Since 2016, Ben Freeman BEd (DT) PG Dip (educational leadership). Hailing from northern country preps (Malsis then Windemere – deputy head and head respectively), Mr Ben (as he is addressed by all) sought to bring rural values to an urban school. He has succeeded in spades. A quiet man, some parents find him distant, but all agree he has the best interests of the children at heart. As one put it, ‘He doesn’t care what the parents think. It’s all about the children.’
Formally dressed with smart black shoes, he greets each child with a firm handshake and a look in the eye. Genial, reassuring, yet authoritative. Approach to sanctions is to make children reflect on what they have done and why the choice they made was wrong. No shouting, he is renowned for his equable fairness. Committed to getting to know each child from the outset, he does playground games with reception; higher up, he teaches critical thinking to years 4-6.
Changes implemented so far are described by one member of staff as ‘good and much-needed.’ Decoration reforms are among them – maps and globes adorn, colourful wallpaper recreates the outdoors, and the school’s seven goals (resilience, curiosity, kindness, morality, respect, communication and self-belief) are, quite literally, written on walls and stairs. The ‘shine bright’ sign does just that. His office, near the hubbub of the entrance, is similarly bright. Clean and fresh – with a wet dog lying in her bed. Meet Fin, the school dog, who accompanies him everywhere.
Far from finding London a challenge after the rural north, he embraces the proximity to his grown-up children, and travels by bike every morning from Wimbledon, where his wife teaches, with Fin in the front basket. A healthy lifestyle in every sense of the word is his mantra.
First-come first-served, no assessment or interview. Registration for entrance into reception encouraged soon after birth. Equal number of offers to boys and girls; ditto for those born in autumn/winter and spring/summer, so as not to disadvantage those born in the summer. Staff visit every child while still at nursery to ensure smooth transition. Expectation is that all will stay from reception to year 6 but odd vacancies pop up along the way as families move to the country or abroad. Waiting lists in some year groups.
Fintonians go on to impressive array of schools, many in London but some further afield. Local schools such as Emanuel, Alleyn’s and JAGS are popular, and Dulwich College, Elstree, Royal Russell and Streatham and Clapham have also recently featured. Four scholarships in 2023 – excellent for a school which justly prides itself on not hothousing. Great emphasis placed on working with parents from an early stage to identify the best school. As one said, ‘We feel we have had great guidance.’
Despite facing a busy south London road, the school generates a sense of calm and purposeful learning. Independence fostered from the outset. Even children in reception (housed in dedicated building in colourful playground), we saw children navigate their way to the appropriate table and tackle the task in hand with minimal help. There is an all-pervading sense of creativity. Stems in part from Mr Ben (lauded for his eye-catching dinosaurs marching across the playground during remote assemblies) and from the spectacular and much-loved art room (housed under the roof in an ingeniously-designed room). Year 1 children, attempting to draw squirrels when we visited, were learning to think in a multisensory fashion. How does the fur feel? How might this be represented? Which strokes of the pencil? Constant challenge to observe and reflect. ‘Art is about looking.’
Two large London houses, with a central infill, front a small campus, complete with busy playground, reception block, SEN block and underground construction. Great use made of space: pleasant AstroTurf front garden on one side and secure bike park on the other. Modernity meets tradition. Inspiring whiteboard stations sit happily with old-style honours boards. Particularly inspirational is the underground surprise in which the DT room (subject close to head’s heart), music rooms, computer room and science lab are found. A real Tardis, enviably well-resourced.
Academically, every child finds their niche. The French lesson we dropped in on was a feisty quiz with group and individual participation. In English, children wrote an informal letter drawing on Kensuke’s Kingdom. Differentiated sheets motivated all. One individually-supported child played a key role in the sparky exchange about the letter’s contents. Nifty use of iPads in another lesson revealed a plethora of exotically named animals. Homework not unduly burdensome – not many moans. From reception, careful monitoring of the pupils’ progress, with school navigating a pleasing course between stretching the high-flyers and fulfilling those of lesser potential. Both camps feel valued. ‘My brother and I are very different.’ Parents, too, feel valued – they come in to read with the children, accompany them on outings or lead tours of the school. No PTA (it’s felt that it could become ‘too powerful’) but two class reps in most classes, and termly meetings with the head.
Staff are committed and hands-on. We spotted a teacher collecting autumn leaves on her way into school for a lesson. Huge pride in classrooms. All staff, administrative, domestic, kitchen, teaching or support, cover daily duties such as lunch or library duty: a good equaliser and also means they all know almost all children by name. Many also know the families. ‘Lots of the TAs babysit and it gives the parents a community too.’
Comprehensive SEN provision with well-equipped occupational therapy room. Currently three EHCPs. Almost 20 per cent in receipt of learning support. Individual attention is discreet, differentiation implicit and targeted support the norm, principally in the classroom but with booster sessions and one-to-ones where necessary. Energetic SENCo organises an annual forum for parents and other schools. One parent (two children, one supported) praised the inclusivity: ‘He doesn’t feel singled-out; they both feel special.’
