SMMA logo
Photo of SMMA students singing at the end of year service in Union Chapel
SMMA students sing at the end of year service in Union Chapel

‘A shining example of an excellent school’: SMMA is reviewed by The Good Schools Guide

4 January 2018

In December 2017, our school was visited by The Good Schools Guide, an independent guide to UK schools. If you’ll excuse a bit of trumpet–blowing for the start of the year, we’re very proud to show you their full review.

What The Good Schools Guide says


Since 2012, Vicky Linsley (late 40s): since she joined the school as deputy head in 2008 much credit must go to her for the transformation of this school to a highly oversubscribed ‘extremely well run’ school with fantastic results, supported pupils, and teachers who stay because they are proud to be at SMMA. Vicky Linsley was a scholarship child who went on to do history at Nottingham and then to Oxford for a masters degree and her teaching qualification. She taught and then worked freelance while her two children were little, consulting in schools that were in special measures - ‘an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t and bringing about change’ - and she still inspects schools with Ofsted and works as a consultant with schools looking to improve.

Youthful, energetic and very pragmatic, the pupils call her ‘inspiring’ and ‘really, really nice’. They all see her in assemblies, checking pupil progress, and in classes, and like all staff, she eats with them in the canteen. She also has a weekly current affairs class (The Week) with year 12 pupils. She is generous with her praise of pupils and her pride in the school. An eloquent speaker, which helps her to build partnerships with businesses to the benefit of the school (Deloitte, Virgin Trains, local businesses). She is admired and respected by the teachers who find her ‘approachable, she always has five minutes for us, even for small matters’. She has nurtured many and entrusted them with responsibilities, often from Teach First programme or from simple assistant positions, maintaining a surprisingly stable staff body - no staffing vacancies when we visited and, unusually for any school, no shortage of maths or science teachers. And the ‘being kind’ ethos of the school is led from the head down - examples abound from supporting children in care, who love her, to taking in hot cross buns for every staff member at Easter.

Academic matters

The school has no qualms about saying that it has ‘a clear focus on academic achievement’ and it works to develop ‘globally-minded citizens who are happy and successful’. For financial reasons it has stopped teaching the IB, but the ethos has strongly influenced the curriculum and teaching - encouraging independent and team learning, keeping timetables very full and having the equivalent of creativity, activity and service through the Inspire Programme.

The results have been rising annually and are impressive for a primarily non-selective school - 27 per cent of GCSE results were A*-A/9-7 in 2017 with 10 per cent getting the new top grade 9 in English and seven per cent in maths (the national average is three per cent). Three-quarters of pupils achieved grade 4 and above in both English and maths. The sciences are especially strong with almost all pupils getting A*-B grades. Also strong emphasis on languages, resulting in 100 per cent A*s in Mandarin (more about China connection later), with Spanish and French also successful. Religious studies (unsurprisingly for this church school) get excellent results too. At A level, 35 per A*/A and 65 per cent A*-B grades in 2017. ‘Good results thanks to a really excellent work ethos built up over time in the school’ and ‘not stressful thanks to three year GCSE programme and the school culture’. Around exam time pupils can be found coming in early for breakfast and morning study time.

Years 7 and 8 include some streaming in lessons (reviewed termly), plenty of extracurricular learning - before and after school and in extension activities. Early establishment of ground rules about behaviour and study skills (‘the SMMA way’). ‘They have to learn to self regulate - we have 1,300 pupils and they need to learn about manners and being polite’. The pupils who have got into the school on the language aptitude test are expected to take Mandarin enrichment classes as well as the European language (choice of German, Spanish or French) taken by other pupils; those who joining the Mandarin Excellence Programme have four hours of Mandarin each week. The school is a Centre of Excellence for Mandarin Teaching and has the Confucius Classroom Award which ensures an extra three full time Mandarin teachers from China, who teach not only Mandarin but also Chinese culture. Annual subsidised trip to China. Progress tracked and standards high even in those first two years of secondary school by having them all follow ISEB curriculum (same as for those sitting common entrance in private schools).

