An all-girls independent day school with quirky heritage buildings, excellent academics and a ‘wholehearted’ approach to educating independent women.
Farnborough Hill is a Catholic girls’ senior school and Sixth Form located in Farnborough, in the north of Hampshire, catering for pupils aged 11 – 18. The school has 575 pupils in classes that range in size from 24 in Years 7 and 8, to as small as three or four in the Sixth Form.
As far as buildings go, they really don’t get any grander than Farnborough Hill’s beautiful historic house. Built in 1860 by the publisher Thomas Longman, the school was famously once home to the exiled Empress Eugénie, widow of Emperor Napoleon III of France. Sitting in the luxurious Grand Salon gazing out over stunning views, the Grade I listed building – along with the 65 acres of surrounding parkland – feels a little bit like being in a period drama.
Farnborough Hill was purchased in 1927 by the Sisters of the Religious of Christian Education, an existing convent school in Farnborough established in 1889, which added more modern additions to the campus, like the stunning school chapel added in the 1930s. More recently, fresh facilities like the sports hall and music rooms have been created to slot in nicely with the historic surroundings, as well as being fully functioning.
The school is well served by school buses and a mere 25-minute train journey from Clapham Junction. The excellent transport links (Farnborough Main and Farnborough North station are walking distance away) and close proximity to the M3 mean that the catchment area is extremely broad. Students come here from all directions, including Basingstoke, Woking, Hindhead, Guildford and Reading.
Farnborough Hill is big considering its proximity to London and location in a built-up area, but that means there’s plenty of room for some really decent facilities.
Refurbished science labs are fully kitted out with some of the latest tech. The school is also home to an excellent all-weather floodlit hockey pitch (named for Old Girl, England hockey captain and Olympic Medal winner, Alex Danson) as well as an indoor swimming pool, a huge sports hall and an excellent music block.
A brand new purpose-built Sixth Form Centre is also due to open by Easter 2022 which will put Sixth Formers at the very centre of the school.
Farnborough Hill also makes good use of the St Raphael Well-being Centre. Used by the School Nurse, a School Counsellor and the Head of Learning Support, there are quiet spaces pupils can make use of as well as opportunities to exercise self-care and mindfulness.
The school has a very solid pedigree when it comes to academics, and while the school is extremely forward-thinking, they haven’t mucked about adding too many weird and wonderful subjects onto the curriculum.
Classics are a very popular choice here with Latin and Ancient Greek both options for the cohort, and there’s a strong emphasis on the “core” subjects such as modern languages, maths, humanities, sciences and English. However, this is definitely not a hot-house environment and the pupils are bolstered by inspiring teaching and a spirit of striving to become the very best version of themselves, rather than intense cramming and pressure. In the last few years, Design Technology has seen a rapid increase in popularity and is fully-subscribed at GCSE level.
Girls in Year 9 and above can also take the Foundation Project Qualification (FPQ) and Higher Project Qualification (worth half or one GCSE respectively). In the Sixth Form, the extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is equivalent to an AS level qualification. Akin to a dissertation, pupils produce an extended piece of writing on a subject of their choice, with recent examples ranging from Mars exploration to EU regulation on plastics, women’s rights in the Middle East and female protagonists in Disney movies.
In 2021 the A-Level students once again achieved a 100% pass rate with over 70% receiving A*/A grades and over 80% achieving A*-A grading in their EPQs. GCSE results again saw over 70% of the results at 9-7 and a 100% total pass rate. The majority of students head off to Russell Group universities while a few opt for the Oxbridge/Medical route.
With a “Sport for All” ethos, physical education is big here and hockey, netball, cross-country, dance and gymnastics are the most popular disciplines. As well as having the captain of the England Women’s Hockey team and a number of Olympians and Paralympians in their alumnae, there’s a lot of strong regional and national level sportswomen in the school’s current ranks as well.
Recent successes include the Under 14 A team reaching the National Netball Finals, an unbeaten record as league winners in the U14’s district-level hockey competition, finishing in 16th place in the National Schools’ Cross Country Cup, first place finishes in the District Championships and bronze and silver medals for teams entering the Hampshire Inter School’s Cross Country Championships.
Girls also took medals in the South Regional Floor and Vault Championships, The St. Mary’s School Invitational Gala and County Relay Championship Swimming competitions and were County Cup cricket competition finalists.
P.E. is part of the curriculum right up until the end of lower sixth and the school has a real emphasis on finding the “right” sport for each pupil – be it as a team or individually. The school also has its own gym with cardio and strength equipment which students can use (supervised for the younger year groups) during different times of the day.
MUSIC & DRAMA
Music is particularly strong at Farnborough Hill, especially when it comes to singing and instrumental ensembles. The Senior Choir is a popular extra-curricular activity with the pupils and, as well as regularly singing in the school’s chapel, the choir has even performed at Barcelona’s amazing Sagrada Familia.
The music block, built in 2014, is home to one of the most beautiful choir rooms I’ve ever seen with HUGE windows that open up completely in the summer months. Drifting out, you’ll hear a range of instruments (around 20 different types are played here) and styles, from jazz and classical to heavy metal.
