Abbot’s Hill, Hemel Hempstead
We first visited Abbot’s Hill at the beginning of 2018. Since then, a whizzy new junior block has been built and we went along in Feb 2019 to have a look and update our review.
Abbot’s Hill is an independent day school for girls aged 4-16, in a stunning parkland location and with extensive views across the Gade Valley, on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead. The school also has a new and purpose-built day nursery and pre-school for boys and girls from 6 months. With 76 acres and just over 530 pupils, there is a glorious feeling of expansiveness. The main building is impressive and has a history to match it: it was built in 1836 by John Dickinson, the paper entrepreneur who founded Dickinson Stationery and who ran two paper mills in nearby Apsley. The house later became home to the Baird sisters, who opened a boarding school in 1912 with only twelve girls. The school is close to Apsley and Hemel Hempstead railway stations and has good train and bus connections to Berkhamsted, Tring, St Albans, Watford, Redbourn and Harpenden. The atmosphere in the school is happy and purposeful, yet relaxed and distinctly unpressurised.
Excellent, particularly now that the brand new junior block has opened. Farewell, portacabins, hello, beautifully thoughtful sustainable architecture where every single drop of rainwater is collected and reused.
My guides were two wonderful enthusiastic and well-badged girls from the prep school. They are pleased as punch with their new premises. Four brand new classrooms and a fantastically light studio for art and DT. The scope for outdoor learning is huge, with a new pond and lots of space to grow all kinds of plants. They’re already doing workshops with Chelsea Physic Garden and learning how to make lotions and potions from plants that they are growing on site.
At Abbot’s Hill, they’re keen to link art and science and the new block has been designed to make this natural and fun. The new prep classrooms and the art and DT studio open out onto the gardens to make outdoor learning the norm.
Thanks to the parents’ association, there’s an outdoor gym with amazing views. Name a sport or activity, and you’ll probably be able to do it here. There’s the Dame Kelly Holmes Sports Hall, four lacrosse pitches, trampolining, dance studio (LAMDA exams and dance at GCSE are popular and with great success), golf, outdoor floodlit courts for netball and tennis. The Hemel Snow Centre is minutes away. The swimming pool was recently refurbished and it can be used year-round, with a roof that peels off in the summer term.
There is also an athletics track in the area, and girls can also do skiing and horse riding close by. There are no lessons on Saturday but many of the girls come in to do activities and sport. There’s the Judi Dench 200-seat theatre and additional studio. This is a very creative school, and music is a big part of school life. There are three classrooms for music; several practice rooms, and a fleet of Macs with mandatory MacSuite and Sibelius 7.
Art is in a converted and spacious stable block. There is lots of room everywhere, with science labs, language classrooms, and a very light and bright kitchen called the Food Room. On the day of my visit, one class had already made Thai green curry and rock cakes before 11 o’clock. I did wonder about the curry, but I was told that it would be safely stored in Tupperwares in the fridge ready for the girls to collect and take home. All of the girls taking GCSE Home Economics do Level 2 food hygiene and safety certificate – handy when looking for holiday jobs.
There has been a major ICT overhaul (always a challenge with old buildings) and now fibre optics whizz around the entire school and everyone is using Google Classroom and Chrome Books. The girls were asked what they wanted when it came to ICT and they were adamant that they didn’t want to be too obsessed with screens. Wise women.
Abbot’s Hill has Platinum Artsmark Status from Arts Council England. It recognises that the school is giving its pupils the very best in cultural education and Artsmark can also offer schools a wide network of artistic and creative partners. It also provides inspiration for creative careers, and the school held a Creative Careers Fair recently when TV presenters, writers and dancers came in to meet and talk to the girls.
There’s an Elite Athlete programme, and the Duke of Edinburgh Award is very popular. There’s a vibrant School Council. There are loads of interesting lunchtime and after school clubs: Book Banter, Young Engineers, rugby and yoga to name but a few.
It’s worth coming here just for the food. The dining hall feels like a café in a National Trust property: lots of wood and natural light. Everything is beautifully presented. On my first visit it was roast lamb with abundant trimmings and chocolate Eton Mess for pudding. Second time around, there was a technical hitch in the kitchen, but can you believe that Domino’s pizza vans had been summoned and arrived every half hour during the lunch break? The girls were ecstatic. The teachers may have been even more excited than the girls.
