My visit came about through a teacher who started with us at Abbotsleigh this year straight from several years at Danes Hill. When I contacted the acting librarian, as fate would have it, Janet Firkin is Australian and her daughter Edith is actually on the list to come to Abbotsleigh later in her school career. Serendipitous to say the least. After many months of emails it was wonderful to meet Janet and Edith in person - who are just as fantastic as I had imagined! I had been looking forward to visiting Danes Hill for so long.
Our first afternoon was spent talking to the Middle School (Years 4 and 5) students in their auditorium. They were fantastic fun despite the fact that the auditorium was rather warm. Drama is a key subject at Danes Hill so I was eager to see their acting skills and they didn’t disappoint. The session was followed by a meeting with the Headmaster Willie Murdock and a tour around the school with the registrar, Caroline Ward. The school has around 800 students, 600 of whom are on the campus we visited. The other 200 are younger. The facilities are excellent although I have to say that the classrooms are much smaller than most in Australia. The Year 3 teachers particularly do an amazing job in a very tiny space.
The school day is long too. Classes commence at 8.20am and finish around 4.00pm with some of the older students continuing through until 4.30pm.
The grounds are magnificent with over 50 acres, an outdoor heated pool over which they put a tent affair in the winter so they can keep on using it, am astro turf hockey pitch and several cricket pitches too. It’s interesting the way that independent schools here frequently go to Year 8 (our Year 7) and then the students have to go on to other places. School finishes at Year 13.
On Tuesday evening Janet had organized a function with the parents and teachers. Drinks and canapés followed by a talk from me. It was wonderful to have this opportunity to speak to the ‘grown ups’ if you like and answer their questions too. One of the dads bought along his little girl in Year 2 who had already read Alice-Miranda and bravely asked her questions in front of the adults too. We met in the library (which is beautiful – completely jam packed with books from the carpeted floor to the intricate plaster ceiling and with a lovely open fire). There were about 30 people in all and I had a ball talking about Australia, education, Alice-Miranda, reading strategies and the tour in general.
We stayed at the lovely Woodlands Park Hotel in Cobham. Once an historic home, where apparently Edward VII used to bring his mistress, the hotel has undergone a complete refurbishment. The rooms are very comfortable and for an English hotel the bathroom was huge. Although some of the workmanship didn’t pass my test – I think the electrician must have had one eye and a leg seriously shorter than the other with some of the interesting angles on the light switches! Clearly he didn't own a spirit level!
The food in the restaurant was delicious and the service excellent.
On our second day at Danes Hill I had another opportunity to speak to the Middle School Assembly and expand on some writing tips.
The Middle School students had done some ‘optional’ homework the previous evening to develop a villain and introduce them into a story. I was really thrilled with how many children took up the challenge and read some excerpts to the assembly.The assembly was very similar to back home starting with a hymn, ‘Give Me Oil In My Lamp’ which is also an Abbotsleigh favourite, then moving on in the latter part to awards. I was asked to shake the children’s hands and did so with pleasure.
Afterwards I then spoke to Year 2 and 3 in separate groups. These are equivalent to our Australian Year 1 and 2 classes. Their acting skills were amazing and one of the girls stood there trying to placate the tantrum thrower by saying nothing, extending her arms and waving her hands back and forth like windscreen wipers. The group was in stitches.
We then had lunch in the boardroom with Sarah Bingham (Head of Year 3), Helen Derbyshire (Head of Year 2), Angie Lack (Head of Lower School), Elizabeth Loubser ( Head of Middle School ) and of course Janet. The food is amazing – restaurant quality and the children and teachers eat together every day.
We felt thoroughly spoilt as we left with a treasure trove of Michael Morpurgo books. Janet dropped another great surprise into the hotel too - a jar of Vegemite (for Ian who had spoken with her about how much he was missing it on his toast in the mornings!). It has been eagerly opened, smelt and savoured.
That afternoon we caught a taxi into the village of Cobham which is gorgeous. I dropped in to say hello at the Cobham Bookshop, which has a great range of children’s books. While Ian was having a haircut I had a walk around the village and came to the conclusion that the main industry was definitely real estate – and hugely expensive real estate at that. Cobham is home to the Chelsea Football Club, so there was no shortage of flashy sports cars and yummy mummies in Range Rovers either.
I took a spin through the local Sainsbury’s and was impressed that they have portable scanners so you can keep track of your shopping – I haven’t seen that at home yet.The staff at Danes Hill are keen to make some links with the staff and students at Abbotsleigh – I’m sure we could have some wonderful exchanges and look forward to this in the future. I’ll definitely be heading back again on the next visit.