Exclusive interview with Mrs Christine McLelland, Headteacher of North Bridge House Nursery and Pre-Prep Schools

Mums in the Wood interviewed the inspiring head teacher of North Bridge House, Mrs Christine McLelland on 26th April 2017. It was wonderful to meet Mrs McLelland not only to get an idea of what her vision was for the school but also to talk to her about the school itself, the curriculum, the opportunities and her vision for the future. 

 Mrs McLelland has always wanted to be a teacher. She had been surrounded by teachers all her life, her grandfather, great aunt and mother, were all teachers. She trained in London and has worked in both the state and private sectors. She has a genuine passion for working with children that comes across when she talks about her experiences. She describes her time in the State sector with warmth, explaining that she would always be eternally grateful for the fact that through the challenges she faced, she was still able to become an integral part of her students’ lives. Something that meant a great deal to her.

She has taught from Reception through to Year 6 and has led a variety of curriculum subjects ranging from Maths, Assessment, Philosophy, PE and ICT to PSHE. Mrs McLelland also has experience as a deputy head teacher and brings with her, a diverse range of skills and knowledge  across both private and state sectors and an in depth  interest in the Early Years curriculum. She is particularly proud to have appointed an excellent EYS SENCO at the Nursery school who has helped secure funding for one to one support, liaising closely with the Early Years Intervention Team and has subsequently put in place full time SEN support with 2 SENCOs at the Pre-Prep and learning support assistants in addition to teaching assistants since taking up her position in September 2015. 

Having inherited a long standing, stable and very capable team of staff members, Mrs McLelland was very positive about the changes being brought about in the school. She also spoke very warmly of her Senior Leadership Team, stating firmly that they were a real strength to her and helped her reaffirm and strengthen the values and ethos of the community she joined. Fully aware of the challenges the school had faced in the recent past I was extremely impressed with both Mrs McLelland’s honest answers and openness when talking about current perceptions of the school. She is keen to address these and invites interested parents to visit the school and ask her any questions they may have about the school and the manner in which it functions. Her calm and sincere approach to resolving any misconceptions about the school is notable. She mentioned that the Nursery had consistently received outstanding reports for 12 years previously and explained that with the National Curriculum changing, the only reason for the unfortunate gradings on the 2016 report at the Pre-Prep was that the curriculum had changed in 2014 and the school had not had time to change their curriculum and assessment procedures to reflect this in time for the SIS inspection. She went on to say that these changes had in fact now been implemented and she was looking forward to the next inspection which will take place in the Autumn term in 2017.  She is proud that North Bridge House School is the flagship school in the UK for Cognita and spoke with pride of the very positive changes the school has and is currently going through all of which have been effected without any negative impact on the children.

 

Question:

As one of the few co-ed schools that go all the way, what are your views on the single sex v co-ed discussion? Is there an argument for starting off in one and then moving on to the other? 

Answer:

I am a huge advocate of a co-educational provision, especially in the earlier years of schooling. With so much emphasis being placed on social and emotional development it is so important that children have the opportunity to spend time with and learn from children of the opposite sex. Many of our boys form very close friendships with the girls in the school which is such a delight to observe. Why would you want to deny your child the opportunity to mix with a range of children when they have so much they can learn from each other?

Research indicates that girls do mature at a faster pace than boys which means that there is a case for a single sexed educational further up the education ladder so that educational provision can be more tailored to meet the needs of each gender and their level of maturity.

 

Question:

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing a co-ed school in this modern age of social media and access to information? 

Answer:

I would argue that this is a challenge that all schools face. Technological advances are so rapid these days meaning that all schools face the challenge of keeping up with the latest trends and ensuring that children are well prepared for the world of tomorrow alongside the ever increasing challenge of keeping themselves safe.

 

Question:

Is entry from the nursery automatic into the pre-prep? If so how many places are usually available for external 4+ candidates? 

Answer:

At the Nursery School; we have several points of intake.

Our youngest children start from 2.9 Yrs in our Nursery Class. There is a further intake at pre-Reception, (3-4yrs) and again at reception (the year the child turns 5).

In Nursery class and pre-reception, parents now have the flexibility of full time provision or a sessional build where the length of time spent in school increases across the three terms. There is an automatic entry in to Year 1 at the Pre-Prep school for all children who attend the Nursery school, likewise from the Pre-Prep school to the Prep school at Year 3. We do have occasional vacancies at the Pre-Prep school. The admission process for this is an invitation for the parents and child to meet with me for an interview. We also review reports from the school the child currently attends.

