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Pulls in the grades. But these achievements come without sense that they’re the be all and end all of anyone’s existence. ‘Feels unpressurised in a way that not many private schools do around here – lots of encouragement to have a life and enjoy other things than study.’ ‘My daughter is stretched, but never stressed.’ Etc. It’s rowing, rowing and more rowing for many of the girls, though probably fewer than ...

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Rowing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2014, Chris Muller BA (50s), promoted to the top slot five years after joining school as deputy head. Before that, at Kingston Grammar as head of classics for nine years, six as head of sixth form. Preceded by identical pairing one level down (classics teacher/deputy sixth form head) at RGS Guildford, with first teaching post at St Dunstan's.

Packs a lot into his 11-hour day, teaching Latin prose to sixth formers (‘Lucky them, must be the joy of their lives every week!’), attending every event (‘That’s the fun bit’) and writing his blog (not unusual for heads, but parents told us his are ‘really very good’ and ‘get girls looking beyond school life, giving them a bigger picture of the world around them’), among other things. A burgeoning public speaker too – check out his recorded online TEDx talk on the need to read, garnering 1.6K views, albeit with just two comments from son and nephew.

‘Excellence not perfection’ is his mantra – ‘If we strive for perfectionism, it’s to the detriment of everything else and particularly for teenage girls, there’s a real risk that can be paralysing’. Not lost on parents - ‘He really cares about the girls and frequently reminds them that you learn through mistakes and that it’s ok to be good enough, especially when you’re juggling a large number of subjects and finding out who you are,’ said one. Girls unanimously in favour – ‘cheerful,’ ‘very much on our side’ and ‘always up for a corridor chat,’ they extolled. And while some parents felt ‘he can be a bit on the blunt side’, most consider this his forte – ‘he doesn’t have a script and shows he lives in the real world by acknowledging that girls will have friendship issues and might for example try drugs at one stage or another, although I suppose that kind of candour might horrify some.’ Could be clearer about his vision, thought one – ‘I have no idea where the school plans to be in five years’ time, for example’ (but watch this space as we met new marketing bod tasked with helping him get this over loud and clear).

Lives in Epsom with his wife, they have a son at university and a daughter at Epsom College. Out of hours, chances are you’ll find him walking his new dog or reading a book on politics, currently Sir Anthony Seldon’s biography of Theresa May – ‘very interesting to see that he’s not all that keen.’

Academic matters

Pulls in the grades, with 73 per cent A*-A/9-7 at GCSE in 2019 and 53 per cent A*/A and 89 per cent A*-B at A level. English and maths nearly always do the school proud at GCSE, with other recent stand out results in chemistry, biology and computer science. At A level, art, chemistry, English and economics are the shining stars.

But these achievements come without sense that they’re the be all and end all of anyone’s existence. ‘Feels unpressurised in a way that not many private schools do around here – lots of encouragement to have a life and enjoy other things than study.’ ‘My daughter is stretched, but never stressed.’ Etc. And although the school is selective, a parent noted that ‘it doesn’t doesn’t take the absolute cream of the crop.’ We think best suited to local bright, conscientious girls who’d wilt in heat radiating from area’s famous all girls’ academic sizzlers.

Proudest moment for head is upping the ante on computer science, now taught at both GCSE and A level, with five girls having recently gone on to study it at university – ‘pretty unusual in most schools and good for them because let’s face it, they’re made,’ he beams. Languages are another strength, with a good proportion of native teachers, well used language lab and dedicated linguist conversationalists brought in to speed things up near exam time. French and German from year 7, with Spanish recently added – ‘too much for them to do all three,’ grumbled one parent, although a student disagreed, saying, ‘it’s much better than before, when Spanish was only available from year 10 because it felt like such a risk to take it up.’ At the end of year 8, students choose two out of three and most take at least one at GCSE. School bucks trend in German, with good GCSE take-up and a 40-year strong exchange programme. Italian and classical Greek added to the mix of language A levels available, although all subject to demand. No setting except in maths from year 7 and even then, school says it’s more about getting them on a level playing field as girls come from around 80 different feeder schools, ‘all at varying levels.’

