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The argument for all-through schools

Is it best for children to stay at the same school from four to 18 or change school at 11 or 13? Vicky Bingham discusses the benefits of an all-through school in The Week’s Independent Schools Guide.

At our recent Sixth Form open day, one of our wonderful Head Girls was asked by a parent whether she had ever considered moving schools. She joined our Junior School at the age of four, in a tiny pinafore, barely able to hold a pencil; now, on the cusp of sitting four A Levels, she is an accomplished trumpeter, actor, swimmer, and an aspiring doctor. Her response was considered: “The teachers are amazing and know me inside out. I’ve made lifelong friends. And the Sixth Form’s been the absolute pinnacle of my time here. Why on earth wouldn’t I stay?”

The pace of change means that future workplaces will doubtless favour those who are adept at reinventing themselves. But continuity, enduring relationships, shared experiences and collective memories are powerful anchors in a rapidly changing world. During their formative years, pupils can benefit from the consistent ethos, values and pastoral frameworks of an all-through school. The ‘big girls’ act as role models and, in turn, gain so much from running History of Art or Science clubs, coaching sport, helping with reading and acting as peer mentors for the younger girls. Whole school activities, such as our annual 10km charity walk, and our environmental drive, Project Zero, help to galvanise and embed a sense of community and camaraderie that’s pervasive.

Every year, our Year 6 girls transition seamlessly into the Senior School, when the cohort doubles in size. Our Junior School girls have all the excitement of making new friends, learning new subjects, getting to know new teachers, but with a degree of familiarity: they have already conducted experiments in the science labs, sung their hearts out in the hall and shot netballs through the same hoops… Crucially, however, they have not had to jump through any metaphorical hoops. With no 11+ exams to sit in order to progress into Year 7, they are afforded the freedom of learning for learning’s sake – finding their voice, broadening their horizons, discovering a sense of self. Whilst some are prepping for 11+ assessments, South Hampstead girls are exploring the French countryside, happily trying new foods and performing circus skills. Rather than doing endless comprehensions for 11+ examinations, they are writing sonnets, entering creative writing competitions and reading novels.

Schools that educate from age 4 to 18 are also well-positioned to inculcate the skills needed to thrive in life: resilience, adaptability and confidence. Our enriched curriculum – with a focus on public speaking, sport for all, global issues, open learning assignments and a buzzing co-curricular programme – helps to engender curiosity and conviction from the earliest years. Critically, progress can be tracked and supported every step of the way. The key is ensuring that the 14 year journey is punctuated by built-in transition points, with each phase providing stability as well as scope for growth and development, stretch and challenge.

One of the most significant transition points for any student is the move into Sixth Form. The research into all girls’ Sixth Forms shows that it is precisely in these final two years that being in a girls’ only environment confers the greatest advantage. The self-assurance built up in young women until the age of 16 can be eroded all too easily at Sixth Form without the right culture and strategy to continue developing their confidence. We see our Sixth Form as a leadership training ground as well as a period of intellectual blossoming. The vast majority of South Hampstead students stay on for the Sixth Form. As so many young women tell us, why would they leave and miss out on some of the very best bits of their school careers? No matter how quickly you hit the ground running in a new school, you know you have a job to do to impress the school community and make your mark. Pupils who feel the need for change will find sufficient stimulus within the right environment – and South Hampstead Sixth Form offers ample opportunities for reinvention, encouraging students to thrive both intellectually and personally.

But of course some families choose to move schools for a variety of reasons. All our new joiners in Year 7 and the Sixth Form are swiftly integrated into our school community. At 11+, girls from over 180 primary schools apply each year; we visit every new pupil before they start, to understand what makes them tick, to help them settle in. In the first term of Year 7 we run a residential trip, a great ice-breaker, and a Friendship First Aid course to help everyone adjust to the new dynamics. Our ultimate aim is to ensure all our pupils – whenever they join us, whatever their latent talents and potential – leave as well-grounded, well-rounded individuals, imbued with an inner confidence that an all-through education is so well-placed to provide.

The article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of The Week Independent Schools Guide. 

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