Exclusive interview with Dr Zoe Dunn, Headmistress of UCS Pre-Prep School
Mums In The Wood interviewed Dr Zoe Dunn of UCS Pre-Prep on 25th May 2017. It was an absolute pleasure to meet and chat to her despite her very busy schedule. One of the first things that struck me about Dr Dunn was her clear enthusiasm and passion for her job as a head mistress. She spoke fondly of always having wanted to be a teacher and how she used to line her teddies up and teach them. She has taught for over 10 years in both the state and private sector and had taught at the Hall, the Royal School (now Northbridge House school) and was also the founding headteacher of Rimon, a free school in Golders Green. She firmly believes that every teacher should teach in both systems as this gives them a wider experience not only of the difference in teaching styles but also in how to work with different children and parents. She spoke of how family issues cut across both sectors and how you gain a deep appreciation of different values and beliefs in this very diverse society.
Her dedication was unmistakeable and the fact that she genuinely cared about the little ones coming in to UCS was more than apparent. She was keen to emphasise that the assessment process at UCS Pre-Prep is a happy one and one where the atmosphere is nurturing and friendly. She was clear that everyone who registers is invited for a play session and said that what is of most significance to her, is that the children who come, enjoy the time they spend at the session and are themselves. She stated firmly that she disliked tutoring children at this age and said that a very important part of the process for her was to get to know the child and try to see if the child and the school are the right fit. She also encouraged parents to think about this as well when going through the 4+ and 7+ assessments and advised that as stressful as the time may be, parents should think first and foremost about whether the school and the child and the family are all a right fit.
Dr Dunn comes across as a head for whom understanding a child as an individual is of paramount importance. She is articulate, elegant and clearly very capable. She highlighted that what is at the heart of the school in her eyes, are the relationships her students have with the teachers. She stressed on how hard the staff work to make sure that the children are challenged and happy and that behaviour is constantly modelled by the staff so that the children are constantly learning through both actions and words. She also spoke about how vitally important it was to her that the children who passed through the Pre-Prep were busy, happy and confident individuals. A mother herself, she came across as a warm and approachable head who took the time to understand a child and guide them through their time at the Pre-Prep as best she could.
With the increase in interest in the 7+ exam each year, how do the changes at UCS pre-prep affect the external 7+ intake into the Junior Branch of UCS?
How will the ratios be managed between the higher numbers of internal candidates v the external candidates?
Do you see UCS as eventually having a seamless transition from the Junior school to the Senior school without having competitive exams for internal students?
UCS Pre-Prep has a selective admissions procedure, and the school needs to be confident that a child will be able to academically engage with the pace of the curriculum and be socially and emotionally able to compete for 7+ places in Year 2. There is an expectation that boys attending UCS Pre-Prep will want to transfer to the Junior Branch of UCS and then on to the Senior School. Transfer to the Junior Branch is not fully automatic and UCS Pre-Prep boys will sit 7+ entry assessments in line with all external candidates; however, except in cases where severe academic performance and behavioural concerns have been raised, either prior to 7+ or as a result of 7+, every effort will be made to facilitate UCS Pre-Prep boys’ passage onwards into the Foundation if it is felt this is in the best interests of the child.
What was the thinking behind incorporating forest school techniques into the traditional curriculum and to what extent are these techniques implemented?
As part of a traditional culture to learn outdoors, Forest school is integrated into our curriculum to enable UCS pupils to develop socially and emotionally alongside their academic endeavours. It builds an appreciation and enjoyment for the natural world and enables children to foster collaborative working practices and skills of empathy and communication that are transferable into the classroom. Children enjoy and flourish during their forest school session; whether in the mud kitchen, observing the bee hives or planting in the allotment.
Most pre-preps start at 2/2.5 to prepare their students for the 7+ exam. With the nursery option not being available after 2018, how will the school balance pastoral care with preparation for a competitive exam when the children will be entering the school at 4+?
Pastoral care is at the heart of UCS Pre-Prep. Our small class sizes and high adult ratios mean all children are known and valued and staff have time to build professional relationships with their pupils based on tolerance and respect. UCS Pre-Prep prides itself on creating a warm and happy environment where pupils feel safe, secure and able to blossom into individuals.
What provision does the school make for children with additional needs and/or children who are well ahead of their peers or struggling to keep up?
Does the school have a full time SENCO and trained staff to support children with needs?
Also, with so many international families moving to North London, how does the school view children who are bi-lingual and/or multi-lingual and what is the process adopted for assessing such children at 4+ when comprehension and fluent expression in English presents somewhat of a challenge?
The school has a dedicated SENDco and learning support and English as an Additional language teacher that both work collaboratively with all the staff to ensure the various needs of all the pupils are met. We have many children with multiple talents including those who are bi or tri-lingual.
Having had experience of both single sex schools and co-educational schools, what are the main pros and cons you see in the two systems?
UCS Pre-Prep has embarked on a series of changes, mainly the transition to all boys and a Reception entry point from 2018. This brings with it significant benefits for the pupils in our care. Boys only schools have always been popular and the discourse around single sex education is well documented. One benefit an all boy environment offers is that of being able to focus solely on how boys learn best and on their interests and curiosities. The school promotes physical education and the pupils benefit from lots of outdoor learning experiences and attend the school allotment for forest school. The children utilise the extensive facilities and sports grounds all throughout the school week, where specialist and passionate staff foster and ignite key skills and talents.
