Stormont School, Potters Bar
This pretty and perfectly formed school for girls has a gentle and personalised approach to learning and plenty of opportunities for girls to get stuck in.
I first visited Stormont in 2019. Since then quite a lot has changed – the appointment of a new Head for starters. Read our updated review to find out more.
Just outside Potter’s Bar, and 20 minutes to London by train, Stormont girls’ prep school feels a far cry from the academic hubs you might expect to find so close to the capital. With a maximum intake of 170 pupils aged 4-11, Stormont isn’t overwhelming in size and is 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!), outdoor sport and cross-curicular activities. Even the cows pop their heads over the fences to say hello sometimes – it doesn’t get more countrified than that!
It’s a non-selective school, so Reception places at Stormont are first come, first served, with only 24 spots per class. And it receives around 25% more applications than it has places every year, so get your name down fast if you’re keen. You’ll need to register for a Reception place (a non-refundable £50 fee) and if you are offered one you’ll be asked for a £1000 acceptance fee. Otherwise you will be put on a waiting list until a space becomes available.
In-year spaces do occasionally come up and parents can register an expression of interest. Girls are invited to meet the Head and take part in a taster day, as well as some informal assessments (and references and reports from their current school will be requested) to ensure that they are a good fit before places are offered.
Louise Martin was previously at Stormont’s sister school for boys, Lochinver House, before being appointed former Deputy Head at Stormont in September 2018. Then in February 2020, former Head (another Martin, uncannily!) made the decision to retire to Dorset and Louise Martin was appointed Head.
Martin is professional yet informal, clearly very capable but entirely humble and basically thrilled to have secured the role here (despite the challenges of taking on her first Headship at the start of a pandemic!) I could have chatted to her all day – she’s very real and approachable which I’m sure has huge appeal to parents, particularly with little ones who need a tad more nurturing. She might not be what parents expect from an independent school head (in fact, she’s been told that more than once!), but you only have to meet her to know that she’s what any parent would want as a role model for their kids.
She has been described as a swan – serene on the surface and quickly paddling underneath, but I think perhaps she’s being modest as she seems to have things entirely under control. She’s also extremely pro-active with her own self-development which I find refreshing (there’s always room to improve, right?) and has appointed a mentor from a larger school in Kent (with a similar ethos to Stormont) to help her with that.
In spite of COVID, Martin has been able to put her own stamp on the place, and has an eye for interior design (there’s a drill and roll of wallpaper in her office so you can’t say she’s not hands-on!) which she’s put to good use by re-purposing unloved rooms and dingy corners and turning them into bright new study areas, offices and spaces to accommodate bubbles. Very resourceful!
Martin also began a huge recruitment drive during lockdown, including appointing a new Head of Digital Learning to roll out the virtual lessons. Plus she’s formed great relationships with other local schools, both Prep and Senior, to help learn more about where the girls might go on to and how to ensure Stormont’s offering is unique, enabling her to work with, rather than be in competition with other nearby Preps.
The sports facilities on site are relative to the size of the school and of high standard, and the girls are ferried up the road to Queenswood School, where they can make use of the swimming pool (from Year 2) for lessons and end of term galas. The school field is used for sports days, rounders matches, cross country races, athletics and social events.
There’s the modern Johnston 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 four 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 outdoor courts used for tennis, netball and hockey and there’s an option to sign up for extra tennis lessons, too.
The classrooms in the main property have all the features of a traditional Victorian house – think high ceilings, original coving and ornate fireplaces – while ICT and music and drama take place in the purpose built Millennium building.
One of the changes that Martin has made is to convert a gorgeous unused room, with vaulted ceilings and an original Victorian frieze, into the new library – I mean it was practically built for purpose! And it’s out with the old books and in with the new (although they will be donated rather than wasted), with more investment in fiction, and non-fiction reseach going online.
