The Good Schools Guide

Below is what the Good Schools Guide said about Benenden School when they most recently reviewed us:


No real behaviour issues - this is a happy ship, and the care and support given to the girls were praised everywhere. 'It was a big move to the UK for my daughter,' wrote an overseas mother, 'and the house staff looked after her as if she were their own, giving cuddles and love whenever she needed it. They still do so now.'

The Good Schools Guide Review

Headmistress

Since January 2014, Mrs Samantha Price, 40s. Attended Malvern Girls' College (now Malvern St James), so knows about life at a girls' boarding school from both sides. Read history of art at Edinburgh University and began her career in the Tate Britain marketing department, but soon felt office-bound and switched to teaching. Worked at Reading Blue Coat School, King's Canterbury and Hereford Cathedral School before taking up her first headship at Godolphin School in Salisbury, from whence she was headhunted for her present post. Leaving was a very difficult decision, she says, but she has no regrets: 'Benenden is my dream school, and full boarding is in my DNA.' Married to Iori, an army chaplain, with a young daughter and son.

A passionate devotee of girls' education, and a powerhouse of ideas and energy underneath a warm and civilised exterior. 'I'm very proud of this school. It's a wonderful place to be.'

Academic Matters

Impressive: in 2015, 78 per cent A*/A at GCSE and 66 per cent A*/A at A level. Pretty much always in the top 50 independent schools nationally. Everything you'd expect on offer, with breadth prized as much as depth: girls study a good range of languages, both modern and classical, and DT, art, music and drama are compulsory throughout the lower school. Science very popular, and is taught in truly amazing brand new science block, all glass and blond wood, opened in 2012: a floor per science, and at least three laboratories per floor, plus designated experiment rooms just for sixth formers, and a 150-seater lecture theatre which hosts a rolling programme of visiting speakers. 'My daughter's teachers have inspired her to be really passionate about science,' wrote one happy father, 'and she has really enjoyed science club.' Classrooms are large, modern and well-equipped, and superb library offers space and quiet.

No plans to introduce the IB: A levels are taught as part of a refreshingly commonsense yet innovative approach which makes any such change unnecessary. Girls can almost always study the combination of subjects they want, and the EPQ is offered to all girls to provide additional academic challenge. Lots of skills and vocational courses on offer which sound genuinely appealing rather than drearily functional. For instance, 'I don't think we'll do a food technology A level,' says head, 'but we might run Cordon Bleu courses, and I'd like to run the Leith's Diploma. Being realistic and practical will be increasingly what gets you ahead.' No danger of gender bias in this forward-looking school, however: DT is one of the most popular options, taught in an excellently-resourced technology block which even sports its own ICT suite. The school is currently introducing a Professional Skills Programme for the sixth form, which will enable girls to work alongside professionals in a variety of fields and develop real-life experience of eg reading balance sheets, developing ideas into business proposals, etc.

The tutor system allows for a lot of contact time, and parents and students alike praise the caring and friendly approach. SEN department supports those girls diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia, and students can have weekly individual lessons if needed (as with most independent schools, these are chargeable). That said, the school acknowledges that this probably isn't the school for those with more than mild difficulties. Extension programme for gifted and talented throughout the school.

Wherever we looked we saw girls relishing the curricular opportunities on offer. As one put it, 'At a school like this, you get to try everything!' A parent added, 'Academically, my daughter has come on amazingly since she joined the school.'

Games, Options, the Arts

'You've got to involve yourself,' observed our tour guide, and there's so much to do here that it really would be crazy not to. Loads of traditional girls' sports, with lacrosse, netball and tennis topping the list; but more niche activities such as scuba diving and pool also popular. Dance is big here: there's a lovely dance studio where girls can learn tap, ballet and contemporary dance, plus a rather ace fitness suite for those wishing to acquire the body beautiful (or just keep fit).

Fabulous theatre was opened by Helena Bonham Carter, staffed by two full-time technicians from whom the girls can learn lighting, sound and set construction. Professionals would kill to have facilities this good. Drama is concomitantly lively with at least two major productions a year and lots of student-led performances. LAMDA also flourishing. Music block was built in the 1960s and in another school would be something to boast about, but here looks down-at-heel and in fact is due to be rebuilt soon. Masses of music going on notwithstanding - instrumental lessons, ensembles, orchestra, choir, the works. Art and design is particularly impressive, with wonderful work on display: etching, lino printing and some whacky sculpture rubbed shoulders with really beautiful embroidery. How refreshing to find a school where girls can still learn such things if they wish to.

Lots of trips both home and abroad. Good range of weekend activities appreciated by students and parents alike. 'My daughter has thoroughly enjoyed the weekend programme,' said one grateful mother.

Boarders

All students here are full boarders. School is relaxed about letting girls go home at weekends. Boarding rooms are colourful, light and homely - perhaps a little crowded for some tastes, with up to five girls in a room for the lower school, but all the girls we spoke to insisted they liked it that way. Older girls can choose to have smaller rooms and fewer room-mates, and all sixth formers have their own room in a deluxe modern block built especially for them, designed to be a halfway house between school and university. Fully equipped and spotlessly clean, we couldn't help thinking that most university accommodation would be a bit of a come-down afterwards.

