Andover is exceptionally strong at everything academically. I thought the History department was especially strong, but really we don't have a single weak academic department. (By acclamation, our physics and music departments are the best since they score so high on AP tests.) Once you hit your Upper Year you can start constructing your schedule around your interests - taking extra English or History electives, adding more advanced math and science to your schedule, taking another language, etc. and by senior year pretty much everything is at your discretion (although college counseling will make you take English all year - as they should). I can't emphasize how incredible the academics and courses are at the school - I was able to take classes in Renaissance art, metaphysical poetry, public speaking, quantum mechanics, Japanese, logic and comparative government. I even did an independent project on the Presidential election of 1824.
The student body tends to be pretty competitive but in a good way. There's no way to really harm anyone academically - we all suffer together through these classes, and the more advanced classes require active collaboration (just try taking one of the advanced physics electives without being friends with anyone...). Things only got nasty with extracurriculars but that's the exception more than the rule, and I think my year had a unique combination of explosive personalities. And if hard politics aren't your style you can certainly succeed and be happy at Andover without playing any of those games. I can't overstate how influential Andover's academics were for my college experience. A lot of previous Andover alums have expressed similar sentiments, and many even thought that Andover was harder than college - this isn't true, but I understand the sentiment.
Andover taught us how to struggle against mountains of work and incredibly competitive and talented peers, and even if Columbia may have been more difficult at times I was prepared for the challenge. Andover students, more so than even graduates of other well-known prep schools, have an intangible grit about them that we learned in high school somewhere in between crying over our first term paper junior (read: freshman) year and juggling five hours of homework a night with college admissions and club leadership our senior year. There's a reason why almost half of my Andover classmates at Columbia graduated magna cum laude or above. More specifically, Andover teaches you two key skills that apply to almost everything you will do in college. You firstly learn how to write well - we learned not just how to write pretty sentences but to construct arguments and argue for things persuasively, and express ourselves comfortably in written form. You'd be surprised how many students go to the Ivy League completely clueless in this regard - the SAT and AP tests that define conventional college admission success emphasize structure over content to an alarming degree and many of my Columbia classmates floundered as freshmen because of this. Andover alums don't have this problem, and its because we're prepared to write long, dense papers from the first trimester we arrive on campus. But secondly, Andover teaches you how to solve problems. I'm completely serious when I say this - problem solving is a skill that lies at the crux of any quantitative discipline, be it economics, physics, computer science or math. There's a reason our AP physics program is the highest scoring in the country - its because our teachers understand the didactic value of having kids struggle over six or seven tough problems a night instead of drumming out silly exercises, computations, "plug-and-chug" problems and busy-work. When you go to college and get your first problem set, you'll recognize how valuable this skill is. Even relative to other prep schools we performed extremely well in this regard - we don't recruit our competitive math team, we grow our best talent internally, and our classes aren't designed to cater to the smartest kid in the class and have everyone else play catch up. That's not the case everywhere else.
Classes were small - most of my classes were somewhere in the teens in number, and many were well below ten people, especially at the more advanced level. I didn't go a single class without being forced to defend something or contribute in some way - even shy and quiet kids are expected to add value, and every single one of them does. I wasn't shy myself in high school, but I never felt like anyone was uncomfortable in this setting. If anything though, I think you'll find your peers are on the other end of the spectrum - opinionated, articulate, and fierce. And that's a good thing - I've never felt so engaged academically. Teachers made a point of always being available for a daily help outside of class during conference period (our own version of office hours), and some teachers will even invite you to their homes after classes ended for additional help. One teacher made himself available during his lunch hour. Conference period is also quite egalitarian - students help each other, the teacher makes sure to answer your question at least once, and everyone from the valedictorian to the PGs come by for help. I spent every single conference period with a teacher (usually in quantitative subjects, since those have the most value, unless you are discussing a paper topic or something) and I was first-round cum laude (top 10%) so it's not like there's a stigma of being seen as dumb in going to Conference period.
The college counseling office at Andover is an incredibly intimate one, and each of the counselors wants to get to know you very well. I met with my counselor very frequently, and every single person gets assigned a counselor their Upper year. We all had to meet with our advisor at least once before the summer, and the office gave us homework over the summer to prepare for the upcoming college admissions process. You will be well taken care of at Andover when it comes to college. See my below for my detailed analysis on the strengths of the college counseling office.
My advisor was the former director of a college's admission office himself, so he definitely understood the idiosyncrasies of college admissions. He actually made a point of having each of his kids tell him their life story, what their parents did, how they spent their summers, etc. He took an interest above and beyond what most college counselors did for my friends at other schools. I remember sending my college counselor essays I wrote for a summer program I applied to at the end of my Upper Year (read: 11th grade), and he even took the time to give me comments. I met with him maybe every other week my senior year, and we actually became quite close.
