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The Good Schools Guide – Channing Junior School Review

Snapshot

A fundamental aspect of the school’s approach is its personalised attitude to the academic – all are taught to a high standard, but not all are taught in the same way (also means no setting is required as the differentiation is within each class). Perseverance and resilience are Channing buzzwords – ‘We want them to have a go and take risks in their learning.’

Head of the Junior School

Since 2018, Dina Hamalis (40s), previously academic director of Sarum Hall. She has a degree in education, specialising in English and history, and spent five years at St Albans High Prep where she became English coordinator, moving to Highgate School (curriculum coordinator) then UCS pre-prep (SENCo, G&T and EAL coordinator) before joining Sarum Hall in 2011.

Teaching is in the blood. ‘They tried to put me off!’ she laughs, but she bit the bullet and hasn’t looked back. Interestingly, she never had aspirations to be a head but – humility alert – says, ‘they must have seen something in me over the years.’ No timetabled teaching these days, but could be spotted here, there and everywhere on the day of our visit – ‘She’s always around,’ said a pupil. Her door, located right opposite reception, is left firmly open and even when she’s in meetings (‘it happened last week,’ she laughs), pupils regularly knock on it to hand her drawings of flamingoes (she has a thing for them) or with suggestions (most recently, a girl wanting to sell scrunchies she’d made with her grandma). Also reads to younger ones and hosts much coveted tea parties for reception pupils. Parents love her – ‘A courageous, strong woman who is able to grow a child into the best they can be without undue pressure,’ said one. We liked her calmness.

Grew up in Herts, now lives in west London. Gives the role her all (she was still working away at 6pm on the day of our visit). Enjoys theatre, art exhibitions and history and design museums. Cyprus, where her family comes from, beckons in holiday times, as well as travelling more widely. She is an ISI inspector.

Entrance

Main entry at 4+ and now a first choice school for most applicants. About 200 assessed (observed performing a range of ‘nursery tasks’) for 48 places (two classes of 24) in January before entry, then whittled down in a second round. School ensures they all leave smiling. Those with sharp elbows need not apply – ‘We’re looking for bright girls, who are interested and interesting, can work independently as well as collaboratively, and very importantly show respect and kindness towards others.’ No 7+ entry; a smattering of vacancies higher up. Most families, however, are here for the duration.

Exit

Ninety per cent to the senior school and the focus is to prepare girls well for this next stage, not for admissions elsewhere. ‘It’s a huge boon to get your child in at four and not have to scrape around for places elsewhere,’ said parent. In most years a few leave for other schools – five per cent in 2020 – usually because they’re moving out of London, though some to board or into the state sector (including highly competitive selective schools, like Henrietta Barnett). Occasional one or two to other leading independents, such as Highgate and St Paul’s Girls’. Children who would really struggle at the senior school are also gently guided elsewhere. Those who stay the course benefit academically in the longer-term, claims school, with girls who come up from juniors consistently outperforming others in the senior school at GCSE level and A level.

Our view

Set opposite its senior school, behind high walls and tall gates in Highgate’s traffic-packed high street, the school’s rather forbidding exterior belies the pleasures within. Located in what was once Fairseat, the fine Victorian mansion of the Waterlow family, the junior school moved into its current accommodation in 1926, retaining a generous slice of the original gardens (the remainder was donated to the community to become adjoining Waterlow Park). The large house contains big light classrooms and plenty of elbow room for all – even more so since they extended downwards (yes, you did read that correctly – school is perched on a hill) to include classrooms and a multi-purpose hall, with new science lab, drama studio and technology room next on the list. Fresh white and grey interiors are complemented by brightly coloured tables for younger pupils and proper wooden desks for years 5 and 6. Adjacent building houses music rooms and attractive, well-used library, complete with inviting smell of new books when we visited (the book fair was in town) and which (we love this) is open to parents before and after school so families can choose books together. Even the youngest are encouraged to do so, as well as express opinions on books and learn research skills. Sizeable gardens rather lacklustre but new adventure playground in the making. Fabulous Forest School weaves right round the back and includes mud kitchens and outdoor classroom (though older pupils say they’d like to use it more). All in all, ‘the school gives them a freedom rarely found in London. They can go into the bushes and make dens, climb trees and still feel totally safe,’ said parent.

