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Everyone seems proud of the new foray into rowing, sharing the Dulwich College boathouse at Putney, competing in regattas and practising on the bank of rowing machines. Plenty of individual sporting stars: one year 7 pupil is fifth in the UK for BMX racing. Housed in a rather grand converted hydropathic hotel; the old part of the school, with a panelled hallway, art nouveau copper fireplace and grand staircase thrillingly complete with the ghost of an old headmistress, is charming. Very on point with regards to mental health issues; there are new ‘sense of self’ weeks inspiring bounce-backability...

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What the school says...

Sydenham High School is part of the Girls’ Day School Trust, the leading group of independent girls’ schools in the UK, and we are celebrating over 130 years of providing a first class independent education for girls from 4 to 18.

Our school motto, Nyle ye Drede, (‘Fear nothing’), lies at the heart of all we do. A Sydenham High education is centred upon the girl, where academic excellence and pastoral excellence go hand in hand. We want our pupils to have a ‘can do’ approach and inner strength so that they are enabled to thrive, succeed and be happy.

We are a school which is small enough to ensure that every pupil is visible so that her education is both aspirational and personalised. We want to empower our girls to face potential challenges with confidence. We want them to be resilient in all that they do so that in an ever-changing world they are able to respond positively to the ever-increasing demands placed on them, both at school and in their future lives.

We want to inspire our pupils to:

- Achieve individual excellence; to be inspired and to inspire
- Be ambitious and outstrip expectations
- Embrace opportunities
- Be bold, fearless and resilient
- Have an independence of mind and the courage to take risks
- To have a strong moral compass and be accepting and respectful of themselves and others

Sydenham High is selective and diverse, welcoming girls with wide-ranging talents and backgrounds into a close community that is large enough to offer choice and flexibility but compact enough to ensure that no girl is overlooked. Our exciting and enriching co-curricular programme provides every pupil with exceptional learning opportunities beyond the classroom, whether at Prep School, Senior School or Sixth Form.

A Sydenham High education not only prepares our young people for university and future employment, but also gives them the necessary skills and confidence to succeed, prosper and be happy. Girls at Sydenham High are open-minded and ambitious and possess an inner strength and self-belief to exceed expectations. Sydenham High is a school bursting with warmth, creativity, talent and, above all, excellence in all that we do.

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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


Since 2017, Katharine Woodcock BA. Studied French and Russian at Bristol University, followed by a PGCE at St Mary’s College, Twickenham. Coming from a long line of teachers, her first teaching post was as a languages teacher and resident tutor at a co-educational boarding school in the Midlands. During her career, she has been a housemistress at Oakham School and most recently senior deputy head at Queen’s College London.

We meet Mrs Woodcock two years into her tenure. We imagine her rather bare office is testament to the fact that from the moment she arrived she wasted no time on interior design, preferring to get her sleeves rolled up about the school. Parents agree and are wholehearted in their approval: ‘Mrs Woodcock is outstanding. I don’t say this lightly. I thought Mrs Pullen, the previous head, was great and I was so disappointed when she retired’; ‘She has brought an elevated sense of achievement that the school desperately needed’; and ‘She models resilience, hard work and fearlessness to the girls as well as being friendly and approachable.’

Drawn to the GDST by her passion for girls’ schools and in particular for Sydenham’s broad intake of girls with spark and potential, she feels girls here exhibit ‘a real sense of purpose, ambition and knowing what they want from life’. Unlike some pupils, polished beyond belief with pure marketing copy flowing from their lips, the girls we met were down to earth and quietly happy here, making space for their enthusiastic teachers (who clearly knew them well) to prompt them out of their modesty and share their accomplishments.

With her family established in north London, Mrs Woodcock makes light of her cross-London commute. An early bird, she arrives with the dawn in time to find the school already awake, with ensembles warming up and rowers heading off to the water. Dogs are two a penny in heads’ offices but Mrs Woodcock is more likely to bring in her pet Henry, a tortoise of which she is very fond. Dogs are very welcome, though, and she has her eyes on the well-being dogs found in other GDST schools. During the holidays she enjoys heading to the Jurassic coast with her family. ‘I haven’t looked back once. I’m the luckiest person in the world,’ she concludes.


