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A legendary girls’ country prep school that delivers a fine schooling around an English country childhood. In many ways traditional — pony riding, tree climbing, gardening and handwork are all key activities — the school nonetheless blew parents away with its remote teaching provision. If you want the full seclusive, immersive experience of Hanford — because shared experience and the joyous intensity of living together with your friends are what the school is all about — then you board, and that’s what four-fifths do. But boarding…

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What the school says...

Hanford provides a perfect combination by giving its girls a secure academic framework and discipline, but also fostering their free spirits in a way which is rare in a world of increasing educational uniformity. If you want your child to have the opportunity to excel and to enjoy their childhood to the full, then come and pay us a visit. ...Read more

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Sports

Equestrian centre or equestrian team - school has own equestrian centre or an equestrian team.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2014, Rory Johnston BA (Cantab). Mr J, to the girls, has used his past life in the City to good effect ensuring that Hanford’s future is healthy and secure. After many years in finance he followed the hunch of a friend who reckoned he’d make a good teacher and landed the top job at Hanford after a stint as head of classics and boarding housemaster at Horris Hill. 
'A brilliant headmaster — he likes running it his own way — but he’s completely saved the school,’ said one mother. 'Extremely clever, he’s been very good for the academic side,’ remarked another.

‘I’d only been teaching for four years when I joined here and my views have changed quite a lot over time,’ he told us. ‘Teaching has made me happier, more thoughtful and kinder. I’m much more focused on what matters.’ He uses his classics degree to teach ‘the gospel according to Latin’ and has realised through lockdown how much time he spends — and missed — ‘just wandering the school, checking on everybody and having quick chats’.

This is a prep where the head’s spouse contributes almost as much as the head. Georgina — Mrs J to the girls, George to parents — is head of pastoral and ‘an undiluted joy’, according to one mother. Ever aware of the dynamics between the girls, she is also ‘brilliant with parents, very reassuring and very sweet and maternal with the girls’. The Johnstons have two teenage children.

That one parent describes arriving at Hanford as ‘a bit like time travelling to the 1950s’ is alright with Mr J. He works hard to protect girlhood, putting pony riding, tree climbing and parlour games above screen time and make up (mobiles are banned — though girls may call home whenever they wish). Much emphasis on ‘letting girls be children and develop in their own time’.

Clearly passionate about Hanford’s gorgeous if slightly shabby-chic house and stables (his home and workplace), he relaxes by fly-fishing and cycling (‘safer and quicker than horses.’)

Sarah Canning, daughter of the founders, head and owner since 1959, handed over to a charitable trust in 2003. She died in 2017 but her legacy lives on: Hanford remains very much the school she made.

Entrance

Informal, non-selective, girls can come at any time if there’s room. Some at 7, but more commonly as 8 or 9 year-olds. Year 7 has been popular lately too, so the senior years are the fullest. Growing numbers of locals, plus Wessex girls, Londoners desperate to give their girls a rural childhood (regular coach to Battersea) and numerous families posted or working abroad (especially popular with forces and FCO families). A few from overseas including Spain, China etc. Parents as ever unshowy and unsnobby, new money prefers anywhere blingier.

Exit

Many continue with all-girl boarding. Sherborne Girls, with St Mary's Calne, Downe House and St Mary’s Ascot are regular destinations. But some do go mixed, mainly to Bedales, Bryanston, Downside, Kings Bruton, Milton Abbey and Marlborough.

Our view

Ask any former parent or pupil about Hanford and you’ll be bombarded by passionate paeans in celebration of its glories: its quirkiness, its changelessness, its quintessential Englishness. Evocations of Malory Towers and Hogwarts will ensue, together with a reverent inventory of the school’s more bonkers traditions — the manners system which grades girls from Piglet to Royal Guest and the nutty names of the branches on a cedar tree that girls are encouraged to climb. (When girls — and staff — became nervous about scaling it, an old girl was invited back to show how it’s done.)