The school pivots around its seven goals. We observed a discernible mutual respect between staff and pupils, and between pupils themselves. One child, reluctant to take part, was lured into a game: ‘Come on, we need you.’ Unkindness rarely features, many asserted, and is nipped in the bud when it does: ‘We just tell the teacher.’ One parent told us that it’s dealt with so promptly that it rarely becomes a friendship issue. Playground payback (paying back for time wasted) epitomises the approach.
In keeping with the outdoor theme, children play outside, come rain or shine. It was a dreary, drizzly day when we visited but nothing dampened the exuberant sprits of the children playing or collecting their croissant and fruit from under stretch and sealed trays. The food here is, as one boy described, ‘amazing’. Beautifully presented in a dining room which had been a gym only moments before, we had a mouth-watering hot lunch and admired the array of fresh salads. Worthy of any restaurant’s Eat as Much as You Can buffet. No limp lettuce here.
Uniform (piped blue blazer, checked shirt, navy corduroy culottes, shorts or trousers – now all gender neutral) is both smart and practical. Children can take pride in their appearance and simultaneously ‘bake’ in the mud kitchen in the Secret Garden. Although some children seemed unsure where this garden was, it is deservedly a centrepiece. Recently inaugurated (with plans to expand), it is the result of cohesive collaboration between parents, staff and children who all dug for victory. A former stretch of wasteland became a magical hideaway where the children can grow both plants and in themselves. A welcome refuge for some from the activities in Trinity Fields (vast playing fields a five-minute walk away), which not all relish: ‘You have to walk there and then play and then come back.’
En route to these fields is Trinity Chapel where the school congregates for special assemblies. Here, Mr Ben’s stars are presented, term goals are introduced and church services celebrated. Not overtly religious, these services anchor the stated goals. Highly valued links with the community – food donated for Harvest Festival, destined for Wandsworth Food Bank, covered multiple trestle tables. Partnership also set up with local small farm within walking distance. Proper mud and farmyard smells in London – wonderful.
All mainstream sports on offer, some supported by clubs. Pride on the playing fields is palpable, as are the skills. No bragging, however. Football match we witnessed ended in a 22:1 victory yet we saw no gloating. Swimming very strong. Reception and year 1s swim at Tooting Leisure Centre once a week, and year 2 upwards at Balham. Embracing modern trends, increased provision for mixed teams in all activities. Recent link with Chelsea Football Academy established for boys and extension contemplated for girls.
Music flourishes – two lessons a week for all, and ‘everybody sings.’ ‘All the songs we sang felt really emotional to me because everyone tried their best,’ reported one pupil. Bands, choirs, ensembles everywhere. Concerts in upper years. Attractive practice rooms for the many who have private lessons. Performing arts also flourish, from reception nativity musical to climactic end of year 6 play. Drama part and parcel of microscopically detailed timetable. Poetry Day is an annual feature, with every child in the school reciting a poem. Children’s art everywhere with dedicated boards to show off winners of termly competition run by art monitors. Staff lead enthusiastically from the front. Children are cheerful, articulate, polite and natural: a tangible testimony to the school’s belief that happy, unstressed children fare better.
Clubs abound, both before and after school. No need to miss lunch break. According to one child, ‘there is such a range, I can never remember them all.’ You can earn your wheelbarrow licence at Farm Club or knit purl and plain at Knitting Club.
Used to be more girls than boys but almost equal now. As the education system adjusts to its historical anomalies, the number of boys staying on until year 6 is increasing – all set to be evenly balanced.
Emphasis on wellbeing. Fin is gearing up to becoming a trained therapy dog (she already provides comfort in huge, warm and cuddly quantities). Library has shelves devoted to mental health and emotional support, there are staff and parent support groups and two of the TAs have been trained by the school as ELSAs (emotional literary support assistants.) ‘It was just not working at my son’s previous school. He’s a different child now.’ Useful links feature in weekly newsletter.
Parents are grounded – ‘real,’ as one put it. Pushy types get short shrift – ‘That’s not us.’ Many walk their children to school and most come from two-income households. Ethnic diversity increasing and almost reflective of local area.
Pupils speak with genuine enthusiasm about their school. Words ‘Finton’ and ‘family’ constantly linked. One child was thrilled to tell us that, on visiting her senior school, an old girl, recognising the uniform, bounded up: ‘I went to Finton House!’
Nothing flashy about this school. Bursary fund is healthy and being expanded: seven children on full bursaries when we visited, with aim to double this. Others in receipt of help. Fees in line with comparable schools in the area.
This is a golden nugget of a school. Behind the unassuming façade lies a happy family, dedicated to teasing out the best in each child. Resolutely not a hothouse, yet achieves remarkable results. If you are seeking well-adjusted, fulfilled children, look no further. ‘I was so so sad to leave,’ mourned a former pupil and gap year TA.
Visit the Good Schools Guide website for more.