Learning Support was talked about a lot during my visit and it’s a high priority and the provision is excellent. A recent ISI report (March 2017) was outstanding throughout and much was said about the nurturing and pastoral care. The Rose Garden is a building located on the original rose garden and is a hub for learning support. The girls I met all talked about it very enthusiastically and explained that it’s a good place to visit even if you don’t feel you need extra help. It seems to be well used and I got the sense that the girls think that seeking help is a very positive thing to do. Good practice for the rest of life, I say. Personal development and all things pastoral are big here. Mindfulness isn’t on the curriculum as a subject but it comes into all kinds of areas. On the day I was there some of the girls had just done a yoga class and were full of the benefits of listening to your breath.
Abbot’s Hill is the antithesis of a pushy school and prides itself on not putting unnecessary pressure on the girls. The upshot? Excellent GCSE results. Summer 2018: 100% pass rate with 97.2% of grades at 9-4 or A*- C, compared with the national average of 66.6%. 89.9% of all reformed GCSE grades at or above grade 5. Girls go on to many local schools for Sixth Form including Berkhamsted, Queenswood, St Albans and St George’s in Harpenden, and Chesham Grammar and St Clement Danes. Further afield: Stowe, Uppingham, Rugby and Millfield were mentioned.
Mrs Thomas is in her seventh year at Abbot’s Hill. Her subject is English. She was Head at Stonar in Wiltshire, has taught English and had various roles in different schools, including SENCO. She is an advocate of Building Learning Power and we talk about thinking skills, taking risks, the importance of listening, independent learning and time management. Being stuck is good, she says. It means that you’re on the edge of your comfort zone. She is thoughtful, comfortable in her own skin and has an enthusiasm about the world that inspires those around her to get the most out of life. She is hugely proud of the school and knows every girl well. Year 10 girls have 1 to 1 meetings with her. She asks them what they like and value about the school. The answer might be, ‘The teachers give us so much. I want to pay them back’.
Ask about the bus routes and you could be there for a while. The school is really keen on reducing its carbon footprint and has made huge efforts to offer buses to even the most remote villages. The extensive bus provision has resulted in a major switch from cars to buses. The school values personalisation and offering a tailored service for the individual, and this extends to the school run. So bus drivers are going the extra mile. There is even a contingency route for snow. Not sure if this is what we want – don’t we all dream of a snow day? And there are chaperones on the buses in addition to the driver.
Not really a quirk but something that demonstrates the nurturing ethos: you can win prizes for showing outstanding compassion and respect. Girls play rugby. Parents all have the email address of their daughter’s teacher. There isn’t a sixth form. I’ll let you digest that for a minute, because it took me a while to work it out, but after meeting the Head and some of the girls, it started to make sense. The thinking behind it is that it allows girls to be in leadership roles at age 15. The younger girls don’t feel that there’s a big gap between them and the older girls. The Head Girl feels less remote to younger girls than if she were a sixth former. The school offers lots of opportunities to girls to be mentors and to have positions of responsibility earlier on. Abbot’s Hill has clans, rather than houses. This is in recognition of the Scottish roots of the founders, Miss Katrine and Miss Mary Baird. The three clans are Cameron, MacDonald and Macneil.
Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who discovered Knossos, was born here. His family inherited the house from the Dickinson paper manufacturers, and then it was leased to the Baird sisters before eventually being purchased by the trustees of the school. The Gade river and valley area was a very important paper manufacturing region and while all the mills were closed in 1999, you can learn all about the history of paper at nearby Frogmore Paper Mill.
Abbot’s Hill hasn’t been a boarding school since 2003, but the extended school day – 8.15am-4.30pm – is much appreciated by working parents. It’s also very flexible. Mrs Thomas told me that she knows when the shifts of parents who are doctors have changed: their daughters are suddenly making use of the after school care and Main Reception remains open until 7pm. Girls can arrive from 7.30am and have breakfast if they want to. Clubs and activities and supervised prep go on until 6pm. And at the end of the day it’s possible to stay until 7pm.
Starting at £3,588 per term for Reception and Year 1 up to £6,172 for Years 7-11.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Girls who will thrive in an all female environment and who are keen to join in with things and get involved. If you want to learn about leadership and be a role model or mentor for younger girls, you can do this when you’re 16 or even younger for some roles: Year 11 is the top of the tree. Anyone who values pastoral care and work life balance will do well here. Girls who will relish a new environment for A Levels/IB.
Not for: Anyone looking for a high pressure environment. And of course, if you are adamant about staying at the same school for A Levels, Abbot’s Hill isn’t for you.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! There’s a whole school open day on Sat 9 March, 10am-12pm. There are also some prep school working open events coming up: Tues 26 March, 9.30am; Fri 10 May, 1.30pm; Thurs 13 June, 9.30am
Abbot’s Hill, Bunkers Lane, Hemel Hempstead HP3 8RP 01442 240333