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 Did we mention that Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst were pupils? Staff and pupils are inspired by the school’s history but the atmosphere is energetic and forward looking. The building is incredibly light and open. We didn’t see any gloomy corridors or dark corners; there are glass walls all over the place. No glass ceilings, though. The school recently ran Balance Week during which all pupils and teachers were encouraged to find their own work-life balance by pushing the homework to one side and trying out activities ranging from knitting to skateboarding...

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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking Business Studies & Econs at an English Independent School (GCE AS level)

Curricula

International Baccalaureate: diploma - the diploma is the familiar A-level equivalent.

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 2009, Mrs Claire Hewitt BSc (early 50s). Was previously head teacher of King Edward VI Grammar School in Louth (her one and only foray into the state sector) and before that she taught chemistry at Sheffield High, Fulneck School and Harrogate Ladies’ College. Her own education was at Wakefield Girls’ High School and then she went on to do a chemistry degree and a PGCE at Sheffield University.

Mrs Hewitt is friendly, approachable and above all passionate about her work at MHSG. ‘I’ve really found my home here,’ she says. She’s one to seek the opinions of others; each term she holds ‘frank’ parents’ forums where parents are invited to say whatever’s on their minds. ‘She listens and she responds quickly,’ said one happy customer. She often invites groups of pupils into her office for informal drinks and nibbles and the girls here take a real role in deciding the direction the school takes: they took part in focus groups when the school uniform was rebranded (the new design is purple in homage to the school’s historical links with the suffragettes) and pupils also chose the names for the school’s four houses (Curie, Lowry, Nightingale and, inevitably, Pankhurst).

Parents value the fact that she’s happy to make changes if something isn’t working as well as her energy and enthusiasm. ‘You feel enthused around her,’ said one mum. ‘And tired!’ added another. They say Mrs Hewitt goes to ‘every single event’. ‘Does she ever go home?’ asked one.

She’s also hands-on. She teaches chemistry to every class in year 7 for half a term. The girls find her inspiring: ‘She taught us about atoms, molecules and the periodic table,’ said one recent disciple. ‘We worked really hard for her because we wanted to impress her.’

Mrs Hewitt loved her own school days. She was passionate about science but also sang in the school choir and played piano and hockey. She wanted to combine her love of science with working with people and ‘flirted with medicine’ until she decided she was too squeamish. ‘I kept fainting during first aid courses!’ Her next thought was teaching and she hasn’t looked back. She’s keen on the personal development side of education and enthuses about the freedom MHSG pupils have to be themselves. She says the single sex environment gives the girls the chance to be themselves and have fun. They’re not forced to grow up too quickly here. ‘You see teenage girls playing together outside.’

Academic matters

Exam results are consistently jaw-dropping. In 2016, 72 per cent of A level entries were awarded A* or A and 94 per cent A*-B (the latter figure hasn’t dropped below 94 per cent in the last three years and, in 2015, it was 98 per cent - putting the school at number eight for the best A level results nationwide). GCSE results are similarly stellar (nearly half the GCSEs entered were graded A* in 2016; 81 per cent were A*-A).

The school has been offering the International Baccalaureate for a few years but the current year 12 pupils will be the last it is available to. Parents we met were disappointed by this and felt it was driven by money (take up has been very low) but Mrs Hewitt says the decision to stop offering the IB was also on educational grounds: she thinks IB classes made up of just one or two girls are two limiting for pupils and teachers. Although the IB will be coming to an end, the school continues to support the independent study skills that it requires - it offers the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) - a self-directed project that carries the same UCAS points as an AS level. Ninety per cent of the girls who did the EPQ in 2016 got an A*. We tried to look surprised when we discovered this. In 2016 the average IB score was 38 out of a maximum of 45.

Biology and chemistry are the most popular A level choices in recent years, closely followed by maths, economics and psychology. Although slightly fewer girls choose to study the arts and languages in the sixth form, those that do score just as highly in them.

