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Museum-quality exhibitions make corridors places to linger, sciences especially, with row upon row of vintage equipment (stroboscope, Butchard Balance); antique glass chemical bottles and jars of different life forms – sponges to vertebrates - by the yard, all the work of the school’s team of dedicated technicians (think house elves but with total autonomy) with an exceptional sense of order and desire to label, name and cross reference. Even vintage wooden benches in one of the biology labs gleam. ‘Technicians come in, sand them down and polish them each holiday,‘ says teacher... 

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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

Head

Since January 2018, Alan Bird (40s). First headship. Original childhood ambition to be a high flyer - as a pilot - has been amply, if differently, fulfilled. After reading economics at Cambridge (it was that or music as a degree), decided on education as a career after teaching at his old school between completing his degree and taking his masters. Manages to have ‘a hinterland‘ – enjoys travel, skiing and is a bit of a foodie, as well as retaining an abiding interest in politics.

Started at Tonbridge School in 2002 as an economics and politics teacher, was promoted to head of politics in 2004, also taking in roles as an assistant housemaster and school magazine editor as well as coordinating Oxbridge admissions for arts and humanities and looking after bursaries programme. Moved to Brighton College as head of sixth form in 2010, where he was promoted to deputy head three and a half years in.

School’s ethos really chimes. ‘It’s very down to earth, we don’t stand on ceremony.’ The sort of pupils who thrive here may be hugely diverse when it comes to wealth, background, religion and location. What they share is desire to throw themselves into everything the school offers and do well on their own merits. The result is ‘a vibrant atmosphere that makes it a really rewarding place to work.’

Mr Bird is clever, thoughtful and popular. Staff think he’s great. ‘A delight,‘ said one. ‘I genuinely don’t see how he could have been a better fit – obvious that he loves the school and the job.‘

Parents who’ve met him describe him as friendly, nice. ‘He feels like he’s invested, he cares,’ said one. Pupils rate him. ‘He’s maintained the level of the school,‘ pronounced one. He’s youthful (some parents rumoured to know him as ‘baby Bird,’) which helps. ‘Feels quite refreshing,’ said one. In addition to teaching (year 12 economics and year 8 PSHE), he’s inviting small groups of youngest and oldest boys to chat to him over pizza. ‘Being chatted to on their level feels like much more of a connection with someone who could feel quite out of reach,’ said parent. Pupils’ questions have been varied. ‘At 10 and 11 they have no inhibitions,’ says Mr Bird. ‘I’ve been asked everything from opening times for the sports entrance to how I got the job and what school inspectors are looking for.’

From the view from his office across the Thames to the Tate (better in winter when attention-seeking tree, slap bang in front of office window, loses its leaves) to the school’s raison d’etre, there’s nothing about the role he doesn’t enjoy. He exudes the air of someone who’s almost pinching himself that he’s here.

Academic matters

‘Unashamedly academic,’ says the school. It’s taken as read. ‘We don’t talk about it a lot at open days,’ says Mr Bird. But wait: there’s more – much more - that will help pupils get the most out their time here, including a ‘passion for intellectual exploration’, a desire to ‘challenge, query, question and argue…’ so they’re ‘engaged and excited and ready for undergraduate life at university.’

‘Does feel like they’re thinking not just about the academic side of things but ultimately producing more rounded men,’ said parent.

Whole form learning most of the way through, with limited ‘loose’ setting in maths (most able can take an additional level 3 maths qualification on top of GCSE) and French. Year 6 pupils (‘Old Grammar’ here) have a lesson a week on getting themselves sorted (everything from time management to touch typing). Plenty of academic support all the way through. ‘If struggling in any subject we can approach teachers who organise sessions,‘ said pupil.

Exam results do them proud. In 2019, 94 per cent 9-7 grades at GCSE (most take 10 in year 11 which could – unusually – include five modern and classical languages, with some sitting a couple of music and languages a year early).

Languages are very ambitious. There’s Latin, French and Mandarin from first form (OG study classics and linguistics). Essential grounding, says the school, which points out that Mandarin can’t be covered from a standing start in year 10, unlike eg Russian, though it’s dropped by quite a few pupils in third year.

