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The infant school 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. Half termly assessment is key in the senior school; based on this, staff can see who might need support to achieve their potential or stretch to more. One parent told us there was a genuine endeavour to deliver personalised learning...

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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 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'.) Mrs Anderson says pupils will now have twice as many opportunities going for them. And while both genders have the space to learn with no distractions or barriers, they get to do all their extracurricular activities together. By the time they hit sixth form, they are ready to mix just as they would at university.

The changes seem to be paying dividends as the number of pupils entering in September 2018 at 11+ was up more than 40 per cent across both schools.

Headmaster since 2017: Devin Cassidy BSc (Chemistry, University of Wales, Bangor) PGCE, is headmaster of the senior and junior boys' school. 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.

Head of junior boys’ since 2015 is Matt Turner (BSc, University of Wolverhampton) - previously at Cheadle Hulme Junior School – whose great energy and enthusiasm is infectious; in fact a passion for teaching seems to flow from every pore. Mr Turner encourages an interactive learning style within the school and is keen on child-led learning, suggesting the staff need to be brave and flexible, let the children pursue off-curriculum questions, nurture their intellectual curiosity. As with Mr Cassidy, he feels that single-sex education gives the boys space to ‘blow off steam’ but welcomes the fact that following the curriculum review, ‘nothing is off the table’ any more , equal opportunities for both genders prevail (this rhetoric is something of a theme across this family of schools). He works closely with the head of the junior girls, sharing books such as the Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst (doing the rounds in junior schools across the country). Parents say he has breathed new life into the school, ‘loves his job’ and has a genuinely open door policy, being keen that the relationship between parents and school is as good as it can be. A drama teacher, he still teaches and gets to know every boy in the school.

Leaving in December 2019.

Academic matters

The co-ed infant school, ages 4-7 (there is a pre-school from 2) 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, Latin has been added to years 5 and 6 (alongside the other languages on offer). Mr Turner is a fan 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 Mr Turner says they push the core subjects. The maths teaching, he feels, is especially strong. With pupils who are veering ahead, he says they push for mastery, not necessarily to stray into next year’s curriculum but for wider knowledge and skills.

Two enthusiastic boys showed us round the 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.

Following the curriculum review, there have been certain changes in the senior school (eg studying three languages) and for the first time drama is on offer. GCSE study is now for three years; Mr Cassidy says they want to go slower and deeper. This has meant dropping one or two subjects; one parent lamented that GCSE PE had been dropped.

Mr Cassidy is very tuned in to the emphasis exam boards now place on unseen material and is keen to develop pupils’ higher order thinking skills. The boys still study mostly IGSCEs but this is not cast in stone. GSCE results in 2018: 33 per cent of grades were A*-A/9-7.

A level results 33 per cent A*/A (70 per cent A*-B). Strong subjects were chemistry, biology, economics, maths and geography. Following on from the curriculum review, GCSE and A level students are to receive extra teaching time (year 12, 90 minutes extra per subject per fortnight). The school now steers pupils towards nine GCSEs and three A levels. EPQ available and the HPQ is also being introduced at GCSE level.

Half termly assessment is key; based on this, staff can see who might need support to achieve their potential or stretch to more. One parent told us there was a genuine endeavour to deliver personalised learning, referring to the practical lesson tweaks that meant her child could learn more easily. There are drop-in clinics and parents say the teaching is ‘second to none’ with lots of extra revision sessions after school and on a Saturdays around exams.

There is a full time SENCo who is also able to do all assessments where a teacher might have a concern (some pupils arrive with a report or an assessment). All pupils also meet once a week with a SEN assistant to identify any areas of difficulty, such as organisation.

Games, options, the arts

In the junior school, there are a variety of clubs from gardening to origami and scratch coding. Clubs that used to only be open to the boys, such as climbing, are now open to both sexes. Many activities like swimming and the annual cinema trip are also joint with the girls. 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 vast 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 vibrant drama department garnered much parental praise and runs with big productions like Little Shop of Horrors and Les Misérables. All very professional.

Sport is dominant at all levels with extras like basketball and badminton added to the junior school offering, all with lots of competitions, some international. 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

Founded in 1570 in the centre of Bury, the school was originally only open to boys from poorer families. It was re-founded by Revd Roger Kay (a former pupil) in 1726. (The Bury High School opened for girls in 1884.) The boys’ school moved close to its current site in 1903, the girls joining them in the same building in 1906. The vast Buckley Wells playing fields were acquired in 1924. In 1966, the boys moved to a new, modern building on the playing fields. From the outside, it is a fairly unprepossessing, all a bit Grange Hill. Inside, though, there are wall displays everywhere and sense of industriousness.

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.

Today, the schools are part of 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, sports courts and playing fields.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

In the junior school, leadership is ‘really pushed,’ Mr Turner says, referring to the boys’ huge pride if they became house captains. There is, he says, 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.

In the senior school, Mr Cassidy considers pastoral to be very strong, saying the staff know the boys very well. Parents agree and describe it as like family. Mr Cassidy 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.

Mr Cassidy said one of the aspects which first drew him to the school was the lack of any discernible arrogance in the boys. We would concur. The ones we met were down to earth, nurturing ambition but with no sense of entitlement. They seemed prepared to graft.

There is a parents’ forum across the boys' and girls' schools and many parent ambassadors. The parents we spoke to were very much on board with the changes, especially the mixed sixth form (though all said they really valued the separate teaching of each sex, prior to sixth form).

Entrance

Entry into reception is by observation, and into years 1 and 2 by spending half a day in the school. Junior school is 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 school, 70 per cent from state primaries, 30 per cent from preps.

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. Two went on to study medicine in 2018 (including one to Prague), with another off to Texas on a sports scholarship.

Oxbridge candidates have not fared so well over the last year or two (though prior to that, there was a trickle) but Mrs Anderson says they are addressing this and introducing Oxbridge lessons alongside other initiatives and support.

Money matters

A lot more emphasis is being put on scholarships and the school is keen on means-tested bursaries. Mr Cassidy says they visit the families of the latter and have deep understanding of their needs.

Our view

A vibrant school offering a fantastic array of extracurricular and enrichment activities, as well as delivering excellent academic results. A school leading from the front in educating boys in tune with modern times. A boys' not a lads’ school.

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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