I definitely think that every single college counselor cares about their students as people and they all made a point of getting to know their students well. There is of course a pragmatic element to this - college counselors write better recommendations when they can give concrete reasons why a student is strong and they, in general, paint a better narrative about you when they know you better - but I never felt that my college counselors pressured me to apply anywhere I didn't want to go, or to pick a school I didn't like because it was more prestigious, or any of the other bizarre things you hear happening at other schools. Andover has a very old-world sense of noblesse oblige, and the sentiments of the college counseling office were no different.
There are always rumors that so-and-so advisor had connections to this-or-that university, but I didn't see any overt evidence of that. I do know, however, that our admissions staff personally wined and dined Yale's Director of Admissions when she came and visited us on campus and that my own advisor seemed to have some sort of connection to Harvard but I think their influence is perhaps overstated. Colleges DO care about what they have to say, however, that much is absolutely true - our college counselors seemed to be constantly working the phones, and my own counselor was able to discretely communicate some of my family's legacy connections to Yale. In short, it's clear that some sort of channel exists, but I don't think we had any sort of special advantage, or that college counselors could ever pull strings for anyone in particular.
Admission or rejection to a college is a function of your own application, and - much more importantly - the decision-calculus of whatever college you are applying to. The college counseling office was very adamant that they are for college counseling, and not for college placement and I think that's worth keeping in mind no matter where you end up. Andover students place well because they are smart and because they make the most out of the opportunities the school gives them - not because there's some smoke-filled room where the Ivy League picks their favorite applicants that our college-counselors somehow have an inside line into.
Applying to Andover was like a more personalized experience of applying to college. You take a test, you write essays about overcoming adversity, you interview (generally with someone on the admissions committee), you take a tour and you tell them what sort of clubs you are interested in and how you spend your free time. It's a lot of fun for a fourteen-year old - you get to reflect on your life and talk to someone who is paid to be interested in you.
Interviews, essays, and the selection process are becoming more and more akin to college admissions, but significantly less bizarre in my opinion. Hopefully, Andover will continue to maintain its ability to provide a personalized assessment of every candidate. See my thoughts below for doing well with prep school admissions.
You can look up what exams are accepted, but I'm pretty sure most people take the SSAT. The incoming scores for accepted students are naturally quite high and my year the average was around a 95% overall. As with the SATs, the higher, the better - no one was ever rejected for having scores that were too high.
I think the interview, however, is much more relevant for your admissions chances. Andover is more interested in graduating people who will contribute to society than they are in graduating glorified test-taking machines, and how you carry yourself in your interview is a great indicator of how well you will do at Andover. It's not just that people like well-spoken applicants - Andover students are graded on how well they express themselves in class. People who interview well are also generally more mature and have easier transitions to boarding school. Practice your interviewing skills - it's the most high-impact preparation you can do. Do dress conservatively, and in terms of questions asked be prepared for the usual cookie-cutter stuff "Why do you want to come to Andover?" "Do you think you will do well in a boarding school environment?" "How do you spend your summers?" "What do you do outside of the classroom?"
The most important thing about applying to Andover is having control over your narrative. If you can tell the admissions officers why you want to go to Andover and why you will fit in you make it much easier for them to advocate for you when decision time comes around. For example, I talked about how I had gone to school with the same kids for more or less my entire life and how I was ready for a change - I had went to CTY over the summers and loved the experience of being away from home and meeting kids from all around the country. I was a semi-successful Junior Olympic sprinter at the time, and I talked about how Andover's top-ranked track team would be a great fit for me (they had won the league championship the year before). I also talked about how I turned my weaknesses into strengths, how I used to not be especially strong at math, but how I had studied math over the past two summers to compensate and was then taking Algebra 2 with Trigonometry. My own narrative planted little flags in the mind of the lady who interviewed me - specific reason to go to Andover (track), comfortable living away from home (academic summer camp), proven resilience under pressure (math studying), ability to express myself without sounding like an idiot (demonstrated in the interview). High school admissions, more so than the randomized nonsense that is college admissions these days, is more of an exercise in matching economics than anything else, and as long as you demonstrate you are both interested and interesting you should be fine.
It does pay to be a bit of a specialist in something - we could fill our class with perfect scoring violin players from Massachusetts, but then we wouldn't have a full orchestra (nor a full representation of American students). I think there is room for many bright well-rounded kids (how specialized are middle school students anyways?), but you increase your chances if you have some skill or ability that will contribute to the school. Two of my peers, for instance, did debate in middle school and Andover really liked that.
