme, providing stretch work for pupils and introducing cross-curricular themes. So, for example, she might deliver a keynote speech on ‘identity’, which will then be explored, independently, across subject areas: DNA in science, body forms in art, Descartes in philosophy - the aim being to open young minds to new ways of seeing and being. She wants to nurture intellectual curiosity, so the whole school becomes ‘an educational experience’. Her not unambitious aim is to make it the premier girls’ school in Cheshire and buck the notion that to get to Oxbridge you need to attend one of the traditional, academic (some might say, three line whip pressured) schools in the area.

The school motto, ‘Aspire not to have more but to be more’, chimes here, as she wants girls to understand there is no area in life in which they cannot excel. A firm believer in girls-only schools, she seeks to unlock the potential of each girl, whether they want to study art at Central St Martins or biochemistry at Cambridge. ‘STEM plus arts’ is a principle she loves; why choose, she asks? Embrace it all.

Very aware of the world into which the girls are entering, she tackles modern topics in assemblies like avoiding fixed mindsets and how companies use setbacks to ensure success. All critical building blocks for resilience and reaching one’s potential. It is hard to see where she gets time for her interests - playing the cello, running, and writing about education - but in doing so, she models what she teaches.

2017 sees the biggest year 7 entry yet and we would place good money on the presence of Helen Jeys being the key reason for this. As one parent said, 'They should put Helen on Brexit; she would crack it.'

Head of junior school since 2013, Bridget Howard BEd, who joined as deputy head in 2010 from Bolton Girls Junior School. Working in tandem with the senior school, she is placing a subtly increased emphasis on academic achievement and more vigorous tracking of pupils. She is also similarly passionate about opening up other opportunities for pupils and is keen on music, drama and art. Mindful of the numerous well-being and learning benefits of children being outdoors, she is investigating a small forest school aspect to the curriculum.

Seen every day welcoming pupils, an accessible daily presence in the playground, and parents enthuse about how terrific and quick she is at dealing with any problems presented to her. Out of term time, she loves travel and cooking.

Academic matters

The Junior school tracks performance in maths and English by InCAS assessments every term. One teacher plus access to a teaching assistant per class (which can range in size from 10-23). In infants, the chief focus is on the core subjects – reading, writing, spelling, maths.

Reception class is delightful; play is integrated with learning, with an outside area for growing vegetables, a mud kitchen, a shed ‘garden centre’ and ‘farm shop’. Year 1 was hearing about zebra stripes being unique like a fingerprint, when we visited. One older infant class was learning about oceans, another about fractions (by doling out marshmallows).

In juniors, a maths and English core are blended with an integrated curriculum of science, computing, languages (French from reception to year 5 and German in year 6). The juniors were learning about the earth’s extremes or imagining plot lines for their own storybook. Music is part of the curriculum, aesthetically evidenced by rows of pink trombones and blue ukuleles. Art and drama are timetabled in year 6.

As in the senior school, cross-curricular themes stimulate thought: on the topic of chocolate, science explored ‘changing states’, geography the origin of the cocoa bean. STEM week was centred around Heath Robinson, with pupils gathering junk and building fabulous contraptions.

Parents spoke glowingly about the familial atmosphere. True, there were a few (barely discernible through the wall of loyalty) murmurings about the ‘really able’ not being stretched, but they felt that change was in the air, with children being invited to participate in groups where they had chance to excel. Those needing extra support can receive additional tuition solo or in small groups. Parents of dyslexic children were effusive about their achievements.

The confident year 6 pupils we spoke to were brimming with happiness and keen to join the senior school; one wanted to be a zoologist, another a dentist, another a barrister. One bright spark said she wanted to create a small idea which made a big difference and alluded to the mobile phone revolution. Wonderful stuff.

So, to the senior school. It’s fair to say that pre-Helen Jeys the local perception of the senior school was that while lovely, academic stretching was not necessarily a driving force. (Parents indicated tutoring tended to fill teaching gaps.) This is now all changed; she has introduced new rigorous systems tracking academic progress with targets for each pupil. Parents welcomed this and recognised the bar was carefully but firmly being raised academically. Everyone takes at least one language to GCSE, with French, Spanish, Latin and German available. iPads are used in lessons to enrich learning; the head sees technology as paving the way for increased interest in STEM subjects (in biology, for example, girls can see cells illuminated).