Broadly selective, but the ability range is wider than elsewhere locally. Although there are 3.5 applications for every place, the odds of a place are much higher than at the best local state schools. Open days and taster days throughout the school year. Examinations in maths and English, together with a satisfactory report from primary school. Thoughtful concessions such as the use of a laptop, additional time or a smaller testing venue for those with SEN. Assessments for other year groups where space allows. The main feeders for the school are Sydenham High Prep School, Oakfield, Rosemead, Rosendale and Dulwich Hamlet.


Some 55 per cent stays on to the sixth form. Of these, nearly all (95 per cent) to Russell Group universities. A broad range of subjects pursued, with the straightforwardly academic – history, chemistry, philosophy/ethics/religion – mixed in with the more professionally orientated – law, criminology, events management, jewellery and silver-smithing, sport and exercise science. Plenty heading off to art school.

This isn’t a school with a regular clutch of Oxbridge offers, though the odd one goes. The new Oxbridge programme may assist, beginning in year 10 when girls are encouraged to consider elite universities, medicine or veterinary science (though no medics in 2021). At sixth form there is interview practice with other GDST students and Dulwich College. One mother commented approvingly: ‘As a university academic I consider the school to offer exactly the sort of preparation for success in higher education which one would hope to see.’

Latest results

In 2021, 80 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 78 per cent A*/A at A level (100 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 70 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 57 per cent A*/A at A level (91 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

GCSE and A level results are on an upward trend. Excellent performances in the three sciences, RE and English literature but room for improvement in other areas. Newbie subjects at A level such as government & politics and psychology doing well. But a couple of parents we spoke to felt that the sixth form is something of a weak spot, with A level results very different to some of the local heavy-hitters. The head has academic results firmly at the top of her agenda (has made changes to the tracking and reporting of assessment behind the scenes) but feels the results reflect girls doing brilliantly for who they are.

As a rule, girls take 10 GCSEs although sometimes nine or 11. Sciences taught separately from year 8. The maths top set take GCSE statistics in year 10. Almost all take one modern language to GCSE. French in year 7 and then German, Italian or Spanish are added in year 8.

Lessons aim to confront challenges and develop leadership abilities. Years 7 and 8 take part in an accelerated reading programme. Every pupil takes part in the UKMT maths challenges. One year 13 pupil awarded bronze in UK linguistics Olympiad. Separate computing lessons. Mixed ability teaching apart from maths and science. The Socrates programme aims to inspire creativity and a love of learning: it's designed for scholars in years 7 to 9, but any girl can attend.

In the sixth form, most take three, some four, A levels, plus the EPQ. Economics was added in 2018 and history of art in 2019. A year 13 pupil recently achieved a silver award in the UK chemistry Olympiad; year 12 physicists came third in a national talent 2030 engineering competition.

Careers prep starts early with ‘take your daughter to work day’; then, work experience for year 11s; termly events focused on careers in anything from the creative industries to biomedical professions, law and finance, with the message that ‘everything and anything is possible’. Recent speakers include a female EasyJet captain and a member of the London Fire Service.

Some 14 teachers have been with the school for over 10 years. A mother told us: ‘The teachers are all willing to go out of their way to provide support for my daughter in overcoming issues and to come up with new approaches if she does not understand.’

Inevitably, with a newish head there have been staffroom changes. New heads of department bring a fresh energy, particularly the highly-talented head of art. A new director of music is organising new concerts and recitals from prominent musicians. The head is proud of the efforts put into staff development through CPD.

Average class size is 22. Parents are united in the view that homework and pressure are well-handled and manageable. One told us: ‘As a parent, it is great that they are in an environment where they are interested, enjoy the lessons and are self-motivated, rather than spoon-fed and endlessly tested.’

Teachers plan for those needing more stretch in lessons. One mother described her daughter as ‘challenged to push herself beyond her comfort zone and has a wonderful sense of self-belief that will stand her in good stead.’

Learning support and SEN

Those needing additional support are identified by baseline testing in the first month of year 7. Some 93 pupils have additional learning needs, quite a significant proportion, perhaps finding a warmer welcome here than at other local independent senior schools without any such provision.

