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Housed in a classically beautiful Queen Anne house set in formal gardens and parkland, tucked away in a surprisingly quiet and leafy Surrey lane close to the busy A3 and M25. Many speak of it being the right place for ‘quiet’ girls, with the school excelling at building up confidence. ‘Our girl was never the one to put her hand up in class, yet now she’s form captain,’ said one. Not for the wild child, the rebel or rule breaker: she would stick out like a sore thumb. And perhaps not...

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What the school says...

Manor House School is a selective independent day school for girls aged 4 to 16, with co-educational nursery, in Bookham, Surrey.

The school was established in 1920 and aims to develop happy young women who believe in their abilities and achieve their personal and academic best.

The school provides a well-rounded education enhanced by a strong co-curricular enrichment programme. The school maxim - 'An individual approach to academic success' - promotes the extent to which staff get to know all of the pupils individually and are therefore able to truly develop each girl's talents.

In recent years, Manor House School has consistently produced the best GCSE girls' school results in the Mole Valley area with 61% of all subjects achieving A*-A in 2017.

There is the option to to take GCSE subjects early as part of a Gifted and Talented programme for girls with particular strengths in subjects and tailor an A Level programme to their needs. Some girls take additional GCSEs, such as Psychology or Creative Writing, to broaden their knowledge.

Life at Manor House provides opportunities for pupils to explore their creative side, particularly through participation in music, art and drama productions, or to develop their physical skills in a variety of sports, dance clubs and outdoor activities. There are around 50 different extra curricular clubs per term that the girls can take part in at lunchtimes or after school.

The relationships between older and younger girls at Manor House School are very special. House events go across the age groups and older girls mentor new girls as they arrive. These opportunities help to build leadership qualities that the girls rely on in later life and promote future leaders.

Manor House Schools welcomes individual visits and tours at a time to suit. There are additionally three open morning events per year in October, February and May.
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What the parents say...

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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

Headteacher

Since 2016, Tracey Fantham BA MA NPQH, previously headteacher of Blenheim High School in Epsom, one of Surrey's leading state schools. Prior to that, at The Howard of Effingham, another of Surrey’s best state offerings (which happens to back onto Manor House), where she joined as head of PE then moved up to assistant head. Childhood dream was to be a PE teacher (‘My dad was a professional sportsman and I was inspired by my own PE teachers’); did BA in PE at Carnegie Sports College (as was then) and PGCE at Loughborough.

Progressive, serene and glamorous, parents are suitably wowed. ‘She’s amazing – I don’t think we knew what we were missing out on until she arrived.’ ‘She’s superwoman – I doubt you’ll find anyone who isn’t delighted with her’ (we didn’t). You wouldn’t know it from the photo on the headteacher’s welcome section of the website (where the girl sitting next to her looks terrified), but pupils are impressed too – ‘She’s modernised everything from a new uniform to more iPads into lessons,’ said one. Widespread praise for her decision to raise the bar academically (‘They were letting anyone in before,’ bemoaned one parent) and that she’s brought enrichment and (you guessed it) sport to the fore. When she’s not in her plush office with open fire, sink-into white sofas and vast bay window overlooking an impossibly green lawn (girls are only allowed on it in the snow), she teaches GSCE PE – and, say girls, ‘does the rounds, often popping her head in classes.’

Lives in Guildford; sport and walking the dogs on the beach both feature prominently in her spare time.

Academic matters

Pitches itself as a school for those with average or above average intelligence (which wasn’t always the case), looking to progress without the stresses of a pressured environment. GCSE results do well against local competition – 64 per cent A*-A/9-7 grades in 2018. Around half of pupils take nine GCSEs; the other half (who take triple science) take 10. Breadth of subject areas encouraged, with most popular GCSEs including art, Spanish, French and geography. Plenty of vocational GCSE options too – food and nutrition, child care, music, PE and drama.

‘The teaching style is the stand-out point here – they really engage the children by bringing the subjects alive,’ said one parent. ‘Last year, my daughter studied the Tudors and when I picked her up from school, she would talk about it non-stop for about an hour.’ Many give thumbs up for ‘the small classes’ (maximum number is 20), along with ‘the very open lines of communication with the school’ and the fact that ‘they extend classroom work for the brightest girls.’ Being clever is not geeky here, pupils told us – ‘and everyone loves the way they make lessons as interactive as possible.’ We saw iPads being used in several classes – in maths, year 7s were making short tutorial videos explaining the theory they’d just learned, while a drama class involved small groups of juniors running around the grounds filming each other. Teachers are bright-eyed and cheerful – ‘Because we know each girl well, we can work to their unique set of strengths and weaknesses accordingly; as a teacher, that’s extremely satisfying,’ one told us, while another gave us a long spiel about teaching highlights almost without taking a breath, finishing off by simply saying, ‘I love my job.’