‘Staff enjoying success,’ say the big gold letters on the large noticeboard in reception. We could hardly tear our year 6 tour guides away from it, ‘It shows you that we should all strive for success – look, this teacher has become a mum, this one ran a marathon and this one did yoga teacher training!’  The neighbouring board was the one that caught our eye. Here, under the words ‘Love, lose, change and create,’ pupils are invited to give feedback about the school – so much more inclusive (and public) than a more formal student council (though they have that too), we thought. Drama lessons and lunches come in for the highest praise, while maths, homework and (again) lunches are up for the axe if pupils get their way. Things they’d change include veggie meals and being allowed pencil cases, while new additions should apparently include cooking classes, a class pet and packed lunch.

Three noticeboards later (who knew pupils could be so fascinated by them?), we finally reached the classroom bit of our tour where bright and breezy teaching moves at a brisk, imaginative pace. We watched a pupil having fun writing answers on the whiteboard in a maths lesson, a lively geography lesson about potatoes, some children making watermelon Father’s Day cards (‘The middle will say, “You’re one in a melon!”’ a pupil told us, howling with laughter) and an English quiz. As with senior school, there’s an emphasis on critical thinking skills, with philosophy taught to all. Upshot is that big questions – Why is the sky blue? Can I think myself happy? What is friendship? etc – don’t faze them.

Not as pushy as other schools in the area, reckon parents. ‘They make sure they enjoy the work and find ways to engage them – one of mine got an award for listening carefully and speaking well in the online class and she’s thrilled,’ said one. A fundamental aspect of the school’s approach is its personalised attitude to the academic – all are taught to a high standard, but not all are taught in the same way (also means no setting is required as the differentiation is within each class). Perseverance and resilience are Channing buzzwords – ‘We want them to have a go and take risks in their learning.’ As such, rubbers are a no-no – working out ideas is part of the learning process, and it was lovely to see the girls getting their ideas down in writing without worrying about spelling. ‘If you get everything right, it means it’s too easy,’ is embedded in the girls’ minds. ‘They never comment on where your child is in the class, which I really like – a world away from the normal North London competitiveness,’ added a mother.

Teachers, as in the senior school, are big on research and pedagogy, as well as sharing good practice – as such, vacancies tend to attract those hungry to learn rather than looking for a more cushy role. ‘Happy children learn,’ is an overriding principle. We saw reception children singing to their hearts’ content in Spanish as they did a conga type dance round the classroom – ‘Adelante’ engages these pupils in both the language and culture. French is added from year 3, and Mandarin is available at two levels in a club. All taught by specialists, as are PE, drama, music and Forest School from reception and art and DT from year 3 (it’s also on curriculum from younger, but taught by form teacher). IT is firmly embedded from the off, with reception and years 1 and 2 provided with iPads, while the upper years use Chromebooks.

A SENCo and two part-time learning support teachers are shared with the senior school. Around five per cent on the SEN register, mainly with dyslexia, though doesn’t rule out some EHCPs. Support is mainly classroom based; occasional one-to-ones. Lots of EAL, though few need any support for it.

Art and DT have their own designated, recently refurbished room, its walls disappointingly bare though there’s plenty displayed throughout the rest of the school – from pop art to collages. We particularly liked a Channing in Bloom display, based on the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Older pupils head over to the senior school for eg ceramics and 3D printing.

Inclusivity is in Channing’s DNA, say parents, and it was certainly alive and well in the drama department where a year 2 girl who had overcame her stage fright was being celebrated alongside (and in equal measure) an older West End musical star.

Impressively for a junior school, girls have been known to write their own scripts for class assemblies. Bigger performances take place in the senior school’s new performing arts building from reception upwards. ‘Some of the pushier parents complain their daughters spend too long on drama when they should be doing English and maths, but most of us disagree – they get so much from it, especially confidence – and how lucky are they to stand in a professional theatre with professional seating and lighting!’ said one parent.

