Neither Thelwell nor Mallory Towers
Stephen Baker visits the unique Knighton House school
Published in April ’13
Ask most people in Dorset what they know about Knighton House school and they will smile and talk to you of red dungarees and ponies. And there is no doubt that these do form both an important part of the mystique of the school and of the day to day life of the 120 pupils here. Walking around the school and its grounds, it is hard to believe that this idealised vision of what a girl’s prep school should be came from the negative experiences of its founders.
According to school governor and former pupil, Ginny Rottenburg: ‘One of the reasons that the Bookers [the founders] wanted to have a school was because they had both, separately, had miserable childhoods and so they wanted to make sure that other children had a happy childhood. Mrs B had come back from India at the age of five because her parents were out there, and utterly miserable, went to a beastly, cold miserable school. Mr B had been the son of a housemaster at a senior school; his father paid attention to the boys under his care while Mr B was locked away upstairs.’
The school’s head, Alison Tremewan, is keen to emphasise the importance of the happiness of all concerned at Knighton House: ‘We’re a very happy school; staff are happy and the children are happy. Consequently we pick up quite a few children who may not be happy in their current schools and they settle quite quickly. Our pastoral care is fantastic and it has to be because we’re a boarding school.’
It’s not just the pastoral side that Knighton House promotes, however, as Alison explains: ‘ The traditional idea of our just being the little school that has pets and ponies, is wrong; we’ve just got the academic scholarship to St Mary’s, Shaftesbury and awards to St Mary’s Calne, we’ve got quite a go-ahead ICT department and, although we are a small school, there are many features here that are very special. We need to equip girls, both in terms of technology but also how they’re going to relate to people in a changing world.’
‘It’s really important,’ she continues, ‘that we’re not Mallory Towers; we’re looking to equip our girls for life beyond university. At the same time we are equally aware of the Bookers and the values they wanted to instil in the school’s pupils and holding onto those traditional values and beliefs is so important.’
‘Having a belief in integrity, kindness, respect for the individual and knowing how to get on with all kinds of people is so important,’ Alison emphasises, ‘so we do quite a lot of work with the children so that they are thinking beyond Dorset. We’re working with the British Council Comenius project that will run across nine countries; it’s important to open up the eyes of children to the lives of children in Poland and Romania, Spain or Greece. We also have close links with a school and orphanage in India through our Agapé project. Our children Skype the children in the school over there, our science teacher goes over there to help with projects and it’s important at this level that children can experience talking to and seeing an Indian child so that it’s very real.’
As part of their broader education the girls look at equality in work and in life. ‘They’ve written to their MP to promote the idea of girls’ education for all,’ Melissa says, ‘and we use female role models in computer games companies to promote the idea that girls can very much do what they want.’
The crossover between departments appears seamless. In the art class, the girls made some characters which they then brought to ICT to make a little stop-frame animation of the life of Henry VIII and one of the latest animation projects is Maddie in Space: the adventures of a Knighton House girl who starts off jumping up and down on a trampoline (wearing her red dungarees of course) and then she’s in space; a spaceship appears and then the aliens come out and Maddie hides before the aliens talk to her and she comes out.’
Although much work is done in ICT, it is not all new technology, as admissions secretary Melanie Burton reveals as she shows off one of the book rooms at Knighton House. ‘In the day of the computer you might think that books might go by the wayside, but when the girls are off games you quite often find them curled up in here with a book and we have book fairs in here a couple of times a year too.’
Cosy as the library is, there is also the sick bay for when things are a little worse than missing games. This falls under the purview of Elizabeth Potter, the Housemistress and matron, for Year 3 to Year 7 (seven to twelve year olds). ‘We try to make it as welcoming for them as possible,’ she says. ‘The bedrooms are also a little home from home. Thirteen year olds are in their own flat.’ All the girls’ rooms are named after famous women, for example Jane Austen, whose names are affixed on the original plaques put up when the school opened 63 years ago.
The rooms are homely and also a panoply of pink; the One Direction posters, though, are massively outnumbered by the pictures of the girls’ dogs. There is a common theme here as the canine connection with the school starts with Bramble the terrier, who sits in the admissions and marketing office, the Head’s working Cocker spaniel, and then, to be found in the science block is a Labrador, naturally called… the Science Lab; there is also a Learning Support Lab and the idea is that the dogs are part of the extended family of the school.
Outside, other members of the extended family live in the pets’ village, where the girls head out to at break time to see their guinea pigs, rabbits and hamsters. Also outside, within the thirty-acre grounds, are the ponies. ‘The ponies belong to the families apart from one – we’ve thirteen here at the moment. We’ve got two fully qualified riding teachers and it’s a very good arrangement for the families for term time as the ponies are very well cared for; they have to be vetted to check that they are safe before we allow a pony in. The children are always keen to fetch them in at 7.30 in the morning, and they are encouraged to help groom them at break time.’
‘We had William Fox-Pitt in with his medals to talk to the girls,’ recalls Alison, ‘and he said that as he drove up our drive for the evening, he looked across at the dressage arena and the cross-country course, and he wished he’d been able to come somewhere like this, which was lovely. He then said that everyone who is interested in riding should have more than one pony, and there was a sharp intake of breath from all the parents at that.’
As Melanie Burton points out, though: ‘The girls bring their own ponies, but they also swap them around between themselves to improve their riding confidence. It’s really good hacking on the grounds, and they can go into Bryanston too.’
Outdoors is also where the school’s other famous element – the red dungarees – come into their own. Alison explains: ‘They were uniform from the first day; they were a practical thing, then as now, for something to wear while the girls climb trees, turn cartwheels and so on. We’re an outdoor school so dungarees are very practical. “Best” – which is worn for the Saturday church service and for other special occasions, trips etc – is a grey kilt and red and white shirt. In year 8 they wear the Senior Uniform, which has its own cachet. When girls go to senior school, they pin their signed dungarees up on their walls as keepsakes.’
Ginny Rottenburg reinforces the affection with which the girls regard their dungarees: ‘We’ve been emailing old girls, who’ve told us “I’ve still got my dungarees”, and, in a few cases, they say “I can still get into them”. They’re custom-made and, as we can’t find them commercially, they are hand-made by Wendy who runs them up on her sewing machine.
The third thing for which Knighton House is best-known is probably its music, specifically its choral singing. ‘It is,’ Alison Tremewan says, ‘rare to have the quality of music, particularly choral music, in a school of our size. All our junior girls are in the junior choir; the thirty best voices go into the chapel choir. This is where Dorset Opera have their AGM and the girls sing before that. They sang at the Sturminster Newton Exchange last year and have given concerts at Melbury House, Lulworth Castle and Milton Abbey. This year a concert is being planned for Lady St Mary Church, in Wareham on 7 June and the chapel choir are beautiful; every Saturday we sing a two-part anthem down at Durweston parish church.’
And so our tour of North Dorset’s Knighton House school ends in harmony; one suspects that Mr and Mrs Booker would approve.