Exclusive interview with Ms Jenny Finlayson, headmistress of St Christina’s School

On 8th of February, 2017  Mums In The Wood met with the new headmistress of Saint Christina’s School, the lovely Miss Jenny Finlayson. Miss Finlayson joins the school with a vast experience in teaching and school leadership roles both in the state and independent sector in England as well as abroad in Singapore and New Zealand. She currently teaches Year 5 RE and is passionate about Catholic school education. 

Her ambition is the make the school less of a ‘hidden’ gem and be more ‘out there’ regarding the school’s amazing offering both academically as well as in music and sports alongside its spiritual offering in helping to form well-rounded, compassionate human beings. Just like its sister school in Eastern New Guinea, the pupils at St Christina’s are taught humility and made aware of their privilege. There are lots of charity and money raising projects in which the pupils are involved and this plays a key role in school life. Ms Finlayson has also introduced a new initiative of each class needing to come up with a way to raise money for charity as she believes in giving children responsibility and “then they will achieve amazing things!”

With a strong music department and very inspiring music teachers, Ms Finlayson mentioned that she felt that music was the real strength of the school.

There also seems to  be a good mixture of female vs male and old vs young teachers that brings continuity as well as vibrancy and Ms Finalyson spokke with pride about some passionate new teachers who have brought in new initiatives and added to the curriculum, e.g. the school’s new phonics and reading scheme. We were impressed with the Year 6 Teacher who is also a priest at the school and  immediately noticed his impressive personality which was calm and serene. It was easy to imagine that he was just the right person to guide the girls through the challenging time of the 11+ exams.

Ms Finlayson is very committed to the school and in addition to plans to refurbish the library and the nursery play area, she is also thinking about expanding pupil numbers. She is a popular head and we witnessed children surrounding  Miss Finlayson in the Nursery, when we entered – all wanting to get a word in and tell her what they are doing.

Question:

What would you say to parents who are concerned that their religious affiliations may stand in the way of being offered a place at the School?

 Answer:

We are a Catholic School and we are proud that the Catholic ethos and values permeate through everything we do. Although siblings and Catholic families are prioritized, we are an inclusive School and welcome children of all faiths; but we ask everyone to be in sympathy with the Catholic ethos of the School. We have Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Orthodox, and children of other Christian denominations here. We follow a Catholic RE curriculum which encourages children to think for themselves and we also study aspects of other faiths. Last week for example, the Year 5s visited a Mosque as part of their other faith studies. We have links with the Jewish Museum and an extended Other Faith project is also carried out annually by some of the children. Children learn to respect one another, learn about differences and similarities between different faith groups and above all, to be proud of who they are.

 

Question:

Being a School that starts at nursery level, what do you think are the most important things to focus on for children during the early years? How would you prioritize areas like academic achievement, social integration and emotional development in young children and why?

Answer:

Here at Saint Christina’s we see the School as an extension of the child’s family and we do our very best to ensure that the transition into the School family is a smooth and happy one.  We value the contributions parents make to their children’s learning and we aim to work in partnership with the parents throughout their child’s time with us. Thus, emotional wellbeing and social integration would be top priorities and so we nurture and cherish the children placed into our care.  We strive to make transitions as smooth as possible to enable the children to feel safe and secure in their surroundings. This is because if the children are happy, then they will learn and achieve academic success. We want our children to be curious, build on their independence and develop a thirst for learning.  Play underpins the delivery of the Early Years Foundation Stage and children learn through both self-initiated play and carefully planned adult-led play activities. This approach will give them firm foundations in the seven areas of the curriculum.

 

Question:

Saint Christina’s has often been referred to as a hidden gem and has the reputation of being a caring and nurturing School. Being a relatively new headmistress, what would you say is your vision for Saint Christina’s in an environment that is constantly putting more academic pressure on children?