In year 9 pupils start their GCSE curriculum: ‘having three years gives us time to teach more than just the content of the curriculum’, and pupils appeared more motivated, having chosen their subjects and knowing they were working towards an exam. Extra time also allows for more outings in year 10, which helps to ‘raise aspirations and give a sense of purpose for exams’. ‘We aim to give a broad and balanced curriculum so kids really enjoy learning, and they want to learn more because we have more time for content’. Class size drops to 25. Generous selection of subjects, but core subjects the priority - strong maths and science teaching thanks to recruitment and retention of good teachers - we saw several Oxbridge graduates who had chosen to teach here, and people returning to teaching after careers in industry. Pupils said that ‘teachers have our interests at heart and know what we like’ and ‘teachers care about you’. And parents raved about the youthful vitality, energy and enthusiasm of teaching staff.

Library for years 7-11 with full-time librarian used for English lessons and weekly library lessons - all part of study skills lower down the school. Also used for book clubs after school; the school is clearly almost as busy before and after school hours as during. Parents say the school has ‘nailed the curriculum and ensures the kids get the results they want’. Certainly, no one dreaming or looking out of windows when we visited.

Sixth form of 120 pupils per year completely selective by GCSE results, and once in, they are expected to have a very full timetable of lessons, extracurricular activities, exercise and a real commitment to enrichment, with many collaborative projects - encouraging leadership and entrepreneurship. Pupils appreciated ‘plenty of choice at A levels, but if you reconsider your subjects, you can change - the timetable seems to work for you to be able to take any subject combination you want.’ Staff teach all the years, including sixth form - keeping them as challenged as their pupils and allowing pupils who stay on to sixth form to know their teachers. ‘Our teachers are organised and knowledgeable and enthusiastic.’ ‘They make it applicable to real life and raise ethical questions, not just teaching to get grades,’ according to sixth form students. ‘They get us involved; lessons are really interactive’. Maximum of 15 pupils per A level class. Not very much dedicated space for sixth form, though a glass gallery space for ‘quiet study’, one floor of the library and some corridor break out areas for teamwork. They have their own common room (though pupils found this ‘dreary’ and lacking in ‘sofas and character’), supervised by full time graduates who also supervise study areas, help with essays and ‘keep work going generally’. This type of subtle mentoring works to raise expectation and support as these graduates are also available to help with UCAS forms and encourage the idea of going to university. Every student in sixth form taken to visit a university (some now lucky enough to go first class on train with a parent or friend thanks to a new partnership created with Virgin Rail).

Special needs supported by SENCO with ASD specialism and part-time dyslexia specialist; all pupils screened before joining school. Some 13 pupils in school with EHCPs, and 70 accessing support in or outside school. Pupils from neighbouring Courtyard special school (for pupils in years 9-13 with autism) come across with helper to SMMA for lessons sometimes - especially for drama, maths or art. Those who just need an extra bit of help can have tutoring sessions with maths and English graduates in the main hall. Parents said, ‘they don’t give up on anyone’ and that thanks to target tracking they are ‘on it like a car bonnet if they slip’.

Games, options, the arts

School is open from 7.30am when children can be found in the chess club, martial arts training, extra lessons, or just coming in for £1 breakfast. The day often ends late too, so there is plenty of time for extra activities. Clubs timetable has clubs before, during and after school. Games in huge soundproofed state-of-the-art gym - no whistles or shouting needed to get classes playing team sports (basketball, hockey, dance, trampoline, cricket, badminton) for weekly two hours PE. There is an Astroturf on the roof for football and sport unless it is pouring. They use Finsbury Park for athletics. This is an urban environment and so the playground is not large. A mad keen footballer we met said that he gets to play ‘all the time’ - and has plenty of matches against other schools too. Girls’ teams encouraged and included - no sense that anyone is second class here. They play at the Arsenal Hub, have Arsenal trainers and get reduced price tickets to matches. Recognition for effort or achievement for sportsmen and women given at weekly assembly.

Arts rooms aplenty - sixth formers use theirs like a studio and so are able to leave their work out. Textile, pottery, art and tech GCSEs enhanced by equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters. You don’t have to be doing tech GCSE to be involved in Formula E club, building an electric car and then racing it at Goodwood Racing track. Proper, spacious cooking facilities for both food tech and popular after-school clubs and enrichment programme. Music a growing part of school life, partly thanks to MiSST (Music in Secondary School Trust), with every new pupil being lent an orchestral instrument and having small group lessons, as well as individual music lessons (‘excellent peripatetic teachers,’ according to some parents) for those who continue with their instrument. So 300 music lessons timetabled in somehow as well as orchestra, rock band, string groups and then the annual huge musical productions - an incredibly inclusive, all-singing all-dancing affair, ‘a semi-professional experience for the kids with lighting, costumes, musicians.’ ‘My shy child just came out of herself through the school musical production’. For some 20 pupils the highlight of their year is going to a music residential to Radley School.