No silly numbers of GCSEs, with most taking nine – ‘all you need, according to all the research,’ insists head, although those in top set maths round it up to 10 with further maths. Economics and psychology consistently popular, with RS coming back into play. With the exception of computer science and psychology, A level offerings are largely traditional; maths, biology and chemistry get good take-up – many want to become doctors (there’s a special programme for those wanting to be medics, doctors and vets, including talks and visits to eg see dead bodies – ‘if they can’t cope with that, they might as well forget it’). Doesn’t cull at sixth form, committing to the girls ‘for life’, but won’t shirk from hard-to-hear stuff eg if predicted GCSE grades aren’t a 7 or above in the subject they want to study, parents are told. Most take three A levels, but some start off with four to help them nail down favourites. Around 20 or so do EPQ – anything from feminism in literature to scientific examinations (mini EPQ for year 9s gets them used to extended research, again with around 20 taking it up). English, maths and history among strongest departments, reckon students, but physics ‘could do better – often just taught by chemistry teachers.’

Class sizes around 24, dropping by half in years 10 and 11 and to as low as one for sixth form (maximum 14, depending on subject). Brisk pace to learning throughout. ‘But they try to keep it fun,’ insisted a student, evidenced by laughter coming from many a classroom door on our tour. In fact, bar occasional staff member who doesn’t quite gel and moves on pronto, teaching gets good all round ratings. Termly assessments assist with monitoring and a traffic light system flags up any dips in performance. Recently changed report system means parents now get a working grade and expected grade, along with more focus on what’s needed to improve rather than ‘she’s a nice girl’ kind of comments.

Encouraging feedback from parents on SEN department, which comprises SENCo and assistant – former qualified to diagnose learning needs (mainly mild) and gently persistent in ensuring all staff see them as everyone’s concern. Currently school supports around 60 girls. Ranges from withdrawal from lessons (usually a language), or extra help with organisation. School has around 30 EAL pupils, but they rarely need extra support. Good stretch for top achievers. ‘If you’ve got a really high flyer and want them surrounded by others like it, it’s probably not the best school but that doesn’t mean they can’t get these kids into the likes of Oxbridge,’ said one parent.

Games, options, the arts

It’s rowing, rowing and more rowing for many of the girls, though probably fewer than in the past as it has become more elite in recent years. All get very excited about it in year 9, then inevitably start dropping out; by year 11, those still hanging on in there can expect to train up to nine times a week but this pays off with plenty of school medals and they recently got to second round at the Henley Royal Regatta for the first time. Lovely new boat club on Laleham Reach. Hockey, netball and rounders play second fiddle but are still popular – we loved that students got so excited whatever team they got into, right down to F and all get fixtures, we were told. Big sports hall, plus courts and fields among the facilities, although some parent grumbles about the lack of hockey fields and Astro – ‘next on wish list,’ reassures head. Fitness options become increasingly available higher up the school, though ‘they often double book the PE session with a talk, which can be annoying,’ complained a sixth former. Individual European champions in karate and judo and school also boasts some top ice skaters. For anything elite, they’re willing to modify the curriculum to do eg seven GCSEs; ditto for actors – one girl is currently appearing in the West End.

Mega spring concert is the annual powerhouse performance of the music department. Players of all abilities get their time in the sun in the lunchtime concerts when everyone – from newbies to performing right through to music scholars - play something for their parents (‘good for confidence building’). Around 500 or so learn an instrument and one pupil confessed how she often escapes to one of the private practice rooms ‘just because they’re such lovely places to be.' Advanced strings, sax group, flute factory just some of the groups promoted on the noticeboards, plus there’s a compulsory year 7 choir, chamber choir and whole school choir. And our tour guides couldn’t wait to show us the music composition room ‘where we do things like make music for horror films.’ ‘There’s no great divide between the teachers and students – they jam together with the music,’ thought parent.

