Exclusive Interview with Mr Steven Winters, Headmaster of Maida Vale School
The entrance to this two year old, unique, co-educational secondary school makes quite an impression. A welcoming bright yellow door sits beneath shiny new signage, spelling out, ‘ Maida Vale School’ at the side of an oversized Victorian building, that takes you by total surprise on a discreet street-Saltram Crescent in Maida Vale. And as you step inside, you are washed by a feeling of calm, tasteful decor, friendly faces of staff yet a strange absence of the buzz of pupils. After a lovely chat with the charming office manager Marian Tang in the Soho-house styled parent cafe, airy and adorned with leafy green wall paper, pale green panelled walls and industrial light fixtures, I was invited into head teacher Steven Winter’s office.
With a lovely welcoming smile he told me he had been looking for a completely fresh start and Maida Vale hit all the boxes. ‘The worst thing you can say to me is, this is how I’ve always done it’. New to London, having spent fifteen years teaching in rural boarding schools, as well as time in a tough comprehensive in Kent. This opportunity to build a school from scratch, putting pastoral care at the forefront was screaming to him. No stranger to moving around for work, as the son of a diplomat he moved all around Europe… Germany, Finland, Switzerland, Russia and Austria to name a few as he was growing up. But it is here in London he is now seeking to find his community.
Perhaps the fact that he decided slightly later in life to go to University and then had to choose between the army and teaching meant that when he chose teaching, he fell hard. This is his calling. Proudly he talked about Bethany school where he was deputy head for over five years and guided it to become one of the very first schools in the country to win the national well being award. His dedication to pastoral care is tangible. His commitment to getting Maida Vale school up and running is one hundred percent. He manages to offset the major challenge and stresses of taking on a brand new school by putting on music and reading the paper. Walking and swimming. As an ex-sportsman, playing rugby and water polo, he is now engaging with simpler ways to relax.
Community is key to the schools agenda. After Covid, there was a sense of everyone needing a sense of togetherness away from screens. The importance of physically being with other people, this community spirit pervades the school. Mr Winter has encouraged an open door policy for the parents, who can use the beautiful Cafe as a meeting place whenever they fancy – to send emails, to speak to teachers… he proudly showed me a photo of the school celebrating the Queens platinum jubilee around laden trestle tables. Parents opinions are central to the schools ethos. He has set up an impressive parents seminar programme, offering talks with world renowned psychologists, teaching healthy relationships with your teenagers etc… BBQ evenings and much more.
Maida Vale has the capacity for 600 pupils, it currently has 120, and in September this number will rise to 180 and it is steadily growing… Currently year 7 has a slight imbalance towards boys, but they seem to get an influx of girls in year 7 ( often those who haven’t settled well at their chosen 11 plus school, especially when they chose single sex schools and now wanting co-ed) Mr Winter believes very strongly in mixed sex schools. He suggests that boys provide girls with an emotional space and soften the intensity that exists when girls get together. As for the boys they tend to look to the girls as role models, often wanting to impress them – so the girls are better learning role models than boys are! Mr Winter has been working hard with prep schools to bring in more pupils.
The feeder schools are currently Ladbroke Grove, Chepstow House, Bassett House… but the network is expanding.
As well as the headship, Mr Winter ( despite holding a degree in history with theology) is currently teaching the pupils a mainstream subject titled ‘ individuals and society’, nothing is surprising. And he has, in the two years of its existence, managed to pull together a team of like minded, creative teachers all driven by working somewhere where there is extraordinary opportunity. I was told the last teaching post was filled today! So what kind of school is Mr Winter making? A school which has a really rigorous approach, making sure pastoral care is shared and embedded in all the academic lessons, in everything. He describes his utter dislike of copying from the board,‘ because it is a waste of time- focusing on what they are writing, not focusing on the processing. He ensures they use technology to remove all learning barriers, making sure that no one misses out, even allowing the use of dictation if that is preferred. He has put neurodiversity at the heart of the teaching practice, ‘if you’re not catering for neurodiversity, you’re not catering for humanity’. They broadly stream the classes for maths and science for years 7,8 and 9… I saw evidence of an advanced science lesson where children were super focused in very small groups. Mr Winter is absolutely sure that in GCSE terms, all pupils will exceed expectations.
