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Pastoral care has always been a plus point. ‘Yes, it’s academic, but we chose it because it’s so nurturing – you can tell from the children coming out of the gates how happy they are,’ said a parent. The seamless move up to the high achieving senior school takes the pressure off at 11+. Families travel up to 10 miles; more than ever come from Watford. Many are first-time buyers of independent education and majority are professionals (mostly dual income). Not much by way of a parent community but… ​

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Head of junior school since 2020, Emma Maitland-Gray BA MA FCCT (40s). Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey is responsible – ‘I think I am one of the rare folks who knew she wanted to be a teacher from about five.’ Teacher training took her about as far from home as humanly possible – to the University of Notre Dame in Western Australia – with a hint of an Aussie accent still detectable. But after a few years down under, London called her back – for good, it turned out, when she met her future husband at Hornsby House (he later became head). Thence to Knightsbridge School, where she had ‘a great few years building up the school from its inception,’ starting as head of juniors and leaving as director of studies. Next stop York House, Herts, where she was assistant head and head of pre-prep for nine years and her husband was (still is) head.

Cites Lara Péchard, head of St Margaret’s since 2020, as a chief reason for her move. ‘I walked into her office and just knew we’d make a firecracker team!’ And they really do, with high energy and big plans. As such, wasted no time letting the grass grow under her feet, broadening the curriculum to include outdoor education and drama, shifting science to STEM and introducing games afternoons and more clubs (including skateboarding, naturally). ‘As a mum and an educator, I knew what was missing – we have to give the children different experiences,’ she told us, talking at a rate of knots that’s softened by her twinkly manner.

Shares her office with guinea pigs Bubble and Squeak and a large collection of cuddly monsters ‘made by my mum’ which – as part of Yale’s Ruler approach to developing emotional intelligence – regularly get picked up by children as a way of articulating how they’re feeling (yellow for happy, red for cross etc). ‘Fun,’ ‘smiley’ and ‘energetic’, say pupils. ‘Has a strategy, ‘pushing it in the right direction,’ ‘honest, down-to-earth and caring,’ say parents.

Home remains York House, a 20-ish minute commute away, where she and her husband Jon have four children – one at York House, one at St Margaret’s, one moving to St Margaret’s after York House and the other at a state junior (‘which is brilliant with his autism’). ‘It’s only fair to share them out!’

Entrance

Mainly into nursery, reception and year 3. At nursery, there’s an informal assessment as part of a stay and play session – main focus at this stage is on spaces available. From reception up, pupils are assessed in English and maths, plus a taster session and interview. ‘We are looking for children who will join the rugby team or have a go at the piano,’ says head, though it’s not all jazz hands they’re after, with quieter confidence not overlooked. Worth asking about occasional spaces – these are increasingly common post-Covid, although some years now have waiting lists.

Exit

Most parents are in for the long haul, with the majority of pupils moving automatically up to senior school on the same site – although they still take the tests, sit the interview and apply for scholarships. Of the rest – usually up to 10 pupils a year – around half go to local grammars, while others following siblings elsewhere. Conversations start early, around year 4, on the rare occasions that it’s felt a pupil might struggle in seniors.

Our view

‘Deep breaths and don’t worry,’ reassured the head to our initially timid year 5 tour guide. ‘We’ve seen Covid affect youngsters in different ways - some are more egocentric, some are more scared to take risks, some are just less used to strangers,’ she had previously told us, ‘so we grab whatever opportunities we can to help press reset.’ Sure enough, within minutes, the little girl and her peers were on fire as they walked us proudly round their welcoming, spacious school. Eager to show us every nook and cranny (‘Look at all our books!’ ‘I made stir fry in here!’ ‘Did you see that display?’), it was us who had to eventually persuade them their job was done, the previously fearful girl brimming with newfound confidence.

First stop, chickens. Pupils who want to take care of them ‘all get turns,’ assured our guides. Soon, they added, they’ll be neighbours of Bubble and Squeak who – by the looks of their complex obstacle course – may just be on the way to becoming guinea pig Olympic champions. The outdoors features increasingly for children at St Margaret’s, not just in terms of animal care or at break time on the large expanse of grass and big adventure playground (with smaller play areas for the youngest), but in the various outdoor classrooms where children make fires, do orienteering and get generally muddy. ‘It’s very much an action-based school – even in lockdown they managed that virtually,’ said a parent.

Back through the automatic glass doors of the big airy atrium, none of us could quite decide where to start – to follow the sound of laughter coming from the lively drama lesson in the main hall, to watch through the big glass windows into the modern, colourful library where quieter proceedings were underway or to take advantage of the tempting giant snakes and ladders table right in front of us? We settled on the play barn, the smaller hall dedicated to nursery and reception where little ones were immersed in wooden train sets. Out through the other door, past rows of very muddy wellies, we all lowered our voices to whispers as the teacher tiptoed with us into the early years classrooms to find a handful of tinies sound asleep in the dark to the sound of lullabies.

