Our Lady of Sion School, Worthing
Muddy says: An outward-looking school in the heart of Worthing with good community links, a particular strength for science and competitive fees.
An all-through co-ed day school in the centre of Worthing, Our Lady of Sion takes children from nursery to sixth form.
Sion is an interesting hybrid. Driven by neither SATs nor Common Entrance pressures, it hovers between the curriculum styles typical of independent and state schools, with most teachers having previously worked at both. Sion also has a Catholic heritage, yet an inclusive attitude to religion (and a Stonewall certificate for its LGBT+ awareness).
It was founded in 1862 by the Sisters of Sion and is part of the network of Sion schools and colleges throughout the world.
The senior and junior schools are a couple of streets apart. The former partly occupies what was the original convent (the bright, deconsecrated chapel with stained glass windows was hosting a mock exam on our visit), the latter a Victorian mansion house.
Minibuses pick up children from a catchment area that spreads roughly to Arundel in the West, Henfield in the North and Hove in the East.
Due to its relatively small ‘landlocked’ position, many of the school’s rooms are multi-purpose. For instance, the halls become dining rooms at lunchtime, with catering from an outside company, while the back of a senior school language classroom has a beanbag area set up for wellbeing sessions.
The senior school has four labs, two of which were recently renovated. There is a lovely, light-filled gym and a purpose built drama studio, while an all-weather pitch is among outside sports surfaces. The art room is a large, light space with some intricate looking handiwork hanging from the ceiling. The library looks welcoming, with sofas provided along with the tables and chairs. Besides a communal space, Sixth Formers have a handy row of small study rooms they can drop into to work privately.
The Junior school library has been recently revamped with a beach hut inspired colour scheme and plenty of comfy cushions. There’s an astro turf-style playground outside the early years classrooms. Classes often make the short walk to use some of the Seniors’ facilities. They also have some lessons on the beach.
The nursery is a large open plan space. We met the children when they had just returned from a visit to a local travel agent and were now off in a cardboard plane – “to Mars” a boy told us confidently. A recent Frozen-themed project had seen them visit the local skating rink and excavate objects from ice back in the classroom.
Sion makes good use of its town centre position, taking advantage of several offsite facilities including the Splashpoint Leisure Centre for swimming. It is part of the ISA’s national sports programme, which gives children extra opportunities, like swimming at the Olympic park. Several mini buses whizz the students off on school trips.
In 2019 there was a 100% A Level pass rate with 83% at grades A* to C. At GCSE almost 25% of grades were 9 or 8.
The average class size for juniors is 16 with teaching assistants to support the classes, for seniors there’s a maximum of 20. Sixth Form classes have typically between six and 12 students.
In the junior school, besides the usual reading, spelling and times tables homework there is an emphasis on ‘creative prep’ – with the children given a fortnight at a time to produce projects on themes they have selected.
Science is strong at the school and the majority of Sixth Formers (15 out of 20 in 2019) take a science A Level. Teachers put an emphasis on the practical side, so pupils from Year 6 upwards use the senior school labs. Girls are actively encouraged to pursue STEM subjects.
French, German and Spanish are the key language options at the school, with year 7s studying all three, narrowing to two or one by GCSE.
A Level courses beyond the usual core subjects include psychology, philosophy and law. The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is also offered. The teachers talk of raising children’s academic expectations and building confidence. It is not assumed however that all children will want go to university and there is encouragement for those who choose other paths.
The school encourages effective learning by following a sequence of ‘Thinking Skills’ – Evaluate, Synthesise, Analyse, Apply, Comprehend, Know.
The classes we visited were very interactive. In the junior school, children were taking on characters from a book they were reading and answering intriguing questions from the rest of the class, like “do you have a pet dolphin..?” Older pupils were discussing the emergency response timeline for earthquakes.
In the Religious Studies lesson there was a conversation happening on the topic of growth mind set, prompted by quotes from Einstein and Henry Ford. Resilience is a key theme at the school.
Sion has a SEND provision, currently supporting around 50 pupils whose needs range from mild to those needing special educational support, including children with dyslexia.
The emphasis in PE is less on achievement at competitive sports, rather on building a fitness habit for life. Senior students are taken off site to various classes like spinning, trampolining and squash and it is hoped they will feel confident about joining a gym after they leave. All sports are available to both genders.
The head of music (who has a published album!) encourages pupils to create their own compositions. Many pupils have tutors for additional music lessons. On our visit there was also a lunchtime performance tutorial taking place in the junior school – with a pupil giving a rather good dramatic reading from a children’s book (poo jokes featured heavily!)
