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)

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