Nursery and pre-prep is perhaps not the most prestigious end of the independent sector, even though most educators recognise it is the most important, educationally.
But this year, St Christopher’s in Epsom turned this image around, becoming the first ever nursery and pre-prep to win the Independent Schools Association’s Junior School of the Year Award.
At last, the educators of the very youngest children were being decorated on the national stage for laying the foundations of education.
This recognition, says its experienced and passionate head Annie Thackray, highlights the importance of the three to seven age range in the development of the child. And also the school’s work to remove the limits that can sometimes be placed on the experiences and learning of younger children.
“We’re not distracted by 11 year-olds, we’re not distracted by serving older children, we can give our pupils a very unusual set of responsibilities,” she says.
“When Year 2 are in the middle of the school they are a bit of a ‘nothing’ year, but when they are top of the school you can set your sights in a different way.”
She explains that Year 2 pupils are the oldest group, and have responsibilities to match, taking roles as librarians and lunch monitors, supporting younger children.
“When Year 2 are in the middle of the school they are a bit of a nothing year, but when they are top of the school you can set your sights in a different way,” she says.
Expectations are high and there is “no capping” on subject matter, as long as it is taught in the right way. Seven-year-olds were introduced to Narnia, she says, and were “enchanted by it.”
“They were absolutely able to run with it and with a little bit of experimentation we found that you can ask an enormous amount of young children.”
Likewise, the school has not shied away from teaching philosophy, taking part in sophisticated musical performances and inviting fascinating guest speakers.
“I’m always on the lookout for interesting teachers who have a story, something that they have been very interested in, interesting backgrounds.”
Rather than channel children to work towards restrictive tests, Thackray says, it is all about giving children broad experience and “giving them something to write about”.
This ethos is reflected too in the backgrounds of the staff at the school. Thackray herself was a civil and matrimonial lawyer then peripatetic percussion teacher before switching to teaching 25 years ago, in her late 30s. She has now been head of St Christopher’s for 10 years.
“It was a really good thing to do I think because I brought with me some life experiences,” she says, “I’ve been a parent myself so I think a lot of what I brought to my role involved that experience.
“I think it was a really healthy and helpful thing to have done.”
When recruiting staff to the 170-pupil school she has a preference for people with life experience too.
She says: “I’m always on the lookout for interesting teachers who have a story, something that they have been very interested in, interesting backgrounds.
“You’ll be told you’ve got to do nonsense words, you’ve got to do Sats, and then if you speak to the teachers they say it encourages very poor teaching.”
“We have a lot of teachers who in their past lives have been teachers at secondary schools with things like languages, PE, music. But they then have had young children and have then wanted to look for a job that may be more part time, then they bring their experience of young children plus their phenomenal experience [in their subject].”
She is proud of her “talented staff” but recognises that schools can never be complacent and must work hard to retain the best teachers, who could be tempted elsewhere.
Indeed, even in the apparently cosy world of the pre-prep, the pressures are many for leaders.
“I feel a huge sense of accountability,” she says, explaining there are many excellent state schools in the area and as a fee-charging school she needs to offer something extra.
While she is aware the school cannot offer everything, they choose particular areas, emphasising art by employing an art director and offering many musical opportunities.
Set up in 1938, St Christopher’s has been run as a charitable trust since 1965, so all profits are re-invested in the school.
“We’ve certainly found parents who are a lot more aware of the enormity and the value of the practical and the journey that the children are going on.”
So what does motivate parents to pay for their child’s education in the area?
“I think numbers in the class is critical because we don’t have that second row,” says Thackray, “there’s nowhere to hide”.
The school can also provide “equality of challenge” to all abilities, including the “quiet ones in the middle” she adds.
The ability to resist some of the “ill-advised government interference that comes into schools” is also a benefit, she says.
“You’ll be told you’ve got to do nonsense words, you’ve got to do Sats, and then if you speak to the teachers they say it encourages very poor teaching…if you’re going to publish Sats then every school is going to put an undue amount of focus in getting that, so they will teach in that narrow, tight way.
“This is where in the independent sector you’re so very very lucky because we are not restricted by these types of measurement that a well-meaning department of education has brought.
“Frankly they are not appropriate when you want to go for gold with something like the fantasy genre, you don’t want to be restricted with irritating issues like that.”
Talking of “irritating issues”, Thackray says she is hoping some good things will come out of the coronavirus crisis, including the opportunity for teachers and parents to give themselves permission to “stop and reflect”.
Thackray has also seen “enhanced empathy” between teachers and parents since Covid.
“We’ve certainly found parents who are a lot more aware of the enormity and the value of the practical and the journey that the children are going on rather than short sharp results,” she says.