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Former pupil has plans to buy Shernolds School in Maidstone


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A former pupil of an independent school that shut earlier this year wants to save the empty building from developers and she has the perfect use for it – as a school.

Julie Dunford – or Julie Bevan as she was then – was a pupil at Shernolds School in Maidstone from 1986 to 1994 when she lived with her parents in Lenham.

Julie Dunford, founder of the Family Learning School
Julie Dunford, founder of the Family Learning School

Since then she has become a teacher and then a businesswoman running her own nursery school in London for several years.

She is currently the founder, director and head teacher of the Family Learning School (FLS) in Catford.

She said: "I set up the Family Learning School four years ago, initially as somewhere to send my own children. But the idea has taken off and we are now full with 52 pupils."

Her school offers a different approach to education, with children spending three days a week in class, one day outside in Forest School, and one day out on "adventure" day trips.

She explained: "We use adventure days as a way to enhance classroom learning and inspire children to engage with the wider world."

Shernolds School is up for sale
Shernolds School is up for sale

"The places we visit include museums, swimming pools, libraries, places of worship, working farms, equestrian centres and nursing homes."

Mrs Dunford, 39, lives in St Mary's Platt, near Sevenoaks, with husband Tim. They have two daughters, Orlagh, eight, and Beth, six.

She believes the new learning concept would be popular with parents and children in Kent, with the old school in Hill Place, off Queens Avenue, being the perfect base.

She said: "Shernolds would be the ideal location to set up a new school. It's a beautiful Victorian building with lots of outdoor space. I loved my time at Shernolds when I was there."

The school closed down in July this year after 86 years. Twenty-eight jobs were lost.

Julie Dunford (then Julie Bevan) on her first day at Shernolds
Julie Dunford (then Julie Bevan) on her first day at Shernolds

The last owners said the co-educational school, which took three to 11-year-olds, was no longer viable, having lost admissions during the Covid crisis.

Although the school can accommodate 160 pupils, it had fewer than 100.

Mrs Dunford has toured the school.

She said: "It could use some tender loving care, but there is nothing wrong with the place.

"We took over an old 1960s office building in London for our current school and we've created a lovely environment.

Julie Dunford with her daughters Orlagh and Beth outside Shernolds School
Julie Dunford with her daughters Orlagh and Beth outside Shernolds School

"It will be no great task to do the same at Shernolds."

The only thing standing in the way is the £3 million asking price, with which she would need some help.

She said: "Our world is changing rapidly and our children deserve an education model that is responsive to the new demands they are going to have to meet.

"Our model at The Family Learning School is truly personalised and puts as much importance on developing self-confidence, communication, creativity, co-operation, resilience and a true love of learning, as it does on academic success.

"At every open morning at FLS, I recall my memories at Shernolds School, where we used to build camps in the grounds and make things out of bark, moss, leaves, twigs and berries, and 'sell' them to other camps.

Shernolds has three floors, a basement and separate classroom buildings
Shernolds has three floors, a basement and separate classroom buildings

"Pine cones were our currency and we’d negotiate heavily on price. This was a purely child-led activity that reaped huge rewards for me and my friends in terms of social confidence, team work, communication, creativity and critical thinking.

"So much learning without any adult direction at all.

"I’m upset that Shernolds has closed and devastated that it may be sold to housing developers.

"It’s a beautiful Victorian building with perfect grounds for children to play, learn and grow in for years to come."

Mrs Dunford said she would love to bring the "revolutionary" FLS education model to Kent but the clock was ticking.

Julie Dunford is looking for investors to join her in buying the school
Julie Dunford is looking for investors to join her in buying the school

"I only have three weeks to submit a bid and save my beautiful former school from potential demolition," she added.

"Offers will need to be in the region of £3m so I’m looking for anyone who maybe interested in investing, not only in the valuable site, but ultimately in a world-class education for future generations."

Anyone who would like to discuss the opportunity should contact Mrs Dunford by clicking here.

The property is for sale by informal tender through RPC Land and New Homes. For more information click here.

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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