An exclusive interview with Mrs Sarah Gillam, headmistress of Maple Walk School, NW10


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Mums In The Wood is very grateful to Mrs. Sarah Gillam, Headmistress of Maple Walk School and Ms Emily Compton, Head of External Relations of Maple Walk School, for granting me an exclusive interview and an opportunity to view the school in action on 24th September 2015. Situated down a residential street in Harlesden, the school is not immediately apparent. The gates hide decent sized playgrounds and well laid out buildings that form the main school. Set on the edges of the playground is a structure called a ‘pod’ which serves as a music room. Space has also been cordoned off for another one to be built. The school has a lovely atmosphere and the girls who showed me around were confident, articulate and ambitious. They clearly had an excellent relationship with teachers they had gone through and were very proud of the school. There also seemed to be a warm relationship between the year 6 girls and those in reception as they greeted each other by name.

I took the opportunity to put forward some questions to the school that I hope will help prospective parents get a flavour for what the school is about. I hope that the information provided in the article will prove useful.

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North West London is home to many very well established schools. How do you, as a relatively new school, distinguish yourself from the competition and why do you think parents should submit an application to you?


The school was founded in 2004 with two pupils in a church hall. We moved to our current premises in 2009 and I have been the Headmistress since 2012. We have our 4th year of leavers this year. Our exit results are on par with many other schools regardless of the fact that we have not been open for as long. Also, the school is growing fast and is expanding and changing from being a single form school to a two form school throughout the different years. I think what defines us is that we adhere to a knowledge based curriculum. The school is a knowledge-based one and focuses on equiping its students with the knowledge and skills they need, to apply themselves as they go higher up the school. Our classes are small. We have 16 children in each class in our current reception year and we aim to have no more than 20 children per class throughout the school. There is a lot of focus on creative arts and we get a lot of parents who come in and help out with clubs and extra curricular activities. Our parent body is also made up of a lot of people who come from artistic backgrounds and fashion for example, and they often come in and help us foster a love for creative expression in the children. The founders have also purposefully kept the fee structure low as a way of providing a solid education for children at an affordable price. We are also an Eco School. We have a green sedum roof (grass roof) and solar panels. We also have a ground source heat pump which provides free hot water and heating throughout the school. We are the first school of its kind to be built this way.



Rightly or wrongly, some parents have reservations about a school in Harlesden mainly, in terms of safety. What would you say to parents who have such concerns?


The school is entered via security gates. There is always someone on the gate in the morning and someone on the gate in the afternoon as well. This is London after all and it is an urban environment. We get the police to come in and talk to students about ‘stranger danger’ so that they are more aware when they leave the school premises. I (Emily Compton) have been a resident here for 14 years and I have not had any trouble at all. There are pockets of crime but that is the same anywhere. We believe that being in an area like Harlesden has enriched our children’s lives. We are very much part of the community. We have the priest from the local church who comes in and talks to the children and we take part in the Harvest Festival. We take the children to visit the Neasden Temple, we visit the old people’s homes etc so we are constantly forging links with the community. We think our students are benefiting hugely from the school being right where it is. Most of the children walk or cycle in and we have not had any incidents that have caused concern.



What was the legacy of the previous head mistress, Ms Sarah Knowles, and how are you, Mrs Gillam, continuing or changing the direction of the school?


The school mushroomed and grew under Ms Knowles in an incredible manner. When I (Mrs Sarah Gillam) came in, the school was already well established and doing very well. I had deep roots on which to build. We changed the school from a one-form entry to a two-form entry school (apart from years 5 and 6).  We have installed smart boards in every classroom and The New Model School Company who own the school have recently invested a great deal in technology. The students have access to computers, lap tops and tablets. We are focusing on improving and adding to the computer curriculum as the school grows. The New Model School Company also owns the Faraday School in the Docklands and I benefit from liaising and exchanging ideas with another headmistress. I came from a traditional prep school to a school that focused on creative expression. We are now encouraging that creative spirit in the children and fostering it but also balancing it with academic achievement.



It is a commonly held theory that boys and girls have very different needs when being taught. As a co-ed school, how does the school ensure that they are able to address those needs across the board?


We try to treat each child as an individual. We maintain a healthy balance of girls and boys and we focus on individual differentiation. The school maintains a nurturing approach to students and is not afraid to change things around when needed. For example, if it is a nice day, we will often take all the children to a neighbouring park and have a picnic lunch. With managing energy levels of boys v girls, we have increased sporting opportunities for boys. The children have a good range of equipment in the playgrounds so that when they come back to class, they are calm and ready to work.



There are growing concerns about whether the varying abilities of children are being met with the correct resources in schools particularly in the private sector. What are your policies on Special Education Needs (SEN) and Gifted and Talented Children? 


We have a SEN teacher who comes in. Within the class, we try to identify children who have milder needs and the teachers or the teaching assistant help them along. However if we feel that a child is struggling and he/she needs more assistance than what the teachers or teaching assistants can provide, the the SEN teacher will come in. She does come in as an additional cost to parents though.

With gifted and talented children, we have an internal register. We are constantly reviewing and changing the list. We provide extension work in Math and English and have portfolio scholarship clubs for subjects like art, we provide facilities for children excelling in sport. We don’t advise nor provide actual physical movement of classes for children who are on the register but we do give them the work that is appropriate for their level. We meet parents on a termly basis to discuss their children’s development. We have internal assessments and we prefer that method to external reports. We base our decision on scores, attitude and aptitude.

We should mention that we celebrate talented children in every field. Not just academic achievement. There is a lot of focus on developing confidence and being articulate when speaking and we have poetry competitions and speech writing and public speaking competitions. The feedback we have got from the secondaries is also that our children are articulate and confident.

We also have a system of awarding stars of the week. These are given by the headmistress not only for academic achievement but also for being kind etc. We also have musical moment every three weeks or so where children who want to can give an informal recital. The parents of the relevant child are invited as well. We find that this really helps children develop their confidence.



How much parental involvement does the school encourage and expect ?


Parents can be as involved as they want to be. We have a huge amount of clubs that are supported by parents who come in and run them on a weekly basis. We have an open door policy and encourage communication with the school. There are class representatives who have been chosen from among the parents and the groups are very active meeting for drinks, meals and socials and are a tremendous help in organising Christmas fairs, summer fairs etc. Parent groups have raised thousands of pounds for the school by organising fund raising events. Clubs like art and science are also areas where parents get involved. We also celebrate all the festivals and parents come in to talk to the children about their different cultures.


My thoughts

All in all, Mums In The Wood felt that although small, the school is certainly growing and it has a good focus on numeracy and literacy. It had a warm and friendly atmosphere and the children presented very well. They were confident and we were impressed with how much at ease they were when showcasing their school to a visitor. The books I looked at and the work on the wall were of a good academic standard and their exits list compares favourably with other more established North West London schools. The school is growing and certainly presents as one to watch. 

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