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This is the stuff of dreams for outdoorsy types and those itching to learn in nature’s classroom, with grinding down bark, making coins out of mud and using acorns for maths puzzles all in a day’s work. No wonder these kids are so rosy cheeked. We saw pupils encouraged to think about how they learn, not just what they learn, as well as to go off piste (‘But why did the Romans dress like that?’ ‘What did they eat?’ etc). Head visibly winces at mere mention of tutoring, but around a quarter do it anyway. The trophy cabinet sparkles brightly enough to please sporty families, and we were impressed with the 101 per cent engagement from littluns learning the basics of hockey on the Astro during our visit. Football, rugby, netball, athletics, cricket and hockey all feature, though one girl

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2018, Alyson Lobo, previously deputy head and at the school since 2005. BEd from Leicester – an easy degree decision, having had her eye firmly on teaching since she was 14. Partly in the blood (her father was a lecturer), she also recalls being ‘completely shy when I was younger, yet I seemed to come alive in front of the class’. Still teaches, currently debating to year 6s.

‘From the moment I met her, I knew this was the school I wanted,’ said a parent – and she wasn’t the only one. Three main things seem to seal the deal. First, her easy, open manner: ‘She’s a mum herself and so relatable, not just someone you feel you can’t touch or who won’t listen to you.’ Second, while all schools say kindness, fun and wellbeing matter as much as the academics (yes, even in the North London bubble), she walks the walk: ‘These pupils do well not just because of the high academic standards but because they make them love school so much.’ Third, she’s swapped traditional classroom teaching for more creativity, more time outdoors and more child-led learning – more of which later. Pupils say she’s ‘calm,’ ‘solutions focused’ and ‘positive,’ though some would like to see more of her (we wondered if the tucked away, upstairs location of her new swanky office was somewhat ill-judged although she does get to look into the school entrance and library). But all agree she was ‘very visible’ and ‘inspirational’ during Covid - ‘Watching her online assemblies, you realise just what a good role model she is,’ lauded one parent.

Married to Dominic, they have two grown-up daughters (one went to Manor Lodge). Though work life balance is not a strength, she nevertheless squeezes in time for cake decorating, theatre, gardening and travel. She was, however, stumped by our question about what she’s currently reading, admitting she’s more of a ‘holiday reader these days.’

Entrance

Selective even at 4, with around three applicants for every place, though don’t panic if your tot can’t quite recite Shakespeare yet – school says what it’s really looking for in the hour long assessment is ‘happy, vibrant children.’ Parents should be ready for some scrutinisation too, with school adamant it only wants those who ‘want to be part of what we’re doing - whether or not you work, we want you involved.’ Siblings encouraged but no guarantees. Growing waiting lists in all year groups, with those entering post-reception spending a morning in school and tested in maths and English.

Exit

Strong record of feeding to the South Herts/North London plethora of academic powerhouses including St Albans Boys and Girls, Habs Boys and Girls and Merchant Taylors'. Those not reaching such dizzy academic heights well catered for too by St Columba’s, Aldenham, Haileybury, Queenswood and St Margaret’s. Hardly any to boarding and an average of five per cent to state schools, including Dame Alice Owen's. Outstanding scholarship record most years. But one parent told us, ‘There’s a bit of an assumption that parents know what they’re looking for whereas I didn’t know what my child was capable of so I would have liked a bit more input’ (school disputes this saying parents have one to one meetings with Mrs Lobo and the deputy head academic in year 5 and are supported throughout years 5 and 6).