The school also has excellent drama facilities, with a 105-seat Theatre on the Hill that benefits from a range of state-of-the-art lighting and sound technology and stage management carried out by the pupils, including hair and makeup, set, props, costumes, light and sound, plus an A’Level in set design on offer for the keenest. Plenty of girls love a chance to perform and get it with co-curricular LAMDA classes and a junior and senior production each year, as well as a Year 7 musical.
ART & DESIGN
The Art department is split into three very specific disciplines at Farnborough Hill – Fine Art, Ceramics and Textiles – and the level of work created here is high.
Taught in beautiful converted stable blocks, in Textiles the girls won’t be making silly old calico bags but physical, wearable art that wouldn’t be out of place on stage or in a museum. On my visit, pupils were putting finishing touches to elaborate textile projects inspired by the American Modernist artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The calibre of the Fine Art artwork was easily university level in both subject matter and execution.
Restrictions allowing, the Art department also offers a New York Trip for pupils in Year 10 and above, offering a real-world introduction of how they could take their interest in the creative to career level. Sixth Formers can additionally opt to take Photography at A’Level.
Alexandra Neil has been the Head of Farnborough Hill since 2016, having previously held the role of Deputy Head at Rye St Antony School, Oxfordshire.
One thing she was keen to stress is that we shouldn’t push kids for “perfection”. While we should always encourage children to be the best they can be, we have to be conscious about the impact of a propensity towards comparison with others in this modern age – particularly with the rise of social media – on a child’s emotional well-being and self-worth. By encouraging the girls to adapt a growth mindset and to focus on themselves – they can achieve anything. She is also very engaged with the student body, continuing to teach history and politics and encouraging the pupils to come to her with ideas for change.
Looking to the future with an open-minded outlook, Alexandra Neil is currently embarking on a ‘life in five years’ strategic review that will guide future investment in facilities and co-curricular and academic enhancement.
While this is a Catholic setting, this is certainly not a prerequisite for pupils who wish to attend (in fact, 70% of pupils are either another faith or no faith). While religion is present in daily life at the school, it’s more about its ethos of compassion and sense of community and the teaching of gospel values, along with mutual respect and tolerance.
Farnborough Hill is extremely diverse with over 40 languages spoken both by the pupils and teachers. With girls joining from a mix of both independent and state schools it gives the student body a real kaleidoscope of experience, lifestyle and background.
The school was inspected in by the ISI in January 2014. Read the report here.
How much time do you have? There’s the fact that the school has its very own radio station, F’Hill, which is run by the Year 11 pupils and staff. Or how about that the Sixth Formers can take an enrichment course of a PADI open water scuba diving qualification in the school pool? There’s a nuns’ graveyard in the grounds and one particularly wonderful room in “St Raph’s” that is literally just full of beanbags and nothing more.
Each of the Sixth Formers has their own “flat”, which are little rooms shared between two or three girls where they can focus on their work and have a little bit of headspace away from the hustle and bustle of school life – each decorated with their very own stamp and personality.
Also “Girl Power” is very much a thing here, and not the twee manufactured kind but the proper world-changing feminism type. Up until a few years ago the school’s house system was named after various Reformation Saints. As part of the Social Justice Club, a group of Year 7s questioned why, in a school for girls with plenty of notable females in its history, were they named after men?
They approached the Head and now the school’s house system is named after women from the school’s history, including the inspirational last Sister-Headmistress, Elizabeth McCormack, who worked with homeless addicts in London. If that’s not a huge indicator of how much this school listens to its students and encourages them to take charge, then I don’t know what is!
A very reasonable £15,759 per annum (£5,253 per term) for 2021-2, which considering the level of facilities and opportunities – plus the EXTREMELY close location to London – is a bit of a bargain.
WORD ON THE GROUND
There’s been a real push forward at Farnborough Hill to show the outside world that this girls’ school is forward-thinking and modern.
The ‘wholeheartedly’ ethos here is clearly about building resilient, independent women of thought and action, rather than shrinking violets. The community-minded head girl tells me all about the Junior Leadership Team, an empowering forum for pupils to take ideas and feedback to the Senior Team, and what she considers really important initiatives like the school’s buddy system.
A younger student (who loves Latin and design technology lessons) is flourishing in music having discovered a passion for guitar and trumpet at Farnborough Hill.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those who really want to give their daughters a good across the board start – academically and developmentally. Any girl who knows what she wants – as well as those who maybe need a little bit more focus and inspiration – will thrive in this environment as there are plenty of opportunities to be had. Also if you live in London but want to throw some countryside greenery into a girl’s education without boarding or too much distance from home, this is going to tick a lot of boxes.
Not for: If you want an all through-school, boarding requirements or a co-ed environment this isn’t going to fit the bill.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Farnborough Hill’s next open afternoons are on Friday 1 Oct 2021 and Friday 5 November 2021. To book an individual visit contact Lindsey Lovegrove, Director of Admissions on 01252 545197 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farnborough Hill, Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14 8AT. Tel: 01252 545197