When I was a student, Andover also really valued various types of cultural diversity, so if you think you'll look good on an admissions brochure you're probably in luck. By the time I left Andover, the demographic cross-sections in vogue were conservative kids from the Rocky Mountain states but things might have changed since I left. That being said, you can never get enough students from Spearfish, South Dakota, so honestly I doubt things are all that different. I will say, however, that you should be careful to know your audience. If you are a quiet kid who grew up in some upper-middle class suburb to striving Asian parents and played the violin and piano and did really well on the math team it will be harder for you to stand out. It's not because the admissions officers are prejudiced but because so many of the same sort applicants apply to Andover. Remember my earlier comment about matching economics - this is fundamentally a supply and demand issue.
Andover starts off as more regimented during your junior and lower years before gradually allowing you to spend your time doing what you love. Certain parts of the day are allocated for class - 8 to 3ish I believe - whereas the time in between 3 and 5ish is exclusively devoted to sports, and clubs generally meet at around 6:30. By the time you become a senior you are granted more flexibility - you can "slide" from athletics for a term and not take a sport, for instance, and you generally don't need to take as many courses (first years generally take six, upperclassmen generally take less). Whether that means you spend more time watching South Park, editing the school paper, or studying for your Independent Project is up to you, but kids generally spend their extra time in productive ways.
Extracurricular activity really varies by student - upper management of the Phillipian spent upwards of 40 hours a week on the paper (most of that time was spent bickering, I might add, er, sorry, "negotiating" with one another), whereas various cultural and religious groups met only once a week for an hour or so. Generally, as you get more responsibility in your club your time commitments increase, and the more prestigious clubs (Phillipian, Model UN, debate, student government) can have significant political dimensions to them. Students tend to specialize as they grow older because of this up-or-out attitude at some of the clubs.
For instance, there's a certain type of student that participates in the Phillipian, the Philomathean Society (debate), and Model UN. By my senior year, the heads of each club focused on their own clubs and generally stayed out of the the other two clubs. Overall time spent doing extracurricular stuff increased, I'm sure, for each of them, since running a club is hard work, but they were able to focus more on being leaders as opposed to resume padding. That's a good thing, in my opinion.
I'm not sure how balanced some of these attitudes towards clubs were. I tried to do everything personally, a little bit of sports, some clubs, schoolwork of course, but I always felt like the more intense clubs imposed a lot of time on their members. That being said, they all seem to be quite satisfied with their experiences in these clubs, so more power to them. Andover, fundamentally, gives you the freedom to make your own tradeoffs, and that's a scary but valuable ability to have as a teenager.
One thing about Andover that was really surprising to me when I first arrived was how nice everyone was. Everyone says hi to you on the path to class, it's considered rude not to hold open doors for other people, and your teachers make a point of getting to know you. Looking back on my time there, I definitely feel a profound sense of nostalgia for that little world in which everyone seemed to know one another, and even if we didn't get along all of the time, there was an unspoken understanding that we are ultimately all playing for the same team. When you go to college afterwards, you'll discover you become fast friends with other kids who went to prep school - maybe because they understand this sentiment as well.
Life wasn't all happiness and sunshine, however, don't get me wrong - winters were long, nights were long, sports could be very strenuous at times and weekends got repetitive and boring by the time I was a senior. I would encourage you to spend more time in Boston than I did - it helps switch up the monotony of having a mediocre dance every single weekend. They really do try to liven things up and I will say that I saw some really interesting speakers come to campus, as well the occasional interesting magician or comedian. When you're working that hard though, it's hard to notice that you aren't being super stimulated in your free time, and I remember being more than content to simply order food, unwind and watch a movie in my common room on a Friday or Saturday night. Inevitably though, you will find your own way to entertain yourself with your friends, and it's this creativity that will doubtlessly lead to your strangest but most cherished memories of the place.
Andover is an extremely liberal campus but with a very out-spoken Republican minority. I don't think members of either demographic felt marginalized.
In general, Andover prized students who were also active citizens. I can count the number of students in my class who didn't actively participate in club / sports life on one finger and we all felt that they had an impoverished experience as a result of that indifference. There is a tendency to resume pad - as there is at any competitive high school - but the students who rise to the top of their clubs and actually do something worth putting down on a college application are the ones who learn to love something outside of the classroom.
One piece of advice - try to forge strong connections with people in the class above you. These people don't feel a need to compete with you, since you are applying for college at different times, and are more than happy to be mentors. Oftentimes, succeeding at Andover - particularly in clubs and sports - isn't just about you, but also who has your back, and the best way to construct a championship team is to actively befriend people who are older than you. (Don't suck up to them - that just loses you respect, but actually try to get to know them as people, and help them out when they are in a pinch, like when it's Upper Spring and they have two papers due over the weekend and 100 flyers to put up all over campus.)
