Following recent press coverage on oversubscribed London nursery schools, I was kindly invited by the most oversubscribed nursery of them all, Broadhurst School in Hampstead, to come for a visit and meet Principal Miss Deirdre Berkery and Head Mistress Mrs Alison Fisher. The nursery is located on Greencroft Gardens, a mere 2 minute walk from Finchley Road station in a beautiful house that could be mistaken for a private residence. Only the few buggies parked in front and a small inscription at the entrance give away that there is a well-known nursery school located in this building.
Established in 1958 by Mrs Mary Berkery as one of the first preschools of its kind, Broadhurst School is still very much family-owned and run, and the school is still considered Miss Berkery’s “baby”. It was a big step then for Miss Berkery to hire Mrs Fisher as Headmistress five years ago, but there is clearly continuity in terms of its ethos and approach. The school offers preschool education for children aged 2.5 to 5 years, and children generally join in the September following their 2nd birthday, although summer borns may join in January instead. Initially, children join part-time for either a morning or an afternoon session, but many can and do opt for a full-time place in the second year. The school also offers a Reception class for those children joining their prep schools at 5+ (typically Arnold House, The Hall, St Christopher’s). The settling in process is very gradual and can take as long as the child (and the parent!) needs, which I found laudable and relatively rare for a London nursery (although this is very much standard best practice in continental Europe). The main idea behind this is that children only learn when they are happy and settled, and even children who don’t cry may be anxious and hence less able to benefit from the educational programme on offer.
The school day follows a relatively clear structure, with free play after initial drop off, followed by more structured table time, when children sit down with a teacher and work on jigsaws, cutting, tracing, matching, counting activities in small groups. Following these activities, they might do music or yoga (once a week), and each group generally spends 20-30 minutes per session in the beautiful outdoor playground that the school is lucky to have (complete with slides and flower beds). I visited the school shortly after drop-off, when table time was in full progress in all groups, although in each group, a small number of children had opted to play freely – building houses with magnatiles seemed to be a popular activity this morning, as was stacking building blocks. In the younger groups, each teacher was working with as few as 3 – 4 children at a table, which explains why Broadhurst parents tend to comment that the school knows each child very well and can give parents detailed feedback on their abilities and progress. Displays on the wall showcase the nursery children’s emergent writing and artwork, which is visibly of a very high standard, giving me as a more relaxed South West Londoner a little Sputnik shock!
Now that the 4+ assessment results are out, Miss Berkery was listing the schools children are moving onto in September. For girls, South Hampstead High School, St Christopher’s, Channing and North London Collegiate School seem to be the most popular destinations (some girls leave for Sarum Hall at 3+). Among the boys, many are moving onto either Arnold House or The Hall, with a small number off to a variety of prep schools (St Anthony’s seems to be another popular choice).
Although the high standard of children’s letter formation makes you think children may be pushed quite early, Miss Berkery was adamant that they spend a lot of time developing pre-writing skills in a fun way (playing with sand, threading beads, working with play dough) to build up the muscles and fine motor skills for correct pencil grip and early writing. You can tell that a lot of thought has gone into the materials used, and clearly, the school has been able to optimise games and activities to enhance learning over the last 65 years. We discussed at length the support for bilingual and trilingual children (or any children who need further help developing their language skills), which are probably soon going to be the majority in many Central London nurseries, and I was shown carefully selected word games used to encourage correct use of prepositions and necessary vocabulary.
Following my tour of the school, Miss Berkery and Mrs Fisher were kind enough to sit down with me for a long chat about North London schools, nursery admissions, 4+/5+ assessments and the long-term view parents need to take of their child’s education. On the topic of admissions, indeed they confirmed that to ensure a place parents were advised to register within three months of finding out they are pregnant, but that it was certainly worth joining the waiting list later for places that do come up regularly. For example, if a March born boy leaves the nursery, they would aim to replace this child with another boy born around the same time, and this way even those registering later can get lucky. I certainly have personal friends who were offered places (afternoon places, admittedly) even though they registered “only” a few months after their child was born. So if parents are very keen, it certainly sounds less impossible than newspaper articles would like to make you think.
On the subject of assessments, Broadhurst School is very honest and tries to manage parents’ expectations. They certainly try to ensure parents don’t join the school just because they want their child to go to Oxbridge (on the Broadhurst – The Hall – St Paul’s highway!) or under the assumption that there is some sort of guarantee that their child will get into Arnold House or South Hampstead High School. Although the track record suggests that the school maximises assessment preparation as much as possible, there are obviously things that are out of the school’s control. Behaviour is one issue that can hurt even the brightest candidates, according to Miss Berkery (she gave the example of a boy clinging to the only racing car in the assessment room, not willing to share it with any other child), and of course personality plays a role as well. A child may be brilliant at nursery and at home but simply too shy or intimidated during the assessment to show their potential. There is a language issue as well. As a non-selective nursery school, there are children who start at Broadhurst aged 2.5 speaking very little or no English, and though they work on language development as much as possible, these cases highlight why there is never a guarantee, even for a bright child who is well prepared.
Broadhurst School has clearly developed excellent and deep relationships with many of the most sought after North London prep schools, and Mrs Fisher will be in regular contact with them to ensure strong cooperation and information flow. This will be very reassuring to many parents anxious about the admissions process, as they can obtain in-depth advice about the local schools from Mrs Fisher and Miss Berkery who maintain an open relationship with all parents. But beyond anxiousness about getting into the “best” school, both felt strongly that first and foremost children need to be happy and at ease in order to thrive, and parents need to visit the school personally to get a feel for its ethos and approach. Given how oversubscribed it is, of course only those who can be offered a space are invited for a personal visit, so I hope this review of my own visit to the Broadhurst School gives the reader enough information to decide if they would like to register their child.