What the Good Schools Guide says
Since September 2018, Sue Wallace-Woodroffe MSc (Edinburgh University, biological sciences and genetics, then genetics at Cambridge). Previously headmistress of Princess Helena College, a girls’ boarding school in Hertfordshire.
A passionate believer in single sex education, she wants Queen’s to provide a ‘safe space’ for girls to explore, take risks and love their learning. She points out that around 50 per cent of the girls at Queen’s opt for sciences at A level, which she feels is indicative of an environment free of preconceptions: ‘they are not viewed as "boy subjects’’.' As the academic environment at Queen’s is a given, she is especially keen for the girls to have fun, throw themselves into their extracurricular and develop skills they will need in the workplace. At the time of our visit, to mark International Women’s Day, the girls had been interviewing alumnae across different industries, sometimes on the other side of the world via Skype, to discuss career pathways. This is the start of a far more ambitious project which will morph into project-mentoring, where the girls will be tasked with producing an event or item for the school. They will, Mrs W-W says, have to write up meeting minutes, collaborate, run a budget, understand sales and marketing. She hopes to set up a virtual boardroom where meetings can be held with industry mentors.
Parents said they found her inspiring, felt she was great at ‘flexing her style’ and ‘able to operate at the age of the child’. One said: ‘It feels like she wants to move the school on to do new things. She is very forward thinking’. We found her warm, effusive and eloquent in her chat. A Cambridge double blue in athletics, who also as a junior ran for Great Britain at 400 metres and while at university represented Scotland (not to mention being a county level swimmer and cross-country runner), it seemed to us she models the very sense of all-roundedness that she is seeking to convey to the girls.
Head of lower school since 2018 is Iona Carmody MSc (Soton), BA Ed (UNISA), HDE. Previously head of the pre-preparatory division of the Prebendal School in West Sussex. A huge advocate for outdoors education – ‘a great way for girls to communicate, collaborate, problem solve and be free’– she has recently set up a beach school operating from nearby West Kirby.
Like Mrs W-W, she wants the school to be an empowering environment, especially now that, as she says: ‘women are [finally] being celebrated’. While the strong academics of the school are a bedrock, she is keen to ensure that education remains relevant, current and tuned-in to what will ultimately benefit the girls in the outside world: ‘innovation and creativity will be skills much sought’. She is mindful that the rigid age demarcations between years can sometimes act as a barrier to learning and is keen to create greater fluidity so the younger girls can learn from the older girls.
Friendly, confident and thoughtful in her conversation, she told us she loved ‘everything about education’ and believes in lifelong learning.
All the junior classes we saw were full of animated, engaged girls. In reception (where there was a large igloo made from milk bottles relating to a project on polar bears), girls were excited by their newly-built space station (a space suit hanging alongside it), eagerly writing poems about planets. Later, our very eloquent and polite year 6 guides pointed out more detailed posters on space produced by later years: ‘we do topics early and then again later, only in more detail…it’s called layering,’ one said confidently.
The ‘learning challenge’ curriculum is designed to stimulate their intellectual curiosity. Although English and maths underpin everything, there is ample time for exploring across humanities, science, philosophy. Classes are pacey; Miss Carmody suggests the girls are curious and have an appetite for learning, so that pace is partly driven by them. Sets for maths from year 3 onwards (same work, slower pace), with other subjects in mixed-ability classes. IT used throughout, including coding lessons and creating a fashion blog using Purple Mash. Mandarin (rudimentary not scary), French and Spanish throughout the junior school, the whole school learning a specific language each year in a carousel programme to give them a flavour of each.
One form entry into reception increasing to two forms from year 3. All new pupils assessed, with development monitored and standardised tests each year. Any learning issues referred to the SEN teacher.
Three small classes in each year group at the senior school. Everyone studies two languages from years 7-9 (including Spanish, with Mandarin for all in year 7, optional thereafter, French and Latin options from year 8), taking at least one to GCSE (most opt for Spanish, fewer for French, a handful for Mandarin). A few continue to A level.
