Head's Blog - Admissions Questions (by Mrs. Smith)

Posted on: 01/12/2017

I spend quite a lot of my working life meeting parents of very young children, who are anxious to secure the best possible educational future for their sons and daughters. They ask me many questions, but I have realised that two of the questions which come up the most often are, perhaps, the two which give us a chance to explain the educational philosophy at St. Helen’s College the most succinctly. I therefore thought it would be worth sharing these two questions and answers with you all.

Question One: What Is Your Ratio of Staff to Pupils?

I sometimes think this must be in the ‘What To Ask A Nursery/School’ visitors’ guide given to parents when they first have children! Almost every family visiting the school with really young children ask us this question and, to some extent, they are right to do so. In Early Years settings in particular, it is necessary to have a fairly high ratio of staff to pupils in order to ensure the children’s safety and in order to carry out all of the necessary observations and record-keeping. So it is good that we can reassure prospective parents that our ratios at St. Helen’s College are very good indeed and better than in many other settings (a minimum of 1:4 at Ducklings, 1:6 in Nursery and 1:8 in Reception).

However – and this is a crucial point – it is not the case that children who receive very close attention throughout their educational journey will be more successful than those who do not. Indeed, a measure of success in older children is how able they are to work well independently, to carry out individual research and to formulate their own ideas, structured answers or creative solutions without support from an adult. The challenge for parents and educators is to develop children from totally dependent babies, to fairly dependent toddlers to really quite independent pre-teens and then to fully independent teenagers/young adults! It’s not always an easy journey for a parent – I am currently close to despair over a 16 year old who seems incapable of turning off a bedroom light and opening his bedroom curtains each morning – but, with patience and perseverance, it can be done! Clever, creative teachers and parents will find ways, right from the earliest years, to make sure that children are well-supported at the same time as encouraging them to become independent, to take risks, to direct their own learning and to extend themselves.

It is also true to say that the quality of staff and of their interactions with pupils is more important than just the sheer number of staff in a room. It is one thing to have lots of bodies sitting around observing children; it is quite another to have loving, committed teachers and support staff planning and delivering lessons carefully and dynamically, anticipating extra opportunities for learning and working to move all children into their ‘stretch zone’ to create interest and independence. This is what we strive for at St. Helen’s College, in every session of every day, and should be a much more important factor in why parents choose to send children here than simply how many staff are in a room.

Question Two: How Can I Prepare My Child For Success At 3+ Entry/How Does St. Helen’s College Prepare My Child for Success at 11+?

Whether parents are hoping to secure a place in the St. Helen’s College Nursery or at a highly selective secondary school, the answer to this question is the same. It’s summed up by this quote from one of my favourite poets, W. B. Yeats:

‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’

In other words, the best preparation is not about trying to fill your child’s mind with facts, figures, the alphabet, the reign of Henry VIII or any other lists of things, events or mathematical processes. A mind is not an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with knowledge. It is a living thing, like a fire, needing to be lit and then stoked, needing (eventually) to take control of its own destiny and feed its own voracious appetite.

To light this fire, parents can (and should) start right from birth to engage their baby’s interest. In the earliest days, months and years, much of this might be done through repeated rhymes and songs, through playing very simple games like Peekaboo, and then through playing with age-appropriate toys and games. It will also be done by talking to your child about all that is around them – I know my oldest son learnt all about odd and even numbers, as well as his two times table, by looking at door numbers on one side of the street everywhere we went, when he was still being pushed around in a buggy. He also developed early maths skills watching the Snooker World Championship with his grandfather!

Eventually, school and home must work together lovingly, consistently, tirelessly and creatively to encourage curiosity and excitement in the world around us, so that your child’s mind and heart are opened constantly to new experiences and new learning. There are countless ways for families and school staff to do this through the years, but they all have the same principle at heart. It is simply spending quality time with a child, discovering the world and showing interest in what they are interested in. It is engaging in conversation constantly with your child.

It might be reading together and talking about the words or pictures**; walking through the world and talking about what you see, hear or feel; cuddling together in bed and talking about what you’ve done that day, or intend to do; playing games, whether traditional or electronic, and talking about the games you’re playing; listening to music or singing together; learning actions to rhymes or perhaps taking every opportunity to count, to tell the time, to play, to sing and to laugh.

