Hampstead and Highgate Express

4 August 2000

Hampstead and Highgate Express

One Primrose Hill nursery offers a unique vision of teaching which sounds strange, but seems to work. Bridget Galton reports

The soothing scent of aromatherapy oils drifts across the classroom as three-year-olds daub their artistic offerings to the strains of a Mozart concerto.

Children wearing red smocks chatter in French en route to martial arts, ballet and violin lessons - scenes which could perhaps only be found in such an enclave of artists, writers and creative mummies and daddies as Primrose Hill.

At St Mark's Square nursery in the basement of St Mark's Church, the eclectic timetable, which also features yoga, visits to art galleries and the opera, has found favour with many famous parents including pop musician Suggs, David Bailey and the owner of the celebrity-packed Ivy restaurant, Jeremy King.

Sheema Parsons, who opened the nursery school in 1983, has an almost missionary zeal to champion her unique vision of nursery education, which mingles Jungian principles with new age spiritualism, a dash of Bohemian chic, and cherry-picked practices from Steiner, Frobal and Montessori.

Markians, as pupils are known, are encouraged to meditate, discuss their dreams and explore their creativity - painting easels are left out in case inspiration strikes.

And the nursery entrance, where children are greeted with a cheery "bonjour", was chosen for its positive Feng Shui.

"The most important thing is dream telling. We are unique in developing pupils' inner world," said Ms Parsons, who insists that pupils are "not in a rat race" and there is "no rush to get them reading and writing".

"We let a child unfold like a flower and develop at their own pace," she added, stressing the school motto "work is love made visible".

But in case a school that values dancing around a tree as much as reading a book sounds alarmingly unorthodox, it should be remembered that with its staff pupil ratio of one to four, St Marks' has twice gained glowing Ofsted reports, praising its academic curriculum and spiritual approach.

"It is not airy-fairy loopiness," said Ms Parsons, who regularly sees past pupils gain entry to top schools and universities.

"We want our children to achieve the highest at whatever they choose in life. Our holistic approach gives them the skills they need to balance their bodies, minds and souls. We give them unconditional love to develop their entire world. They leave with bags of confidence - it is a wonderful start to their education."

Ms Parsons believes the key is to "open doors and horizons" at an early age. Staff at St Mark's pepper breaktime conversations with French phrases such as "Voulez-vous un biscuit?"

The unisex smocks were her solution to avoid sexism in the classroom - forcing teachers to respond to pupils equally. And Mozart and Vivaldi are played to create a calming atmosphere.

When interviewing prospective parents, Ms Parsons said she determines whether they would be happy with her unique ethos.

"I go by my heart" she said. "I am very fussy about who we take. You can't take a person with a narrow outlook who will demand to know why we are visiting an exhibition instead of learning the three Rs."

Parents who are "laid back", "put love before everything else" and "celebrate their children" are ideal, she said, adding that the school "fits the child rather than the child fitting the school".

Journalist Jane Dickson, whose four-year-old daughter Clara has attended St Mark's since Easter, said the "emotionally centred but well-ordered curriculum" was actually firmer than other nurseries.

"I am fantastically resistant to what would be considered alternative approaches - usually one whiff of a joss-stick and I am out of there - but there is nothing to frighten the horses at St Mark's," she said. "It is a warm child-centred atmosphere. Sheema's whole approach promotes childrens' confidence in themselves and their peers. They get a good academic grounding -the rest is fun."

Restauranteur, Jeremy King was prepared to travel from Islington to send Hannah, Margot and Jonah to St Mark's on the recommendation of several friends.

He said St Mark's was a refreshing antidote to the current move among nursery schools to "hothouse" youngsters. "There is a mistaken belief that this gives them an extra start," he said.

"Although Sheema follows the curriculum which will get them into the top schools, she works on feeding the individuality and needs of the children rather than cramming them full of learning. When my kids went to senior school they were not the best readers but within a year they were excelling because they enjoyed it. Sheema keeps the joy of learning alive as opposed to making it onerous at the age of three. We thought that was worth crossing town for and other parents do too."

Despite fees of 760 per term, St Mark's is non-profit making, Ms Parsons said. "It is not a business, it is a school with a lot of fun, confidence and love - that is what makes it work."

St Mark's has five spaces available from September. The school can be contacted on 020 7485 9012.