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A lot at Knighton happens in fresh air. They play outside in their dens, make up games with bits of sticks, climb trees and converse with ponies, goats, hamsters etc. We watched them at it. A delight. What they (arguably) do best indoors is sing. The music-making tradition here is as old as the ponies. Overnighting and weekending joyously popular because the boarding staff are lovely and make it such fun, and the head of boarding is a force of nature...

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What the school says...

Set in 30 acres of glorious Dorset countryside the children have the freedom to explore, climb trees and cartwheel across the lawns. A warm and nurturing ethos reliably delivers superb academic results; recent leavers went on to Bryanston, Canford, Clayesmore, Godolphin, Marlborough, Sherborne Girls and St Marys Calne - last year 50% of year 8s were awarded scholarships.

Knighton House is renowned for its exceptionally high standards in music, art and drama. Sporting achievement is highly valued too with an ever broadening range of options. Well known for riding – lessons alternate between lessons in the school, over the cross country course or hacks on the miles of bridle paths around the school.

“Success comes from giving the girls opportunities to lead, building confidence and developing independence, integrity and an instinct to achieve. We want our girls to embrace the world of the twenty-first century and we prepare them for the challenges; we allow them to enjoy being girls while they can whilst developing in them the qualities and ambitions to become successful young women”. Sarah Wicks – Headmistress.
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What the parents say...

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Sports

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

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since September 2017, Robin Gainher BSc. Educated at King’s Bruton and the LSE, he’s a historian who also teaches some maths. He’s sporty, too. A lifelong teacher, he rose to be deputy head at Cranleigh, then head for seven years of Beeston Hall. Left to found an international school in Casablanca. Returned to England when he became concerned about the project's backers. Married to Ali, three daughters. Chair of governors promises ‘a raft of new ideas and initiatives’. We grilled Mr Gainher about this. He’s not a firebrand, neither does he have a manifesto - ‘I’ll take it as it comes’, he says. So he’s a pragmatist. His values? ‘Giving children confidence is key. Schools are for children; everything we do should be to make their experience more enriching.’ He also believes in ‘working closely with parents to share the same philosophy and values’. What may raise eyebrows is that, shock horror, he has never in his life sat astride a horse, nor has Ali. The good news is that they are both devotees of lifelong learning and faithfully undertake to leap into a saddle soonest and embark on their new chapter at a rising trot.

Entrance

Non-selective. Come any time so long as there’s room. Invariably an ongoing swelling of numbers by children unhappy at their present school. Taster days. Scholarships. Bursaries (Greenwood Awards) for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. Parents local, Forces and expats. Not much of an ethnic mix, this being Dorset, but it wouldn’t be an issue in the slightest. Always a horizon-broadening contingent from Spain, France, Italy, Belgium.

Exit

Most to independent seniors, some to state schools. Experts at matching children to the right one. Dorset offers a full range of choice from highly academic to those offering learning support. Bryanston especially popular, plus Canford, Clayesmore, Lewiston, Milton Abbey, Sherborne Girls, St Mary’s Calne and The Thomas Hardye School. Trickier if you’re looking for a boyish doppelganger post-pre-prep. Sandroyd, Clayesmore, Port Regis popular.

Our view

Standing on rising ground above the floodplain of the river Stour in the hushed and tiny village of Durweston (very pretty church), Knighton stands apart from busy world yet is well connected by road to all parts Dorset - and beyond. Once a dower house on the estate of the viscounts Portman, the building is domestic in scale, not a bit stately, a wisteria-clad hodge-podge. The toffs (back in the day) lived a mile away up in the Norman Shaw chateau that is now Bryanston school.

A still-young school founded in 1950 by Peggy and John Booker (parents of controversialist Christopher) as an antidote to their own character-building schooldays which had been defined by all the miseries, chilblains, iron bedsteads, splintery floors and random acts of discipline reckoned indispensable to the raising of young persons in those days. Knighton was instead to be a home from home where girls could be girls, play in the fresh air to their hearts’ content, learn kindness, love learning and develop what a present parent identifies as ‘bedrock confidence’. Romantic and gently revolutionary in its time, this is mainstream stuff nowadays; everyone else has played catch-up. There’s quite a lot of retro-country boarding around just now, done somewhat self-consciously via artful marketing - prospectuses read like fashion shoots for Boden, and look, there’s the head in the just the right country casuals, accessorised by a dog. Knighton, a governor told us, is forward-looking, ‘we’re not seeking to return to the 1960s’. At the same time, it remains recognisably the Knighton everyone remembers. A parent who was a pupil there in the 80s told us the school ‘remains exactly what it’s always been’. Not a lot of schools could have pulled that off.

