Tatler Schools Guide
The Tatler Schools Guide is the impartial arbiter of all the best public and prep schools in the UK. They are not just chosen for their league-table-busting results or their world-class facilities (although these are closely looked at too). To earn an entry in the Tatler Schools Guide, they must offer the whole package: holistic pastoral care; a focus on character-forming as much as pure academics; and the ability to accommodate and nurture all their pupils so that they leave as well-educated and, most importantly, happy young people.
Tori Cadogan, Education Editor
Tatler Schools Guide 2023
“From the outside, you’d never know this group of red-brick buildings makes up one of the most high-flying day schools in the country. It’s situated a 20-minute drive from central Manchester, down an ‘unremarkable suburban street’; inside, it’s a rabbit warren of classrooms, corridors, modern facilities and ‘lively, diverse and brainy girls firing off each other’. One recent visitor, struck by the energy and joy she encountered at every turn, ‘thought the students might be an earnest, serious bunch, given the academic standards of the school, but laughter was an overriding feature’.”
“Hidden on a residential street in south Manchester, Withington’s rather unassuming façade belies the dynamism, vigour and energy within. The three principles of ‘respect for self, respect for others and personal responsibility’ underpin the ethos of this high-achieving girls’ school. Results are outstanding, but the school prides itself on maintaining a healthy balance between scholarly application and informality, which creates a purposeful but decidedly collaborative community in which kindness is key.”
Feel Fab Feb Fortnight is a stroke of genius, providing a chance for the whole school to concentrate on all the elements of mental, physical and digital health and wellbeing. Sport is incredibly strong considering the relatively small size of the school (in 2020, it was placed in the top 100 independent schools in the country based on success in national competitions) and the drama department is thriving, as evidenced by 2020’s exceptional LAMDA speech and drama results which saw 89 per cent awarded Distinction in grades 7 and 8. Bursary support is offered to more than one in six, and the school celebrates the wonderful mix of cultures with separate assemblies for different faiths as well as mixed ones. Girls with ‘great poise’ and an ‘inherent love of learning’ leave Withington equipped for a bright future, and one in six typically receive offers from Oxbridge.”
“What makes Withington exceptional? The simple answer is outstanding results (it ranked 21st in the country in 2019), impressive destinations (13 Oxbridge places) and endless achievements outside the classroom (from the netball courts to the stage). But it’s so much more than that. As Head Sarah Haslam explains, ‘Withington has a ‘special atmosphere’, an ‘intangible quality’ that has been likened to ‘fairy dust’. This is a decidedly academic yet happily informal girls’ day school that celebrates diversity and individuality. Thanks to its generous bursaries, Withington is a melting pot of different cultures and religions and backgrounds – a microcosm of Greater Manchester.
Mrs Haslam is rightfully proud of the school’s outreach work, particularly after December’s inaugural ‘Manchester Sings’, which saw 200 children from six primaries join forces with Withington’s ‘pop-up’ choir. There may not be a ‘typical Withy girl’, but there is a Withy state of mind: an intellectual curiosity and an unwavering commitment to the principles of respect for self and respect for others. Everyone works extremely hard but, as the girls emphasise, ‘the desire to do well comes from [them]; it is not pushed’. As ever, the ‘Room of Requirement’ (a Harry Potter-inspired breakout space) proved popular with the new Year 7s as they settled in – yet another sprinkling of Withington magic.”
“A lot of people think we’re ‘working machines’, but this is not the case’, implores one Withy girl. Indeed, this Manchester day school does consistently churn out some of the best academic results in the country (2018’s A Levels saw 43% A* grades), but they’re a dynamic and multi-talented bunch: four Year 8 students are taking part in a GCHQ initiative to get girls into cyber-security, lunchtime activities such as fencing are as popular as ever and, for the third year running, the girls reached the final of the Independent Schools Netball Cup. ‘Withington provides an environment for the girls to enjoy their intelligence’, says one parent, and state-of-the-art facilities too it seems. The Sport and Fitness Centre is the talk of the town while the tech-clad science labs are rumoured to blow the University of Manchester’s out of the water.
