An all-girls boarding school that combines a rigorous academic UK-based curriculum with a focus on developing professional skills, an extensive co-curricular programme, a strong weekend programme of activities – and a huge dose of fun. Read on to discover just how the school pulls it off...
Offering what it describes as a “Complete Education”, Benenden has a strong, inquiry-led curriculum. So many private schools have coined a new phrase for their version of a broader, more innovative curriculum than the National Curriculum for England, so what does Benenden’s really offer?
Headmistress Samantha Price (previously head at Godolphin) says that the school “does not mistake a syllabus for an education”, which is a strong indication of how learning here goes beyond the classroom, and further than the traditional UK curriculum. It is, for starters, as practical as it is academic. Yes, Benenden has a strong track record for GCSE and A Level results but this is a school that talks about “each student achieving her very best possible grades at GCSE and A Level”; it’s not about putting pressure on students to achieve the A grade here (although many do), it is about supporting students to make the best possible progress individually.
This is not an academic hothouse. As Price says, “things that live in hot-houses cannot survive outside them”.
Benenden offers a more relaxed, varied (but still very focused) learning environment. There is clearly plenty of fun to be had on this campus, whether jumping from inflatables in the swimming pool, dipping for creepy crawlies in the pond or getting mudding on obstacle courses.
As a single sex school, the priority and focus at Benenden is always on girls and what’s best for them – but there are no female stereotypes. Students are empowered just as much by learning about the achievements of women through the ages or participating in STEM research projects. This is a school where you are just as likely to find a student helping to build a microlight or a Caterham car as you are learning about household maintenance.
As a small boarding school with less than 600 students you can expect there to be a close-knit community. Benenden is described by one student as having “no divide between any of the years”, and it comes across as a school where every girl is known by name.
While some private schools can keep students within a bubble of privilege, Benenden takes every effort to be part of the local community. Voluntary works includes running sports clubs in local schools, helping the elderly in local care homes, while 6th formers mentor GCSE students at a local state secondary. The school even owns the local village shop, where you can often see sixth formers behind the counter after lessons.
Life as a Sixth Former really stands out at Benenden. Known as Founders, these students have their own uniform, live in the dedicated Founders Houses, and can move around the campus on scooters, which is certainly a goal to work towards! Founders can be Big Sisters to new students (with caring touches such as inviting their ‘Little Sister’ over for dinner, an indication of the caring environment you can expect here)...
And did we also mention that the food in the dining hall is rather good too? Caramelised Leek, Brie and Fig Tart or Braised beef with five-spice and star anise anyone? Apparently, the Sunday brunch is tempting enough to keep the parents coming back for more at weekends!
The school was rated Excellent in its most recent ISI Integrated Inspection in 2013. And not just for its quality desserts!
Students start their journey at Benenden in Year 7 with a bespoke two-year inquiry-led programme that leads to a Benenden Diploma at the end of Year 8. Very similar to an International Baccalaureate education, students learn the traditional academic subjects through an integrated, investigative (and very challenging) curriculum based around six cross-curricular themes. Depending on which primary school your child moves up from, this first year of secondary may feel particularly challenging, but it will arm your child with a new set of research skills.
Teaching is still delivered by subject specialists, but it is the mode of delivery that is different to some other schools – and for families who are looking for an IB-style of education that still results in UK qualifications, Benenden is a solid option. Students are required to study two languages from a choice of French, Spanish and Mandarin, as well as Latin.
In Years 9-11, students’ study 10 or 11 GCSEs. In addition to the core subjects, GCSE options focus heavily on languages, the classics, and the arts, with choices including French, Greek, Mandarin, Latin, Spanish, art & design, dance, design & technology, drama, music, computing, geography, history, physical education, and religious studies.
Students can also take the Higher Project Qualification Level 2 (HPQ), which is an opportunity to study an area of personal interest in their own time in a largely self-directed project. The HPQ is an optional course taken outside timetabled lessons during a student’s GCSE years; it takes plenty of time and commitment (around 70 hours of work) but with universities looking for more than just grades, it can be a very worthwhile addition to your child’s application.
The timetable also makes crucial time for a Personal and Professional Development Programme, which focuses on issues that are all-important for girls during their teenage years such as friendships, growing up, navigating the party culture and online safety; there’s a strong sense that Benenden has created a very caring environment where student wellbeing is extremely well managed. This is supported by a strong pastoral care system that offers students the listening ear of counsellors, house staff, student prefects, the chaplain, and an independent listener. There’s also a well-managed reward and sanctions system which issues students with Pink or Blue Slips (there’s the reward of sweets if you collect enough Pink Slips!).
Benenden has a reputation for encouraging girls to pursue careers in the scientific fields, and this is enabled through its outstanding science centre facilities, which can rival many universities.
In the Sixth Form, students (Founders) have a choice of more than 25 A Level subjects, as well as the HPQ Level 3. The school’s Complete Education continues with the introduction of a Professional Skills Programme, compulsory two hours of sport, and Tuesday afternoon community outreach programme.
The Professional Skills Programme is another strong example of how Benenden teaches beyond the syllabus; founded by Dr Margaret Mountford (best known as an advisor in The Apprentice) this course is dedicated to teaching girls the general and practical skills they need to thrive in the workplace – giving them the confidence to turn an idea into a business proposition, giving a business pitch, developing business plans, and reading complex financial information.
