NURTURING A PASSION FOR LEARNING
Christopher McMinn, the new owner and Head of St Mark’s Hall Nursery School, Primrose Hill, is wise and kind and experienced, and puts the needs of the individual child above all else. This I discovered when I went to visit the new-look school as it approaches the end of its first year with Christopher fully at the helm. Everything about the school – its curriculum, its methods, its fresh, uncluttered look – is an expression of Christopher’s kindness and wisdom and experience, and I don’t mind telling you: I was enchanted.
Art, dance, poetry and yoga are at the heart of a packed curriculum, not simply as a nod to culture but with the aim of awakening in the child interests and pleasures that may well last a lifetime. When I visited, group time involved a joyous question and answer session on the painting ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ by John Singer Sargent and an enthusiastic group rendition of ‘I wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth. The children’s delight was writ large on their faces.
Cookery takes place too – not the usual cake-baking, but perhaps sushi or pasta with pesto, healthy eating to the fore. Fun of both the structured and free-play variety is also to be had outdoors, and when I was there a particular highlight was a passing barge sounding its horn in greeting, eliciting a cheery response. Animals are reared and cared for – fish live in a tank, and chicks are hatched and nurtured (I suggested that kittens might be fun, but I’m not sure Christopher was entirely sold on that idea). And of course, traditional annual events such as sports day and the Christmas nativity are celebrated with gusto (and used for learning – Christopher’s mantra is that everything is a learning opportunity, even if – or perhaps especially if – the children don’t notice).
And on top of all this, the children are busily learning the skills they need for ‘big school’. When I arrived for my visit, there was much studious and careful letter-formation, in small groups, and the walls proudly displayed drawings of a recent visit by a jazz band, with explanations in a variety of stages of handwriting development.
The children are divided into ‘vertical’ groups, that is, mixed in age and not judged on ability. I saw for myself how successful this can be as an older boy – all of five years old – organised a tidy-up (“pencils please!”), the younger members of the group co-operative and looking up to him respectfully. It was very sweet to watch but above all the children were learning to help and care for each other in a way that was clearly becoming second nature.
Christopher has a long history with the school, first as a parent, then as an advisor, which led to him becoming the school administrator, before doing his own teacher-training and becoming deputy head, finally becoming owner and head teacher. Once fully in charge, he renovated the premises, giving the school a modern and stream-lined look that the children might recognise from their own homes, making their nursery more of a recognisable environment. Years of experience at the school and as a parent, as well as working in other fields, have allowed Christopher to think deeply about how to educate a very young child, and at the heart of his philosophy lies an immense kindness to each child.
‘Never push a child,’ he explained, ‘but encourage a natural progression.’
Find a way to teach that engages the individual child. For instance, when counting, a child may not care how many apples he has but he or she certainly knows how many trucks, if that is what his or her particular interest is. So get him or her counting trucks, not apples. And “if a child wants to learn to read dressed as batman and sitting in a tent, well I’ll go and build the tent!”
A couple of lovely anecdotes illustrated the care shown to individuals at St Mark’s Hall.
One boy explained how he wanted to become a ballet dancer, but had the idea in his head that ‘boys can’t dance.’ The very next day, Christopher had arranged for a male dancer to visit the school and have a dance session with the children (which is now a regular feature). Evidently boys can dance after all.
Another child had been prescribed glasses, but refused to wear them, hiding them all over the school so she didn’t have to. In response, the home corner was turned into an optician’s clinic and the children took turns to be the optician, the receptionist and the patients, even queueing up in the waiting room for their appointments. Everyone, staff included, wore glasses, pretend if need be, and as a result of all this, the child began to wear her glasses happily, even drawing herself wearing them in her work book.
Of course, none of this can be done without an excellent staff, and Christopher is clearly proud of his team. During my visit, activity swung seamlessly from quiet and thoughtful group work at tables, through the spectrum to dancing and then freeplay outdoors in the garden, with the teachers always leading, guiding and watching with thoughtful kindness. The atmosphere was happy, busy and purposeful, with not a single voice raised at any time.
What message does Christopher have for prospective parents? “Come and have a look,” he says. “We take registrations from birth. But also have a look at other schools, get a feel for what works for you and your family.”
“I’m so happy and proud of my team and this school – it’s exactly what I envisaged. It’s a kind, tolerant, exciting place with phenomenal opportunities for the children.”
St Mark’s Hall has three terms a year and fees are £3480 per term mornings only and £4990 per term full time.