Polam Nursery and Pre-Prep School, Bedford
This is a small school with a big heart, where happiness comes first, which provides a valuable stepping stone for both ambitious and more cautious children towards the next step in their education.
Polam School is a Nursery and Pre-prep catering for children aged 12 months to 9 years. While it might be urban in terms of location (right in the heard of Bedford) it’s on a gorgeous leafy street lined with substantial red brick family homes (handy for the school run!) and the school buildings themselves are made up of two characterful Victorian houses with many original features.
While some walk to school, the catchment includes nearby villages as well as children from Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire.
It’s diddy in size with just over 100 children and class sizes of 13-16 on average, but that all helps to give it the lovely nurturing family feel. Also as many of the children start from 12 months there’s a seamless transition from pre-school to Reception, which alleviates any worries (from the kids or parents) about starting ‘big school’.
The majority of children leave at age 7 to go on to one of the highly selective local Harpur Trust schools, while the Key Stage 2 pupils actually tend to join from elsewhere at age 8, perhaps if they need a little breather before moving up or some additional support in preparing them for the next step, both socially and academically.
Polam accepts children at all ages and all year round, subject to availability of places, and this allows them to cater for families who have recently relocated for example but the majority move up from Pre-school. Interestingly too, all but one child in this September’s nursery intake were children of past pupils, so there’s a strong attachment amongst the alumni. They’re automatically put in the same houses as mum or dad too – sweet!
The star of the show is the swimming pool – a half full-size pool at 12.5m which is not only used regularly by the children (it’s warm enough for the tiny tots, too) but also by the wider local community, with everything from parent and baby sessions and aquanatal, to adult swimming lessons and after-school sessions for the public. They also rent it out to local state schools and for birthday parties.
There’s squad swimming for older Polam pupils and even a Mermaid School! What? Yep, the children can learn to swim with custom-made mermaid tails – quirky but cute! Su, the pool manager is always on hand and it’s staffed up to seven days a week.
There’s a decent sized sports hall which is well used for PE lessons, tennis club and for performances at Christmas and in the summer. It’s well stocked with soft play equipment too for the littlies.
There are spacious rooms for all age groups and the nursery has recently had a total re-brand – forget garish primary colours, they’ve been done up in calming, muted pastels, with cute owl and cloud pattern wallpaper, to help enhance that home-from-home feeling.
Computing is going to be a big focus for the year ahead. There’s already an IT room, complete with updated desktops, coding bots, a smart screen which the kids will be able to interact with using their tablets, and a 3D printer. New smart screens are set to be rolled out across the whole school very soon, too. Darren O ‘Neil, the school’s Deputy Head, takes the IT lessons as it’s a particular interest of his, part of Polam’s commitments to play to the staff members’ strengths.
There’s a small kitchen which is used regularly (although not weekly) for cookery when it ties into the curriculum or a particular topic, and a music room, too.
Outside there’s a small nursery garden as well as good-sized play area for the whole school, which has recently been resurfaced with knee-friendly artificial grass (no more bumps and grazes) – even the babies can crawl around on it safely. And the play equipment has been updated.
There’s also a separate area where the Forest School specialist, ‘Forest Ian’, works his magic (think leaf bunting, tree planting, bug hotels and cooking popcorn over an open fire), which is quite a feat given that it’s an urban school with just a few square feet of astroturf to work with. The kids are having a great time tossing piles of leaves in the air.
Polam is part of the Cognita group of schools, and as such, follow the Cognita Way, which is a particular educational ethos. This means have close links with others, which they share facilities and practices with – such as Akeley Wood School in Milton Keynes where the kids can go and use their fabulous forest school space – as well as with schools in Spain and Latin America. All Cognita schools also get involved in a global wellbeing programme. This involves taking part in Wellbeing Week and the introduction of a survey for KS2 children and parents, which means that any issues relating to safeguarding or otherwise can be flagged immediately.
The idea of safeguarding is introduced from Reception and the kids know who to go to if they feel sad or worried. All staff have safeguarding training, and some teachers have ‘listening boxes’ in their classrooms for children to put their worries in if they don’t feel they can talk about them.
Some of the ideas that were brought in for Wellbeing Week have stuck, including a ‘thank you’ board for staff to use amongst themselves, a family swim and an informal parents ‘cuppa and chat’ morning (no teachers allowed!) The school also has a kindness cup which is filled with chips when individual children do something kind – once the cup is full Mrs Harris decides on a whole school treat.
On that note, she’s done away with the idea of awarding annual prizes to individual children for achievements academic or otherwise. There’s a Head’s assembly every Monday, where house point totals are revealed and the winning house receives the coveted cup at the end of the year, but the feeling of the staff was that it was too difficult to choose just one child without others feeling disheartened. Plus they’ve got years ahead of them to hone their competitive skills.
That’s not to say that they don’t recognise achievements at all though – one child is chosen each week to receive a ‘postcard home’ in recognition of doing something kind or persevering with a particular task, which they also receive a certificate for. These are added to their achievement book which is collated for every child throughout the year, which parents can take home.
There’s plenty of communication with parents too, which happens in the form of a weekly e-newsletter, as well as through the use of Interactive Learning Diaries which are used both in school and at home to record what the children have been working on.
There’s also a school value every month – this month it’s ‘courage’ so the children are all being superheros and finding the courage to make mistakes, be brave or trying something new.
There’s a big emphasis on the Early Years provision here, not least because the Head, Jessica Harris, is a specialist in the area. In fact she was Head of Early Years here for five years before stepping up to take on the school Headship in 2016. And her influence shows as the nursery received its third Outstanding inspection in a row back in March of this year.
