Since 2022, Helen Hoffmann, formerly head of Derwent Lodge. Freely admits that for her the road to headship has a been somewhat winding one, ‘Career verb, not noun,’ she laughs, ‘certainly not a straight line.’ Educated at a Kent grammar school she went on to study English and drama at Wolverhampton Polytechnic which led to a stint as a BBC children’s TV production assistant. It was her love of children’s television that ignited an interest in teaching and so she headed to Scotland to take a PGCE and then taught in both primary and secondary state schools in Wales. Along the way she became a qualified upholsterer and spent a while living in France. Returned to education, taking up a post as director of studies at Vinehall before being appointed head of Derwent Lodge in 2016 where she oversaw the merging of three separate schools (pre-prep, girls’, boys’) on the same site, redesigning timetables and curricula. She also masterminded the home learning programme during Covid. As if all this wasn’t enough, she has completed a master’s in literature on the subject of post-colonial voices. Oh, and then there’s gardening, house renovation, exploring the local area and learning Spanish and Swedish. Lives in the countryside outside Hereford with her husband who writes literary fiction and for film.
Parents told us she has ‘really shaken things up.’ ‘She’s a strong character, full of ideas and clearly very capable, but hasn’t swept in and changed everything immediately, she looks and evaluates.’ ‘She’s switched round the teachers - there was nothing wrong before, but maybe things get a bit staid.’ ‘Rejuvenating, there’s a different energy.’
Says she was more than ready to move from Kent and the dominance of the grammar system, ‘High anxiety; so much tutoring goes on,’ to Herefordshire. She’s regularly in the cathedral for evensong, not just to support the choristers, ‘I love the cultural richness and community, being part of cathedral life.’ The cathedral and school have always been entwined, but we got a strong sense that both Mrs Hoffmann and Dr Gray (headmaster) are reinvigorating and developing the relationship with clergy and wider community.
Works very closely with Dr Gray and other members of the SLT, ‘We’re a big family, but the prep school is given the right amount of voice. Describes Dr Gray as ‘an ideas factory’ (she’s not alone, more on this in the senior school review) and is in awe of the ambitious digital strategy he has masterminded in the senior school and from which the prep is also benefitting. There’s lots of wifi hidden behind the panelling she says of her gorgeous 16th century study. Dr Gray and the bursar join her here for meetings, ‘because it’s the best office.' It’s certainly one of the nicest we’ve seen.
Describes herself as a ‘voracious, eclectic reader’, among her favourites are Jane Gardam, Elizbeth Strout and the poetry of Clive James. Regularly returns to Austen and Dickens, ‘I’m interested in other people, other worlds.’ No timetabled teaching at the moment, but she fully intends to go back into the classroom. At present she does reading with the nursery and reception children accompanied by Lottie, her cockapoo. Lottie is being trained as a therapy dog and Mrs Hoffmann hopes that they can soon start going into local care homes together – working with the elderly as well as children. Will she find time for this too along with the Swedish, Spanish and house renovation? Of course she will.
Children can join the nursery from the start of the term they turn 3. Main intakes to junior school are reception and age 7 but places may be available at other ages, subject to space and suitability. For older children there are interviews and entrance tests and a requirement for reports from their current school.
Nearly all progress to the senior school and most parents choose the junior school with this in mind. School will advise in plenty of time if this may not be the right course.
We started our visit early with a walk through the cathedral cloisters to the song school. Here we listened to choristers rehearsing at high desks – pure voices, effortlessly (or so it seemed) learning new music, all eyes on the conductor. The choir, founded in 1165, began to admit girls in 2022 – somewhat late to the co-ed cathedral choral party. We were lucky enough to meet the very first girl chorister – still starry eyed about her place in history (as well as the choir). Children are auditioned in year 2 and those admitted spend year 3 as probationers before becoming full choristers. Although choristers are not required to board (there’s no prep boarding), it’s quite a commitment with evensong five days a week, Sunday services and other special days and events. The song school is owned and run by the cathedral but there’s very close liaison with the school and timetables are ‘finessed’ to avoid clashes. ‘Substantial’ bursaries for choristers plus a ‘pension’ in recompense for their service when they leave in year 8. Some parents felt that the choir could be more widely celebrated, ‘They’re so good, there should be more opportunities to hear them sing.’ We too noticed that compared to other cathedral choir schools HCS does rather underplay things – information about the choir was well hidden on the school’s website for instance.