The staff we spoke to were eloquent and enthusiastic. Some in leadership roles were relatively new, suggesting the head is taking a tight, dynamic team forwards to help make this school take flight.

The learning enhancement department has lots of experience with dyslexia and dyspraxia. It carries out assessments in house and puts in place structured programmes for the 70+ pupils with SEN. The head was emphatic that providing the strategies are in place, issues like dyslexia should never be a barrier. Parents we spoke to with dyslexic children were more than happy. Extra support for all pupils is always available; one sixth former struggling with a challenging topic said she had received one-to-one sessions which had been transformative.

The scores on the doors for results are pretty good, but we would lay money on an upward trend being plotted over the next five years. In 2016 at GCSE, 44 per cent of grades achieved were A*/A. At A level, 38 per cent A*/A grades (bear in mind it was 27 per cent in 2014 and watch this space).

Games, options, the arts

Great emphasis is placed on the extracurricular; wisely, the head takes the view that a lot of problems can be eliminated if girls are kept occupied. Plenty of opportunities to listen to inspiring speakers, some of whom are alumnae, such as a lecturer in neuropharmacology at St George’s, London. Building the alumnae association is a core project; the head hopes they will be able to give advice and mentoring. A mention of the great theatre director, Marianne Elliott (War Horse and The Curious Incident of the dog in the Night Time), leapt out of the school magazine as an inspiring example. Lauren Child and Beth Tweddle recently visited the school.

The head considers sport a confidence-building tool for girls to deal with setbacks and one million smackers has been sunk into new sporting facilities: a new fitness suite, a climbing wall and a new dance floor among others. The school was a recent finalist in the national netball tournament and parents mentioned a new dynamism had taken root: team tours and Saturday fixtures. Those not so keen on team sports can test themselves on the climbing walls or in the gym. The junior school shares the senior school facilities and they play the usual sports - tennis, hockey, netball, rounders, football - with some less usual options: a fencing course, trampolining, zumba.

Lots of great clubs: coding, drones, engineering, gardening, with Mandarin and French clubs too in the junior school. A panoply of musical possibilities in junior and senior schools: choirs, orchestras, a showband. Drama and dance opportunities are plentiful; The Bacchae was the senior school’s most recent and ambitious play, set in a modern day music festival, complete with wellies and sleeping bags. It’s a nice balance: a serious play every other year, in between something more altogether more West End in flavour (2018: Beauty and the Beast). Year, 6, meanwhile, recently performed the Lion King.

The school enters pupils into an array of competitions to broaden horizons: Model United Nations; GCHQ on coding and cryptography; linguistics Olympiad; national biology challenge, bar mock trial competition and many more. Pupils recently got through to the regional finals of the UK Maths Challenge, with one pupil invited to the UKMT summer school. They were runners up in the National Big Bang Engineering Competition and recent winners of the Steve Nash Memorial Award for innovation in engineering (designing a huge playground clock for special needs education). One parent alluded to a fantastic careers evenings where lawyers, accountants, doctors gather and said girls are encouraged to think widely.

Pupils said they felt the school fostered leadership skills and saw perseverance as a crucial facet in this. (One girl, referring to her public speaking team’s naively enthusiastic decision to do their competition speeches entirely in rhyme, proudly confessed the actuality required pure slog.) Juniors can enter the Youth Speaks competition and LAMDA exams; parents felt that reading aloud and learning speeches was great for building confidence.

Lots of trips on the horizon: Iceland, Madrid, Washington DC and New York.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1999 from the merging of Mount Carmel RC convent school on the present site and the Anglican St Hilary’s run by the Woodard Corporation from the south end of the village. Now describes itself as an ecumenical unified Christian school.

The junior school is light, bright and vibrant. Celebration boards highlight achievements from creative writing to gymnastics. There is a lovely adventure playground and lots of Astroturf. A great cafeteria with healthy food and a grown up feel is a good touch. Apparently the children moan about it but parents were very happy.

Modernity and vibrancy are common denominators in the senior school. High up windows and a building flooded with light. Pupils said the school ‘looked better’ since Helen Jeys swept into town; a sense of community pulses through the corridors, a stronger connection with the school’s heritage. The art on the walls, the photographs of trips are all aimed at reinforcing the spectrum of possibility on offer to the girls. Intelligent department displays; the English department’s ‘Who will I read next?’, a web authors and novels, was terrific. The maths rooms had blackboards with calculations scrawled over them in different coloured chalk, illuminating the beauty of maths.