In the music department – where we heard some splendid choir singing – a pupil presented us with a soft toy. ‘Three peas in a pod to represent practice, perseverance and persistence,’ she explained. Most learn an instrument (everything from harp to saxophone) which they can perform in music assemblies, orchestra, brass and wind bands, string quartet. Lets parents borrow rather than buy in the early stages.

Sport not a strength according to parents (school disagrees) though most don’t seem bothered either because, as they told us, ‘mine just aren’t sporty’ or ‘this area is very well served by local clubs, so you can just join those instead.’ ‘I do think the sport could be more exciting,’ grumbled one. Has its own playing field a brisk walk away and all children go off site for swimming too. Pupils have competed at regional and national level in tennis, swimming and cross-country. House challenges increasingly popular, as are park runs. Water sports in year 6 include kayaking and sailing.

Has significantly boosted the extracurricular offering introducing clubs ranging from karate to Mandarin, knitting and coding, often at the suggestion of pupils. Busy schedule of visits and workshops and residential trips from year 4 up.

The very sociable parent pool now spreads out five miles, with some arriving from the City and beyond, though most are still local. Increasingly international, mostly affluent professionals (lots of medics). Growing numbers are dual income, grateful for extensive wrap-around care available from 7.30am (includes breakfast) to 6pm (5pm on Fridays) run by TAs (some slots cost extra).

Pupil voice is on the up, as are leadership opportunities and outreach work is a bigger part of daily life here, with food bank collections and writing to local hospitals in lockdown. Plenty of parental praise for the online learning provision during that time too, albeit ‘better the second time round.’

A friendly and bustling school where everyone from the teachers through to caretakers and kitchen staff know all pupils by name. These confident bright sparks certainly don’t hold back – forthcoming in their views and always polite, there were times in our day here when we could barely get a word in edgeways.

The last word

Excellent preparation for the senior school, with high academic standards reached via tailored and imaginative learning. More nurturing than some of the local competition. ‘Even during assessments they got them to decorate biscuits,’ said a parent.

The Good Schools Guide – Channing Senior School Review

Snapshot

A community school, with 90 per cent coming from a three mile radius, so no fleets of coaches to far-flung places. The intake is slightly broader than at some of the local competition and not every girl will be cut out for straight A*s/9s. We saw inspiring, interactive and painstakingly prepared lessons and, from the off, Channing encourages enquiring minds, getting pupils to question, question, question.

Head

Since September 2020, Lindsey Hughes (40s). Previously deputy head of Lady Eleanor Holles and before that, director of students at St Helen and St Katharine. A child of the 80s, she had it all sussed out as a teenager to study economics and become the next Anita Roddick. Her A level history course changed all that – ‘I just wanted to talk about history all day so teaching it seemed a great opportunity,’ she told us from her elegant office. But after her history degree at Warwick, the bright lights of PR and marketing beckoned instead, which eventually led her to The Sutton Trust where partnership work with the DfE saw her edge back towards the world of education. She eventually gave in and did her PGCE at Roehampton exactly 20 years before starting at Channing – ‘nice symmetry,’ she says.

Still a historian at heart it’s jolly bad luck that she’s joined a school with more than enough history teachers, but she says teaching debating to year 7s as part of their independent investigation course (which also includes the likes of 3D printing and coding) and to year 12s as part of their enrichment courses (which involves them making their own TED talks) isn’t a bad compromise. Could she have joined at a worse time, we pondered – but she was having none of it, pointing out that the global pandemic meant she was thrown head first into the community spirit of Channing, ‘you learn a lot about people when they’re working under pressure.’ Good for team bonding too, she adds. Glass half full all the way it seems and this attitude and her jaunty manner make her easy company. Parents and pupils are smitten, calling her ‘friendly,’ ‘energetic’ and an ‘excellent communicator.’ Does particularly well to manage the wide-ranging Channing parent expectations, we think: ‘While for some parents Channing is the aspirational school, others could have had the pick of the bunch and still chose Channing. Then there are those for whom Channing is the second choice. It’s an interesting mix,’ she admits. Pupils admire her listening skills: ‘One of the first things she did was ask us all one thing we loved about Channing, one thing we’d change and one thing we’d get rid of – nothing was off limits.’ Relieving exam pressure currently tops her to-do list – ‘I find it quite bewildering that these highly intelligent girls who confidently put their hands up in lessons at an academic school suddenly go into free fall the moment you mention a test.’