You’ll get the sense of a school that (with the exception of the new purpose-built junior building) has somehow lain undisturbed for aeons, a time capsule, a girly Neverland; a place of butter-coloured sunlight, blissful children, long shadows, honey for tea, the whole timeless-idyll schtick. And to be sure, all of this grabs you when you go and see for yourself. The school’s location is paradisal, the manor house beyond beguiling. Stand and be captivated by the genius loci. Blandings Castle must surely be on the other side of the hill.


The cold reality, back in the days before overarching regulatory frameworks, didn’t fall far short of this arcadia. This was the school where the late Tara Palmer-Tompkinson remembered, ‘After swimming we used to run naked round the gardens because it saved the bother of tumble-drying the towels.’

Mr Johnston saw that some people thought the girls a little free-spirited and has addressed this: 'It's about close contact and making it clear that we have very high expectations about behaviour.'

He is otherwise proud of how little has changed at Hanford, though there is The Rotunda, a new timber-built building with 360 windows for years 3, 4 and 5. They have also astro-carpeted the netball court, and made plans for a new art barn.

Hanford has always had a free-radical feel to it. When the Rev Clifford Canning, newly retired headmaster of Canford, founded it with his wife in 1947, they decreed no uniforms and no prefects — which raised eyebrows back then. And though it is famously, let’s say, retro — ‘my mother-in-law couldn’t believe how little had changed since the 70s’ says one parent — what makes the school brilliantly different is the spirit in which it’s done things, with idealism, creativity and joy, wholly unselfconsciously. It’s a marmite eccentricity that either thrills or alienates parents. ‘The two 13-year-olds who showed us round looked absolutely dreadful,’ one mother recounts. ‘Hairy legs, unkempt hair and nothing matched.. And I thought ‘Fantastic! I don’t want my daughter to give a stuff about what she looks like at that age.’ ’

The lack of uniform fits well with the outdoor pursuits at Hanford, tending the chickens, climbing trees, horse riding, looking after gardens (each girl gets around a square yard each). They like the way this builds self-reliance and develops friendships; the way it instils, as one parent put it, ‘gumption’ — these are decidedly not snowflake children. Hanford parents like the adventurousness and muddy knees. 
In horsey circles the school is legendary — everyone can ride, and nothing sets you up for the day like a pre-breakfast canter from the lovely stables, grade II listed — ‘more listed than the manor’, a groom tells us.

For a school that is determinedly low-tech — they weren't exactly in the first flush to add computing to the timetable — they blew everyone away with their online provision through Covid. ‘It was phenomenal,’ says one parent, ‘and this is not a high-tech school.’

‘Perception wise, people would have had us low on the list to nail it,’ chuckles Mr J, but nail it they did, their website awash with glowing testimony. One family received a laptop from school the moment they realised they were one short. Live lessons, chapel, plus regular tutor meetings, and art and handwork sessions (Hanford’s name for textiles/ needlework) were delivered, balanced with independent learning packs posted to those who struggle with screen time — ‘We also wanted to continue handwriting through virtual learning.’

If the idea of handwork makes you pause, consider how the nation turned back to baking, puzzles and sewing in lockdown, and embraces very similar projects labelled as ‘mindfulness’. ‘I won’t be scrapping it,’ confirms Mr J, adding with pride that two girls recently went for interview at Sherborne in dresses they’d made themselves. ‘There is a huge link between creativity and confidence. I’d rather urge boys’ schools to do handwork too..’

Beyond the ponies and the outdoor pool, sports facilities might otherwise be described as serviceable. An astro hockey pitch would be nice but ‘these things cost a fortune... our job now is to make better use of our friends at Bryanston and Clayesmore,’ says Mr Johnston. ‘We have what we need here and nothing else.’

