Forres Sandle Manor, Fordingbridge, Hampshire
Lots to love about this co-ed prep day and boarding school on the Hants/Dorset border, with its leafy New Forest setting and nurturing family vibe
Forres Sandle Manor School (FSM) is a small, co-ed nursery, day and boarding prep school for youngsters aged 2 to 13, with 150 pupils and space for newcomers. Tucked away in its own idyllic, 35-acre estate (dating back to 1429), it’s located in the small town of Fordingbridge on the edge of the New Forest. The school was founded as Pembroke Lodge in 1880, before moving to its current site at Sandle Manor School in 1936. In 1993, Sandle Manor merged with Forres School based in Swanage, Dorset and became Forres Sandle Manor School, the focal point of which is the stunning Jacobean Manor House.
‘Happy kids, happy school’ being the mantra here, FSM is fiercely opposed to academic hot-housing. Most schools will say this, of course, but teaching here is based on the Prep School Baccalaureate (PSB) system, an alternative skills-based framework for improving thinking and learning through developing communication, collaboration, independence, risk taking, reflection and GRIT (guts, resilience, initiative and tenacity). The final assessment references ISEB and National Curriculum levels and exam technique is also taught to prepare leavers for Common Entrance exams. Languages start with French in Year 2, with optional Spanish in Year 6 taught by a specialist teacher.
FSM has loads of outdoor facilities, from the beautiful lawns to the SEVEN football pitches, four rugby pitches, an astroturf, three netball courts, three tennis courts (grass and hardcourt) and loads of great wooden climbing frames. Oh, and a very inviting open-air heated swimming pool overlooking the lawn. Finding fairies and making mud pies in the woodland Forest School play area is, of course, massively popular, with all kids in the nursery and Lower School timetabled for fun here before they graduate to bigger adventures in the New Forest itself. There’s also a spacious car park (always a bonus) and a fleet of subsidised buses, too.
Indoors, design technology is a focus, with well-equipped workshops in various prefab, add-on buildings for electricals and woodwork and further STEM investment on the horizon. Peeping through the window of a science classroom, a happy-looking pupil catches my eye and smiles, safety googles and white coat on with test tubes in her hand. I’m told the block has a special extraction facility that monitors airflow – pretty handy where riskier experiments are involved.
Football, hockey, rugby (and rugby 7s), netball, cross country, cricket, athletics, swimming, rounders, tennis, biathlon (first time I’ve come across that one), gymnastics and dance are all on the sports curriculum. Despite being a small school, FSM teams aren’t afraid to get stuck in against larger rivals. When lessons are done, popular clubs provide plenty of opportunity to try out other sporty activities, from synchronised swimming in the school grounds to dry-slope skiing, horse riding, cycling and golf offsite.
Kids that enjoy playing an instrument or simply want to try are given loads of encouragement and one-to-one tuition. A pretty high number (70 – 75%) play an instrument and join in with various music groups like jazz, Junior and Senior rock, brass, wind and string groups, orchestra and Junior and Senior choirs. FSM also host local Rotary music competitions and stage informal concerts and pupil-led cabaret evenings compared by the older children.
ART + DRAMA
Along with lessons, kids taking part in drama enrichment on Saturdays can perform or act as tech crew in the big Summer production (look out for Peter Pan in 2021) and might take optional LAMDA qualifications. A curriculum staple, art projects are brought to fruition using mixed materials and mediums like ceramics, textiles, photography, computer graphics, print and paint, taught in a large, standalone studio-style block with ceiling-height windows providing budding Picassos with all-important natural light. In 2020, FSM signed up to anthropologist Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots eco project (legendary lady who befriended chimpanzees in Tanzania), bringing fresh creative focus.
Jody Wells joined Forres Sandle Manor in 2011 as Deputy Head before his promotion to Headmaster in 2018. He’s been involved in boarding through the majority of his career, previously working as a teacher and Housemaster at Wells Cathedral School and Head of Boarding at All Hallows School in Somerset before moving to FSM. Like his young wards, Wells lives on site and regularly checks in with boarders, getting involved with activities at the weekend, too.
