Howe Green House School, Bishop’s Stortford
This lovely co-ed Prep and nursery on the Herts/Essex border has a village school feel and puts the needs of individual pupils first with an outstanding pastoral offering.
In the chocolate box village of Great Hallingbury this independent Prep teeters on the Herts/Essex border, and it’s certainly got that village school vibe. That might have something to do with its petite provision – it caters for just 140 pupils from Reception to Year 6, with no more than 20 children per class, which gives it a really warm and tight-knit community feel.
It’s non-selective, too, which allows for a broad range of abilities in each cohort. Variety and difference are celebrated here and a range of learning support needs are catered for thanks to an excellent pastoral provision.
The children mainly come from an area encompassing Stansted Mountfitchet to the north, Harlow to the south, Great Dunmow to the east and the Hadhams to the west, but that’s not an exhaustive list.
The grounds feel like a miniature village in itself, comprised of Little Oaks nursery, the Pre-Prep building, standalone art room and library, the Cedar Wall building for Prep and the Bayford Hall (used for dining, PE, assemblies, productions and also houses the school reception and Head’s office).
Plus there’s a palpable excitement about the construction of a brand new timber framed buidling which is taking shape as I visit and scheduled to open by Easter if all goes to plan. It’ll be a new dedicated Reception building and set a whole domino effect of changes in motion, including Year 1 moving into the library and gaining their own outdoor gated area, and the addition of a brand new science and tech lab (sounds pretty snazzy!)
Currently Reception to Year 2 are housed in a pretty Grade II-listed black and white building which feels incredibly homely, but perhaps a little squeezed on space. The music room is in here too.
Conversely Prep have the far more modern and functional Cedar Wall building to call their own – named so for its attractive cedar cladding which blends in with the natural wooded surroundings of the school. Each Year (3-6) have their own clean and spacious classroom.
Then there’s the art room, which my very enthusiastic Year 6 guide, Charlotte, tells me is ‘really beautiful’. She’s not wrong. It’s an explosion of colour and creativity, divided by lovely wooden beams into three areas – The Flower Room, The Hokey Cokey Room and the Jellyfish Room. The latter is the the engineering hub, which is packed with construction equipment, plus there’s an interactive white board and seating area, while the other two are for messy work. For those who can’t get enough in their lessons, there’s an art club twice a week for Years 3-6, too.
Outdoors, there are two main playing fields within the 15 acre site (one of which makes up 7 acres). There’s also a tennis court which is used for football at break times and has basketball hoops, too. Private tennis lessons are also available after school for Murray or Williams wannabes.
The play area is not enormous or overly flash, but there’s plenty of space to run around, plus a couple of decent climbing frames and a cute bench where the kids can sit if they’re feeling lonely or just need something they can’t quite put their finger on. It’s up to all the kids and staff to keep an eye on it.
Plus there’s a cute pond area to explore (under adult supervision of course) – a project taken on by a member of staff who has dedicated her spare time (talk about going the extra mile!) to creating a lovely natural learning space where the kids can go pond dipping, hang bird and bug houses and get a bit messy no doubt!
Little Oaks is in the former Lodge House, which has its own private garden and outdoor play area within the school gates. The nursery can take 50 children (with a max of 40 per session) and there’s no minimum when it comes to how many days/sessions you book. Although taking one look around I imagine parents have more of a struggle tearing them away than getting them to stay!
Outside there’s a sand pit, ‘race’ track, mud kitchen, and the tots are happily scrawling with chalk on ground amongst the sunflowers – it’s all pretty idyllic. There are plans to create more of a dedicated nature area too in the woods to the side, which will also be used for forest school sessions.
Indoors is an open plan area for free-flow play. There’s a timetable of morning group activities, like music or a sensory activity – one called ‘disco dough’ captures my attention. Created by a lady called Shonette Basson-Wood, it basically involves squeezing, squidging and prodding play dough in time to music to strengthen little hand muscles and boost the gross motor skills needed for writing – genius! There’s also a small area for enrichment sessions which are run by specialist teachers for those who are ready.
There are also ballet, yoga and Makaton sessions, as well as the chance to learn not one, but four languages – French, Spanish, Japanese and German. Incidentally, they are twinned with a school in Japan and have a Japanese member of staff who organises shared projects and language sessions.
