Muddy Best Schools
HILLVIEW SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, TONBRIDGE
Hillview School for Girls is an all-ability secondary school (aged 11-18 years) with academy status in Tonbridge. It’s girls-only (there’s 1, 200 of them) up until Sixth Form where it is mixed (34 boys in Y12 & Y13). The school is found down a surprisingly suburban street, surrounded by houses, and is made up of a collection of modern red brick buildings and a funky new science block. Hillview is best known as a specialist school for the Performing Arts (drama, dance and singing are very strong here) but there has been a move recently to extend this specialism to the visual arts too (fine art, design and textiles are all exceptionally well supported). And the academic results are pretty impressive too when you consider it is a non-selective school.
Students and staff are quick to point out that you don’t have to be a creative type to thrive at this school – but if performance or visual art are your thing then (to keep to the theme and quote Annie, the musical) ‘I think you’re gonna like it here…!’
Last year’s ticketed production of Cats was a sellout over all three nights and the girls involved scored distinctions all round in their singing exams. I toured the school when the students were waiting for the results of auditions for this year’s production of Beauty and The Beast – for which they have added an extra performance night due to high demand. There was a definite air of excitement about who would get what parts.
They assure me that there’s something for everyone at this school and that it’s not only the super talented that get a part in these big school productions – if you want to take part you just put your name on the list and you’re guaranteed a place in the chorus at the very least. Auditions are held for only the principle parts.
The budget for the annual production is well, seriously substantial, so it’s not a school play in the old fashioned sense! The annual performance involves all age groups across the school – whether you like to be on stage, or help with the script, direction, lighting, costume design and so on. There’s a whole building for props! All the teachers who work in the performing arts are very well connected in the theatre world and regularly calling in favours from those they know, pulling together professional orchestras to support the girls, or asking friends in the industry to come along and give workshops. These, I’m reliably informed, have covered a variety of topics from film prosthetics to make up artists.
I’m led into a classroom where there are students from all the different years excited to meet me and keen to answer all my questions. The students I meet are all very sparky – but definitely not in a precocious stage-school way be any means. In fact they very much remind me of the fabulous girls I worked with during my stint at a local neighbouring grammar. One tells me she had a place at a grammar up the road but felt the more intensely academic environment there would be too pressurised for her and she preferred the more creative vibe of this school.
During my time in secondary schools I have worked with, and chatted to, thousands of students and I’m continually impressed by how mature and eloquent so many girls of this age group seem to be today. Obviously it’s always good to meet well mannered, confident girls that look you in the eye and the ones I met at Hillview certainly did that. But there was also something extra – an independence of thought that probably comes from being encouraged to express yourself freely – a sort of emotional intelligence that I liked a lot. Students use phrases like ‘express yourself’ and ‘be who you want to be’ in a way that I could tell was entirely genuine.
Students go on to London College of Fashion, and impressively, students have won or been place in the top 3 categories of Young Fashion Designer of the Year Away every year since its inception in 2010.
The new state-of-the-art Science Hub building was built 4-years ago, complete with the Super Lab experimental area upstairs, where they host lectures from top scientists to which the local community is invited. The new Sixth Form facilities have been designed by the girls themselves – these include a study area, computer suite and all-important downstairs cafe. The sleek designs and more grown-up feeling facilities make a good stepping-stone for life at Uni and address all the students’ needs whilst they are working towards their KS5 studies.
There are a total of 4 IT computer rooms dotted about the school. Students were behaving well when I stuck my head in all the lessons – and there seemed to be a good level of discipline, essential for a school of this size.
Not surprisingly the extra-curricular provision for the arts is second to none. There’s everything from cheerleading to song writing clubs and dance to sketch book club. But this isn’t to say that academia is not also encouraged whole-heartedly. The Head Girl who took me on my tour of the school was studying Media, History and English A Levels, so fairly traditional subjects – oh, and an extra A Level, Fashion, in her ‘spare-time’…!
The Hillview cheer-leading squad are off to perform in Disneyland, Paris, the week after my visit and have earned the opportunity to take part in the Disney Parade.
As well as the Sports Hall there’s a large outdoor netball/tennis court area. But there are no sports fields or rolling hills around this school. However this hasn’t stopped the school from offering a decent sports provision. Firstly the school is obviously very strong in those sports that take place within the hall (trampolining, dance, gymnastics and cheer-leading), and secondly, there’s lots of collaboration with the surrounding schools. Sports Day this year takes place at nearby Tonbridge School as does the end of year show and Dance Platform, in the large E M Forster Theatre.