Thematic, cross-curricular teaching is common in the prep (the Tudors project, for example, spanned art, geography, history and English). Subject specialist teachers from year 5 in around half of subjects, building up to all by year 7. Setting from year 4 in maths and English, plus science from year 7. School was trialling setting in PE from year 7 when we visited, which school says has been successful as ‘those with less confidence are now excelling.’ French from nursery, Spanish from year 5, taster sessions in German in year 6, with year 7s choosing two out of the three languages, which can be then dropped after year 9 – ‘I don’t believe in forcing children to take a language at GCSE if that’s not where their strengths lie,’ says head. Latin and classical civilisation from year 5, with pupils choosing one or the other from year 7. Increasing focus on STEM subjects and themed weeks with names like Girl Power all part of a wider effort to show they are no longer a school catering for ‘girly girls.’

No SEN assessment on entry, however all families are asked to detail any learning support being received, and all year 7s are screened for dyslexia as a matter of course. Any pupils requiring more than a couple of learning support sessions (13 per cent of girls when we visited) are charged extra. ‘We’re mainly talking about the mild end of dyslexia here,’ says head – very few EHC plans. One parent whose daughter does have one was full of praise, though – ‘the school has been brilliant, helping us every step of the way and it’s now looking as though she will exceed expectations.’

Games, options, the arts

A school on a journey when it comes to sports, with specialist coaching increasingly invested in and games teaching praised, but some parents feeling they ‘haven’t quite got where they need to be.’ Girls compete in hockey, netball, tennis (particularly strong tennis academy), athletics, gymnastics and swimming; also hosts triathlons. Matches most afternoons for A through to C teams whenever possible, so most gain match experience, much appreciated by parents and girls. Additional opportunities in lacrosse, golf, soccer and taekwondo (GB coach gives taster sessions during day, with chance to take it up after school). We also saw girls whooshing past the large bay window in the head’s office – ‘part of our run-a-marathon scheme in which girls get the chance to run a mile each day for 26 days,’ explained head. ‘Sporting excellence is important and we enjoy competing, but equally important, in my view, is creating a wide range of sporting activities for girls to take forward in life,’ she says; parents think the balance is spot on. On-site outdoor facilities (including outside pool, which head plans to replace with indoor one as her next big project) and sports hall good; changing rooms for each year dotted around school.

Drama popular, including at GCSE, although drama studio disappointingly small, so girls usually use hall (except for LAMDA and small group practice). Every girl gets the opportunity to get involved in prep and senior productions respectively, including sound and lighting. Seniors were rehearsing for My Fair Lady when we visited, but performances are not always so traditional, with We Will Rock You and Billy Elliot past examples. ‘The girls take on boys' roles with grit and determination,’ says head; parents say the resulting productions are of ‘stunning quality.’

Busy, inspirational and buzzy art room, where year 8 girls told us with great excitement about their annual fashion show, in which they make clothing creations from old rubbish and exhibit them on a catwalk. Classrooms double up as hubs of artwork too, particularly in the prep – we saw year 4s drawing with perspective and skill well beyond what you’d normally expect for that age. ‘They really encourage you to express yourself in your art,’ say parents, and it certainly made a refreshing change to see displays filled with a rich diversity of work rather than almost-identical pieces of art. Not unusual for girls to gain art scholarships into sixth forms at other schools.

Music also part of the have-a-go ethos here, with violin for all in reception (free paracetamol available for that teacher, we hope) and individual music lessons taught by a variety of peripatetic teachers throughout the year groups. With junior and senior choirs (plus parent and staff choirs) and orchestras, there’s lots of opportunity to perform. One year 11 girl – ‘a female Ed Sheeran’ – recently raised £1,000 for the homeless through selling her CDs in the school.

Extracurricular activities keep most girls busy at least one lunchtime or after school a week – all the usuals (sports and arts), plus a few more innovative examples, especially in the prep: bridge, photography and young engineers among them. None are student-led, though – a missed opportunity, perhaps? Trips a plenty – every year group from year 3 goes on a residential, building up from one night away. Aim is mainly to enhance learning, plus a few sports trips including a new ski trip, a trip to Iceland and the odd biggie such as a one-off year 11s trip to Peru.

Background and atmosphere

Housed in a classically beautiful Queen Anne house set in formal gardens and parkland, tucked away in a surprisingly quiet and leafy Surrey lane close to the busy A3 and M25. The house can be (and regularly is) hired as a wedding venue. The picturesque walled gardens, sweeping lawns and the ‘safe’ location are much loved by parents and many of the girls. Inside, the house feels like a rather grand home, with large, welcoming hall enjoyed by the girls as much as visitors (so nice to see one girl warming her hands on the open fire without being shooed away in favour of visitors), while the central staircase leads up to cosy, carpeted upper prep classrooms (with flamboyant floor-to-ceiling displays of pupil’s work) on the upper floors. Behind the main house is a number of newer blocks housing the art room, school hall (doubling as a theatre and gym), three science labs, music room, home economics block and classrooms for the oldest girls. Purpose-built nursery facilities sit alongside the prep classrooms, both with extensive outdoor play areas. The whole place has a quiet, country feel and exudes positive vibes (even in the loo there was a reminder displayed in pretty pastel colours on the door that ‘positive thoughts generate positive feelings’).

