Stormont School, Potters Bar
Potters Bar is close to London, and we’re talking 12 miles or so from Hampstead, yet the independent school scene in Herts isn’t quite the competitive hot house of the north London landscape. My visit to Stormont School is surprising, refreshing and memorable.
Stormont School is a non-selective, day prep school for 168 girls (4-11 years) in a residential area in Potters Bar, south Hertfordshire. The main building is an attractive Victorian villa with a verandah, where teachers welcome girls in the morning to facilitate an easy drop-off. There is some parking in the grounds, but the neighbouring roads have unrestricted parking should you need it. You can walk to the bus depot and railway station in Potters Bar, where the station is only one stop from Finsbury Park. The A1 and M25 are easily accessible. The school is next door to Morven Park, 20 acres of National Trust parkland, 2 acres of which are leased by the school for outdoor activities and known as The Field. The environment feels safe and countrified, despite the fact that the high street is only minutes away. The school has the feel of a family home and there’s a strong sense of cohesive community.
The school grounds are not huge, but there are lots of trees, including a wooded area with insect hotels, and a spot where a camera is set up in a bird box for the annual Stormont Springwatch with a live feed on the intranet. There are two floodlit outside courts. For playtimes, athletics, cross-country running and rounders, it’s straight into The Field, next door and easily accessible, leased from the National Trust’s Morven Park. There are plans to use more of the land for outdoor learning. The girls swim once a week at nearby Queenswood School. The sports hall is impressive, with indoor courts, and a state-of-the-art gym that was opened by gymnast Beth Tweddle, complete with gallery for visiting parents to cheer on their girls.
In addition to the main house, the attached converted stables and modern extensions are used for art, pottery, drama, music and ICT. The overall feeling is one of spaciousness and light. The art department feels as zingy as can be, with a wonderful pottery room and kiln. The girls I met had been making teapots and they couldn’t wait to tell me what they’d been up to.
Darcy Turner is a sculptor who has visited on a couple of occasions. The children learned how to roll up newspapers to make furniture – now in use – and wire sculptures covered in a silver material. There is now a resident elephant and several other sculptures in the garden. A new art partnership started at the beginning of September 2017. Stormont School is funding one of its teachers to teach art, pottery and D&T in local primary schools every week. The uptake has been instant.
This is a busy school. It hums with creativity and enthusiasm. The French room felt very French, with loads of photos of the French trips. There’s an ongoing programme of refurbishment and I was there on the eve of the unveiling of the new library, smelling of paint, and with two volunteer parents putting books on the shelves. Beetroot, carrots and herbs are being grown by the girls in the Lower School courtyard and during the summer holidays, work started to develop this area to make it more colourful and conducive to play and is now complete. The older girls’ classrooms – bright and upbeat with walls crammed with interesting work – are in the main building, which has loads of original features and bags of character. I’ll stop there. I’m starting to sound like an estate agent.
Stormont School has strong links with a local residential care home, and the girls go there sometimes to play games with the older adults. The girls in Form 6 also visit Cooperscroft care home to have tea with the residents twice a year. Having watched the C4 programme Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, I can only think that these older adults are very lucky. Local primary schools visit Stormont to join in with sports. Both girls and parents do a huge amount of fundraising. Cuffley Camp is not far: 90 acres of maintained woodland, and a designated site of Special Scientific Interest. On the day that I visited, the reception class had just been on a bug hunt. Old Owens is the location for the very popular Dads and Daughters camping trip, something I heard a lot about from the girls over lunch. They were completely unfazed having me on their table – the Headmistress had to pop to talk to someone so for a while I was on my own with them – and they were full of energy and excited about playing netball.
Lunch was healthy and delicious with loads of salads, and there is some impressive art on the walls of the dining room, adding to the feeling of lightness. The girls on my table all told me that the best thing at school is Mrs Feaver’s chicken pie. The pastoral side is very strong and the catering staff and cleaners are part of the pastoral team. The overriding feeling in the school is one of a happy, warm community, full of girls who feel engaged. I visited all the classrooms and I loved the atmosphere. Teaching is done in small groups, by splitting the classes for lessons. Classes are never more than 24 pupils, so there are usually 10-12 girls per lesson.
Music could be stronger, according to the Headmistress Sharon Martin, and that’s her next big thing to work on. And since my visit in the summer, the school now has a large number of new instruments: steel pans, drum kits, ukuleles and a few other percussion instruments, thanks to the Parents’ Association. The girls are also going to be taking part in Haileybury’s Choral Festival in October.