 

Question:

At a time when parents are becoming increasingly anxious about 4+ preparation for assessments, what advice do you have for parents about the process? What does Northbridge look for when assessing a child at 4+?  

Answer:

My advice would be to arrive in good time so that you and your child are relaxed. I really enjoy looking through children’s Learning Journals from their current settings or drawings etc that they have done at home so do bring these with you.

When meeting parents and their children I like to find out as much about the family as a unit as possible and what the parental aspirations are for their child. Whilst this is a formal process, we try to make this a relaxed session and as informal as possible so that the child (and parents) feels at ease. Children quite often find strangers a scary prospect, we understand this so we keep family units together for the interview.  We look out for interaction with the activities set out and most importantly the interaction between parent and child.  I would encourage parents to be open and honest about their child’s like and dislikes, their disposition and their development to date so that we as a school can build up a well-rounded picture of the child before they start with us. This enables us to ensure that your child has a smooth transition into school and gets off to the very best of starts. This is the first stage of what will become a very important relationship. And remember, we understand that children have ‘off days’ and whilst this can be painfully embarrassing for parents, it is not a deal breaker and it certainly won’t be something we have not seen before!

 

Question:

Does the school prepare its internal candidates for the 7+ exam considering that there is an assessment at 7+ for external candidates and it is viewed as the main entry point into the Prep school?

Answer:

We do not prepare the children for the 7+.  That does not mean that we are not an academic school. Quite the opposite, our children achieve very well in reading, writing and  Maths etc and are working at levels well above that expected for their age. We achieve this through a broad and creative curriculum which promotes a deep understanding of the content taught.   We prepare the children very well for the next stage in their learning and teach them to love and engage with learning first and foremost. The 7+ process can be very bruising for a child. We have seen very confident and competent children crumble under the pressure which has resulted in a decline in their interest in learning and a significant effect on their self-esteem.

 

Question:

Being such a large school with 4/5 forms how does the school manage individual goal setting and performance monitoring? 

Answer: 

What makes NBH Nursery and NBH Pre-Prep unique is that we are specialists in the age ranges that we cater for. In the Nursery school the focus is purely on the EYFS –  everyone on the team is an EYS specialist. The Pre-Prep school focuses purely on Key Stage 1, where all staff are also very experienced in teaching this age range. This means everyone is talking about the same aims, objectives, assessment, progress and attainment within the school –  we are comparing like for like whereas in other schools there will be teaching and learning conversations that span from Nursery through to Year 8.  In our school, everyone is talking a ‘common language’.

We monitor the children very closely from the very point at which they enter the school. This is through observation, formative and summative assessment. We meet each term as a senior leadership team with each class teacher to talk about every individual child in the class so that we can be sure that the right provision is in place, offer additional support or challenge as required. We have excellent systems in place at both schools offering support for the children. The children at the Pre-Prep are also very involved in their own monitoring of their performance and target setting so there is a joined up approach and the children have a real sense of ownership.

 

Question:

What are the approximate percentages of male to female teachers at the school?  

Answer:

We have a healthy number of male role models on both the teaching and support staff body  at NBH Nursery and Pre-Prep. In a typically female dominated vocation this is something we are very proud of.  Currently the ratio of male class teachers is 1:4 plus we have an amazing male music teacher and male teaching assistants too. It brings a wonderful balance to the school.

 

Question:

Although the perception among some, seems to be that North Bridge is not as academically inclined as some of the other pre-prep/prep schools in the area, the curriculum presents as comprehensive and in fact academic levels do seem to be met very well. What would you say to parents who may have some concerns about the school and why do you think the school is somewhat unfairly viewed in this light? 

Answer: 

Our children make excellent progress in reading, writing and Maths at both schools. The attainment levels are also very strong. For example, by the time the children move on at the end of year 2 we have children who have achieved reading ages of 12+. The majority of children are exceeding expectations in Maths and writing too. We are not, however, a hot house.  We focus on delivering a broad and enriched curriculum that is engaging and promotes a love of learning and genuine interest. The Pre-Prep school has gone through a significant transformation since February 2016 which I am very proud of. I have a talented and capable team of staff who are delivering excellent lessons day in day out for our children – high quality first teaching is what we do! I would say to any parents who have concerns to come in for a visit, take a look at the children’s work in books and on display, speak to the children and speak to my staff. We will be more than happy to talk to you about the amazing work that goes on here.

