Kensington Wade is the only bilingual English-Chinese nursery and prep school in Europe and recently won the inaugural 2022 ISA Award for Innovation in Independent Education. Head Suzanne Haigh explains the reasons behind the school’s success as well as the challenges faced since its launch in 2017.
Kensington Wade is a British prep school, preparing children for 11+, but what sets us apart from other prep schools is the fact that half of the curriculum is delivered in Chinese. This means that our pupils still experience the broad curriculum expected in an independent school setting but they reap the additional benefit of spending half of their day immersed in a Chinese classroom.
A typical day at Kensington Wade would see mathematics followed by comprehension, writing, music, science, coding, PE and reading — just the same as in any prep school timetable. The only difference is that at Kensington Wade for half the day those lessons are taught in Chinese.
“Pupils reap the additional benefit of spending half of their day immersed in a Chinese classroom.”
There are over 250 dual language immersion schools in America, some of which have been established for over 35 years, and they are very successful and popular. Launching such a school in the UK, however, has had its challenges. Most fundamentally, why would parents sign up to not just a brand new school, but a new brand of school with no track record of success?
Before the school opened, we held a series of Saturday activity mornings and evening talks at which parents could meet the staff and quickly gain confidence in the team. This was helped by the fact that our founding head, Jo Wallace, moved with three of her colleagues from Putney High Junior School where they had an excellent track record. Another key appointment was Wang Jing, our head of Chinese, who designed our immersive Chinese programme. She had previously worked as a Chinese lead teacher in Washington’s Yuying Public Charter School, one of the leading Chinese immersion schools in America.
As both the English and Chinese staff only taught for half a day during the first year, they were able to spend the rest of the day observing and supporting each other. This gave the team the opportunity to develop a coherent teaching style, culture and ethos from the very start.
“The school has the ability to sponsor teachers from abroad and many are keen to join the team.”
There were many things to consider when we started, including writing the curriculum, organising timetables, recruiting pupils, designing the unique school uniform and setting up parallel English and Chinese classrooms. But a key challenge was recruiting native Chinese teachers who were able to work in the UK and were qualified and confident to teach three year olds.
Six years later, this is no longer a problem as the school has the ability to sponsor teachers from abroad and the success of the school means that many teachers are keen to join the team.
Through the programme established by Wang Jing, we offer a completely immersive approach whereby English and Chinese are used for both the curriculum content and as the medium of teaching. Staff use one language or the other, but never both, in class. Our Chinese teachers are native speakers and pupils also benefit from being in the same environment as classmates who have Chinese as their first language. We follow the British curriculum in all subjects with the exception of maths for which we use the Shanghai Approach.
The background of our pupils really reflects the international mix of our local community in west London. The majority of our families speak at least two languages at home, but not necessarily Chinese. They simply recognise the benefits both of developing a bilingual brain and of learning a language from an early age in an immersive setting particularly Chinese — as it is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn, but one of the most useful in the world.
“Parents recognise the benefits of developing a bilingual brain.”
The school also puts a strong emphasis on cultural awareness, we celebrate British, Chinese and international cultural events. In addition to the co-curricular clubs such as sports and choir found in many prep schools, we offer Chinese art, calligraphy, dance and music. Due to the bilingual nature of the school, the children are more bi-culturally aware and are extremely tolerant of all religions and beliefs.
One of the major aims of Kensington Wade is to give as many children as possible the experience of appreciating Chinese culture and so we have launched our community outreach project, working in conjunction with our neighbouring state primary school. We have ambitions to extend this programme throughout our local borough and beyond. Our head of Chinese meets local language teachers, visits senior independent schools’ Chinese departments and speaks at national and international Chinese teaching conferences. To share our expertise with the children from the local community, we have also offered holiday courses in Chinese and activity mornings.
“Non-Chinese speaking children are greeting each other, singing, counting and playing in Chinese within weeks.”
The questions most prospective parents ask when they visit us are “Does it work?” and “Will my child make the same progress as they would at other prep schools?”. The answer to both is a definite YES. Small children soak up languages easily and, within weeks of joining us, non-Chinese speaking children are greeting each other, singing, counting and playing in Chinese.
As they move up the school, they will give complete musical performances in Chinese and create bilingual books and plays while still achieving their academic goals. Our pupils have surpassed the high standards that we set for the school. They are consistently achieving average scores in the top 15 per cent of the country in mathematics and English – well on track for entry into top senior schools. And we actually have more teaching time in mathematics and English than at many other prep schools.
The school opened in 2017 with one Early Years class of 15 children, we now have over 100 pupils and we will have our first Year 6 leavers’ cohort in July 2024. We have received a lot of positive coverage in the national and international press and continue to welcome a steady flow of visitors from around the world. We also achieved the highest grades from Ofsted by the end of our first year.
We are excited about the success of our school since its foundation just six years ago and we have big plans for the future. As the famous Chinese proverb says “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” — this is something with which we would wholeheartedly agree.