Muddy says: A true idyll of childhood, it's Hanford all the way for a quirky, quintessentially English girls boarding school in the heart of the rolling countryside
What? Where? Nestled in the heart of the beautiful Dorset countryside, Hanford is a day and boarding school for girls aged 7-13 and is, in our eyes, a true gem. The school was set up in 1947 by Mrs. Clifford Canning (her husband Clifford Canning being a former headmaster of Canford School), and passed on to their daughter Sarah Canning, who became head before handing the school over to Hanford School Charitable Trust more recently. And, quite frankly, the school hasn’t changed much. 45 magical acres are home to Jacobean-style Hanford House, a small gothic chapel, climbing tree, 100 girls, 20 ponies and 10 dogs. Former pupils include Santa Montefiore, Tara Palmer-Tompkinson and, more recently, Millie Mackintosh of Made in Chelsea fame.
While the school might be seen as an adorable throwback to an Enid Blyton era, set in an atmospheric manor house and rolling fields, where girls ride ponies before breakfast and stroll the halls with knitting tucked under their arms, academics are strong and the view is firmly forward looking. Only a 2½ hour drive from London, it’s on the radar of more adventurous London parents (there is a coach to Richmond via Andover and Fleet that runs on half terms and exeats), overseas families (particularly popular with Forces parents but a spattering from Spain, Germany, China, Nigeria), plus West Country girls and plenty of former pupils’ children.
The school is firmly non-selective, and while it is thought of by some as alternative (there are no uniforms), it is no such thing. It is quirky yet traditional and has a strong family feel. Not much changes here – because the formula works! Girls climb trees, canter over the downs and roam freely about the grounds as they did fifty years ago, but Hanford still feeds top boarding schools and learning isn’t sacrificed for freedom. There is no new astro and the roof could do with a few new tiles, but that is not important to the ethos of the school. It’s old money rather than bling, unshowy rather than glamorous, Malory Towers rather than Eaton Square Upper, with some truly bonkers traditions and eccentricity running through its veins.
Facilities: The gorgeous main building presides over orchards, fields, a walled kitchen garden, and large working stables. Inside are dorms and a hall that doubles for lunch, tea, plays and concerts. There is little gloss and shine, the library can best be described as homely and the overall feel is more tumbledown than shabby chic (although the head’s office is very smart.) There is no flashy new sports hall complex or uber-equipped performing arts centre, several classrooms are paint-peeling pre-fabs, the gym is merely serviceable and a lick of paint might be welcome here and there. And yet none of this matters at Hanford. It lacks for nothing when it comes to educating today’s children – the facilities may not be cutting edge but arguably the lack of gadgets and widgets encourages a focus on girls’ innate technical skills.
They have a perfectly fine outdoor pool, delightful chapel, tennis courts and athletics field and, more importantly, acres of grounds including Hod and Ham hills that see girls running up and down, gardens galore where the girls build jumps for their ponies, stable block where you can stable your steed or ride the school’s own ponies, and a climbing tree with branches known as Dead Man’s Drop, Bucking Bronco, Senior Bog Roll, Badgers, Bunnies, and Worms. Despite the lack of astro (!), sport is strong, and the school offers opportunities including pistol shooting. Five out of the past six years have seen the Hanford U13 become cross country championship winners.
Academic results: Girls join at all ages, with most staying until 13. Class sizes are small, with a mixed Third Form (years 3 and 4 in new money), expanding to a not-so-whopping 32 girls in Year 7 split into two forms and three sets. And yet, small is beautiful (and successful). Girls go on mostly to boarding senior schools, including big hitters Bryanston, Sherborne Girls, Marlborough, Downe House, Benenden, St Swithun’s, Clayesmore and the St Mary’ses Calne, Shaftesbury and Ascot. 2018 scholarships included a mixture of Academic, Art, Music and DT to Bedales, Bryanston and Sherborne.
Academically rigorous, with a strong focus on the high standard of teaching and staff who will stay the course. The school is well aware that it will live or die by the quality of its teaching and, fortunately, does not find it hard to lure, and keep, teachers in this idyllic part of the world. There are no plans to scrap Common Entrance unlike some of Hanford’s neighbours. We hear Hanford girls have a great deal of currency in the big wide world – not only are they strong candidates for senior schools when they get to the top of the school, but on a personal level they are well-rounded, confident and full of gumption. This is no fluffy soft option on the schooling scale – we could pretend the school is all about ponies and rambling Dorset greenery but it isn’t. Hanford may be small and below the radar for some, but it hits hard.