 

Question:

From what I understand there is a wide array of clubs and activities on offer some of which like ‘mini beasts’ are not necessarily available at every school. How do you decide on what clubs to introduce and how do you manage what is available to which year group? 

Answer: 

We have a large range of activities available for the children to participate in at both schools with something on offer to interest all children. We offer an early morning breakfast club so that busy parents can drop their child off with us in order to get to work on time. After school we have an array of sporting, creative and academic clubs available ranging from football club, yoga, ukulele, chess, mini-explorers, cookery and French to name just a few. We understand the juggling act that parenting can be. We offer a Tea-club facility for those instances where a meeting overruns or parents are stuck in traffic. Parents can call on the day to let us know and we will ensure that their child is given an afternoon snack of a sandwich and fresh fruit / vegetable and that they are supervised and well looked after until their parents can pick them up. During each holiday period we run our own in-house Holiday Club. This is for NBH pupils only and is led and managed by our own staff who deliver exciting and creative programs throughout each half term break and for 4 weeks over the summer holiday.

We review the clubs provision each year and have exciting plans for additional clubs which we will be offering to our Year 2 children from September which will excite the coding geeks and explorers out there.

 

Question:

What provisions does the school have in place for dealing with children who may have additional needs or are gifted and talented? 

Answer:

At the Nursery school, in addition to the very experienced specialist teaching  staff,  we have a qualified EYS SENCo who plays a significant role in the school. She works with both current parents and children as well as prospective parents who are looking to place their child with us. In some cases, support for the children starts before they officially join the school in September. The SENCo liaises very closely with feeder schools and will often go to visit pupils in their current setting to observe the children.  She also works very closely with the teaching staff, the local authority’s early intervention team and external agencies such as Occupational Therapists and Speech & Language therapists.  The EYS SENCo will support children in either a one-to one situation or in small groups. This is not limited to the children who require additional learning support, she also works with the more able children to offer additional stretch and challenge. At the Pre-Prep we are very proud that we have two SENCos. Both SENCos work with individual children and small groups supporting children with closing the gap in reading, writing and Maths. Again, they play a significant role in the school and liaise closely with class teachers, parents and any external agencies. We have learning support assistants at the Pre-Prep too, in addition to the teaching assistants assigned to every class. These learning support assistants support children around the school with focused groups or individual children –  again this is not exclusively for the children with a learning need but also those who would benefit from more stretch and challenge. The progress of all children is closely monitored by all staff,  including the SENCos to ensure that no child falls through the gap and all reach their full potential.

 

Question:

How involved is the parent community in school life and what are the expectations of the school from parents? 

Answer:

Parents play a very important role in the life of the school at NBH.  Parents are invited in to school for a range of activities and events in addition to the cycle of Parents’ evenings which take place termly. Whether it be mystery reader, class talks about jobs or culture or to support with one of the many class trips.

To support parents we offer a range of workshops and talks that take place both in school time, alongside their children, and in the evenings across the year.

We have run some very successful workshops on maths and English this year where parents have been able to gain greater insight into the methods used at school to deliver these subject areas and ways in which parents can support their children at home. Our series of parenting talks from experts in the field of sleep, screen time and body image have also been very well received.

We have a very active Friends of North Bridge House group who play an integral role in the organising of charity fundraising events, the proceeds of which go to local and national charities nominated by the parents and by the children.  The group have organised some fantastic events including discos, Zumba nights, movie nights and a very popular quiz night for parents. The key event for the year is the annual summer fair which brings the whole school community together and in the past has seen over £12,000 funds raised for charity. Whilst the FoNBH take the lead on many events it really is a team effort and we encourage all parents to be involved in any way they can, no matter how small, everyone is invited to be involved.

I meet with my class reps regularly, each half term in small groups, which has been a really positive development this year. Parents are able to provide valuable feedback to me in these meetings. I also run a weekly ‘Head’s Surgery’ at each school  –  these are informal drop-in sessions, open to any parent.

 

Question:

How does the school work towards instilling a community spirit in the children? Are there any charities the school supports in which children can get involved?

