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Outdoor learning has become a celebrated adjunct to the curriculum. We watched a delightful scene of year 1 pupils in wellies kicking leaves on their way to the Woodlands School. ‘Don’t eat anything!’, one excited child reminded us. While moving on at 16, according to one parent, 'is a big deal', and to another, ‘may be a shock’, parents also acknowledge the many options open at that stage - each student can choose what seems right for her. The pre-selected girls we met were immaculately turned out (one committed mother, not wishing to let down the school on the day we visited, made a special journey to ...

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What the school says...

Abbot’s Hill is a happy, dynamic and thriving school offering an all-round education for girls aged 4-16 years. Our Day Nursery & Pre-School caters for girls and boys from 6 months. Our historic campus offers modern facilities in a magnificent country setting, situated in over 70 acres of beautiful parkland on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead.

The school has an excellent record of academic success and an outstanding reputation for pastoral care. Throughout the school, pupils are taught in small classes in which excellent teaching and personalised support ensure that everyone is inspired to exceed their potential.
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All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2020, Kathryn Gorman BA (40s). After graduating with a first in English from the University of Birmingham, ‘a particular fascination for language and culture' took her to diverse teaching posts, from Japan to an East London comprehensive and, most recently, to St Albans High School for Girls (STAHS) where she spent 14 years, ultimately as deputy head focusing on curriculum innovation. 'A continued love of learning', and perhaps a sense of her own trajectory, led Mrs Gorman to take an MEd (Educational Leadership and School Improvement) at Cambridge. With two daughters at the school, and a soon-to-be-integrated school puppy, Mrs Gorman could not be more invested in what is meant by ‘educating young women of character’, the stated aim of Abbot’s Hill’s female founders. 'Those qualities of integrity, self-awareness, absolute sure-footedness and a sense of self endure', she tells us. 'It is our job to build character so Abbot’s Hill girls have the moral compass and the ability to bounce back which will help them navigate the world when they are 25 or 35... 'It is not just about academic excellence', she says sagely, 'confidence and compassion are also important. This is what we’re good at, and this is the story that needs to be sung and celebrated’.


Parents and pupils appreciate Mrs Gorman's warmth and accessibility. ‘I'm an incredibly tactile person' she said, when Covid restrictions precluded our handshake. Positive credentials from STAHS, and the Hertfordshire grapevine, have followed her to Abbot’s Hill so she comes with a sound reputation as an outstanding teacher and leader. 'Very strong', 'bags of potential'. 'You don't feel as though you're going through the mill with her' said one parent who had obviously seen a few heads at work, 'definitely the best head I have come across'. There is a strong sense of parents being invited in rather than kept at arm's length. 'She listens and values your thoughts and opinions', ‘keeps her ear to the ground’, ‘picks up on things.’ Virtual coffee mornings, a lockdown initiative, have proved very popular. Family time is precious: weekend activities include walking, swimming and reading.


Since 2017, the prep school has been headed by maths and PE graduate Maria Stephen (50s). With a Portuguese mother and Welsh father, she was brought up speaking Portuguese at home, and Swahili at school in Zambia. She places great store on a child-initiated approach: ‘if you let the child lead, you get more out of them.’ 'Pupil voice' is key, she says: girls are listened to, treated as individuals, and given responsibility from a young age. 'Parents and pupils are equally fond of her', said one parent, 'she combines warmth with professionalism; girls know she’s the boss'. Parents too are heard and drawn in: ‘If a parent grumbles, bring them on board’, she says bravely.

Entrance

Academically inclusive; all pupils assessed on entry, even in nursery. Main points of entry: 4+, 7+ and 11+. Transfer to senior school is automatic and ‘very well managed’ according to one parent. All prep girls sit the ISEB online exam along with new entrants, not least so that they are on the same footing as newcomers to compete for academic scholarships.

Exit

About one fifth of girls leave after year 6 (to selective schools, to board or go co-ed). One parent assured us there is no pressure to stay: 'they possibly even undersell themselves as no school could offer more'. While moving on at 16, according to one parent, 'is a big deal', and to another, ‘may be a shock’, parents also acknowledge the many options open at that stage - each student can choose what seems right for her, 'from circus school to a top grammar school' – the range of destinations is wide. One year 11 girl we spoke to wished Abbot's Hill could 'go on for ever', whereas another had outgrown it, and was longing for a 'real world experience off the hill as it can seem isolated’. Abbot’s Hill girls are ‘highly sought after’; over 90 per cent of girls achieve their first choice sixth form.