Results in A levels also impressive (75 per cent A*/A or Pre-U equivalent, the latter taught in nine subjects, mainly modern languages and some humanities). STEM enthusiasts dominate – maths, economics, chemistry, physics and further maths account for around 60 per cent of total A level entries.

But while numbers taking English, art, drama and Latin are currently well below horde levels, they’re rising, says the school, while parents confirm that bright boys whose interests lie outside STEM aren’t made to feel like second class citizens. ‘Any boy should be able to do any A level and feel [equally well] supported,‘ agrees Mr Bird.

In a similar vein, lower maths sets are allocated top quality teachers, whose confidence boosting powers can be transformative. ‘Has turned things round because he’s starting to learn at his own pace,’ said parent. ‘It’s a credit to the school that they’ve made it something that he enjoyed. Certainly hasn’t felt that you’re dismissed if you’re not naturally good at maths.’

School also good at celebrating all achievements. ‘Not just the boys who got into Oxbridge and no one else counts,’ said parent. Mr Bird’s goal is for boys to be comfortable in their own skin. ‘If that means 140 different outcomes for 140 leavers, it’s fine by me.’

Amount of homework (which attracts a ‘diversity‘ of opinion, says Mr Bird, diplomatically) is chunky (there’s a big step up from year 8, thought a parent). Good organisational skills are a definite bonus, though teachers felt to be really aware of what boys are doing – ‘have a really good handle on the balance they have,’ said parent - and to adjust deadlines if needed.

We like the evident pride school takes in ‘our boys' talents’, as do the inspectors. Pupils are ‘exceptionally well educated,’ they say. No doubt, like us, they took in the stretch curriculum with boys entering essay competitions (Erasmus, John Locke, Peterhouse, Juvenes Translatores, Trinity), Olympiad competitions in maths and sciences, and recently ‘excelling’ in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (synthetic biology, apparently). Parents agree. ‘I feel his outlook on the world is growing, he’ll suddenly be able to discuss things I didn’t think he knew anything about. There’s a confidence that they have in themselves that they will get them through the journey,’ said one.

Some tutoring is inevitable but pressure, here, reckoned to come from the boys rather than the school. ‘The school has a trust in its own ability, it doesn’t so far seem to be obviously pushy and demanding,’ said mother. ‘If my son gets frustrated it’s when he compares himself to his peers, not because his teachers have made him feel like that.’ Pupils agree. ‘You see your friends do well and want to do everything you can do to get yourself there,‘ said one.

Even daily form time is a cut above the norm – a ‘dynamic 20 minute period [with] fast paced games of chess, poetry competitions, fierce debate about newspaper articles, and discussions ranging from football to sexual identity and consent,’ according to school policy.

Makes the most of world class organisations at their fingertips – hosts regular science conference at the Guildhall (well, when you can partner with the City of London Corporation and its academies, would be rude not to). Speakers range from Alistair Campbell (delivering ‘frank’ talk about Trump and Brexit) to AC Grayling on human nature and the inevitability of warfare (jolly).

Equally wide-ranging trips also offered, with school ensuring that costs don’t put them out of reach for less affluent families (all boys on busaries will have one funded overseas trip during school career). Any curriculum-fulfilling essential trips funded by school. Others, like taking a night train in Vietnam, or riding a camel in India, won’t be. ‘Not all those who wander are lost,’ says school website, though normal extensive risk assessment probably also helps.

Games, options, the arts

Good range, from LAMDA qualifications to Model United Nations. Plenty of prodigies, including chess and table tennis stars, while ‘sporting teams continue to secure silverware against stiff opposition,’ writes the alliteratively agile head (try repeating that 20 times wearing a gumshield).

No question of which sport dominates – 31 football teams (‘really strong,’ said a parent), 10 water polo – courtesy of attractive heated pool that’s also used, gratis, by pupils at local primary. Cricket has nine teams, basketball five. Also futsal (one team) and unofficial cricket in the courtyard (blue rubbish bins mark bowling/batting ends). Weekly sessions on superb games fields – downside the 35-40 minute journey, though ‘coach journey is something to look forward to,‘ said pupil.