The Pre-Prep cloakroom areas have also been refreshed with new lockers for Years 3-6 and the old Victorian school desks are being sold and replaced with new, more modern and functional ones. Plus there are some new Prep and study rooms which Martin has commandeered for purpose since her arrival.
There are around 24 girls per class, and often more than one member of staff per lesson. Specialist-taught lessons are split into half classes (12 girls max), where different subjects are taught back-to-back, so the ratio of staff to girls is pretty high (sometimes 1:6). The girls are taught by their form tutor up to Year 3 (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 Reception to Year 6 the girls have a half class of IT twice a week – an increase that Martin has brought in. There’s also an IT club after school and there’s a new bank of android tablets and laptops.
From Year 4 they study English, maths and there’s been an increase in specialist teachers for History, Geography, Science and DT.
While homework is given throughout, there’s an emphasis on it being manageable, rather than a chore, and for Pre-Prep this relates to something they’ve been taught that day, alongside reading and number activities, which are given throughout school.
All reading schemes have been made available online, which made it easier for parents to find resources during lockdown. Martin has also made Maths and English a daily lesson on the timetable and introduced a Maths and English extension teacher for Years 5 and 6, two mornings a week to bring on those who benefit from being challenged – there are no glass ceilings to be found here!
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.
Last, but not least, there’s a new Deputy Head, Alexis Sobell, who started in January 2021.
Stormont clearly isn’t all about league tables, and there is a particularly strong focus on ‘soft’ skills: giving the girls the courage to have a go; creating resilience for dealing with failure; and developing their social and emotional skills.
While there’s no setting as such here, the girls are often 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. I’ve mentioned the Maths and English extension teachers – but there are also learning support staff who can bring on those who need a little extra help. This means classes can be split into three groups at times, so those extra study areas that Martin’s brought in are essential.
However, that’s not to say that the girls don’t get the results. By the time the girls leave they reading and writing in French (pretty impressive for 11 years old!). Stormont girls have a pretty impressive record when it comes to scholarships, with the Year 6 class of 2021 achieving six Academic scholarships, two in Music, three in Sport and two more yet to be confirmed. Popular leavers’ destinations include Queenswood, Aldenham, St Albans and Haileybury.
The Head has one-to-one conversations with the parents from Year 5 about next schools and offers different perspectives to them on which she feels might best suit their daughter.
The head of PE is bubbling with enthusiasm, both about the fitness and wellbeing of the girls (they’re fitness tested from age 4), but also getting involved in as many competitions as possible. She tells me about an Aquathon that they’re hoping to get off the ground in the summer term for one. And the girls don’t do badly for such a small school. Netball and gymnastics are the strongest sports here, with the A team undefeated so far this year. And in Athletics, a Y6 girls won the high jump at the London Prep Schools Athletics Championships and went on to win the U11 National High Jump.
What’s lovely to hear is that the girls are asked what they want to do more so the curriculum takes its lead from them to some degree. Along with Netball, Gymnastics, Hockey, Lacrosse, Tennis, Athletics, Cricket, Rounders, Swimming, Cross Country, Dance, the girls can take part in clubs including Taekwondo, Ballet and Football, plus there’s a popular Friday afternoon running club. Stormont also has great relationships with local senior schools and sports clubs, like Hatfield Netball Club, and the girls have weekly coaching sessions with Queenswood’s Director of Hockey.
They even have a Ski team, which represented Stormont in the IAPS National Ski Championships held in Italy, as well as the London School Skiing Championships.
ART, POTTERY AND D&T
The art room, which is built around a pretty courtyard area, is used from Reception. Textiles are introduced from Year 2 and every year visiting artist Darcy Turner spends a day with Year 4 creating a whole class sculpture. Last term it was an enchanted tree (see below) and you can’t miss the metalwork elephant at the school entrance and the almost-lifesize giraffe watching over the playground.
Just before my visit, Year 3 welcomed three real live horses to the school – they were able to look at and touch the horses then use their observations to create their own art works. You can’t get much more hands-on!
