Since 2012, Henry Keighley-Elstub BA PGCE (late 40s), previously deputy head for three years at Wetherby Prep, also owned by the Alpha Plus group. Educated at Eton and Leeds University, where he read classical civilisation. Fully cogniscant of independent schools, he has taught history at Ludgrove, Cothill and Chesham Prep, where he was head of department and also senior master. Married to Sarah, with two young daughters.
Pupils like to see their athletic headmaster (think ‘Keighley’) pass by in full running gear and re-emerge smartly suited, shaking hands at the school’s red front door. He clearly keeps a close eye on all that is going on, including parents parking in the wrong areas. Slight of build, he has an immediately warm, engaging personality, combining being obviously in charge without, as he puts it, ‘taking myself too seriously’. In pursuit of ensuring pupils receive a well-rounded education, he champions all departments. He visits reception to learn names and teaches years 5 and 6 current affairs and PHSE, as well as taking a lunch-time years 4-6 running club. He enjoys introducing topics such as the evolution of democracy and parliament, getting to know girls well before giving senior school advice. Several parents commented on how he recalls specific details about their daughters and, whilst providing discipline, is warmly cheered in assemblies. One parent remarked, ‘Mr K-E really cares and makes each and every one feel special.’ Described by parents as ‘an energiser’, he shows no signs of moving on.
He enjoys the challenges of an international school, ‘61 per cent have English as a second language’, he comments, and wants to enable more to access Pembridge by developing the bursary programme. He appreciates the freedom he is given to run the school by the governing body and the wealth of excellent resources, from legal to financial. He stresses the importance of fulfilling the school’s mission of preparing girls to move on fully ready to their senior schools, both boarding and day, with which he maintains close links. Parents find him supportive and value his ‘practical, sensible advice’. Prior to our visit, yr 6 lobbied him in writing to allow them to participate in IAPS netball finals which clashed with their school production, and persuaded him to change his decision.
Non-selective for 66 highly sought after reception places, so names down as soon as possible after birth, but not before. Siblings prioritised as long as registered early. Places allocated randomly by calendar month divided into thirds. The year before a girl is due to start in reception, those with confirmed places are invited to an open morning, which includes a tour of the school. Parents then offered a subsequent meeting with the head to ask any questions and to ensure that the school’s ethos matches their approach to education. At this point they are asked for a deposit to ensure a place, with a term’s fees due the following March, but most affluent parents take this in their stride. Occasional places from year 1 up involve an assessment in reading, writing and maths as well as a half day visit to see whether the child will manage the pace and rigour of the curriculum. Parents are overwhelmingly successful professionals, many European bankers, lawyers, consultants, long-term residents and Brits of similar backgrounds from Notting Hill, Bayswater and Kensington with the odd sprinkle of celebrities.
Very impressive exit results to diverse academically selective secondaries are a key factor for parents choosing this school. Regular popular destinations are Godolphin & Latymer, Francis Holland NW1 and St Paul’s Girls’, with a few to South Hampstead High, Queen’s College and Queen’s Gate as well as an increasing number choosing to board at schools such as St Mary’s Ascot, Wycombe Abbey and Downe House. Undoubtedly the many are attracted by the spacious grounds and facilities of many boarding schools after the compact London site. Mr Keighley-Elstub advises accordingly along with a dedicated transition member of staff. Plenty of scholarships each year, academic and sporting as well as musical and artistic (14 academic, music and art scholarships and exhibitions in 2018, the majority to Francis Holland NW1 and Downe House) and fine boards in the upper school hall commemorate them. Some leave at 7+ for Bute House, an unusually large contingent in 2018 though not in 2019, as parents commented, ‘an anomaly not the start of a trend’. Clearly in 2018 some were rattled by the hike in fees and saw Bute as a sensible path to SPGS, their main focus.
Two tall, white stuccoed buildings on leafy Pembridge Square, a quiet haven off Notting Hill Gate, separated by Wetherby pre-prep, the boys’ equivalent but ‘a very different establishment,’ affirms Mr K-E. The girls enjoy roaming through Pembridge Square gardens and are bussed to Paddington Recreation Ground with its extensive facilities for organised games, or Porchester Baths for swimming. Our visit was timely as whole school had been attractively refurbished, uniting the feel of the two buildings with the same freshly decorated white walls enhanced with photographs and pupils’ imaginative artwork, and plush fitted light turquoise carpets throughout.
