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From the outside, the boys’ school is fairly unprepossessing, all a bit Grange Hill. Inside, though, there are wall displays everywhere and sense of industriousness. The girls' building, as you’d expect, has the look and feel of an old grammar, especially in the beautiful old Roger Kay Hall. The relatively new arts centre (the school won a fundraising award for its ingenuity) is a wonderful space for sixth formers to work, faint strains of music filtering from the music department. Great common room, too, and coffee place with a relaxed grown up vibe. The family of schools is now an all-singing, all-dancing 45 acre campus (25 acres of which is a short walk down the road). Lots to stimulate in juniors - a Secret Garden theme around the library and super corridor displays; we particularly liked one on …

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What the school says...

Entrance examinations consist of: 11Maths, English and Interview. 16 GCSEs and Interview.

Based on KS2 syllabus, not designed to be a threatening hurdle. Previous year paper sent out. Last three years available to purchase.

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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

Principal

Since 2016, Jo Anderson BA (modern languages; University of Leeds), PGCE MEd (secondary curriculum leadership), who became head of the senior girls’ school in 2015. She is now principal and responsible for the strategic planning for the future of the entire family of the Bury Grammar Schools, boys’ and girls’, both junior and senior. Previously she worked at Stockport Grammar, Manchester Grammar, Queen's Chester, latterly as head of the girls’ division at the King's School Macclesfield, and has worked across all age ranges and both sexes.

Thoughtful and insightful in all her responses, very easy to talk to, she exudes a quiet efficiency under which almost certainly lurks much inner tungsten. Over the last year, she has implemented a great deal of change (‘seismic’ was a descriptive term used more than once during our visit), having initiated a far-reaching curriculum review across both senior and junior schools and overseen a couple of changes in senior positions. Prior to her appointment, though the boys’ and girls’ schools carried the same branding and were only a stone’s throw from each other, they pretty much operated as separate entities. This is no longer the case; in effect, there is now something similar to an all-through diamond structure. Girls and boys are mixed at infants, single sex from junior through to senior, with both genders joining again at sixth form. The sixth form has, in practice, been mixed for some time but is now 'officially so'.

As Mrs Anderson puts it, pupils now have twice as many opportunities going for them. On a basic level this means pupils applying for medicine, for example, can talk to heads of science on both sides of the road. And while both genders have the space to learn separately with no distractions, they do all their extracurricular activities together, share clubs and trips and so by the time they hit sixth form, they are ready to mix just as they would at university.

It may have all been ‘seismic’, but the changes seem to be paying dividends; the number of external pupils who join at 11+ is up significantly across both schools. No mean feat when you factor in that the pass mark for the entrance exam was raised, making the school more academically selective, and bearing in mind this is not a wealthy area of the north overall.

Vice principal and headmaster of the senior boys’ school since 2017: Devin Cassidy BSc (Chemistry, University of Wales, Bangor) PGCE. He has been at Bury since 1999, becoming deputy head, then head (prior to that, he worked at Eirias High School, north Wales). He comes across as grounded and calm, qualities he may well have needed during this period of change for the schools. While aware that educating the boys in a single sex environment means they are not inhibited, he is very much in tune with the times; on International Women’s Day, he happily declared himself a ‘feminist’ in assembly, prompting a number of the staff to ‘come out’ as feminists themselves. It resulted in some fantastic pledges from the boys to support a more equal society. This is a boys’, not a lads’, school, Mr Cassidy says. A sentiment reiterated within the school magazine, in which he expressed his wish for the boys to be ‘grounded, articulate, intelligent and kind’. He recognises the social temperature has changed a great deal with movements like Time's Up and is clear schools have a responsibility ‘to stand up as educators and lead the way’, ‘be the moral compasses'. Likewise, he refers to the school’s keenness to increase bursaries and emphasises that it takes great care to monitor boys receiving those bursaries, to make sure they are looked after. Integration needs to be carefully handled, he says.

Primary principal and head of kindergarten since September 2019: Chrissy Howard (MCIPS Salford University and PGCE). She has been with Bury since 2005 - first with Bury boys’ junior where she became assistant head, then moving to the girls in 2017. She is very approachable and clearly lovely with the girls. One expects heads to have every detail at their fingertips but she really did, all with an understated efficiency. She understands how crucial it is for girls to have an environment where they can question and explore and, as such, has driven the new outdoors aspect to the curriculum, allowing the girls to problem-solve in fresh air while getting down with nature…and perhaps a little bit muddy too.

