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Are we pushing our Junior School kids too hard too early?

Is our obsession with exams equipping our kids for the competition of life, or pushing them to an early breakdown? 5 Heads of prestigious local prep schools give their views.

Has there ever been a more nail-biting time to be a parent? Hard to do right for doing wrong and they’ll hate us all in the end anyway! When I was at school I never really remember my mum and dad making much of a fuss about my grades – much like in my free time, I was kind of left to get on with it. But parenting is a competitive sport these days and academic achievement remains the highest accolade, even as we see unprecedented levels of stress in children at school.

There’s no fast easy answer to questions about whether we push children too hard – your view will depend on your own values – but I thought it would be an interesting question to pose to some of the leading prep school heads in the region. Food for thought? Let me know what you think below.


Stephen Oliver, Principal, Our Lady’s Abingdon 

our lady's building exterior blue sky lawn

If there is a clear focus on continuously developing a creative and engaging teaching and learning ethos, one which excites the whole school community about the learning journey they are on. If children are given the skills they need to be successful learners and an environment in which making mistakes and taking risks are not just tolerated but actively encouraged. If time is taken by every adult to really understand every pupil and each is given the tailored learning they need to fully reach their potential. If the school environment is a safe and nurturing one, in which children are given every opportunity to develop their interests and talents to the utmost. If we can ensure that every child comes through the door every day with a smile, excited about what the day holds.

Then learning, rather than being stressful and difficult, becomes something very different. It becomes a magical thing, something children are fully immersed in, something tailored to their needs, giving them all they need to succeed. It becomes an exhilarating experience that doesn’t seem like work at all.


Colin MacIntosh, Headmaster, Ashfold School

We all want what’s best for our children, but it can be really difficult not to fall into the trap of thinking that this means them reaching their highest possible academic level at this exact moment in time.  So it’s important for parents to resist comparing their 9-year-old with 9-year-olds in selective London day schools (or in Beijing!) and then worrying that they’re being left behind.

There are two things that are important for parents to remember. Firstly, we must see the ‘long game’ of education. And it is a long game. If your 9-year-old is one day going to become an Oxbridge candidate (and lots of parents secretly want this, whatever they say), they will probably get the Oxbridge bug just after their GCSEs and accelerate through. The trick is to deliver them to that point as well-rounded individuals with a variety of skills and interests as well as a love of learning.

The second important thing for parents to remember can be tricky, because in some ways it is counterintuitive. But in the end, by having balance and breadth in your child’s education, you are not diluting your child’s academic potential, but enhancing it. At Ashfold we believe in a well-rounded education because we believe in encouraging well-rounded children, who will then become well-rounded adults. And alongside this we know that children will learn better if they’re happy and stimulated and, most importantly, not forced to specialise when they’re too young. This is the same for every area of school life, from DT to drama, from rugby to robotics, from fishing to football and yes, even with academic subjects.

There will be plenty of time to specialise at University and beyond. For now, we need to take a breath, see the bigger picture and let our children learn and develop in their own time.


Jonathan Beale, Headmaster, Chesham Prep

It is not necessarily about ‘work’ or ‘play’ –  when the work is adapted to be playful, the children remember the topics as experiences as supposed to just lessons. In the Junior School we integrated the Creative Curriculum into our teaching methods so that learning is more enjoyable. By linking curriculum areas under one topic we found that children work harder and stretch their imaginations in their writing – they carry out additional research at home, and have a personal ownership over their work.

So Year 1’s topic on Castles began with the ‘discovery’ of a mysterious medieval box found on our sports fields. The teachers interwove medieval storytelling to introduce the topic and fully immerse the pupil. The tale of ‘Sir Charlie Stinky Socks’ and his waterproof cloak led to a Science lesson experimenting with water resistant materials; Literacy comprehensions came from fantasy storybooks to help build their vocabulary, in Art the children designed shields and made 3D towers, in History they learnt about castles through time and various battles, in Geography they looked at medieval maps, and in Maths they bought goods at the castle market. This will culminate with a Medieval Castle Day interactive workshop. These imaginative lessons allow our pupils to develop and explore their own abilities and take on new, exciting creative challenges with the curiosity, eagerness and desire to push themselves a little bit further.


Jane Thorpe, Headmistress, Swanbourne School 

My short answer to this is ‘no’. Children in Years 3 & 4 tend to have developed a huge thirst for learning during their EYFS/Pre-Prep years and have significant capacity to expand their knowledge and skill set across the curriculum in the Junior School.

Where schools tend to go wrong with pupils in this age range is not with their ambitions for the extent of teaching and learning but rather the delivery of the curriculum. The children learn so much without being introduced prematurely to excessive traditional classroom formality, and tuition in individual subject areas with a disproportionately high knowledge content. Our role is to encourage the children to be creative explorers, learning both facts and life skills in a plethora of interesting environments and using cross-curricular, globally relevant teaching practices.

My fear is that so many children experience a sudden change as they enter Junior School and their enthusiasm for learning quickly wanes as it is more arduous and less fun. This is unnecessary and educators, from primary to tertiary, should be ensuring a balanced curriculum is taught in creative, inspiring and varied ways. Having the opportunity to explore and inject your own thoughts and ideas, challenges and creativity with confidence enriches the learning experience and ensures that modern day life skills are developed in sync with knowledge acquisition.

Happy and engaged children are far more likely to reach their true, all-round potential.


Natasha Doran, Head of Pre-Prep, Thorpe House School, Gerrard’s Cross

Educating junior school aged children is always a question of balance between work and play. When the environment strikes this balance deep learning takes place.

At Thorpe House we gear our environment to suit our boys; we are aware of providing an abundance of sporting opportunities, play times and Forest School throughout the week.

Learning is meaningful because the teachers explain the point of all the learning opportunities to the boys – once they understand the reasoning behind learning they apply themselves. This in turn encourages a healthy appetite for competition, from the rugby or football pitches, to delight in ‘taking the challenge’ (extension work) within the classroom, acknowledging their individual targets and working hard to improve.

We all learn best through play and school can provide so many exciting ways to learn which embrace this, from competitive classroom exploration to the more physical subjects, such as PE and Forest School.

Initiatives to spark interest and diversity may include inter-generational projects, which our Year 6 boys enjoy with local elderly friends, to having a band of Eco-Warriors to remind everyone about their duties as citizens of the world and the duties therein.

It is vital to provide every child with rich and diverse learning opportunities; never underestimate a child’s capacity for knowledge; let their natural fascination continue by giving them ownership of their learning, which should include a healthy balance of traditional work and exploration through play.


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