New drama facilities include two lovely big studios, with huge atmospheric photos in the corridors giving tasters of eg Shakespeare festival, Oliver!, Sound of Music, all with lighting, sound, visual effects, costumes and set managed mainly by students. ‘Other schools might put on slicker performances but what you get here is student led,’ said one parent. Pop-up productions entail sixth formers producing a play in a single weekend, scenes and all – ‘quite stressful, but just amazing,’ said one. We’d love to have seen the punchy performance covering issues around bullying and social media – ‘all really powerful stuff and reflective of the school in that they don’t shy away from difficult issues,’ said a parent. But we were lucky enough to observe a lesson of year 10s perfecting a scene from War Horse (‘What’s the main thing to remember if you’re the person doing the lifting onto the horse?’ asked drama teacher – ‘Hold on tight,’ came sensible reply).

Art is big and bold, with vast, accomplished canvases everywhere although none so colossal as the white plaster of Paris spider in the making – as big as a small office (not sure how they’ll ever remove it). One of our sixth form guide’s projects was intriguing – angel wings made from wire, which she planned to burn – ‘there really are no restrictions here to your imagination, they really let you go for it.’ Fantastic facilities – lots of rooms, including dark room, and DT room, although lower school art room could perhaps do some fresh inspiration, with our sixth formers pointing out that they made the main display back in year 7.

Trips include alternate years visit to Ghana – longstanding link with school there. All the usual clubs, including Model UN, debating and weekly 16+ Stonewall group. Extremely impressive DofE scheme, run largely by devoted parents, some now qualified trainers, who send decent cohort off to Buck House each year for gold medal presentations.

Background and atmosphere

Known informally by parents as Willie Perks and slightly less endearingly by pupils as SWPS. Founded in the 18th century by successful merchant keen to give something back. Boys only in those days, although daringly co-ed from 1736 before move to present 12-acre site in 1819, becoming a girls’ grammar from 1940s until the changing political climate led to independence in 1970s.

Completely rebuilt in 1914 following a huge sewage leak (eww), now redbrick throughout, with various purpose built add-ons over the years, the most recent wing including spaces for drama workshops, music teaching, careers and the sixth form centre with rooftop terrace. The latter we were particularly intrigued to see following our sixth former’s rather anxious comment of, ‘I really hope it’s not gross today – the cleaning rota doesn’t always go to plan’ (it was actually fine, albeit with a few schoolbags, papers and water bottles strewn over floor). Big wide corridors bloom with eg beautiful handmade fabric books marking year 7 trip to Southall and, of course, those mammoth canvases. Hearteningly, includes work that shows ‘good practice’ rather than highest marks. Muller TV gives info on everything from events to train times. Large, trad library an oasis of calm. Good space for food tech – pizzas in the making when we visited. Large dining area divided into bog standard main refectory, high street style sixth form and staff café and small staff dining room with white tablecloths. We enjoyed a chicken roast, although students say there could be more variety and bigger portions - ‘and please no more risottos for the vegetarians,’ pleaded one. Watch this space – new caterers coming soon, says school.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

On the ball when it comes to modern pressures, with nothing brushed under carpet. Consequently, mental health and wellbeing and its nuances are part of everyday vocab here, and that goes for the girls themselves who chat easily and candidly about awareness of anything from eating disorders to bullying. A parent told us how the school ‘went above and beyond when it came to my child’s difficulties – there was an immediate plan of action, people watching out for her and regular assurance to her that she was being 100 per cent supported.’ Lovely wellbeing room packed with comfy sofas, a side office for the wellbeing officer and even a wellbeing pug, all highly praised by girls although some felt more teachers could be on board: ‘There are some that imply certain people don’t really need it, which kind of misses the point as mental health issues aren’t always visible,’ said one. Four visiting counsellors available for more serious stuff, to whom girls can self-refer.

