Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A parent review of Hill House International Junior School, London, England

As of late November, London is finishing up assessment season, when children at the ripe age of 4 have interviews for private, i.e. not state run, primary schools.  Offers come quickly, as do decision deadlines.  So while few in the US read blogs over Thanksgiving week, I offer this parent review of Hill House International Junior school in Chelsea.  

UPDATE October 2012, after a year and a term back in the States: Everything I have written about Hill House's superior education below, I believe even more firmly now. The foundational education that my son received in three years of Hill House eclipses the foundation his sisters have received here. My eldest daughter did kindergarten back to back, reception at Hill House and kindergarten in Texas, and the difference was stark as well as discouraging. The fault line is not US v UK academic instruction, though the UK is not as in thrall to early academic testing that has eviscerated US early education. The fault line lies on how we teach children. We don't educate children. We teach them to complete tasks. The lucky children are the ones taught to complete those tasks themselves.  I will revisit most of these issues in articles at PJMedia (I'm now a freelance writer) starting with  an upcoming review of Camille Paglia's Glittering Images. It is a remedial art history book that she wrote for homeschooling parents so that they could provide the rich education that we were fortunate to have for a few years in London. 
The short take: We moved back to Houston because our entire family, both sides, lives here.  Yet despite such significant ties, every day I question whether I have done the right thing by my children in moving home and leaving Hill House.  I knew the school was a rare gem while I was there.  I really had no idea how much of an oasis from modern parenting chaos it was until I had to go somewhere else.    

