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Parent after parent told us that this isn’t a school for ‘cookie cutter’ girls and that individuality is embraced – although let there be no doubt that the common qualities of diligence and an eagerness to please are prerequisites. A thicker skin is also beneficial to protect those who may otherwise be daunted by their ‘stratospherically bright’ classmates and, as with all ‘all-through’ schools, we recommend carrying out thorough due diligence of the senior school too before...

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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

Head of junior school

Since 2003, Mrs Joanna Newman BEd (50s). Old North Londoner, thence to Homerton College Cambridge (geography and education). Began teaching career at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ Prep before rising to deputy head of NLCS First School then on to first headship at Channing Junior School before returning – via a brief sojourn in Spain courtesy of her husband’s job – to NLCS Junior School as head. Brimming with the kind of serene confidence unique to heads secure in the knowledge that they have the cream of the crop clamouring for places at their school, yet warm, capable and hands-on – Mary Poppins meets Mary Berry. Glad recipient of hugs from pupils in all manner of locations both in and outside of the school day and described by parents as ‘involved’, ‘present’ and ‘an incredible diplomat’ (vital skill for a north London head). Assemblies see girls hanging on her every word (to be honest, so did we); she’s clear that ‘every girl is known’ and that ‘love is innate in our junior school teaching’. We saw it in action as she handed out awards in her office for excellent work on the week of our visit. Bright eyed misses glowed with pride and chatted with ease as she praised their achievements and duly assigned them with a good old-fashioned sticker. Lovely. Sitting pretty in what must be a serious contender for the nation’s most plum head teacher seat, she’s far from complacent. ‘We have a tradition of not accepting the status quo,’ she says. Is working closely with NLCS senior head Sarah Clark to ensure constant motion; a new library, science labs, music room and IT rooms are all on the agenda for September 2020.

Married with two adult daughters, both of whom are also ONLs (Old North Londoners); describes herself as a ‘culture vulture’ with a love of theatre, cooking, travel and getting her hands dirty at gardening club with the girls. Brings her experience to bear as mentor and manager – her last three directors of studies have moved on to headships elsewhere and she is involved in training staff at NLCS’s outposts in Jeju, Dubai and Singapore. Says her involvement in the Prince's Teaching Institute, a charitable organisation dedicated to delivering professional development for teachers and school leaders, where she works closely with state school heads, keeps her grounded.

Entrance

Highly selective from 4+ with over 300 trying for 40 reception places. Assessments in January of year of entry. Girls are observed participating in ‘relaxed activities’ in groups of 10 to 12 of the same birth month. Although parents describe the mere thought of it as ‘daunting to say the least’, there’s no requirement for advanced literacy; ‘they don’t need to be able to write their name,’ insists head, ‘but they should be able to dress themselves.’ Applicants work with ‘really skilled staff’ on eg puzzles, cutting and sticking and listening to a story. School says at this stage it is looking for ‘school readiness’: potential, curiosity and processing speeds. Some 100 invited back for round two and more activities, such as singing or dancing, plus a one-to-one chat with a teacher. Head meets all parents but is firm that ‘it is not an interview’ but a two-way process: ‘a bit like buying a Ferrari,’ she says, which in school terms is exactly what parents are doing. Parents urged not to despair if no offer is forthcoming at this point; ‘we impress upon some that if their daughter isn’t ready at 4, we’d love to see her again at 7.’ At that point, a further 8-10 places up for grabs, with around 120 applicants, again assessed in two rounds.

Exit

In 2021, all to the senior school. In some years, the odd ones to St Paul's and Godolphin & Latymer. Parents are given an early heads-up if the ‘pace’ of the senior school may not be quite right for them. All sit the entrance exam, albeit in their classrooms rather than formally with external candidates (‘important for them to feel they’ve earned the place,’ says head), although there’s absolutely no cramming for exams – at least not inside of school.

Our view

An offer from NLCS is largely considered to be akin to winning Roald Dahl’s fictional golden ticket to the chocolate factory – and with places almost as hard to come by, we half expected Willy Wonka himself to appear as the GSG-mobile was cleared to pass the security guard to enter through the wrought iron gates at the entrance to this cradle of academic excellence. With the fearsome reputation of its big sister (not to mention legends of notoriously competitive entry) looming large in the local ether, we wondered what hotbed of tiny talent we were destined to find cultivating here. Our sighs of relief were audible, then, when our first encounter was with a host of reception-aged children – many fresh from breakfast club – dancing along to Lazy Town in the hall, smiles abundant. Parents pop in and out of classrooms at drop-off: ‘we encourage it,’ says head. The same happy vibe was in evidence throughout the day; from forest school for the littlest (‘girls are outside as often as in,’ beams teacher), via arts and crafts and on to a year 5 team building day outside on the chilly field. Although unashamedly academic, head is clear that girls are ‘having so much fun they don’t really know they’re learning’. Could it be true? Parents concur that ‘girls are allowed to be who they want to be’ and uniformly describe teaching staff with strings of superlatives: ‘phenomenal…sensational… amazing, warm and friendly’. One described the academic rigour as ‘couched in music, art and drama – all while running at a fast pace’.

