September marks Kew House School’s first anniversary and already it has come far. From extended class times to tables turning into art canvases, Mark Kebble looks at a pioneering approach to secondary education
Take a moment to think about everything you disliked at school. Dull science labs, long queues for a disappointing lunch, waiting outside the staff room, parents’ evening, even jumpers for goalposts (in my case). KewHouseSchool, an independent co-educational senior school for pupils aged 11-18, is the antithesis to all this. Being given a guided tour, there’s so many things that catch the eye: the colour-coded science rooms, the ‘restaurant’ area (no drab school canteen here), the bespoke tables in the art room that can be converted into a canvas, the mini football pitches outside… We find out more from Headmaster Mark Hudson and Managing Director of London Preparatory Schools Ltd, Theo Brehony.
September marks a year since Kew House School first opened its doors – how would you sum up the past 12 months?
MH: It’s been a remarkable year. We planned very thoroughly, but I think the year has exceeded our expectations. We have recruited quality staff, we have recruited students who have really embraced what we are trying to achieve here, and achievement levels are high, motivation levels are high – everybody is incredibly optimistic about the way the school has begun.
Did you have an idea of where you wanted to be after 12 months?
MH: There was a plan. The first rule of education is first catch your students. We have exceeded our expectations on that as I say. We knew the numbers we wanted to try and recruit and that we have exceeded that significantly.
TB: We are a year ahead of schedule [with regards to student numbers].
MH: The attitude and the way the parents and students have embraced what we are trying to achieve here has been truly remarkable. We have exceeded our expectations on that front, so the plans in effect have all been rolled forward at least a year. We have been able to recruit staff, put in additional resources and teaching spaces a year earlier than we anticipated, so the programme is gathering far quicker than we hoped. The response that we have had from the parents, if you look at the open events we have been running alone as an indicator, we have been oversubscribed on those significantly. We have had to put on additional open events, we are running them almost every week now as so many people want to come and see the school and find out what it is that we are doing differently. The feedback from those open events, the registrations figures, the numbers registering with us for future years – I have got children registered for 2021 already! Clearly people are seeing what we are trying to achieve here.
What was the initial inspiration to open Kew House School?
TB: We had two Prep schools, RavenscourtPark and Kew Green. RavenscourtPark is well established, it opened in 1991 by my parents. My mother, Maria Gardener, founded these schools, and we had a certain ethos which is very caring, with a lot of emphasis on creativity, self-esteem and self-confidence, and a modern approach daring to be different. Over the years we have been sending all these pupils to other schools, as we still do, but a significant number of parents said we’d really love it if you found a building to go onwards into senior education. My mother actually worked in senior education for 20 years before opening the Prep schools. That was when we realised there was a demand from our parents – we have got 700 pupils in our two Prep schools – for something different in West London, a truly co-educational school with a different way of selecting pupils. Then it took us years to find the right building.
What new challenges did you face opening a senior school?
TB: There were four directors, we started with a blank piece of paper, there were no pre-conceptions, and we wanted to take the best of traditional practices but dare to be different. That’s a funny way of answering your question, but in a way because we started with no baggage, plus my parents had 40 years of experience in high schools, we knew what we wanted to do. Then you go and find the right Headmaster…
Mark, when did you come on board and what was the attraction?
MH: I met Theo and Maria about three years ago. They were doing some research into secondary schools. They came and visited me at my previous school where I was Deputy Head at the ThomasTelfordSchool in Shropshire. Thomas Telford is a pioneering school, a leading light in developing best practice. They were just two more visitors and then they approached me some 18 months after their visit to apply. Initially I had no interest in working in West London or moving from where I was; however, when I started to look at the detail in what I was being sent and the opportunities it presented, I felt it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The fact that the ethos the company had with regards to students, with regards to the pioneering approach they wanted to take, the re-thinking and getting rid of baggage that education systems had got… There was no inertia in the system at all. I actually joined the company in the January prior to the school opening, so I had nine months in post before we actually took a student in. That was a critical time to assist and develop all the curriculum practices, design of the building, the interiors, the layout …
TB: Mark actually assisted in the establishment and design of HammersmithAcademy. Thomas Telford is the top performing state school in the country for the last 15 years. It’s funded by the Mercers Guild and has a kind of independent status, and we went there because they are different. We saw Mark in his environment and realised there was something about him. When we got head hunters to find 8-10 candidates for the job we knew that he was potentially the guy, and then when he came to London that was very quickly confirmed. He’s too modest to say these things, so I am saying it!
As a new school, does this give you a unique opportunity to outline a vision without hurdles?