Any child with SEND is placed on the SEND register and in some cases the learning support team will then create a learning plan. Support is in place for speech and language difficulties, hearing, ASD and social, emotional and mental health needs. Only a couple of girls with EAL requirements. All year 7 pupils receive a study skills class. Some one-to-one support developing individual strategies, which may be slotted in instead of Latin or library lessons. From speaking to staff there is clearly excellent communication between the SENCo and class teachers, who might notice any downturn in a girl’s work and flag up additional support being needed. One delighted parent shared: ‘My daughter has dyslexia and started year 7 not very confident in her own academic ability. At the last parents’ evening all the teachers were praising her hard work, and how much braver and more confident she is now.’

The arts and extracurricular

Performing arts centre includes a 90-seat recital hall with professional recording equipment. ‘Drama and dance are remarkable,’ said a parent. Dance - including street dance - is very popular, with an annual show and contemporary groups taking part in local and national competitions. Year 7 ended the year with a trip to see Wicked, their favourite musical. More distinctions and merits than passes in the LAMDA exams.

A third of girls play an instrument from beginner to diploma level – 200 lessons a week. The brick-built music block features graphic art of famous musicians and composers. One year 11 musician has recently been offered a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A wide range of choirs and ensembles of all abilities from jazz band to chamber choir. There is a lunchtime concert series and the opportunity to compete for the title of GDST young musician of the year. Parents speak of performances at the Albert Hall and Southwark Cathedral.

An appealingly raw art space, perfect for getting creative, under the eaves at the top of the school with views across London. Girls were quietly absorbed in their projects, with displays of paper-engineered fashion from year 9 and year 10’s industrial landscapes and sculptures taking inspiration from the local gasometers.

A relatively small DT workshop but with all of the gear. Mood lights and elaborately designed chairs on show. Sweet dreams in store for the year 7s whose dream-catchers and wind-chimes we admired, made by a variety of cutting and modelling techniques in mixed materials.

Wings are spread with national and international trips, including skiing. World Challenges have recently taken in Ecuador and Borneo. Girls raise funds for a sister school in Nepal which they visit in the sixth form. Year 10s can take the opportunity of an exchange with St Hilda’s School, Australia. Good showing for DofE with 50 girls completing bronze, and the girls recently took home two of 15 prizes at a Model UN conference held at St Paul’s boys’ school. The school is more energised than many in really getting behind the climate emergency. Pupils have written to their MP, and on Switch Off Fridays keep energy consumption as low as possible.

Enrichment for years 7 and 8 includes cookery, arts and mindfulness; in year 12 there’s rock-climbing, sign language, first aid, political awareness and anatomical studies. Lower down the school girls take part in at least two extracurricular activities a week. Technical theatre, trampolining, debating, robotics, digital leaders, ultimate Frisbee, musical theatre and Bananagrams caught our eye, but the usual sporting, musical – choirs and chamber groups – are all there.


Sport is for all, not just the elite. There are squads for netball, hockey, swimming, athletics, cricket, badminton, rowing, football and trampoline. Also on offer: tennis, cross-country, volleyball, fencing and gymnastics. There is an eight-acre playing field in Lower Sydenham and girls also make use of nearby Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.

Everyone seems proud of the new foray into rowing, sharing the Dulwich College boathouse at Putney, competing in regattas and practising on the bank of rowing machines. Plenty of individual sporting stars: one year 7 pupil is fifth in the UK for BMX racing; another was third in the Brighton and Hove triathlon in her age group; a year 11 swimmer is the second fastest in the country for her age; and a year 8 girl achieved gold in diving at Plymouth.

Ethos and heritage

Founded in 1887 and located on Westwood Hill, Crystal Palace, Sydenham High was one of the final schools founded by the Girls’ Day School Trust, after a petition by a local resident appalled by the ‘snobbery’ of local schools in the area.

Housed in a rather grand converted hydropathic hotel, the forerunner of today’s spa hotels, the grandeur now somewhat hidden, but visible from netball courts, once extensive lawns. Mrs Woodcock has her eye (and budget) firmly on the estate. The high boundary wall flanking the road will soon be replaced by something more open; there will be an eco-zone with garden, greenhouse and pond; a new library; the sixth form centre, currently pretty unappealing, will get a major overhaul and one of the things we’ve always rather objected to, the drab breeze-block corridors, will be plastered to create a more polished learning environment. Let’s hope that wonderful art displays will follow to brighten what currently feel like unloved spaces. New mac suite, also on her wish list, has already been installed.