Consider the parent and child who bake together. They can learn to plan an activity and sequence steps (‘Right, what do we need to do first?’). They can practise reading and counting (‘Can you read me number 3 on the recipe now?’). They can weigh and measure, developing fine motor skills and consolidating maths skills (‘So we have 200g of sugar. What will it weigh when we add the 200g of butter?’). They can carry out a scientific experiment, making predictions and documenting their results (‘What will happen to this cake mix when we bake it in the hot oven? Shall we take a photo of our amazing cake to show Mummy?’). They can experience the wonder of ingredients transforming into a delicious, sweet treat. They can indulge their artistic creativity in decorating a cake, perhaps making patterns or creating symmetry. Finally, they can enjoy the fruits of their labour, experiencing that feeling of pride in a job well done! They can also learn that a badly mixed cake, or one with forgotten ingredients, might not rise and might be inedible – but that we can always have another go and learn from our mistakes!

When that same child is at school and is asked to produce a piece of art work, or to consider the method for a scientific investigation, or to plan a piece of creative writing, he or she will have developed a deep-seated confidence that they can plan and execute a task. They might be more willing to take a risk, to work independently and to make mistakes.

I remember walking with my two little boys through the woods near our home when they were perhaps in Year 1 and Year 2. It was a beautiful autumn day and we pulled on wellies and crunched through leaves, talking about all the autumnal colours and thinking of different words for ‘red’. We spent time trying to catch the leaves that were falling from the trees, counting them and competing to catch the most, and we jumped in and out of the shafts of sunlight coming through the canopy of leaves and branches overhead. Afterwards, we went home for hot chocolate and drew around the leaves we had collected, then coloured in our pictures. The afternoon was not planned, cost me nothing and lives in my memory as very happy shared family time. In addition, I remember my son’s class teacher calling me over in the playground after school in the following week and showing me a piece of writing my son (up until then, a reluctant writer) had done for the ‘hibernation’ topic. He had written about gold, russet and scarlet leaves, dappled shade and the whispering wind. He had written that the hedgehog knew winter was coming because the ground had changed from the hard, dry mud of summer to the soft leaf carpet of autumn, and he had written about leaves falling like rain and about conkers, round and brown, decorating the ground like Christmas baubles. His teacher was really pleased with the work and I felt so proud that our weekend activities and discussions had helped him to grow in his English ‘learning’.

In school, teachers look all the time for ways of bringing co-curricular links into the children’s learning. If children are learning about a particular country in Geography, they might create some artwork from that country in their art lessons. But, in fact, life itself is ‘co-curricular’ and this is what parents, in particular, have the amazing privilege and opportunity to show children. School is, in many ways, an artificial environment in which school staff try to recreate the world outside. But as parents, we have the world at our fingertips when we are with our children and are in the unique position of being able to show them its wonders.

So the answer to the question about how parents can prepare their child for educational success – at any point in life - is that you can do this by being with them, sharing experiences with them and talking with them about all that you are seeing, doing and discovering together. This includes, of course, listening to their observations and helping them to use new vocabulary to describe their experiences. If your child knows – really knows – that you see the wonder in the world, then he or she will look for it too, both inside and outside the classroom. If a child understands the pleasure to be found in discovering something new, he or she will want to take risks and seek out new experiences, at school and at home. Children look to us for love and guidance; they learn what they live.

So please do help us to light that fire!

Mrs. Smith

** A side-note on reading. Prospective parents also ask, frequently, how quickly their children will learn to read and how many books they will be required to read at school or in homework. It is heartening that parents recognise the importance of reading and wish to support the school in encouraging early reading and establishing good reading habits.

However, it is important to note that we place less emphasis on rushing through reading schemes than we do on understanding all of the text being read all of the time. A child who reads twenty books in a term will not necessarily be more advanced in their learning than a child who reads five books. If the five books have been properly understood, and have inspired the child’s imagination, and have been well-discussed, then they might have a more profound, long-lasting, beneficial impact on the child’s future educational success than the twenty rushed-through books. For this reason, we do guided reading throughout the school and we always explain to prospective parents that parents are asked to read with their children daily, to question their children about what they have read and to find other opportunities to consolidate the child’s understanding of books and other reading materials