Both buildings have large halls which double as dining rooms at lunch time. Wide choice of healthy, tasty, cooked lunches praised by staff and pupils, with girls seated properly at tables supervised in a civilised fashion. Classrooms are uniformly spacious, bright and airy with high ceilings, tall windows, plus digital display screens and visualisers along with tablets. Parents have welcomed evident investment in digital resources and we learnt of the impending reconfiguration of ‘no. 10 annexe’ to provide rooms for music and drama plus play spaces outside. The science laboratory was also due for an upgrade.
Weekly whole school assemblies, with parents invited, take place round the corner in St Matthew’s Church. Mr K-E described the ethos as ‘lightly Anglican’. The infants have nativity plays and there’s a traditional nine lesson carol service. ‘Don’t be surprised to find something different,’ affirms Mr K-E with a smile on his lips, ‘for example a rock band playing in the service’. A great lover of music himself, head plays acoustic guitar whilst his wife plays the violin. The Tabernacle Theatre hosts productions and there’s a wealth of colourful, imaginative costumes and hats in the drama space in the basement. Girls – polite and well-spoken – can gain confidence performing in class assemblies, tea time concerts, full-blown productions and drama club and LAMDA exams. They are encouraged to give presentations about topics they have researched independently, and enjoy poetry competitions. They carry out responsibilities as ‘green’ girls, elected school council representatives or house prefects.
Mr K-E aims to ensure girls get a rounded education with plenty of fun alongside academic rigour. He reassures us, ‘We can do both’. He has created a strong, collaborative senior leadership team, promoting longstanding staff, who – parents tell us – have been ‘tried and tested’, such as the popular deputy head, and appointing new specialists of both sexes. He has introduced setting from year 3 in maths and English, so three classes become groups of four, with heads of department working alongside class teachers. The curriculum now includes philosophy, mind mapping and cross-curricular topics. Impressive lanterns on display in the stunning art studio involved science, IT and art (‘STE(A)M’). One father spoke of his delight seeing his reception daughter enjoying muddy puddles during a forest school session in Kensington Gardens. Others appreciate the upper school residential trips and in particular the team-building and outdoor activities of the exploration society.
There are various mechanisms to support those international girls who need extra help with English. Parents with dyslexic daughters commented on impressive improvements in provision and supportive ongoing discussions. We saw pupils happily engaged in learning right from reception, concentrating in a carousel of well-organised literacy activities. We witnessed year 1s exploring capacity, estimating and experimenting with beakers, working collaboratively and purposefully.
Girls are encouraged to try everything. A multiplicity of clubs include Kitchen Sink Science, Lego and Latin. The head is proud that three-quarters of the girls take instrumental music lessons. There are baroque chamber ensembles with a harpsicord, an orchestra and three choirs: the auditioned chamber choir has biannual tours to eg Venice. Sports include football and cricket, with fixtures against local primary schools, as well as the traditional netball and rounders. The PE department has an inclusive ethos: 180 girls in years 3-6 played in matches in one week. They encounter stiff competition from schools such as Bute House and Glendower, but their efforts are clearly paying off as the U11 girls proudly told us they were playing in the IAPS netball finals.
Parents are made welcome and when we visited were busily counting money raised from a Reading Marathon for local community charities. Each class had designed Word Trees to record individual efforts. Parents we spoke to felt they had easy access to any of the staff, including the headmaster, and there’s a supportive parents’ association. The school has maintained its reputation for excellent pastoral care: girls see their teachers as fair and encouraging.
Pembridge caters for an international parent body; the school reflects London life, improves languages and cultural awareness, whilst providing a distinct, English education, appreciated by all. The girls seem relaxed, enjoying everything on offer, despite limited outdoor space, which might not suit a very boisterous girl. With excellent pastoral care, happy, modest girls and good advice on senior schools, this non-selective school could be a great choice for a local clientele. Parents agree it is ‘not precious’ and like the sense of community, unusual for central London. Those whose daughters have moved on have no regret in choosing Pembridge, praising the thoughtful preparation for the senior school life so their daughters ‘have not been fazed and feel they have had a taste of everything’.