Next was a very enjoyable prep assembly with exemplary behaviour from even the tiniest pupils, all sitting cross-legged on the hall floor in their smart navy and gold uniforms – or tracksuits for those going on to do games. A hearty ‘good morning’ was followed by some enthusiastic hymn singing (no reluctance or mouthing the words from children or staff). Mrs Hoffmann gave a lively talk about bullying for ‘Odd Socks Day’, showing the pupils her own slightly mismatched (but perfectly toning) socks – her drama training very much coming to the fore. Then came the handing out of certificates for ‘trying hard’, being ‘happy and smiling’, having a ‘positive attitude’, and being a ‘great role model’, among others. Recipients (majority girls) lined up on stage, pleased as punch. This new focus on recognising skills and qualities as well as academic and sporting success has been welcomed by parents, ‘It used to be the same children rewarded every week, it’s much better to celebrate a breadth of achievement.’
We dropped in on the charming nursery (max capacity 20) where children were working hard on their Divali firework pictures and learning to use scissors to make glittering silver paper moons; several were enthusiastically daubing paint onto props for the Christmas play. Modest but well equipped outside play space, overlooked – as everywhere seems to be – by the cathedral. Nursery children walk to the main school dining hall for lunch – they are served first – often catching a glimpse of older siblings on their way. Breakfast and after school clubs are staggered so that parents can pick up children from different parts of the school.
Then it was into the hands of a spirited pupil duo who gave us a thorough, informative and appreciative tour of their school. Up and down stairs we went, through the library, into classrooms, back through the library, out into one of the playgrounds, ‘Boys play football here, girls do sometimes, but they don’t really want to,’ we were told firmly. Ahem, we know for a fact there’s a girls’ football team. Limited outside space means breaks are staggered and there’s a year group rota for play equipment; plastic grass is a sad, but understandable feature in some areas, ‘I prefer real grass,’ one of our guides said. We were shown the Quiet Garden, ‘It used to be quiet but now it’s very noisy,’ we were informed. The school’s various buildings adjacent to the cathedral close are somewhat scattered and the historic nature of the site makes it rather a maze – we’re not sure we could have found the way back without help. ‘It takes about a week,’ to learn your way around, we were told confidently.
Our guides led us through a small area with a stone fireplace, ‘That’s the medieval room,’ we were informed, ‘or it used to be medieval.’ The school’s historic, listed site must have seen many different uses over the centuries – the modern, light pre-prep classrooms are built in what was originally the moat below the city walls. The wonderful, high-ceilinged 16th century room that’s now home to the art department was formerly the buttery where pupils could buy snacks through a hatch. The adjacent DT room was certainly not originally intended for this purpose and benches are rather crammed in, not that this seemed to concern the class who were working hard on some impressive fairground ride designs. Year 6 pupils use the senior school art and DT facilities. The recently refurbished science lab, reached via an external staircase, is rather charming and despite clearly not having been built for the purpose seemed to lack for nothing, ‘We do lots of experiments.’ Maths is set from year 5 and English from year 6; no Latin (that starts in the senior school). Increasing use of technology right from the pre-prep as part of whole school digital strategy welcomed by parents.
While agreeing that ‘more space would be nice,’ parents don’t seem overly concerned (those in search of sweeping drives and green acres probably go elsewhere). ‘It’s so characterful, full of nooks and crannies – the children love it.’ The library, however, did elicit a sigh. Less a library, more a busy intersection traversed by everyone on their way to and from other places, not really somewhere to curl up with a book. The PTA are ‘trying to make it nicer.’
