Ask the Headteacher
Mr Elphick answers some of the questions he has been asked about the school...
You say in your prospectus that “a booklet will never capture what makes one school different from another.” Without a visit, how do we decide?
In previous years, when I have spoken to parents crammed into our school hall, I have always said that I believe that there is limited value in TELLING you about Bexley Grammar School - the real purpose of an open morning or evening is to SHOW you the school at work, for you to speak to students and staff, ask the questions you have on your mind and get a sense of the atmosphere. That is not possible this year but what I have found very interesting this year is that although all schools are telling you about themselves on their websites, you still get a different feel for each school. We can all use sophisticated technology and slick videos to promote our schools but the ‘heart’ of a school still shows through, even on a website. I am very proud of what our students say, unrehearsed in many cases, when we point a camera at them. I think our virtual experience does SHOW you our school, albeit imperfectly compared to an actual visit. You decide by looking at the heart of a school.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I think it is very important for you to know a little about me, since if you choose this school you are entrusting your children into my care.
I’m one of six children. I grew up in Beckenham, went to a comprehensive secondary school and then spent four years from the age of sixteen studying in America when my father’s job moved over there. I returned to the UK and did a joint honours degree in English and Philosophy at Bristol. I started teaching over 30 years ago in the borough of Bromley and have taught at four local comprehensives in Bromley and Bexley boroughs (one of them a girls’ school) and then came here to my fifth school, my first grammar, as a deputy head in 2006. The day I arrived here, I knew I’d found something special: It’s the only place I’ve ever worked where I truly want to come to work every morning (perhaps a few days during the pandemic being the exception). I served as a deputy for 7 years and gained the Headship when the previous Head retired nearly 7 years ago.
I’m also a parent. I’ve been in your position three times with my daughters. I’ve sat in many school halls and listened to the claims of headteachers so I understand the challenges you and your child face in choosing the right school.
Why is ethos important?
Every school has a ‘feel’ which derives from the ethos that permeates every aspect of the school day, every day. An etho is led from the top and needs to be shared by the whole community for it to work effectively. I think the ethos we set is fundamental to our success.
We try to capture our ethos, our recipe, in the three words: Intellect, Empathy and Courage. Think about a group of people with a common aim in an orchestra, or a sports team or the cast and crew of a play:
Intellect might be learning to play, developing skills or tactical knowledge - everything starts with knowledge.
But Empathy – working together to produce the harmony, the game, the play - involves being sensitive to the roles of those around you.
And finally, Courage – at so many levels: to practice, to perform, to persevere, to develop resilience over time to succeed.
These three words appear throughout our literature and underpin our approach to teaching and learning throughout the school. We encourage our students to develop the elements of the IB learner profile which you can explore separately. I hope you see this ethos embodied in our students and staff as you explore our open experience.
What does the school’s motto mean?
Our latin motto, PRAESTANTIAE STUDERE translates roughly as “to strive for excellence”. Ofsted has rated us ‘Outstanding’ for well over a decade and our examination results consistently reflect this excellence.
Why do you not talk much about academic results?
I am very proud of our academic achievements throughout the school and our public examination results at the end of Year 11 and Year 13. You can see our results elsewhere on the website. The summer of 2020 is difficult to talk about because there were no examinations and results were not published nationally. I can talk at length about the results of the summer of 2019 but schools can use statistics to tell almost any story they want. So I urge you to be skeptical of the claims that we headteachers make. Having said that, the highlights of 2019 for me were:
Only 10 students in England took 12 or more GCSEs and got straight 9s – two of them are BGS students, now studying the IB in our Sixth Form.
1 in 5 students gained 38 points or more out of a possible 45 points in the IB, a typical offer from Oxford University. Anything 40 points or over is a remarkable achievement and this year we had another student who scored the perfect grade – 45 points, joining only 200 students worldwide. The average point score for the 200 IB students was 33 which equates to a little under 4 A grades at A level.
Also, in any school statistics, remember that the rigour and challenge of the subjects that students take affects how well they are likely to do. We do not offer easy options to help get high grades and compete for top places in performance tables. All our students study 3 separate sciences and 2 languages and still achieve these remarkable results.
Why mention the IB and the Sixth form? This is 5 years away.
We see a BGS career as a seven-year commitment, so our ultimate aim is to take students from Primary School to University or equivalent. We support the increasing number who compete for prestigious degree level apprenticeships at the likes of EY or KPMG. This year, 9 out of 10 got into either their first or second choice of university. Over 50% of our students gained a place at one of the 24 internationally recognised top ranked universities, the Russell Group. We also have, on average, the highest rate of Oxbridge entry in the borough.