Another nice touch is Reuben, the empathy doll. He’s in a wheelchair and is invited to sit and play with the children and go home with them in the holidays – a very literal way of teaching them about difference and disability.
One thing to bear in mind is that the nursery is only open during term time, so you might want to consider how soon you want to adapt to a school term schedule.
I’ve mentioned the pastoral care here already but Howe Green House really does go the extra mile. It starts with having really open communication channels between parents, teachers, the Head and most importantly, the children – something that seems to come naturally in a small, intimate environment like this. Forget the old fashioned idea that kids should be seen and not heard, it couldn’t be further from the truth here, where they are listened to and their opinions considered and valued.
Of course, it can be tricky for little ones to vocalise their emotions, but that’s been taken into consideration too (remember the special bench in the play area?). One idea that I love is the emotional monsters board, where kids are asked to pick a monster that best represents their emotions that day and place it on the board anonymously – it can give the class teachers a real insight into how that child is feeling or coping at a particular time, and means that any concerns can be acted upon.
Another pastoral-led initiative, which sounds wonderful is art therapy. An art therapist (and qualified psychotherapist) comes into the school two days a week to run one-to-one sessions with children who might need some additional emotional or personal support (this is discussed beforehand with the teachers and parents). She also takes Art and Feelings sessions for small groups, inviting children to express their worries and anxieties through creativity.
In terms of extra curricular offerings Howe Green House does well for such a small school, with a wide range of activities and clubs including karate, Spanish Club, nature club, various sports clubs, ICT, Drama & dance, and even a traditional Maypole dancing club.
And when they move on? There’s absolutely no pressure or expectation put on the children to take a specific path, only support to help them choose the right one for them, often guided by the Head. They go on to a wide range of schools, with some choosing to board at the likes of Benenden and Gordonstoun, or picking large local independents like Bishop’s Stortford College, The Perse or Haileybury, while others go on to local state schools like Hockerill College, who they have a great relationship with.
Mrs Deborah Mills is as easy going as they come, but with a manner that means business and a warmth that would put any parent instantly at ease. I was interested to hear that she wasn’t privately educated herself, (yet her first teaching role was at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, Bedales) and that she’s done a total 180 flip in terms of when she thinks is the best time to invest in education – now (as you might expect) firmly in the Foundation years camp.
What’s refreshing about Howe Green House is that it’s not selective, but that’s something that Mrs Mills sees as a bonus, encouraging parents not to have preconceptions about how academic (or not) it might be. There are a handful of academic scholars here, while some pupils are just comfortable, and others find academic subjects a real stretch, but that diversity is part of the school’s charm.
Mrs Mills has also invested greatly in making strong relationships with other local schools – both Prep and Senior – as opposed to having rivals, and is a big believer in the open discussion of issues and ideas. After all every school is different and will offer things that appeal more to some families than others, so sharing best practice can only be a good thing I reckon.
There’s Breakfast Club from 7.45-8.45 (£5 per child, per session) and Toast Club from 3.45-4.30 or 4.30-5.30, including snack (£7 per child, per session or £11 for both sessions). These are both available throughout the school and from age 2 in Little Oaks.
For Little Oaks there’s a non-refundable registration fee of £25, then the fees start at £417 per term for one half day, to £2,896 per term for five full days. Little Oaks do not offer the extended 30 hours free childcare, just the 15 hours and only in the afternoons, so it’s worth factoring that into your calculations and planning.
There’s an additional non-refundable registration fee for children entering Reception to Year 6 of £50, then termly fees start at £3,290 per term for Reception, £3,345 for Years 1 & 2, and £4,147 for Years 3-6.
There’s also an acceptance fee of £500 payable one year prior to entry, which is non-refundable.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents who want to feel part of a community and for their children to be valued, listened to and cared for on a personal as well as academic level, all bundled up in a lovely, homely countryside setting.
Not for: If you’re expecting the shiny facilities of a top Senior school feeder and a formal, catch-all approach to education from foundation level, you won’t find them here, but that’s what makes it so refreshing.
Howe Green House School, Great Hallingbury, Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, CM22 7UF