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The brightest are stretched through a curriculum enriched with plenty of arts-related activities and sport. ‘We wanted to make teaching more relevant and incorporate risk taking and thinking independently.' We particularly loved the idea of year 5 book club with the head herself in her lovely, tranquil office accompanied by freshly baked cookies (it sounds so wonderfully Enid Blyton; we hope it’s accompanied by lashings of ginger beer)...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 2016, Harriet Connor-Earl BA (RE - from Brighton). In her late 30s, she is young for a head teacher - but definitely not green. She has been in the teaching profession for many years, starting off her career at a state secondary school in Haywards Heath before a stint in New York teaching at St Columbia Elementary School: ‘I taught grade 8, but a lot of the expectation was teaching to test, so you couldn’t be creative.’ She still enjoyed it and benefited from the experience. When she came back to the UK, she worked for two years at Chapter School for Girls in Kent, followed by four years at Warden Park School. Subsequently she became director of studies and boarding housemistress at Ardingly College Prep School, Sussex, before being offered the post of head at St Mary’s: ‘The minute I walked in the chapel, I fell in love with it and the school....and the girls were the kindest and happiest I’d ever met.’

Children, she says ‘are wonderful and curious and the best bit about humans.’ She simply loves working with them and her career in teaching was preordained, from when she used to line up her teddies in her pretend classroom to having a mum and two aunts who are all teachers. We liked this head almost instantly (the aroma of the warm pain au chocolates and coffee we were offered did nothing to change our mind). With her wonderfully posh name, Mrs Connor-Earl is all the things you would hope the head of a cosy independent girls' school to be - understated and elegant, straight up but with a twinkle or two. Her girls would probably like to be her one day, and the parents would secretly like to be her mate.

She didn’t have an easy task, following in the footsteps of her much respected predecessor. One parent told us: ‘I loved Ms Rawlinson so much I was determined not to like Ms Connor-Earl, but actually that changed pretty quickly.’ Most parents agree that Ms Connor-Earl is a lovely, approachable and welcoming head with bags of energy and a tough job of putting her mark on a school where some parents don’t like change. One parent said: ‘She has injected fresh ideas into a slightly tired school, which although well regarded for its pastoral side, was less so for its academic achievements. She now runs a much tighter ship and her enthusiasm and experience have brought about positive changes.’

A committed Catholic, she is married and has one son. Enjoys family skiing holidays, cooking and renovating her house in Brittany. She has successfully completed the 110km London to Brighton cycle challenge and raised over £3,000 for charity.

Entrance

All year groups are oversubscribed and prospective parents are encouraged to register as early as possible. Non-selective academically. Places go first to siblings, then to Catholics. Family-orientated ethos means that other faiths and cultures are also warmly welcomed. Nursery arrangements are particularly parent friendly. Children are admitted from 2 years 9 months and can stay to lunch or all afternoon with minimum notice. Boys make up a third of nursery entrants. A few further places for girls often become available in year 3. Some full bursaries available.

Exit

Plenty of offers from leading academic secondary schools, with several scholarships. Large numbers to South Hampstead and Channing, followed by Francis Holland NW1 and Highgate. Others to eg City of London, Queen's College, North London Collegiate and St Paul's Girls, or to state grammar schools (St Michael's, Henrietta Barnett) or boarding (Queenswood, St Mary's Ascot). Secondary school advice is a strength, starting with individual parent meetings in year 5. ‘Parents trust us and listen to what we recommend’, says the school. Boys leave by the age of 6, many to neighbouring Catholic prep, St Anthony’s, others to Devonshire House, UCS, Hereward House, Habs, Highgate or The Hall.

Our view

Founded in 1871 by the Congregation of Jesus, the school moved in 1926 to its present site, a spacious turn-of-the century building with polished mosaic floors and vast country-like gardens. Against this gracious period backdrop, facilities are thoroughly up to date, with a super new science lab, a large, bright assembly hall and a well-stocked library. Significant recent investment in IT: new iPads and laptops in every classroom and MacBooks in the music department to help pupils create digital music.

In 1992, when there were too few teaching nuns to manage the school, a charitable trust was formed to continue the good work under lay management.

A non-selective school, it still manages to pull off high-flying results at 11. Teaching (as described in their most recent ISI report) is ‘excellent’ - sharp, lively and very pupil focused: ‘The teacher worked out my daughter in three minutes’, said one parent, and ‘communication with the staff is excellent’, said another. Results are achieved by encouragement and risk taking, rather than a hothousing ethos. The head says: ‘I don’t believe that children should be assessed at 3 and 4 years old, and I also won’t choose one girl from a family and not her sibling. Yes, it means I won’t have 32 girls going to St Paul’s, but I will have 32 girls going to the right school for them.‘

The head has introduced an assessment programme, with pupils monitored from year 1 so they get used to the process and gain the experience: ‘By the time they get to year 6, they are used to exams and we can pretty much safely say what they will achieve academically.’ She has also introduced the four Rs into the school’s ethos (Risk taking, Resilience, Respect, Reflection). One parent told us: 'Mrs Connor-Earl encourages girls to take risks and leave their comfort zone. They are rewarded for challenging themselves and making mistakes, to help them achieve more academic progress and build their self confidence.'

