Burgess Hill Girls, West Sussex
Muddy Says: A selective school for 'sparky' girls aged 2-18 set in 14 acres in rolling countryside that particularly excels in art, textiles and science.
A selective infants, junior, senior school and sixth form school for girls, with a co-ed nursery besides for ages 2.5 – 4 years.
Established in 1906, the school is housed in a mix of Victorian and Edwardian and modern buildings on a 14 acre site, very close to the railway station in the town of Burgess Hill, on the London to Brighton rail link.
The schools adjoin each other with neat colour coding to help zone them – purple for the juniors (they love their new purple netball pitch) and gold for the seniors. A recent refresh has given the school smart, soothing receptions that put me in mind of a spa.
The school particularly excels in science, art and textiles. Years 7 and 8 study textiles, music and DT on a rota as tasters for GCSE. The school offers the unusual GCSE and A level options of Design & Technology Textiles or Design & Technology Resistant Materials. I liked that art students have their own permanent desk area where they can leave ongoing projects.
A new programme monitors the development of ‘soft’ skills and a mentoring programme is in place for years 7 and 8. More future-based mentoring is provided in the upper school.
Clubs include techno, quilting and fashion designers. There are many opportunities for charity work.
The Croft II building was added in 2014 for drama, performance and music.
Floodlit tennis and netball courts and astros are among sports facilities. Pupils also use the town’s nearby leisure centre for swimming and Ardingly reservoir for its water sports club. Boxercise and climbing are among more unusual sporting options for senior school pupils.
In the junior playground a climbing wall and outdoor classroom were recently added after a children’s vote. When I arrived, in the heatwave, the maintenance team had also rigged up a fun sprinkler in one area that went off at random intervals!
In the senior school, years 11 upwards get their own common room.
Chemistry labs have just been revamped. DT is also a growing department as the school aims to get more girls into STEM subjects.
An Additional Learning Centre and small group work in the junior school give a boost to those who need some extra attention. The ALC also operates a weekly drop-in for parents and holds occasional workshops to support them in helping their children.
Just over half of this year’s GCSE entries were graded 9/8 (A*) and 74% of entries were graded 9-7 (formerly A*/A) – a 10% increase on last year. 100% achieved the top grade in computer science, while 79% of STEM science entries were graded 9-7 and 92% of creative subjects.
The A level pass rate was 100% with 55% at A* or A.
The head is not hung up on Russell Group universities and would rather see a pupil go on to a uni that’s the best fit for their chosen subject or that gives them better practical experience than to keep up the school’s quota of perceived ‘best’ universities. The school is also happy to provide girls with information on apprenticeships and overseas unis.
Year 10s and above are invited to business breakfasts organised by the sixth form, with speakers related to broad career areas. Lower Sixth pupils are encouraged to undertake internships. Sixth formers also visit Sussex University for advice on writing their personal statements on their applications.
Boarding and wraparound care
Full boarding and weekly boarding are offered for senior school pupils. Flexi-boarding and occasional boarding are also available.
Of the current 50 boarders, 45 are from overseas.
There are around 450 day pupils, most from a 30 mile radius served by nine mini buses. Many are from small villages. The school is handily within a three minute walk of Burgess Hill train station.
Free wraparound care is available for infants and juniors covering 8am to 6pm. Sleepover boarding is also possible.
Charity and community volunteering is very much encouraged. I was particularly impressed to hear about the school’s annual Carers’ Day – a huge undertaking which sees local carers enjoying free pampering – like haircuts and manicures, plus lunch, music and activities, besides getting access to support services. Year 9 girls, staff and volunteers from local businesses combine to make the event a success.
Junior school prefects train with the Samaritans to develop positive listening skills.
The Lower 6th attend an annual networking dinner with business people from fields they are interested in.
Heads and school ethos
I immediately warm to new head Liz Laybourn, who was previously a PE teacher at the school for 20 years, when she admits she thought she’d be fired in her first week because her over-zealous classes resulted in a series of ambulances being called! She was working with a younger, more fragile, age group than she had been used to but thankfully there was no serious harm done and she got to stay.
Deputy Head/Head of Junior School Heather Cavanagh previously worked for the MOD and customs – so I don’t fancy the Sixth Formers’ chances of smuggling booze past the school gates!
They tell me a recent rebrand saw the school shed an image some saw as twee and start using the phrase ‘we produce bold girls, not old girls,’ (one of which happens to be Holly Willoughby).
The heads say it’s all about a ‘can do’ approach and a natural curiosity. So, for instance, when a few years ago three Sixth-formers said they wanted to direct the school musical, they let them have a go. It turned out so well the girls took it to Edinburgh Fringe.
They speak about future proofing pupils for an ‘unknown world’ where the workplace is evolving, by encouraging them to be creative and adaptable. They believe the community feel of the school is a strength, something people often mention.
We cover some feminist ground in our chat – how negative talk around single-sex education seems to be more commonly against girls’ schools and male heads are less often called on to justify the approach. Also, how there’s talk of the need for more women in science but not, conversely, for more men in nursing and teaching in primary schools. The heads’ own belief is that as a single-sex school they give girls a good environment to be bold and believe in themselves.
The word on the ground
The sixth former who showed me round had come from another senior school and was full of praise for the more personal approach at Burgess Hill Girls. “When they fill in UCAS forms they really know who I am and my work,” she told me. She said girls were encouraged to follow their strengths rather than academic tick boxes. The small class sizes also impressed and the culture that encouraged pupils to ask for help when needed.
Day per term: Junior school £2,600 – £4,750 dependent on age; Senior school/Sixth Form £4,850 – £6,400.
Full boarding per term: £9,850 – £11,400; weekly boarding per term £9,350 – £10,900. Sleepover boarding is £55 a night.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: The heads are looking for ‘sparky’ girls with a bit of an edge who are ‘interesting and interested’. Those keen on science and art should particularly thrive. Anyone with ambitions to join the fashion industry will enjoy the emphasis on textiles. The school felt like it lacked pretension, so a child arriving from state education shouldn’t feel out of place. Free wraparound care is a bonus for working parents.
Not so good for: Obviously this isn’t the place for anyone who prefers a co-ed education or a countryside location. It’s not the largest school, so look elsewhere for sweeping facilities or a bigger community. There are very few local boarders.
Dare to disagree? Find out for yourself – the next school and nursery open day is Sat 6 Oct, 1pm – 4pm, with the Sixth Form open evening Wed 10 Oct 6.30pm – 9pm
Burgess Hill Girls, Keymer Road, Burgess Hill, West Sussex, RH15 OEG, 01444 241050, burgesshillgirls.com