All three of my daughters did the International Baccalaureate. Your children will be following the IB Diploma in our Sixth Form because we believe in what it achieves for students, and how it prepares them for university or equivalent and, perhaps most importantly, for life beyond. But that’s a little way off in the future! The reason we mention the IB now, is that our school ethos, which runs throughout the school from year 7, is closely aligned with the core values of the IB.
What are the distinguishing highlights about your curriculum?
At Key Stage 3 we consider what will best develop students as well-rounded individuals as well as what will prepare them for GCSE. We take every opportunity to develop confidence and creativity, with a real focus on higher level thinking, group work and leadership skills.
At GCSE, our most distinctive feature is that all our students study two languages all the way through to GCSE. They also study all three separate sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) and either Geography or History. They also have two free options where we encourage a full range of creative subjects such as Music, Art, Drama, Design Technology and PE. Government performance tables rank schools by a range of measures which change regularly, but we stick to the courses we believe to be the best preparation to bridge the large gap between GCSEs and the Sixth Form, and beyond.
As mentioned above, our Sixth Form is distinctive because all our students study the IB Diploma Programme rather than A levels. Please see the Sixth Form area of the website for plenty of information about this world-class qualification.
We design our curriculum to meet the needs of our students and the rapidly-changing world in which they will be life-long learners, workers and citizens. We say, with pride, that we offer a broad and balanced curriculum that can stand side by side with, or above, any fee-paying school.
You claim to have especially warm relationships between students and staff. Please explain.
This goes back to our ethos, especially our emphasis on empathy. It sounds obvious but all our decision-making is focused on what is best for our students. Staff give freely of their time to extra-curricular activities as well as supporting individual students academically. We build exceptional relationships through teamwork and respect and honesty. We pay attention to detail, whether it be an individual student or teacher experiencing difficulty, the planning of a House event or the nuances of a past examination paper. Our support of individual students is exceptional. We have a highly trained and very experienced Special and Additional Needs Team, a similarly strong Safeguarding team, a part-time librarian, two part time school counsellors, a full time careers adviser, a full time examinations officer and a range of support mechanisms such as homework club and our wonderful student peer mentors who are specifically trained to support fellow students.
What do you mean by ‘developing compassionate leaders’?
We use the slogan, ‘developing compassionate leaders,’ because we are nurturing the people who will be left in charge of our planet when we are gone. They need to be intelligent, thinking, considerate and tolerant individuals with the courage to follow their convictions. This is not to say that every student of Bexley Grammar School will become a well-known leader but rather that they will lead their lives with intelligence, empathy and courage.
Do girls achieve better in single-sex schools?
I am often asked about girls’ performance in single-sex schools as opposed to their performance in mixed schools. I will simply make 3 points:
1) Nationally, it is a well-known fact that girls perform much better at GCSE than boys, regardless of the school they attend (sorry boys);
2) Take our boys out of the whole-school statistics and on a 3-year trend our girls performance is easily comparable to selective single-sex education in Bexley on a 3-year trend (And boys, don’t worry, our boys keep pace with the boys’ school on a 3-year trend);
3) League tables do not break down results by gender. Just because girls’ schools rank higher in league tables than mixed schools, it does not follow that girls do better in girls’ schools, it is because girls perform significantly better at GCSE than boys.
But what I think is more important and more relevant about mixed education, and is part of what I think makes this school special, the place where I want to come to work every morning, is the rich interaction which comes from diversity. We are preparing children to become adults in a diverse, complex world; if boys and girls are separated for 7 or more hours a day for five of their most impressionable, developmental years, I think we make their development into adulthood more difficult. No school separates children on any other measure of diversity except perhaps religious faith. It can be argued that separation based on gender is rather backward-looking and potentially unhealthy. How do children learn from each other and gain genuine confidence and self-esteem if they are artificially separated during crucial formative years? I believe the UK and Ireland are the only areas in all of Europe with single-sex education.
How old is Bexley Grammar School?
We remember our special roots in the small school which began in 1955 in the huge corner-plot from Danson Park that was given for the school. We celebrate many of the original traditions and delight in the number of students who return as staff or indeed as parents and governors to re-join the community. Many of our present parents were students here themselves and 40 of our current Year 7 are siblings of students already attending. Several of our current staff have children attending the school, probably the testament of which I am most proud.
How do we decide on our order of choices on the CAF?
It really is simple and there is no hidden agenda or trickery. If selective school X is your preferred choice you must put it first regardless of how far away from it you live. If your child scores in the top 180 or you have a sibling at school X you will get a place. If not, then the system will give you the school highest on your list for which you meet the criteria. If you live too far from school X but you meet the distance criteria of your second choice school, then you will be assigned your second choice. There is no penalty or risk in not getting your second choice because you did not put it first. Similarly, you could live next door to your third choice but if you meet the distance criterion for your second choice school, you will be assigned that because it is higher on your list. Simply list the schools in order of your preference and the system does the rest.