Latest results

Inclusive on entry, so 60 per cent 9-7 at GCSE in 2020 (national average 28 per cent) is impressive and represents a +1.73 value added based on CATs standardised tests in year 7. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 50 per cent 9-7 at GCSE.

Teaching and learning

Around sixty pupils per year (fewer in the current year 7). Classes are small (16-18), and even smaller in the lower sets. Teaching is keenly differentiated at both ends: girls are set from year 7 or 8 in all academic subjects. Able mathematicians are stretched through the Edexcel Level 3 award in algebra, a stepping stone to A level, and are also inspired by hosting Maths Challenge with over 100 pupils from neighbouring schools. Around one quarter of girls take biology, chemistry, and physics, as opposed to double award GCSE, and perform well in these subjects. At GCSE in 2020, history and geography were the stand out humanities successes, with 87 per cent and 91 per cent grades 9-7 respectively; chemistry was also a top performer with 100 per cent 9-7.


In spite of the worthy motto 'Vie et Virtute', there is no Latin on the menu here. In addition to the usual options available, sizeable cohorts take drama, food and nutrition, media studies, dance, music and PE.


We were told that the digital learning strategy came on ‘in leaps and bounds’ during lockdown as a three-year programme was compressed into six months. Google Classroom was accelerated through the senior school. We saw interactive smartboards used effectively to accommodate different learning styles in both senior and prep schools. A prominent digiboard livestreams the school twitter feed and broadcasts positive messaging to all girls who pass, including Dr Seuss: ‘Kid, you’ll move mountains! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!’


Teachers told us how they learn from each other and are constantly adapting and experimenting. They appreciate Mrs Gorman's can-do attitude which allows them to make changes rather than accept the status quo. 'If a teacher comes up with an idea, it tends to run'. 'Professional development is phenomenal', one keen teacher explained.


We saw maths and science teachers, full of enthusiasm for their subject, delivering pacey lessons, helping each individual pupil achieve their very best. Teachers are generous with their time, whether in lunchtime tutorials to support GCSE students or to run clubs such as ‘Mathemagicians’. Dedication is not in doubt.


Outdoor learning has become a celebrated adjunct to the curriculum. We watched a delightful scene of year 1 pupils in wellies kicking leaves on their way to the Woodlands School. ‘Don’t eat anything!’, one excited child reminded us. The architectural cast iron lions on the stable block (the estate once belonged to the owners of Dickinson’s Lion Brand stationery) were pointed out to the children en route. The school grounds have been mapped for interactive orienteering and treasure hunts; a new amphitheatre will stage outdoor Shakespeare.

Learning support and SEN

Well-staffed learning support centre, known as the ‘Rose Garden’, is in pride of place at the heart of the school. Outside, newly planted roses named after Shakespeare’s leading, but not necessarily fortunate, women (Desdemona, Cleopatra…) are intended to represent the idea that there is no stigma, only positivity, around special needs. It is about the ‘strengths and weaknesses of pupils rather than labels’, ‘unpicking an area of learning that may be tricky’, explains the SENDCo. Baseline assessments in year 7 and more thorough screening in year 9 enable tracking and help identify whether extra support is needed. One parent described how ‘sensitively and professionally’ it is handled, for parents and pupil alike. An ‘ongoing open relationship’ with both is emphasised. In-school learning support is provided within the normal fee structure.

The arts and extracurricular

The performing arts are exceptionally well served. The 200-seat Judi Dench theatre stages ambitious productions from Hairspray to The Crucible. One parent said ‘it’s a case of all hands on deck for the outstanding productions’: art and design students create sets and props (a very professional Lion King mask is on display at the entrance to the theatre); instrumentalists provide the music; even the groundsman’s mother helps with costumes. If treading the boards isn’t your thing there are sophisticated lighting and sound opportunities, ably supported by the theatre technician. Artwork is well-displayed as far as the eye can see, along the corridors and in the school grounds. A collaborative approach is also apparent at art evenings held in the beautiful Victorian stable block: art is thoughtfully exhibited, food and nutrition students make canapés and musicians perform. We saw an imaginative display of famous paintings, from Vermeer to Banksy, recreated with everyday objects as part of the lockdown Getty Museum Challenge: one ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ was a pupil’s dog!