Lives in west London. Says she enjoys the me-time on her commute via the North Circular. Has a keen and active interest in politics and international relations and enjoys singing, theatre, watching sport (especially cricket) and walking the dog with her son.

Entrance

At 11, 400+ sit the London 11+ Consortium exam (ISEB from 2022) for around 55 places, joining the 45 or so coming up from the junior school who have automatic entry. Exam consists of maths, English, NVR and VR. All girls interviewed too – ‘takes a lot of effort but hugely valuable because tests don’t tell us everything and everyone can have an off day.’ Reference from previous school also sought. Automatic entry into sixth form (when two or three newbies join), with 7s required in the A levels to be studied. Four to five forms of 26 girls max per year group.

Exit

A fifth leaves at 16 – to board, to co-ed, to local state schools. The rest depart two years later to predominantly Russell Group universities. Leeds, Edinburgh, Durham and Bristol all popular. Eight to Oxbridge in 2020, plus four medics. Wide range of degree courses includes languages, business and management, economics, politics, liberal arts and international relations. School not best known for its sciences but these courses are on the up including biomedical science, robotics and engineering.

Latest Result

In 2020, 89 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 79 per cent A*/A at A level. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 85 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; at A level, 70 per cent A*/A.

Teaching and Learning

Academic results put it in the top 20 schools in London (and top 50 independent schools nationally). But with around seven others from the list practically on the doorstep (it’s not called the North London bubble for nothing), why choose Channing? Parents say it’s the ‘absence of overworking and hothousing’ and the ‘emphasis on the enjoyment of learning’. Teaching is ‘almost by stealth – there’s a gentle introduction and they ramp it up gradually in a very human way,’ said one. ‘They motivate the girls to be very self-driven and to want to learn,’ remarked another. We saw inspiring, interactive and painstakingly prepared lessons – everything from young biologists learning about meiosis to English language pupils debating what makes a great essay. ‘Lessons don’t feel like a burden because teachers are so passionate about their subject,’ said a pupil. And they’re not frightened to have a go because, from the off, Channing encourages enquiring minds, getting pupils to question, question, question. Philosophy lessons from year 7 in addition to RS help them think outside the box, while teachers are known for their expertise in pedagogy, seeing themselves as life long learners, always on the hunt for new research or ways to enhance classroom time.

The intake is slightly broader than at some of the local competition and not every girl will be cut out for straight A*s/9s, but the emphasis on added value means that girls often wind up doing far better than expected. Not a school that’s big on setting – ‘it doesn’t fit with the Unitarian culture of inclusivity,’ says head. Languages are a strength, with a good proportion of native teachers and a decent spread, with Spanish and Latin from year 7, then French or German added in year 8. All available at GCSE and A level, plus Greek (and further maths) as a twilight GCSE option. History, geography and art all popular at GCSE, when girls take 10 in total including triple science and a language.

At sixth form, 21 subjects on offer, with psychology and computer science most recently added. Art, English lit, geography and economics take the highest grades. Some start off taking four and drop one, others start with three and around a dozen do an EPQ. The conventional arts/science divide is roughly in balance, though we heard some grumbles about the science teaching (not just at A level). Maths teaching singled out as outstanding – ‘I arrived thinking I was rubbish at maths and hating every minute of it, but now I’m doing it for A level,’ said a pupil. Notable emphasis on teaching soft skills – everything from collaboration to taking questions following a presentation.

Some mixed opinions on careers advice – ‘I wanted to know more about politics and the next thing I knew, they were getting an MP in to do a talk,’ raved one pupil. Alumnae regularly tapped into and a recent talk entitled ‘To what degree?’ involved speakers talking about careers that had nothing to do with their university course – a breath of fresh air, we thought, in a world where youngsters are often expected to know exactly what they want to do. But some pupils have a beef with ‘the focus on the City, law and medicine at the expense of more arty careers.’

Lots of use of technology, younger pupils are provided with iPads by the school (‘great for online textbooks and research tasks,’ said pupil), moving to laptops in upper years. School ‘struggled during first lockdown,’ said a parent, though all agree they’d nailed it by the second one.