HH is a 4 to 11 or 13 year old school for boys and girls located in Chelsea.  When you see large groups of school kids in gold jumpers all over Chelsea, that’s HH. (I’ll comment on the uniform at the end.) Ask any HH family why they chose HH, and 9 of 10 will answer something about the school tour.  
To put a child on the list, parents must take a tour of the school.  (Once on the list the children have an orientation day the term before entry.  It isn’t a formal assessment, but a check that the 4 year old is socially ready for school.)  Tours are given on weekdays at 8:30.  When parents arrive at the school, they are greeted by an assortment of 13 year old boys, the eldest in the school.  (Girls can stay until 13 as well, but most secondary schools for girls in England start at 11, so the eldest class usually has only a few girls, if any.)  The 13 year olds give the tours.  What struck most of us about these tours was the boys’ composure, competence, and confidence in speaking with adults.  Most of us were sold in that encounter, reasoning that if the school knew to teach those kinds of life skills, then the rest was details.  
With that fact, a significant advantage of HH emerges: it is self selecting for a certain type of parent.  Choose the label, non-Tiger, slacker, free range, old fashioned, fans of The Hurried Child, Under Pressure, and Three-Martini Playdate, HH is full of families that do not buy into the modern parenting frenzy, who saw more value in the boys’ composure than claims of rigorous academic instruction.  True, HH has Tiger Moms, but they are the exception, not the rule.  There are over scheduled children, but they still aren’t as over scheduled as children in other schools. In a way, HH kind of immunizes parents against the frenzies of modern parenthood because of the school’s old fashioned attitude about education and the high concentration of parents who resist.   
HH Personality
From the start Townend was determined that his new venture should not become just another preparatory school, keener on exam results than on development of character. Autocratic and unorthodox, his personal philosophy pervaded Hill House which, while it succeeded in sending children on to well-known senior schools, became most renowned for its emphasis on good manners, self-discipline and the happiness of its pupils.
This was not the school that tried new-math because merely because it was innovative.   I have visions of the Colonel scoffing as each new educational fad emerged.  A rumored statement of the Colonel’s regarding the modern fad for pushing early academics, “What good is it to teach a child to read if they drown on their summer holiday?”  Swimming was a weekly activity.  Reading was taught, but not pushed.  
Another modern trend of questionable value is parental involvement in the class room.  That topic will require its own post, but parental involvement in the classroom has some drawbacks not commonly acknowledged.  Those shortcomings range from children behaving differently when their parents are present, to parents gossiping about children, to parents trying to control the classroom.  In some circumstances it can be great, but when a school boasts about high parent classroom involvement, that isn’t always a good sign.  No matter, because HH did not buy into that fad. 
The reception headmistress, Mrs. Bright, trains the parents.  We are told if the school needs us, they will call us.  If we need the school, we may call the school.  After a week or so transition, we are to kiss the children goodbye at the door and they are to greet Mrs. Bright and enter the building.  At first, parents’ annoyance is common.   ‘What are they eating at lunch?’  ‘But I need to help them put their stuff away and get settled.‘  In short order though, the children eat their lunches without much compliant (HH serves what it serves.  If the children are hungry, they learn not to be picky.)  They go into class happily with their friends; they seem to make friends quickly, in fact.  Soon moms note that the children seem more confident and self-sufficient.   The annoyance subsides.  
That said, I will admit that HH does not excel at preemptive parent communication.  The school certainly calls if there is a problem, but doesn’t do anything in the way of expectation management of the parents.  For the record, I found the school helpful whenever I did call.   Furthermore, having returned to the US where I receive 15 page newsletters each week and more opportunities for volunteering than I care to count, I desperately miss HH.  The children were closer and more self sufficient for the lack of parent involvement in the classroom.  (Again, I plan on addressing the merits of parent involvement in the classroom in a separate post, but the important fact here is that HH parents are typically involved at home.  This is not a situation of completely uninvolved parents.)
The school facilities aren’t shiny, spacious, or anything else coveted by modern parenting attitudes.  Those fancy electric white boards that populate modern private schools? HH has not the desire nor space for such gadgets.  I can’t imagine the Colonel nor his wife and children, who now run the school, seeing much value in having fancy teaching tools in every classroom.  The school did recently refurbish a historical building which has some nice computer stations amongst recital and gathering areas, but the school doesn’t see much value in pushing young children with computer learning.  Children don’t need computers before they can type.  
HH throws its resources at keeping their teaching staff and so, compared to other schools, have low teacher turnover.  For example, last year they were about to lose a fabulous husband and wife team.  They made them an offer too good to refuse.   The school also has more male teachers.  (In a significant advantage for the UK, there are still a good number of men in primary school teaching.  HH has even more than the UK average, I’d bet.)  For the early years, the male teachers are in sports and games, but in year 3 and 4 the children start going to classes taught by specialists, which results in both male and female teachers.  For those of us with boys, this is most welcome.  
A HH Education
In the early years, HH focuses on things like socialization, music, French, art, and swimming.  HH teaches maths and reading and handwriting from Reception, but those subjects are not pushed until Year 4, when children are 9 rising 10.   Homework exists, but until Year 3 homework is little more than the ubiquitous reading book.  At the end of year 3, when the children are 8, they are tested for streaming, division into levels.  Prior to then, they are taught all together, regardless of level or sex.  In Year 4 the children are streamed in certain subjects according to ability.  I think they start separating some classes by sex sometime in Year 5.  The upshot of all of this, is that the school doesn’t get heavily academic until the children are 9.  
Because of the later academic push and the lack of assessment and resulting non-selective admissions, many of us Hill House moms noted that HH had a lesser reputation.  (We mothers also suspected that the lesser reputation might have something to do with the large number of expats and staff children who attended the school. Diversity is a fact, not a slogan, at HH and parts of British culture are more xenophobic than most Americans understand.)   I heard one nursery head tell a parent that it was not a proper school.  My husband heard the same rumors when asking around after I had informed him that I found the perfect school.  He was concerned and asked for supporting arguments.  (Fun with lawyer couples, no?)  About that time, I received the admissions results for the exiting students.  Yasha showed this list to a few British lawyers and was quickly told by some impressed lawyers, ‘With those admissions and scholarships, your kids will do fine.’  

