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So Long, Old Church Nursery School

July 3, 2022
by Jonathan Moules

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Guest Writer Jonathan Moules celebrates the remarkable history of a much-loved Stepney educational institution and the inspirational work of Bridget Cass, with pictures by Contributing Photographer Rachel Ferriman.


The end of term beckons for children across England. But for Stepney’s Old Church Nursery School, whose pioneering work has been encouraging the East End’s youngest pupils into formal learning for nigh on a century, July brings the end of an era. 

Old Church opened in August 1930 – one of just two such institutions in London – to meet a growing need for formal children’s education because of women entering the workplace.

Its generously proportioned clapperboard classrooms are little changed from the day the nursery nurses, as well as teaching staff, welcomed their first three and four year olds, ensuring children were clean, nourished and healthy as well as ready to learn.

But from this September, Old Church will no longer be a standalone school. Instead it will be downsized to an adjunct teaching space for the standard nursery teaching provision at nearby Marion Richardson Primary School.

It is the end of an era too for Old Church’s chair of governors for the last three decades, Bridget Cass. She invited me over for one last tour of the site, during which she recalled how she first came to Old Church in the early nineties as a young parent and immediately fell in love with place on account of the straggly climbing tree that still provides refuge for curious young people.

“This tree was the first thing we saw, and the marvellous thing was that there were children in it,” Bridget says, pointing out how its boughs are still strong enough for today’s pupils to clamber over and hang from – which they do with gusto during break time.

“When I was growing up we had a reasonably sized garden and as a parent I felt it was very important that our children had trees to climb,” Bridget adds. “But my husband and I had moved to Mile End where we didn’t have that much outdoor space. When [my daughter] Rachel saw that tree, she loved it.”

After Bridget’s second child joined the school in 1991, she was asked to become a governor, quickly followed by a rapid – and unexpected – promotion to lead the team of trustees.

“They asked me to come on board in part because they were having difficulty finding governors,” Bridget recalls. “At my first meeting, the chair didn’t turn up and they asked me to chair. I’ve been doing it ever since.”

The Old Church site is a local secret, hidden behind postwar housing estates at the end of a cul-de-sac. But it is known by those that count: not just education experts but the many and varied local families – rich and poor, of all religions and none – that live cheek by jowl in this corner of the East End.

One of the great achievements of Old Church has been to bring these families together. The school aspires to make Old Church “a safe, joyful place where everyone is known and valued as a unique individual; and where needs are acknowledged, accepted and met”.

This is obvious from the range of parents with young ones queueing at the gate at the start of the school day, or gathered around the teachers in each of the classrooms.

One of the joys of her time as governor, Bridget adds, has been to see the crossover between different communities as a result of parents feeling encouraged to be themselves, then getting to know one another as neighbours in need of each another’s support.

“I remember once at a parents’ coffee morning where an obviously middle class parent was talking with someone clearly unable to speak much English and said that they would take them to the shops after the meeting was over. There were huge differences between these people but they saw that they were similar in that they were all having difficulties as parents.”

Such cultural interchange – alongside the children’s polite and considerate behaviour to one another – was noted by Ofsted in its most recent report, in which it restated the outstanding rating that Old Church has held since 2012.

Yet Old Church is more than just a place of learning. From its inception, the school employed nursery nurses and later special educational needs support staff to work alongside the classroom teachers, ensuring that developmental issues could be spotted and addressed at this formative stage.

This kind of facility would be welcomed in most communities around the country, but in Stepney it is particularly important.

“This year we have, out of almost eighty children, over thirty who have some sort of delay, some of them severe, including children with visual impairment,” Bridget says.

“All of these children need to be assessed and supported appropriately. We therefore need a highly skilled staff team.”

This concern for the child’s whole development, in addition to the concept of learning through exploration, goes back to the original school design, which included drying, lavatory and bathing rooms plus a medical inspection room, in addition to the classroom.

Like other state schools in Tower Hamlets, there was a period where Old Church was in need of significant improvement. That changed in the nineties thanks largely to the Labour government elected in 1997, but also because support came from the local authority.

“What I am really proud of is Tower Hamlets,” Bridget says, adding that it was “the most extraordinary story” of a turnaround in educational attainment.

“When I first started as a governor, I would go to meetings and people would say wouldn’t it be good to get Tower Hamlets up to the national average for child attainment. That has been transformed in my thirty years as governor. Tower Hamlets is now way ahead of the national average and other local authorities wonder how they can be as good as us.”

Changes in central government funding for education since the coalition government was elected in 2010 have made finding this money to maintain standards increasingly difficult. While Tower Hamlets continues to perform above most other local authorities in London as well as the rest of England, the way education funding has been redistributed nationally has meant that the writing has been on the wall for a while at Old Church.

Before the decision to amalgamate Old Church with Marion Richardson, Tower Hamlets had already cut the number of places it would fund at Old Church. This has meant halving staff numbers over the last two years, from twenty-six to thirteen posts.

“What we lose by going into a primary [school] is that the head there, quite rightly, will be thinking about how to make these kids into ones that are academically prepared for reception or year one. The risk is that in doing this they will miss what we can spot at Old Church because of the people we employ in addition to teachers,” Bridget says.

“When my daughter started at Old Church, she liked to play with this toy that enabled children to make electrical circuits. There was this one boy who worked alongside her who could wire up a circuit board like there was no tomorrow. My daughter could wire it up to make one bell ring but he could make all the bells ring at once.

“That boy couldn’t read when he left Old Church but he knew he could do something.”

