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As they walked into school, they encountered a box office with flashing lights in the corridor and a big, red popcorn machine outside. The classroom doors had been replaced by red stage curtains tied in golden bows.  We enjoyed the illustrated knickers hanging from a line in one classroom – part of the Kings, Queens and Corgis theme... 

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What the school says...

Named Prep/Pre-prep School of the Year at the 2018 Tes Independent School Awards, Clifton School and Nursery is a very happy school where children thrive in a supportive atmosphere. The most important factor at Clifton is to teach the whole child, making them happy and confident children who work extremely hard to improve themselves.

The School fosters a lifetimes love of learning at an early age through a rich and varied curriculum in a stimulating environment, producing rounded individuals who are well prepared for an exciting future in the next stage of their education lives. Small class sizes, individual attention, close contact between home and school, quality teaching by inspirational teaching staff, exciting adventurous trips and after school activities enable Clifton to achieve high standards.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2011, Phil Hardy BA PGCE (mid 40s). Played hockey for England as a young man; studied sports science (psychology) at Northumbria University and worked as sports psychologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, before discovering he loved teaching. Fifteen years at Yarm Prep, where he taught science, maths and PE, rising to head of pre-prep and acting head. Covers lessons at Clifton and coaches boys' and girls' hockey at St Peter's, where he is part of the leadership of sport across the three schools. IAPS Council member, on education and strategy committees and pre-prep advisory group, plus pre-prep and early years IAPS national adviser, supporting state and independent schools. Wife is an HR director at Morrisons; son of 9 at St Olave's. Enjoys coaching rugby, hockey and cricket for York, playing the guitar, theatre, reading and travelling.

Lots of charm, very approachable, open, enthusiastic, sensible and refreshingly honest, with a good sense of humour. Very popular with the children – nursery and reception little ones rushed up to hug him as we visited their play area – and parents: 'fantastic leadership...he went beyond what a head could normally be expected to do when my child had a problem'. An impressively innovative and creative thinker on education, deeply committed to progressive ideas taken from a wide range of international sources and founded on solid research: he changed the curriculum from subject to theme based; replaced rules with values teaching and re-planned the school to constitute a remarkably attractive and well designed learning environment. Aims to develop intrinsically motivated children who want to learn from the pleasure it gives them, who know how to learn effectively and behave well because they understand why the values they are taught are good ones to live by. Keen to educate parents in the reasons underpinning theme based learning and receptive to their views, which they have an opportunity to express in termly forums. Instead of sending teachers off on to professional development courses, he shrewdly organises an open annual conference, including a range of inspirational educational speakers and workshops, attended by over 200 delegates.
 

Entrance

Sixty nursery and 20 year 3 places (high demand). External applicants have 90 minute family tour with head, then taster day, available throughout the year. Year 3: online testing in maths, mental maths, reading, spelling and non-verbal and verbal reasoning. Looking for children who are nationally average or above in ability.

Exit

Most transfer automatically to St Olave's. Some to Bootham (across the road).

Our view

Exceptionally imaginative and creative approach to learning, based on a theme per term (no repeats), integrating subjects and skills – practical, emotional and social as well as academic - and dynamically connected to children's interests and ongoing discoveries, enabling them to see learning as purposeful and highly enjoyable. Depth of understanding and independence promoted.

Themes begin with a Stunning Start, eg A Spoonful of Sugar began with reception children receiving a parcel containing three clues as to their new topic in the Easter holidays. As they walked into school, they encountered a box office with flashing lights in the corridor and a big, red popcorn machine outside. The classroom doors had been replaced by red stage curtains tied in golden bows. Their room had been transformed into a theatre consisting of a stage, dressing room and various topic areas. Themes end with a Fabulous Finish, in this case performing a medley of songs from the musical with actions.

Another theme led to the children, moved by the plight of communities living on landfill sites in Cambodia, making recyclable goods that they sold in pop up shops and cafes, raising over £2,000 for a charity that provides children with wellington boots to wear while whilst working on these sites to earn money to pay for their own schooling.

Four cartoon-style Learning Superheroes with superpowers teach key qualities for all stages of education (and life): being reflective, collaborative, resourceful and resilient. Growth mindset ideas also very strong here. The home grown assessment structure provides highly individualised and dynamic records.