Inspire programme includes masterclasses (talks by Jeremy Corbyn and Nick Robinson recently, and the Grayson Perry talk was a sellout), workshops (Deloitte Consulting sent their chef to give classes, the RSC brought in a group to work on Hamlet) and City trips - not only to offices but also to British Film Institute and theatre outings (local Almeida theatres generous with free tickets to SMMA). The programme also encourages pupils to join competitions and get onto programmes such as STEM courses, Oxford Girls’ Maths Conference and Women in Leadership conferences, and to go for visits or internships at City firms they have partnerships with - RBS, Cushman Wakefield, Société Générale, UBS.

The school has an immersion programme, allowing overseas pupils to come for periods up to a term. Students every year from China, Indonesia, Korea and even Kazakhstan attend school as part of ‘global citizenship’, which is a founding principle of the academy. Once the students leave, friendship and global citizenship encouraged as pupils become email penpals. The school also welcomes some 20 headteachers from China for a week each year for the same purpose. A multitude of clubs and possible activities to be involved in; parents and pupils felt that you were encouraged to do anything you were interested in: ‘With the job market changing so fast, it will prepare our children to have flexibility, interests, skills and ideas, rather than just careers’.

Background and atmosphere

This is a London Diocese sponsored school aiming to serve the community - the motto ‘show by a good life that your works are done by gentleness born of wisdom’ sets the tone of the school. A sense of kindness and action and learning emanates. RIBA awards for this purpose built school which one parent called a ‘Tardis, a building that flows nicely and does not feel cramped’. Mostly built around a closed atrium with all classes looking inwards to the central library and chapel built on stilts over the canteen. The windows onto the corridors, the open study areas and flow of the building give an atmosphere of transparency and openness. No rooms feel out of bounds and several teachers were working in corridors. Pale wood, excellent acoustic management, curved edges, large windows, glass-topped atrium all help to soften the edges of an otherwise totally urban and closed in school off a fairly main road. Once inside, the building feels spacious, and the tightly managed systems for moving round the school allows students to move smoothly and freely - we didn’t see any pushing or shoving and pupils said ‘there are no hidden corners or blind spots’, ‘we are really safe here’. We were struck by the calm and quiet in such a vibrant and active school - there are no bells in between lessons and playtime is managed well with room for all sorts of activities in the playground without impeding each other (thanks, in part, to the outside amphitheatre which provides seating and space for ball games).

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Christian ethos and school motto ‘gentleness born of wisdom’ emphasised as teachers and pupils can be seen treating each other with respect (and everyone on first name terms). Fabulous, engaged and open-minded students listened to each other and spoke kindly of each other when we met with them. Teachers don’t interrupt each other or the pupils, they all eat together and everyone uses the same toilets - ‘if they aren’t clean enough for us, why would we want the children using them?’ Mealtimes are a pleasantly calm and orderly event with pupils and teachers sharing food, space and conversation. The canteen is in the centre of the school, like a kitchen being the heart of the home, busy and used (from breakfast club to after-school snacks via the feeding of the 1,300 at lunchtime) and spotlessly clean. Pupils called food ‘healthy and tasty’ but of course raved about Friday chips.

Spiritual, moral, social and cultural education embedded in the school through all the curriculum lessons as well as assemblies and activities and in form time. Full-time chaplain for guidance and support. ‘Reverend April is my son’s favourite person in the school because she is such a kind, generous presence, comes to cheer at basketball matches, and may well be the heart of the school as a person in her eyrie in the centrally placed chapel.’ A part-time psychotherapist (appointment by self-referral or suggested by staff). Pupils said there was ‘no bullying, but if you see something you can go straight to a teacher or report it anonymously on school website anti-bullying page’. Teachers spoke of restorative justice meetings - how would you feel, how would the other person be feeling. The need to be ‘kind’ is the leading principle.

