A new website, Talk Education, provides a guide to the ‘best of British independent education.’ Both South Hampstead Junior and Senior Schools feature among its top 200 schools in the UK.
‘Speak out, shine bright, be heard’: that was the uplifting slogan for the Waterlow Hall Festival in January, held to mark the launch of the super new performing-arts building at South Hampstead High School. And it neatly sums up the ethos at this north London academic powerhouse where sparky girls are encouraged to stand up for what they believe from the get-go.
The result is a cohort of confident, intelligent young women – often, we’ve found on visits, with a brilliantly offbeat sense of humour – who ace exams and head off to top universities with a savvy, strong sense of self. ‘Finally, we have a hall to match the ambition and talents of our girls… but buildings, however beautiful, are just buildings – it is what happens in them and what they inspire that is important,’ said dynamic head Vicky Bingham in her opening-night speech.
Of course, this is absolutely true. But it just so happens that the senior school building – designed by Hopkins Architects in 2014 and encompassing classrooms for art and design technology, a library, music school and an indoor sports hall – is ultra state-of-the-art.
In 2017, forward-thinking Mrs Bingham joined from a deputy head role at Guildford High and she has driven a new wave of interest in South Hampstead High. Additionally, it has recently been all change in the junior school, where Caroline Spencer started as head in September 2019 (from Francis Holland), and the focus is on an integrated curriculum that broadens horizons rather than jumps through hoops.
Girls can start aged four and stay on right through until 18 (cleverly skipping the pressure of the 11+ tests altogether). Admission is competitive at all entry points (4+, 7+, 11+, 16+); prospective pupils sit an entrance exam and go through an interview process (except 4+ which is a two-part assessment only).
Nothing can detract from the league-table-topping stats: in 2019, 91 per cent of girls achieved A*-B at A-level, and more than 20 per cent of leavers received offers for Oxbridge. Some 10 per cent typically go on to medical school and increasing numbers are moving stateside to attend Ivy League universities.
Girls in the Junior School have access to the senior specialist sports coaches and facilities, and can sign up for the Owls service, staying on site until 6pm for homework and supper. They are also paired up with a ‘talk partner’ each week to kick-start conversations – a gentle way of helping individuals find their voice and a logical lead into debating, one of the most popular lunchtime clubs in the upper school.
The senior timetable includes the Mehr Licht programme: a weekly double period that goes beyond the academic core – whether girls want to learn sign language or what’s involved in electronic-music production. Pupils frequently come home from competitions (a UK-wide maths challenge, a biology Olympiad) with well-earned trophies.
With A to E teams, everyone has the chance to compete on the playing field too: cricket and football are both major sports, along with netball, cross-country (girls train on nearby Hampstead Heath) and gymnastics. Plus there are more than 140 co-curricular clubs and activities on offer, such as Pride (members recently organised a week-long programme of events based around empowering the LGBTQ+ community), Doctor Who and the Space Society.
Waterlow Hall is the venue for all kinds of thought-provoking stuff – VoiceBox, a series of TED-style talks by Year 9 pupils; the senior-school production of Emilia, a groundbreaking play about the poet Emilia Bassano who was thought to be Shakespeare’s muse; the Speaker Series, with high-profile guests such as Dame Stella Rimington (former director general of MI5) and Olympic gold medallists Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh. It will also play a key role in the build-up to the school’s 150th anniversary in 2026, with all future revenue going towards doubling the number of bursary places.
Being environmentally aware is high on the agenda here, and the aim is to work towards becoming a carbon-neutral school. The eco-committee (which is headed by design and technology teacher Ms Wrigglesworth, one of only a few UN-certified climate-change teachers in London) runs an annual eco-week to raise awareness of climate issues; all single-use plastic has been removed from the canteen; and Mrs Bingham is leading by example by giving up buying any clothes for a year.
A thriving school that succeeds in educating girls on all fronts, guiding well-rounded individuals to becoming the female leaders of the future.
Read the review here.