The brightest are stretched through a curriculum enriched with plenty of arts-related activities and sport. ‘We wanted to make teaching more relevant and incorporate risk taking and thinking independently.' Interesting extra work for those who need stretching (lunch-time puzzle club, for example, is a big hit). Fluid ability grouping throughout, then setting in maths and English in year 6 in the run up to 11 plus.

Excellent support is available, with one full-time SENCo and various special needs teachers - depending on cohort - providing help in class and out of it (in lovely, bright teaching spaces). ‘We would never turn anyone away. We try and cater as much as we can for all children – we assess them on a case by case basis.’ One parent told us: ‘You really feel they care about every single girl.’

Strong sport (new Astroturf) with a double court for netball and a well-equipped gym. All the usual team games: rounders, netball, hockey, football, plus swimming at Swiss Cottage baths (for years 3 to 6) and athletics in Regent’s Park. Gymnastics particularly popular, with pupils competing at regional and national level. High achievement too in music and excellent dance and drama (including an all-encompassing production in year 6).

Heaps of extracurricular going on with everything from spy club, illustration, knitting, origami, gardening, cooking, yoga , various music clubs and chess etc to a wealth of languages including Mandarin, Latin and Spanish. We particularly loved the idea of year 5 book club with the head herself in her lovely, tranquil office accompanied by freshly baked cookies (it sounds so wonderfully Enid Blyton; we hope it’s accompanied by lashings of ginger beer).

An after-school club until 6pm every day supports working families, with emergency places bookable on the same day. It includes a quiet area where children can complete their homework or read with a teacher.

Plenty of trips too. For year 4s it’s their first residential trip with a night away, for year 5s an activity week in Devon and for year 6s there is a trip to the Alps post-exams and a trip to France to meet penpals and make croissants. Little ones go to a safari park or the seaside. Ex-pupils are also invited back once a year to enjoy a pizza and DVD night with the year 6s. Cake concerts are popular, with gluten-free brownies on offer. One year 6 pupil told us, ‘There’s a lot to like here and I’ll be completely upset to leave.’

Boys are well integrated and given appropriate scope in the Big Boys' Club, where they play football and let off steam on imaginary motorbikes. ‘It lets them be boys in this all-girls environment,' said one mother.

Very much a Catholic school, with about 70 per cent Catholic families. ‘I think one of the most wonderful things about it is that the Catholic ethos permeates every aspect of the children’s life’, said one parent. Those who wish can be prepared for first holy communion by much-loved Father Chris on his twice-weekly visits to the school chapel. Pupils take part in mass and study Catholic Christianity. ‘Many of our parents have had a Catholic education themselves and want that for their children’ – but even those who haven’t feel included. ‘As a non-Catholic’, said one parent, ‘I was quite concerned at the outset, but Father Chris is so lovely and gives such interesting talks. They really teach the children how to be good and loving members of the community.'

Pupils are smiley and notably well behaved. They have a certain girlish innocence which is often so sadly lacking in today’s techno age. Our two lovely guides giggled conspiratorially when we asked if they ever had the need to confess anything to Father Chris, to which one replied: ‘Well, I did once borrow my brother’s toy without asking and so did confess.’ Everything here is geared towards doing things ‘the St Mary’s way’; those who slip up are gently reminded of ‘expectations’. ‘We want pupils to do their best.' Most pupils adore the school (‘my daughter can’t wait to get back after the holidays’) and parents are equally appreciative: ‘I can’t say a bad word about this place. I have had three daughters come through this school, and I almost want another one just so she can come here.’

Mostly professional families from Hampstead and the surrounding areas, with a wide range of backgrounds (Europe, the US, Asia and the Far East). About half speak at least one other language at home (with good in-school support for newcomers on the foothills of English). Very welcoming parents, we are told, ‘which can be unusual, especially in the London private school bubble. But here they are grounded and down to earth.’ Despite its Hampstead location, this is a fairly understated place and, unusually for a prep school, offers a number of full bursaries.

Special Education Needs

St Mary’s School has a thriving Learning Support Department. When a pupil is identified as having SEN, we take action to remove barriers to learning and put effective special educational needs provision in place. Quality First Teaching remains our first response in relation to the identification of SEN, but we also ensure that the child receives high quality additional support and interventions carefully matched to their needs. Pupils receive maximum support to develop and encourage their potential and specialist teachers offer small groups or individual 1:1 lessons. Through consultation with the form teacher and parents, a flexible strategy of support is formulated. A strong link between the school and the parents is encouraged and this partnership is seen as invaluable for the child’s continued development.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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