Bridget says she will find other ways to serve the community after Old Church, including as a member of St Dunstan’s Church, helping to stage events such as the recent Jubilee party in the churchyard. However, Bridget is clearly still passionate about supporting education and urges others to get involved in their local schools.

“It is the end of an era for me and I have learned more than I ever thought I would have done. I have learnt about managing people and about how to win battles with borough officials to try to make things work. But most importantly I have learnt about what really matters to people by getting an insight into my community.

“Every thinking person should be involved in education.”

Bridget Cass, Chair of the Governors for thirty years

Old Church Nursery School

Pupils from the thirties

The climbing frame among trees

Pupils from the thirties

‘I have learned more than I ever thought I would have done’ – Bridget Cass

Photographs copyright © Rachel Ferriman

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    July 3, 2022

    Ms. Cass, your career has been vital to the children. Your future plans to continue working for the community show great resilience. My heart leapt when I read about the inclusion of curriculum to foster community among diverse learning styles.
    I was laid off from work at a state-run college in the US due to lack of sufficient funding on my program for learning-diverse students. Such a small outlay of funds can change students’ lives.
    Best of good luck to you, Saba

  2. July 3, 2022

    A beautiful story. And yes, every thinking person should be able to pass on knowledge to children.

    After all, as I understand it, the wonderful place will be preserved as such. And Bridget will continue to find energetic ways to get involved. Good luck!

    Love & Peace

  3. Lesley Harrison permalink
    July 3, 2022

    What a lovely tribute to the school and to Bridget. Our daughter was a pupil in 1986 and I remember her beginning to write – except the words went right to left across the page. Her teacher said “Great, she is writing”, with no attempt to change the direction. I loved the enthusiasm and encouragement the children experienced.

  4. Bethea Jenner permalink
    July 3, 2022

    What a tragedy! Instead of getting rid of this amazing place there should be similar schools country wide. I had never heard of it and don’t have children but the benefit of this kind of early learning can’t be measured in monetary value.
    With very high regards

  5. keithb permalink
    July 3, 2022

    Volunteer unpaid governors such as Bridget are important people. They keep the professionals accountable to the parents (speaking as a safely retired professional).

    One day, I hope that people will realise that effective education is best delivered in small autonomous organisations. And that it costs money. OFSTED(*) grade 1 outstanding goes with those additional non-teaching staff. That means paying a little more income tax, but the investment pays off over the years.

    (*)OFSTED is OFfice for STandards in EDucation for the benefit of overseas readers. They inspect schools and colleges in the UK and publish reports.

  6. Marnie permalink
    July 3, 2022

    I teared up when I read that Rachael saw the climbing tree and was anxious to give it a go. No, no: no such child-challenging exercises as a tree or a jungle gym or anything that moves in play yards here. Kids aren’t taught to have safety good sense, and an injury no matter how small can result in a financial windfall for a certain type of people who are lawsuit hungry.

    How beautiful are the Union Jacks strung around the yard, reminding the children what country they are in. Our students are more likely to be surrounded with flags from anywhere else, or the rainbow or other political banner. The American flag or portraits of George Washington–the father of our country–that used to be standard in a classroom are now taboo–they might offend someone’s sensitivities.

    GA, I especially appreciate the lovely people you interview because their memories take me back to times when neighbourliness, self-reliance, and national pride inhabited the hearts of nearly everyone. Thank you.

  7. Hetty M Startup permalink
    July 3, 2022

    Thank you for this article and interview – Old Church looks like a very happy place for little ones. I hope it won’t be claimed for another boutique hotel or luxury flats. It looks purpose built, following the philosophy developed by pioneers like Rachel MacMillan.

  8. Mary Laiuppa permalink
    July 3, 2022

    So, what is going to happen to the Old Church School building and the tree? Is Tower Hamlets going to sell it to a developer for a boutique hotel?

  9. July 4, 2022

    this is the sort of school all children should have the opportunity to experience. I visited it once while a student at the old Institute of Education (University of London). It was a magical place where children were learning in many ways.

  10. Jane Steward permalink
    July 4, 2022

    My youngest daughter started here as a three and a half year old in 1992. We were so happy to have found the nursery, tucked away at the bottom of Stepney Green. We lived in a house which had been part of the scout and guides headquarters, Roland House, the history of which documented in The House on the Green.
    Old Church gave my daughter a wonderful, secure and happy start to her school life.
    Thank you for that. She’s now a chemistry teacher.

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    July 4, 2022

    What a heartwarming story and well done to the dedication of Bridget Cass. The school, the tree, and images of the building sound like it’s been a huge community asset over the years. An institution in itself. Oh if only we could halt ‘so called’ progress!

  12. Joan permalink
    July 4, 2022

    Growing up in the nearby tower block Latham House in the 1960s and 70s I used to walk past this nursery school most days – on my way to the paper shop. I didn’t attend there as I went to the Roman Catholic St Mary’s and St Michael’s nursery (quite a revolutionary innovation in itself in that it was opened in recognition of the fact that local Catholic mothers often needed to work, given the instability of their husbands’ employment in the docks). What I do remember – or at least think I do – was that (foreign secretary) David Owen, who had famously moved to Limehouse, sent his children there. It was a time when it was still common for Labour politicians to go outside the state sector for their children’s education and so was deemed worthy of note.
    From reading the nursery website I’m hoping that it is the case that the site continues to provide early years education, but now under the banner of Marion Richardson (whose eponymous handwriting scheme many of us learnt!)

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