To what extent is the parent community involved in the school? What are the expectations placed on the parent representatives?
UCS Pre-Prep is fortunate to have a very active parent community and they are most willing to support the school at numerous events across the school year. The Parent Guild Class Representatives attend termly meetings and organise one event a term. The school encourages all parents to share and celebrate the talents and successes of the children; from musical concerts, productions, assemblies, school trips, science and art fairs. There are also termly parent teacher social events such as a bingo or quiz night with the highlight being the school fete.
How does the school instil a social conscience in the pupils? What community projects if any is the school involved in?
UCS was founded in 1830 to promote the Benthamite principles of liberal scholarship and education. That remains the first and over-riding aspiration. Today, intellectual curiosity and independence of mind are developed, self-discovery and self-expression are still fostered, and learning co-operatively and collaboratively is highly valued. As part of the curriculum pupils engage and learn about charities every half term and support over 6 every year such as NSPCC, Comic/Sports Relief, UNICEF etc. Older pupils also embark on a Fairtrade project where they learn the impact such initiative have on children across the world.
What are the planned changes and development projects scheduled to go ahead in the near future at UCS Pre-Prep?
UCS Foundation projects continue at a pace with the exciting development of a new state of the art sports facility and grounds at the fields. Over the next few months a new Creative Arts and Sciences Studio is being developed at the Pre-Prep where the pupils will have access to a specialist art and design area , woodwork area and be able to partake in food technology lessons. They will also be able to observe and monitor things grow in the Science garden. In addition a research pod is being created where the children will be able to engage in reading, fact finding and researching as well as develop their coding skills.
There are exciting times ahead at UCS Pre-Prep and it is a privileged to be a part of a Foundation that supports and celebrates diverse learning experiences and to the lead the Pre-Prep on this exciting journey.
Parents are warmly invited to visit the school to come and see for themselves.
Tucked away behind a red door on College Crescent, Swiss Cottage, UCS Pre-Prep is a lovely little school packed full of the children’s art models, paintings, video logs and lots of craft projects. That was the first thing that stuck me when I went in. There was clearly a lot going on and the school came across as a hive of activity. Even though, I didn’t meet many children as some were off on a class trip and others were at different activities, just looking around the classes, the work displayed on walls and shelves, all helped in creating the wonderful vibe of bustling, thriving, busy children.
A lovely playground, albeit on the smaller side, uses the space well with a large yellow slide which was clearly a favourite. Interactive white boards, computers and ipads and the freedom to use them to create projects showed the school was very focused on ensuring that the children had a good sense of modern technology. However, the focus on writing and more traditional teaching methods was apparent with how much hands on activity the children were involved in daily.
The children can also take part in a large range of clubs and it was interesting to note that among the 30 or so clubs on offer, ballet was one and something the boys loved participating in. In Dr Dunn’s words, “the academics at the school are a given so the curriculum is culturally very creative.” In addition to dance, there are also clubs that encourage planting, music, drama and other collaborative activities that help build cultural awareness and social and emotional development. Another reason that the forest school practices have been introduced into the school curriculum and children have been appointed as eco-warriors by the very passionate Dr Dunn is that she believes that an enjoyment and appreciation of the natural world comes from seeing, learning and being involved in activities that help foster an interest in the world around us. She also believes that it helps children to collate their thoughts, explore different senses and reduce the social and academic pressures that children are increasingly exposed to.
There is a firm ethos at the school that focuses on pastoral care and collaborative tasks that help teach children to work together and she believes that the approach of the school helps regulate emotions and increases concentration in the class rooms. Religion is infused through a cultural process and Dr Dunn was clear that the school’s liberal approach to the arts help increase the breadth of individuality through the school, from musicians to mathematicians, from dramatists to writers, which all helps children approaching the pre and post teenage years to grow in self-confidence and build self-esteem.
Asked about the move away from a co-ed nursery/Pre-Prep to one that is all boys, she stated that it was just a natural move since being taken over by the UCS senior school. She mentioned that the school became heavily weighted towards boys who comprised almost 80% of the intake and she felt it was a response to a natural and obvious need. The gender mix of teachers is around 70% female to 30% male which provides a healthy mix of role models for the children.
There are no plans to have a bigger intake of children to replace the nursery and the girls, but instead the space will be used over the holidays to maximise the space for more creative work studios. Dr Dunn was clear that the space they had fit the number of children and there were no plans at the moment, to expand those numbers.
Dr Dunn is clearly a bright, enthusiastic head with a passion for early years. She is acutely aware of the pressures of assessment and exam processes like the 4+ and the 7+ both on children and parents and is focused very much on creating an atmosphere that is as child centric as possible. A lovely all round school with an exceptionally clever and enthusiastic head at the helm, along with the added bonus of the affiliation with UCS Foundation, makes the school a very attractive one for local parents. Dr Dunn herself, is open and friendly and comes across as a head who will always make time for parents. We would then, encourage parents to take the time to visit and speak to her if they need any clarification regarding the school.