Academic matters

The co-ed infant school, ages 4-7 (there is a kindergarten from 3) has a play-based approach to learning, small class sizes and an atmosphere of irrepressible cheeriness. A broad curriculum includes science, geography, thinking skills, as well as the core subjects, which means a nice balance between learning and enjoyment. The classrooms are beautifully and imaginatively decorated, a huge 3D cardboard tree in reception reflecting changes in the seasons. There is specialist teaching for sports and music (and use of the school swimming pool too).

In the junior school, the broad curriculum continues. Following the curriculum review, a new humanities programme is in place and Latin has been added to years 5 and 6 alongside the other languages on offer. IT is integral to teaching and also as a standalone. Outdoor education is a new introduction. Lots of cross-curricular themes, the Egyptians not just being for history but geography and art too. Teaching in class is differentiated with lots of assessments and targets and school says they push the core subjects. The maths teaching is especially strong. With pupils who are veering ahead, school says they push for mastery, not necessarily to stray into next year’s curriculum but for wider knowledge and skills. And for those who need an extra bit of support across spelling or maths, interventions are speedy, with an SEN teacher writing personal pupil support programmes when required. Booster groups, with positive titles like ‘magical maths’ are another form of support. In short, plenty of personalised learning to bridge any gaps.

In the senior school, class sizes are around 22. A wide curriculum prevails in year 7 and following the curriculum review, both the girls' and boys' schools offer three languages. Any outdated subject divisions - and there were a few, such as food tech for the girls and CDT for the boys – have, happily, been scrapped. Both schools now offer both. Drama is available for the first time, but one parent lamented that GCSE PE had been dropped. School is very tuned in to the emphasis exam boards now place on unseen material and is keen to develop pupils’ higher order thinking skills. Strong subjects, say parents and pupils, are chemistry, biology, economics, maths and geography. Following the changes in both GCSE and A level exams, the school now steers pupils towards sitting nine GCSEs and three A levels. Students also receive extra teaching time (in year 12, an extra 90 minutes per subject per fortnight). Over the three-year GCSE course, students have an extra 20 minutes a fortnight per subject. In 2019, A level results across the Bury Grammar schools were 38 per cent A*/A and 66 per cent A*/B and at GCSE, 53 per cent A*-A/9-7 grades.

EPQ is offered to all sixth formers and the HPQ, which also counts as a GCSE, has been introduced. Half termly assessment is key to see who needs support to achieve their potential or who could stretch to more. Mrs Anderson says they also look at the pupil holistically, at class feedback and any pastoral issues. There are drop in sessions near exams for anyone needing extra help. Parents attest to both the girls and boys being encouraged to aim high but never being pressured.

A full time SENCo, who is also able to do assessments, works across both boys’ and girls’ schools. Staff are trained to look out for the subtle signs. The principal feels passionate about this area, says there is no reason why a learning barrier means a pupil can’t achieve great things. All SEN pupils also meet once a week with a SEN assistant to identify any areas of difficulty, such as organisation. There is more value added with SEN students, head says, than with others. The girls’ school still operates mainly to the GCSE syllabuses (the boys take IGCSEs) but this is not in stone, she says.

It’s also worth adding that as a result of the curriculum review, the school is focussed on strengthening scholarship and raising academic standards. Initiatives like the additional lesson time at A level and a new competitive course preparation programme are, Mrs Anderson says, all about achieving that.

Games, options, the arts

Junior school libraries displays showed a regular stream of visiting authors. Around the time of our visit, Kate Pankhurst, author of Great Women Who Changed the World, was due to arrive in the girls’ school. The year 6 girls who showed us round were fully conversant with all these great women, from Marie Curie to Rosa Parks (we were told us the boys had also been studying this).