Plenty of successes – footie first and second 11s were doing well. Fixtures and wins tend to reduce among the sixth, seventh or eighth teams, not helped by limited weekend match culture. Pupils we spoke to weren’t fussed – felt that anyone playing in less than elite teams had plenty of other interests to keep them occupied.

Visual arts impressive, thought-provoking, technically accomplished, performing arts ditto. Many productions, from senior school production with girls‘ school – small cast but lots of backstage opps too – to one-offs. One pupil wrote and co-directed ‘N1‘ about homeless/rough speakers as his EPQ project – script based on interviews…‘met my character,‘ said one of actors. ‘Enough to go round so that everyone who wants to get involved,‘ said pupil. ‘Recently did Chess. Ambitious but we absolutely nailed it.‘

Music toe-tappingly good. Jazz band rehearsal - Take the A Train - underway on day of visit, just one of the many ensembles, vocal and instrumental, on offer. Bottom two years get to try out a range of instruments, free to start with, advanced taking top level grade exams. One parent felt that given the range of talent, could perhaps sparkle even more. ‘Should be extraordinary.’

Fundraising is incredibly successful (bringing in over £80,000 a year), with pupil-run events including cake sales and an annual bake off (winner praised for ‘his lovely lemon macaroons,’) as well as a semi-staged production of The Magic Flute to raise money for charity, organised from scratch by two sixth formers. Lots of outreach, and support for good causes.

Parents delighted, though one thought that community service ‘should be compulsory’ as it’s currently losing out to CCF when pupils make a choice in third year. Head doesn’t plan major shake up, but given that many boys, he says, contribute to local communities rather than via the school, plans greater recognition for CSO activity overall.

Staff have forged excellent links with local state schools, with pupils coming in (to use sports facilities and science labs), and English, French, PE and science teachers going out to share specialist knowledge.

For any time left over, there are 48 clubs – run consistently and well. They range from delightful rambles through the predictable (astronomy, debating, running) to the hobbyist (model railways, birdwatching) to robotics (we listened to erudite explanations of how to programme a cart to negotiate a maze - sonic sensors that, bat-like, measure sound waves are the answer...), to the distinctly niche, like the cheese tasting society. ‘Wensleydale, Stilton and crackers,‘ said pupil, rolling eyes to indicate sheer heaven of the experience.

Staff keep an eye on levels of activity, think parents. ‘Have a good handle on the balance and if they feel they could be doing more to broaden their horizons, they’ll be encouraged to do so.’ Only improvement mentioned - ensuring that everyone knows club locations – can be confusing as ‘so many options and so many societies,’ said parent.

Background and atmosphere

Ancient school, originally founded in 1442 with money left by John Carpenter - whose statue presides over the atrium - to raise four deserving local children through to adulthood. Unusually, welcomed all comers: ‘…Jews and Gentile – all will be admitted to the same advantages.’

Diversity has endured to this day, as has educational innovation. Unlike other schools which moved out of central London, this one stayed put and ‘aligned itself to … the industrial world,’ most tangible manifestation its early adoption of science and other commercially-related subjects at a time when the classics dominated the curriculum elsewhere.

Current site is its third. Managed by the City of London Corporation (which still appoints the governors – nitty gritty of relationship best not attempted without a Venn diagram expert and a clear head), opened in 1837 in Milk Street, moved to larger buildings on Victoria Embankment in 1882 and – after evacuation to Marlborough College during WW2 – opened in current location in 1986.

The red-brick, almost symmetrical frontage is a 1980s take on a traditional mansion with wings, vaguely ecclesiastical-looking towers and the main entrance, accessorised by London pigeons perched on the railings, doing their best to add atmosphere (and droppings).

Cheerfully unpretentious, website featuring plenty of impressively ungussied up images of smiling, cheerful boys with ties adrift, blazer with the odd grubby patch and hands in pockets. We even went back and double checked that we’d clicked on the right school (we had). ‘Scruffy but happy,’ agreed a parent. ‘Don’t have to be polishing shoes till see face in them. Certainly not an emphasis on being manicured.’

Site is shaped either like an H (according to pupils) or an F (reckoned teacher) and there’s no ground floor (starts at level one). Go up, along and down (like a complex crossword clue) when there’s no through route and finding your way round will be a doddle, especially when you‘ve got features like the Concourse and Great Hall to navigate by.

