'Forest is school with a heart' - How a Horsham secondary school's 'family' has grown to welcome girls

A lot has changed at Forest since I last walked through the halls as a student back in 2008, writes former student Matt Pole.

The boys’ school had somewhat of a rough reputation at that time. Many of you will know exactly what I mean. Was it fun? I loved every minute of it. Would that help parents who may be umming and ahhing about sending their child there? Not so much.

I’m back at Forest for the first time in 14 years. Older, not necessarily wiser but far removed from my days as a secondary school student.

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But, as I enter the school, I’m struck that something has changed. Something that, during my years at Forest, the playground playboys would have been au fait with but the dweeby shut-ins may have struggled to navigate – girls.

In September 2021, Forest School in Horsham became co-educational with 27 girls entering Year 7. All photos contributed

In September 2021, Forest became co-educational with 27 girls entering Year 7.

Their introduction came with complete curriculum overhaul, the inclusion of female-only toilets and changing rooms, amongst other things.

Forest School’s deputy headteacher, Sue Kelly, who arrived at the school three years ago, said: “We were very mindful when the girls came. All our students are important, but you’ve got 27 girls coming into a predominantly all-boys school.

Forest school deputy headmaster Sue Kelly: "I think Forest is a school with heart. That’s certainly something I’ve noticed since I came."

“We got an expert in from outside, who looked at the environment for us and did some staff training. We took it very seriously.

“But the girls just love it. We’ve got a football team, which has been the most tremendous thing to see.

“We’ve got a bit of a way to go, but when you think we’ve got 27 girls and we’ve already got a football team, that gives you an idea of what the girls are about.”

I was given a guided tour of the school by headteacher Ian Straw. As we explored the grounds, channelling my mum’s nosiness and my desire to take a stroll down memory lane, Mr Straw was keen to emphasise the idea of the ‘Forest family’.

Ms Kelly, who taught at Millais for more than 25 years, said: “Before the girls came along, all of our students and the staff were a part of that ‘Forest family’. Everybody is a really important member.

“The girls have been a very welcome and exciting addition to that family. We’ve loved having them here.

“I think Forest is a school with a heart. That’s certainly something I’ve noticed since I came. This is a family environment, this is a welcoming place, and everybody is incredibly friendly.”

Mr Straw, who was handed the Forest reins in 2018, has a vision. A vision that has turned the school on its head and made me intensely jealous of those who attend the school now.

Numerous renovation works have taken place, or will take place, throughout the school. It’s an exciting time not just for students, but for teachers too.

Ms Kelly said: “The transformations are taking place everywhere. Everybody is on board, everybody is engaged, but teaching and learning is the thing that we’re all passionate about.

“It’s really important that we get that right. We talk about making every lesson count, and every minute of every lesson counts, because students deserve to have the very best teaching and learning that they can get.”

During my tour, the behaviour of today’s students stood out in stark comparison to the students of old.

There wasn’t the slightest whiff of trouble.

All the students I met were well-behaved and polite and it’s something that Forest clearly prides itself on.

Ms Kelly added: “All our students, especially the older members of our family, are very courteous and respectful to staff and to each other. Welcoming girls into this environment has just enhanced what is already a very welcoming place and a great school.”

“The behaviour is excellent around the school, and I think an exciting, fun and creative curriculum mitigates any kind of behaviour.

“At every school you get students that don’t want to engage but it’s our job to work with them and make sure that they do.

“But our students are very engaged and take their lessons seriously. That’s down to good staff development, training and building constructive relationships.”

Next summer’s student intake will see Forest reach more than 100 girls at the school.

With interest from parents with daughters clearly surging, what would Ms Kelly say to anyone looking to send their children to Forest?

“There are lots of good schools to choose from in this area, and I’d say to any parent that one size doesn’t fit all.

“There will be students that thrive here, there will be students who may find that environment in another school.

“However, I would say to any parent of any girl that wants to come here, come and have a look round, come and see what we’re about, come and meet us - you’ll find a warm welcome from both our staff and our students.

“We think this is a fantastic choice for all students but obviously the opinions of parents and students matter.

“Would I say come and join Forest because it’s a fabulous school? Of course I would!”

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