The library and IT rooms had a studious air and a quiet buzz. Pupils look smart; the navy blue uniform is strict and Helen Jeys is a stickler for skirt lengths (hurray for that!).

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Every parent spoke about the nurturing atmosphere at the junior school. Topics like friendship are discussed in assemblies and pupils seemed to have a very mature understanding about cyber-bullying. Teachers were there if you felt anxious, they said, and felt happy to approach them. A mindfulness programme consists of 'myHappymind' and 'Paws b' curriculum, and if playground politics runs amok, there’s always the Orange Juice Club, a place to discuss worries.

The pastoral is at the centre of everything in the senior school too. With her experience in her previous role at Manchester High, Helen Jeys knows just how beneficial a nurturing environment can be in raising academic standards. Alderley Girls has always been strong pastorally – parents described it as exceptional – but her philosophy is proactivity before reactivity. She has introduced a SHARP system (student help advice reporting page), and a website where pupils can register concerns about themselves and other pupils (not eating or feeling low). The teachers can then keep a surreptitious eye out. The online mental health section gets lots of hits. Teachers can see what’s being accessed and gear assembly topics around problematic issues.

The head recently went on local BBC radio to talk about measures the school is taking to prepare girls for life ahead, including mindfulness practice and learning about the neurology of the brain. Parents loved the pupils’ wellness day, its focus on healthy eating and relaxation. One parent was very impressed that after her child had lost weight due to an innocent medical reason, the school had been immediately alert to the change.

The sixth form pupils we met were confident, secure and talked openly about good teacher relationships and a sense of sisterhood. One girl discussed the counselling she had received for her shyness with no trace of self-consciousness.

A deputy head oversees pastoral care: there is a full pastoral team, peer mentors, a school nurse and the chaplain. Assemblies discuss bullying and mental health; Lenny, the chaplain, regularly tackles these topics. (The school embraces all faiths but in line with its Christian foundation, the chaplain supplies an extra layer of support.)

The school’s phone policy is terrific: the girls hand them in each morning and receive them back at the end of the day. Wifi for all devices is turned off over lunch, so they have to talk, think, observe.

Pupils are listened to: student council meetings have importance and head sees smaller discussion groups of girls. At the time of our visit, new online work planners were being tested by a pupil focus group. The process for voting in a new head girl is rigorous and taken very seriously. At the last Celebration Evening, the girls did the presenting; a subtle way of introducing them to leadership, one parent felt.

Pupils and parents

Pupils come from local Wilmslow, Altrincham, Prestbury, Knutsford, Hale, Bowdon, Macclesfield and further afield. There is a broad highway of communication between staff and parents; an open door policy, half termly reports, parents’ evenings, ‘consultations’ and coffee mornings. Parents said that since Helen, if they mentioned any areas of disquiet (one parent was concerned her daughter, with dyslexia, lacked confidence in one particular subject) it would immediately be actioned and sorted.

Entrance

Most enter the junior school as early years pupils without assessment. Those entering from year 3 have a short assessment in maths and English.

Virtually all junior school pupils move up to the senior school; teachers say they ‘take it in their stride’. A few leave if a sibling is elsewhere or if the school feels the pupil would flourish better elsewhere. One parent felt - and she perceived this as a positive -that there was now a sense of uncertainty around the exam as to whether all pupils would ‘get through’, which she thought was indicative of greater emphasis on the academic. Nearly half of year 7 comes from outside, the rest from the junior school.

Exit

Around one-third leave post-GCSE. According to the new head of sixth, the vast majority of pupils get five university offers. Two got into Oxbridge in 2016 (classics and biochemistry); we suspect this will increase over the next few years. Generally around half to Russell Groups to do a variety of subjects, many vocational or STEM-related: dentistry, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, biology, law. Others do philosophy, languages, or vocational subjects such as fashion design or international business.

In the past, university choices clustered around the north, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Durham, Keele, Newcastle, Liverpool. The pupils we met about to take their A levels were heading to southern universities, so this looks set to change with the net being spread out far wider.

Money matters

Usual reductions for siblings. Scholarships available in the senior school for girls who excel academically and/or in music, performing arts, art and sport.

Our view

Whatever you think you know about this school, think again. Its fusion of increased emphasis on the academic combined with a stellar pastoral system is going to make it a winner. If you want your daughter to be intellectually curious and fulfil her academic potential but without any attendant hothouse pressures, this is just the place.

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