Schools often focus on one unique selling point, but at North Bridge House Senior School and Sixth Form in Canonbury, it’s impossible to narrow that down to a single stand out aspect. From its Grade II-listed building, formerly the home of Thomas Cromwell (very in thanks to Wolf Hall), through to their refreshing focus on individual pupil development and experienced, enthusiastic staff, there’s a lot going for North Bridge House Canonbury – as Headteacher Jonathan Taylor explains
Did Islington need an independent senior school and sixth form?
Local parents who come to our Open Days tell me so. I spent a lot of my career in the state sector and I’m a big defender of some excellent state schools, so what we are doing is increasing the choice. Certainly I speak to a lot of parents who live nearby who say they are delighted we have opened. They might not have children who are immediately coming to us, but will be in three, four years time and they felt there was a need for an independent school choice at least in the local area.
You have only been open last September, so what are your current numbers?
We have got 51 students currently, that’s 30 in Year 9 and 21 in Year 12. We are looking to grow up to 100-120 next year, building steadily from this year on year with natural flow through the school.
How did the school come to be based in this wonderful building?
It’s actually a real coup to have found somewhere so perfect. I wasn’t involved in the original process of finding it, but I have had lots of discussions with the people that were. Because of the property market in terms of London prices and property developers snapping everything up, it was actually a really difficult process. It wasn’t specifically this building, but what they wanted was something the appropriate size and would have the character that would work as a school, and this building fits it perfectly. But it was difficult because you are competing with people who want to buy these buildings to turn them into flats and make a lot of money out of it that way. This site really couldn’t be better for us, but it took a while to find.
Do the students, too, thrive in being a part of history?
Up to a point, but I wouldn’t overplay that. We have three houses here – the house system is Bacon, Cromwell and Goldsmith, so we have chosen three figures who are connected with this area or building. When they join the house, we give them a book about that person. I wouldn’t say they all soak up the history, but what I do think they really respond to is the nature of the building. They can see that it has character, but also the fact that it is carpeted, there are no long corridors, just creates a much more calming and respectful atmosphere. It’s much harder to be boisterous and run around in a building like this, than if you are in a place with long, hard corridors and no feeling of warmth to it.
How does this branch of North Bridge House fit in with the ethos of the Nursery, Pre-Prep and Prep Schools?
The Heads of all the schools meet every other Friday, and we have a business manager as well, and we all form the core leadership team. Throughout all the schools there’s a real focus on emotional wellbeing and personal development without sacrificing academic excellence, we see it in that order rather than vice versa. The idea is if you go to the Prep, the Nursery, the Hampstead Senior or you come here, there will be that same emphasis on the student as an individual and their individual growth. Nurturing is a word we use a lot, that’s certainly out focus and runs throughout all the schools.
Do you see many students taking advantage of an all-through education with North Bridge House?
Yes I think there will be quite a few who do that, and part of that is the selection process for schools particularly in North London has gone crazy. You hear of kids at 11 years taking 4, 5, 6 entrance exams, potentially failing them all – I know there’s character building, but that seems a bit too extreme, and potentially worrying for me! The fact they can go all through and not have those highly stressful processes is a good thing and they know what they are getting.
The flipside of that is we recognise that many children will only stay with North Bridge House for certain stages of their journey, depending on what is best for the individual child, but we want to be a quite diverse group. I wouldn’t want all the students here to come direct from a North Bridge school. We are very much a community school, and that community is because people feel comfortable coming in, they don’t feel there’s already a clique.
What kind of atmosphere will we find in your classrooms?
First thing I’d say to any parent who wants to learn about us, get in touch and come have a look, we really are very welcoming. We want people to experience what we are about rather than take us at face value. At the front of the classroom, teachers who are deeply committed to their students, and not sat there passively letting the students get on with work – they are truly focused on the students’ learning. You will find a classroom where all students were engaged with what’s actually happening. They wouldn’t be on task because they are fearful of getting a punishment, they wouldn’t be disengaged, they would be engaged – they all want to learn.
Why is it equally important, too, to provide such enrichment activities outside of the classroom?
Unless you are going to be an academic, a professor in your ivory tower at university, fundamentally whatever job you do you are going to have to work with other people, you are going to have work independently, those skills you learn outside the classroom are just as important, if not more so. But also just emotional wellbeing – it’s not good to have children in the classroom all the time and that be the focus.
What kind of teachers did you want to bring into North Bridge House? Where did the team come from?
A real mix actually. My job is so much easier because we have such fantastic staff. That’s partly as a consequence of when you open a school, people who want that challenge almost by definition will have a certain energy or commitment. We have got a very dynamic staff. The one thing more than anything else that we look for when we recruit staff is people who actually care. We genuinely care about the students. We have a long Easter holiday, but I get staff knocking on my door asking if they can organise a day in the holidays to get the students in to prepare them for an exam. That’s commitment to getting the students the best results they can. We ask for volunteers to help out with after school events, it’s not a case of finding enough, it’s a case of selecting down. The fact that the staff are hugely committed to the students is probably the one thing above anything else. Thereafter I would say dynamism we look for and a strong academic pedigree – more than a quarter of our staff are Oxbridge graduates themselves, and more half of them have got post-graduate qualifications either in education or an area of specialism. Those are the three things, but the caring and commitment is the number one thing.
Words: Mark Kebble
North Bridge House Senior School & Sixth Form, 6-9 Canonbury Place N1 2NQ; 020 7267 6266; northbridgehouse.com