One pupil we met spoke particularly highly of the French department. She’d come to the school from abroad, already fluent in French, and had been worried she might not be stretched enough but in fact she said the school went to great lengths to develop her fluency and enable to learn at her own level. A parent expressed frustration however that French exchanges haven’t happened recently. This is because the school has a significant number of Muslim pupils who wear a headscarf (which isn’t allowed in French schools) and teachers don’t want to arrange trips that aren’t accessible to all.

All girls - both internal and external candidates - have to meet the same entry requirements to the sixth form. They’ll need at least an A/7 at GCSE in every subject they want to study; good passes in English and maths; and at least five GCSEs at A*/A (or 7-9) grades. There’s a measure of flexibility in this in the case of extenuating circumstances but it’s important to the school that sixth formers should be able to ‘thrive and succeed’.

Games, options, the arts

There’s plenty of outside space for team games - generally excellent sports facilities including a swimming pool and a huge climbing wall. There are also top-notch performance facilities and vibrant, reassuringly messy art rooms. Lots of opportunities to perform - in music, drama or dance - at informal events after school and to wider audiences in Manchester and beyond. Many girls do the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Model United Nations is also popular. Plenty of opportunities for travel - in the UK and further afield. The bursaries ensure that girls don’t miss out for financial reasons.

The school supports girls with a particular talent - whether that’s giving them the freedom to travel to national and international sporting events or, in the case of one pupil in year 7, supporting her learning at a distance while she spends the year in London, playing Matilda in the West End musical. But extracurricular activities are for everyone - not just the super talented. The school recently ran Balance Week during which all pupils and teachers were encouraged to find their own work-life balance by pushing the homework to one side and trying out activities ranging from knitting to skateboarding.

There’s an impressive range of extracurricular activities on offer. Mrs Hewitt has extended the lunch hour to 70 minutes to allow girls time to eat, socialise and take part in a lunchtime activity. Girls often start up their own clubs if they find a gap - for example one pupil founded a group called IMPACT, which gives those who want to change the world a chance to get together and make a start. Unusual clubs that caught our eye include cryptography, podcasting, Bollywood dance and electronics and coding. In the sixth form some activities get a bit more serious - for example anyone turning up to DVD club hoping to eat their sandwiches watching Bridget Jones will be disappointed; it’s actually a meet-up for aspiring doctors, vets and dentists.

We dipped into two lunchtime activities during our visit. The first was a practice session for a student-led jazz ensemble, in which two highly capable sixth formers put a group of strings, woodwind and brass players from various year groups through their paces. The atmosphere was purposeful and collaborative. The music was brilliant.

The second activity we took in was a University Challenge event. Pupils were setting the questions and taking evident pleasure in making two teams of teachers sweat. It was good-humoured - we were particularly struck by how relaxed the audience was. Groups of girls and staff dipped in and out of the hall, whispering answers to questions and giving running commentaries. We got a sense that this is a happy and buzzing community. Mrs Hewitt had told us that with these girls ‘you don’t have to tell them where the line is’. This event seemed to illustrate the point: the girls know how to behave; they know it’s rude to make so much noise that others can’t be heard. They have fun but they know when to stop. We suspect that that common teacher’s refrain of: 'That’s enough. You’ve had your joke. Calm down now!' isn’t so well known at MHSG.

Background and atmosphere

The school was founded in 1874 ‘with the aim of imparting to girls the very best education that can be given and to fit them for any future which may be before them’. Did we mention that Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst were pupils? Staff and pupils are inspired by the school’s history but the atmosphere is energetic and forward looking. The building is incredibly light and open. We didn’t see any gloomy corridors or dark corners; there are glass walls all over the place. No glass ceilings, though.

It’s not a blazer and boater kind of school. The new school uniform - a product of countless focus groups - is smart and chic but not ostentatious. It was designed to avoid ‘giving pupils problems when they’re on the bus’.