One of the biggest changes he made during his time as Head was to switch from academic lessons on Saturdays (inevitably dreaded by many) to optional enrichment sessions, including sports, outdoor education, ceramics and music for the younger children and a bigger choice for the older kids like ceramics, textiles, photography, cookery, first-aid and lifeguarding, as well as academic options. Following a recent survey, there’s also a new after-school golf club and a double helping of the sell-out coding club.
Family-style boarding is a real calling card for the school. Typically, there are around 60 boarders aged seven to 13, although numbers were hit in 2020 as a result of the pandemic with overseas kids (who make up 10-15% of the boarding cohort) struggling to return. Boarding options include full and weekly boarding, flexi-boarding and even occasional boarding with ad hoc nights for day children, a popular option for military families.
Taking up the whole first floor of the main building, many of the light, bright bedrooms look out through large sash windows onto the lawns below, separated by age and gender. They’re really tidy (which makes me suspicious – are house points or tuck shop bribes involved?) but also have sweet little touches from home. Common areas include a large landing area and a homely ground-floor living room with sofa and TV to relax in. Outside of lessons, there’s also a full timetable from ‘Wicked Wednesdays’, trips to the theatre, shopping and bowling, to termly fancy-dress theme nights. Weekends include special dinners and movies and day trips to Paultons Park, local beaches and adventures in the New Forest.
Nursery children age 2 – 4 have their own indoor and covered outdoor space with sandpits, a play kitchen and a pirate ship climbing frame to sail off in and plunder toys and snacks. Games in the sports fields and muddy play sessions in the woodland Forest School with toys, swings, rope walk, mud kitchen, log stools and a wattle and daub hut are regular fixtures in the nursery timetable, along with beach school in the warmer months. FSM also has a free Tree Tots forest school club open to all littlies up to reception age.
More impressive than quirky is the balance FSM has struck between nurturing pupils and promoting independence. Meals served up at the dining table are just one example of the family feel I spot – yet kids are also expected to keeping rooms tidy and take the lead on pretty major things like arranging sports fixtures and staging a show. All of which stands them in good stead as they move on to top-rated boarding schools, day schools and grammar schools, predominantly in Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. In 2020, 100% of FSM pupils were accepted into their first choice of senior school, with 11 awarded an academic, all-rounder, sports, music, art or drama scholarship.
There’s a breakfast club from 8am along with free and chargeable after-school clubs that run from 3.30pm up to 6pm. A subsidised bus service covers several counties with a travel radius of up to an hour. Parents really value the option of flexi-boarding for occasional or part-time weekday overnight care.
FEES + SCHOLARSHIPS
Very reasonable. Day fees are £3,030 per term for Years 1 – 2, £4,815 for Year 3, £5,410 for Year 4, £5,705 for Years 5 – 6 and £5,925 for Years 7 – 8. Boarding fees are £6,635 per term for Year 3, £7,780 for Year 4, £8,085 for Years 5 – 8 and £9,245 for EU and International students. Nursery fees are £30 for afternoon (1.00pm – 6.00pm) up to £62.50 for a whole day (7.30am – 6.00pm). For Military families, FSM offer a Continuation of Education (CEA) +10% package.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Friendly boarding and flexi-boarding along with genuinely caring pastoral care, family-feel and an aversion to piling on academic pressure are really valued by parents, especially the many military families that use the school. The stunning countryside setting and Forest School are also a major draw.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Families of boarders and day children looking for a nurturing home-from-home environment with loads of outdoor learning and the opportunity to try out new things before the rigours of Senior academic life kick in.
Not for: Parents looking for a through-school or linked Senior school for a straightforward progression. If you want your child to focus purely on academic achievement, the teaching framework here probably won’t be the best fit. The small cohort also might not suit boisterous kids who need a bigger pond to fish in.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! FSM has open days on 5 and 6 February 2021. For a personalised tour or a video call with the Headmaster, contact the Admissions team, email@example.com.
Forres Sandle Manor, Station Rd, Fordingbridge, SP6 1DS. Tel. 01425 653181. firstname.lastname@example.org