Sciences are popular; it was pleasing to hear pupils enthuse about physics (three female teachers, one male): ‘they will explain it in a different way until you understand it and also encourage you’. As a parent said: ‘There is no stereotyping around subjects. That mentality does not exist’. Wide choice of subjects at both GCSE and A level (A level DT has just been introduced). Sixth formers also take Queen’s Baccalaureate (EPQ + two MOOC online courses + the QUEST enrichment programme which encompasses sport and volunteering). Specialist support for aspiring Oxbridge candidates, medics, vets and dentists, and alumnae increasingly involved for inspirational backdrop.
Not an overly selective school. There is ‘a range’, Mrs W-W says, adding that the GCSE results show substantial added value, which she puts down to small classes, fantastic teachers and having the right environment. We felt it is probably also due to the tracking system; pupils mentioned they had tests after completing each topic. As one pupil maturely said: ‘that way, it goes into the long term memory by the end of the year’. Mrs W-W pointed out there is a ‘huge amount of humanity in the tracking system’, and the girls said that if they don’t do well in tests, teachers spend a lot of time with them till they understand. Sixth formers described the teaching as ‘exceptional’. One parent observed of the sixth form: ‘Teachers say to pupils "I will mark as many past papers as you do," so my daughter was able to understand what she needed to do differently.'
Girls encouraged to debate, estimate, extrapolate ideas and think. Academic clinics available, often at lunchtime. As one parent put it, ‘if they slacken, you are made aware of it’. Again, humanity would seem to underpin this, as parents all emphasised ‘they make the girls believe in themselves, they make them believe anything is possible’. One parent, who said her daughter had had an academic wobble due to changes at home, praised the support she had received: ‘she was able to catch up and thrive’. Challenge work is set over the holidays; ‘There’s lots of homework, they are challenged to meet their potential,’ one parent said.
Overall, results are strong: in 2018 GCSE 43 per cent of entries were A*/9-8 and 67 per cent A*-A/9-7. At A level in 2018, 27 per cent of entries were A* and 61 per cent A*/A.
A SENCo oversees learning support via one-to-one sessions with her or through liaising with individual teaching staff. We spoke to a couple of students who had been diagnosed with dyslexia early on (both about to go to very good universities to read academic subjects). Both unequivocally said the support system had been ‘fantastic’.
Games, options, the arts
Lower school sports include all the usual ones plus extras such as cricket and football. Miss Carmody is keen for girls to develop their sporting skills from a young age but in a gentle way. The annual biathlon – running and swimming - sounded challenging, though. Lots of orchestras and choirs, including a very professional year 5 and 6 choir (finalists in Songs of Praise competition and many others). Opportunities to perform in public locally and across the UK. Drama is popular and thespians can take part in the Chester Speech and Drama Festival, with LAMDA also on offer. One pupil said an early years’ production ‘…was when I first knew I loved drama’.
Heaps of trips to all the usual suspects such Chester Zoo and Liverpool War Museum and to more offbeat places such as the Hat Museum. Adventure trips for later years – all zip wires and pond dipping. The pupils we spoke to were super-enthused about their visit to the theatre at Stratford upon Avon. Clubs: everything from code club, to dodge ball to STEM, fusion fun and Lego.
Lower school leadership opportunities come in all sizes from the catering committee to being playground agents or head of choir. One parent described how the school had enabled her shy daughter to be ‘empowered’ by playing hockey and being cast as the school play lead. Empowerment reverberates as the golden thread through these crucial education years, from teachers, pupils and parents.
Loads of sport on offer in the senior school, with extras such as lacrosse, karate, Pilates, dance. This is a sporty school of some distinction, with great teams and many trophies. For those not inclined towards waving a wooden stick around a pitch, Mrs W-W has developed a Fitness for All programme, with a long list of potential activities: salsa, street dance, basketball, tag rugby and a daily running club round the historic walls of Chester. Games afternoons now involve years 11-13 together, allowing some girls to go off and do spinning or aerobics. The system might not have bedded down quite yet, as one parent professed a wish for ‘general fitness’, not just sport, to be a higher priority.
Sixth formers told us they felt the school was ‘fantastic’ in its range of art, music and drama. There is every kind of orchestra, choir, ensemble and group from classical to jazz to funk – and a music festival. Drama is a big draw with a big whole school production yearly alternating between a serious play - such as Our Country's Good - and a musical - recently Sister Act.
