The specialist schools giving talented pupils a chance to shine

The Telegraph,  04.04.16, looks at some of the top-performing specialist independents in the UK today, and find out what makes them special. Featuring four HMC leading independent schools; Chetham's School of Music, Guildford High School, Wells Cathedral School and Whitgift School.

"I can’t see any disadvantage to balancing a strong academic education with specialist training – if it’s delivered in the right way," says Elizabeth Cairncross, head of Wells Cathedral School, which has made a name for itself as a place that fosters musical talent.

It’s a belief shared by staff at other specialist schools, who are proud to offer academic rigour alongside dedicated teaching and tailored facilities.

Passion, of course, is crucial for success. Specialist schools tend to run a long, varied and busy day.

“Children learn to manage their time quickly, juggling a changing timetable and handling performing to the public – and to their peers,” says Bryony Bell, marketing manager at Chetham’s School of Music.

“That helps build confidence and gives them a range of skills to take forward, wherever life takes them after they leave school."

Opportunities are there for any child with talent regardless of their parents’ circumstances, thanks to often generous funding, says Sarah Evans, acting principal at Elmhurst School for Dance.

“There are a lot of families here who would never have considered an independent boarding school were it not for their child being gifted”.

Here, we take a look at some of the top-performing specialist independents in the UK today, and find out what makes them special.

Chetham's School of Music

Founded in 1653, Chetham’s in Manchester is set to open an impressive new 500-seat concert hall in 2017. Its 300 8- to 18-year-old girls and boys learn from highprofile musicians and play regularly with local orchestras.

Selected on musical aptitude, more than two thirds board.

Music practise and lessons run alongside a traditional academic timetable.

“Each half term, we run a music course which allows students to go off timetable for a week,” says Ms Bell. “That’s when our key performances take place.”

Chetham’s has produced the two youngest winners of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year competition. Both were just 12 years old when they picked up the title.

Guildford High School

Named top girls’ school in the country for sporting achievement, Guildford High’s medal-winning performances are too many to list – and the school feels this excellence supports academic success.

“Students learn leadership, teamwork and the importance of hard work and commitment. These strengths underpin everything else,” believes director of sport Louise Stone.

Admitted on academic ability, Guildford High’s four- to 18-year-olds take PE as part of the curriculum alongside extra-curricular sports.

The school runs “an exceptionally busy and competitive fixture list” and boasts a six-lane, 25-metre pool, sports hall, five netball courts, six tennis courts, and a lacrosse pitch.

Wells Cathedral School

Founded around 909 to educate the choristers of Wells Catherdral in Somerset, this co-ed school for three to 18-year-olds has a history of musical excellence.

“We do not offer music just as an additional opportunity,” stresses Mrs Cairncross. “Having it at the heart of a rounded education fires a passion for learning.”

Wells’ students are chosen on academic ability, with special arrangements for those with musical talent. ‘Specialists’ can spend up to seven hours a day on music while pursuing a fast-tracked academic programme.

Those on the ‘music provision’ stream, says Mrs Cairncross, are “very talented people who aren’t necessarily sure how far they want to take it”. A brand new music complex will open this summer.


“Over the last decade we’ve earned a name as a leading sports school”, says Alistair Osborne, director of sport at Whitgift in Croydon.

Former student Lawrence Okoye proves his point. Joining the all-boys secondary on a bursary, he reached the discus final at London 2012 and now plays in the NFL. He also secured a place at Oxford to study law.

Today, Whitgift’s 227 teams play around 2,000 fixtures a year. In 2005, the school built a £9million sports centre with an eight-lane pool, four squash courts and fitness suite.

There’s a sports scholarship programme, mentoring and timetables that enable talented boys to train at Chelsea Football Academy, for example.

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