A highlight of this programme is said to be the annual enterprise challenge when students are given £100 for a business start-up. Last year’s winner of this Dragon’s Den style initiative created new school tracksuits – Benenden Bottoms. Another year, two Sixth Formers developed an official ‘Benenden’ edition of the Monopoly board game with locations including the Science Centre, Cloisters, and the All-Weather Pitch. In a world where students need more than just decent grades to get ahead, Benenden is offering a sixth form education is preparing tomorrow's leaders to take the workplace by storm.
Benenden offers a strong music programme, which will be further enhanced with the opening of its new music school complete with practice rooms, classrooms, recital hall and IT suite in 2023. There is a large choice of individual music lessons and orchestras here, but it is the school’s choirs that are its strongest performers.
When a school says that it is “cool to be sporty”, you can safely assume that it will offer a wide range of team and individual sports to get even the most inactive student up and moving. And Benenden does that. With its sports complex, courts and fields, outdoor trim trail, and fitness gym, Benenden has the facilities to offer compulsory sport in all year groups, and coach and field teams in sports as varied as lacrosse, netball, hockey, swimming, trampolining, fitness options, cricket, athletics, and tennis.
As a boarding school, Benenden delivers its Complete Education for girls seven days a week. Although students follow a demanding timetable that runs for six hours’ every weekday and two hours every Saturday, there is plenty of time for exploring one of the 150-plus co-curricular activities.
Benenden is fortunate enough to have a vast campus of 250 acres, which it uses to offer an impressive outdoor education. From camping out in the woods and mastering bushcraft skills to learning about nature in the eco-classroom, and from planting an orchard to running around the Trim Trail, students can enjoy a very literal breath of fresh air here. It is also one of the few all-girls schools in the UK to run the Combined Cadet Force programme; this is as popular as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.
There are plenty of leadership opportunities, with many girls aspiring to become a prefect referred to informally as the ‘Grey Jumpers’.
In 2020, when results were based on centre assessed grades due to the cancellation of exams, 73% of A Level students achieved A*-A, and 82% of GCSE students scored 9-7. While these grades are higher than previous years, Benenden does consistently perform well above average. In 2019, 56% of A Level students achieved A*-A and 80% were A*-B; 79% of GCSE students scored 9-7 and 60% of all grades were at Levels 9 and 8.
As a selective school, it is unsurprising to see that Benenden delivers strong academic results and has a high percentage of high achievers. A third of each year group in Years 10-12 follow the school’s Academic Scholars programme, which offers further enrichment and prepares students for entry to Oxbridge, Ivy League universities and medical school. In 2020, 81% of students were accepted at a Russell Group university and 82% were accepted for their first-choice university. You can have high expectations for your, or your child’s tertiary education.
There are six lower schoolhouses dotted around the large campus. Sixth Formers board in one of four Houses – Beeches, Elms, Limes and Oaks – within the Founders complex which has a real university feel.
The Benenden boarding model balances full-time boarding with ‘Long Home Weekends’ when all girls go home, as well as two or three optional weekends at home each term. In a typical term, girls will spend four weekends in school and five at home. There’s an action-packed weekend programme with activities both on and off campus, many shared with different boys’ schools and prep schools in the area.
From September 2021, the school will enrol a limited number of day boarders in the Lower Fifth (Year 9) and Six One (Year 12); day students will be a member of a house in the same way as a boarder and have their own study space and shared social spaces with boarding friends. They are also expected to attend Saturday School with boarding students.
Located in Kent, Benenden will appeal to those who are looking for a quiet, rural location for their child’s education, but with all the advantages of being by the coast, and with London an hour’s drive away. It is less than an hour by train from nearby Staplehurst Station.
As a boarder, students have the advantage of using all facilities until 9 pm every day. These are housed in a combination of attractive Tudor-cum-Jacobean buildings and more modern buildings that combine to create a campus with plenty of character, space, and charm.
Teaching facilities include 300-seat main auditorium, Computer-Aided Design studio, multi-media workshop, eco-classroom, Clarke Study Centre, and Eugenia Leung Library. A purpose-built science centre has floors dedicated to physics, biology, and chemistry, 17 fully equipped laboratories, a 150-seat lecture theatre, eco-boiler, and an anechoic chamber (that’s a room designed to completely absorb reflections of either sound or electromagnetic waves for the non-scientists!).
Sports facilities include the Sunley Pool, Leisure and Sports Hall (SPLASH) with a 25-metre swimming pool – complete with pool inflatables – as well as a fully-equipped gym, a separate dance and fitness studio, squash courts and sports halls. There is also a play area with swings and climbing equipment, dining hall and café, school hall and chapel. A new, larger school hall and music school complete with practice rooms, classrooms, recital hall and IT suite will be built by 2023.
The majority of girls join at 11+ and 13+, and the school is already running waiting lists for 13+ entry in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Assessment is in Year 6 for a Year 9 entry, so you need to plan well-ahead to apply to this school.
Annual boarding fees are £39,372, and fees for day boarding (being introduced in September 2021) are £29,550.
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