Stormont School, Potters Bar
Muddy says: This small but perfectly formed school gives girls an opportunity to bloom and become the best they can be, thanks to its relaxed and non-pressurised approach to learning and development.
Just outside Potter’s Bar, and 20 minutes to London by train, Stormont girls’ prep school feels a far cry from the academic hothouses you might expect to find so close to the capital. With just 147 pupils aged 4-11, Stormont is small but perfectly formed, and housed in an equally bijou Victorian villa, surrounded by shrubs, flowers and a pretty verdigris veranda.
The property backs on to the 20-acre National Trust-owned Morven Park, the former home of the Sanderson family (with these surroundings it’s easy to see where the inspiration for their beautiful wallpaper designs came from), and the school has the use of three acres as a recreational area for break times (wellies obligatory!), and some outdoor sport. Even the cows pop their heads over the fences to say hello sometimes – it doesn’t get more countrified than that! Then there’s the house’s original orchard to explore, which is also loaned to the local Guides and Brownies troupes for camping.
Places at Stormont are first come, first served, and it receives around 25% more applications than it has places every year, so get your name down fast if you’re keen.
Sportswise, these are not extensive, but the girls are ferried up the road to Queenswood School, where they can make use of the swimming pool (from Year 2) and sports pitches there. The field is used for rounders matches, cross country races and play.
There’s a decent Sports Hall with indoor courts, and a state-of-the-art gym (which was opened by Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle), complete with gallery for visiting parents to cheer on their daughters. The girls do formal PE three to five times a week (depending on age), everyone does gymnastics (the Stormont squad compete regionally and nationally), and they are taught the basics of netball from Year 2. There are two courts used for tennis, netball and hockey and there’s an option to sign up for extra tennis lessons, too. This is also the first year that cricket fixtures have been part of the curriculum.
The classrooms in the main property have all the features of a traditional Victorian house – think high ceilings, original coving and ornate fireplaces – not that the girls probably care much, but the teachers love it! – while ICT and music lessons take place in the purpose built Millennium building, which is undergoing a re-vamp.
There are no major additions planned, but every year the school make improvements so there is always something new for the girls to come back to after the holidays. Last year the stable block (used for art, pottery and D&T with a courtyard garden outdoors for growing veg) was updated. Next up are the kitchens, which are due for a full re-fit.
There’s a new Deputy Head. Louise Martin started in September, and she has been instrumental in helping the school to reflect on what it’s doing. Part of this has been to give the girls a say in their own education. Some of the teachers collected anecdotal evidence based on what the girls were saying about how they were being taught, and within just a couple of days those changes were being implemented in lessons. Did the girls notice? Absolutely! It went down so well that the idea was rolled out in the form of a questionnaire for Years 2 – 6, and the findings of that are now being used to zhuzh up lessons, such as English where the girls wanted more talking and shared writing tasks. It’s lovely to hear how Stormont gives its girls a voice and I’m sure that must make them feel more empowered too.
There are around 24 girls per class, but most will have more than one member of staff per lesson, and some lessons are split into half classes (12 girls max), where different sujects are taught back-to-back, so the ratio of staff to girls is pretty high. The girls are taught by their form tutor up to Year 2 (except for music, art, pottery, French, PE and computing). Mouse and keyboard skills are learned in ICT from Reception, then from Year 1 the girls start coding basics (enter the whizzy computer geeks of the future!). From Year 3 they study English, maths and one humanity with a class teacher, but science and D&T are added to the list of classes taught by specialists.
While homework is given throughout, there’s an emphasis on it being fun, rather than a chore, and for the lower school this usually comes in the form of a game to play at home, relating to something they’ve been taught that day, alongside reading which is given throughout school.
Every Friday morning there is a Good Work Assembly, where girls are nominated by their teachers to present their work, be it a performance or written piece, to the rest of the school. This is when House Points are awarded too, so it makes for a positive start to the day, and ends the week on a high.
ART, POTTERY AND D&T
The art room is used from Reception. Textiles are introduced from Year 2 – they make beanbag frogs in Year 4 and progress to batik design cushion covers in Year 6. Every year visiting artist Darcy Turner spends a day with Year 4 creating a whole class sculpture – you can’t miss the metalwork elephant at the school entrance and the almost-lifesize giraffe watching over the playground.
There is also a well-equipped kiln room and pottery is taught as a subject as a half-class lesson alongside art. Some of the creations on display look like things you’d buy in a shop – there’s some real talent here! I’d have loved rolling up my sleeves, getting covered in clay and exploring all the different glazes as a kid (or even now as a big kid!) What’s really lovely is that Stormont have a partnership with local state schools to use the pottery facilities every Friday.
