Canford School, Canford Magna, Wimborne
A day and boarding school for girls and boys aged 13-18, leading the way academically in the region.
A (nearly) 100-year-old co-ed school for ages 13 to 18, Canford sits in the most stupendous, immaculately-kept 250 acres in Canford Magna near Wimborne, with a parish church in its grounds, streams meandering through it and a 9-hole golf course (well, why not?). Established in 1923 by evangelical Church of England clergyman Reverend Percy Warrington (he saw an advertisement in The Times for Canford Manor and bought it the same day, founding the school within months), it was one of the new Allied Schools, alongside Stowe and Westonbirt, countering the rise of high church schools springing up at that time.
Canford currently boasts the highest roll in its history at 650 pupils, with a 70/30 split between boarding and day and an (almost) even allocation of boys and girls, which gives it very much the feeling of a properly mixed school as opposed to some other co-ed boarders where boys most definitely dominate! A few spaces open up for entry in the Sixth Form although most pupils stay on. Children come from a wide range of local and regional preps including Sandroyd, Chafyn Grove, Perrott Hill, Twyford, Port Regis and Windlesham, with many coming down from London or further afield and around 10% overseas students (3% non-native speakers) from a spattering of different countries, offering an international dimension without changing the nature of the place.
Designed by Edward Blore and improved by Sir Charles Barry, he of the Houses of Parliament fame, the main building is a visual gem, and there are some wonderfully medieval nooks and crannies, staircases and chambers scattered about. In Nineveh Café (school tuck shop) a lost Assyrian stone relief was rediscovered in the ’90s, having been brought back from Nimrud in Mesopotamia by the previous owner’s cousin. In fact, if you’ve got a creative (or sporty) cookie on your hands you can apply for an Assyrian Scholarship, funded from the proceeds of the sale of the relief.
Unsurprisingly, the huge acreage offers numerous rugby, hockey and cricket pitches, two astros, tennis courts and umpteen athletics grounds. An impressive sports hall is open to the public at certain hours with an indoor pool, dance studio, Pilates studio and two gyms (they like to train, these Canfordians), and extras include cricket nets and even a 9-hole golf course (where the Headmaster can be found putt-ing off some stress at 7am on a Sunday morning.) While I’m told the school is particularly hockey-based, there is plenty of rugby, football, cricket, athletics, rowing, netball, lacrosse and cross country (amongst others) and even an original Real Tennis court on offer, so it’s no wonder that sport is taken seriously here at Canford. I was particularly impressed with the encouragement of pupils to get as much experience as possible in all sports, and that while winning is great it isn’t everything. It is nurture here, rather than win, win, win!
Dedicated subject blocks are dotted tastefully around the main building, plus an Art and DT block, purpose-built Layard Theatre and lovely bright music centre where concerts, Sunday chapel and music/drama rehearsals take place. Other activities, both during the week and at weekends, include everything from archery to rock climbing, croquet to ultimate frisbee and drone flying to goat-herding (I’m not joking. I think it’s got something to do with poetry rather than traipsing up alpine slopes in a dress made of curtains singing about Edelweisses).
The library, while stunning, was reasonably small and was home predominantly to Sixth Formers. A new library will be in its own spanking new block by Autumn 2021, linked to the recently refurbished Assembly Hall.
Academics here are at a high level, competing favourably on the regional and national stage, with pupils taking both GCSEs and IGSEs, and in recent years over a third have been graded A* and nearly three quarters A*/A. Students take A-Levels, with everyone starting off with 4 subjects before concentrating on 3 for final exams, allowing for wider exploration before specialising. While the IB is not on offer (the Head feels it can make for a divisive atmosphere with two separate Sixth Forms, rather than everyone working together) Canford have many of their own programmes that replicate the best parts of the IB. Some serious knuckling down is expected, even demanded here, but there are plenty of study clinics on offer both in the school and in the boarding houses in the evenings, and helping hands in place to help students manage their workload.
For leavers, the focus is absolutely on ensuring that there is a range of options for further study. While the school commits 100% to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities if this is right for pupils, they know that there is a world beyond and other options are always on the table, including training contracts and American and other overseas universities. It was clear to me during my visit that the kids here are encouraged to get to the very top of what they excel at without being pigeonholed. They ensure that pupils will go on to the very best university for them.
Boarding is full only (although there are plenty of personal exeats you can take), and around 70% of children board. Day pupils have their own boarding houses with their own space to work/dump dirty kit in. In fact, day pupils stay at school until 6pm and are welcome to stay late for prep, supper and clubs. There are three girls’ boarding houses, four for boys and three mixed day houses, and I have to say I was pretty impressed by the boarding house we had a snoop around.
Possibly the smartest boarding house I’ve seen, with the largest garden, it was quiet and peaceful and almost like being at home. Indeed, the sense of family is strong, with all years hanging out in the sitting rooms together and Sixth Formers even on hand to help the little ones with their Chemistry. On Sundays cinema trips, ice-skating, Laser Quest, trampolining and other excursions are organised. The school is keen on keeping pupils busy (and to steer the keen beans away from working all day) and if an out-of-school trip isn’t planned then time will be filled with a Bake Off competition, pizza making or X-Factor afternoon.
