Interview: Alison Melrose, headmistress, Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School 

Alison Melrose tells us how, during lockdown, her new £10m school was built to become a pioneering space

Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School is a new independent prep school for boys and girls aged 3-11 in the heart of Kensington. Built during lockdown, the £10m transformation of four six-storey Victorian townhouses into a pioneering educational space has seen teachers, architects and builders pull together in a huge collective effort to get the school ready.

Key features of the school include:

  • Incredible access to the greatest museums in the world and Hyde Park, both of which will form a key part of weekly outdoor learning. Teachers will be able to pop over the road to get inspiration from the world’s greatest minds, who will also be welcomed back into the classroom to continue the learning.
  • More outdoor space than any other central London school – huge two-acre private garden.
  • State-of-the-art STEAM spaces.
  • As much focus on wellbeing as academics: nurturing young children with the resilience, creativity and curiosity to ensure happiness and success in our unpredictable and fast-changing world.
  • Design incorporating biophilic principles to bring the outdoors in: where natural light and plants aid concentration and wellbeing.
  • Celebrating the building’s heritage: interior design that is warm, modern, practical, yet beautiful and sympathetic to its significant architectural features.
  • Partnership with local industry to teach real-world finance, business and commerce skills.

 


We asked Alison Melrose, headmistress, about her experience of launching a new school during the pandemic.

Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School

What were the biggest challenges you faced throughout the whole process?

Building Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School was always going to be ambitious. Future-facing while preserving history, the brief from our parent group, Cognita, was to create the ‘best prep school in London’. The opportunity to create a new school from scratch, especially a pioneering one, is an exciting prospect for a head. But when we embarked upon the project several years ago, little did we imagine that our school motto, ‘Prepared for Everything’, would also apply to us!

The main challenge we faced was uncertainty regarding the building works. Transforming four Victorian townhouses in central London into a state-of-the-art educational space, while preserving the best parts of history, was already a complex project. But when COVID hit, supplies and manpower were diverted to the Nightingale Hospital, and we had to work to alternative plans.

Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School music room

While managing the build, we also had to plan the opening of a new school, conduct virtual tours and interviews, recruit staff over Zoom, and undertake the tricky task of organising pupils into classes, when many families were uncertain about where they were going to be living. We had constantly changing numbers, which, especially now, is incredibly important to manage carefully.

We have opened and will be moving into the new building in January rather than this month as planned, but I am incredibly proud of how the whole team has pulled together to make it happen. As well as handling the build and launch, the staff have embraced Prince’s Gardens’ biophilic commitment, and I even spent a weekend potting 250 houseplants! We’ve all had to muck in, in order to realise our vision.

Is it easier to implement social distancing/hygiene measures in the new school?

Despite being in the heart of central London, we are lucky to have a large building with plenty of classrooms, with easy access to hand-washing facilities, sanitiser, and safe disposal bins for masks. We have the benefit of small class sizes and most classrooms in our new building have additional breakout zones to facilitate social distancing.

Wide corridors and communal areas ease congestion in key spaces, there are many large windows throughout for air circulation and there is good access to the large private garden from all four rear classrooms, where there is the opportunity for plenty of outdoor learning in addition to break times.

Importantly, having four front doors facilitates the morning routine and allows us to greet the children on the door without a queue or blocked pavements. Seeing their bright, eager faces and meeting families is one of the things I enjoy most about my job, so I am delighted that even under these circumstances, I can continue this tradition.

What do you think are some of the new school’s best features/facilities?

Our location is second to none. We have so much space, with room to breathe and grow: not only do we have a huge two-acre private garden and Hyde Park five minutes’ walk away, but being in the heart of the city means London truly is our classroom.

With the world’s greatest museums on our doorstep, they will form a key part of weekly outdoor learning. We even have access to Imperial Sports Centre next door for swimming and sports. No bus trips here!

We place a strong emphasis on wellbeing at Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School. In addition to all the outdoor space we have access to, we bring the outside in, following biophilic principles with proven benefits to academic progress and overall health.

Our specialist STEAM spaces are designed to engage children with their learning as we focus on key skills in communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. And while technology is important, our well-trained staff understand how to integrate it within learning whilst not allowing it to take over, supporting personalised learning and assessment.

Finally, we are engaging with local industry to teach real-world finance, business and commerce skills – all of which are essential ingredients to nurture young children with the resilience, creativity and curiosity to ensure happiness and success in our unpredictable and fast-changing world.

If you had known the pandemic was going to happen, would you have delayed the launch of your new school or continued as you did?

We have been working towards the launch of Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School for several years and are very excited to be able to deliver our education to children in London, despite the challenges of the pandemic. Being adaptable is an important life skill. We work on it with the children, but it applies equally to staff.

In a future we can’t predict, we all need to be flexible. Our building and location provide us with incredible facilities, making it easy to deliver our curriculum but, as ever, it is the school community which is its heart. While moving into the new building is slightly delayed, it is the pupils, staff, parents and neighbours that bring a school to life wherever its home is.

Take a look at the new school’s virtual tour to get a feel for how it will look once completed.


You might also like: Interview with Simon Ruscoe-Price, headmaster, Abbotsholme School

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