In this blog, two ex-pupils give personal accounts about their time at Forest School and their experiences there.
Forest School, Bancrofts’ School and Chigwell School are the local big three selective independent schools around Redbridge. Every year all three schools seek the most academic and talented children. Places are always highly sought-after.
Jonathan’s time at Forest School
Forest School, a selective independent school, is based in the London Borough of Waltham Forest and was founded in 1834. It is aptly named as it is situated within a woodland. In fact, the school’s obsession with the tree theme extends to its motto, ‘In Pectore Robur’ in Latin, meaning with the heart of an oak.
I remember when I was visiting Forest School for the first time. Those words were emblazoned proudly on the crest that adorned the prep school blazers and the school prospectus. I had only a passing understanding of Latin at the time, so I looked up the motto. It meant ‘a heart of oak’. I understood it more or less to mean that Forest expected its pupils to have courageous hearts.
In taking my first look around the school on the open day, I knew that I wanted to come to Forest. I’d been tentative about it for a long while, as it meant leaving behind many of my primary school friends. However, I realised that studying at Forest would grant me the opportunity to achieve something akin to my academic potential. At my primary school, I had always felt like I never had to work in anything past second gear. This meant that Forest felt like a real chance for me to spread my wings.
Preparing for my 11 plus exam
I started my preparation for the Forest School 11 plus examination late. I was as goes the phrase, ‘a last-minute Larry’. My parents did not understand that there was a selection process involving an exam and an interview. I distinctly remember receiving the specimen exam papers and turning a few pages into the mathematics paper, seeing the words, ‘rotational symmetry’. The sight caused me to turn hopelessly to my dad and whisper, ‘What’s that?’ To which he responded in turn, by furrowing his brows.
The Exam and the Interview
The interview was probably the most intimidating aspect of the process. Mr Hardcastle, the then deputy head of the boys’ school, conducted my interview. He had an old-school charm and a confident air that I was not used to in adults. I cannot remember all of the questions he asked at the interview, but one distinctly remains on my mind. We discussed the size of my primary school, and then he challenged me by asking, ‘How many people attend the school?’ I replied that I did not know exactly, and he pressed me further by saying, ‘Estimate’. Hesitantly, I spoke through my working and calculations carefully. I couldn’t help but look back at my parents sitting nervously in the corner. Later, my dad would tell me how impressed he was by my ability to think on my feet.
Despite my initial trepidations about taking the exam, the headache that afflicted me on exam day, and my evident nervousness throughout the interview – I somehow – to the relief of my parents – passed. I said my goodbyes to my primary school friends and started my new life as a ‘Forester’. I had to get used to wearing a suit several sizes too big for me.
Perhaps the thing that left the biggest impression on me was the competitive nature of the students. They were fiercely competitive over academic matters, and just about every other matter too. In my state primary school, there was a sense of competition, but it was less pronounced. This might have been because lessons were single-sex from year seven till sixth-form, but it probably is also because these boys all set high standards for themselves. This combination of single-sex and mixing in schools is known as the ‘diamond- structure’.
Adaptating to the Fast Pace
In terms of academics, I struggled a great deal in the first few years. I knew I could hold my own in English, but I found mathematics difficult. The standards were a great deal higher at Forest than I had become accustomed to at my primary school. It was almost as if the other students had learnt a superior form of mathematics. We had the opportunity to study Latin at Forest, and it was in this subject where I excelled. This was because it was a new subject for everyone.
My confidence was knocked for a few years as I realised I would have to work hard to keep up with my peers. Time-management with homework assignments posed particular problems. In time, however, I reduced the gap between me and my peers, and I improved my confidence. Whilst I discovered a great deal about my limitations at Forest, I also realised that I had many hidden strengths. Forest had superior resources compared to most other schools, and I excelled in sports, athletics and music. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Forest helped me realise that I was good at anything.
Like many other schools, there were also a few teachers who stood out. I started in set three for mathematics (there were four sets). Working with Mr Stone in year 9 helped me move to set two for GCSEs. I was even eventually able to reach set one for A-Level. We had an inspiring history department led by Mr Brant; a fantastic teacher, who could paint the past in colour and would always give actionable feedback. There were more, but I suppose, these two teachers left the most indelible impression on me about what it meant to be an educator.
Probably the most significant aspect about Forest was the strength of the students around me. Some of the students in my year group were exceptional, yet they were generally pleasant and approachable. If you needed help with something academic or otherwise, there were usually those willing to support you. Many selective schools seem to lack this nurturing atmosphere. Forest has, no doubt, changed a lot since my days there, but parents of students who currently go there are still impressed by the environment.
While there may be parts of my account where I have painted an idyllic picture of Forest, there were many positive aspects to the school that outweigh the negatives. I have formed lasting friendships from my time at Forest School with exceptional individuals. My friends are independently-minded and truly embody the idea of being strong of heart.
Prajay’s time at Forest School
The first thing I remember about Forest School is the sheer size of the place. Bear in mind I joined when I was seven years of age so everything seemed overwhelmingly big to a 4-foot tall child.
I was offered a place at Chigwell as well as at Forest school. My dad was adamant that I would attend Forest – as was I – as many of my friends from my previous school, St. Aubyns School, were also planning to go to Forest.