French is taught from reception. There’s an active school council. Stormont follows the national curriculum, but being independent it can offer so many other things to everyone. Drama and pottery are examples of this. After hearing about the number of clubs and extra activities on offer I felt the need to lie down. The choice is mind bogglingly. Are you ready? Yoga, debating, coding, football, tae kwon-do, rock band, pop choir, run for fun, chess, orchestra, German, cookery, chamber choir, dance, and absolutely loads more. The school is very switched on when it comes to offering extra support for children who need it, and obviously it’s easier to do this when you’re teaching 10 or 12 girls at a time.
There’s a tortoise called Nibbles, who lives in reception. The Headmistress loves mini beasts, particularly spiders. You can run up to the Headmistress and give her a hug. During our tour, I think hugs took place in every single classroom; both individual and group hugs. Not really a quirk, but just a big thumbs up: the Spurs Foundation come to the school every week to run the football club. Spurs! Don’t tell the Gooners.
The majority of girls go on to the senior school of their choice and in Hertfordshire some of the popular destinations include Haileybury, Queenswood, St Albans High School and Haberdashers, with 16 scholarships offered this year. Stormont is one of the few non-selective girls’ schools in the area and is proud to be so. There is ongoing internal assessment and regular updates for parents about their daughter’s progress. Stormont is very switched on to looking out for children who need extra help.
Sharon Martin has dreamt about being a Headmistress since the age of five. She has been Head for 4 years (her predecessors were there for 29 and 20 years respectively) and she was previously deputy head at University College School in Hampstead where she was responsible for developing the curriculum. She is warm, wise and kind, and is an ambassador for the pastoral side of education. She lives locally, and has an impressive knowledge of the senior school landscape in both Hertfordshire and north London. She urges parents not to listen to ‘pavement gossip’ about secondary schools, but to talk to her instead. She knows all the parents well and we meet on the day after she’s hosted a supper for new reception parents. She is an advocate of clear and direct communication with parents and she encourages them to come in and talk to her. Her office is the original library and it feels like a safe and cosy place and her door is always propped open. Children run up to her and tell her things about their day as they fling their arms around her waist. She hugs them back. I’ve never met a Head like this. I want a hug too.
Sharon Martin aims to limit homework. What with the hugs and the teddies in her office, is Stormont a light and fluffy place, I wonder? ‘No, it isn’t,’ she says, in a voice that makes the teddies blanch. ‘I’m ambitious for the girls,’ she says. ‘But I’m not going to push them. If you push people, they fall over.’ She goes on to say: ‘What worries me more and more is that the definition of success for children and young people is very narrow. It’s all based on examination results. We start with wanting the girls to feel happy and safe. It’s about encouraging them to try things and then praising them when they try and then celebrating together.’ I want to cheer. And I want a hug. She also points out that she recently went to a talk by CEO of HSBC who said that what is really lacking in the business world today is people who are thoughtful and can listen. After talking to her my impression is that Stormont is a school that manages to challenge girls in the safest, kindest way. The more confident you are, the more likely you are to try new things. Please can I have a hug now?
There is a staggered start and end to the day. You can drop off your daughter from 8.15 on the famous verandah (there’s a one-way drive) if you want to. A new thing is the breakfast club that runs from 7.30am. Reception girls finish at 3pm and the oldest girls finish at 3.40pm. Younger girls can wait in the late room for their older sisters to finish. Extended care is offered until 5pm for the Years 1 and 2: £7.80, and 6pm for the Years 3-6: £2.85. There’s also a homework club for Years 3-6, and the charge is £5.70. The after school clubs taught by teachers are free, and those led by outside coaches are paid.
£3,990 per term for the Lower School (Reception; Years 1 and 2) and £4,220 for the Upper School (Years 3-6).
Word on the ground:
Stormont is loved for its friendly and family atmosphere, reassuring for both parents and the girls. It’s definitely a place where joining in and being engaged is a plus, and again that goes for both the children and parents. It’s popular for being non-selective, and admired for putting happiness before academic results, and getting the best out of the girls as a result of this approach.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Girls who might enjoy a smaller school. Parents who want to get involved with school life. Children who want to join in with the community. Girls who would gain from a kind atmosphere where you don’t get that pressurised feeling of striving, although the girls are probably thriving all the more for being relaxed and happy.
Not for: If you want the feeling of a big school, Stormont might not be for you. It might not suit parents who don’t want to get involved with the school or those who want a more formal approach and rural location. Although the National Trust parkland next door is pretty rural.
Dare to disagree:
Stormont School, The Causeway, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, EN6 5HA.