‘Academy guardians’, or tutors, work with Guardian Groups of pupils in the same house but across all year groups. ‘It means we know older pupils and they tell us how to do things and we say hello to them round school’. It also means the older ones look out for the younger ones. The family groups meet with their academy guardian, who acts as first port of call for any issues, each day - twice a week they sit together in assembly, but groups are mostly for organisation and keeping pupils on track. The system seems to create a ‘close and small community and allows us to get to know them really well and they trust us,’ say the guardians. Pupils also said they liked having the same pastoral group throughout school because it ‘is like my family away from home’.

The deputy head for expectations and standards, who is in charge of pastoral care, meets heads of year, the SENCo and chaplain every fortnight to ensure pupil well-being. They work on the premise of ‘what would a good parent do?’ in all dealings with pupils, and he leads assemblies about humanity, compassion and expectations in order to ensure happy, and therefore successful, children.

Discipline by detention set by teacher, heads of year and if necessary involvement of parents. ‘Certainty of consequence more important than severity of consequences’ - so pupils not intimidated or fearful. Parents appreciate the fact that they get phone calls not only if there is a problem but also if there is something to celebrate when their child has excelled.

Pupils and parents

The school is mostly non-selective and pupils come from a wide range of ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds - this is central Islington and the school reflects the diversity of the area well, with families who could afford independent schools choosing SMMA as well as pupils from the neighbouring housing estates. ‘We chose it over an independent school because there is no sense of entitlement here, and our child has really polite, kind friendships with kids he would never have met at a north London independent school’. Around half on free school meals and some eight looked after pupils. But parents told us that the school has high expectations and everyone is expected to comply - strict uniform policy evident, tight punctuality enforced, and serious work ethic encouraged. And the curriculum guide given at the beginning of each year includes not only the outline of what will be taught and the exam they are preparing for, but also ‘practical ways to reinforce your child’s learning’, ‘how you can help’ and ‘resources for pupils and parents to support learning’. Learning is clearly expected to be a whole family endeavour. Once a pupil is accepted, all siblings tend to follow - one family has seven children going to the school, and the Mandarin teacher had all four of her boys here. Parents get plenty of letters and email communication as well as phone calls. What they liked was that they felt listened to - suggestions by staff, pupils or parents are heard and responded to positively. Such an open approach.


Of the 180 places in year 7, some 30 come directly from the attached primary school, then preference to children in care and siblings of pupils in the school. Ten per cent selective on language aptitude - no prior language knowledge needed (400 children sat for those 18 places recently). The remaining places are given 30 per cent to Islington Church of England primary schools pupils (catchment area around one mile) and 70 per cent on distance from school (currently about a half a mile from the school). A further 18 admitted in year 9 via language aptitude test. At sixth form, top third stay on to form half of the selective sixth form, which has 120 pupils in each of the two years (20 come from a link with Switzerland). Entrance requirements at sixth form are at least grade 4 at GCSE in maths and English and five other GCSE subjects grade C/5 or above (higher grades in A level choice subjects).


A few leave after GCSEs, especially if they came in from the primary school and would like a different experience. They traditionally go to Woodhouse, Camden Girls or City and Islington College. Many more look at other schools than leave in the end, and one student even said, ‘Why would I go somewhere less good than here just to have a change?’ Recent sixth form leavers include to to Oxbridge and two medics in 2017; some 40 per cent go to Russell Group universities. Increasingly abroad (Science Po in Paris, British Columbia, McGill - French scholarship place). All sixth formers get work experience with one of the partnership firms, help with their personal statements and plenty of exposure to other worlds through the masterclasses and visits, as well as the paid for visit to a university with the school. So pupils given the expectation and real support to get to university.

Money matters

Most parents happy to pay for school trips, though there is support for those who find this a challenge. ParentPay cards also serve as ID cards and enable parents to replenish student accounts for lunch money.

Our view

A shining example of an excellent school. Parents and pupils are aware that they have picked the golden ticket if they can get an education here - the results are evidence of top quality teaching, and the children’s involvement and happiness are enhanced by the wide enrichment programme, whilst the pastoral care provides a tight safety net. If you want a top notch inclusive comprehensive education, this is the place to go.

Images: The end of year service at Union Chapel

To see more pictures, please click below.