Although there were a lot of vacant classrooms, when I did see lessons in flow, all pupils looked engaged and happy. You could feel the creativity flowing from the teachers. There is an opportunity in every lesson for the pupils to be creative. In fact that seems to be the key to the admissions process too. After the ISEB exam where the scores are not looked at until after the interview. Every single child who registers will get an opportunity to interview. A short presentation in groups, where they will be assessed on their engagement of the process, their passions and questioning skills. They are looking for children who are confident and genuine. The interview is the absolute most important part of the process.
There is the right school for every child. Mr Winter acknowledges that not all parents will choose a totally new school but was keen to point out that they visualise the child in the centre of every decision, which means they are making the right choices more often than not. And it seems to be working. They have solid links with universities and are not as such starting from scratch, blessed with the other schools in the Gardener group. And Mr Winter has meetings with the head Mr Will Williams of Kew House every week and his school competes in sports fixtures with them. Passionately and proactively communicating on-line, working an active Twitter feed, writing newsletters, speaking to schools in the area. Mr Winter’s work to get Maida Vale School on the map is paying off, the word is spreading.
Is the 11 plus exam the only point of entry into the school? Do you have an entry point for sixth form too? Could you explain the admission What kind of exam is taken – is it a personalised academic school exam?
We have entry points at 11, 12, 13 and 16+ (Sixth Form) for September 2023. We sometimes have places available for in-year admissions, please contact us if this is something you require.
Our admissions process seeks to focus on the value of the individual pupil and their talents rather than solely based on test scores. We are seeking inquisitive and intelligent Pupils who will engage with, and enjoy, both our engaging curriculum as well as all opportunities we provide beyond the classroom. During the admissions process, Pupils are interviewed in a small group in which they individually present on a topic of their choice, as well as answer some comprehension and arithmetic questions. We will continue to offer the ISEB 11+ Common Pre-Test which means that children can do this at their current school, supported by people who know them well.
What is a typical Maida Vale pupil’s personality and character? Is there a type of girl or boy that you would not accept? What does the school offer children that other secondary schools in the area do not?
There is nothing atypical about a Maida Vale School Pupil. I would emphasise our focus on creativity and community, therefore we are looking for Pupils who will take part in all that we have to offer and embrace creativity in all their learning.
The School has a level of fit, finish and resource which is the envy of every local Head who has visited!
If a pupil passes the exam what should they expect from the interview, how much preparation is required?
Every Pupil who registers is interviewed, they are asked to prepare a short 2/3 minute presentation about something they are passionate about. The focus of the interview is for us to get to know the child and for them to get to know us. We want the experience to be as relaxed and as informal as possible so they can do their very best.
How close are your links with the other Gardener schools such as Kew? Do the pupils ever get together – for lessons or drama/musical productions?
As Heads we work very closely together. We play sports fixtures against Kew House School and have launched a cross-curricular programme called the Gardener Schools Award with them to encourage Pupils to take full part in our enrichment offering.
As a new school – what are you doing to foster links with the local community and how are you setting up relationships with University’s for A-level students getting ready to leave?
We have already created close links with North Paddington Foodbank who operate very locally. They work with our Duke of Edinburgh’s Award group on volunteering. We have raised over £13k for them in the past two years. We have a number of very experienced teachers with lots of contacts in the tertiary sector. We also have access through the Gardener Schools Group to the contacts and expertise from Kew House School.
Are you still trying to grow the number of students at the school, or have you reached your maximum?
We have capacity, when full, for 600 Pupils. We are currently 120 Pupils with 180 expected in September 2022. We will continue to grow the School from the bottom up, with a focus on safeguarding the relationships and community that the Pupils have already created. It is so important that a new School grows at an appropriate pace so that the wellbeing and pastoral care of every individual pupil remains central to what we are achieving here.
What SEN provisions do you have?
We support all Pupils with a neuro-diverse first approach to teaching. Our support for Pupils in the classroom is exemplary. That said, we cannot manage complex or profound needs. Therefore, it is important that families open a dialogue with us with regard to any needs their children have and which need to be addressed.