The school is extremely culturally diverse. Pupils come from all over Manchester and beyond. The school offers a range of religious assemblies to cater for the diversity of beliefs - but these are inclusive and girls often choose to attend assemblies from other faiths than their own. We were also told that, unlike in some other schools with diverse populations, friendship groups are not divided by faith, ethnicity or social background. One parent told us ‘they really celebrate diversity. In business diversity is a competitive advantage and they get that’.

Pupils say the atmosphere is ‘supportive rather than competitive’. ‘You could go into a classroom and ask, “Does anyone have a pad?”’ Several girls we met were happy to call themselves feminists. One was particularly inspired by a special screening of Suffragette she’d attended, where she’d met Emmeline Pankhurst’s great granddaughter. All agreed that they are privileged. The ‘snobby’ reputation that sometimes attaches itself to schools like this isn’t really borne out by the fact that the last two head girls - elected by pupils - were bursary recipients. It’s OK to talk politics here - but you won’t find a hotbed of youthful radicalism. In a mock 2015 election 50 per cent of the girls voted Conservative to 21 per cent Labour. ‘Everyone has strong views here,’ said one sixth former. ‘Yes, but we respect each other,’ added another. ‘I stood as the UKIP candidate in that election but no-one holds it against me.’

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

A pastoral deputy head oversees the pastoral side of the school. Every member of staff is assigned to one of the four houses and is part of the pastoral team. There are various ways for a girl to ask for help if anything is bothering her. Two school nurses are there for pupils who are sick or upset and they keep an eye on the school timetable so they can spot any particular patterns. ‘Bullying can happen,’ says Mrs Hewitt, ‘and we’ll deal with it wherever or whenever it happens’ - even if it takes place outside school premises or hours or online.

A parent backed up this claim. ‘My daughter was being bullied online - quite badly,’ she said. ‘I called her head of year and it was dealt with that day - really sensitively. It never happened again. The girl apologised. Her parents rang up and apologised. I was really impressed by how well the school handled it.’ Girls also told us they felt safe here and well cared for. They were particularly positive about the academic help they receive - through homework and subject clinics. ‘I don’t feel embarrassed to ask for help. I don’t feel like I’m being a pest even if I keep on asking.’ They also said they felt confident to ask for an extension if they needed one.

On the surface, pupils’ lives here are pretty rosy but one year 7 whistleblower was brave enough to speak out: they won’t give you butter on your toast unless you pay extra. It’s a scandal.

Pupils and parents

Neither pupils nor parents could think of a particular type of child the school would suit. If they’re bright enough to be selected, they should thrive here. They did feel that pupils here need supportive parents, though - willing to drive them around, take an interest and get involved. Although many parents work in full-time and demanding jobs and the school does accommodate that by providing support with transport and an extended school day (girls can arrive from 7.15am and remain on site until 5.30pm). Parents say the school communicates with them effectively and works collaboratively with them to support their children.

The most famous alumnus who didn’t bring about votes for women is probably Judy Finnigan but she’s just one of a long list of women who are leading the way in every eminent profession you can imagine - from Libby Lane, the first woman bishop in the Church of England, to Cassie Lomas, award winning makeup artist to Lady Gaga and Rita Ora. Lots of successful business leaders too - including the vice president of Facebook EMEA, the first female executive director to sit on the board of Marks and Spencer and the first female Chief Cashier of the Bank of England (Merlyn Lowther - also a school governor).