When I turned down one of the more popular schools in the area, I must say I did a gut check.  I was banking my children’s early education on my ideas about later academics.  From my early motherhood/parenting theory research days I remember that Socrates wrote that you shouldn’t teach a child to read until they are 10, that before 10 one should teach arts and athletics.  (I am a product of my generation in that I consulted books rather than my grandmother, but at least they were books that mentors such as Maverick and Sherri suggested to me.) I balked the first time I read that 10 year old rule, came to understand it better in early childhood, and, by the time I found HH, was shocked and relieved to have found a school that wasn't an early education hot house. I’ve never regretted my decision to send the children to HH.  My children’s performance has never given me cause to doubt.  
About that uniform: the gold jumper
Everyone in Chelsea has seen the jumper.  The uniform has taken some significant ribbing over the years, as it has never changed.  It is a high gauge knit wool jumper in mustard yellow.  It is paired with wide wale maroon corduroy knickers...and a hunter green puff coat with bright yellow lining.  I call it the color blind golfer circa 1948 outfit.  I hated buying it.  The uniform guy says that the Italian mothers weep when their children are fitted.

But a funny thing happened in my years at HH.  The uniform is wash and wear.  No ironing required, which is not at all standard in London where some places require starched shirts and ties for 4 year olds.  The uniform is easy to play in, or so the children tell us.  A fair few do cut the knee elastic in the knickers and they complain about the itchy jumper until the weather turns cold enough to appreciate the warmth it affords.  

I once asked Christopher Robin what his favorite part of the uniform was--the kid was trying to pack his entire HH wardrobe for the move to Houston.  He answered, “my gold jumper.”    I had already been taken in by the ease of the uniform, but that made me love it more.  When I returned to London, sighting the sea of gold jumpers made my heart ache.  
Turns out, I love that uniform.

UPDATE: For the Americans who must leave HH for home, beware.  The reverse culture shock for motherhood is stunning.


Donohue5 said...

Hear hear! You've summed up everything I've been thinking but didn't know where to begin to put into words. Every last detail - even the uniform - is true. I hated the uniform on the first day but very quickly realized it's perks, as did Little Miss.

I fear wherever I move, I will always be looking to put my children in a HH but will never find a duplicate. The school was truly brilliant. I miss it dearly.

Mette said...

Dear Leslie,
You really do sum it all up! We love Hill House and so does our child. She loves her teachers, is proud of her work and tries her best to be on good behavior. It IS a wonderful school!

I am Danish, my husband is English. And I also give HH full credit for making our daughter aware that she has 2 nationalities. It was never something she paid any interest until she had to choose a flag to take to field day. She noticed how her friends came with different flags and she suddenly understood that not all kids understand Danish and that her friends knew other languages too. This is really extraordinary to experience as an expat in London!

Thank for this write-up! I am going to share it with my friends in Denmark:-)

Mette (Miko's mum)

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you say, but would add more on the academic side - my son is in the penultimate year and in the top ("scholarship") form. He and his friends have been accepted into the top schools in the UK, day and boarding. Most have got several offers and are planning to sit the scholarship exams. The academic rigour and results are there - it's just that the school believes in letting children enjoy their childhood first. It's a very strong school academically and well respected in the UK (although viewed as quirky - "you either love it or hate it" is said a lot). And my husband and I are Londoners, who've been through the UK system ourselves.

It's also very strong musically - the Townend family are highly musical and it shows! My son is also a choral scholar and off to Belgium this weekend - one of several trips he's done with the school.

Both my sons love the school (and yet are very different kids). They even look forward to going back after the summer holidays. Yes, they are normal, and yes, we do have very nice summer holidays. But the school is great.

yummyolympic said...

In short, Hill House rocks. I agree.

Anonymous said...

HH is London's crowning glory if you are looking for a traditional private school that turns out academically sound, well adjusted non pretentious children, who appreciate just how hard their parents have worked to give them a head start in life.

Tahira said...

This is such a great post, and so very true.

What Mette wrote is also very true.

We are a Swedish family and our son has really come to embrace that. I just love the fact that for him, it is completely normal that people speak more than one language and have different traditions. That friends might not be there over the weekend because they're in Brussels or Madrid or Copenhagen.

When he and his friends speak about what they want to do when they grow up, they are really not limited to a future in London. For them - the whole world is open, and I credit a large portion of that to HH.

Tahira, mother of Spike now in Lower School.

AHLondon said...

Mette, I forgot to mention the cultural identity thing! I noticed that too. My children were more conscious and proud of being American and Texan and more respectful of other cultures. I did a bit on that on field day.
Re the "crowing glory" comment, I'd agree and for parents who stumbled upon this while researching schools, parent devotion to HH is fierce.
To first anon, thanks for the scholarship and music points. Since mine were young, I've only seen the music point first hand. I miss that here too. I'd have to do special lessons here, rather than part of school/after school.