The Bookers’ greatest legacy was that, unlike so many schools created by reformers in their own image, Knighton never developed the sort of captivating idiosyncrasy (cultishness, if you like) that makes the job of successors so difficult. Captivating, yes, idiosyncratic, no; progressive yes, offbeat never. So the school has enjoyed a remarkably steady and howl-free evolution. This played to its advantage in 2013 when some of the school’s governors almost made a strategic misstep of existential proportions. A proposal to merge with a nearby school was swiftly strangled by a coalition of parents and there have been no aftershocks, but it was a crisis that wasn’t allowed to go to waste - indeed, one parent described it as ‘the best thing that ever happened to us’. The episode focussed minds on the intrinsic qualities that make Knighton so distinctive and precious. It awakened awareness of the school’s uniqueness and value and reinvigorated the parent body. Other happy outcomes include the purchase of the school’s freehold and the appointment of a very bright, eclectic board of governors.

Parent power is one of those things that can go either way. Knighton parents have not by any means taken to throwing their weight around; on the contrary, they’re a supportive lot. Notably unpretentious and dressed down, not the sort ever to be wowed by your new Evoque or leather trouserings, sorry. They range from what one parent described as ‘heavy duty aristocracy’ to members of the armed forces, expats, local professionals and farmers, businesspeople, creatives and other members of the digital diaspora. In the words of one parent, ‘They’re not remotely flashy, they’re cheery, low-key and I have no idea who’s rich and who isn’t’. They find the school ‘brilliantly supportive of working parents’, ‘wonderfully accommodating of late-to-collect crises’. Significantly, Knighton is very much the school of choice of teachers (who know a thing or two about schools) at local independents; there’s always a tranche from Bryanston. Nice touch: grandparents’ days.

Single sex important for some, not so much for others. What chance the school will accede to some parents’ preference for one school for all their children? Don’t rule it out. But standalone girls-only boarding preps in the UK are up there with the snow leopard and the black rhino on the endangered species list; they’re down to the last three. Quite a USP.

Academically hearty. Until the merger-most-foul episode the school had been falling off the pace. Gaps have been plugged, below-par staff eased out and there’s a continuing focus on the quality of teaching. Rising numbers of scholarships testify to this, and they’ll let you know about it. It’s not all about getting the best out of just the brightest, though, and non-schol girls don’t feel at all like also-rans. Small classes play their part, and teachers who really know the children. No danger of Gradgrind values; the mother of a very bright 8-year-old told us, ‘They are definitely stretching her, but not in ways she’s really aware of.’ The overall philosophy remains ‘in your own way, in your own time’ - but definitely not ‘when you feel like it’, or as one mum put it another way, they’re ‘challenged and encouraged’. A parent who moved down from London reckons his daughter got to the same place academically that she would have reached in her mirthless pressure-cooker; another said, ‘People are once again sending their bright girls to Knighton’. Senior schools confirm this.

Conventional curriculum, maths ‘brilliant’, Latin from year 6, art superb and there’s a fine personal enrichment programme that goes off-piste into history of art, public speaking, you name it. Surprisingly well-resourced across the board, classrooms in converted farm buildings. Careers talks for years 7 and 8 because ‘there are no limits to what girls can achieve’. Yep, there’s an empowerment agenda here, check out their KED talks programme. Special needs a strength as you’ve every right to expect of a non-selective school. Learning support spans short-term interventions - everything from reinforcement to gifted and talented - to long term SENDs: dyslexia, ADHD, ASD, etc. No wheelchairs when we called but, says the school, ‘We’d do what we needed to do’. Something you don’t notice til it’s pointed out: no ungainly school bags being lugged, swinging, from class to class. They’re banned. Take just what you need from your locker. Amazingly civilising.