Junior clubs are numerous and wide-ranging, from coding to puzzles to the ukulele. Those that used to only be open to boys – fencing and climbing – are now open to girls also. Our guides chatted enthusiastically about the huge engineering club display in the hallway (their entry to a competition run by Manchester University)…and also fizzed about school trips and hosting the local 10 school Association of Junior Independent Schools (AJIS) music festival. Many activities like swimming and the annual cinema trip are also joint across the boys’ and girls’ schools. One parent praised the residential trips (which kick off in year 4) to places like York and Edale (the latter is all zip wires and fire-building), saying the change in the children, the growth of independence, was marked. There are numerous competitions, both external and internal, from Shakespearean verse speaking and Young Mathematicians to a region-wide general knowledge quiz. Sport is important and includes all the usual suspects, football, rugby, cross-country, athletics, cricket and hockey. Music is strong with orchestras and bands; the school’s entry into the annual Ramsbottom Festival usually results in a trophy or two for the choir.

In the senior school, there is an even bigger range of clubs, including some quirky ones, ‘apps for good’, Mandarin, sign language, conflict simulation. Lots of competitions, such as the Crest Chemistry Award, maths challenge and Latin-speaking. Some interesting opportunities too: the school sends a team to BBC’s Media City to watch a programme being made (the rest of the year group remaining in school as a ‘news team’ for the day). Trips are wide ranging: classics trips to Italy, an annual trip to the First World War Battlefields (Bury School lost many boys during the war and this is remembered every year), and to some far flung places such as Nicaragua.

The senior school has a glossy and vibrant drama department with big productions like Little Shop of Horrors, Annie, Beauty and the Beast. All very professional. ‘You forget you are watching children,’ one parent said. Numerous chances to perform in choirs, orchestras and bands and, on a wider stage, in the Ramsbottom Festival.

Great sporting facilities on a huge campus, more usual ones such as netball, hockey, football, tennis, rounders, athletics and now more off-beat sports, like fencing. Many pupils are part of regional and national teams. Students also fundraise to go on international tours.

CCF is huge in the Bury schools (one of the oldest platoons in the country). Parents felt the resilience acquired from the ‘fall down, dust yourself off, learn and move on’ mentality was invaluable. Duke of Edinburgh is on offer from year 9 upwards.

There is a steady stream of speakers to the sixth form, some from nearby Manchester University, others big names in their field, like historian Michael Wood. There are also practical work-related visits, such as a trip to the offices of Grant Thornton. Pupils all showed a sense that debate, open discussion and experimenting with ideas are an important part of life. A sixth former referred with enthusiasm to assemblies with TED-style talks on topics such as space exploration and inventions. The responsibility for these talks has been handed to the sixth form, who must do the intro, marketing, write the press release and review afterwards. There are also mock elections, debate clubs, Rhys Davies mock trials, all nurturing that extra spark.

Background and atmosphere

The boys' school was founded in 1570, originally only open to boys from poorer families. Bury High School for girls opened in 1884. In 1906, it joined the boys' school on its current site. The vast Buckley Wells playing fields were acquired in 1924 and the boys moved across the road to a new building in 1966.

From the outside, the boys’ school is fairly unprepossessing, all a bit Grange Hill. Inside, though, there are wall displays everywhere and sense of industriousness. The girls' building, as you’d expect, has the look and feel of an old grammar, especially in the beautiful old Roger Kay Hall. The relatively new arts centre (the school won a fundraising award for its ingenuity) is a wonderful space for sixth formers to work, faint strains of music filtering from the music department. Great common room, too, and coffee place with a relaxed grown up vibe.

The girls’ junior opened next door in 1997; pre-school and infants followed in 2008. The girls’ junior school is modern and airy with lovely reading areas strewn with cushions. A light octagonal hall and a little gym (they also use the senior school sports hall). Classrooms all with interactive whiteboards. Lots to stimulate, a Secret Garden theme around the library and super corridor displays; we particularly liked one on a fictitious Museum of Fun, a utopia of attractions galore, all for free – and very Panglossian.

The boys’ junior school is housed in the old (and former) Court and Police Station and opened in 1993 (pre-school and infants followed in 2008). The school still retains the original cells, much to the delight of the boys, albeit now under the less exciting guise of music rooms.

The family of schools is now an all-singing, all-dancing 45 acre campus (25 acres of which is a short walk down the road), with swimming pool, sports halls, multi-playing surfaces, courts and playing fields.

