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Theodora: My time at Nonsuch…


by Theodora

Brief intro about myself

Hi! My name is Theodora Cantea, and I am a 2nd year Biomedical Science student at St George’s University of London. I went to Nonsuch High School for Girls from 2012-2019. Everyone’s experiences of school are unique and there are many factors that play a part in defining what school life looks like. For me, I absolutely loved my time there!

How did you find the 11+?

When I was preparing for the 11+, it is fair to say overall it was less competitive and complicated than now. I took a Verbal and English paper (no multiple choice, all open questions) for Nonsuch and that was it! My parents are, and always have been incredibly supportive, which played a big role on the day in helping me stay calm and I was generally quite excited and happy when taking my test (I just wasn’t happy waking up at 7am for it, or leaving before the sun came up in case we were ‘late’- thanks mum). I remember getting some help for a few months before to learn what Verbal and Non-verbal Reasoning was, but I feel the main part of working towards an exam like the 11+ is finding that self-motivation. I remember being excited to rush home from school and work through as many questions as I could because my joy for learning was strong. (I would love to find this motivation again for uni deadlines). I’m sure all my dolls and stuffed teddy bears really enjoyed listening to me ramble on about how to work out the Fibonacci sequence as I would pretend to be a teacher when working through questions as I found that active recall helped me most. I loved the mental stimulation of working through problems. I thrived off encouragement and words of affirmation so making my parents as well as myself proud was a fuelling factor in the drive and determination to do work in small chunks but consistently. However, everyone is different with what motivates them, and it is important to respect and work around that- a ‘well done’ would usually satisfy me whereas it felt like my sister needed a certificate and chocolate for every question she did!

How was the teaching?

Teaching at Nonsuch is hard to score because it will always be subjective. Every student is unique and therefore has different methods and techniques that work best for retaining information and learning. I think a downside to school generally is you develop this expectation of being ‘spoon fed’ everything you need to know. This is something I had to work on- taking responsibility for my learning. This saw an increase in confidence since I started reaching out for help academically if I did not understand a certain topic or subject. Teachers were always so willing to provide extra help/sessions and point you to great resources that would allow you to work on areas of weakness. There can be a lot of work given your way in a short space of time, testing your time management and balance skills. You therefore need to work out how you will prioritise your time. Sitting for hours on end trying to do work will not achieve the same results as wisely planned short and frequent revision sessions, simply due to the science behind brain productivity- the same principal can be applied to the 11+. I value teachers a lot and I think arguably they have one of the biggest impacts through your formative years as they really shape you and your intellectual curiosity. By the end of 7 years, I can say I was fluent in Kahoot (if you do not know what this app is, you are missing out!)

I feel like you were able to develop a good bond with your personal tutor over the years and they played such an important role in your school years. One of my favourite times of the day (apart from break and lunch) was form time. I lost count over how many times we would host bake offs and bring in international foods to share in this time, or put on karaoke and follow ‘Just dance’ routines as well as going onto the field and having ‘civilised’ water fights. Moments like these helped you to de-stress from the day and made my time at school even more special.

Was there pressure to succeed from the other students or school?

There was as much pressure as you chose to put on yourself. I personally did not feel the pressure to succeed and I learnt that my academic success alone was not sufficient to allow me to feel fully satisfied therefore I stopped placing any worth onto my success at school. Within a grammar school setting, you can easily lose sight of what you are working towards and get caught in the tiny details-where perfectionism can be commonly seen to take over- a big part of this is the comparison that stems from self-insecurity. Over time, I grew to accept whatever my grades showed and worked on how I could improve them. I would say overall, students do incredibly well for GCSEs especially and are rarely disappointed. For my GCSE’s, I did the compulsory Maths, English, and Science as well as Spanish as my language. I then chose Physical Education (PE), Dance, Music and Full course Religious Studies (RS). My school year was the guinea pig year for the new GCSEs, so I now have 3 numbers and 8 grades (very helpful when trying to explain to future employers). On GCSE results day, I remember me and my family having to check that it was my envelope many times because we were all pretty surprised to see that I actually had not done too badly (now there is some slight competition with my sister who claims she can get more than 8A*s and 3As… I welcome the challenge…bring it on).

I think there is a stereotype of people looking in from the outside that I’ve seen especially when helping out at open days for the school and thinking that the school completely stress us out/that we cannot deal with this pressure. However, stress can manifest itself in different forms and it is important to note that it will affect all individuals differently no matter what school they attend. In addition, to some extent, stress can be beneficial when completing tasks or assessments to a deadline, so I think it is important to analyse the difference within yourself and find strategies to walk and talk yourself out of overwhelming situations.

How were your relationships with the other students?

I always ensured my relationships with other students stayed as healthy as they could and never fell out or had an argument with anyone whilst I was at Nonsuch! (Apart from when my sister joined Nonsuch in year 7 when I was in my final year, but that was anticipated with us being under the same roof…) I believe it is important to fully invest into forming strong trusting friendships because these people will be there for you when things get rough which is inevitable at school and in life in general but also to celebrate you too! (and get into trouble with/put the blame on of course…only joking). I loved my year group and got to know everyone pretty well (which made leaving even harder), so much so, that for my final birthday at school, I had my 18th birthday at an outside venue with my entire year group as well as others! Finishing Nonsuch with the traditional May Ball at Epsom Downs Racecourse was a highlight for me as I got to spend the evening with the people that I was so grateful to have been surrounded by, 7 years on.

Extra-curricular activities and clubs?