In 2018 Sion won a national ISA Award for Excellence and Innovation in Mental Health and Wellbeing. A wellbeing advisor spends a day a week each in the junior and senior schools. There is also a student-run ‘listening club’ for which volunteer pupils are given some training to help them help others who seek a chat. In Monday meetings, teachers discuss any children displaying signs of worry.
Celebrating Your Success charts in the corridors display awards for not only academic achievement but also acts of kindness. Once a term, a Ceremony of Recognition celebrates attributes like leadership and moral values.
The school is ‘Catholic founded’, not ‘a Catholic school’, so assemblies are multi-faith and not religious ceremonies. There is generally one service at the end of term. ‘Creating dialogue’ and ‘looking outward and being thoughtful’ are the school’s spiritual aims. Representatives of other faiths have been invited in to talk.
Sion is strong on outreach projects. Children interact with the residents of local care homes (one right next door), reading with them and buddying up to discussing their lives (the pensioners tell stories of rationing and their careers, while the children share smartphones tips.)
With the founders’ principals of dialogue between Catholics and the Jewish people, the school also acknowledges its Jewish heritage and World Holocaust day is marked each year. The children have made beautiful collages to commemorate some of the lost families of the Second World War. Survivors have also come to talk to the children. Every two years Senior history trips are made to the European battlefields.
There is no boarding at Sion and it has a short school day compared to most independents, with both junior and senior schools finishing at 15.40. Senior students can however arrive from 7.45 and stay after school in the library a (cosy space) until 17.00. Juniors, meanwhile, have an early morning drop off option and a homework club.
In the nursery, care is now offered 7.30 – 18.00, year-round.
Heads from the international Sion schools meet annually for a conference to discuss how to implement the Sion ethos. The school has strong links with the nearest other Sion school, in France, while exchanges to Australia and Kansas, Brazil and Costa Rica are under consideration.
Among more unusual clubs is Fashion Designers – helped by input from parents who have been in the business. A recent tie-up with the Eco Club spawned a popular event in which pupils up-cycled their denim. Another Eco Club project is underway to create a Dutch garden. Dungeons and Dragons is another of the more unusual clubs.
Head and ethos
The current head, Dr Simon Orchard, has been at Sion since 2015 and has overseen several changes.
He has introduced hot lunches, delivered by an outside company, which can be committed to term-by-term on all or selected days of the week. (Seniors can use a pre-paid card). Besides the Senior School lab upgrades there has been an upgraded astro for Juniors. The head’s next mission is to improve IT.
Because of its relatively small size, Orchard believes Sion has a family feel, evidenced by Sixth Formers playing football with Year 8s at break time. Dialogue is the underpinning ethos he says, which stems back to the days when the international founders sought to build bridges across faith groups.
In this vein, he has introduced a new phones policy that means Senior pupils (bar Sixth Formers) must keep their mobiles switched off, even at lunchtime – not only for safety reasons, but so that they actually talk to each other!
The school’s motto is Consideration Always and it seeks to help pupils to ‘understand others’. Besides taking part in the community outreach programme, thanks to the shorter day, Sion children are also likely to attend some clubs outside of school.
The head teaches chemistry, so is understandably keen to build on the school’s strength in the sciences and to upgrade two more labs soon. He also believes maths and music are particularly strong at Sion.
Parents of Sion pupils are typically middle-income families, says the head. They want a more creative approach to education, free from the constraints of the National Curriculum and like that Sion is careful with its fees. They are keen to maximise their time with their children and not to go the route of longer days or boarding.
Entry is selective, though the school is not looking for the absolute academic cream, the head says, typically taking pupils who are ‘average and above’.
He believes the school works well not only for pupils of high ability but those who lack confidence and might struggle to cope in a larger school environment, or one that was more competitive.
Word on the ground
Parents talk of excellent pastoral care and supportive teachers and of children ‘flourishing’.
Per term: Reception – Year 2 £2,880; Years 3 – 6 £3,475; Years 7 – 8 £4,380; Years 9 – 11 £4,525; Sixth Form £4,525.
A 20% discount applies family members with two or more fee paying siblings already at the school.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Lower fees than many independents. Children who might feel out of their depth in a school that is more physically imposing or more selective. A strong science focus. Good pastoral care and a place that lets children be children. Strong community links and nearby facilities including the beach. Wraparound nursery care.
Not so good for: A self-confessed ‘no frills’ independent, Sion hasn’t the acres or views of some schools, nor state-of-the-art facilities. As it isn’t overly selective, this may not suit ‘tiger’ parents. There is no boarding provision.
Dare to disagree? Visit Sion for yourself. The next open mornings are at the junior school on Fri 31 Jan and the senior school on Fri 6 March 2020.
Our Lady of Sion School, Gratwicke Road, Worthing, BN11 4BL, West Sussex, 01903 204063 sionschool.org.uk