The Good Schools Guide Review of Hanford School, Blandford Forum, DT11 8HN
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Since 2003, Mr Nigel Stuart Mackay (early fifties). Born and educated in Zimbabwe. Spent his career at a stiff boys-only (latterly co-ed) boarding prep there, rising from assistant teacher of maths to head. Not an obvious choice to be entrusted with the role of running this very special school but, contrary to some expectations, has slotted right in. Hanford has that effect – you don't change it: it changes you. Has worked to keep numbers strong (more professional marketing) and overseen sensitive refurbishment (of IT, decoration, etc), rather than tampering with the ethos. Married to Sarah, who was director of music at Sunningdale School for 13 years before becoming director of music at Ruzawi for ten. She now teaches piano, organises the annual fifth form musical and manages a lengthy list of headmaster's wifely responsibilities. The Mackays have four young children: the boys at Sandroyd, the girls at Hanford.
Retiring in July 2014. His successor will be Mr Rory Johnston, currently head of classics and housemaster at Horris Hill.
Miss Sarah Canning MA (seventies), the source of Hanford's spirit and owner of the school, retired from her rôle as headmistress in 2003, handing the school to a charitable trust in 2004. The school remains her home and she still runs the riding, teaches Latin, serves as moral backbone and can be found almost everywhere, like a benevolent ('Not always!' she says) genie.
Informal – girls can come at any time, if space available (and lately that’s a big if). Some at 7, the largest number come as 8 or 9 year olds, and a few at 10 or 11. Locals, Wessex girls, Londoners (regular coach to Battersea) and numerous families posted abroad (popular with Services and FCO families). A sea of fair hair, blue eyes and wellies; a sprinkling of Europeans, usually Spanish, tip up for a term or year to boost their English, plus a few genuine overseas exotics. Few first-time buyers. Some bursaries.
Leavers move on to Bryanston, Sherborne Girls, St Mary’s Calne, Benenden, St Swithun’s, St Mary’s Shaftesbury, Clayesmore, Moreland House, Queen’s College, London – not associated with any particular senior school.
School strives to find the right niche for each child. Leavers win loads of scholarships (10 scholarships won last year – phenomenal for a school of this size). Most girls stay to 13.
As the years go by, this school becomes more and more special. It doesn't change, sailing serenely on, while other preps scramble towards identikit purgatory. Has defied the downward trend of girls-only boarding – we note with sorrow that we can now count the number of free-standing girls' boarding preps in England on one hand. Back on track after a wobbly period while the torch was being handed on to new leadership.
Set in 45 acres of rolling countryside (we drove by it three times before spotting the drive, despite having been there before) on the edge of the Stour Valley and surrounded by iron age barrows and Roman fort remains, Hanford House was built in 1620 for Sir Robert Seymer (later Kerr-Seymer). Basically Jacobean with Victorian overtones, it has been splendidly adapted to scholastic life. The magnificent glazed internal courtyard is now the dining room.
We can continue to say this is one of the nicest, if not the nicest, girls' boarding schools in the country, with a gentle, kind, friendly, enthusiastic, gloriously happy-go-lucky, genuine family atmosphere. A place you can feel absolutely confident leaving your ewe lamb in, with the knowledge that the school will probably do a better job of looking after her than you would yourself and, almost as a side issue, give her a thorough grounding in CE subjects, and a fun time with it. Not a flash school: faded carpets, slip-covered arm chairs, large chilly rooms, dogs wandering down corridors and the bracing smell of rotting manure – the informality can be too much for some parents. No uniform – girls sit happily in class in their riding togs, their (seriously padded) crash helmets on the desk in front of them, working as hard as they can, because the next lesson has four legs. Ponies are important here – the school has 'around' 20 – plus a few privately owned (but used by everyone). Ninety five per cent of the girls ride, although most didn't when they arrived. Indoor riding school, outdoor arena, jumping paddock. A summer treat is a pre-breakfast ride.