 Answer:

  My vision is to be the School of choice for parents who want strong academic achievement but recognise the importance of developing the whole person and allowing them to flourish in a caring, nurturing environment. As our website states ‘happy children are successful learners.’ We are a very proud school family and as a staff we are committed to providing an environment wherein each child will flourish academically, socially, creatively, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Having experienced an education at Saint Christina’s our pupils leave us filled with confidence, creativity, kindness and an awareness of God’s love for them.

As a new Head, I also want Saint Christina’s to be known more externally and not to be a ‘hidden gem’. Therefore, we have begun to raise our profile. Our netball players, for example, are now very competitive, and are no longer the school that was an easy win for others. The Year 4s have just won the netball league! We are investing in our Science and ICT departments, entering more external competitions and developing our House System.

We aim to weave magic into the children’s lives, to give them a joy of learning, to take risks in a safe environment, to experience successes but sometimes disappointments too, which are part of life.  Our children learn to become resilient young people. Saint Christina’s children leave us with a compass for them to sail out onto the open sea of life so that in adulthood they are fulfilled, positive and ready to make a difference in the world. We prepare our children for life, not just to pass exams.

 

Question:

How does the School manage the expectations of boys (especially with regards to games, PE etc.) and cater to how boys learn, in what is essentially a girls’ School?

 Answer:

We have a good male to female staff ratio and excellent male role models.  We run a bespoke boys’ club for Reception boys led by the male PE teacher who teaches the boys socialisation skills and sharing. All of our extra-curricular clubs are organised by age not sex, although we have clubs that are more popular with boys such as football club and multi sports. Every Friday our PE staff help the children organise their games. In Year 2 during PE lessons they learn cricket skills.

 

Question:

Are there any plans to introduce a 4+ assessment thereby changing the School’s current non-selective admissions process?

 Answer:

No there are no plans to introduce a 4+ assessment. We believe this age is far too young to assess children. We are a non-selective School and would only not accept a child if we could not meet his or her needs within the School.

 

Question:

How do you differentiate between preparing boys to leave at 7+ and girls who are expected to stay till 11+ when teaching a class together?

Answer:

We differentiate in the following ways. From the Spring Term in Year 1, boys receive additional small group support as preparation for the 7+ exams this includes a weekly lesson on maths and English and weekly homework and test preparation. We invite a boys’ school headteacher to talk to the parents about the 7+ process and we also prepare the boys for interviews. Other than that, the children have the same learning opportunities. The process of taking assessments for example, happens throughout their time in the School. We nurture the children and build up their confidence and as they progress through the School the expectations become higher and the level of work increases and becomes more demanding. The children are examined in Maths, Reading, English, Science, Verbal and Non-verbal reasoning tests and their progress is carefully tracked with support built in place if necessary.

 

Question:

What are your thoughts on a 7+ entry vs. the 11+ entry given that the exam at 7+ requires children to perform at a much higher academic level than their actual age?

Answer: 

At Saint Christina’s we prepare the girls well for the 11+ and our results speak for themselves. This is the natural departure age for girls because they are mature and ready for senior school education. If a girl takes the 7+ it is often to try and avoid the 11+ exam but schools who take children earlier may also require the girls to take another exam at eleven years. Why put your daughter through two exams? We train boys to peak for the 7+ and for girls to peak for the 11+. All boys and girls who sat these exams have had offers of places to prestigious schools such as Westminster Under School, Westminster Cathedral Choir School, St Philips, Henrietta Barnett, North London Collegiate, City of London, Channing etc.  Please refer to our 2017 results.

We are here to facilitate and support our children and their parents in the transfer process. We aim to make the process as easy as possible. We try to hold the families’ hands through the process.

 

Question:

What is your protocol for children who are either struggling in comparison with their peers who are performing at a much higher level?

 Answer:

The class teachers differentiate the curriculum to cater for the needs of the pupils within the class which includes ability groups and children who have English as an additional language. Each class in KS1 has a teaching assistant to support the learning and in KS2 the teaching assistants are each shared across two classes. We have a SENCO who oversees the children who require support and she monitors their progress as they move through the School and liaises if necessary with the parents and external agencies. Sometimes it is necessary for a child to be screened for example, for dyslexia. We have a teacher for dyslexia but this is funded by parents. We have an EAL teacher who works with children who have no English or limited English.