Once reacquainted with the light – of which there is plenty throughout – we toured the classrooms. In reception, children were split into two groups – playdough for one lot, painting for the other. Year 1s were colouring in Christmas pictures, while year 6s (who get proper desks – ‘we can’t wait!’ said our guides) explored the concept of empathy in a PSHE lesson. Year 4s were setting up and filming intricate mini-worlds to master the skills of animation, while year 2s were coding on the floor with mini-robots. Year 5s were out doing PE. Classrooms are large, airy and well ordered while wall displays feature everything from top tips (what makes good writing?) to pupil’s best work (handwritten emoji stories). ‘They do really well academically because they make learning engaging and they learn through doing,’ said a parent. A pretend post office and French cafe, racks of dressing up costumes and an imaginative indoor den reveal the school’s commitment to learning through play too.

Specialists in French, PE and games from nursery, with others added here and there until year 4 when everything except English and maths is taught by specialists, some from the senior school. ‘Teachers know the kids so well,’ said a parent – right down to the name of their dogs, we later discovered. ‘And they’re kind,’ remarked a pupil – the school’s philosophy being that if a child is too scared to say they’ve forgotten their PE kit, how can they learn maths with you? ‘We came from a shouty school and my daughter says there’s none of that,’ commented a parent. Pupils can expect half-an-hour’s homework by year 3 and an hour by year 6, ‘but reading makes the biggest impact – we expect that for at least 10 minutes a day,’ says head.

SENCo (shared with the senior school) supports the 20 per cent of pupils with additional learning needs – either via differentiated learning in the classroom or through one-to-ones in the lighthouse, so-called ‘because if you shine a light on it, it keeps you away from the rocks.’ Sensible tweaks made here and there eg no spellings on Monday ‘because we don’t want dyslexic children to worry about them over the weekend.’

‘In science, we made bath bombs!’ exclaimed our primarily shy tour guide as we wandered through the junior lab. ‘And poo!’ they all giggled, explaining how they’d mushed up food then stuffed it into tights to learn how the digestive system works. There’s a food tech room (‘You should have seen my pizzas!’) and big art studio (‘We made ceramic poppies!’). A shame the walls of this well-resourced studio were bare during our visit ‘but only because they’re about to put the new ones up,’ insisted a pupil, and there’s a DT room in the making.

Music must be short on practice space judging from the pianos and drums we found in unlikely places (food tech room, art department etc) but on the positive side it means music really is everywhere. Director of music oversees both juniors and seniors and attracts good numbers for choirs and orchestras. Instrument lessons available from year 2 – taken up by 80 per cent. Drama now on curriculum. Romeo and Juliet coming up next – at Watersmeet theatre, no less. LAMDA available from year 2. Clubs aplenty, with all teachers taking at least one – includes taekwondo, table tennis, LEGO, history of art, fashion, chess, avid readers and ballet, among others. Popular homework club from 4-5pm, plus wraparound care from 7.30am to 6pm (from nursery). Residential trips from year 4, leading up to the big three-night leadership programme in year 6.

New director of sport (works across seniors too) has his work cut out as parents say sports fixtures have been an area of weakness. But things are already improving, we heard, and pupils now get more games time too – a dedicated afternoon a week in addition to a weekly PE lesson and swimming lesson. External coaches brought in for eg cricket. Cracking facilities are shared with senior school – swimming pool, sports hall and pitches aplenty across the 60 acres.

Pastoral care has always been a plus point. ‘Yes, it’s academic, but we chose it because it’s so nurturing – you can tell from the children coming out of the gates how happy they are,’ said a parent. A wellbeing assistant and play therapist are available and school works hard to avoid any talk among pupils of snitching, with regular reminders of the importance of being an upstander – ‘We don’t want them to turn a blind eye, we want them to stop and speak out.’ Digital footprint also on the agenda – ‘important they understand what that is from a young age.’ The children are well-mannered and responsible, turning off lights as we leave rooms, and when there is misbehaviour the head is more interested in looking for patterns, root causes and ways to diffuse than immediate sanctions.

Families travel up to 10 miles; more than ever come from Watford. Many are first-time buyers of independent education and majority are professionals (mostly dual income). Not much by way of a parent community but new head is trying to change that. Ethnically diverse – a big draw for families who love the cosmopolitan feel. Food excellent – eaten over in the main senior dining room.

Money matters

Clubs included in fees unless run by external staff. No scholarships or bursaries available until senior school.

The last word

A small school that takes children on a gentler, more nurturing path than some of the pushier local preps. That’s not to say the school isn’t academic – it is, and children do well. But the focus is on enjoying the ride, the wider education and family like atmosphere. The seamless move up to the high achieving senior school takes the pressure off at 11+.


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