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Forest school sessions are given weekly to all children in pre-reception and above in the school’s own rather magical woodland area at the back of the school. ‘I’m an outdoors girl myself,’ explained the head, ‘and the learning you do outdoors is so important.’ Yoga is taught twice a term - ‘the breathing exercises help get rid of the butterflies,’ said a young performer we met before the dress rehearsal...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headteacher

Since 2016, Ngaire Telford (pronounced Nyree) 50s, a lady who radiates positivity and affection. She originally trained and taught at secondary school level in New Zealand, but fell in love with early years teaching after coming to the UK and being posted to a primary school in the Old Kent Road as a supply teacher - a baptism that might have frightened off a lesser soul. Took a 10 year career break to have four children of her own, all of whom went to Herne Hill School, thereby introducing her to the place. After teaching reception here part time, she became head of early years in 2009, then deputy head, and took on the headship in September 2016. ‘It really is a dream job for me, because this is such a lovely place to work.’ Married to Duncan, a management consultant.

Tall, slender, elegant, beautifully dressed and full of joie de vivre, she is the very embodiment of a fulfilled working mother. Parents love her. ‘She is simply the most inspiring head teacher I have ever met,’ wrote one. ‘She knows every child by name, she knows all their little quirks and is genuinely interested in their well-being and that of their family.’ ‘Mrs Telford’s leadership is brilliant,’ wrote another. ‘Leads by example with her warmth and commitment’. ‘Calm, focused, fun and very glamorous! ‘I don’t know how she manages to run the school like a family but also with such rigour.’

Interests include running, singing, and early music, particularly Bach, which may account for her remarkable equanimity.

Entrance

First come first served, and early registration is advised. There are three entry points: kindergarten (2+), pre-reception (3+), and reception (4+). School takes up to 60 children into kindergarten, but won’t have more than 40 in school in any one session. Total year group number in pre-reception and reception is capped at 70, so places at these entry points limited by numbers coming up from kindergarten. However, every year there are children who move on at 4+ to the Dulwich Triangle schools, so it’s always worth applying.

Gentle and informal assessment process. School looks for self-esteem and confidence, the ability to engage with the teacher, and the child’s listening and communication skills. For those applying to reception, it’s a bonus if they can write their name, but ‘not the end of the world if they can’t.’ Some sibling priority, but points are taken off for parents who took their first child out to start reception elsewhere.

Exit

About a third of pre-reception children leave for state schools such as Dulwich Hamlet, and independents such as JAPPS, DUCKS, etc. However, school does not prepare for 4+.

After year 2 everyone leaves, most to the six local independent schools that offer 7+ entry: Dulwich College Junior, JAPS, Alleyn’s Junior, Sydenham High, Dulwich Prep London and Rosemead. Head meets with all parents individually to plan (and sometimes manage) expectations, and school’s track record of success is long-established. ‘Everyone gets a place somewhere, most get multiple offers. Choosing is the hardest part.’

Our view

Housed in the former vicarage of St Paul’s Church, Herne Hill School began life in 1976 as a nursery school when the vicar’s wife couldn’t find one she liked for her own children. It became a prep-prep 10 years later in response to parental requests, and now it’s one of the most highly regarded providers of early years education in an area not short of same. The beautiful original red-brick mansion is still the hub of the school, but the garden has been developed into an excellent children’s playground complete with Astroturf. Tasteful new buildings provide space for the school’s growing needs and numbers: the Oak Building, built underground to avoid taking up playground space, contains a splendid all-purpose hall with bleacher seating, beautifully-resourced kindergarten rooms and the kitchen. Since 2002, school has been owned by Swiss businessman Dominik Magyar, who works closely with the head and has brought the buildings and resources to their present very high level.