Artefacts from school’s history pop up all over the place, from panels of Victorian stained glass in the dining hall (and elsewhere), each representing a City livery hall or benefactor, to Roman steps left over from excavation work. Even the organ (‘second most expensive thing in the school,‘ according to tour guide. The first? ‘The boiler‘) is the original, transported from previous school and reconfigured.

Plenty of the newer features pack just as much of a punch, particularly the new library (officially the Levene Learning Centre but ‘who says,“I’m just off to the learning centre?“' says teacher) is appealingly light, offering an ‘endless supply of books,‘ said pupil, and some fascinating extras. Displays, on shelves running round its inner walls, cry out to be looked at – currently work includes pupil-designed Ausopoly – a version of Monopoly featuring WW2 (and with Hitler very definitely in jail).

Similar museum-quality exhibitions make other corridors places to linger, sciences especially, with row upon row of vintage equipment (stroboscope, Butchard Balance); antique glass chemical bottles and jars of different life forms – sponges to vertebrates - by the yard, all the work of the school’s team of dedicated technicians (think house elves but with total autonomy) with an exceptional sense of order and desire to label, name and cross reference. Even vintage wooden lab benches in one of the biology labs gleam. ‘Technicians come in, sand them down and polish them each holiday,‘ says teacher. Pupils‘ own work - haemloglobin realised in painted plaster of Paris and a neuron intricately fashioned out of playdough by year 7s of an equally high standard.

Practical aspects get similar attention to detail. There’s a school shop that’s also evolved from single cell tuck shop to more sophisticated form – sells everything from house badges and pens to combs (‘A real bargain for 45p,‘ says tour guide). While common rooms aren’t available to all year groups, sixth formers‘ version is divided into games area (pool table cues only allowed after morning break) and quiet zone. Highlight is industrial roll-on, roll-off toaster, wall to wall loaves of bread and catering pack of jam. Ganneted by end of morning break, crumbs and the empty wrappers all that remains. (No rota, say boys. ‘Fortunate to have cleaners and porters to clear it up,‘ commented one.) Not entirely accurate, clarifies the school: there’s certainly an expectation – though not formalised - that boys will keep the place clean and tidy, and generally they do.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

School’s latest strategic vision talks about being kind, ready, and aware (helpfully interlinked on a Venn diagram) as well as ‘cherish[ing] individuality’ and ‘shun[ing] stereotypes’.

School’s goal, felt parent, is to produce ‘rounded, emotionally intelligent boys’ and not just high flyers. Normal temptations apply but no expulsions while Mr Bird has been in post. Zero tolerance to drugs on site, though for other offences, ‘may be times when alternatives to disciplinary approaches are required,‘ he says.

There are pleasantly old-fashioned rewards, ranging from distinctions for ‘truly exceptional work’, which are recorded in the leather-bound Head’s Book, to the award of a CLS bookmark (highly valued, according to one recipient) or Parker pen, to boys who ‘have made a significant contribution to school life.’

For anyone who hasn’t, ‘Day-to-day chivvying should be the main way staff try to change inappropriate behaviour,’ says school handbook, with escalating detentions rising to suspensions and imaginative ways of getting the message across – anti-bullying month featured a ‘cool to be kind’ competition where boys had to be caught doing something nice. ‘No good deed went unnoticed,’ reckons the school.

In addition to the very well rated head of pastoral care who’s ‘approachable’ and ‘on top of issues,’ as well as ‘brilliant’ and ‘kind’, there are good heads of year, who work closely together. Also two counsellors – pupils can either self-refer or be referred. Translates into effective action when boys need it, with anxiety-related disorders ‘a pastoral priority,’ says the school.

Pupils and parents

Microcosm of London at its eclectic best. ‘Massive mix is one of the most special things about the school…you don’t feel you’re drowning in a sea of wealth. Son will have friends who run the gamut from single mum right through to the Russian oligarch.’ Bright pupils from all over, half from minority ethnicities, 40 different nationalities, a quarter getting some form of financial support, just under 100 paying no fees at all.