Answer:

The children are actively involved in fundraising at both schools. We participate in national fundraising events such as Red Nose Day, Jeans for Genes and Children in Need to name just a few. In terms of more local support, the children are actively involved in the nomination and selection of charities closer to home that support causes of interest to the children. This is facilitated through our School Council who canvass the opinion of their classmates and bring suggestions to the ½ termly meeting. The children recently indicated a desire to support a charity that supports children less privileged than themselves and provides items such as toys, clothing and food. This led us to the work of two charities who we will be supporting next academic year:

Little Village Camden –  who provide good quality baby clothes and equipment donated by local families, to local families. The second charity that the children will support is Magic Breakfast who provide healthy breakfast food and expert support to schools where there are 35% or more pupils eligible for free school meals.

 

Conclusion:

It was interesting to note that the school has its entire Early Years Foundation children housed within one building with all the teachers being Early Years specialists. The school’s moral compass echoes the sentiment that  “the child comes first, the child is the most important” and Mrs McLelland is keen to put this into practice. To this end, even though it is a larger than average year group when compared with other local schools, the classes itself are comprised of smaller numbers of children with an enviable number of teachers, learning support assistants and teaching assistants.  Her weekly meetings with parents called “Head Surgeries” where parents are encouraged to come in and talk to her about issues that may be of concern to them maintain open links between parents and the school. Transition Meetings are held before the Year 2s move into Year 3 where the curriculum takes a leap and the Head of the Prep school comes in to meet and chat to all the children prior to that. The Head of Learning Support also liaises closely with parents and meets often to discuss the needs of the children who need extra support. 

The SENCo is involved in the Early Years assessment so that the school is able to get a full picture of the child and are able to provide the necessary support.  Prospective parents are welcome to discuss their child’s personality and their hopes and aspirations with the headmistress including anything else they may want to know more about and Mrs McLelland is also open to questions about how the school is run and whether it is a good fit. The school also provides toddler and parent sessions every week until the younger ones are able to settle in. This settling in period takes things at the child’s pace which is ofcourse the preferred way of doing things and children and parents enjoy and speak highly of the process. 

Community spirit runs high at North Bridge House and strong bonds, that last are made throughout the school. The head spoke with pride about a child who started in the nursery and went all the way through, and is now coming back to the school to train as a teacher under one of the same teachers who taught her. Pride in the school runs high among parents and I did feel that the challenges, the school’s academic reputation had faced, were undeserved. A huge range of clubs from the younger classes onwards provide a wide breadth of experiences for the children and the standards of English and Maths are on par with those of the other prep schools in the area. Although non-selective academically, the school does maintain good academic records and the children in the classes I visited, were focused, interested and clearly being taught very well. One Maths class in particular had the children come up in pairs and explain to their peers, with the aid of lego blocks, how they had arrived at their answers which I thought was a wonderful way of making sure children understood the concept being taught while also encouraging them to verbally express how they arrived at their conclusion, neither of which are easy tasks  for 6 year olds. Although the class rooms are on the smaller side in the Early Years building, the play area is a decent size and the Pre- Prep classrooms were bigger and housed interactive white boards which the children enjoy using. 23 class reps meet every 4 weeks in groups of 3 and parents are encouraged to meet and keep channels of communication open always. The link between home and school is emphasised and Mrs McLelland is very keen to work with parents to make sure that they are happy and their children are performing well, academically, socially and emotionally in the school. 

The school will towards this end, be also launching an app that parents can download and access which will contain a comprehensive overview of the school, activities, classes, events and communications. The school is hopeful that this will also enable parents who have to travel a lot to keep in touch with their child’s progress and communications from the school as well. 

In conclusion I was very impressed with Mrs McLelland’s commitment to the school and maintaining its academic standards. She came across as a very approachable head with a firm open door policy as far as communication with both current and prospective parents go and her honesty and sincerity are commendable. While I went in unsure, I came out, convinced that the school did not in fact deserve the general perceptions that are prevalent. The academics are good, the children are happy and focused, the reading and spelling levels are above average and there are decent play areas around the school. Although a large school, the teachers are engaged and focused on developing and nurturing every child as is the case with most local private schools, there is a healthy gender balance of staff members and the staff to children ratios are also very good. I would encourage interested parents to go in and take a look and if they want further clarification, make an appointment with Mrs McLelland. North Bridge House is very much an option to consider. 

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