"What is the ethnic and socio-economic background of the students, faculty and the school's surrounding neighborhood?" This might surprise you but Andover skews wealthy, white, Asian, and northeastern (both the town and the school). We also have a lot of families who all attend the school - lots of legacies, lots of siblings, and lots of faculty kids. None of this is particularly bad and I think Andover is especially self-conscious of its demographic makeup - we spend a lot of money trying to recruit a diverse class and I think we do a very good job of it. (We take educating "Youth From Every Quarter" very seriously, as you'll find as soon as you crack open a brochure.)
I think Andover does a good job of promoting awareness and dialogue - I remember Martin Luther King Day, for instance, is always spent discussing issues of race, class, privilege and prejudice. Sometimes the speakers are mediocre, but occasionally you get someone exceptional, like I did my freshman year when I heard Dr. Roland Fryer - an economist - discuss his work on the economics of race. If anything, I think Andover is a little bit too self-conscious of these particular issues of privilege but that's generally a good problem to have for a school educating such successful people. Andover is currently embroiled in a feminist resurgence over student government, which seems like a generally good thing, and a couple of years ago seemed to be obsessed with economic class - which seemed more awkward than anything else, and in my opinion a little bit pointless since the school inevitably teaches its students to enter a high social class.
Fettes College regularly comes top of the examination leagues for schools of its kind in Scotland, and high up UK leagues. Education in the Prep School focuses upon a strong education in the basics, with most classes being in English and Maths, and a reading hour every day. History and Geography are supported with plenty of field trips and interesting activities. French and Latin are introduced in the latter years, but the programmes for these tend to repeat every year to cater for children who arrive having not studied them before (and to consolidate basic grammar for everyone else). The faculty is now almost all exclusively based in the Prep School, and trained in primary teaching (rather than the situation I recall of young Senior School teachers arriving and teaching us beyond our abilities!).
In the Third Form, the curriculum is very broad to allow students the most enjoyable year before they have to choose GCSE choices. Everyone studies English, Mathematics, Geography, History, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Business & ICT, Art, Music, Drama and Physical Education, with ICT skill taught in practical projects. Students also choose two languages from French, German, Spanish or Mandarin, and either Latin (plus Classical Greek for the top set) or another class in Art, Classical Civilisation, Drama, Music and PE. At GCSE, all students take English, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and ICT. They also choose four from: Art & Design, Business Studies, Classical Civilisation, Classical Greek, Drama, French, Geography, German, History, Latin, Mandarin, Music, PE and Spanish. They must do at least one modern foreign language.
Parents entering children specifically for their GCSE years should bear in mind that the list doesn’t reflect the real possible choices, which are limited by timetabling. They should ask for the ‘columns’ to find out what the real options are. In the Sixth Form, students may take A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate. Both are taught by the same senior members of faculty, and no streaming distinction is made in recommending either to children and their parents.
The choice of the narrower or broader curriculum really depends on the pupil’s temperament and intentions. Full details of the column options are available on the website (www.fettes.com), but all the subjects available are: English, Maths, Further Maths, History, Geography, Government and Politics, Classical Civilisation, Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, German, Beginners’ Mandarin, Business Studies, Economics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Art, Drama, History of Art, P.E., Music, and Critical Thinking. The humanities departments are very strong, and regularly place students at excellent universities. The science departments also get very good results in exams, but seem to suffer from neglect in the sixth form so that students don’t get the careers advice necessary. The Art and History of Art Departments are recognised nationally as particularly strong (several Fettes art students have been amongst the top 5 nationally at GCSE and A-Level, and a Cambridge college has said that the H. of Art students from Fettes are the best it receives).
Class sizes are small throughout the school, usually under 15 in all subjects. Students are expected to work hard during class time, and discipline in classes was remarked by many new students to be stronger than in their previous schools. While the school is concerned that students shouldn’t be spoon-fed and then be ill-prepared for life at university, this desire hadn’t translated into action in the A-Level programme when I left. Having a tutor to constantly prod me into activity when I slacked off was useful at school, but left me with some bad work habits when I started university. However, the school is excellent at pushing students to encounter post A-Level/IB standard work.
Those of us applying for English at any university were given extra classes and encouraged to take the Advanced Extension Award, a school to university bridge examination, and similar projects were available in other departments. Some people took part in programmes for subjects other than their intended major, out of interest.