One of the few schools in London where, thinks Mr Bird, not a single boy is driven to school by his parents. Means almost total absence of school gate contact, while sons are confident users of tubes and buses from the age of 10, sense of independence highly valued. Security, says school, is something they do well. Hence, ‘I’m surprised by how little I get asked about [it] at open mornings,‘ says Mr Bird.

‘Liked the the instant independence I got,‘ said pupil, though older pupils will keep an eye out for the youngest (tube users tend to spill out of same carriage closest to the exit each morning). ‘On first day… sixth former came up and said "how’s your first day" - and that was the moment I felt really welcomed,‘ said one.

Social events for parents range from quiz and curry night (where parents and teachers ‘compete in a friendly manner’ - phew) to Sunday afternoon City walk with professional guide.

Old Citizens is the name for former pupils and they’re a busy lot. In addition to the organisation of jolly social events and reunions everywhere from the House of Lords to The Olde Cheshire Cheese, they host networking events and each year are involved in hosting careers events for the boys.

Entrance

Highly competitive – and, in keeping with mood of frankness, school makes no bones about it. ‘Every year we turn down hundreds of candidates who are top of their class at their current school,’ warns admissions booklet. Message – don’t be disappointed if your son is one of them – and certainly don’t let them feel they’ve failed. ‘It just means that CLS is not the right school for him.’

Any hopefuls need to be well read with a wide vocab (pays to work way through classic texts – abridgers name checked over original authors: useful to explain that Charles Dickens, rather than Kathleen Olmstead, wrote Oliver Twist…). School suggests prepping with age appropriate resources to start with, then moving up the age groups ‘to refine his skills.’ Parents should get going early ‘in case you need to do the paper first to get the answers.’ So fun for the whole family.

Apply September of previous year for 10+ (44 places) and 11+ (55 places); October of previous year for 16+ (around 15 places) and three years in advance for 13+ (45 places).

At 10+ VR, maths and multiple choice comprehension English requiring skills (and practice) to rule out the obvious answer and ‘leave time to focus and ponder…’ NVR added for the 11+. ISEB pre-test for 13+ candidates, best candidates interviewed and sit further tests.

They’re also frank about tutoring. It happens, and would be ‘naïve’ to pretend otherwise. ‘Where used to support and consolidate’ has its place – but if child is going to need support throughout school career he just won’t get the most out of time here,’ thinks school. Parents should ‘reflect honestly…’ and in any case, says school, can normally spot the over-prepared child when shortlisted candidates (at 10+ and 11+) are interviewed.

Learning needs welcomed (including GAD – general anxiety disorder) as long as reports provided in advance and candidates pass the entrance tests.

Exit

Almost everyone to Russell Group – first or second choice. In 2019, 29 to Oxbridge. Vanishingly rare for anyone to leave after GCSEs except by choice. In theory might happen if don’t get the grades but ‘would have been flagged a long way in advance,‘ says school.

Money matters

Full and partial bursaries at 11+ and 16+, ranging from 25 to 100 per cent. Will need income of under £75K to qualify, limited assets (‘unlikely’ to qualify with six figure income, large house or second property…). Scholarships (academic, music and sport) – awarded at 10+, 11+, 13+ and (minus sport) at 16+. Worth £250 so honour and glory variety, though sports and music scholars also receive some additional funding. School also educates choristers from Chapel Royal, St James’ Palace and the Temple Church, who get a partial discount all the way through to GCSEs. For Chapel Royal, boys must pass entrance exam and be a pupil at the school to stay in choir past probationary period – each year, some don’t make the cut.

Our view

Hard to see how independently-minded, intellectually curious boys could fail to to thrive in this happy, busy, fast-paced school where everyone – up to and including the head – feels privileged to be here.

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

There is appropriate provision for academically able children who have a diagnostic profile of an SEN or disability, and many are able to thrive at CLS. The learning support department provides support on a case-by-case basis, ranging from the provision of reasonable adjustments and access arrangements to weekly lessons with a specialist teacher. Parents are encouraged to inform us of their son's learning difficulties at the time of registration and to submit any relevant specialist or educational psychologists' reports so that we can provide appropriate support through the admissions process.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia Y
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 Y
Hospital School
Mental health Y
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability Y
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
PD - Physical Disability Y
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health Y
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication Y
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment Y

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