TB: Really exciting. We looked at over 200 years of Victorian type schools in London, what we think is great about that, some of the things that we think are stuck in the past, and to be able to rip that up and start afresh has been exciting.
MH: To go from an empty building and try to sell that as a vision of a school to parents and students, walking across a building site and being able to convince them and instil in them the faith that we would bring this to bear, and indeed I have variously been complimented that we have exceeded their expectations. It was a leap of faith, there was no doubt, parents had to trust us and we haven’t let them down. That has come through with Ofsted, in the responses we have had from parents, and the relationship we have established with our parent body is superb. The trust levels are high. We see this going from strength to strength now. To start with literally 30,000 sq ft of fresh air and a blank sheet of paper, that is a unique opportunity in any teacher’s career. To bring all of those things that you knew worked, all the best practices that are out there, to bear in one school and to develop new ways of structuring the curriculum, new ways of structuring the day, and for London to do things quite radically and people have embraced that with such spirit. It has been phenomenal.
Is the relationship you have with parents quite rare?
MH: It is a key part, the open door policy we have here. Many parents have described their secondary school experience with their children as almost opaque. We need to have a rapport with our parents. This is a partnership, parents and teachers wanting the same thing, the best outcomes for the children. If you shut out the parents, you are locking out your best resource – your best support mechanisms come from home. By embracing the parents and allowing them to have access to the teaching staff, access to the senior staff and myself, we can work together as a team. We have a common goal: that’s the attainment, achievement and outcomes for the student.
TB: We don’t have parents’ evenings…
MH: The speed dating/parents’ evening is an anathema to me. It shouldn’t be necessary. With six reports a year parents understand where their children are academically and if there are any issues in any subject, with a very strong vertical pastoral system underpinning that, parents know that they can come to a personal tutor, can come to subject teachers, can come to see the senior staff in the school and discuss it and resolve issues and bolster the children’s achievements.
Looking at the school in more detail, who are your students?
MH: I am looking for someone with spirit, who has got ambition and the key thing for me is motivation. Testing in education has become the norm, particularly in the independent sector where maths and English are the priority. That devalues so many other subjects. We are aware of the wastage of talent in many schools and want to do something to change this. What we are looking for is a range of students, a mix within the curriculum – so alongside scientists, writers and mathematicians we have performers, artists, designers and musicians. We also believe that creativity should be promoted across every subject not just the “arts”.
You offer a flexible learning environment – how do the students respond to this?
MH: The children respond to the environment they are being taught in incredibly well. They are able to get access to this first thing in the morning, break times, lunch times, so the learning doesn’t need to stop just because the lessons have. The flexibility we have tried to put in place allows the range of subjects to access IT systems, interactive whiteboards are in every classrooms, we have an online curriculum so the children can access that from home, the library is really a learning resources centre, which has the full range of facilities in there so again children can go in and benefit from those facilities as and when they choose. Again it’s about that motivation to manage themselves.
TB: The school is going to be set up so that it’s open in the evenings. I keep saying it will be a social hub, it’s one of the things we have taken from tertiary education and boarding schools. A great thing Mark just said is when the lessons stop, the learning doesn’t stop.
In what other ways would you say your teaching environment is different from elsewhere?
MH: Our extended teaching day really is one of the unique things we have got. We only have four teaching periods in the day and those are 90 minutes. Some of those lessons are combined to make doubles, so our lesson length is really quite extensive. That provides the teacher and the students with a quality of contact that is second to none. It also allows opportunities for teaching programmes, so pupils can be taken off site in a science lesson that is three hours long without disrupting anywhere else in the curriculum, so they can go to KewGardens and do some biology for a whole morning. The structure of the day allows children to really embed themselves into their learning. It also minimises the amount of time that we waste moving children all round the building. In many schools there is far too much time wasted moving from one session to another at secondary level in quite big buildings that really adds up and makes a difference.
For a smallish school we have the full range of curriculum subjects. Fantastic specialists facilities, all our teachers are specialists, so again the curriculum has breadth and with the quality of contact it enables us to have breadth.
One of other aspects that we have reflected upon is that we actually conduct our options programme in Year 8. So the children move into GCSE programmes in Years 9, 10 and 11, taking a longer run at the GCSEs, so that the specifications become the focus for the teachers. They do not have to simply to teach to the exam.
TB: They do GCSEs in three years. Some schools do that for maths and English, we start all our GCSEs a year early. If you ask a lot of teachers, the year before GCSEs is like a dead year. You’d come to high school and this would be this year where you will be doing certain subjects that you didn’t really want to be doing. That doesn’t happen here.