In D&T there’s some enthusiastic sawing going on as the girls tell me about the CAM toys they are making (yep, I needed a little refresh on that one, too) and it’s fab to see one of the grandads (who’s a bit of a pro with the tools) volunteering to help them construct their mechanised wooden toys. I think he was having as much fun as they were!
Head of music, Harriet Riley, joined the school two years ago and has rejuvinated its music offering – there’s a very popular Disney Choir (I imagine a gang of mini Elsas belting out Let it Go…) as well as a Friday morning ukelele club, an orchestra, and year 6 have formed their own rock band and are currently penning their own hit!
There are also opportunities for the girls to perform in assemblies when chosen by the elected music monitors. 55% of the girls who are eligible play an instrument, with percussion (yes, those are steel drums you can see in the picture), and woodwind being popular choices.
The Lower School building has its own outdoor play area, and a central reception area, where parents can drop off the girls and have a chat to the teachers. It’s choc full of crafty creations including a pirate ship and a pretend office, where the girls can play as they learn. There are even scheduled sessions for Year 1 and Reception to play together.
Independence is encouraged from a young age, with the Reception girls having the responsibility of finding their own name and posting it in the letter box at registration, as well as depositing their water bottles and book bags in the designated spots. The school is big on labelled praise – recognising good behaviour, rather than penalising bad – and staff encourage the girls to work through their behaviour logically and calmly.
The girls also start learning the Stormont Golden Rules as soon as they join. The learning is also fairly fluid in Lower School, allowing subjects to feed into each other, such as art and IT, or English and history, by topic, as opposed to rigidly sticking to a tight syllabus.
Sharon Martin has been Headmistress since 2013, having worked in boys’ schools for 24 years. But don’t let that put you off… She’s a big believer in the benefits of single sex education the different requirements of boys and girls – just don’t utter the words ‘pink and fluffy’ in front of her. This is how some described the school before Mrs Martin started, but that’s a reputation she was very keen to shake.
As for Mrs Martin herself: jovial, approachable and gently forthright – absolutely; fluffy – certainly not! In her book, ambition and courteousness are not mututally exclusive and that’s what she wants to instill in Stormont girls. It’s certainly evident in the polite, confident young ladies I meet.
Stormont is non-selective. Mrs Martin admits that she is not a fan of league tables, given that they are purely results driven – not uncommon for independent school heads, but there is a particularly strong focus on ‘soft’ skills at Stormont: giving the girls the courage to have a go; creating resilience for dealing with failure; and developing their social and emotional skills.
What’s more, there’s no setting as such here – the girls are sometimes grouped based on their ability in a particular topic within a subject, but this is fluid and changes from lesson to lesson. This means if one girl is strong in geometry but not in arithmetic she will be taught and supported accordingly in those areas, as opposed to being set at one level for maths throughout the year.
However, that’s not to say that the girls don’t get the results. The 2019 leavers have been offered six academic scholarships and six sports scholarships. By the time the girls leave they have basic GCSE level French (pretty impressive for 11 years old!) and almost every pupil is achieving between 1 – 5 years above national level in reading, maths and reasoning.
Mrs Martin has one-to-one conversations with the parents from Year 4 about next schools and interestingly, parents will often come out of that meeting with a completely different opinion to the one they went in with. That’s how well the school knows its girls and what is best for them.
I like the idea of the half lessons as this allows for smaller class sizes for hands-on subjects (like art, pottery and D&T) so there’s more one-to-one time with the teacher. I’m also a big fan of the way that the girls are given a voice to really influence their own education, and I’m certainly not going to argue with anything that helps to empower the next generation of young women.
After school care is available to girls in Lower School until 5pm (or 5.30pm by special arrangement), and in Upper School until 6pm.
£4,100 to £4,350 per term (2019-20 fees yet to be set).
WORD ON THE GROUND
Stormont girls seem calm and collected, and the word ‘content’ springs to mind. They fizz with enthusiasm, are fun-loving and creative, but they’re certainly not ‘pink and fluffy’. It’s an environment where girls can be themselves, but also be heard, where wallflowers can come out of their shells in a safe and nurturing space and grow quietly in confidence. Stormont isn’t in the business of churning out straight-A clones, but guiding its girls towards finding their individual niche, and becoming the best versions of themselves, and nice to boot, which is too often forgotten in schools shooting for the top of the league tables.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Girls who aren’t ready for a selective school at 4 will thrive here. The gentle approach at Stormont will give them the nurturing touch they need whilst providing the support and encouragement to prep them for the next step at 11.
Not for: Parents with a purely academic outlook might find the Stormont approach too ‘soft’, and girls who don’t want to get messy, build things, work up a sweat on the sports field and generally get stuck in.
Dare to disagree:
Don’t take my word for it! Have a look for yourself. There’s an Open Morning on 8 Oct 2019 or to arrange a private tour, call 01707 654037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Stormont School, The Causeway, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, EN6 5HA.