Likewise, our curriculum is differentiated by the class teachers to cater for the most able children. We have a More Able Coordinator who tracks progress and organises extension programmes for these children. These children are identified by class teachers after assessments and by excellence in school work. The children are taken out of class in small groups to complete carefully chosen tasks to ensure they are given the challenge they require. In some areas of the curriculum, planning for these children’s needs is woven into the lesson plans for the whole class, thereby ensuring that other children may have access to resources that sometimes they find that they too can manage. This mentality extends to all areas of the curriculum and indeed the wider life of our School where those with an aptitude for music, sport and drama are extended in and outside of School. We take advantage for example of external opportunities, most recently our Quiz team for KS2 won the Quiz Club area heat which was held at a North London school. Quiz Club is the largest inter-school competition in the U.K. with more than 400,000 children taking part annually.  We have done well in national Maths challenges; five of our girls have qualified for the Bonus Round of the Primary Maths Challenge and three children gained bronze and silver certificates for the Intermediate Maths Challenge (for students in secondary schools.) Currently, we have just joined the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) and intend to become an accredited school. We entered a squad into the Regionals Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) netball competition. Our children also enter the UKLO (United Kingdom Linguistics Olympiad) each year, and this year we had seven winners who were awarded bronze and silver certificates. We are successful year on year, in gaining academic and other scholarships to leading schools.

 

Question:

Given that the number of Catholic Girls’ schools in the surrounding areas has increased, what would you say Saint Christina’s offers to their students that is different and unique?

 Answer: 

Saint Christina’s belongs to a wider school family and has heritage and tradition.  The Handmaid Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus own the school. The Handmaids are an international order and there are Handmaid schools in different parts of the world. The Sisters live on site and their ethos permeates and is the heartbeat of the School. There are not many schools left that still have an active religious order living on site; we are very fortunate that our Year 6 teacher is also a practising priest in the School. One of the Sisters is on the chaplaincy team and organises Masses and the First Holy Communion programme. We see each child as a gift that the world is waiting for and needs. Our children are polite, well-mannered, respectful, resilient and kind and this is exemplified throughout the day in so many different ways. You need to visit us to experience what I am talking about. Saint Christina’s children learn to make a difference.

 

Question:

Do you find that being a mainly girls’ School, there is a greater likelihood of cliques being formed which may then lead to bullying further up the School?

 Answer: 

No, I do not think so because our ethos empowers the girls to learn to appreciate one another’s differences and to celebrate them, but also to take responsibility for their own actions, to be honest and own up if in the wrong, and to learn how to forgive and be forgiven. We encourage the children to be compassionate, kind and tolerant and to look out for one another and ensure no one is excluded. Strong pastoral support ensures any difficulties are overcome effectively.

 

 Question:

How much involvement does the School have in the community so that the children are taught to get involved in social projects and are thus, instilled with a social conscience? 

 Answer: 

We educate our children not just to pass exams but to be well formed, caring citizens who will strive to make a difference to the world they live in. We embrace Gospel Values. Thus, we have a great involvement in the community. Currently we are supporting The Handmaid School, San Francisco Javier in Equatorial Guinea and have committed to repair the school roof, supply books and sponsor children there. We have so far raised nearly £3000 for this. Some children have contributed their own pocket money because they have been so touched by this cause and Year 6 are organising a maths games fundraiser next term. When the school Pets Therapy Dog Milo, (Pat dog) became ill recently the Years 5 & 6 pupils organised a cake sale fund raiser and thankfully the dog has recovered. The School raised £1320.11 for Providence Row charity for the homeless. The Choir visited an old people’s home and sang for them and also sang at St John’s Wood Christmas Fair on a Sunday.