History starts with the Norman invasion and works forward. And the breezily non-PC scripture teacher told us, 'We teach them the Bible because they'll only get comparative religion once they leave.' French from age 8 – pupils are usually way past the standard of their senior school by the time they leave (ditto for Latin). 'Native foreign speakers' plus the daughters of British diplomats based abroad are encouraged to continue with their languages. Specialist teachers in all subjects from year 5 onward. No scholarship set per se, but pupils streamed and potential scholars looked after. Occasionally puts girls up a year. Class sizes tiny throughout the school: nine or ten in each lesson - makes a huge difference. The lessons we watched were so intimate, they reminded us a children's game – 'Oh, I know, let's play school!'
On top of this, 30 girls receive extra help for SEN from a mixture of sources who add up to one full time member of staff. Mostly mild to moderate special needs, but a couple in the 'more severe' category. School introducing new 10-15 minute 'drop in sessions' for quick jolts of extra help. Lots of consistency and stability: average age of staff a youthful 50 and many teachers have been with the school for ages. Classrooms are incredible – some in the converted stables (you go in and out of the window - promise) and some in the most ramshackle collection of what might, in a real world, be temporary buildings.
Music very important - 90 per cent of girls learn an instrument and practice sessions timetabled. Two girls preparing for grade 7 exams when we visited. Girls are auditioned for the chapel choir (only). Also a normal choir, folk group, bands for everything – woodwinds, strings, recorders – and orchestra. Incredibly ambitious art, with ceramics that would not disgrace any senior school; regular masterclasses for gifted artists, plus weekend art club for all. Drama also prolific and good – do ask to see the famously well-stocked costume cupboard. Games (hockey, rounders, pop-lacrosse etc) played on the lawn, adjacent to the outdoor swimming pool. Tap dancing, ballet, year round tennis coaching, even a bit of pistol shooting in the gym. Watch for the magnificent junior cloakroom, a picture of managed chaos with towering heap of rollerblades, riding kit, trainers, wellies, all more or less in their places.
Vast majority board, but loads of flexibility and the line between boarding and day is blurred. All day girls have their own bed and get 20 nights' boarding for free ('They can decide at 6.30 in the evening that they want to stay and, with a quick phone call, it's sorted'). All prep done at school and day girls leave their clobber there. Hanford never closes for exeats – only half term – so perfect for overseas families. Dormitories tidy and feminine - no posters but lots of cuddly toys. Matching bedspreads instead of duvets – now when was the last time you saw that? Not all singing and dancing at weekends – more like a real home, with Sundays spent mooching around the grounds, playing hide and seek, tree-climbing, berry picking, reading. This is a school where time for play is treasured and children are allowed to be children rather than rushed to the nearest shopping centre or games arcade at the first whiff of free time. No TV on weeknights – only on weekend evenings (why do so few schools have the guts to do likewise?).
Time-honoured Hanford extra-curriculars include sewing and dressmaking (the cherished 'Hanford skirts' were much in evidence), pottery, current affairs and art appreciation. In the IT department, upgraded 2007, girls can email whenever - but a school where the post is still keenly awaited. Loads of Hanford traditions, like using a briefcase as tuckbox, climbing the massive cedar tree (whose branches are each named), early morning rides in the summer, bonfire night entertainments and the marvellously convoluted – and effective – 'manners system', which includes SYRs (serve you rights) for the naughty. Sweets the occasional bribe. School's enormous walled kitchen garden produces veg for the menu plus fruit and the lovely flowers that decorate the main building.
Old Girls include singer Emma Kirkby and Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, on which the film The Duchess was based. And what better example to the girls that they can do anything in life than Peggy, the 82-year-old paddock manager, who powered past us driving a tractor, as we toured the school? Having said all that, it isn't for everyone. 'You need a resilient child,' one parent told us. 'And if they are, they will have a fantastic, amazing, wild, brilliant time - but they won't necessarily learn (or be taught) kindness and tolerance and understanding of those weaker than themselves.' But - for the confident and outgoing child - no other school like it and nowhere better.