This is one of the highest-achieving non-selective girls’ schools in the county. Both GCSE and A Level results are on the up and this year 77% gained a C or more in English and 64% in Maths. English and Maths 3-year average is above the national. For A Level 75% got A* – C, with most pupils getting into their first choice of University.
There was once a time when Hillview was seen as the school you might go if you didn’t get into your grammar school of choice – but things are changing. I meet several students who had chosen this provision over nearby grammars because they wanted the freedom of expression and creative vibe that the school offers. These days students travel from as far as Dover or Gravesend to attend the school.
Headteacher, Hilary Burkett is still fairly new, having been appointed in January 2016 and she appears to have fitted in perfectly. With a creative background herself – she has a degree in design and her family were heavily involved in their local theatre she has a passion for all things creative. She also has an 11 year-old daughter who herself recently started at secondary school, giving Mrs Burkett an insight into the world of this age-group from a mother’s perspective too. She firmly believes that the girls here are taught what its like to live in the outside world and given enough freedom and confidence to cope with what life will throw at them. She hopes to put Hillview firmly on the map and believes that she school is still something of a hidden gem, although word-of-mouth is getting the message out there.
Well a school with a stonkingly large Summer Performance budget is pretty unusual Previous students have gone on to appear in West End productions of Shrek, the musical, The Secret Garden and Billy Elliott. Last year Dance GCSE and A Level students went on a school trip to New York and went to see Aladdin the musical on Broadway as well as enjoying workshops with some of the cast and crew.
An annual Stars in Their Eyes talent show takes place at The Angel Centre in Tonbridge, see above.
Not so much a quirk, as an interesting insight: at most secondary schools (particularly the grammas and independents) students have to wear suits in Sixth Form, with the idea being that it prepares them for the working world ahead. However at Hillview the dress code is smart/casual which allows them more freedom to express their individuality. I have so say, I rather like this. It seems like a good stepping stone between school uniform and Uni (where you can wear what you bloomin’ well like). And in my media jobs I didn’t have to wear a suit once in my life.
Another nice touch is that the girls make a lot of the decisions here – they got to vote on the new school uniform – blazers were given the thumbs down, but a smart new cross-over kilt will be introduced later this year.
Wrap around care:
The school Reception is open from 8.00 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. with lessons beginning at 8.40 a.m. For those students who arrive early into school, they can go to the Breakfast Club from 7.30 a.m. in the school canteen where they can purchase a hot or cold breakfast. Some teachers run before- and after-school clubs for students who have a particular interest in any specific subject. The school Library is open Mon-Thurs until 4.00 p.m. and 3.00 p.m. on a Friday to cater for those students wishing to stay later to continue with homework/research/coursework.
Ahhh, now here’s the thing. There are no fees!
10% of the 208 places offered in Y7 is via an aptitude test of Performing Arts ability; this is particularly handy for the keen dancer, actress or musician who live further away as this guarantees their place at the school. However there is no official catchment area – successful students have lived up to 14.5 miles away in the past. Also, whilst the official intake is 208, the school are able to take more should there be a demand, so don’t write this school off if you don’t live on the doorstep!
Word on the ground:
A Mum I spoke to today said she had a friend with two girls at this school and they were both very happy here. The pastoral / nurturing side gets a big thumbs up. Everyone said the school fosters a real sense of community and that they felt there was something special about the school – it has a strong PTA, which is always a good sign. While there seems less pressure to conform to a ‘type’ than you might find at some schools, there is still the necessary structure and discipline in place – both essential elements to the smooth running of a big school.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: If you don’t want your daughter to be one of the almost 15,000 10 year olds who sit the nerve-racking Kent Test then this could be an excellent option. I’ve lived in other counties around the country and it’s unusual to get single-sex schooling outside the private system. In the words of one of the Sixth Formers I chatted to: ‘This school has everything you need to really thrive – it’s up to you to make the most of it.’ Buses and trains arrive into Tonbridge from a wide area – the school’s town location – only 5 minutes walk from the centre – means it’s pretty accessible and students are able to access the school from far and wide.
Not for: Anyone who is better suited to a smaller school – Y7 has a 7 form entry, although by Sixth Form class size shrinks significantly due to the spread of subjects – so there is usually no more than around 10 in a class. If you prefer to drive your child to school be warned there is no on site parking. Those who want rolling sports fields and a countryside setting or parents who prefer a more ‘starchy’ approach to schooling.
Dare to disagree?! Don’t take my word for it! Have a look for yourself at the Open Morning on Tuesday 14 March. Please see the school’s website for details. The school also welcomes informal visits throughout the year. Contact the main school Reception to book a tour, outside of open days.