Teachers relish the freedom to focus on making lessons fun and deeply fruitful. They engage in professional research and have the confidence to use videos of their lessons to discuss their teaching with colleagues - understandably, all the ones we saw seemed remarkably cheerful: retention not a problem here.

Italian (from nursery) and Mandarin, chosen to provide exposure to two very different cultures and language structures, are taught by specialist teachers, as are music, PE and swimming. Some 15-20 per class; max 20. Very well supplied with IT resources – children learn to use a wide range of apps. Plenty of outdoor learning in the forest school, where children can have a happy, muddy time.

Instead of school rules, children are taught the whole school's seven central values - friendship, trust, wisdom, compassion, endurance, humility and hope - through assemblies and PSHE. Certificates with colourful cartoons are awarded weekly to values champions (and learning super heroes).

Special needs covered by a joint Clifton and St Olave's SENCo; also two members of staff trained in teaching emotional literacy and two who have counselling expertise.

Housed in an attractive white building, the original St Olave's, plus a more modern red-brick one. Very well resourced, spacious, colourful classrooms – a sense of no expense being spared and much thought put into their planning. Reception rooms have lantern lights or lights with umbellas for shades, plus fab play area with scrapmonger's corner, big sand area with climbing frame, wild area with pond, water play area and even an old fashioned water pump. A room for children not used to separation from their mothers, who need to start in a more protected way, contains a big tent hung with sparkling lights; extra quiet room for children who want to work on their own. A delightful feature on the ground floor is a small, charming well-being cabin with an open front, equipped with toys and books, for children who need a quiet space to recover from an upset. We asked if any children ever invented one to take advantage of it: Mr Hardy was candid enough to admit this had been known to happen.

The second floor is a converted atrium, containing a light, bright, lavishly stocked library. We enjoyed the illustrated knickers hanging from a line in one classroom – part of the Kings, Queens and Corgis theme – and particularly liked the big collaborative artworks, such as a chieftain's headdress made of real feathers.

Access to senior school sports facilities plus own Astro play surface. Sports include tag rugby, netball, hockey, gymnastics and dance - matches from year 2; all year 3s represent the school, so they can develop.

Masses of music: all year 3s learn to play a string, woodwind and brass instrument, with specialist teachers, in class lessons; 50 per cent have individual lessons in a wide range of instruments - lots of ensembles plus bands (eg Garage music). Takes part in Young Voices (national, mega-scale choir performances); professional musicians work with children, as do senior school students. Much drama, dance and art. The end of year review and celebration, in which all children participate, 'is amazing,' enthused a parent.

Very wide range of co-curricular activities, including yoga, Mandarin, street dance, film making, bell ringing and sign language, and lots of trips – the centre of York is within walking distance. All year 3s are charity ambassadors or helping hands, eg helping with the nursery and reception children and library. School council helps organise events such as Clifton’s Got Talent and charity drives – over 12k raised for Walking with the Wounded.

Immensely satisfied parents – 'fantastic' is a word that recurs. They appreciate the flexible, light touch attitude to homework - especially the ones who have fled from the academically driven London prep school scene; the exciting learning activities that also stretch the children 'in a kind, playful way'; and the high quality before- and after-school care (charges only kick in at 4.15pm). Also the availability of the head and teachers, seen as very committed, passionate about teaching and 'fantastic at dealing with problems' in a very systematic way, who are very well supported by the teaching assistants ('lovely – they are full time and keep to the same class, so they get to know the children very well'); the amount of communication, eg about the rationale underlying the teaching approach; plus not having to produce costumes for performances – much to the relief of the mother of a child cast as a Brussel sprout in the nativity play, written by the class teacher: 'They go the extra mile, do little, quirky things other schools don't but could'. Parents are generous with their own time, too - happy to volunteer ('You get a thank you letter from the class teacher if you accompany a trip'); the PTA is 'exceptionally active'. The only niggle we heard was about the shortage of parking spaces.

Something enormously exciting is happening here - we can completely understand why Clifton has a national reputation, with many visitors from the education profession, and won the 2018 Times Educational Supplement award for best pre-prep/prep school. These happy, very engaged, active children are extremely fortunate to start their school life here.
 
 

Special Education Needs

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