How to be top: Its girls are the cream of north London and its academic results outstanding. So are the new first-years a precocious bunch of little madams? Sandra Barwick went to meet them

This year's flock of fledgling schoolgirls at the North London Collegiate School have just finished their first week of term. Zoe Collins, 11, from Harrow, has fitted a padlock to her locker and put name tapes on her pencils and her calculator, not to mention her lacrosse racket, and toured a selection of the dens in the 30-acre grounds.

'It's good fun,' she says. 'I like maths best. Even the school dinners look really good. Nicer than you would expect.'

Outside the school buildings the driveways are looking emptier every morning. Overprotective parents, breaking the rules and choking approach roads by personally dropping off their daughters in the family Volvo, Mercedes or BMW, have discovered the formidable, if faintly smiling figure of the headmistress, Joan Clanchy, hovering nearby in a disconcerting manner. Mothers speed off at this vision, feeling like naughty schoolgirls themselves. 'Better get the school bus, darling,' they say now.

In the classrooms of the new intake the fidgeting with pencil cases and the finger-chewing is less evident: the slightly anxious, concentrated faces of the first, overwhelming few days have relaxed. 'It's lovely to have bright girls,' says Dee Francken, the middle school tutor. 'But we want bright, not neurotic, girls.'

It would be only too easy to fill the North London Collegiate School with over-anxious high achievers. This year the independent girls' day school came out in the various league tables as one of the top, if not the top, girls' school in the country, taking into account both its A-level results - 84 per cent of passes were As or Bs - and its GCSE results - every girl who entered won five or more grades at C or above, and a startling 81 per cent of their passes were A or the higher-grade starred A.

Such a record naturally attracts parents eager for results. Four girls apply for every pounds 4,611 a year place in its senior school (many of London's fee-paying schools charge a lot more; Westminster costs more than pounds 8,000 a year), undergoing an examination and an interview to get in. 'I didn't know how hard it would be to get in,' says Rachel Davies, 11, daughter of a solicitor and a social worker. She grimaces. 'I didn't want to think about how many other people might apply.'

The successful girls tumbling out of the school buses are not the richest. Around half the intake to the 933-pupil school comes from state primaries. There are no exclusive shibboleths here, no code words for teachers and classes, none of the archaic traditions of boys' schools like Eton and Harrow and Winchester to puzzle the little ones and baffle outsiders. Here the girls can sport Doc Martens with their brown Terylene skirts and personalise their uniform.

The guidebook the 11-year-olds are given with advice from the next year up has few mysteries to pass on. 'Ask someone,' it advises, 'to show you around the secret garden, spider tree and hollow hedge . . . Don't become sentimental over the baby coots in the pond. Mrs Clanchy is the only one who is allowed to do that.'

The North London Collegiate may be single sex, but it is a mixed school in terms of background. About 35 per cent of pupils are Jewish. There is a large number of girls of Asian background: in year 11 alone there are seven called Shah. It feels in many ways less like a public school than a very good, unpretentious state girls' grammar school - but one able to select from the cream of north London's clever girls. Its reputation has also proved a magnet for the best teachers.

Christine Elliott has taken the fledglings in class 7L for their first-ever Latin lesson. Their names are propped in front of them, with their shiny new pencil cases. 'Why do you think it's a good idea to learn Latin?' she asks. A dozen hands shoot up. 'Cos there's a lot of words related to Latin.'

Mrs Elliott draws the outline of a hand on the board and writes on its palm 'manus'. Can anyone think of a word beginning with 'man' that might be derived from the Latin word for 'hand'? Debbie and Jessica and Liora and Lizzie and Zoe are all having thoughts. 'Manicure]' says one girl. 'Manual]' 'Manipulate]' says another. 'Manufacture]'

Sabrina Manuel is one of the new intake of 11-year-olds, from a state primary school in Mill Hill. Her father is an engineer, her mother a dental assistant. 'My Dad wanted me to come here since I was little. He liked the results it gets,' she said. The biggest impact that North London Collegiate has made on young Sabrina after a week lies not in the lure of its hollow hedges and spider trees, but in its books. 'She's very impressed by the library,' says her mother. 'She says it's a very good collection. She wasn't very satisfied with what she could find in our local libraries.'

With pupils like this, a large part of the school's job lies in preventing them from putting too much pressure on themselves. The new girls are deliberately being set no homework for the first two weeks, while they get over the shock of transition. 'My school was only 300 people in a very little building,' says Nicola Hughes, 11, from a state school in Pinner, Middlesex, whose parents are a manager in computers and a representative for industrial tribunal cases. 'It made you nervous here at first. We used to be the oldest people in our schools.'

In two weeks' time the new girls will be doing between an hour and an hour-and-a-half's homework a night and the school's job of stopping some of them overdoing it will be underway.

In spring last year Mrs Clanchy resigned from the National Curriculum Council because she believed the English component had become too test-orientated. This year she publicly criticised the introduction of starred A grades into GCSE level: 'It will lead to nervousness and cramming,' she said, 'which it will be very hard to resist.'

'They're always saying 'An A is an A',' says Rachel Lissauer, 17, starting a new year in the Upper Sixth. 'People are competitive. Not in an outward way, but with themselves. Everyone works hard, and people can be negative about themselves because they're surrounded by so many people that are good. Someone got 10 starred As at GCSE. It's ridiculous] Ten]

'Teachers don't push your work. If there was pressure it would be a nightmare here. They'll say, do nine GCSEs. Don't do 11. They'll say, it's a good thing to go to a new university, look for the course, not the prestige.' Despite this sage guidance, 23 out of about 100 in the Upper Sixth went to Oxbridge in 1993, and all went on to some form of higher education.

The North London Collegiate old girl is, said one, typically very confident and rather noisy in groups, Esther Rantzen and Eleanor Bron being the best-known examples of the phenomenon. Another old girl is Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, who was at the school in the Fifties. 'It was terribly snobby then. I remember being told about the different types of houses in my first year. Detached was where it was at. I lived in a flat in Chalk Farm. That was really not all right, so I was completely rebellious. At 15 I got expelled for having sex and being naughty.'

For the moment, the new intake can concentrate on settling in, and their exhausted mothers can rest from the labour of sewing their names on to pairs of brown knickers and lacrosse socks and look forward to one-and-a-half hours of extra peace a night - when homework starts, next Thursday.

(Photographs omitted)

News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
fashion David Beckham fronts adverts for his underwear collection
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
i100Most young people can't
Extras
indybest
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Head of Service and Support (Financial Services, ITIL, ORC, TT)

    £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of Service and Support (Financial Ser...

    Calypso Developer

    £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, JAXB, ...

    Service Delivery Manager - ITIL / ServiceNow / Derivatives

    £60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading Financial Services orga...

    Senior Quantitative Developer

    £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home