Parents prefer to have fees invested in good teaching staff, and there are (almost) no complaints on this score, with many staff mentioned in dispatches. ‘People travel quite a long way to work at Hanford because it has this reputation for being creative and a bit different, besides academic,’ says one teacher. ‘I have such a lot of freedom about how I teach my subject — I might struggle to go to another school now.’
Being small, with an all-hands-on-deck attitude, teaching staff get to know the girls extremely well. There are three forms in year 7 and two in year 8, typically with just 12 to a form. The girls usually win eight to 10 scholarships a year, their names added to an honours board in the main corridor.

One family said they’d prefer to have their hand held a little more through the secondary school application process, and don't expect your child to be drilled in the latest VR and NVR questions ahead of this. ‘I’m resolutely against that, though don’t mind if you want to do that in your own time,’ says Mr Johnston. ‘We genuinely do not see our girls being held back as a result — and I prefer a girl who's going to knock your socks off in interview.’ 
Parents confirm that everyone seems to go to their first-choice school — ‘possibly because they are judiciously advised’.

Masses of music, instrumental and choral — especially choral. Almost everyone plays an instrument. Dedicated music block. Drama very strong as you’d expect of a school which sets such store by play and imagination, but art, in a range of media, is considered a particular strength, seriously good, very well taught and produces a lot of successful art scholars. ‘Lucy Tabberer [head of art] is a well-regarded artist in her own right,’ one mother tells us.

Around 10 per cent of the girls receive some degree of learning support and are attended to by specialists, though this is charged for. ‘We work quite hard to keep our fees reasonable,’ explains Mr J, and this is one way of doing so. Interventionist support given to anyone needing it as and when but this is not the right school for ‘substantial’ educational needs.



A lot of people think that Hanford is an alternative sort of school. Couldn’t be wider of the mark. Kindness matters most here. Close on its heels comes old-fashioned courtesy, hence the quaint manners league where you begin as a Boa Constrictor and earn your way up through Squirrel, Primrose etc, but risk plummeting to Piglet. It’s aspirational, so there’s very little Piglet-shaming. By all accounts it works. The same goes for the committee system, which takes the place of prefects. It’s designed to bring out the helpfulness in girls, not the bossiness.

Both systems contribute to what one parent described as the school’s climate of ‘support, positivity and warmth’ — a place where ‘no one thinks they’re better than anybody else’.

Boarders

Boarding doesn't suit everyone, nor the fees, so some don’t. Everyone has a bed all the same and can stay overnight more or less at the drop of a hat for free up to 20 days a year. ‘It’s always made up ready for you — my daughter loves that,’ says a mother.

Day girls go home after prep at 6.35pm. Dormitories are upstairs in the manor house, hugger-mugger, in rooms that adapt remarkably congenially to the purpose. Though once famous for their super-spartan furnishings, they have recently been made more comfortable and ‘21st century’ as one mother put it by Mrs J, with some murals added courtesy of the gappies.

The school accommodates just about any request for a weekend at home, while ensuring no one rattles around who stays in: Mr J considers anything under 40 in for the weekend ‘a little light’. Weekend activities are usually on site, home-spun and lots of fun; barbecues, after-dinner games and one or two ideas Mr J has shamelessly stolen from his Horris Hill days, like big prize bingo.

Money matters

Some bursaries and a good deal for forces families.

The last word

‘Old fashioned but liberal,’ says one parent, an oxymoron that hits the mark. ‘We haven’t changed hugely, we’re just a little bit less shabby,’ says the head. The numbers of second and third generation girls here (some even come back to be married in the chapel) tells you just how much this marvellous school is treasured by those who get what it’s all about; delivering a fine schooling around a brilliant country childhood. ‘It’s been a lovely place to be a little girl, grow up and learn to be brave and kind,’ says one mother. And what could be less shabby than that?

Special Education Needs

We provide support as follows: English: Two part-time teachers, covering a full timetable, offer support to girls during times other than their allocated English lessons. Lessons are primarily for individuals, but in just a few instances they are for pairs or small groups of girls. The Special Needs teachers liaise very closely with the teachers of English. Mathematics: one part-time Mathematics teacher offers support to individuals requiring help. Lessons are in addition to the normal allocation of Maths lessons.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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