From an intake of just six children aged one to two, Mrs Harris has grown it to double the size – with two separate rooms, Acorns and Catkins, to retain that small group feel – and brought in a whole range of external specialist teachers and activities, from Forest School (which is from 12 months to five years) to yoga and Disco Ducklings, which involves music, dance and props and keeps the kids enthralled. The babies take part in a big messy play with shaving foam and Baked Beans (eww!) so noone can say the staff don’t get stuck in here!
Plus, the benefit of being close to town means that the children can go out in their buggies on trips to the train station or the market for example.
Pre-school is all about school readiness – they learn phonics and maths but also independence skills (like changing their shoes to plimsolls for PE lessons) and do more grown-up activities, like tennis. They even eat in the dining room with the Reception children instead of in their own rooms. All children swim from age three and pre-schoolers learn French and PE with specialist staff. Plus they have music with a specialist from 12 months.
Joining Reception can be a big adjustment for both parents and children, as teaching styles and staff to children ratios change (1:4 to 1:8), but that is felt less so here at Polam, thanks to the familiarity the children have with their setting and the ongoing communication between staff and parents.
Mrs Harris brought in a big change to the way the curriculum is taught here when she became Head. Namely this involved taking a much more cross-curricular approach across all subjects (bar English and Maths which are still independently taught), and introducing whole school topic based work.
At the moment they are doing ‘ice worlds’ and there’s evidence of displays in every room showing how different age groups have interpreted it – in KS2 they’ve been taking Flapjack and Waddle the penguins home to have adventures and write about them in their diaries, in art they are making frosty displays, and Year 1 have made igloos from marshmallows and cotton wool!
On that note, there’s been the recent addition of an art specialist. When I look around the art room the children are busy carving soap – very Henry Moore!
Back to the topics – each one is kicked off with what Mrs Harris calls a ‘Stunning Start’ – basically something that gets them fired up to learn more. For a previous topic, ‘time machines’, this involved all pupils getting together wearing lab coats and going to the sports hall which was filled with boxes for junk modelling, then working across age groups in their houses to build a time machine. They also try to incorporate a ‘Marvellous Middle’ and a ‘Fantastic Finish’ for each topic, and usually there’s a trip involved.
On the subject of trips Years two to four go on a residential trip once a year – this is always local, so they can opt to go home at the end of the day if they want to. This is usually held at the local Scout HQ and involves getting put into tribes (complete with warpaint and bandanas!) and learning about bushcraft, then sleeping under canvas.
Learning is more structured of course from Reception upwards, with daily phonics lessons, but children still have some choice over which activities they want to do. One thing that really appealed to me was that most classes had not one but two rooms – one for focused ‘book’ work if you will, and another more creative space for crafty activities, dressing up and role play. Also it’s worth noting that there’s one class for KS2 (Years 3 and 4) as many leave the school at age 7. Also Spanish and German are introduced to the curriculum from Reception and French is continued from nursery.
There are loads of afterschool clubs to get involved in from gymnastics and football to ballet and street dance (a popular choice!), as well as board games, construction and art, most of which are run by specialist teachers and coaches. There’s also been the recent addition of an Italian club – something Mrs Harris has been keen to bring in for a while due to Bedford’s large Italian Community.
Academically the children fare well too and Polam celebrated a 100% success rate for all children who were recommended to sit entrance exams last academic year. The majority go on to Bedford Boys School, Bedford Girls School and Bedford Modern and a few sit for Kimbolton School, but Polam gives them all the support they need in preparation to pass with flying colours.
But that has to be right choice for the child of course. Some parents consider Polam a ‘good start’ for their child and move them on to the state system, while others need a bit more gentle guidance – particularly those who join at KS2. One parent told Mrs Harris she just wanted her daughter to be happy after struggling at a previous school, and that’s something that Polam excels in – the motto being ‘happy children learn’.
MUSIC AND DRAMA
All children from Nursery to Year 4 have Music lessons. Incidentally the Music specialist is also the Modern Languages specialist, so a lot of vocab is learnt by song! The kids have access to a wide range of percussion instruments – bet that’s noisy! Around 20% learn an instrument in one-to-one lessons – piano, ukelele and guitar are offered.
And they regularly sing, whether that’s to residents of local nursing homes, or at the church’s annual Christmas tree festival. There are also Nursery sing-alongs twice a term which the parents can join in with as well as at Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Plus there are two school performances a year – a twist on a nativity for Christmas and a Summer show (this year it was The Bee Musical).
There’s an Early Birds breakfast club from 7.30-8 and separate school and nursery breakfast clubs from 8-8.30. There’s also an after school club from 4-6pm and additional holiday clubs which run from a very reasonable 8am-6pm, allowing working parents plenty of flexibility. Children from other schools can also attend the holiday clubs but they are closed over Christmas and for the last two weeks of August.
Nursery ranges from £1738 per term (based on four sessions a week) to £2915.00 (for ten sessions a week) during school term time. School costs £3155 per term from Reception upwards.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Children who need a gentle approach to the early years of their education will certainly find all the support and personal attention here, whether they join at 12 months or 8 years. And if a seamless transition from nursery to school appeals (as much to you as a parent as for the child – no crying at the school gates now!), then Polam ticks all the boxes. If your child starts here from 12 months they’ll be extremely familiar and comfortable in their surroundings by the time they join Reception at 4 and raring to go by 7.
Not for: Parents looking for a rural school with enormous grounds to run around in and explore – this is an urban school which makes the best of every inch of its small site and feels more like a home than an institution. Polam’s small size and coseting environment might not appeal to everyone, however by age 7 the vast majority of pupils are more than equipped both academically and socially for their next step – the 100% success rate for next school entrance exams speaks for itself.
Polam School, 45 Lansdowne Road, Bedford, MK40 2BU