Also housed behind the intricate wrought ironwork of the stable block are the food and nutrition teaching rooms where we saw groups clustered around their individual hobs chopping onions for spaghetti bolognese. By Christmas they will have graduated to a Swedish Tea Ring.


Music performances were limited by Covid at the time of our visit but we were assured that there are orchestras and choirs to suit all talents and taste. We heard the newly formed year 7 wind band play We Three Kings so steadily that the kings may never have reached yonder star. We watched a lively music lesson - each girl playing their own sanitised glockenspiel - and an energetic afrobeat dance, performed and choreographed by year 5. Everybody was excited at the time of our visit by a whole-school (teachers included) online hip-hop performance of the South African hit song ‘Jerusalema’ – a feat of coordination and unselfconscious fun.


Fifty or so clubs, from Young Engineers to Origami, are run by the girls wherever possible. ‘Whatever your interest, there’s something for you’, said one cheery student. If there isn’t a club that appeals, there’s no obstacle, indeed every encouragement, to start one. A football enthusiast, unable to run the club during lockdown, made a skills training video. Other leadership roles include DofE, BBC Young Reporter and the Young Enterprise scheme. Community partnerships, including links with other schools, are a work in progress. According to the head ‘opportunities to socialise with boys are ‘high on the agenda’.

Sport

The young director of sport, a proud alumna herself and former national lacrosse player, is ambitious for the already exceptional sporting prowess of the school: a floodlit Astroturf lacrosse pitch is on her wish list. No shortage of top athletes: a number of girls are on the regional talent pathway for lacrosse and girls compete at county, regional and national level in cross-country, equestrianism and skiing. The Kelly Holmes sports hall has a county-sized netball court which enables the school to host tournaments for schools across the south of England and the all-year-round swimming pool is the focus for internal and external galas. ‘Sport is definitely cool here’, says one enthusiastic athlete, ‘commitment is rewarded and if you’re good, you’re pushed’. Pilates and yoga are also on offer for mindful relaxation. Most girls enjoy their sport and appreciate the outstanding facilities.

Ethos and heritage

Abbot’s Hill School was founded in 1912 ‘to educate young women of character’ and up until 2003 it was a boarding school. The late Georgian house and 76 acres of magnificent grounds were originally owned by stationery magnate John Dickinson. The approach is up a long drive, sweeping past immaculately maintained playing fields, stripey lawns and majestic, mature trees. New trees are planted too, for charity or remembrance; we even spotted ‘eco pledges’ pinned to a ‘recycling’ tree. In the drawing room, the founder’s portrait, William Morris wallpaper, original cornicing, floor to ceiling windows, and Victorian books (among them, an untouched copy of ‘Noble Women’), lend a traditional feel. The new prep school classrooms, Kelly Holmes sports hall and Judi Dench theatre are well designed modern buildings with first rate facilities. The 2020 ISI Inspection report graded Abbot’s Hill ‘excellent’, and the Nursery provision (6 months to 4 years) ‘outstanding’, the highest grades possible.


The legacy of boarding is very much alive: extended school day (breakfast from 7.40am and optional clubs and activities to 6pm); strong sense of community; enhanced pastoral care; countless extracurricular pursuits. ‘Nurturing family feel’ and ‘friendly atmosphere’ are recurring themes from parents and pupils. Small year groups mean every child is known by name, feels valued and is offered personalised support. One parent described how her daughter who ‘wasn’t so good at maths’ had extra support all the way through in small classes. ‘They cope with difference in ability across a range of subjects’, she told us. Special talents outside school are valued and time out may be given to pursue these on a case-by-case basis. One old girl to whom we spoke was head chorister at St Alban’s Abbey and had extra science lessons for a year to catch up on what she had missed. The ‘clan’ system (three clans, siblings in the same clan) creates an extra sense of belonging. Tutors travel with girls from one year group to another to ensure they know each girl individually and to build trust. Every member of the school community, even the respected groundsmen and catering staff, were given a rainbow badge for ‘positivity and perseverance’ during lockdown.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