The central old part of the school, with a panelled hallway, art nouveau copper fireplace and grand staircase thrillingly complete with the ghost of an old headmistress, is charming. In contrast the glassy, modern dining hall looks out over the courts (all food is cooked from scratch on site).

Asked to describe the school’s atmosphere, a mother said of her daughter’s experience: ‘cheerful and fun, with a feeling that everyone is important and that her teachers treat her needs seriously.’

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

A strong structure is in place and girls report feeling that they know exactly who to turn to and that they are listened and responded to. The heads of lower, middle and upper school have pastoral responsibilities, with praise for the approachable deputy head pastoral reaching our ears more than once. A year 8 pupil said: ‘The majority of the girls are really nice – everyone is really approachable and friendly. There can be some mean girl behaviour, which thankfully the teachers often sort.’ However, staff also coach girls to manage low level friendship issues themselves. Very on point with regards to mental health issues; there are new ‘sense of self’ weeks inspiring bounce-backability and mental fitness, plus regular talks. There is a full-time school nurse and a counsellor and the school is unfazed by and supportive of girls choosing to transition whilst at school. The school motto is ‘fear nothing’.

A parent told us: ‘As a working mother of both girls and boys I love the great opportunities – they have become well-rounded, caring and thoughtful individuals rather than simply high performing academic achievers.’ There is a culture of giving back via outreach, volunteering and partnership with a local primary school.

Sixth formers wear their own clothes with the stipulation of ‘smart’: hard to tell just how smart this is as it was the exam period during our visit, but comfort seemed more the order of the day.

Year 7 pupils start the school year a day ahead of other pupils; they have attended a summer induction day and the first half of the autumn term is focused on this big step up to senior school, whilst the head spreads the word that ‘it’s still ok to play’, introducing balls and hoops onto the Astroturf at break-time.

Pupils and parents

Pupils are mostly local, travelling from Dulwich, Herne Hill, Beckenham, Crystal Palace and Streatham. Small percentages from further afield: Croydon, Greenwich, Peckham or Camberwell. School bus services run across south London. The school describes itself as a diverse community but ‘white British’ is the box most frequently ticked (52 per cent) with equal clusters of girls from Indian, African and Caribbean families.

Alumnae include: Margaret Lockwood (actor), Philippa Darbre (scientist), Sophie McKenzie (author), Sandy Powell (Oscar-winning costume designer), Claire Bennett (fencing champion) and Bianca Miller (businesswoman and The Apprentice runner-up).

Parents, giving the inside scoop on each other, say: ‘friendly, seem ambitious for their daughters and supportive of the school’; ‘down to earth professionals that are looking for a school that focuses on their daughter’s ability’.

Money matters

Most recently some 11 per cent of pupils are in receipt of a means-tested bursary and 10 per cent of pupils have a scholarship. Realistically girls will need to perform well in the entrance test to be in with a chance of a bursary. As a guide, higher value bursaries are on offer for families with a household income of less than £40k. Scholarships are available for academia, music, drama, art and sport.

The last word

With a fair wind, a determined head at the helm and the backing of the GDST, Sydenham HIgh School's evolution could deliver just the alternative independent choice this area is crying out for.

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.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

The school's special needs policy follows the recommendations of the Code of Practice (2001). At admission each pupil is looked at as an individual case to see whether the school can effectively meet her needs. A girl would only be refused entry if she was unable to attain the required academic standard or if the school was unable to cope with the child's difficulty once every effort had been made to accommodate her needs. The school has a Learning Support Department run by a qualified dyslexia teacher. Individual difficulties (eg mild dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, Aspergers) are handled as appropriate by the Learning Support Department. Pupils whose difficulties form a significant barrier to learning may have an Individual Education Plan and some targeted help from the Learning Support Department. Pupils with specific learning difficulties should be able to cope in mainstream classes but the school offers a supportive environment in which staff are made aware of the ways in which these students can be supported within the classroom. The Junior Department also has access to well qualified perpatetic special needs teachers who can give long term individual support during school time and parents may wish to use this facility for which an extra charge is made.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
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

Who came from where

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