Internal and external competitions (eg finalists at Cyberfirst, which aims to encourage careers in computer science); trips to eg Hadron Collider, Berlin and China, sports tours and language exchanges; clubs running the gamut from debating and journalism to cognitive chemistry and beginners' Greek. Pet club, with giant African land snails Gertrude and Gary (proudly shown to us by pupils), sounded fun. Greenhouses for gardening club sounded and looked ‘picture book perfect’.
Background and atmosphere
The senior school’s beautiful, stylish and imposing main building (built in 1878) is set in small gardens, perched on a hill, overlooking the hockey and lacrosse pitches over the road. Inside (and there are lots of add-on buildings) it feels stimulating and studious.
The lower school is down the road from the senior, a five-minute car ride away. Step behind the locked entrance (security is very tight) and you are into the light and vibrant play area: a mud kitchen, a wonderful stage and a bug house. The school has its own playing fields on site, but they also use the senior school Astro. Interesting and intelligent displays everywhere, from Stonehenge interpretations to a display about healthy eating: ‘How does Usain Bolt run so fast?' Maths had a pleasing ‘Famous women in maths‘ display which went way beyond Ada Lovelace and was an education to us. ‘We are strong on women empowerment and things,’ the year 6 pupil said to us, noticing our admiration. The canteen looked light, bright and healthy.
Pastoral care, well-being and discipline
In the lower school, assemblies are linked to social and emotional issues. Form teachers are the first port of call for those in need. Miss Carmody says that while teachers need to know when to intervene, she is keen for the girls to develop confidence in their ability to sort problems out themselves. One parent told us that when her child encountered a problem relating to class dynamics, it was dealt with effectively and swiftly.
Mrs W-W has strengthened the senior school pastoral structure. There's a counsellor for drop ins, more staff have undergone safeguarding training and head describes this area as ‘phenomenally strong’. A parent who had had a tough time personally said the support she and her daughter received had been ‘absolutely incredible’ (she outlined this in detail – and it was.)
The girls have also formed a ‘respect committee’ which looks at friendships and issues around social media. The latter is embryonic but involves older girls leading the way and plays to another passion of Mrs W-W, pupil voice. No school is ever perfect (don’t let anyone ever tell you it is) and one parent suggested that perhaps it could ‘shut down behaviours’ more quickly when girls were not so nice to each other.
Pupils and parents
Parent body described as friendly and ambitious, most dual income families. Good comms via parents’ evenings, reports and Firefly VLE (the portal parents use to track their daughter’s progress). Mrs W-W is keen to reinforce that the school operates in partnership with the parents and invites flow in for dinners, teas, breakfasts. One parent said that she still felt ‘very involved’ in the senior school’, that it was ‘very personal’.
Pupils come from Chester, Wirral, North Wales and further afield in west Cheshire. It’s quite usual for pupils to travel up to an hour by car or minibus.
Mrs W-W thinks that while all the usual issues between girls are invariably thrown up, that they genuinely get on well together and support each other. The girls we met – and we met quite a spectrum across both schools - were all impressive: eloquent, intelligent (but not in a showy way), polite and engaged by a whole panoply of interests. They didn’t strike us as the kind of girls who would necessarily be scrolling through social media accounts for hours, eyes glazed.
Entrance by assessment: in reception by observation; higher up, they are invited for a taster day with gentle assessments but ‘the essence of the whole child’ is looked at.
Year 6 pupils are automatically offered places for year 7. Their performance in internal tests considered carefully as part of the transfer process. Almost all pupils transfer but ‘honest conversations’ with parents are had if it is felt a child, despite support, may not be suited. Outside applicants take entrance tests in English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning, plus an interview with the head.
Academic scholarships available for the senior school.
To read a broad spread of subjects from engineering to law to classics in universities all over the UK, plus a few to the US. Pupils go to universities all over the UK with a few over the years applying to the US. In 2018, three to Oxbridge (which is about average). Nine to read medicine, veterinary science or dentistry from a cohort of around 40.
A wonderfully empowering environment in which girls flourish academically but also personally, with bountiful opportunities on offer to pursue extracurricular passions and interests of every variety.