When it comes to pastoral care, this is a school of the moment, looking after mental health and wellbeing. Pupils appreciate the ‘thinking skills’ lessons which, according to one pupil, ‘help me relax and take a more balanced attitude to life’. The first school to use AS tracking - from years 3 – 11 - which enables early identification of hidden mental health risks in pupils. It also identifies trends within each year group and the whole school community. Girls say they have ‘a supportive network around them’ should they be concerned about themselves, or a friend. ‘It’s accepted as the norm to talk to someone’.


The pastoral hub, staffed by a team of three professionals, is a sanctuary in a wing of the old building, central and safe, providing an holistic approach to pastoral care. Counsellor, school nurse and SENDco liaise with each other (catering staff and cleaners also play their part) to ‘join up the dots’, to develop a bespoke care plan for every child who needs it. ‘We live and breathe our policies here’, says Deputy Head Pastoral. LGBT issues have been sensitively addressed: trousers introduced, and a change of name embraced as necessary. Diversity is ‘on the development plan’, an acknowledgement that more could be done on this front. Time out cards are used effectively when a girl might need five minutes to cool off. After-school detentions are rarely a necessity. Head pointed out that the recent ISI report said there was ‘a superb behaviour management system in place’, ‘the rules are clearly understood, and the girls feel they are treated fairly’. Healthy eating is a priority and we enjoyed a range of home-cooked options at lunch, including a delicious spelt and squash casserole. All tastes and dietary needs catered for and fruit is widely available.

Pupils and parents

If ‘pupil voice’ is a theme, ‘parent voice’ is equally loud and clear. Prep and senior parents are welcomed to coffee mornings and parent forums. The evening before our visit an educational psychologist had talked to parents about what to expect from your teenage daughter – an ambitious topic with, we suspect, as many permutations as there are questions. A kitten looking in the mirror and seeing a lion is, we learnt, a useful analogy to build self-esteem.


Parents are generous with their time, giving careers talks (to help year 11s think about the future and relevant A level choices), digital support (especially in lockdown) and, in the prep school, offering themselves as a ‘surprise reader’, when the children, beside themselves with excitement, don’t know whose parent will read the next story. This popular initiative was suggested by a father.


Most families live within a 10-mile radius: Berkhamsted, St Alban’s, Rickmansworth and beyond. Fellow parents are ‘friendly and not overly competitive’ one mother tells us, with some relief. A school coach service covers key routes. Some parents and pupils told us that this makes a long school day even longer; one parent said the longer day has made her daughter more resilient.


On the day we visited, girls were unfailingly cheerful, positive and polite. A group of year 8 girls couldn’t think of anything negative to say about the school; one said she loved it so much she’d stay at weekends. The pre-selected girls we met were immaculately turned out: tidy hair, enamel badges on lapels glistening like medals, and polished shoes (one committed mother, not wishing to let down the school on the day we visited, made a special journey to deliver said shiny shoes). On appearance: ‘it’s not about perfectionism’, says the head, ‘but uniform and hair are important. How you present yourself matters.’

Money matters

Means-tested bursaries, a hardship fund in extremis, and scholarships awarded on merit in the senior school. No bursaries in the prep.

The last word

‘A hug in a school’ is the metaphor used by one enthusiastic mother. Think carrot rather than stick; a school of hard knocks this is not. Girls feel so nurtured and so safe that, by the time they leave at 16, they are confident and ready for the next challenge. A personalised, inclusive approach brings out the best in every individual and leads to exceptional added value. Co-curricular activities and leadership opportunities stretch the most able. Parents and teachers are positive about the new head’s clear vision. Abbot’s Hill is alive, not just with the sound of music, but with laughter and praise too.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Girls with mild specific learning difficulties and average or above-average intelligence are very successful at Abbot's Hill with its caring, sympathetic and nurturing environment and the setting of high expectations for all. Small classes and skilled teachers ensure that girls thrive, as strengths are recognised and strategies are put into place.


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