Individuality is keenly celebrated, as shown by the girl who answered, ‘I have my own style’, when asked about school trends. ‘Caring and conscientious’ Head Sarah Haslam emphasis the school’s founding principles – respect for self, respect for others and personal responsibility – with no academic prizes and few rules and regulations which, perhaps contrary to expectation, produces saintly and highly successful girls. After all, who needs rewards when trips to St Petersburg, the school’s famous chocolate fudge cake and numerous Oxbridge offers (16 in 2018) are there for the taking?”
“‘It’s cool to learn; it’s cool to do well’, a Withy girl once told Tatler, which makes these ladies among the coolest teens in Britain. This Manchester powerhouse regularly produces some of the top results in the country (a mindblowing 31% A* at A-level last year), but don’t go assuming this means it’s an exam machine. At Withington the pleasure of learning is considered its own reward: they don’t offer scholarships and there are no in-school prizes. A spirit of elitism and academic competition is not cool, man. Instead, collaboration, personal challenge, diversity and inclusion are the order of the day. One in six girls are on bursary support and, harmoniously, around one in six girls are annually offered places at Oxbridge.
Entrants at Year 7 come from more than 130 different schools, so forget about a feeder and, pushy parents beware, everyone offered a place is interviewed first to ensure that they haven’t been tutored to within an inch of their life. You need to be the ‘right’ kind of brainy to thrive here. Though being A* at netball too wouldn’t hurt – they are county and regional champions: extra impressive given their year groups are typically half the size of their rivals’. They represent nationally at lacrosse too. Let’s face it, pretty much anything you can do, Withy girls can do better – and probably backwards, while playing the harp.”
“The best-performing school in the North West, a fixture at the top of national league tables… it’s got to be a hothouse, right? Wrong. This is a relatively small, super-friendly school that achieves incredible results (82% A*-A at A Level last year) in a calm, unpressured atmosphere. Head Sarah Haslam has been there for over 20 years, most recently as deputy head, and is doing a great job of carrying on her predecessor Sue Marks’ good work. They’ve got that ‘roots and wings’ thing nailed: the culture here is one of mutual respect rather than competition. They ace maths and the sciences, and half of the upper sixth go on to study STEM subjects at uni.
The school isn’t in the most salubrious part of Manchester, but facilities are good and there are big sports grounds, with an Astro and netball courts. There’s been a lot of building work, resulting in a new junior school block and new labs; next up, the sports side of things are getting a makeover, followed by the music department. Needless to say, pupils excel at both: the U13 netballers bagged the Independent Schools’ Cup last year; the music department has the biggest harp section in the region (when we visited, we interrupted the head of biology’s lesson – she said she was better at biology than harp-playing). Girls share drama productions – and school buses – with Manchester Grammar boys. Students are, says our spy, ‘absolutely delightful. If I were looking for an all-girls’ school for a bright spark who didn’t want to spend all her time with her head in her books, this would be top of my list.”
“Withington marked its 125th anniversary this year with a mega-bash beneath the wings of Concorde at Manchester Airport. And academic results continue to soar here, with 94% A*-B at A Level last year. But put aside hothouse fears. As the delightful pupils we met told us, at Withington ‘it’s cool to learn and cool to do well’. Four applicants fight for each place, but ongoing head Sue Marks kept mum about exactly who they’re looking for, assuring us there’s ‘no Withington type’. Other things are clearer, such as the endless accolades in maths and sciences, success in the Model United Nations and the biggest harp department in the north-west.
Pupils punch well above their weight in sport, with county representation in hockey, lacrosse and netball: last year’s U13s were GSA national champions. Girls hook up with Manchester Grammar for drama (and school-bus shuttles), and there’s now an annual volunteering trip to Uganda in the calendar. The school is in the throes of a three-phase upgrade stacks of new classrooms and labs and a plush junior school have just opened; the sports facilities are up next – and all while retaining some of the most reasonable fees we’ve seen. ‘Respect’ is the only rule here, and it seems to do the trick. Pupils come from a wide range of backgrounds; one in six benefit from the impressive bursarial system. Deputy head Sarah Haslam picks up the reins from Mrs Marks in September.”