Pupils fully involved in the pastoral offering. Year 11s mentor year 7s – very popular on both sides - and in turn have teacher to support them through horrors of GCSEs, while sixth formers take turns to run a listening room so younger girls can air problems.

Few major transgressions on the behaviour front – high standards for all and a detailed behaviour policy, though all seems less Draconian than it sounds. In fact, many parents told us the school ‘doesn’t sweat the small stuff’, though a few wish they would, especially when it comes to skirt length and tying hair back – we certainly saw lapses of both. Detention (ranges from 30 mins to two hours on a Friday) relatively uncommon in comparison to other schools but used when needed. Around three exclusions a year – mainly social media related; only two permanent ones in the last five years. Recent survey revealed, as you’d expect in any school, a little bullying – positive that they reported it, reckons school, even more so that students made it clear they’re not prepared to be bystanders.

Some parents sigh over lack of sixth form uniform and ‘sloppier’ appearance. Head and pupils united in vociferous disagreement. Easier to learn in comfortable clothes - and it’s good for us, they reckon, and head insists they look smart when need to. Freedom passes, earned by sixth formers who want to head off to the likes of Costa and Subway during free periods, also appreciated, although all must be present for morning and afternoon registration.

Pupils and parents

In many ways, families are more typical of a grammar school than an independent, thinks head – ‘We don’t get a huge number of multi-millionaires, with most just aspirational and hard working.’ Girls believe it makes for the ideal atmosphere – ‘You don’t get anyone thinking they’re better than anyone else here,’ said one. We concur, having found students both rounded and grounded, with a hard working ethos, eagerness to please and good sense of initiative. Don’t seem to lose the sense of themselves that we see at some schools, with no moulding to an SWPS type. Not a massive amount of ethnic diversity, it being Surrey and all, but we are assured there’s a little more than there once was. Alumni include Pam Cook (academic, author), Trisha Goddard (TV presenter), Anna Wilson-Jones (actress), Celina Hinchcliffe (sports journalist), Susie Amy (actress) and Lara McAllen (musician).

Entrance

Main intake of up to 96 places in year 7 – about 45/55 per cent split between state/independent feeders. Usually around three or four at 13+ on deferred entry. Candidates (about two per place) sit English and maths exams. Around three to four come in at sixth form - places dependent on 9-7 GCSE grades in proposed A level subjects, with school ‘more interested in grades than overall numbers.’

Exit

Forty-five per cent left after GCSEs in 2019, though school says 30-45 per cent is more usual – girls told us it’s usually because ‘they want co-ed or the freedom of college life.’ Most to university, with Essex, Birmingham, Nottingham and Edinburgh currently popular. Some two-thirds to Russell Group; five to Oxbridge in 2019, plus five medics. Big on science and maths subjects, and increasingly computer science. Promotes apprenticeship degrees where relevant, with recent girls to eg JP Morgan and Jaguar.

Excellent careers advice, with careers office taking centre stage in the sixth form centre right opposite the common room. Sixth formers we met raved about recent talks from accountants (‘who knew it could be so interesting?’), architects and foreign office. You’re left feeling these girls see the sky as the limit – no job too male dominated, too difficult etc with plenty of frank, goal oriented support eg do you even need a degree if your end game is working for KPMG?

Money matters

Academic, music, drama and art scholarships offered in year 7 and sixth form (when sports is added), worth between five and 25 per cent of fees. An additional one-off academic scholarship worth 50 per cent of fees. Foundation bursaries covering up to 100 per cent of fees.

Our view

Top-notch extra-curricular combined with unpressurised but robust academics, making this school a welcome antidote to some of the local hothouses. A golden ticket to a bright future, with lots of fun to be had on the way.

Please note: 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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