Good Schools Guide
A frieze of the goddess Athene gazes down benevolently from one of the foyer walls, and this may explain the air of gentle wisdom that really does pervade this unusual and admirable little school. Nestling quietly within residential streets, the outside resembles a monastery, with its high walls and expanse of sheer red brick, but the tableau through the security gate wasn’t in the least forbidding. Children played cheerfully in a pretty, cloistered courtyard under the eye of a watchful but serene-looking teacher, and the whole was framed by light and airy corridors – a preponderance of new glass giving a modern, clean balance to the Victorian charm of the original building. The atmosphere, as far as we could judge, was one of kindness and peaceful activity. Parents all confirmed this: ‘It’s a very happy place.’ ‘It’s an extremely happy school.’ ‘A warm and nurturing environment.’ ‘My child has loved being there from the very beginning.’
The school’s ethos places an unusually high emphasis on generosity, mutual respect and ‘being the best human beings we can be,’ and achieves this through a number of distinctive practices. Every lesson begins and ends with a ‘moment of stillness’. Such moments ‘give you that sense of ease and reflection,’ says head. These pauses, as they’re known, are popular with parents and children: ‘It gives you a chance to be still,’ said a year 6 child, whose demeanour was courteous and mature beyond his years. Parents agree. ‘One of the main benefits of St James is the peacefulness,’ was one comment, and ‘One of the reasons we send our children to the school is to learn early on to take a pause, allow the noise to stop,’ was another.
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; and both children and parents insisted to us that this was one of the things they ‘really loved’ about the school. St James describes itself as ‘multi-religious’, and philosophy itself is a very important part of the curriculum. The school teaches a Socratic method of dialogue and questioning, and the children are taught to develop open-ended questions and to debate as a class (‘No putting-down of others’ opinions is allowed,’ says head firmly). The school motto – ‘Speak the truth, be generous and kind, be your best’ – seems to mean more here than such saws do in other schools. St James’s policy of teaching boys and girls separately, then bringing them together for social activities (break-times, lunch, productions, trips, etc) may also be a key factor in establishing such good relationships between the children. ‘You can see the boys, but you don’t always have to be with them,’ said a grateful year 5 girl, with which one of the boys countered, ‘The girls think they’re best, and we just get on with being even better.’ We suspect this is amiable posturing: a number of parents confirmed to us that their child’s closest school friends included those of the opposite gender.
Academic performance is strong, with the standard of written work exceptionally high, both in content and accuracy – all the more impressive, given that the school’s intake is not academically selective. ‘I’m a great advocate for academic rigour,’ confirms the head, adding, ‘but I’m just as passionate about children finding out what they love.’ All classes have weekly sessions in the well-stocked library, run by a dedicated librarian, and there are regular visits by children’s authors. (‘My son very quickly developed a love of reading,’ reported a satisfied parent.) SEN provision is good, with about 30 EAL children cared for within the classroom set-up. We applauded the emphasis on using Shakespeare as a teaching resource at all levels, more so than in any other school we’ve visited. We saw verses from The Winter’s Tale charmingly illustrated by the reception children, and read some excellent commentaries on Polonius’s advice to his son (‘To thine own self be true’) by the year 3 boys. ‘We love Shakespeare,’ the head acknowledged. ‘We did A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest last year. And Mozart’s The Magic Flute. We have a great cultural reservoir to draw on – why not give them the best material?’ Why not indeed!
And in fact the drama on offer is very impressive, with all the children involved in at least one performance every year. ‘We like big productions!’ beamed a member of staff, before hurrying off to oversee preparations for Fiddler On The Roof, for which the school hired the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music because ‘we like to be ambitious’. Previous big productions include My Fair Lady, The Railway Children and The Sound of Music. For in-house performances, the school’s hall has been recently refurbished and hosts frequent verse-speaking, plus dance for both girls and boys as well as drama productions. Music is strong, with 70 children taking instrumental lessons at school on ‘pretty much anything they want’, and regular concerts, often featuring the school’s orchestra. The children sing every day in assembly – repertoire by Mozart, Purcell and Vivaldi is popular – and have music lessons every week. Artwork of an astonishingly high standard adorns the walls, produced in the attractive and lightsome art room under the gaze of the stuffed menagerie up on the shelf: a goose, a grouse, a heron and a weasel.
