‘The next generation will have such a positive impact,’ says The Village Prep head

Morven McDonald, headteacher of The Village Prep School in Belsize Park, speaks to Independent Education about sustainability, eco-initiatives and encouraging pupils to make mistakes

Tell us a bit about your background and how you got to where you are now.

I did my Education and Psychology BA at Durham which involved things like the history of education and philosophy of education as well as doing a couple of placements. That element has definitely fed through the rest of my career, making sure what I’m doing is based on theory and research and not just doing things for the sake of it, or because I’ve done them before.

Being director of teaching and learning at Garden House School in London gave me a taste of what it’s like to be the person who sets the tone for a school and makes decisions about what’s right for the children. I fell in love with The Village Prep when I walked around it, I love the facilities that we’ve got here, and meeting the girls sealed the deal for me, because they really are very special. And, of course, I’m going to say that, but there is something really amazing about them.

What’s the best way to educate pupils about the environment and being sustainable?

With our deputy head, Cora, we talk about not just having token gestures; we have to make sure it’s embedded in everything we’re doing. We firmly believe that we need to model best practice in terms of sustainability for our girls, so that when they leave us at 11, they have an understanding of what that looks like in the real world. We try and focus on tangible examples.

Our Eco Council had a big push about how much electricity the school is using – they learned to read the electricity meter and they did various different things to try and use less electricity. They went back two weeks later and worked out whether what they did had a positive impact.

Pupils at Village Prep
Pupils at The Village Prep


What are the challenges of making sure sustainability is part of education?

I think it can be very easy to play the game of getting the eleven-plus, where things are right or wrong and pupils are scared to make mistakes. You can get into hothousing territory. It’s never sat well with me, I’ve never believed that’s how you get the best learning out of a child. They need to feel that their ideas are valid.

I know you could say, for example, that there isn’t capacity to spend a week on an eco fashion show because in three months’ time year six have their eleven-plus. But my argument would be actually if you get that right, the breadth of understanding the children grasp from exploring different ideas prepares them incredibly well for the eleven-plus.

The broader you take the curriculum for the children, the better prepared they are, because the schools don’t want children who have been cheated and have rote understanding, and don’t have any depth to what they’re doing. They want children who’ve got something interesting about them, with an understanding of the world. That ultimately is going to help girls be so much more successful not only at the eleven-plus but beyond that, and give them a real sense of purpose in the world as well.

Eco-initatives at The Village Prep School

    • Renaming non-vegetarian and vegetarian menu choices as ‘option one’ and ‘option two’, and indicating the lowest carbon footprint options
    • Sustainably-made scarves as part of the uniform, made by women refugees and ex-prisoners, and making sure other uniform elements are as sustainable as possible
    • Second-hand uniform
    • Entrepreneurship curriculum with 8 Billion Ideas – weekly classes about plant-based eating, future careers to do with the environment and sustainability, and creative projects imagining how to solve real-world environmental issues  
    • Pupil-elected Eco Council
    • Eco Fashion Show with every outfit made from recycled or existing materials


How do you encourage the girls to think for themselves?

I think giving them control and ownership of ideas, which means they will take ideas so much further. And I suppose our challenge is to make sure that even in year five and six, they still have that creativity of thought and they don’t suddenly lose it, or feel they can’t be brave with their ideas. It’s so important for girls to realise that actually bad ideas lead to good ideas as well. One of our big aims for the school is creating resilient learners and we do that by giving them loads of different opportunities.

The Department for Education has said by 2025 it will eradicate single-use plastics and “encourage the use of reusable and recyclable materials in schools”. What are your thoughts on this?

That’s quite bold, I think. I would be very surprised if  most schools aren’t actually already doing everything they possibly could to avoid single-use plastics. And where do you draw the line? I’m all for someone thinking of amazing items that can be reused but actually you’ve got to think about how it gets cleaned, in a world where we’re still being very hygiene-conscious. It’s a bold statement. The practicality is quite different. Because unless you’re in a school every day, you don’t actually see why it works for some items to be disposable.

What do you think The Village Prep has got right?

When you walk around this school, you can see that absolutely it’s not a hothouse. And it’s a place where it’s about helping children be really engaged with the world they live in, who are intrinsically motivated to learn, not because we’re forcing them to, but because they’re passionate and want to pursue different interests.

A previous head at the school said, “We keep the children within our gates and don’t look beyond them at our peril.” And I think it’s so true. We are doing the children a disservice if we don’t explore avenues with them and present them with the absolute reality of what the world looks like and what the challenges are. We have to not be afraid to do that and have those quite challenging conversations where children ask such interesting questions.

Any final thoughts?

I feel that our environment, and our world, is in very safe hands. Because whatever industry our girls go into in 20 years’ time, they have depth and understanding in terms of the impact they can have. They will have such a positive impact. I think it’s really exciting when you think about what that next generation are going to achieve and all they’re able to do. People always say, ‘we’ve got to educate children, we’ve got to make them understand’, but they get it, they totally get it. And I think when they get the chance to make those decisions, that’s going to be fantastic. I feel really excited about that.

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