School for gifted accused of cramming: Rival institution founded as parents say exam success is given too much emphasis

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BRITAIN'S first school for gifted children has parted company with its head, several staff and a number of pupils after a disagreement over its teaching methods.

Newton Preparatory School in Battersea, south London, is now faced with the launch of a rival school that has already recruited many of the deserters.

Parents have complained that the happy atmosphere which staff created when the school opened two years ago has gone, and that children are being 'crammed' instead of being allowed to develop at their own pace.

The school has attracted the children and grandchildren of several well-known figures including Bob Geldof, Sir Peter Hall and Britt Ekland.

Some members of the school's board of governors have been accused of being more interested in examination success than in creating well-rounded individuals.

Mensa, the high-IQ organisation that backed Newton when it opened, says it has severed all links because it did not approve of its teaching methods.

The new venture is being funded by Ed Loyd, an American financier, whose two children, Sophie, aged four, and Matthew, aged five, are at Newton. Up to 10 members of the Newton staff have already been recruited for the new school, which opens in January. Newton's first headteacher, Jim Cussell, left his post earlier this month and is on the shortlist for the headship. Mr Loyd says that about 100 of the school's 550 pupils will also go with him.

He says that the new school, which will be called the Octagon because it will be based in an eight-sided school building on the Chelsea campus of King's College London, will reflect the values that Newton espoused when it first opened, but would not have formal links with Mensa. 'We don't want to make that the only point. These are bright and gifted kids, and we would like to leave it at that and not have the Mensa label. Sometimes that turned some people off,' he said.

Several well-known parents had already decided to move their children to the Octagon, and a charitable foundation had agreed to set up a scholarship fund for those who could not afford the fees of pounds 1,650 per term, he said. One parent with a child at Newton, who did not want to be named, said that the atmosphere at the school had changed since it opened two years ago.

'It suited him very well before, but now he has a very heavy workload for a child of his age and it is not particularly exciting. Last year he never wanted to stop working. I can't emphasise strongly enough how wonderful it was at first. There were happy, smiling faces everywhere and lots of forward, confident children. Let's hope we can repeat that at the Octagon,' she said.

Many other parents felt the same way and had moved their children, she said.

'I think more than anything it's the uncertainty. A lot of children have already been withdrawn and have gone elsewhere. Suddenly the staff are all unhappy and it is hard to know where you stand as a parent. This family isn't interested in a vague educational policy,' she said.

Michael Short, director of the National Association for Gifted Children, is on the board of governors at Newton but has been unable to attend many meetings. His grandson is a pupil at the school, but will not be leaving as a result of the current troubles.

Mr Short said that he had had every confidence in Mr Cussell as headteacher, and that his philosophy had fitted in with the association's view that gifted children, like all others, needed a rounded education.

Newton's new headmaster is to be Richard Dell, former head of Penrhos Junior School, an independent school in North Wales. He takes up his post today, but has visited the school each week since September.

Mr Dell said seven or eight members of the teaching staff and a secretary were leaving the school out of a total of about 25, and that all of them had been replaced. He only knew of two parents who were withdrawing their children to send them to the Octagon.

He said he did not agree with the view that Newton had become too traditionalist and too rigid in its teaching methods.

'I am not interested in a cramming school because that is a one- dimensional approach to human beings, and it destroys them. My interest is in providing an excellent prep education and to go beyond that, because we are dealing with gifted children.'

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