Fettes’ excellent faculty are certainly good at inspiring interest in learning. The higher streamed classes have quite a competitive academic atmosphere. However, this never becomes the dominant tone of the school, largely because of the competing frameworks of house loyalty and the importance of non-academic activities. From early on in the Prep School, classes are streamed, which allows for very high level of specialist tuition for the best students (who often take examinations a year or years early) and good support for the weaker pupils.
There is also a large Learning Support Dept with resident specialists, to diagnose and help pupils with learning difficulties. In the humanities at least, sixth form classes are no longer streamed. I this found helpful on a personal level but detrimental to my academic performance, as the element of competition with lots of other very bright peers disappeared. On the other hand I think it was helpful to people who had been streamed into lower classes at GCSE. They became visibly more confident over Sixth Form at finding they weren’t on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf from the best students, and several took advantage of the disruption of hierarchy to become known as very talented and achieve better exam results than expected.
Homework (prep) is set from the earliest classes, with significant amounts (2-3 hours per night) in later years, but time is set aside every evening for boarders (and day pupils if they wish) to complete this in a monitored quiet environment in house. Tutors are in house during prep time to discuss work loads if these are getting on top of their tutees, and routinely talk to subject teachers to monitor pupils and make sure they aren’t falling behind or feeling hopeless.
While Fettes continues to attain the best examination results in Scotland, and pupils are worked hard, the atmosphere is not the highly pressurised one of some of the southern schools. Since careers and higher education advice begins before GCSE it is impressed upon pupils that universities are increasingly looking to GCSE results for more information about candidates. However, having met alumni of some English academic hothouses, I am sure that Fettesians suffer much less work-related stress and upset. The school is also anxious to develop students’ more general learning skills, with PSE classes on work habits and a programme called Quest for the younger years. This encourages exploring and learning around the rich resource that is Edinburgh. Since large amounts of time are set aside for extra-curricular activities, there is rarely a conflict of interest between these and academic life. Teachers’ own involvement in these and in house activities as tutors mean they have a real enthusiasm for developing pupils’ interests outside the classroom.
Fettes has an excellent reputation for getting children into the university of their choice, and routinely gets many children into Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities.
Discussion of higher education starts in the gentlest of ways in third form, when pupils choose their GCSE options (e.g. they are steered away from too many ‘soft options’ and encouraged to choose a variety of traditional academic subjects) and stepped up at the beginning of sixth form. A series of talks and discussions with tutors are used to explain the application process and encourage pupils to bolster them with work experience and extra-curricular activities. Parents are sent the same handouts as their children, and invited to an introductory afternoon, to keep them informed on how the higher education institutions are operating and what is expected of their children.
All pupils go to the Edinburgh University Open Day, regardless of interest, to get them used to the benefits of these days and teach them what to ask. Tutors and subject teachers oversee the process of application itself. Fettes has a dedicated Careers Advisor and library of prospectuses and materials. The Advisor has a high rate of success at persuading universities to take on pupils who have missed their offers or are inexplicably rejected in the offer lottery. I applied and was accepted to Oxford.
Fettes has a special programme of preparation for Oxbridge applicants, run by Mr A F Reeves, who has specialised in these universities’ vagaries for many years now. Starting in Lower Sixth form, pupils first take classes altogether twice a week, in which they debate at a very high level and learn about the admissions process, and then have specialised tuition from subject teachers. Each year Mr Reeves visits most of the Oxbridge colleges to talk to the admissions tutors about their changing requirements. Practice interviews are arranged with subject teachers from other Edinburgh schools, which I found very helpful as someone with little confidence around unfamiliar people. Mr Reeves is very enthusiastic about helping candidates get the opportunity of such a good university education, and very knowledgeable about the colleges and their preferences. I am sure that this programme helped me achieve my place, and in my year a number of decidedly ‘borderline’ candidates made it in with all the shoving and prompting they received at Fettes.
Preparation for those interested in applying to American universities begins early, in lower sixth form. Fettes is an examination centre for the SATs and several other pre-university tests, so pupils can take them on campus. The careers and college advisors are happy to help students for several years after they leave school (particularly those who take a gap year to re-apply to the university of their choice).
Fettes is a member of the Independent Schools’ Careers Organisation (ISCO), an organisation which runs careers taster days, offers the Morrisby careers aptitude test and supports private school students for years after they leave school. I attended one of their Journalism days in London, funded by the school, which I am sure helped my application for English at Oxford. A friend attended a Banking taster day of investment games, similarly funded, and was offered an internship by a PriceWaterhouseCoopers scout.