Plenty of praise for staff, ‘lovely, so approachable’ and pastoral care, parents told us that their children are ‘known as individuals’ and any concerns or problems are dealt with swiftly and sensitively. There is a school counsellor who works across both sites. Communication on an interpersonal level is very good but could be better at whole school level, ‘We see things in the school calendar but it’s not clear if they refer to juniors as well as seniors – we’ve had to scrabble to get stuff ready at the last minute a few times. It’s as though new parents are just expected to know what’s what.’
School says it caters for a broadish range of abilities and takes a holistic, integrated approach to ‘support the process of learning’. Learning skills department works closely with other teaching, pastoral and extracurricular staff, ‘Nearly all children will have bumps in the road, we give them the tools to get over them.’ Specialist support for ‘mild to moderate SEN’ as well as a ‘high achievers’ programme. The needs of highly able children are met through differentiation in the classroom; more tailored support from the head of learning skills focuses on scholarship work as well as meeting the emotional needs of the most able.
It’s a busy week with matches on Wednesdays and four or five different lunch time and after school clubs running every day, including debating, ‘That’s with Mrs Hoffmann’ and moth club, ‘We catch moths and let them go. If we don’t catch any moths, we draw pictures of them.’ After school cookery club is also very popular, it’s supposed to be 45 minutes although by the time pupils get there it’s more like half an hour – ‘just about enough time to make a sponge cake or pizza.’
Change is afoot for junior school sport with increased focus on participation instead of the A teams. Parents approve, ‘They’re too young to be pigeon-holed.’ Rugby is, apparently, the best club. ‘Boys’ and girls’ netball would be better,’ thought one child. Pupils use senior school sports hall and playing fields, the latter a 20-minute walk away by the River Wye (subject to flooding). There’s a lovely netball court hidden away just next to the cathedral. Swimming takes place at the local leisure centre. Quite a lot of minibus journeys to and from other sports facilities as well as matches.
Music, described by parents as ‘phenomenal’, starts in the nursery where pupils are introduced to a wide range of instruments and in year 2 everybody learns to play the ocarina – more easily managed than the recorder and ‘if you blow too hard it cuts out.’ Around two thirds go on to take up an orchestral instrument and there’s a junior school string orchestra plus smaller ensembles for wind and brass. Performance skills are built up via class concerts and from early on solo playing is encouraged – a young cellist played her pieces beautifully as part of the assembly on the day we visited. School choir for those who aren’t choristers (they have to save their voices) very popular, ‘they all want to be in it.’ Drama once a week, pupils often work on short pieces to be performed in class assemblies; year 6 play is keenly anticipated. Impressive results for LAMDA examinations and pupils also take part in the Hereford and Cheltenham festivals.
Very little local competition in the independent sector, particularly at senior level; head says, ‘We’re not complacent, but our focus is on purpose, rather than competition.’ And demand is growing – now three form entry into years 5 and 6. Increasing interest, especially post-pandemic, from those who were brought up here, moved away and have returned – many working from home (you still get a lot more house for your money in this part of the world, compared to the south-east). Concerns over mixed age classes in small rural primary schools also drive some parents into the independent sector.
Demographic more diverse than one might expect of the least populous county in England. There’s quite a large eastern European community in Hereford as well as a notable military presence (nearby Credenhill is the SAS base). Bus service brings children in from Welsh borders, Ledbury, Ross on Wye, Leominster and Bromyard (much better to delegate the daily wrangle with Hereford’s rush hour traffic and one-way system). School says its parents are supportive, involved, outward looking, ‘They want opportunities for their children.’ They like the focus on values, the way their children are treated as individuals and the unique links with the cathedral, ‘Even if they’re not religious or from different faiths, they respect the tradition and understand its cultural significance.’ Parents describe each other as, ‘grounded, very friendly, not posh - just normal, everyday people.’
Substantial scholarships are available for those who join the school as cathedral choristers (from age 7).
The last word
Deservedly popular, this is a charming, busy, welcoming school in a unique, historic setting. Wonderful music, great teaching and dynamic leadership, plus the prospect of moving on to the exciting senior school next door make it a positive choice for families. A former parent told us, ‘My very different children all thrived in the junior school, it was a lovely start to their education.’