Muddy meets: Belinda Callow, Bishop’s Stortford College
Belinda Callow is Head of Pre Prep at Bishop’s Stortford College. I caught up with her ahead of the school’s open day on Saturday 22 April.
Can you remember being the age of your Pre-Prep children? What are your memories of school when you were their age?
I have some memories of when I was about 5 and 6 years old. I went to a lovely school in Bromley, Kent. I remember my teacher, Miss Greek, who was invited to the Queen’s Garden Party; she told us all about it, and it really made an impression on me and inspired me. I also remember sitting on her lap when I was unwell; she was really kind and it made me feel safe and cared for. I also remember the Head teacher, Mr Tapp, who took a selected group of children swimming early in the morning before school. I loved swimming and really enjoyed this special time, which was above and beyond the normal school day.
How do parents choose a school for such young children – it must feel like a hugely important decision?
Choosing a school for your child, especially the first school after Nursery is a huge decision, and commitment. It is important for parents to visit schools; usually you can tell as you walk around a school what sort of learning environment it has, and whether it has the atmosphere you feel would benefit their child. If the children in the school are happy, engaged and want to share what they doing, the school is getting it right!
What skills are you trying to teach children at this age? Can you give examples of how you teach these skills?
There are a wide range of skills that can be taught to children at this age. The view that schools are filling ‘empty vessels’ is very far from the truth. Children come to school with many different experiences and skills, and we build upon these skills, extending and challenging their learning, as well as building a foundation of knowledge and understanding that will support them throughout their school lives and beyond. The curriculum incorporates a broad selection of subjects, which enables skills to be developed, such as independence, questioning, analysing, hypothesising, problem-solving, collaboration and discussion. There are also learning habits, which are skills the children need to support how they learn such as having a go, not giving up, being curious, being imaginative, trying to improve, being co-operative, being able to concentrate and to be able to be kind and thoughtful. These are skills that need to be practised.
We also encourage a growth mindset, which fosters a positive environment where children feel safe to make mistakes and can make sensible decisions to support their learning. In our school, the children thought up animals to represent certain skill areas, so they could identify with the creature and help them embed the habit for example telling a child to focus and concentrate is quite abstract. When they thought about the kestrel when hovering over its prey, the children are able to visualise what concentration is far more easily. Outdoor learning and Forest School have made a huge impact on the children’s learning. Their understanding that is it not just okay to make mistakes, but in fact it is important to make mistakes to improve the way you are working. This encourages our pupils to be more confident in their own learning and in knowing how they learn.
There’s a lot of talk about the ‘growth mindset’. Is this something you encourage and aim to develop at Pre-Prep, and please can you explain what it is.
Yes, we do encourage a growth mindset in Pre-Prep. Children can grow up with a fixed mind set. They believe they can’t do something, or they are told they have produced something which is brilliant, and this can hinder the children. Children with a fixed mindset are afraid to try something because they believe they cannot do and are afraid to make a mistake, or have done something brilliant and become afraid that they will not be able to reproduce it again, and so become afraid to try. The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck. It supports the idea that people with a growth mindset love learning and are more resilient in having a go, the children view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.
As adults, we all crave balance in our lives. Do you think that children of this age do actually have perfectly balanced lives in terms of work and play? Or are we giving them too much work at a very early age?
The balance between work and play is difficult. The terminology ‘work’ and ‘play’ is complicated to separate. What we consider work, a child may view as play. What we view as play, our children may consider a chore. Parents are very keen for their children to have as many experiences as they can and enjoy a broad education that allows them to develop different skills such as karate, horse-riding, Brownies, football, tennis to name but a few. They also feel children should socialise with their peers and so encourage regular play dates. On top of this, there are areas where the parents can perceive their children are not achieving as well as they could be, and will add swimming lessons or tutoring to support and help their child. All of these are okay in moderation, but a balance needs to be established. Children are incredibly adaptable. They enjoy and can cope with many new challenges. They may request and ask for these activities, or it may be they are encouraged to partake in them. However, there is a need for children to become bored! When children are left to their own devises they learn to use their imagination and develop their inventiveness. They learn to occupy their own time and develop resilience. I am not talking about time spent on electronic devices or watching television, but creating, making, reading, playing and problem-solving. Children need time to play. They need time to recoup their energies and they need sleep.
What about concentration? I believe you practise mindfulness in school?
Concentration is something that needs to be taught. Some children have a natural ability to become engaged in an activity without becoming distracted, and others will react to the smallest distraction. At school, my parents were told that my sister could be in class with complete chaos going on around her and she would remain focussed, whereas with me, a pin could drop in a silent classroom and I would be up investigating what was going on! Concentration is one of the habits we encourage the children to develop; learning to appreciate what it looks like and how it helps your learning benefits the children.
Mindfulness is something we have been gradually introducing. It encourages the children to take time out and appreciate what is around them. It can sometimes just be a moment in a day, where the class will stop and listen to what they can hear. It can be a moment where they stop to be calm, physically helping their bodies and minds to rest. At other times it can be a rainbow walk, where the children will go for a walk and try to spot items that are the colours of the rainbow. In lessons, mindfulness can support the way children think about the choices we make. What choices did Goldilocks have when she visited the Bears’ Cottage? What might she have done differently?
Your Pre Prep seems to be famous for its forest school. How did this come about and how does it help children to grow and learn?
Forest School is an inspirational process that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees. Forest School is a specialised learning approach that sits within and compliments the wider context of outdoor and woodland education. This is an approach we have adopted; many of our staff are level 2 and level 3 trained. The children enjoy a weekly session in Forest School. It reinforces the learning habits, encouraging the children to work collaboratively, work through problems and challenges and have a sense of being outdoors during the seasons.
Do you have school dinners or are you a packed lunch person?
At the College, we have a fantastic catering team led by Gary Law. For the past 6 years they have won gold in the CAP awards. The choices and array of food on offer, whether hot or cold, definitely makes me a school dinner person. The children are fortunate to be able to have such a wide choice as well as part of their school experience.
While we have been talking, a child has wandered into your office wearing spiders legs that she has made herself. Is creativity a big thing in your school? And do you have the kind of open door policy that might be admired by leadership gurus?
I regularly have and encourage children and staff to come and share what they have been doing. I believe creativity is extremely important. It enables the children and staff to go beyond traditional ideas or rules and allows them to create new ideas, methods, and interpretations. Creativity affects every part of the curriculum and helps children become more confident, independent and thoughtful. As a staff we share good practice and this helps us nurture a learning environment that celebrates ideas, innovations and creativity.