It is a common complaint that the attitude towards higher education found at Fettes demeans good universities which aren’t Oxbridge, and serves those who would be best looking at vocational courses or outside higher education altogether particularly poorly. To a certain extent this is probably the result of ambitious parents believing that higher education is the be-all and end-all, even if their child is pretty thick or would be more suited to another path, and the school responding to their priorities. However, if your child is likely to want to look at vocational or unusual courses this might be best broached with the Careers Dept. early on so they know you are happy with the idea. Every year a careers advisor from the Forces visits the school to talk individually to pupils interested in military jobs and scholarships.
Pupils may join the school at any stage, although most usually between ages 7 and 11 in the Prep School, at 13, and into Sixth Form. Places usually fill up a couple of years before the place opens; however, the school often takes particularly talented pupils at short notice. Fettes also prides itself on being a rigorous last minute ‘second-chance’ school for those expelled from other institutions, so this is not necessarily a disbarring condition (although such a pupil will be closely monitored).
Fettes accepts children from the whole of the academic spectrum, but is becoming increasingly choosy given a greater pool of candidates. While it seems confident that it can hothouse academically lacklustre children through GCSE, and routinely gets them higher grades than they would achieve elsewhere, they may find themselves having to look elsewhere for sixth form education.
There is no particular weighting of interest between humanities and sciences. Despite its reputation for sports and support for those who excel in it, Fettes does not recruit for athletes. There are a couple of scholarships for good sportspeople, but such talent won’t make up for dire academic credentials for candidates hoping to join further up the school.
For the Prep School, the Entrance Examinations and Assessments are held at Fettes in the February before entry (although alternative times can be found) and scholarships are available for entry at 11+. The Entrance Exams are set by Fettes teachers, and involve basic tests of English and Maths. It does not matter if your child has not studied a subject before (e.g. languages), as this is common at Prep School level: the tests are mainly to give an idea of a child’s potential to learn these new things. Given increased demand for places the school now takes hardly any children who arrive with poor (e.g. little or no) English, but difficulties with conversational or written English aren’t necessarily an impediment if the child has excellent academic references. Such children are given extra language support during their first years at the school. Children will have an interview with the Prep School Headmaster, but should not worry about shyness or lack of an impressive record- it is more to put a face to an application.
In the Senior School, entrance at 13 is based on exams and sometimes interviews. Candidates may take the Common Entrance exam, if it is available at their own schools, or take Fettes’ 13+ Entrance Exam (in English and Maths) at the school in the March before entry. Anyone may take Fettes’ 13+ Scholarship Exam as well, including candidates from the Prep School.
The standard for entry is not particularly high, but it is rising as the school consolidates its reputation and receives more attention from overseas candidates eager to take the IB and IGCSEs. The standard for scholarship candidates is very high. I don’t know what mark range is required, but among those awarded academic scholarships in my year, all of us later achieved straight As or A*s at GCSE. The scholarship candidates, and some of the other candidates (if their application is unusual or the school has a glut of candidates of similar level) will be interviewed by the Headmaster or one of his deputies. These interviews are usually not about academic matters (although the pupil will be asked about the reason for any obvious gaps in their performance in the exams, or strange answers) but a way of getting to know the candidate’s background and personality. Questions about hobbies are usual, and I spent a happy half-hour talking to the Head about my favourite stones (he trained as a geologist, I was unlucky enough to mention that I collected minerals)! No particular preparation is required, or very formal dress, although not turning up looking scruffy is advised.
Entrance into the Sixth Form is much more rigorous (again, scholarships are available). Those who were accepted into our year in Sixth Form had excellent GCSEs (well above the standard suggested by the school) and were confident individuals who went on to star in extracurricular activities. There are many scholarships and bursaries available, some specifically for academic potential, others for music, piping, art, sport, all-round excellence, children of Old Fettesians and members of Her Majesty’s Forces. Over the last couple of years the school has noticed a tendency for scholars, particularly music and academic scholars, to forget the opportunity they have been given and fail to realise their potential, so will in future be monitoring their progress much more closely and rescind scholarships more often.
Parents are of course welcome to communicate with the school and ask any questions. It isn’t expected that your child should have to take the initiative in these matters. However, giving the impression that you are a pushy diva parent should probably be avoided! Parents and children will be invited to look around the boarding houses and meet teachers and houseparents before and during application. Apart from its own Prep School, Fettes has no particular ‘feeder-schools’. About half of third form pupils are from the Prep School.
Given the amount of time devoted to it, sport is hardly an extracurricular activity, but there is a great variety of types of activity available. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons are set aside for sport. Hockey, lacrosse, tennis and athletics are the main sports for girls: rugby, hockey, cricket and athletics for boys.