All children have a period of games or sport every day, be it gym, dance, swimming or ball skills, 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. There are lots of inter-school competitions, and the children told us proudly about recent triumphs over Wetherby and Fulham Prep. Swimming is held in nearby Fulham Pools, and ISA golds and silvers have been a feature of recent years. St James Junior is a member of Forest Schools UK, with two of its staff trained as Forest Leaders, and there are many trips to Minstead Study Centre in the New Forest. ‘I’ve been seven times!’ enthused one upper junior boy, ‘and I enjoyed it SO MUCH!’ A varied programme of outings closer to home has encompassed museums, art galleries, theatres, and the usual London fare. Excellent range of lunchtime and after-school clubs includes guitar, yoga, cookery, gymnastics, model-making, archery, fencing, lacrosse, and the perennially popular Mad Science Club. The head actively encourages all her staff to take up hobbies themselves, and the staff music band, we’re told, is going from strength to strength. Use of ICT across the school has increased, although actual ICT lessons are still for year 6 only, so the boys get them in their final junior year, and the girls in their first year at the senior school. Children are ‘encouraged to use ICT at home,’ which may or may not be enough preparation for the increasingly ICT-based curriculum they’ll face at senior school. But the junior school’s stated priority is to develop clear cursive handwriting in its pupils, and from what we saw, they definitely succeed.
Food here is vegetarian, so that all the children can eat together, and is included in the fees. We were impressed by what we saw: a delicious-smelling vegetable curry, fresh bread being baked, home-made leek and potato soup, and lots of genuinely appetizing fresh fruit. The number of clean plates testified to its popularity with the young clientele, and one solemn little girl was particularly enthusiastic about it to us as she lowered her elbow into her coleslaw. No problem, though – the lower juniors (years R-2) wear smocks down to lunch, which we thought eminently sensible.
All aspects of the pastoral care were rated excellent in the 2010 inspection report, which commented on the ‘family atmosphere of mutual respect,’ adding that ‘the pupils thrive in the positive, caring environment’ and are ‘very well cared for.’ The pupils concur. ‘It’s fun here,’ ‘The teachers are very kind,’ ‘Everyone is really nice,’ ‘You don’t feel you have to be afraid of anything,’ ‘You can be yourself,’ ‘You can be proud of yourself,’ ‘The teachers are proud of us and they trust us,’ were some of the many tributes we heard. This is all the more inspiring, given that the School of Economic Science, which founded the St James schools, attracted some very different comments from its embittered pupils a few decades back (see our entry on The St James Independent Boys’ School in the Senior Schools section).But all that is history. St James Junior 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 see one small boy aim a punch at another, to hear an indignant cry of ‘I was first!’ and to meet a teacher who was unmistakeably knackered after 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, Mrs Catherine Thomlinson, BA in English and history from Roehampton (forties). A St James’ disciple to her fingers’ ends, having spent almost all of her teaching career there after being educated at sister school, St Vedast (brief spell in South Africa before coming back to the fold). Two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom attended St James from age 4 right through senior school. A thoroughly lovely lady who radiates kindness, humanity and good humour, and this despite having a shocking cold when we met. The study oft proclaims the head, we’ve found, and Mrs Thomlinson’s was sparely but beautifully furnished, bright and calm. Amidst some exquisite pictures of quiet seas, a joyous tract reads, ‘Let your light shine!’ – and hers most assuredly does.
Despite her lifelong loyalty to the St James traditions, Mrs Thomlinson has not been afraid to modernise. She has pushed through substantial curriculum development, including DT, French and dance; and both boys and girls now do cookery, woodwork and sewing. Introduced interactive whiteboards for upper junior classrooms (‘a fantastic tool’), and is looking to bring these in throughout the school. Major development of EYFS provision, following criticism in 2010 Inspection report. Parents report improved communication. Continues to uphold strong emphasis on speech, drama and music, ‘because they really touch the emotional intelligence’.
“We don’t take children on an academic basis,” says head, and accordingly there’s no entrance exam at age 4; instead, the school holds informal assessments that involve meeting both child and parents, plus a report from child’s nursery where applicable. Children of alumni and siblings have priority, as do those whose parents registered them early for a place. School looks for ‘a certain confidence, and for children and families who value what we value’. Places higher up the school occasionally become available, and children who apply aged 7+ take assessments in reading, writing and mathematics to establish whether they’re able to manage within the standard of the established class.
All children are given thorough preparation and guidance for the 11+. However, parents appreciate the flexibility of an automatic entry to the senior schools, and many chose this route. It certainly allows the transition to be a much calmer, happier process. Other school destinations include Merchant Taylors’, Latymer Upper, Ibstock Place, Emanuel, St Mary’s Ascot, Queen’s Gate, Aldenham and Hampton.