Boarding: Ah, now you’re talking. This is true boarding school nirvana, with 80% of girls choosing to stay at school. Girls are welcome to return home at weekends but many stay in. All girls have a bed, boarding or not, and are free to bring in duvets, pillows, posters, toys, books, random knick knacks and acres and acres of Harry Potter merch. And they do. Bedrooms are just like being at home – much more so than most prep boarders. Dorms are small, reasonably messy, and certainly cosy. The girls retreat here at breaks, change here and, basically, live here. Bunkbeds, if any, are on the way out, and knitting scatters the floor. In year 8 girls move to a separate building, Fan’s, where you get TV and feel more grown-up.
Weekends are less about trips to Laser Quest, ice skating and the cinema and more letter writing, chapel, horse riding, climbing, simply playing. Much use is made of the pool, making dens, exploring the grounds of this unashamedly homely environment.
Headteacher: Rory Johnston, Mr J to the girls, has been the main man for the past five years. Previously head of classics and boarding housemaster at Horris Hill, he left the City in 2010 to retrain as a teacher. He certainly ‘gets’ Hanford; he understands the school, its history, and the parents who love it. With no plans to leave any time soon (if ever, if I was him!), he has changed little, just made the school even better. He knows that Hanford’s ethos isn’t preserved in aspic but that there is little reason to change what works so well. This is a school that is unstuffy, unmaterialistic, where girls have fun and freedom, their lives not micromanaged. It is vital that they have a head that understands this – fortunately, Mr J does. Supported by incredible teaching staff, he is winning high approval ratings for maintaining, and improving on, Hanford’s eccentric, wonderful, independent, confident vibe.
What else? In line with the school feeling like Blyton’s eccentric heaven, activities include stable management, bushcraft, floristry and bagpipe lessons. LAMDA is popular, there is a whole school summer play each year, 5th Form Play and, unusually, the Lower and Upper Sixth take part in a Nativity (a much more serious affair than the usual sobbing-four-year-olds-with-lopsided-angel-wings). Dance includes tap, ballet and jazz, there is a chapel choir, orchestra, special choir, string group and almost everyone plays an instrument. Art is strong, too.
Quirks: Where should I start? The whole place is one big, colourful quirk. Old girls with fond memories send their daughters here, whose own mothers came here. There is no uniform, although jeans and leggings aren’t allowed – woolly tights and hoodies are standard garb here. On our visit we encountered girls with noses in books as they trailed down spiral staircases, armfuls of knitting, bagpipes and horses, horses, horses. If your daughter likes ponies, dogs, cats or chickens, you’ll win mega brownie points sending her here. Girls are left to their own devices more than any school I’ve seen, and the freedom they are awarded breeds happy, confident individuals.
Wraparound care: Well, it’s basically a boarding school, so that’s covered! You can leave your cherubs here as long as you like. Trust me, they won’t want to go home.
Fees: Day fees per term £6250, boarding fees per term £7500.
Word on the ground: Parents think Hanford is the stuff dreams are made of. They love the freedom (you don’t send your daughter here if you don’t), and are not fussed by the unprepossessing prefab classrooms and moss-covered gym. You’ve got to buy into the school – while it might not be every parent’s cup of tea, it is clear there is a huge demand for Hanford, with very, very happy kids and parents. Parents say they like the fact their girls are enjoying rich, low-tech childhoods, playing, riding, climbing, tending chickens, mucking out stables, growing veggies in their gardens and greenhouses – their kids are adventurous with muddy knees. It is traditional to a T, with strong academics.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Parents who want their kids to remain childlike for as long as possible and believe children learn through being happy not hot-housed. Families who live in a city and want to give their little ones a countryside childhood. Aspirational families, those who trust the school to get the best out of their kids. Best for boarders, but non boarders are not left behind.
Not for: Helicopter parents or those impressed by super-flashy new sports halls. Parents who wrap their offspring in cotton wool – here, children are encouraged to play outdoors in all weathers, climb trees, get muddy building dens and generally live out a childhood fantasy.
Dare to disagree? Find out for yourself at their Open Morning on Sat 9 March, 9.30-1pm – call Karen on 01258 860219 or email her at email@example.com. sch.uk if you would like a spot.
Also, book now for the Country Boarding Schools Drinks Reception on Wed 13 March at the Atheneum Club, London, an ideal starting point for any London based parent beginning to consider a country boarding school for their child. It’s your chance to quiz Heads and Registrars from six schools including Hanford, Downe House, Elstree, Highfield, Marlborough and Radley – don’t miss out! www.highfieldschool.org.uk/boardingevent
Hanford School, Child Okeford, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 8HN, Tel: 01258 860219, hanfordschool.co.uk