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. Celebrating its centenary this year, 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.
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 spotting racing between CCF inspections and poetry recitals on his trusty bicycle. All three of his sons have passed through the school, and his delightful wife Harriet is very much part of school life. Mr Vessey’s friendly, approachable manner has scored him much respect from pupils – our tour guide tells us he gets to know each and every new Year 9 pupil in a matter of days.
Canford is thriving, and the pupil roll is currently at its highest in the school’s history. 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. Early registration is vital; 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. ‘A child with a bit of intellectual fizz does well here’.
There are another 30 places up for grabs at 16+ – pupils with their eye on a sixth form place must achieve a minimum of 42 points in their best seven GCSEs (including English and maths).
Academics 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. On Friday afternoons, sixth formers take lessons in practical life skills, honing in on interviews and job applications.
The wonderful new bright and modern library boasts over 300 linear metres of bookshelves, a state-of-the-art multimedia space and a cool seminar room decked out with video conferencing for pupils to link up with connections all across the globe. Full marks for the shiny new science department too (we loved the International Space System live stream projected onto the wall), complete with glass cubicles for private sixth form study. Lessons are very interactive, and recorded – so if a pupil is absent for any reason, they can easily catch up. Our pupil guides told us their teachers are always on hand to step in and give extra support.
Value-added shines through at A-level and most pupils go on to Russell Group universities (Exeter and Bristol are the most popular choices), some to medical school or art college and a handful set their sights on the Ivy League. Last year, 13 pupils took up Oxbridge offers and the school has recently bagged a top flight ranking in the latest Sunday Times Parent Power report - second in the South West for A Level results.
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. We hear high praise for head of learning support Kristina Symons – pupils tell us her individual learning skills lessons have made a huge difference to many. 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: the busy drama department has strong links with the National Youth Theatre; budding set designers can cut their teeth in the swanky 300-seat Layard Theatre; the annual musical is a real highlight, as is the panto (it’s written and produced by pupils); ad-hoc drama performances take place in the theatre foyer each Friday; and the art department has a dedicated courtyard gallery space. Everyone is encouraged to get involved – this year’s house art competition saw each house design a dress, which was then modelled by the houseparent at an awards ceremony. A huge D&T workshop area houses every gadget under the sun.
Many pupils learn two or even three instruments and there are bands, choirs and ensembles aplenty, with regular performances at The Lighthouse, Poole - the nearby home of the prestigious Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The school has its own purpose-built concert hall too.
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 (several players are playing for Premiership teams), 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, drone flying, roman mosaics, juggling, archery, lacrosse, climbing, bridge and more. More than 85 per cent of Year 10 opt for CCF and 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, help fundraise for orphanages in Argentina, Ghana and India or work on inner city youth projects in Southampton. The school is rightly proud of its community projects, which play a big part in keeping pupils grounded.
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. Roughly 70 per cent board; day pupils have their own houses for dumping muddy kit and catching up on homework between lessons.
The seven boarding houses (four for boys, three for girls) are modern and bright, with that homely, lived-in look – the luckiest pupils have views over lovely woodland. We sense that there might be a new, dedicated sixth form house in the pipeline – watch this space.
Our tour guides spoke of the great camaraderie amongst all pupils from Year 9 to Upper Sixth – there are plenty of fun interhouse bake-off competitions, house film and singing nights. On weekends, there’s often a trip to Bournemouth for shopping or ice-skating, but some pupils prefer to stay in school and take advantage of all the fabulous facilities. Upper Sixth pupils can pop into Wimborne by taxi, and there’s a great ‘pub vibe’ at the sixth form centre – beer is available via a token system. ‘It’s a great place to hang out with your pals’, confirms our insider.
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. New heads of wellbeing and equality, diversity and inclusion are driving the school’s pastoral programme, which includes peer mentoring, special food menus on ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’, and a wellbeing journal focused on healthy lifestyle, sleep, relaxation and goal setting.
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 (around 10 per cent) helps maintain a global outlook. Several times a day, the whole school comes together to eat meals in the magnificent Great Hall, and the prefect system has been scrapped and replaced with Pupil Leaders, who have real influence on life in the school.
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.