Good Schools Guide
“Parents love the school and children love it more.”
‘Isn’t that the hippie school where they learn Sanskrit and only eat vegetarian food?’ If St James parents had a pound for every time they heard that, they’d probably get a hefty chunk off their school fees. At least the public perception gets two out of three for accuracy – ‘it’s the hippie bit that’s wrong,’ insist most parents, although one did say, ‘It all comes down to your definition of hippiedom, I suppose – there’s certainly a lot that’s unconventional and spiritual about this school.’ Every lesson begins and ends with a ‘moment of stillness’ to ‘give you that sense of ease and reflection’, for example, and the school teaches a Socratic method of dialogue and questioning, with the children taught to develop open-ended questions and to debate as a class (‘No putting-down of others’ opinions is allowed,’ says head firmly). Even the school’s origins are alternative – it was founded by the School of Economic Science, seen by some as a cult, although the school has no associations with the organisation now.
The result is an unusual and admirable little school that’s pervaded by an air of gentle wisdom and where their ethos of generosity, mutual respect and ‘being the best human beings we can be’ isn’t just a case of paying lip-service to try to get the punters in – it permeates everything. While other schools introduced mindfulness as an add-on in recent years, St James practically invented the concept. Parents love the school and children love it more.
The school nestles quietly within residential streets, the outside resembling a monastery, with its high walls and expanse of sheer red brick, but the tableau through the security gate isn’t in the least forbidding. Children play cheerfully in a pretty, cloistered courtyard (they also have a larger playground, complete with edible garden), while the preponderance of surrounding glass gives a modern, clean balance to the Victorian charm of the original building. ‘The peacefulness and calmness of the school are tangible,’ parents told us in advance of our visit, so we were surprised to arrive to loud screams (of delight) from a reception gym class. But that’s the thing about St James – the overall atmosphere of serenity is not at the expense of vibrancy and good old-fashioned childish excitement. And it is this combo that wins most parents over as soon as they step foot inside. ‘We looked at every school in this part of London but as soon as I did the tour here I knew it was right, there’s something about the energy,’ summed up one.
The ‘pause’, as it’s known, at the start and end of lessons, ‘gives you a chance to be still and turn any stress you might have into a little ball you can literally throw away,’ according to one year 6 child, whose demeanour was composed beyond her years, while a younger one said, ‘it calms me down after break or a more lively lesson if I’m still pumped up.’ When thinking about secondary schools, one parent told us, children can find other schools totally chaotic initially, while another said that it can sometimes feel that other children are far more streetwise, ‘like they’re in the fast-lane while mine live in the moment – I like that, but that’s not for all families.’
All the children, even the little ones, learn Sanskrit, in accordance with the school’s belief that the Eastern philosophies have much to teach us – children love it because ‘it feels special that only we learn it’ and parents because ‘it’s a beautiful language, they even get to sing it.’ St James describes itself as ‘multi-religious’, and philosophy itself is a very important part of the curriculum.
Academic performance is stronger than ever since becoming a prep, with verbal and non-verbal reasoning a focus from year 3 and interventions in English and maths from year 4, then setting in English and maths in years 5 and 6. Standards are high – all the more impressive, given that the school’s intake is not academically selective. But it’s the way it’s taught that stands out, say parents – ‘unlike a lot of preps round here that cram children with facts, they get children thinking independently,’ said one. ‘The curriculum is structured in such a way that it ensures the children are nurturing both sides of their brain all the time,’ said another. Teachers, who do increasing amounts of tracking and monitoring of each pupil, embody what the school professes to be, with a recent influx of younger teachers, ‘which has given a breath of fresh air to the school,’ according to one parent. St James’s policy of teaching boys and girls separately, then bringing them together for social activities, gets mixed views from parents and children, but newbies are in luck – the school is now trialling co-ed teaching in every subject for the 2018 reception cohort (so far, so good) and the houses are also now mixed.
SEN provision is good. ‘One of my children is dyslexic and they flagged it up as early as in year 2 and supported her all the way through,’ said one parent, although a few mentioned that ‘until recently, there was a feeling of parents having to forge their way with SEN – I’m glad it’s moved on.’ Thirty-three EAL children when we visited, but most are fluent so don’t need support. We applaud the emphasis on using Shakespeare as a teaching resource at all levels, more so than in any other school we’ve visited, complete with annual Shakespeare festival. ‘I couldn’t believe it the other day when my son, who’s in reception, was quoting Shakespeare’s Winter Poem word for word at breakfast,’ said one parent.