As well as tutors in boarding houses and day houses, pupils in the Sixth Form have a choice of tutor with one-to-one weekly meetings. There is a wide range of further support on offer, publicised through a ‘Things not going well?’ poster, including peers, older pupils and Heads of House. Two joint Heads of Wellbeing were appointed in 2020 and there are a dedicated group of pupils and staff working to support Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).
In the lower school tutees meet with their tutor every week in house groups to go through academic assessments and discuss any pastoral or academic issues – or just generally how life is going. Tutors will also spend time talking to their tutees when on duty in houses.
Ben Vessey is the man at the helm here. He took up the headship of Canford, his first, after a career that began (thankfully for Canford) when a torn ligament put paid to a future in the Army. He went on to teach history at Dauntsey’s, followed by a position as Head of History at Millfield School and then a deputy headship at Christ’s Hospital School.
Full of enthusiasm, I felt he had a real and infectious passion for the school and its vibrant community. His central tenet is to inspire a sense of curiosity combined with aspiration, for children to stretch themselves in an intellectual sense but also a cultural one. He uses the allegory that Canford sets up the buffet table, loads it with food and leads its pupils to the table – they don’t spoon feed their children but the kids will try the food, and thrive. A structured system, both within learning hours and at the weekend, means that chidren don’t have the option to opt out of the programme, but you’d be pushed to find a pupil who doesn’t take part with gusto.
In his time here Ben has encouraged an emphasis on literacy, with dedicated reading slots for the Shells (first years), which he is currently extending to the higher years. He has also introduced Pupil Leaders instead of prefects who take on leadership roles in areas of the environment, equality, community action, music and sport, and social; this encourages pupils to take a more active role within the school rather than just barking at the Shells to straighten their ties.
The school’s statement of its vision and values sums things up very neatly. Pupils are inspired to explore, empowered to express and challenged to excel, living and working by the key values of ‘humble ambition, courageous attitude, purposeful engagement and gracious leadership’.
One more thing – Ben is keen for a global outlook to the school, and while you won’t find a huge amount of kids bussed in from overseas, a variety of countries are represented at Canford including the Far East, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan.
See the latest reports from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), equivalent to Ofsted in the state sector, here.
If I was 18 (ah, it’s lovely to dream) I’d be particularly wowed by the Sixth Form Centre, a hexagon of independence and autonomy for the top end of the school with an events space plus areas to chill out and work (yeah, right.)
What tickled me is their emphasis on girls’ sports. They are putting in a showcase court in the gym with bleachers either side, and it is not unusual to find as many Saturday-afternoon spectators watching girls’ netball as are gawping at the more traditional 1st rugby team. This helps build up the extraordinary sense of community at Canford, which is extended beyond the school to their culture of community service. Pupils worked on over 30 community action programmes last year, notching up thousands of volunteer hours.
A special mention must go the Year 9 Curriculum, a dynamic programme of thinking outside the box. Each half term pupils take part in a different cross-curricular project (this term was Propaganda: in English Animal Farm was read, in history Nazi Germany and Russia were studied, in drama the focus was on Eisenstein’s films and in music Shostakovich’s work, written under Stalin. They then devised propaganda campaigns of their own focusing, not surprisingly, on Trump and Brexit) which encourages them to explore subjects in a contrasting way.
This complimentary way of thinking carries on further up the school – Junior and Senior Heretics offers an opportunity for students to research and present a paper on a topic of their choice, while Yellow Hour is an opportunity for enjoy poetry and music (and snaffle coffee and cake) with both staff and students.
First up on the quirkily-cool front is the Studland Stampede, organised by Canford, which involves pupils from a number of schools thundering along Studland Beach for 5k before consuming their bodyweight in hot chocolate. The Canford Gallop (I’m sensing a theme here) takes place on Speech Day when anyone who fancies it joins the inter-house relay around the lawn and the bemused parents. There are no rules, I’m told.
All of the Fourth Form take part in CCF (Army, Navy or, for the really hard core, Marines) and many continue with this as they go further up the school. Canford has its own CCF block with a firing range (well, why not?) and don’t be startled if you see young Canfordians on maneuvers in head-to-toe camouflage crawling through the river.
Until Sept 2021: boarders £12,686, day pupils £9,657 a year.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents I spoke to love the community and family feel of the school. They like that it is small enough (half the size of behemoths Eton, Wellington and Oundle) for pupils to know most of the teachers, as well as children in other years, yet large enough to punch heavily on the sports field and offer any and all subjects, clubs and activities you fancy. The award was given for the school which most clearly demonstrated a vibrant and life-enhancing experience for boarding pupils, and judges commented on the high quality of Canford’s boarding school experience, the full boarding ethos and the breadth and depth of what the school offers. Get that!
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents who value a school with a serious sense of community, both within the school grounds and beyond. Canford has high academic ambitions and, while sport is at the forefront of much of life here, drama and music certainly hold their own too. It is a school that’s VERY easy on the eye, so if gorgeously landscaped lawns, castles and acres and acres of parkland are your thing, add it to your must-see list.
Not for: Children who aren’t joiner inners or who prefer their weekends free. Canford is not a city school and while pupils are allowed to hit the mean streets of Wimborne on a Sunday, it might not suit the wilder child. Life at Canford is based very much around the school buildings, and weekends are packed with activities.
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Canford School, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 3AD. 01202 847207. canford.com