Canford among top schools in new review
Talk Education - Review of Canford
We were delighted to welcome Talk Education to Canford in January 2020 where they met pupils and staff and the resulting independent review of the school is published below.
Talk Education is a brand new platform for families helping them find the right school for their child. The new initiative is headed by ex Tatler Schools Guide editor Alice Rose. The team has more than 10 years’ experience in reviewing schools and advising parents on education choices. In addition, events are planned to provide families with further insights, with plenty of experience in this area having previously masterminded Tatler Schools Live!
For more information please visit the website https://www.talkeducation.com
The Talk Education view of Canford
It’s hard not to be blown away by the grandeur of Canford, a Sir Charles Barry-designed castle in the thick of 250 acres of Capability Brown parkland. But despite all this magnificence, both school and pupils are unstuffy and flash-free. This is a brilliant all-rounder that looks outside of the bubble, aces exams and turns out wonderfully grounded young men and women with a real awareness of the world around them.
With its 18th-century arboretum, pretty Norman church and the weeping-willow lined River Stour winding through the grounds – just outside the picturesque Dorset village of Canford Magna – Canford’s campus is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
History echoes through the place: in the former library, poet Rupert Brooke drafted The Soldier (‘If I should die, think only this of me..’); in the 1990s, the discovery of an Assyrian frieze on the tuck-shop wall resulted in £7m for the school’s development coffers. The castle is the heart of Canford, while modern buildings are smart yet functional.
Canford will celebrate its centenary in 2023. It has been fully co-ed since 1996, and head Ben Vessey is only the seventh in the school’s history. He was originally destined for the army until a torn ligament led him into teaching, with stints at Dauntsey’s, Millfield and Christ’s Hospital under his belt. He’s energetic, engaging, modest, utterly devoted to Canford and impressively omnipresent, often spotted racing between CCF inspections and poetry recitals on his trusty bicycle.
Entrance at 13+ draws pupils from some 50 preps across Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Sussex; top feeders include Twyford, Walhampton and Port Regis. There’s growing interest from London families, with a bus service at exeats and half-term ferrying pupils back and forth. Prospective pupils sit the ISEB pre-test in Year 6 or 7 (you are strongly encouraged to go for the earlier option), followed by the ‘Headmaster’s List’ day of activities, tests and interviews. Attitude is critical; strictly no ‘swaggery’, says Mr Vessey.
Academic results and destinations
Academic staff are at the top of their game, but this is no pressure cooker. Lessons are geared firmly towards the individual, and cross-curricular learning is just as important as league tables. Everyone is encouraged to think laterally: special enrichment programmes foster curiosity before the GCSE programme kicks in; visiting speakers inspire lively debate (we poked our head in on the Heretics Society debating the notion ‘Do schools kill creativity?’); and ‘Yellow Hour’ is a regular chance for pupils to perform anything they like in front of a supportive audience.
Value-added shines through at A-level and 2019’s results were a solid 78 per cent A*-B. Most pupils go on to Russell Group universities, some to medical school or art college and a handful set their sights on the Ivy League.
For us, Canford stands out for the nature and structure of its additional-needs provision, which is far more comprehensive than at many schools. Literacy and other skills such as free writing are assessed at entry – something that is so important for identifying strengths as well as weaker academic areas that might need attention. Drop-in clinics and ad-hoc support for learning across the curriculum encourage pupils to take responsibility for their own learning, and those with SEND (there are about 100 pupils with challenges such as dyslexia and dyspraxia) and EAL are well supported at all levels. Currently, about 30 pupils also receive one-to-one and group support.
Creative souls thrive at Canford: budding set designers can cut their teeth in the swanky 300-seat theatre; each year group puts on an annual play (Chicago, the most recent, was sensational); and the art department has a dedicated courtyard gallery space. Many pupils learn two or even three instruments and there are bands, choirs and ensembles aplenty, with regular performances at nearby Poole Arts Centre, home of the prestigious Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
There’s a real sport-for-all ethos here, with countless teams fielded at every fixture so that everyone gets the chance to represent the school. Hockey has always been strong and rugby is on the up, while all the traditional sports – including lacrosse, football and cricket – are taken seriously.
Other options are rowing on the Stour, enjoying a knock-around on the nine-hole golf course or playing real tennis – Canford is one of only two schools in the country with an original Victorian court. The slick sports centre has a gym, Pilates and dance studios and a superb indoor pool, which is regularly open to the local community.
Days at Canford are pacey from dawn to dusk, and once lessons finish there’s a full-on timetable of extras such as photography, archery, lacrosse, climbing, bridge and more. CCF is compulsory in Year 9, but such is its popularity that most stick with it the whole way up the school.
There’s a real culture of community action: some lend a hand in local care homes, while others lead trips to the beach for pupils at nearby primary schools or help fundraise for orphanages in Argentina, Ghana and Tanzania.
Boarding is the real deal: full boarding only, with compulsory weekends at school for at least half of the term. That said, most opt to stay in every weekend; ‘much more fun,’ one pupil tells us, and this is confirmed by the day pupils who often pop in for Saturday japes to avoid FOMO. The boarding houses are modern and bright, with that homely, lived-in look – the luckiest pupils have views over lovely woodland. Roughly 70 per cent board; day pupils have their own houses for dumping muddy kit and catching up on homework between lessons.
A rock-solid tutor system underpins the pastoral care, with regular group catch-ups for the younger years and timetabled one-on-one sessions in sixth form. Some pupils are trained by the charity MIND as mental-health first-aiders, and there’s a very active school council. Homesick boarders are always welcome at Chaplain Jack’s house for one of his wife’s legendary brownies and a cuddle with their gorgeous dog.
The campus may be vast, but the 650-strong community feels cosy. ‘My overwhelming impression was one of friendliness,’ reports our spy. The school has a resolutely British feel, but a small international cohort helps maintain a global outlook.
Parents are a mix – some are wealthy, others have made real sacrifices to send their children here. But the majority of pupils are splendidly down to earth and soak up the academic and co-curricular opportunities.
The pupils we met were unselfconscious and articulate; the girls, we’re told, have a ‘hugely civilising effect’ on the boys. (Special praise for our lower-sixth guides who sploshed round the site with us in a howling gale and horizontal rain, hair plastered to their faces, completely unfazed by the elements and unfailingly cheerful.)
A really super school going from strength to strength, Canford has blossomed under Ben Vessey’s leadership. With such a splendiferous setting, being a pupil here is certainly a privilege, but there’s nothing precious about this lot.