An ex-head girl showed us round the girls’ school and while there was a faint whiff (in the best possible way) of ‘give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life’, her enthusiasm about her experiences at school was evident and life-defining. She is not alone; Bury may not be on the global map but its alumnae have their share of razzle dazzle, listing among them Victoria Wood, presenter Victoria Derbyshire, actress Kate O’Flynn and TV producer Nicola Shindler.

Two enthusiastic male pupils showed us round the boy’s school, pointing out their favourite parts -the science lab (which revealed an interesting project on genes) and the lovely art space (the boys’ favourite) housed an eco-village, along with marble runs made of wood, plus an interesting display of clay shoes. Lots of corridor displays give it a cheery feel. A rather impressive ensemble of the boys’ take on Monet’s bridge caught the eye.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

The girls’ junior school recognises that young girls are sensitised to what others think of them so there is a lot of education around being considerate. Mobile phones are locked away and online education is considered crucial. There are buddy groups and the playground is full of activities should a girl find herself on her own for five minutes (which the head knows feels like hours in child-time). Parents say that if they ever sense problems, a quiet word with the teacher and the problem ‘goes away’. ‘It’s just dealt with’.

In the boys’ junior school, leadership is really pushed and the boys’ pride is huge if, for example, they became house captains. There is, says school, an ethos of responsibility. When a boy slips up, they get issued a code of conduct, and a list of positive behaviours. We asked the boys showing us round whether they had ever been issued one and there was an element of palpable relief to their 'no, but we know boys who have'. They knew the code well. There is also a buddy system and ‘boys of the week’ awards to reward and motivate.

At the senior girls’ school, a culture of openness is encouraged. After the 2017 Manchester terrorist attack, where some pupils were present, there were open discussions around how society could pull together more, how to combat terrorism and start fundraising.

Lots of praise for pastoral care in the boys’ senior school - staff know the boys very well, we heard. Parents describe it as like family. School alludes to the importance of challenge in the extracurricular, keeping the boys all busy. There is also the school health team, with a nurse and a counsellor for deeper issues.

Pupils and parents

The pull is wide, chiefly from the northern parts of Manchester, Salford, Rochdale, Oldham, with some from Bolton. These areas have some very poor parts within them so parents and pupils tend to be very socially aware and religious tolerance is a given.

Junior school parents described as supportive and active. Comms are in the process of being improved (emails and texts). Half term assessments and grades shared with parents. There are parents’ forums and coffee and cake sessions. In the senior school, Mrs Anderson says parents are a ‘really friendly’ group and fully appreciate what the school is seeking to do. There is a parent forum.

Entrance

Entry into reception is by observation, and into years 1 and 2 by spending half a day in the school. Junior schools each have a two class entry - 15 to 20 per class - and prospective pupils spend an assessment day (a short interview, a reading comprehension and maths assessment). It’s not just about testing, though: the school is looking for intellectual curiosity and a lot of that is gauged through observation and conversation. Those moving from a previous school will need to provide references.

Any pupil joining the junior school prior to year 5 has automatic entrance to the senior school. Virtually all stay on. It is a very rare that it is felt a pupil will fare better in a different school. Transition is easier knowing this, but there are ‘experience days’ blending external and internal candidates together. Parents say the transition is handled incredibly well; the taster days and intros start early in year 6 so it is a very smooth passage.
External 11+ candidates now sit papers in maths, English and verbal reasoning. Some 120 extra pupils enter the boys’ school, ditto for the girls’ - 70 per cent from state primaries, 30 per cent from preps – now more external than internal candidates.

Exit

Virtually all junior school children go on to the senior school. Some 60 per cent leaves after GCSEs. Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, UCL, Nottingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Newcastle and Warwick currently popular university destinations. Eight went on to study medicine in 2019, and two went to Oxbridge.

Money matters

Fees in line with those of other schools in the area. Plenty of means-tested bursaries and a drive towards increasing scholarships across a range of areas.

Our view

A vibrant school, offering a fantastic array of extracurricular and enrichment activities. Currently delivers good, solid academic results, especially around value-added. A school leading from the front in its emphasis on gender equality and nurturing mutual respect. A positive, uplifting environment for girls and a boys' not a lads’ school.

Please note: 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.

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