We recently hosted St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School and St Edwards’s Catholic Primary School for a shared prayer and worship day which culminated in a lovely, joint sacred Candlemas celebration. We shall also share with them an extension maths challenge day soon. Through our PSHE programmes children learn about the roles people play in society and also of injustices throughout the world. Our children are knowledgeable and have well-formed, balanced, social consciences.

 

Conclusion:

Overall the school made a vibrant but disciplined impression on our tour of the school. Girls (both little nursery girls as well as older ones) frequently came up to Miss Finlayson to chat or ask her something. They appeared very respectful but at the same time seemed to find her quite approachable. She knew all of their names! The school building being purpose-built is not beautiful from the outside but it means that all classrooms have lots of natural light and a good size. There is a new security and automated registration system at the entrance and the school yard is safely walled in. The newly constructed top floor that houses some classrooms and the music rooms is state of the art and even brighter than the rest of the building. We were surprised (as not visible from outside the school) by the quite spacious outside area with excellent structures for climbing. Currently there are some specific plans for minor refurbishments of the library and the outside space of the nursery, but the headmistress also mentioned the potential of the current facilities to eventually support an increase in pupil numbers as something she is investigating.

While in admission to the school Catholic families are given priority, the school is inclusive and embraces pupils from all faiths. Miss Finlayson stresses that all families need to be accepting of the school’s ethos and all pupils attend RE (where pupils also learn about other faiths) and chapel time. She is passionate about her pupils showing and developing their compassion for the less fortunate and being aware of their privilege. Charity projects and raising money for different causes takes a big role in the life of the school. We could see some charity projects and goals nicely displayed in the hallway. As a new measure to hand the pupils more responsibility Miss Finlayson has asked each class to come up with their own money raising initiative with amazing results and enthusiasm so far.

The new head is working on raising the school’s public profile and making the school’s achievements known to the wider public. There is a  great emphasis on music with several choirs and lots of instrument choices. During our visit we witnessed two very enthusiastic music teachers in action! The girls have recently had some successes in sports tournaments and are committed to increasing the number of tournaments entered into. The school has also had some excellent results recently in academic competitions such as the Primary Mathematics Challenge and the General Knowledge Quiz Championship.

The head is committed to St Christina’s remaining a co-ed school up until Year 2. However, lately boys’ numbers have been dwindling (e.g. the current Year 1 only has two boys) and if this trend continues the situation might need to be reviewed in the future. There is a separate boys’ club as an extra-curricular activity, but otherwise everything is taught together including PE. Nevertheless, the boys are carefully prepared for the 7+ process. This begins in Year 1 when they attend special preparatory classes. Miss Finlayson discusses 7+ choices with all parents together with the form teacher and is involved in mock interviews for the boys.

The school has a SENCO as well as a More Able Coordinator and Miss Finlayson stresses that children on both ends of the spectrum are well catered for. Lists are kept confidential although the parents are aware. Rather than blatant streaming the school prefers a differentiated approach to teaching – they know their pupils and cater for each of them. Each student is tracked and in periodic intervals each student is discussed between the form teacher and the head. This way, over- or under-performance is quickly flagged and addressed.

11+ preparation is taken very seriously and Miss Finlayson is closely involved. The head teaches Year 5 RE and so knows the girls very well. Together with the form head she discusses follow-on school options individually with the parents. Preparation in earnest starts in Year 5 and she admits it is a challenging year for the pupils. She is very much against coaching/tutoring although she is aware that some parents will make that choice. Early feedback from current Year 6 destinations shows impressive academic results. In the previous academic year pupils won 6 academic scholarships.

Overall, we had a lovely visit with this school. Children seem happy and courteous. We feel that the emphasis on developing the whole person is taken to another level at St. Christina’s and the children really have the opportunity to gain a sense of their responsibility for society and of the importance of making a difference. The three specific classes/lessons we briefly visited had an atmosphere of concentration and buzzing enthusiasm. The head is friendly and approachable working on preserving the ethos of the school while at the same time focusing on achieving excellent results and raising the school’s public profile.

The Year 6 Results for this year can be found here.

Year 6 Offers – 2016-17

 

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