Kate said...

Dear Leslie,
Thank you for this post, this is all so very true.
My daughter Julia is now in the reception class and I can only say that she loves her school, her classmates and her teachers, her academic progress is amazing and musical is just astonishing.
We have chosen Hill House because we love the eccentricity and the ‘Harry Potter’ feel it has to it. The very positive vibe is so apparent that even my two-year-old son who comes along on the school run (and occasionally shakes hands with Mrs Bright at the door) recently said: ‘Mummy, me too Hill House’... what else is there to say!

Kate (Julia's mum, Small School)

londonpreprep said...

fantastically in-depth post!! My daughter is signed up with Hill House and some other local schools and it sounds like a great place! I am not sure I can do the hands-off approach though... I would love to know what my children eat for sure!

AHLondon said...

Londonpreprep, you can do it, I promise. Mrs. Bright will get you through it. And then you'll love the hands-off approach. Trust me.

Anonymous said...

American Housewife in London, you should think again about the deduction the cabal of housewives made that the school had a lesser reputation "possibly because of the number of staff children there." I suppose that deduction was made on the basis that teachers are the hired help and you are all somehow superior - by dint of being of a higher financial status no doubt. If any of you had actually engaged your brains in the midst of your latte- drinking gossip, you would conclude that a school's reputation should be higher due to the number of staff children attending as it shows that those in the know, ie trained educators who are in the business of education, think it is worthy of their child. On a philosophical note, to use your insinuation back at you, if a person's value ( and that of their children) is somehow defined by their job, what is the value for a person who does not have a job... such as a housewife? Ironic.

AHLondon said...

Dear anon, if you had read the post attentively, you should have noticed that the cabal of women who thought less of the school due to economic diversity were the unnamed women who chose not to send their child there. The Hill House moms like the fact that HH has international, racial, religious, as well as economic diversity. We like it in part for the advantages you mentioned. It was one of the reasons we chose the school.
In your rush to assume disagreement with me, the latte-soaked housewife who can't possibly hold a good opinion about social classes, you imagined an insinuation on my part about economic class and responded with multiple insults to housewives. It seems it is you who believe that a person's value is bound up in their job and salary and that housewives in particular aren't very valuable. You are mistaken on both points. And for the record, the women who did make the insulation that you deride, they tended to be English or European (class issues are more pronounced across the Atlantic) and were usually either very wealthy or very professional, i.e. the kind of women who hire nannies to raise their children. Your insult can apply to some women, but very few housewives.

Anonymous said...

I did read the post attentively and you did not say "they" referring to other disinterested mothers as you are now doing, but you used the phrase "we mothers suspected..." so although it is commendable that you now say you do not share their views, you had inititially indicated that you did. I cannot read your mind, only what you wrote and you did include yourself at that point, perhaps unintentionally due to inattentive proofreading of how you had phrased yourself - have a check now and you will see. Likewise, I did not devalue housewives, I said that following the philosophical value system outlined in your post, that particular value system would would make housewives valueless, which I labelled "ironic" if you remember as it is not my own value system.

Edith Prouchandy said...

thank you for your article and cannot agree more!
Hill House really rock!
We have just moved from London to Atlanta and taken our daughter out of Hill House was the hardest thing. I don't believe that there's any school, uniform that can rival with Hill House.
thank you!

AHLondon said...

Edith, I saw your comment pop up a few weeks ago. I keep meaning to reply and see how your transition is going. Warning, it might be long. I just brought my twins home to homeschool.

I didn't have Mrs. Hindson! And what I wouldn't give to have Jenny Bright come stateside and take over for a year. You wouldn't happen to have their emails? I'd love to send the homeschool post to them. You can find mine on the about at my new blog. I'd love to hear from you. Donohue5 and I occasionally muse a US Hill House Fan Club support group.

Anonymous said...

Remeber i got new wide wale corduroy pants every year i start at school in the atumn.So when i grow up i only got that.Remember i was crying when me and mom was at the store for to buy some new one.