Truly a through school - little, if any, separation between early years, prep and seniors: it is one community, a major USP the school uses to differentiate itself from the competition. Although the prep and senior girls do have some separate playing areas, they are involved in each other’s school lives on a daily basis (including whole school assembly twice a week), with most of the senior girls having a role – prep and subject prefects, house and sports captains - with responsibilities across the whole school. ‘The leadership roles are like what you get in the sixth-form in other schools – we’re really lucky,’ one girl said, the lapel of her blazer dazzling with badges. ‘You know every girl here, even those in the nursery,’ we were told more than once.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

The word ‘nurturing’ cropped up in almost every conversation with parents. ‘An individual approach to academic success’ is the school motto and with teachers knowing the girl inside out, not much gets past them. Parents are divided on whether the school is cosseting – ‘There’s definitely a Manor House bubble, but I love it – the girls have plenty of time to venture further afield when they’re 16,’ one parent said, while another said, ‘I’m not so sure that’s accurate – it’s an outward looking school, always focusing on where the girls are going next.’ Many speak of it being the right place for ‘quiet’ girls, with the school excelling at building up confidence. ‘Our girl was never the one to put her hand up in class, yet now she’s form captain,’ said one. Not for the wild child, the rebel or rule breaker: she would stick out like a sore thumb. And perhaps not even the gutsy and spirited, judging from this parent’s comment, which suggests this isn’t a natural fit for those who want their daughters to strike out independently and make their mark: ‘We get the odd few feisty girls coming in from other schools, but they soon conform because the majority of girls aren’t like that – they’re just nice and caring.’

Strict on uniform (new, more modern blue one to replace the 40-year-old green one) and no make-up or mobile phones. Those who do transgress get detentions, ‘but most go through school without one,’ girls told us. ‘Behaviour is exceptionally good,’ confirms head, saying their secret is to work ‘with clear policies and consistent boundaries’ and discuss bad behaviour and its effect. Bullying? ‘Touch wood, I haven’t had to deal with anything at all,’ says head - and pupils are equally dismissive of it; are they in denial or is this really the first ever school to never encounter pupils mistreating others?

A counsellor visits for one day each week, providing confidential advice and support for both girls and staff. Issues of potential teen angst - alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, cyber-bullying, self-esteem – are covered in class.

Pupils and parents

Parents choose it to avoid the academic pressure and competition of the ‘Surrey schools mafia’ and many make their decision the moment they step into the school: ‘The welcoming feel is like no other school we visited,’ said one. A sociable bunch that go out of their way to welcome newbie parents, conversations with them are heavily peppered with use of words like ‘delightful,’ ‘sweet’ and ‘charming’ and they feel Manor House suits families who are ‘not too pushy’ and like the ‘innocence, warmth and friendliness.’

Pupils come from around a 15-mile radius from Epsom to Guildford to Wimbledon. School minibuses run in the mornings and afternoons with a minibus running to Effingham Station before and after school. The girls we met were charming, polite and confident without a hint of precociousness. They looked fresh-faced and tidy, with swinging pony-tails and sensible skirt lengths and always looked us in the eye when talking.

Entrance

Baby and toddler group once a week helps ease children (boys and girls) into Manor House before they can remember anything else. Nursery, also co-ed, starts from age 2. School proper, with uniforms and for girls only, at age 4 in the lower prep, moving through into the upper prep at age 7. Entry assessment for juniors – English, maths and interview with a teacher – plus school report and reference.

Almost every girl moves seamlessly through from the junior to senior school here; the largest external intake is at reception, years 3 and 7, with pupils coming from a scattering of local state and independent schools. An entry testing day is held in January prior to entry in September for 11+ – SPaG, English, maths and science and an informal interview with head/deputy head. This is a growing school, although head is keen to cap it around 320.

Local reputation of catering to a wide range of academic abilities is lagging behind reality, says head. ‘We now want girls who are meeting expected levels of progress or above.’

Exit

All girls leave after GCSE, mostly to study for A levels, at eg Reed's School, Hurtwood House, King's College Wimbledon, Epsom College, Esher College, Godalming College, Howard of Effingham, Prior’s Field, St John’s and Tormead. Very small numbers jump ship along the way – ‘but for some, the small size or all-girls environment just doesn’t suit them,’ one pupil said.

Money matters

Four academic scholarships (two 50 per cent, two 40 per cent) open to internal and external applicants. Other scholarships in sports and the creative and expressive arts are available on a case-by-case basis (around 10 some years), at 10-30 per cent of fees. Annual means-tested bursaries, in line with the school’s charitable status, for new and existing pupils, theoretically covering up to 100 per cent of fees, though the school is keen to manage expectations. Applications for bursaries need to be made by November for the following September.

Our view

Wholesome, unpretentious girls embrace learning in this homely environment within stunning surroundings. Unpressurised (for the most part) and friendly, but this is no soft option – the school is increasingly selective and academic and the girls both work hard and play hard, with results to match. Absolutely no fear of girls leading each other astray and they form friendships for life. A school which though forward-thinking in so many ways, also hints back to a bygone era.

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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