Our view

Nestled down a country lane among fields housing the local pony population, the only clues to less rural environs being a new housing estate in view of the gates, blue M25 signs on the horizon and the hum of motorway traffic. The 300-year-old former country house – which has a colourful history as health spa, film set (notably A Clockwork Orange) and the private home of double agent Eddie Chapman – looks splendid, though it’s the newly converted adjacent building that steals the show, especially when you step inside. Goodbye rabbit warren corridors and cramped classrooms; hello sun-drenched STEAM-focused atrium incorporating one of the most striking junior libraries we’ve seen along with new classrooms and specialist areas for science, art, engineering and IT – all created with not just with light and colour but space and fluidity. The idea is that if pupils are, say, building a model they want to double in size or use all their individual paintings to make a collage they can do just that. Parents get a slice of the cake too (literally) in the new parent café. It’s as bright and airy as they come and as spectacular in real life as in the marketing brochure.

Ah yes, the marketing brochure. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d picked up a booklet for a yoga retreat instead of a school - ‘Daydream with us if you have time and we will take you on a journey,’ it gushes before taking you through descriptions of, among other things, a woodland garden, pond garden, reading garden and exotic Japanese garden. In reality, there’s even more by way of outside wonders including meadow garden, forest garden and rows of sunflowers (planted by the pupils, of course). Attention to detail is startling – an audible water feature and neat Oriental vegetation keep the Japanese garden zen; a well-populated swamp and observation hut makes the pond garden a favourite among science teachers; wooden painted books and different seating sections have earned the reading garden popularity among bookworms and English teachers alike. This is the stuff of dreams for outdoorsy types and those itching to learn in nature’s classroom, with grinding down bark, making coins out of mud and using acorns for maths puzzles all in a day’s work. No wonder these kids are so rosy cheeked. Best of all, none of it’s wasted on them – our guides had us meandering merrily past tinies using sticks to make number formations in an adventure playground (‘Look, I’ve done a 4!’), past a treehouse and dens (‘My den is still there, yay!’), along past mud kitchens (‘We actually made them!’) before reaching Badger’s Valley via the dell. When we got to the pond garden and (rather embarrassingly) admitted our slight fear of frogs a pupil shrugged unsympathetically – this lot are intrepid (and playful too, with one informing us with a cheeky grin that he got tadpoles down his trousers the last time he was there, so we should probably watch out!). Allotments (which parents will be able to rent), bees and a butterfly garden are next on the list, along with high(ish) ropes and night cameras for wildlife investigation. ‘But I wish we had animals too - it would be great if we had chickens or pigs or something,’ said a pupil.

Even the green spaces directly surrounding the main buildings (which also include the 2008 glass fronted dining room and the 2015 year 6 building with living roof that also houses sports hall/theatre and rooms for drama and music) were in full use during our visit - notably, a year 6 science lesson on the circulatory system. ‘Can I be the lung?’ ‘Quick, get some oxygen!’ bellowed excitable pupils who used different coloured hula-hoops, beanbags and bits of rope to map out a human body. ‘Du-dun, du-dun,’ chanted the teacher as the class marched down the aorta. ‘They get to the same academic endpoint by swapping the hothouse feel for creative fun,’ summed up one parent. A good job too as Manor Lodge parents have always been a discerning bunch – ‘Many are very aspirational,’ said one. Monitoring, including big tests every autumn and spring, ensure pupils are on target and (we like this) there’s pastoral tracking too – a particular boon during lockdown, according to parents.

Three forms (18-21 pupils in each) per year group. Setting in maths from year 3 and English from year 5, when children start to move around the school for individual subjects – ‘makes you feel really grown up,’ beamed one pupil. French from nursery and Spanish from year 5. No Latin or classics but specialist teaching for music, art, CDT, IT, PE, drama and languages from the word go. Parents say teachers reward effort as much as results and that ‘they are very good and easy to access.’ We saw pupils encouraged to think about how they learn not just what they learn, as well as to go off piste (‘But why did the Romans dress like that?’ ‘What did they eat?’ etc). IT matters but doesn’t rule, with a blend of iPads, ChromeBooks and laptops since the pandemic. Homework reasonably heavy but none at weekends. Head visibly winces at mere mention of tutoring, but around a quarter do it anyway.