From the Prep School, pupils practice these intermixed with a variety of swimming and aerobics. From the fourth form, students have a much greater choice of options. I am no natural sportswoman, and so my later school years were spent shooting and practicing a little sedate badminton and yoga. However, the pressure upon boys to avoid ‘lazy options’ and train in more mainstream sports to help their house in competition is greater.
For the enthusiastic sportspeople, teams at many levels compete with others in Scotland and go on tour. The mainstream sports attract a lot of funding for tours and high-quality coaching. Each year many Fettesians participate at national level. Many of the minor sports are generously coached by interested teachers. I spent as much time as possible shooting (target rifle, .22 and 7.62) in the school indoor range and in the Pentlands at an army base, and very much enjoyed the competitions and yearly trips to the schools meeting at Bisley (the National Rifle Association HQ) where the school invariably punched above its weight competitively. It should be noted that the times set aside for music and untimetabled sport often clash, and so although many students happily combine both it might be difficult to do this at higher levels.
In the Senior School Wednesday afternoons are set aside for several hours of extra-curricular activity, in most cases CCF. The CCF is spilt into Army, RAF and Navy sections, led by the School Regimental Sergeant Major, teachers and pupils who have completed the Non-Commissioned Officer Cadre programme. While in the CCF, pupils participate in relevant field trips (overnight exercises for the army, submarine sites for the Navy, RAF bases for the RAF) and learn interesting skills like survival techniques, gun safety and care, navigation techniques, sailing and gliding. Alternatives to the CCF include: extra music practice, mechanical and driving tuition, scuba diving practice in the pool, Young Enterprise, and extra shooting practice.
In the Prep School and in third form, pupils take part in the Quest programme of activities around Edinburgh to build their confidence and teach them about the city. Older pupils are often encouraged to take groups out and about to improve their leadership skills. On Mondays an hour is set aside for the ‘lighter’ extra-curricular activities. There are usually about thirty options, run by teachers and pupils. Over my school career I tried: baking classes, play reading, sports kite flying, knitting, arts and crafts, Chinese cooking, chess, Dungeons and Dragons role-playing, and helping in the school archive, but I could have done something new every term.
Most pupils at Fettes take the opportunity to learn a musical instrument or to sing. Many (usually 15-20) peripatetic music teachers deliver individual tuition to pupils on a variety of instruments, which the school can help source at competitive rates. In both the Prep and Senior Schools there are several orchestras, catering for different levels of achievement and musical taste. These perform regularly at venues around Edinburgh. The Pipe Band is widely acclaimed, and for many pupils is the most memorable part of their Fettes education. Children can learn the bagpipes or drums from scratch at any age, and enjoy dressing up and learning the formation steps for their performances. Pipe Band performances are an important part of many school events, such as Commemoration, Remembrance Day and Founder’s Day. They tour regularly and have produced several CDs. The school encourages other bands, such as the Jazz Band, String Quartet, and many home-grown pop and rock bands (usually considered one of the houseparents’ greatest complaints but celebrated in an annual Battle of the Bands).
The small Chapel Choir, which sings in Sunday services and in concerts around Edinburgh and tours every two years is the pinnacle of the choir scene at the college, and has produced several CDs. This was one of my main extra-curricular activities: although it involves significant commitment, pupils who are accepted receive a choral education as good as that available to many cathedral choirs. During my school career we visited America, Canada, Germany and Austria on tour. The Concert Choir is the main choir, and participates in two concerts a year. Generally it takes advantage of its mass to sing lusty masses and long pieces: it’s a companionable experience as the students join with the Parents’, Teachers’ and Friends’ Choir to sing publicly.
In the Prep School a similar two-tier system operates, and their Gallery Choir (the smaller one) also tours regularly. There is an individual Singing Competition, age-segregated, every year. Although the Drama Department is large, amateur dramatics are by no means restricted to those studying Drama in the classroom. Every year several of the houses have house plays, directed by older pupils, and there is a tournament of skits and short plays by the Middle School members of each house. The designated ‘school play’ is usually a relatively small affair of the most talented older actors, but every couple of years there is an extravaganza of some sort with as many pupils as possible involved. One of my best memories is taking part in Les Miserables, a double-casted huge chorus-ed juggernaut which took up all the time and imagination of most of the school for most of the year!
The Drama Department prides itself on keeping an eye on the talents of those who choose not to study drama, so children needn’t miss out. Several of the academic subjects have associated societies, mainly run by pupils. The Political Society is the oldest and routinely attracts impressive speakers to its evening events in the august Old Library. There is a Law Society, a Medical Society, a Geography Society, and a number of others. I attended Shakespeare Society on Friday evenings throughout my time at Fettes- we read Shakespeare’s plays aloud and ate lots of cake.
Many children find a small calling as library assistants, taking shifts in the main library at breaks and lunchtimes or organising and expanding their libraries in house.