The extra-curricular activities at Nonsuch were fabulous and there were so many opportunities to engage with. Nonsuch genuinely did become my second home. (With the number of bags, I bought to school daily, my mum asked me on multiple occasions if I was planning on moving in). After settling in the first year or so, I ended up getting involved in clubs every single breaktime, lunchtime, after school and before school (oh yes- some weekends also included where I would help with events- slight obsession with school? Maybe). Extra-curricular activities I got involved with were a mix of sports, music, and academic clubs. Nonsuch gave me a lot of leadership opportunities especially. Events I was able to organise and run became some of my highlights. For example, the yearly Gym and Dance Display where I would choreograph multiple dances as well as perform myself. I became an expert at changing in 14 seconds flat in the dark into each new costume at least 7 times within just one show and running out onto the stage to dance (those performance nights very much ran on adrenaline and plenty of chocolate). Furthermore, when I was in my final year in Year 13, my friend and I got the pleasure of organising and hosting a Worldwide Motivational speaker from the United States to come and speak to hundreds of younger year students. Events like these where I could have even a slight positive impact on others made my time at Nonsuch so valuable. I believe the school really encourages you to take on challenges and develop your gifts.

Nonsuch inspired me to have a positive impact wherever I went- both outside of school as well as within. I was nominated for a Jack Petchey Award for my dedication to school as well as a range of local churches that I was greatly involved in. I received my medallion at an Awards Ceremony at Epsom Playhouse. A few years later after receiving this, I was awarded another Jack Petchey for my work within the community through the pandemic, assisting on the covid intensive care unit wards in St George’s hospital and being a carer within my local community, travelling around to help with personal care as well as spend some quality time with the elderly residents where isolation was a common problem. Without the constant encouragement and support from school, I would not have become the person I am today in getting involved with things like these, so I thank Nonsuch for this visible growth(not so much physically post my- year 9-growth spurt but as a person yes!).

Nonsuch helped me gain a Sports Leadership Qualification as well as various other Maths and Science Regional Challenge certificates as they invested in your strengths and did not just stop at the compulsory syllabus. This helps make you a more well-rounded individual which is so important for further education and generally interviews. In addition, they really do like to challenge you beyond your level, for example the Chemistry and Biology Olympiad which were the longest 4 hours of my life to sit through (especially as they tested knowledge beyond what we had covered). All in all, I think all of these were valuable experiences and stretched your brain even further (just like most of the Test Teach questions)

There were definitely some weird and wonderful opportunities I also got to be involved with such as, quite literally, being tea-fairies, making and delivering hot drinks to teachers while they talked endlessly for hours at the yearly parents’ evenings for each year group. I believe this developed the very important life skill of making a good tea- a skill which has proved vital in university and life beyond school. (Maybe I should not have said this so openly as I know who will be given the honour of making all the teas now…)

Ultimately, it comes down to saying yes to doors that open. It’s important to find that balance between academia and extra-curricular because eventually when you reach new stages of life, you realise life isn’t just about exams and achieving- it is the process you take in doing so along with what you learn and the ways experiences develop your personality. Extra-curricular activities were one of the best things at Nonsuch and I miss all the events to this day! If there is a random 80-year-old in the crowds enthusiastically clapping as she watches the yearly Gym and Dance display in 2079 or supporting an external event, rest assured it will be me. (I wonder why I received multiple awards for Outstanding Citizenship and school commitment over the years).

How was the careers advice?

Understandably, due to the high volume of Medicine/Law/Oxbridge applications, you can see a strong focus on these applications. Since I had applied to study Medicine, I received many 1-1 sessions to discuss various parts of my application as well as many practice interview stations and types with detailed feedback provided throughout. I therefore felt very supported and encouraged with my career choice. I think with time, there was growing acceptance and information we now know about alternative routes such as apprenticeships or foundation years or gap years so they are slowly becoming more ‘accepted’. Teachers were incredibly helpful and were always willing to support or point you to resources that would help you but it is vital to do plenty of research so you don’t miss deadlines, e.g., for extra exams you might need to take outside of school however, the school is extremely organised with having very early internal deadlines. One thing I would have benefitted from is getting an insight into a range of pathways you can take with degrees and greater exposure to the range that is out there.

A big part of where I am comes down to Nonsuch helping me to explore things I was good at and personality traits I should really invest in.

Where are you now?

A big part of where I am comes down to Nonsuch helping me to explore things I was good at and personality traits I should really invest in. From exposure to a range of experiences, training I was able to undertake and extra courses I was shown to get involved with from staff, this allowed me to research into potential paths I wanted to go down in the future. I now still dream of one day being a Psychiatrist after med school but am very open to new doors opening along the way. I very much think it is so important to take each day as it comes and not add any further stress of thinking too far into the future(let’s be honest, does anyone actually know what they want to do at 16/18 or even 40/50/60?).

If you could turn back the clock, would you have chosen this school?

Ultimately, every experience is what you make of it so I think regardless of which school you go to, you can thrive anywhere, providing you work hard and surround yourself with positive influences- people who encourage you to do well and pursue what you actually want to do. Nonsuch has given me 7 years’ worth of the best memories and has played a big part in making me who I am today, for which I will always be eternally grateful for. Nonsuch has given me life-long friends who I keep in contact with very often to this day, as well as paving the way for me to get to places in life I have been aiming for.

I decided quite early on to keep scrapbooks and journals throughout my time at school (something I recommend everyone does!) which I will continue looking back on and reminiscing on all the good times as well as the challenging times. I have also continued this into university (just a little behind schedule with this scrapbook- currently sorting out the month of December 2019).

So, if I could turn back the clock, then YES I would have chosen this school as I believe it was the school that helped me to thrive and helped me be the best version of myself as an active member of society.