Fast paced it is – and academics, in the words of parents, ‘are a given’. This helps in terms of readiness for secondary, but interestingly girls are rarely given an official mark or a rank. We approve. Parents report that the curriculum itself is traditional. The standard, however, is well above and beyond, and a gold Primary Quality Mark award has recently been awarded for geography, with history on target to follow. Pupils’ ‘intellectual character’ is constantly stimulated not only via the curriculum but also PSHE and assemblies, and head says that risk-taking is genuinely encouraged. The academic energy around the school is palpable; ‘there’s something about the buzz of girls running their own race,’ says head, and whether it’s chess (part of curriculum in year 2; school is national U11 champion) or Lego robotics (regional winners for past four years), excellence is par for the course in most things NLCS (one parent told us that when on school trips in London, girls frequently burst into song on the tube: ‘in perfect tune of course; they’re North London girls’). Languages taught a year at a time to give a taster for the senior school: Spanish in year 3, German in year 4, Mandarin in year 5 and French in year 6. Latin not on curriculum but available as a club. Singapore maths has been taught since 2017, resulting in a ‘dramatic effect’ on the standard of maths as well as girls’ enjoyment of the subject; ‘they’re now clamouring at our door to enter maths challenges,’ laughs head. Parents say that the standard of English is ‘exceptional’, particularly creative writing. Homework, we are told is ‘reasonable’ averaging at 30 minutes per night, and school intervenes when necessary if pupils need to put less pressure on themselves. On the subject of intervention, we are reliably informed that ‘tutoring is rife’ at all stages. We know this to be no different to any other school in the area but always live in hope of finding one that bucks the trend. School says it actively discourages any external intervention and always aims to offer pupils support when it’s needed. Focus on early identification and intervention where SEND is concerned and learning support is run by a ‘fantastic’ SENCo. The site itself works well for those facing physical challenges, and the school has, when required, incorporated additional aids, such as a hearing loop.

Drama thrives, with an annual play per year group – some written by staff, some classics such as Pippi Longstocking – and a major production for year 6 leavers, often values-based eg Wind in the Willows or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Refreshingly, school tries to discourage counting lines and tries, as far as possible, to allocate equal involvement to all. Music an extremely busy department, working closely with drama. Practically all girls take peripatetic instrumental lessons, about 80 per cent within school. Over 30 per cent learn two instruments, some three or more, providing plenty of candidates for the 11 ensembles which cater for everyone from beginners to the not insubstantial number of girls who have achieved their grade 8. Compulsory choir for years 3 and 4; auditioned Canons choir – winner of multitudinous competitions - thereafter. Suspiciously tidy art room, although super cubist portraits on display at the time of our visit – soon to be developed into masks in either clay or wood – told us that standards are high.

Everything present and correct in the sports department, with the added benefit of access to the senior school’s facilities. Swimming from reception, often coached by senior girls, new dance squad from year 3 and myriad opportunities, in addition to the major sports (netball, hockey and athletics), such as bouldering, table tennis and badminton. Pregnant parental pauses when asked about sporting culture and achievements, however, made us wonder whether NLCS would be an obvious choice for a supremely sporty girl. Naturally, there are plenty of elite athletes in the cohort but we gather that the majority of these pursue their training outside of school, although a new elite athlete mentoring programme has recently been introduced to try to address this, along with recent partnerships with Saracens (rugby) and Mavericks (netball) which promise to up the girls’ games in terms of competitive spirit and mental resilience. Competitive cries at the AGM from parents asking why school doesn’t perform better in the sports leagues are met with ‘we’re doing our best’ year after year and one father commented that on sports day he found it hard to understand who the winners were. That said, he did add that ‘nobody dreads it’, and that’s a good thing in our book. Crucially, the culture is one of integrating physical exercise into one’s life; the daily mile for years 3 to 6 is a key part of the day. The ‘hidden curriculum’ is the bedrock of an NLCS education and a vast array of clubs and societies (choir, languages, sports, film, street dance, cheer, gardening, chopsticks cookery, Globetrotters school magazine, to name a few) keep girls busy round the clock – and happily for parents late transport is provided to allow for after-school clubs. Frequent external speakers (engineers, animators, fine arts dealers) – often ONLs – broaden girls’ career aspirations.

Pastoral care is at the heart of the school’s culture – ‘amazing,’ say parents – and girls are actively encouraged to be kind to each other and mindful of other social classes; ‘good global citizens’. Major problems, particularly those where the school counsellor is drawn in, are often addressed with the whole family to ensure a cohesive way forward. Parents report a ‘strong community feel’, with very little need for rules or discipline. Even the youngest pupils have ‘invisible boundaries’ in the playground that are rarely crossed – this could easily serve as a metaphor for the whole school culture. Parent after parent told us that this isn’t a school for ‘cookie cutter’ girls and that individuality is embraced – although let there be no doubt that the common qualities of diligence and an eagerness to please are prerequisites. A thicker skin is also beneficial to protect those who may otherwise be daunted by their ‘stratospherically bright’ classmates and, as with all ‘all-through’ schools, we recommend carrying out thorough due diligence of the senior school too before signing on the dotted line. Small touches make a big difference: ‘personal appointment time’ is formalised once a term for girls to reflect on their successes and challenges with their form tutor; they can request additional ‘bubble time’ to have shorter one-to-ones as needed. The hugely diverse parent cohort – from the extremely wealthy to those making huge sacrifices to send their daughters to NLCS, as well as the full melting pot of races and religions reflective of modern London – add to the girls’ rich educative experience. Parents, too, appreciate the fact that social events tend to be low key quiz nights or fireworks rather than pricy ‘big ticket’ occasions, as well as the ‘postcode drinks parties’ that encourage community. Fantastic full wrap-around care with breakfast club, after school clubs galore and a coach service, covering swathes of north and west London and parts of Hertfordshire, that allows girls to travel to school from reception (older pupils are ‘coach pals’ and take care of these little ones) are a godsend to dual income families.

The last word

NLCS parents say they feel ‘in safe hands’ and we have absolutely no doubt that they are; a place won here is indeed a golden ticket to a world class education.


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