Knighton girls are mostly outdoorsy types so it’s no surprise they’re a sporty lot. There’s been a focus on quality of coaching in the last few years and the best go on to county and national levels. If you’re bookish or not sporty that’s fine but you’ll be expected to join in. Riding is huge and maybe why you’re reading this. Knighton is one of Horse & Hound's ‘Six dream schools for horsey children’ and ponies have been at the centre of school life forever. Around half the children ride. They’re good, too, up there with the best.

A lot at Knighton happens in fresh air. They play outside in their dens, make up games with bits of sticks, climb trees and converse with ponies, goats, hamsters etc. We watched them at it. A delight. What they (arguably) do best indoors is sing. The music-making tradition here is as old as the ponies. Instrumental practice begins before breakfast (yes, seriously) and most girls play something. Lots of ensembles and an orchestra. Singing compulsory for years 3-5 and if you’re top-drawer you can audition for the super-elite chapel choir which sings at, no less, professional standard in some really nice venues. Music is a big part of Knighton’s identity; it’s a bigger deal to be head chorister than head girl.

Around 25 full-time boarders plus all the flexi options. Overnighting and weekending joyously popular because the boarding staff are lovely and make it such fun, and the head of boarding is a force of nature who lives and breathes her job and is amazing, and has to be marched off the premises on her days off otherwise she’d never have one. It took the school a while to find her and on the way it parted company with a few who didn’t make the grade - a reminder that extraordinary kindness in any regime is achieved only by rigour and, yes, steel.

Universal praise for pastoral care. Teachers are ‘very accessible and always give you time’; ‘they really understand the children’. Knighton has long been noted for this; in the words of a former pupil it’s ‘deeply ingrained’. Wherever we questioned we got the same responses: ‘nurturing’, ‘loving’, ‘home from home’.

Unanimous and, dare we say, fervent praise for the pre-prep, the Orchard - ‘exceptional,’ in the words of a mother you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Girls and boys 3-7 plus babies and toddlers every Thursday.

Knighton judiciously makes sure its pupils outgrow the school by setting them slightly above and apart in their final year in the Alpha flat. They swap dungarees for a grey skirt, get some more independence and turn their eyes to what comes next. It’s well done.

By their bright red dungarees ye shall know them, for this is the school uniform. They’re not about aah-factor, though they are certainly not deficient in that; they’re just the job for playing out and doing horses. They can be spotted by teachers if the occupant strays too far or climbs too high. Above all, they’re democratising. Red dungarees are just one of the elements that create the rare social atmosphere you find at Knighton, the unaffected friendliness, the way the girls look out for each other, older ones for tiny ones. Single sex may be a factor; the school’s small size definitely is: girls feel they belong here, this isn’t just a school they go to. Another factor is the example set by the staff, because nothing good happens in a school that does not derive from role modelling by adults who care deeply about their work.

While we were in the head's office we scanned the books on the coffee table. One was by Christine Pullein-Thompson, author of wildly popular pony books for girls. For us it provided the vital clue to what Knighton is all about. The PTs (there were three of them) created a world whose values are wholeheartedness, pluck, resourcefulness and good humour. They invented a genre which has been described as ‘feminist way before its time’: in their own words, ‘we convinced girls they were as good as chaps’. Their spirit lives on here not as creed nor affectation but in an internalised way - eg, in the annual award for Gumption. Triers are rewarded, exemplifying a culture of ‘you can do anything’ which is borne out by the estimation of senior schools, one of which told us that their Knighton girls ‘are amongst the most rounded academically and socially’.

Knighton has never blown its own trumpet other than understatedly and is free of the sort of marketing machine that blights so many other schools. Hurrah. The school is clad in values and practices that make it very current, unencumbered by trad baggage, financially strong and blessed by a once-and-future ethos which makes it, in the words of a parent, ‘very happy in its own skin’. Is there magic in the air? Yes.

Special Education Needs

Knighton House has high expectations for all pupils and aims to ensure the development of the whole child, helping each pupil fulfil their full potential through effective teaching and learning. The Learning Support department co-ordinates support programmes for pupils beyond whole class teaching - this includes short term small group work to embed their learning, regular 1:1 work to overcome barriers to learning, EAL lessons and gifted and talented activities.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
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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