MH: Year 8 students know what they want to do. Again, it re-focuses and maintains that motivation, which I come back to. It’s getting the motivation right. If you demotivate children in Year 9 and then have a five term rush to get them through GCSEs that’s not going to get the best out of the children.
TB: It’s a challenge for the teacher teaching the 90 minute lesson, so they have to vary it. It does mean we actually start things and see it through to fruition rather than a buzzer going off after 40 minutes. I remember doing swimming – you get there, get changed, swim for 10 minutes and go back again!
MH: There are no bells in the school.
TB: We also don’t do queues. If it’s lunch-time, every class has got a phone in it. When it’s time for lunch the chef calls the classroom and says lunch is now ready come to the restaurant. So there’s not lots of people queuing. It adds a calmness to the learning environment.
MH: The individual teaching side really comes down to a combination of things. There are a range of methods that if you put in place and all work seamlessly – the class sizes is just one part of it. The fact we have got extended content: in a 90 minute lesson teachers get to see children individually, a 40 minute lesson with 20 children in the class statistically that’s not likely to happen. The quality of teaching is raised because the teachers have to plan in detail for the extended lesson, so there’s clearly a quality of input. Every child meets their personal tutor every single day for a 20 minute period, so again you can pick up on issues and manage them before they become any kind of problem. All of this contributes to motivation, self-esteem and confidence, which leads to success.
The Headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, has been in the press saying we are too obsessed with exams. Is that a view your share? How do you judge success?
MH: I want the children to leave this school equipped to move onto what they want to do. Exams inevitably play a key part in that, that’s the society in which we live, but we want rounded individuals who are equipped within their particular strength, within their particular abilities to move on to whatever they want to do. That might mean they go on to further education, it might mean they go through apprenticeship schemes, that might mean they move into employment after 18, I don’t mind as long as they are doing what they are really passionate about and we have equipped them for that to happen. That’s the key thing for me.
So league tables – are they not the be all and end all?
MH: If you are only going to measure a school simply by their examination results then that’s not a very accurate measure of the quality of education the children are receiving. Inevitably, schools which brand themselves as highly academic, what they actually mean is they are highly selective and inevitably exam success is going to be high. That doesn’t necessarily mean the children are equipped to manage themselves in future life.
TB: We have got a course here that you do an hour and a half a week on that’s not examined…
MH: The Individuals in Society course. That focuses on political, economic, it talks about psychology, it talks about interpersonal skills, it manages their emotional intelligence, body language, it encourages them to be articulate… It enables them to be mature enough to hold an informed, intelligent conversation at interview level, with a group of adults, and be able to discuss appropriately a range of topics. So all of those things that fall through the cracks in the curriculum we have swept up and we have looked at and moulded together.
TB: That’s not lip service – some schools will pay lip service to that for 20 minutes a week. This is a proper taught programme, with visiting lecturers and workshops, and this is how we can produce those rounded individuals. That’s why a pupil leaves here not just with a set of exam results.
MH: We want children to be fired up and again it comes back to motivation. You mentioned earlier about exams. I do think Tony Little has made an important point here and I find it refreshing that he has done so. I think that the assessment models that we have had have not served us particularly well, but the future assessment models as defined under the new GCSEs and potentially A-Levels may even be worse. I understand the raising of standards, but the raising of standards through simply making examinations harder for people to pass, not in terms of the subject content, but by the mechanism they are going to use to test that for me is a nonsense. It is down to the mechanism we are going to use. It comes down in part to the trust that society places in teachers to assess, but most importantly there needs to be a range of assessment models so that different children can express themselves and demonstrate their capabilities and knowledge through a range of different opportunities, not simply a two hour written exam paper. I don’t think that’s going to serve the education community at all well in the long term and teachers will find themselves ever more being pressed into teaching to the test, instead of teaching the breadth and depth of the curriculum that it really deserves.
Finally, what are your ambitions going forward?
MH: In five years time we will have 6th formers coming through, they are what I will affectionately call my home-grown children, they will come right the way through the programme. We see them going off to do amazing things and we want them to come back and enthuse about the style of education they have received here. We see the extra-curricular activities expanding, we have plans for a theatre in the school. We have laid the bedrock now and we just know that this is going to be a magnificent programme that can unfold as more and more students become involved, and as the staffing develops within the school.
TB: For me, we know that this is the guy who can do it. I would hope and expect that this school will be seen as a modern, pioneering school in London and people come and visit us to see how we are achieving what we are achieving, in the same way we visited Mark. I expect this school will be a beacon of success.
Kew House School, 6 Capital Interchange Way TW8 0EX; 020 8742 2038; kewhouseschool.com