No heavy duty SEN, according to the delightful and longstanding SENCo – just a handful of pupils per year group needing support for the likes of mild dyslexia and ADHD or perhaps just falling behind a bit with phonics or maths. The multi-sensory, on-your-feet learning that everyone gets works wonders for all but especially those with SEN, pointed out a couple of parents. ‘My child gets one-to-one support, a scribe and they don’t label the meltdowns that come from distress as naughty,’ said one parent.

The trophy cabinet sparkles brightly enough to please sporty families, and we were impressed with the 101 per cent engagement from littluns learning the basics of hockey on the Astro during our visit. Football, rugby, netball, athletics, cricket and hockey all feature, though one girl felt the school was late to the party when it came to girls’ football (now on the curriculum for year 2 upwards) and a few pupils and parents say football could be prioritised more for boys too. No lack of confidence from the pupils we met – ‘I’m very good at athletics,’ announced more than one. Partnerships with the likes of Saracens, Watford FC and Radlett Cricket Club have helped school inch its way up league tables and earn its place in a competitive local fixtures list, though one parent felt there could be more fixtures in lower years. Fear not if your child is not a natural - ‘Neither of my kids are very sporty, but they still feel included – there’s not just focus at the elite end,’ said a parent.

A plethora of instruments - drums, keyboards, strings etc – line the floor-to-ceiling shelving in the music room with spectacular views across the countryside, and we enjoyed hearing one pupil tinkering the ivories in a practice room opposite (instruments are taught from years 3 to 6). Word on the street is that music is ‘incredible’ - ‘probably better than the sport,’ felt one parent. Pupils often spill outside eg for a recorder concert. Pupils speak with pride about belonging to a band, ensemble or choir.

In the drama studio next door, our young tour guides practically fell over themselves to tell us about the calendar highlights – nativity for reception, year 2 play and the ‘very, very big’ year 6 production. Plenty of opportunity to get stuck into making scenery and props too, not to mention lighting, creating programmes etc. LAMDA gains fistfuls of distinctions every year. No waiting in the wings for drama during the pandemic as in some schools, with eg the Christmas concert live streamed.

Because of the school’s focus on STEAM, you are as likely to find pupils digging out their colouring pens for a science lesson as in the art studio itself where we saw pupils sketching their Turner-inspired drawings ready for getting stuck into their watercolours. We heard how year 1 children learn to chop fruit, then put them in a dryer to make popcorn and then design the packaging. Again, youngsters get outdoors whenever possible to eg paint snowdrops.

Besides the usual sporty and musical suspects, clubs range from coding to podcasts, gardening, bird watching and cooking. Chess must be popular too, judging from the sheer number of chess related badges we saw pinned to lapels. Plenty of trips, including the much anticipated year 6 France residential. No complaints on the lunch front - menu is broad and varied, though our pasta and salad was pretty bland (we didn’t fancy the chicken sausages).

Several parents told us tales of how their children had ‘come out of their shell’ and ‘grown massively in confidence’ in their time at Manor Lodge. Pupils we met were comfortable in their own skin, and noticeably respectful of their peers. Emotional intelligence is high, with pupils chatting easily about how they use the worry box and talk to teachers if they feel sad. Very few discipline issues.

Strong community vibe among parents, though some feel it can creep into cliquey territory. More dual income than in the past - lots of medics and lawyers, with growing numbers of media types. Catchment has expanded, now up to 30 miles in most directions. Ethnically diverse – ‘one of the reasons we chose the school,’ said a parent. But school comms ‘a bit last minute’ and ‘slow to respond,’ we heard.

The last word

If the idea of highly structured learning, with teachers talking at rows of children, leaves you cold, the more creative, outdoorsy model of Manor Lodge will be a breath of fresh air. It’s no place for shirkers, but (certainly in the younger years) the chances are your offspring will probably be having so much fun they won’t even realise they’re learning.

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