During my time at St. Aubyns, one moment stands out more than any other. I remember my class being taken to one of the mobile rooms and neither I nor my classmates knew why. We were all very excited. We all sat down on the floor eagerly awaiting to find out why we had been brought there. One of our fellow students then proceeded to stand up in front of the class with a violin and began to play a piece for us. It was at this precise moment in which my love for music began, aged 6. I was mesmerised.
Fast forward a year or two. I’m sitting with my new year 3 classmates in my first-year at Forest School. A lady knocks on the door and asks my teacher if she could speak to me. Of course, everyone in the class thought I was in trouble. So did I! I got up and walked out of the classroom. The lady was Mrs Sheppard, the then violin teacher at Forest School. I had been booked in by my parents to have my first violin lesson.
Fast forward a year, and I’m in year 4. At the time, all year 4s were allowed to learn a musical instrument for free. As I was already learning a string instrument so I decided to go for a brass or woodwind one this time. I chose the trumpet and later switched to the trombone in year 5. I continued to learn these instruments until the day I left Forest at age 18.
Having to learn the grading and theory that went alongside learning an instrument (at least in the way it was taught to me), killed the fire within which was initially lit by magic, wonder and passion. The fun and playfulness more or less disappeared.
I played in many orchestras and bands and in concerts while at Forest. I travelled to different schools on Wednesdays, played a paid gig (a whole £10!) at the Royal Albert Hall and even travelled some of Italy with the school Big Band. The opportunities were seemingly endless.
Support at Forest School
Later in my school career, I took on music at GCSE, music technology at A-Level combining my love of music and technology funnily enough! Later in life, while studying graphic design at university, I got into DJing and music production and I truly believe these passions would not have been as strong if it weren’t for the extracurricular activities and nurturing environment at Forest as well as, of course, the support and encouragement of my parents. My talents and passion were, for the most part, supported well during my time at Forest School.
My story, in terms of maths, is almost the polar opposite of that of Jon’s. I have always had a good mathematical ability, partly as I had some tutoring early on in primary school. I distinctly remember being in year 5 while our teacher taught long multiplication. The teacher wrote a question on the board and before the rest of my class had even written down the first line of the question I said I was done. It was one of those moments. Everyone in the classroom, including the teacher, turned towards me in what felt like slow motion, mouths agape. While the rest of the class were getting to grips with 2-digit by 2-digit multiplication, I was given 3-digit by 3-digit multiplication to work on.
I went straight into set 1 when I joined secondary school in year 7 and remained there for a couple of years. As I grew up and went into my teenage years, my ability didn’t drop, but my focus did. I moved to set 2 where I sat next to Jon, who had just moved up from set 3. If you’ve watched the podcast, you know the rest of the story. Looking back it’s actually a pretty funny story.
My favourite subjects were definitely the more practical and hands-on subjects; the so-called less academic subjects. I’m at my happiest when I am creating, building and problem-solving.
Design and Technology
As a child, I was always building things out of whatever I could find around the house be it cars made from building blocks with a workaround to make them steerable, aeroplanes made from old k’nex parts I was given (to this day I don’t know where they came from), or ramps and bridges built from VHS tape cases for my toy train to go over or my R/C car to jump off of. If I wasn’t building something or another, I was taking stuff apart to see how they worked. An old radio springs to mind.
Other Creative Pursuits
Aside from music, my favourite subject, naturally, was design and technology (D.T.) and Forest had a great set of D.T. workshops which I used from the age of seven until I finished 6th form at age 18. It was the lesson I would look forward to the most. The number of things I would bring home was endless. These included pencil cases and balloon-powered cars in primary school; radios and (my favourite) a curved speaker system with an iPod dock in secondary school; spinning DVD racks and coffee tables with built-in magazine racks at A-Level. I loved them all.
Ideas and creativity were nurtured in D.T. classes, more so than others, and this was partly down to one of my favourite and most down to earth teachers, Mr Greasley who designed the Curve88 Speakers shown below. Seeing this inspired practically my entire GCSE class to build speakers. Aside from the Bowers & Wilkins speakers from the sitcom Friends, non-rectangular speakers were hardly seen at that time or even now for that matter!
Bringing things to life
Source: House magazine
It gets me every time, whether it is a book I have written/designed arriving in the store for the first time, a piece of music I have just finished producing as Flipswitch, a photo I have just uploaded as The Perspective Guy or a video I have just finished shooting/editing. There’s something about seeing a finished product that began as a mere thought in my head. Seeing that product and thinking ‘that now exists in the world because of me,’ is exhilarating.
Overall, I would say Forest was the perfect fit for me. There was, of course, a large focus on academic ability, but I feel there was enough of a balance between academic subjects and extracurricular subjects. Subjects included design and technology, art, music drama and many more. There was also a healthy dose of competition thrown in for good measure. Whether you enjoyed writing essays for history or philosophy, solving mathematical problems in maths challenge, playing chess, football, hockey or basketball, designing speaker systems in D.T., winning house music with your band, producing music in music technology or being the lead in a play there was something for you at Forest.
About the authors
Jon Strange and Prajay Harji both went on to university to study their favourite subjects. Now, they are highly-experienced and passionate tutors working at Redbridge Tuition.