All children are involved in at least one performance (though no whole-school ones here) and a poetry recital every year. Music is everywhere, with 80 children taking instrumental lessons and there are regular concerts, often featuring the school’s orchestra, as well as weekly music lessons and daily singing in assembly – repertoire by Mozart, Purcell and Vivaldi is popular. Year 6 girls belted out a carol in Latin for us so beautifully it made the hairs on our neck stand on end. The attractive art room is jam-packed with astonishingly good work – everything from silk screen to kiln work to print making. Big on fine arts, cross-curricular (some lovely year 2 Roman ceramics on show and a gasp-worthy model of WW1 trenches from year 6s) and turning their 2D work into a 3D equivalent.
Games or sport for all on most days be it gym, swimming or handball (they do particularly well at this), and the upper juniors (years 3-6) go off-site once a week to Barn Elms to hone their skills at netball, rugby, cricket, athletics, cross-country and the like. Lots of inter-school competitions – two boys we met were rushing off to a big rugby match. Swimming is held in nearby Fulham Pools – some success at national level among the pupils.
There’s forest school and oodles of trips to Minstead Study Centre in the New Forest, plus a varied programme of outings closer to home, the usual London fare. Excellent range of clubs includes yoga, robotics and coding, chess, karate, young engineers, cookery, model-making, archery and fencing. Wraparound care now includes drop-off from 7.45am (free), ready for registration at 8.15am, and until 6pm (for an extra fee) after school. Use of ICT has increased, although actual ICT lessons are still for year 5 and 6 only; some parents would like it to be sooner.
Pastorally as good as it gets. ‘Kindness is underrated,’ believes head. ‘Children need to feel special and loved. These are difficult words in a school but if children feel their teachers have totally got their back, the sky’s the limit.’
Food here is vegetarian, so that all the children can eat together, and is included in the fees. ‘I love everything,’ more than one child told us, gobbling happily. We certainly went back for seconds and were not surprised to hear Jamie Oliver once held up the school as a shining star when it comes to school dinners.
This school impressed us as such a kind and enlightened medium in which to culture young minds, that we occasionally had to remind ourselves that this was a school we’d stepped into and not a Botticelli painting. It was almost a relief to hear one boy admit to talking too much in class and meet a teacher who was clearly knackered from her morning’s work. But these tiny wrinkles only served to throw into greater focus the sweetness and calm of this remarkable community. Not a school for budding Piers Morgans, we suspect. But who cares?
Since 2009, Catherine Thomlinson, BA in English and history from Roehampton. A St James’ disciple to her fingers’ ends, having spent almost all of her teaching career here after being educated at sister school, St Vedast (brief spell in South Africa before coming back to the fold). Two children, boy and girl, both of whom attended St James, including the senior schools.
A thoroughly lovely woman who radiates kindness, humanity and good humour, she is not above regularly serving up the veg at lunch (‘a lovely thing to do because I don’t have to think’) and covering lessons when needed. When parents told us prior to our visit, ‘She’s adorable, I would take her everywhere with me,’ ‘She is divine and constantly pushing boundaries’ and ‘I literally love her’, we wondered if gushing about the head is part of the T&Cs of having a child at the school – but actually, you have to meet her to realise she’s one of a kind. When our confusion about her deskless and computer-less office became obvious, she explained, ‘I think desks can create a barrier’ so it’s tastefully decorated with plush sofas and an oval dining table instead, making it among the most communal and friendly we’ve seen.
Despite her lifelong loyalty to the St James traditions, Mrs Thomlinson isn’t afraid to modernise, most recently rebranding the school as a prep, including an all-new nursery. ‘We wanted every door to be opened for pupils when they leave, whatever path they take.’
Now from age 2, thanks to new nursery. From age 4, there’s no assessment as such, but a meeting with parents while children get a taster of reception, plus a report from child’s nursery where applicable. School looks for ‘children and families who value what we value.’ Children of alumni and siblings have priority. Places higher up the school often available, and children who apply aged 7+ take assessments in reading, writing and mathematics to ensure they can keep up.
Fewer than in the past move onto St James Senior Girls (located on the same site, with some shared facilities) and St James Senior Boys (now out in Ashford – comprehensive coach service provided by St James Schools), but it’s still the majority, fluctuating between 60-70 per cent. Other school destinations include Merchant Taylors’, Latymer Upper, Ibstock Place, Emanuel, St Mary’s Ascot, Queen’s Gate, Aldenham and Hampton. Since becoming a standalone prep (as opposed to the junior school of the girls’ and boys’ senior schools), there is greater emphasis on 11+ and recommendations for secondary schools.