90% of our learning support takes place in the classroom, our 90 minute lessons mean that teachers always have the time to support any pupil who is finding learning difficult.
We have a very strong support for learning department who provide support for pupils in small group lessons. We have a small group of learning support assistants who provide 1 to 1 support for individual pupils, they are funded by families or through EHCPs
You have an unconventional approach to the school day, teaching six hours of lessons instead of the more typical five. Why?
There are two key reasons:
- 4 x 90 minute lessons in a school day means that pupils have more learning time, they can learn more deeply about topics they are studying, they can have their interests and passions fired and there is time to ensure they have all the support they need with their learning.
- Fewer movements in the school day engender a calm and quiet learning atmosphere. In addition fewer movements between lessons means that Pupils gain at least another hour’s learning a day!
- Having only opened in August 2020, what other expansion plans do you have if any?
We have been working towards completing phase two of our refurbishment of the building. We have created an additional 12 classrooms for next year, an independent learning centre for sixth form and a discreet dance and fitness studio. We open our sixth form in September 2023 when our current Year 10 pupils reach that milestone.
We have a third building onsite which will allow us further scope for expansion and meeting any currently unidentified needs in terms of spaces.
What are your sports facilities? How many PE lessons do you offer the children a week?
As well as the onsite Multi-Use-Games-Area Astro, and practice Basketball court, we utilise Regent’s Park for Football, Rugby, Cricket and Cross Country; Gladstone and Holland Parks for Tennis and Netball; Paddington Rec for Hockey, and Willesden Leisure Centre for Swimming, Indoor Sports and Athletics.
Could you list the type of extra curricular sessions that you provide?
We currently offer enrichment sessions before school – 07.30 to 08.15, at lunchtime and after school from 16.15 to 17.30.
There is a huge range of clubs and societies for pupils to choose from. Everyday there is something from the sports programme, creative arts, performing arts and academic. Also we host a prep club to ensure that we Pupils who wish to do all their school work in school can do so. We do not set a huge amount of homework (prep) in Years 7 to 9 to allow Pupils to take part in the enrichment programme. We would much rather they were interesting!
Your school fees are particularly high, how does that affect the diversity of pupils in your school?
Our fees are comparable with our local competitor schools. In many cases they are below other local independent schools. The nature of independent schools means their Pupil body is a reflection of the families who can and are prepared to afford the fees.
Could you explain how you academically set the different subjects and what support you give to the bottom sets?
We set Pupils according to ability in English, Mathematics and Science. All other subjects are taught in mixed ability sets.
Lower sets tend to have fewer pupils to ensure that Pupils can get the additional support they might need.
You celebrate an open door policy, could you explain what this means for parents?
Our open-door policy is central to our ethos. It means that Parents can email or call in to speak to a teacher or member of the leadership team and we will endeavour to see them that day. We fundamentally believe that by dealing with issues or concerns at the earliest stage possible we can minimise the chance that they will develop into something more significant.
Parents also have access to our beautiful Parent Café at the start and end of every school day so that they have a space in our school as well. We invite Parents into School regularly for social functions, Parent Seminars and Pupil performances.
Parents can also join the Parent Advisory Council which meets with the Head at least once and sometimes twice a term. It is an opportunity to give feedback on how things are progressing and for the Head to get advice on changes that the School may be considering implementing.
We are also encouraging Parents to support our careers programme through offering to lead TED talks, host Pupil visits at their places of work or by encouraging members of their networks to do the same.
What pastoral care does the school provide especially during GCSE and A-levels?
Supporting a child pastoral care and wellbeing needs is central to our ethos. Every member of staff is responsible for the pastoral care of every child. We place the child at the centre of every decision we make, which means we are usually making the right choices for that child. This focus on the needs of the individual pupil is central to ensure that they feel and know that they are cared for and supported, which is vital if they are to take the risks required to achieve their very best.
Every Pupil is a member of a Personal Tutor Group with a Personal Tutor who will be with them from Year 7 to 11 as the groups are vertical meaning there are Pupils from each year group in them. There will be 6th form specific and trained Personal Tutors to ensure that preparation for University applications is as specific and supportive as possible.