Preparing children for 7+ entry is a major part of the school’s raison d’être, but the curriculum here is imaginative and the approach is child-initiated. As head observes, ‘Learning needs to be about doing what children love, and they won’t be 6 and 7 again!’ We loved the Talk For Writing unit, where children learnt ancient Greek letters whilst studying Theseus and the Minotaur, and the maths room that was a riot of colour and creativity. French taught by native speaker, and the children spoke with beautiful accents. ‘Fantastic teaching staff!' was the verdict of every parent we spoke to, and the standard of work on the walls, both in accuracy and inventiveness, bore this out. ‘Lessons are fun yet challenging, and I have nothing but praise for every teacher we have encountered,’ wrote one mother; ‘my daughter has adored each one and has come on in leaps and bounds.’ A father added, ‘Insanely good teachers – where do they get the energy?’ Staff-pupil ratio of 1:6 ensures everyone gets the attention they need. The learning support coordinator has her own room, cheerful and well-equipped, and supports a range of needs such as dyslexia, AD, EAL with a variety of interventions including one-to-one sessions.

Unsmiling and unshaven after the demands of putting 70 children through their paces for the leavers’ show dress rehearsal, the music director nonetheless directed a bravura performance from the piano, although the play itself struck us as something of a propaganda exercise - we were a little startled when all the children carolled ‘We’re learning through play!’ Parents admit themselves completely entranced by it all. ‘The school’s music teaching must be about the best in the country judging from the Lloyd-Webber-esque quality of its productions - the amazing choral and wind instrument performances teased out of pupils is staggering,’ enthused a parent.

Forest school sessions are given weekly to all children in pre-reception and above in the school’s own rather magical woodland area at the back of the school. ‘I’m an outdoors girl myself,’ explained the head, ‘and the learning you do outdoors is so important.’ Woodwork recently added to the curriculum, taught by an early years specialist.

Wide-ranging and inclusive sports provision by dedicated sports teacher on and off site includes gymnastics, football, cricket, velodrome club and swimming at Crystal Palace. Outside lessons, there are lots of optional activities available including baking, art club, slime club and jigsaw club, but the children are equally welcome just to relax and play with friends. ‘We’re quite big on unstructured time here.’ Regular trips to eg Kew Gardens, Godstone Farm, The Polka Theatre, Leeds Castle, Battersea Children’s Zoo.

‘Love, Care, Excellence’ are the school’s founding principles, and parents raved about the pastoral care. ‘There is a real emphasis on nurturing each individual child and promoting kindness and respect for each other,’ wrote a mother. ‘The team there create a wonderful atmosphere for young children, whose childhood is extended somehow by experiencing school in such a supportive and friendly environment,’ was another comment. Mindfulness and reflection actively promoted. Yoga is taught twice a term - ‘the breathing exercises help get rid of the butterflies,’ said a young performer we met before the dress rehearsal. All the year 2 children either sit on the school council or act as a playground buddy to younger pupils, and the Big Brothers and Sisters Club arranges for them to read and play with the little ones. ‘We feel it’s a very special school,’ said a mother, ‘founded with real love, and it genuinely nurtures very happy children.’ The school is non-denominational, but children attend harvest, Easter and Christmas services at St Paul’s Church in the grounds.

After a change in the catering provision, the lunches are now superb – the best we’ve ever eaten in an early years setting. Dishes are freshly prepared on site, beautifully presented and genuinely appetising - we liked the jerk chicken, carefully toned down to appeal to young palates but delicious nonetheless. Puddings are low on sugar but popular and nourishing - we enjoyed our compote with yogurt and granola. Parents, most of whom are hard-working professionals, are as grateful as the children, and make full use of the breakfast and after-school clubs, where children from reception to year 2 can stay until 6pm (4.45pm for the pre-schoolers). Most families live within walking distance, but some come from as far as Brixton, Crystal Palace, East Dulwich and Nunhead.

When choosing to bring their children here, parents have to factor in the need to send them elsewhere at 7. The school has made such a success of being a stand-alone pre-prep, however, that we’re inclined to think Herne Hill has got it right and that it’s all the other schools who’ve got it wrong. ‘Sending our children here enabled us to look for the right school for them at the right time,’ as one parent put it. In the words of another, ‘Superb school, sublime class teachers, very happy kids. I wish I still went to school.’

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