Entrance

Almost all girls from the prep school go on to the senior school. (They don’t need to sit the entrance exams but any girl who’s found the prep school a struggle will be guided to a more appropriate secondary school.) But many pupils come from elsewhere. There are currently about 50 feeder schools. Applicants for entry into year 7 are examined in mathematics, essay writing, comprehension, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning. Girls who do well in the tests are invited for interview - and their parents are interviewed too. A school report from the head teacher of the applicant’s present school is also ‘an important part of the selection process’. ‘We’re looking for girls with a good grounding,’ says Mrs Hewitt. ‘We’re not looking for perfection.’ She says she’s willing to consider a girl with a ‘spiky profile’ if she believes she’d be happy here. ‘I’m looking at her attitude and her basic skills,’ she says, ‘and I’m asking myself “Is she teachable?”’ She’s critical of parents who are ‘foolish enough to tutor their children’ for the school’s entrance tests. ‘She’s got to be happy here. A girl’s self-esteem is very precious. Why would you try to send your daughter to a school where she’s going to struggle?’

Exit

In 2016 one leaver went to Oxford (to study medicine) and three went to Cambridge (to read natural sciences, veterinary medicine, and human, social and political sciences). Slightly more pupils have gone to Oxbridge in previous years but the vast majority do go on to prestigious redbrick universities and eleven leavers in 2016 went to study medicine. The head says that if some pupils feel pressure to embark on medical careers, that comes from parents, not the school.

The school takes a proactive approach to careers. They’re planning to develop the already well-stocked careers library and every pupil is assigned a careers advisor at various key stages throughout her school career. The careers department also arranges regular talks and presentations to give pupils an insight into different careers - the expert speakers are almost always old girls. ‘It’s so inspiring for the girls to hear from someone who used to sit where they’re sitting,’ says Mrs Hewitt. The school makes the most of the community of former pupils. We’re told it’s very rare for an old girl to turn down an invitation to pop back to her alma mater. Parents and pupils seem particularly excited by the new Project Pankhurst mentoring scheme. This gives sixth formers a chance to make contact with old girls now working in their chosen industry for phone, email or even face-to-face advice and support.

The girls we met didn’t seem daunted by the lofty accomplishments of their peers and predecessors. Emma Barnett, Radio 5 presenter and former Telegraph women’s editor (and another alumnus), recently gave a talk warning girls against the cult of perfection and comparing themselves to others. One sixth former told us how well the school had supported her when she’d chosen to study the subjects she loved for A level, rather than the ones she most excelled in.

‘But don’t you feel responsible?’ we asked a handful of girls. ‘Don’t you feel pressure to use this wonderful education to become a barrister or a surgeon or a politician rather than… I don’t know, get a job in a cake shop or something?’ The response was quick - delivered with a smile: ‘Well if I really loved cakes, I think the school would encourage me to build a career in cakes - but I wouldn’t just work in a cake shop. I’d start my own shop and employ lots of people and grow the business and it would make the best cakes in the world.’

Money matters

The school makes an effort to keep extra costs as low as possible - for example that was an important issue in the new uniform design. Fees are a shade cheaper than the nearest competition, Withington Girls, but there’s not much in it.

Some nine per cent of pupils are in receipt of some kind of bursary; four per cent are on a full bursary. These are offered to last a child all the way through the school and they will also support her with uniform, travel and extracurricular activities. Bursaries are means tested. The head has a certain amount of leeway to decide how they are awarded. It isn’t just a case of giving them to the very poorest or to the very cleverest. ‘We want to use them to change lives,’ she says. Pupils are quick to talk about how bursaries have helped them and the school works hard at fundraising to increase the numbers who can receive one. They’re clearly still very much in a minority, though.

Our view

MHSG is an incredibly positive community. It promotes hard work, ambition and seriously clever women with a light touch. Its pupils leave the school with the world at their feet but also knowing how to support their friends, take care of themselves and have fun.

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Special Education Needs

The Special Needs Co-ordinator interviews each student for whom the school has received an Educational Psychologist's Report. An individual plan is drawn up, following discussion with the student and parents. This identifies the main areas with which the student has difficulty and sets targets. Information from the EP report is used to provide advice to staff. The Special Needs Co-ordinator conducts a review with the student to assess progress and identify further needs. The Special Needs Coordinator also helps to refer pupils for external assessment where relevant. 09-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
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
Not Applicable
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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