We have an onsite counselling service three days a week to provide short term support for those in need.
Our programme of assessments and examinations from Year 7 onwards takes a stepped approach to ensure that after the rigours and traumas of 11+ pupils are well prepared both academically and emotionally for their GCSE and A level examination. Our three year GCSE programme means that much of the content is finished well before the final examinations so that the focus in lessons in the run up is on revision and honing exam technique. We provide support with revision and study skills to all Pupils with the belief that it is not something they should or need to be left to get on with alone. An example of the care and support we provide is that prior to every GCSE or A level examination, pupils will meet their teachers for an ‘examination warm-up’, where final reminders can be given, advice sought and we can ensure that Pupils have full water bottles and a cereal bar or equivalent to give them a slow release energy boost.
Maria Gardener founder of the Gardener Schools Group, wanted her schools to be considered like palaces. She wanted environments to inspire, for schools to be somewhere the pupils really buy into. This is what she has achieved in the now over subscribed Kew House School and what is happening here at Mr Winter’s Maida Vale School. Although the numbers of pupils is still short of the desired number, you can totally imagine it becoming a school of choice. Any school that has even taken into consideration the decor of the restrooms, is a winner! The Dyson hand dryers totally blew me away.
Despite Covid delaying some plans for the expansion of Maida Vale school, you get a handle of the schools friendly and welcoming vibe even though many of the areas and classrooms where vacant. Wonderful high ceilings – utilised when the building was a technology school and then an artist space, have been transformed by beautiful round globe lights dropping from the ceilings along the corridors. Each wall of the main staircase is painted in a different bright fresh colour. Each classroom had large, modern interactive screens and again colourful walls. Art work adorns the walls. There are no bells to signal end of lessons. I asked Mr Winter why not – he vehemently said he disliked bells, as it makes you feel as if you are in a prison. Maida Vale school couldn’t be less prison like!
90 minute lessons with a movement break in the middle mean the children really learn deeply. The friendly head of art, Sophie sat in a light and wonderfully expansive art room. Full of colour and grotesque masks, and a large piece of material covered with magnificent doodles to celebrate LGBT week, she couldn’t be prouder of the atypical length of lesson, she chatted to me about how the pupils really did make faster progress with projects, unlike at other schools.
Mr Winter showed off the professional theatre , versatile enough to be turned into a catwalk, a Steinway piano, a dance and fitness studio. The facilities are really second to none. The music rooms had keyboards, they teach music technology, sound production… They have rock band, a cappella and chamber groups. I could see evidence of the last big play, Oklahoma – black and white photos of the show adorn the walls and impressive set pieces lie around the art and theatre areas. In the two years they have already put on an impressive array of productions including the Wizard of Oz, Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet, A Christmas Carol and Midsummer Night’s Dream.
They teach nutrition, and have all the facilities for it, the science rooms are bright red and turquoise, the computer science lab looked excellent. They have 3D printers, a superbly equipped DT area with every kind of machine. I saw a full English lesson where the animated pupils were creating an advert. Mouth-watering smells draw you into the large restaurant where the teachers and children have lunch ( I was told it was NOT a canteen… and it really isn’t! ) They cater for every dietary need, the whole team of caterers are in house producing fresh food. It looked and smelt delicious.
For sport within the school they have a rainbow painted basket ball court as well as a netted multi-use games area where the kids are encouraged to play netball and football, there is a table tennis area and lovely playground. Coaches take the pupils to Regents Park as well as making good use of Willesden leisure centre for three hour games lessons each week. There is also a 90 min PE class every other week. There are plans to include a programme full of less obvious sports ( making use of the local area) such as skateboarding on Westway ramp, BMX riding and paddle boarding down the canal. There is so much scope, room and opportunities at the school, the annex building is due to open in several weeks for the 6th form, hosting even more classrooms, there is third small building that could also be turned into something wonderful in the future.
Mr Winters goal is to be THE independent school for the area. Most of the children live within one and half miles from the school, there is a real opportunity to make a genuine creative and academic community of pupils and parents here. This school is all about the word of mouth. In five years time, it will surely be bursting with pupils fighting for a place here. This is a school with grand plans and puts money where its mouth is.