Learning support and SEN

A SENCo works across both junior and senior schools, along with two part-time specialist learning support teachers. Together, they are called on to assist a range of difficulties, from profoundly deaf pupils to 50-or-so girls with mild visual impairment, dyslexia, or processing issues. Currently three EHCPs. More focus on one-to-ones and small groups (all included in the price) than there used to be. ‘My daughter had some SEN related anxiety and I was initially annoyed because the school let her fall off a cliff without talking to us but since that happened they have really upped their game and been massively supportive,’ said a parent.

The arts and extracurricular

Our tour started at the very top of the school in the sprawling art department with rooftop views and light filled studios including dedicated ceramics and photography rooms. It’s not often the head of art describes pupil talent as ‘off the scale,’ but the standard of work spanning 3D, etching, oil paints, pottery and far more besides is phenomenal. Portraits, intricate bowls, sculptures, canvases – you name it, they do it. Around half the year group takes art GCSE and at least 12 pupils take the A level. ‘You see these works around the school and think, “Oh my God, I want to do something like that when I’m older,”’ said one pupil. We thought the same.

Scene one, take two, then three, then four… In the shiny new performing arts building, we watched a group of three A level drama pupils tweak their performance following constructive feedback from their teacher. Not bad to have such West End quality facilities to practise in. ‘Drama is one of the most fun lessons – you get masses of freedom,’ said a pupil. Girls are, according to one parent, ‘quite proactive about what they want to put on,’ with Sound of Music up next, involving auditions from across the whole school. I’m going to be stage manager,’ smiled one of our tour guides proudly. ‘Occasionally you feel that the louder girls are chosen for the main roles, though school swears not,’ said parent.

We always love a music department that you hear before you see, and this one – with its 10 practice rooms and fancy technology room – didn’t let us down. Record numbers now take external exams, including the musical theatre awards. There are string quartets and guitar ensembles right through to jazz bands and contemporary music groups, though one parent described music as ‘quite formal, very traditional and classical in the main.’ Pupils reckon the department has become more inclusive – ‘they’re keen for everyone to have a go, much more than they were when I joined.’ Posters advertise everything from jazz evening (‘my favourite event of the year,’ said one pupil) to year 10 concert, music at lunchtime, autumn concerts etc.

Clubs follow prevailing interests and currently include feminist society, robotics, chemistry, classics, life drawing and creative writing – often inspired, set up and run by students. Because pupils are active and engaged, they tend to lap up these extracurricular activities. Popular DofE. Staggering range of school trips from history in Cuba and classics in Greece and Italy to a music tour to Croatia. Girls leap at the chance of getting stuck into local projects too – one teacher told us about bunting having been requested for Highgate festival: ‘The next thing you know, the girls had organised an assembly line in the dining room.’

Sport

‘A bit of a bugbear,’ said a parent, who felt the school doesn’t make enough of the playing fields (15 minutes walk away), while other niggles include leaving the less sporty girls by the wayside – ‘Our daughter isn’t naturally sporty and is allowed to opt out in a way she wouldn’t be with maths,’ said one. ‘My daughter’s role as sports leader seems to mainly involve sitting in a classroom,’ grumbled another. Pupils agree Channing is not the obvious choice for a very sporty girl and told us that even with netball – the school’s main sport – you have to join an outside club to really progress. ‘There isn’t enough variation,’ reckoned another – ‘for example, I’d love to do volleyball.’ Watch this space, though, as none of this came as a surprise to the head who has already recruited a full-time football teacher and introduced more esoteric activities such as kayaking for older girls as part of her long to-do list around sport.

Ethos and Heritage

Surprisingly easy to walk straight past (we did), given that it takes up four tall and graceful Georgian buildings, and there’s plenty more behind – notably the new Arundel theatre, a music school, sports hall (used to teach self-defence when we visited) and modern sixth-form centre. Nobody could argue the site isn’t tight, but they’ve also cleverly squeezed in a multi-use games area and beautiful wild flower garden. Spacious library divided into different sections and overseen by enthusiastic librarian who has brought digital library provision on by leaps and bounds. Bar a swimming pool (‘I know it’s not realistic, but imagine!’ said pupil), girls say they have everything they need. Atmosphere is excitable and stimulating. Christmas is singled out as the best time of year by pupils – ‘there’s the teacher panto, Christmas classrooms and house singing, it’s so fun.’