Daily chapel and Sunday services are the backbone of religious life at the College, but there is also a weekly Christian Fellowship for those who wish to explore faith further. On that subject, Fettes is happy to arrange for children to attend services of any denomination/religion in Edinburgh should they wish. Charity activities are a regular feature of the school calendar. As many children as possible are encouraged to participate in the yearly runs (5k/10k/half-marathon) for various local charities, and most of the social events raise money for good causes.
The Duke of Edinburgh programme forms a large part of most students’ memories. Everyone completes the Bronze programme in third form; many continue to pursue the Silver and Gold awards. Many teachers are involved in the logistical side of the expeditions, which allows for a variety of expedition types (canoeing, cycling, horse riding, hiking) rather then being limited to hiking trips as is often the case elsewhere. In addition to the DofE programme, from the Prep School until 5th form there are yearly compulsory trips to outdoor centres, where pupils try plenty of outdoor activities and apply some of their classroom geography and biology. Other outdoor activities are available throughout the year, with weekends or days away climbing, learning hard weather survival skills, BMXing and other sports. These have a nice atmosphere as they are among the few activities outside house where children of different ages spend time together. Pupils who love outdoor activities have plenty of role models among the teachers, several of whom have impressive stories to tell of their adventures (including one geography teacher who has climbed Everest).
Rolling renovations of the boarding houses, and the construction of the sixth-form house (Craigleith) have created some of the best boarding accommodation in the country. Boarding pupils share rooms with progressively fewer others each year, enjoying the sociable dormitory experience in the lower years and receiving privacy for work in the later years.
Day pupils are as much as possible mixed in with the boarders when they receive their space in house (there are always beds set aside for day pupils should they wish to stay overnight to attend a late social event or suchlike). There are great entertainment facilities in the houses, with television, games consoles, pool tables, pianos etc.
Each house has several kitchens- although pupils must attend meals in the dining hall, as a way of avoiding secretive eating behaviour and eating disorders, they may make themselves toast, noodles or suchlike at break time and in the evenings, and cooking classes are sometimes run by resident tutors.
The school pays great attention to the security of the boarding houses: Craigleith has biometric (fingerprint) identifiers on its doors rather than keys (which children lose) or codes (which they give indiscriminately to friends) and this may be rolled out across the school in future.
The college campus, with its woods and streams, is a very attractive place to grow up in. Each house has an attached tennis court for the use of pupils. Each house has its housemaster or mistress (usually married with a family), a resident tutor (a young teacher who helps with house duties and spends lots of social time with pupils), and a matron. The matrons provide laundry, oversee cleaning, and are the first port of call for most children if they feel ill or homesick (there is a fully equipped medical centre with full-time nurses and visiting doctors just off the playing fields).
The school cafeteria is a very fine, airy building and when I left the managers had just got the hang of getting the student population through without long queues. There is a good variety of food, with a salad bar and plenty of healthy options. Dinner can be a little lacking in variety as the staff are only cooking for the boarders. The faculty usually eat in the main hall rather than in their own dining room and the prep school staff always sit with pupils. Socialising is well catered for at Fettes.
In the evenings before prep there is the institution of ‘house visiting’ whereby students can visit one another in their houses and sample the delights of a foreign common room (students are usually not allowed into other houses). Craigleith has a central common room for boys and girls. There are usually discos once a term (alcohol-free and supervised by staff) and many other social events are organised at weekends (tug-of-wars, big Frisbee games, etc.). There are balls, segregated roughly by age, each year, for which everyone enjoys the flurry of preparation. The Leavers’ Ball is the event that everyone looks forward to, and is usually held in one of the nicer Edinburgh hotels. Founder’s Day (at the end of the year) is the expected round of speeches and prizes, but the dressing up, the piping (the Beating of the Retreat) and the lavish picnics on the playing fields afterwards are always lots of fun.
The surrounding areas of Inverleith and Stockbridge are pleasant, leafy suburbs with shopping in Stockbridge (three minutes’ walk from Fettes) and supermarkets close by. Their population is predominantly from the Caucasian middle and upper classes. The faculty are mainly Caucasian middle-class people (approximately equally mixed in gender), with many from mainland Europe in the language faculties. The student body is predominantly Caucasian European, Russian, and Asian, with quite a large American community.
During my years at Fettes (seven) I can’t recall any pupil being a victim of crime in the local area, and only one being pick-pocketed in the centre of town. Edinburgh is a very safe capital city. Students may go ‘up town’ in the afternoons and at weekends providing they have not attracted the punishment of ‘gating’ which confines them to campus, and their signing in and out is monitored by staff for their safety.