“Founded 125 years ago by men who wanted their daughters to receive the same stellar education that their sons were getting at Manchester Grammar, Withington Girls’ ticks the academic box – and many more besides. Funds are micromanaged to keep fees low while academic results soar: 96 per cent A*–B at A-level last year; 12 Oxbridge offers. Some facilities (including a bus service) are shared with MGS too. Head Sue Marks, a firm believer in all-girls education, is impressive, energetic and sets a great example. Her study is littered with photographs of old girls and mementoes of her own academic and sporting past (one of the first women at Jesus College, Oxford) to inspire her wards.
Entrance is selective and there are three or four applicants for every place. The junior school is fab and has a new building, but sadly there’s no automatic entry to the next level. There’s no rule book other than to ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’, no detention system, a culture of respect and no prizes awarded as ‘the pleasure of academic work should be its own reward’, according to Mrs Marks. That didn’t stop girls conquering all in the British Physics Olympiad, two Oxford colleges’ essay competitions and the Model United Nations last year. Pupils compete at county and international level in sport and are passionate about fundraising and community support. Famously, the school nurse’s lavender oil will cure everything.”
“‘Want we want for our girls is to open their eyes to what they could be and give them the courage to try’, says headmistress Sue Marks. This day school in suburban Manchester has a cohort of academically gifted pupils and bank-account friendly fees. It’s done away with scholarships in favour of means-tested bursaries (one in six benefits from these) – ‘the pleasure of academic work should be its own reward’, they say. And there’s a great deal of reward here: 80.4% A8-A grades at A Level, 16% to Oxbridge (almost double last year’s tally). One girl won the prestigious Oxford Wainwright Essay Prize, another The Guardian Young Critic competition. There are new shuttle buses to Manchester’s mainline railway stations to enable girls to get more stuck into after-school activities. the lacrosse team is very good and girls have represented nationally in water polo and dressage. They join up with Manchester Grammar for drama but Sue Marks believes 100% in single-sex education. ‘Here, economics is not seen as a boys’ subject’, she says (and she would know – she teaches it). As one spy tells us: ‘There’s a culture of respect rather than pressure and attainment’. Should pupils need to relax, they can visit the nurse for some of her renowned cure-all: lavender oil.”
“Every so often, some crusty old geezer pops up in the media proclaiming the imminent demise of the all-girls school. We suggest he take a look at Withington. In the words of a certain lager advertisement, this school is brilliantly refreshing. Refreshingly brilliant too – 96 per cent A*-B at A-level last year. Head Sue Marks is a firm believer in single-sex education and a stupendous sportswoman (her Oxford rowing blazer hangs proudly on her study wall). ‘Our main aim,’ she says, ‘is to provide students with the best possible preparation for adult life. We never sit back on our laurels.’ So there’s a newly recruited Oxbridge co-ordinator, music teachers from the Royal Northern College of Music and good links with Manchester University.
The under-13 netballers are county champions and the under-12 lacrosse players are northern schools champions. Withington was the first all-girls school to win the Outstanding Delegation award at the international Model United Nations conference. A sixth-former gave a television interview on the shortage of female physics A-level students. ‘Not a problem here,’ says Mrs Marks. And check out those fees – no wonder it was named Best Value Independent Day School by the Financial Times this year.”
“If you pay attention to league tables, you’ll be familiar with the name Withington, which is consistently at or near the top of most of them. And what a stupendous school it turns out to be. In terms of academic results, they had 40 per cent A* at A-level last year, with 97 per cent A*-B grades.
In 2011, more than 30 girls went on to study medicine and, over the past three years, 90 per cent of leavers have gone on to the top 30 most selective universities. Drama and music are outstanding – over 200 pupils took part in a production of Joseph – and Withington has the biggest harp department in the North West. Ditto sport: three students play lacrosse for England and two for Scotland, while one competes with the GB under-18 dressage team. And English: one current pupil scooped a national short-story writing prize and a recent old girl was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.
Sarah Burton, designer of ‘that wedding dress’, is a former pupil.
In short, these ladies excel at everything. If ever you needed proof of the value of single-sex education, it’s here.”
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