Westminster School Sixth Form - what is it really like for a girl joining this famous boys' school?

Image credit: Unsplash

Image credit: Unsplash

We are very alive to the opportunities that making a switch at sixth form brings. And have also been on a bit of a mission recently talking to girls in boys' schools with co-ed sixth forms to really understand the pros and cons, so we were delighted to have the chance to put our questions to a pupil we know who has recently switched from a highly academic London girls' day school to Westminster School. 

Why switch?

The stellar A level grades are tempting - 89.9% A*/A in 2016, but realistically only a number of grades above the highest performing girls' schools, but it is in university destinations that the school really pulls ahead - half of pupils exited last year to Oxbridge and more than a dozen more to the best in the US. It's an exciting proposition.

But, is the school's new pink and blue website a real reflection of how well the girls are integrated into the school?

Hearing from our interviewee, about the leap to a university style of education how its candidates are so exceptionally university-ready becomes clear. But, we wanted to know how resilient do you need to be to survive and thrive happily? 

We hope you find this interview helpful. Let us know @schoolhuntersuk. Or, if you need more help in thinking about alternative sixth forms, do get in touch below. We'd be delighted to hear from you. 

1. Why did you decide to leave your old school?

I was very keen to study History of Art, and at the open day the teachers at Westminster were immediately inspiring and it was clear that the course was much broader in content. The art department is engaging, liberal and has amazing resources. I was also drawn to the teaching style at Westminster; students are encouraged to not just prepare for tests, but to question the syllabus, explore way beyond it and develop our own opinions. I felt my current school prepared me to pass exams brilliantly, but not necessarily to think and enquire beyond that.

2. How would you describe your first year?

I found my first year at Westminster challenging to begin with, as it was hard to adapt to the new level of independence we were given in regards to our studies. The classes are similar to university seminars, with lesson time being used for discussion and most written work being done outside of class. There is also a huge increase in workload, especially as all my subjects are humanities and arts based and therefore involve many essays.  I usually stay at school until around 8pm, finishing work in the library or the art department.

However I have adapted to the new expectations and learnt to manage my time so that the work is done, even though this can involve staying at school until late, often eating three meals a day there.

It is important remember that the culture is that of a boarding school, and it is not unusual for many people to stay late to both work and socialise.

The school buildings are spread out around the streets surrounding Westminster Abbey, so the atmosphere is one of a university campus. Teachers are always around and also contactable via a comprehensive online system. Most homework is sent and submitted via email so it is essential to have a smartphone and check emails regularly. 

The opportunities are unrivalled, and I got involved immediately in Feminist Society, History of Art Society and multiple music groups. Invited speakers to the John Locke society have included Dame Carol Black, the managing director of Penguin Books, the CEO of Fortnum and Mason, journalists from ITV and The Economist, Nick Clegg, and Julian Assange via Skype. The new level of freedom, along with the central location of the school, mean that I can pop to exhibitions at the Tate and the National Gallery at lunchtime or in a free period. I also am taking a course in British Sign Language as a part of the Options Scheme, where we take on three additional unexamined courses per term. The choice here is vast, for example French Poetry, International Law and Human Rights, Medieval manuscript illumination and making sock puppets!

In my first year I went on an art trip to New York, History of Art trips to Paris, Venice and Florence, and a Spanish exchange in Madrid. There have been opportunities for music scholarships, research grants and volunteering.

A highlight of my first year at Westminster was PHAB, (Physically Handicapped Able Bodied), a week long course I undertook this summer in which 50 students became full time carers for 40 disabled people who came to live at the school. We slept in the same room as our "guest", cared for their personal needs and ran a range of holiday activities for them such as art and drama.

3. Boys: what have been the social or academic positives and negatives?

I can't answer your question in terms of principle, but I can certainly say that I feel I have gained from sharing classes with boys who have had a Westminster education. It makes a welcome change from the gossipy, often catty and rather tedious atmosphere I was used to! The conversations we have both in and outside the classroom are more wide ranging, challenging and therefore generally more interesting. 

Socially, however, it was quite difficult to adapt to the new co-ed environment, and for many girls it was their first proper experience of having to deal with offensive/sexist behaviour and language. However, as a woman going out into the world, perhaps it is no bad thing to have to learn to hold your own in a group of very clever but immature men.

4. Downsides/upsides?

The experience of being at Westminster is very intense and inevitably takes up most of ones "life".

It can feel like being in a "bubble"; events which in retrospect are not a big deal can at the time feel massive. For example a small drop in an essay mark or test can feel like an appalling failure because expectations are so high. Minor social ups and downs can also have a major impact at the time because a proper support network of like-minded people is really important.

However, Westminster is definitely an amazing springboard and I feel like the downsides I have experienced are only short term; the benefits of the school and the positive experiences are what will be formative and stay with me forever. 

5. What would you say to a girl about to join?

I would definitely first emphasise that it is an amazing school with endless opportunities and incredible teaching. However, a degree of intellectual and personal resilience is necessary to cope with both the academic and social demands of Westminster, and it is definitely not for everyone.

The academic expectations are very high, and paired with the new social aspects of the school it may feel quite overwhelming. I would say to a girl joining Westminster that it is important to remember that the experience at the school is not an experience of the real world, as you are surrounded by some of the brightest, but also most privileged people in the country.

You need to enjoy and make the most of the fantastic teaching and opportunities available and know that you will emerge from it stronger and a more independent thinker than if you had stayed in the "safer" same old environment of another school.