Background and Atmosphere

Started in 1923 by Miss Sheldon, Miss Hindle and Miss Bird, three teachers from Wycombe Abbey, the school moved to its present site in 1924 and has flourished ever since. Held in immensely high esteem by its alumna, many of whom had gathered to pay it affectionate respect when we happened to visit. Many girls here whose mothers - even grandmothers - attended the school.

The original house, Hemsted, still serves as the school's main building, and must be everyone's idea of what an English boarding school looks like. The magnificent wood-panelled entrance hall and staircase are hung with portraits of the Earl of Cranbrook's family, and coats of arms are etched upon the stained glass. It was actually built in the 19th century, but was designed to look much older, and the effect is frankly gorgeous. We found ourselves thinking of Daisy Pulls It Off, and apparently most newcomers cry 'Hogwarts!' as soon as they get through the front door. It's still possible to board in Hemsted, and the girls that do told us they absolutely love it.

However, a massive programme of refurbishment over the past 20 years has ensured that Benenden can more than hold its own in the 21st century. All the facilities here are stunningly good, and the whole is set in 240 acres of exquisitely landscaped grounds: beyond the playing fields, where we saw girls desporting themselves at lacrosse, are lawns, roses, woods, water features, flower beds, a walled garden, lime tree avenue, all overlooking miles of hills and greenery beyond. 'I love it!' confirmed a cheerful sixth former, adding in proper Benenden patois, 'and you can walk into vill whenever you like.'

Excellent school shop, where students can buy everything needful from shampoo to study aids, and an air of unfussy practicality throughout. Food universally praised (we can confirm the chocolate brownies were to die for), and girls say that their suggestions for the menu are listened to. We were also impressed to learn that a building programme of staff housing was about to get under way, because local property prices were deterring many good teachers from applying. This is a school that takes people's everyday comfort seriously, and puts its money where its mouth is.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

No real behaviour issues - this is a happy ship, and the care and support given to the girls were praised everywhere. 'It was a big move to the UK for my daughter,' wrote an overseas mother, 'and the house staff looked after her as if she were their own, giving cuddles and love whenever she needed it. They still do so now.' And everyone we contacted said something similar. In addition to her tutor and housemistress, each girl is allocated an older girl or 'big sister' to look after her, and girls spoke to us with fondness about the friends they'd made across the different year groups.

Rules are enforced with a light touch. One mother commented, 'I like the fact that they teach the girls the right thing to do rather than impose really strict rules, eg they don't ban access to the internet - even for the younger girls; they spend time teaching them about internet safety instead.' Girls said again and again that they felt able to be themselves, and mothers frequently commented that their daughters hadn't felt pressured into growing up too quickly.

Considerable privileges and latitude given to sixth formers, who really value the increased independence and are consequently less likely to switch to co-ed at this stage. All the girls wear uniform, even the sixth, but it's an unfussy uniform and the girls honestly didn't seem to mind - it's a community that fosters a sensible and pragmatic attitude to life's challenges. As one parent enthused, 'Everything at Benenden is done so smoothly and efficiently. Our daughter loves it and so do we. We are struggling to find a school as good as this for our son!' Another wrote, 'My daughter speaks of being school-sick during the holidays, the opposite of homesick, because she loves everything about the school so much - she is very, very happy at Benenden.'

Pupils and Parents

Fees are high, and Princess Anne may be Benenden's most famous alumnae, but this is not a school for snobs. About 20 per cent from abroad, many of them expats. Otherwise, families are solid professional London and home counties people who want the best for their children and 'work their socks off to send their girls here,' according to head. Bursary assistance ensures at least some social diversity: one girl on a 110 per cent bursary spoke movingly to us about her own experience: 'The school has helped in every possible way. I've never felt out of place, and I owe them so much.'

Entrance

Forty girls join at 11 and 50 girls at 13. Both intakes oversubscribed, but not dauntingly so. Plan ahead, though: the lists can close a year or more in advance. Girls have to achieve at least 55 per cent at common entrance, but in practice many applicants will, so the school also uses pre-tests and interviews and works closely with local prep schools to be sure they're getting it right. 'We're looking for sound academic competence and potential. We're a broad church.' Occasional places for other years - the school operates a waiting list. Entry to sixth form dependent on exam, interview and current head's report, but fantastic sixth form opportunities mean that very few existing students leave, so not many additional places available.

Exit

At 16, hardly anyone: occasionally girls may opt for a co-ed experience at schools such as Charterhouse. At 18, about 10 per cent to Oxbridge (ten in 2015), the rest mostly to Russell group universities to read a broad range of subjects - engineering and physics currently enjoying a surge in popularity. An increasing number to US and Ivy League colleges.

Money Matters

Scholarships of up to 10 per cent for academics, music, art, DT, sports and drama. Those who've been awarded a scholarship can apply to the generous bursary fund: a number of girls here benefit from means-tested assistance of up to 80 per cent. The Benenden School Trust also offers up to three 110 per cent bursaries each year to girls coming from local state schools.

Their View

Traditional girls' boarding brought radiantly up to date, jettisoning what was bad, retaining everything good and adding a huge amount more. An exciting and appealing place: if we were young again, we'd be clamouring to go there.