Established in 1885 by a Unitarian minister and two members of his congregation to educate the daughters of Unitarian ministers, the school’s clientele has (not surprisingly) broadened, but it retains the founders’ values of liberalism, democracy and religious tolerance. The Rosslyn Hill Chapel Award is bestowed on girls who most embody the Channing spirit of kindness, respect and tolerance. Mottos aplenty in this respect too, most recently, ‘girls enjoying success without undue pressure’ (nice sentiment, but doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue). Head on a mission to get girls to be braver too (even her lanyard has ‘I am 10 per cent braver’ in big, bold letters) – could mean a shyer girl raising her hand in class or committing an answer to paper without checking it first.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Not a school with tight rules and stern warnings – its record of serious discipline spanning the last 14 years takes up just two pages. Pupils are so eager to please that there’s barely any need for the detention system, while exclusions, including temporary, are almost unheard of. ‘They are more likely to talk to you than punish you,’ said parent. Mental health issues ‘dealt with discreetly’ and ‘proactively’, according to parents, and girls mainly get on with each other – inclusivity is the whole point of Channing, where quirky girls fit in as well as anyone. One parent, whose daughter had some serious mental health problems, said, ‘The school has been absolutely fabulous – when everything blew up, the head of year met with me and made sure all the teachers knew how to deal with it, as well as keeping me informed.’ Counsellor is available four days a week.

A steering group with no fewer than three working parties is currently compiling a report with long-term recommendations in response to Black Lives Matter and there’s a panel spanning years 10 to 13 – along with parents and relevant professionals – on the back of the Everyone’s Invited website. ‘How can I have conversations with my male friends about how their behaviour might be making me uncomfortable? How can we best discuss consent? These are the kinds of conversations we are having, ultimately using it to rejig a toolkit for pupils in the longer term,’ says head.

Strong emphasis on leadership, with older girls applying to become eg charity officers (most recent charity work, which is extensive, has been for Refuge), sustainability officers and, of course, head girls. A lot of girls aspire to the leadership team – they have real influence, says school.

Pupils and parents

A community school, with 90 per cent coming from a three mile radius, so no fleets of coaches to far-flung places. Most walk or use public transport from their homes in mainly north and west London and increasingly from the south and, most recently, a sprinkling in the east. Pupils are chatty, upbeat, motivated and friendly. ‘I looked around at other sixth forms as I thought I should probably have a change after being here since four-years-old, but it made me realise just how welcoming Channing is – there was no way I was going anywhere else!’ said one. Parents are cosmopolitan (South African, European, North American, Asian, increasingly including ex-pats), highly educated (lots of business owners) and value education (some a little too much, thought one parent – ‘you get your fair share of tiger parents, though as a whole it tends to attract a bit less of a demanding cohort’). Mainly well-heeled, but very hard-working and not too many uber rich. Some ‘tittle tattling’ among some of the parent WhatsApp groups, we heard – ‘It can be quite divisive,’ felt one.

Money matters

Not a hugely rich school, but still does its bit, with five per cent of annual income devoted to ‘transformational’ bursaries and additional funds to ‘support families who hit hard times’. Academic scholarships at 11 worth 10 per cent off the fees, but music scholarships (grade 5 with merit minimum required) are particularly good, with up to 50 per cent discounts. Both are open to junior school year 6 and external candidates. In the sixth form, art, music and academic scholarships (of up to 50 per cent off tuition fees) on offer to existing students (‘We want to recognise their talent and potential, not find them sloping off elsewhere’) as well as external ones. Bursaries also available at this point.

The last word

‘All the clichés people tell you about Channing turn out to be true – the incredible teaching, the way they put the girls first, the caring atmosphere,’ said a parent. Not a pressure cooker in sight, yet not laid back either, there’s something about  Channing – maybe its sheer vibrancy – that manages to make an equal marriage of happiness and success. Whatever it is, we went away wishing you could bottle it.