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 – Martin points out that some of the salad bowls at lunch time have been made by girls themselves!
In D&T there’s plenty of enthusiasm as the girls learn about making moving toy cars and the science behind why it’s not always best to be the fastest!
The Head of Music is Nick Pegden who joined in September 2019. He works with his team of peripatetic staff to offer the girls a range of clubs and activities from choir to recorders, ukulele group and string group as well as orchestra and rock band. Music is taught in half classes from Reception.
All girls participate in class assemblies, which parents are invited to, as well as numerous concerts throughout the year. There’s now a permanent stage set up in the Pearson Hall for such things. Over a third of all pupils take peripatetic lessons, with percussion (yes, those are steel drums you can see in the picture), and woodwind being popular choices.
The Pre-Prep building has its own outdoor play area, and a central link area, which is choc full of crafty creations including a role play area that changes with the curriculum. 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 logically and calmly.
The girls also start learning the Stormont Golden Rules as soon as they join. The learning is also fairly fluid in Pre-Prep, allowing subjects to feed into each other, such as art and IT, or English and history, by topic.
As you’ll find in most schools the Form Tutor is the primary contact for parents and pupils. At Stormont there is also a non-teaching Head of Pre-Prep who supports the pupils and parents from Reception to Year 2. The Deputy Head oversees the pastoral care for Prep and there’s also a designated Head of Learning Support, plus there are the teaching assistants who the girls know well.
Prep girls also have a worry box in classrooms which they can use anonymously if they wish and there’s always a familiar face around – even at lunchtimes – for the girls to approach with any concerns. Incidentally Martin doesn’t believe in silent lunchtimes, so hubub and chatter are not only allowed but welcomed.
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. And the Maths and English extensions certainly bring a more tailored and personalised approach to teaching. 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.
The wraparound provision has been extended since my last visit – a big plus for working parents – in the mornings girls can come in at 7.30am and they can stay after school until 6pm in the brand new purpose built rooms (one for Pre-Prep and one for Prep).
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
The school has a number of mobile phones that can be used on trips and at fixtures if necessary. Staff are not allowed to take photos or videos on personal devices and there is a ‘no show’ policy regarding phones in classrooms.
Pre-Prep costs are currently £4,225 per term; Prep is £4,480 per term. Fees are reviewed annually in March for implementation the following September.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents like the relaxed feel here – forget formal Open Days full with flowing Champagne. At Stormont you’ll get tea and home made biscuits on the veranda, decorated with flowers handpicked by the girls.
And, being a small school means that Martin can really dedicate time to talking to parents (yes, they need support as well as the children sometimes!)
As for the girls, they seem content, yet fizzing with enthusiasm; fun-loving and creative. It’s an environment where girls can be themselves, but also be heard; where girls can play sport, get grubby and build cars, and where wallflowers can come out of their shells in a safe and nurturing space, growing quietly in confidence.
Stormont isn’t in the business of churning out straight-A clones, but guiding its girls towards finding their individual niche, becoming the best versions of themselves, and being kind to boot, which is too often forgotten in schools shooting for the top of the league tables.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents looking for a grounded and friendly environment where they can really be listened to, plus the staff to pupil ratio are both big selling points. And those who have chosen not to go down the selective school route at age 4 will thrive under the gentle and personalised learning approach at Stormont – noone gets left behind or held back here.
Not for: Parents with a purely academic outlook and prefer the idea of a large school with sprawling facilities and hundreds of clubs. And if girls don’t want to get messy, build things, work up a sweat on the sports field and generally get stuck in, the Stormont ethos probably isn’t for them.
Dare to disagree:
Don’t take my word for it! Have a look for yourself. There’s an Open Morning on 8 March 2022 or to arrange a private tour, call 01707 654037 or e-mail email@example.com
Stormont School, The Causeway, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, EN6 5HA.