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Downe House School

What says..

‘For our sporty eldest it was like putting a dog in the chicken shed,’ laughs one parent; ‘She’s outdoors every evening, she was so cooped up in London,’ says another. Very strong lacrosse and netball, hockey growing, year-round tennis, cricket and athletics in the summer. As we drove into the grounds on a sunny morning, we saw girls out practicing their serves. ‘Not a school that hangs its self-esteem on being academic, it’s about developing your character,’ parents say, ‘so you can be academic, but you don’t have...

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What the school says...

Downe House has always aimed to celebrate individual achievement within a boarding community framework by giving girls the maximum range of opportunities possible. Whilst our facilities are constantly developing, our primary focus is on people and pastoral care which underpin all achievement.

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What The Good Schools Guide says


Since 1997, Emma McKendrick. Studied German and Dutch at the University of Liverpool, during which she spent a year teaching in Germany. Thence to a PGCE (Birmingham) and Royal High School, Bath, where she became head at the tender age of 29. The big job at Downe House came four years later; her early alumnae are now prospective parents.

Rarely do we come across a head who commands such unanimous respect and admiration. Parents often gush, of course, but at Downe House they really go for it: ‘The most phenomenal head I’ve ever come across’; ‘extraordinary woman’; ‘girls adore her’; ‘just so right, every time’. Always interested to know what former pupils are doing and understands those in her care exceptionally well: ‘She’d not only read her ed psych report, she’d actually digested it better than we had!’ said one mum. Recognises dogs, siblings and grannies on the touchline; possesses the clarity of mind, common sense and good manners that we should all aspire to.

Reassuringly grown-up and headmistressy office is exactly what you’d hope for – a feeling of calm created by thick rugs, brown furniture and tea freshly brewed in a teapot – and yet Downe House now stretches far beyond the home counties, with sister schools in Riyadh and Muscat and global internship and exchange programmes. Indeed, look past Mrs McKendrick’s trademark pearl necklace and you will find similarly lovely contrasts throughout her approach. A quiet, understated manner, yet she’s brilliant at chatting to the girls; far too experienced to be impressed by gadgets or gimmicks but recognizes that ‘virtual reality can be hugely beneficial for interview practice’. Proud that the student council are focused on equality, inclusion and belonging; enjoys grappling with ideas about the threat to intellectual rigour posed by artificial intelligence. Challenges to independent schools (the potential introduction of VAT to school fees, for example) ‘needn’t be a bad thing’, she says, ‘if it makes the sector sharpen up a little bit, think smarter’. Girls here try everything from mini-MBAs to Microsoft qualifications, leadership coaching to Leith’s cookery courses. Keen that they develop soft skills, digital skills, global awareness, the values and personalities that international universities and recruiters are looking for. ‘She wants those girls to be pioneers,’ parents say.

Celebrated her quarter century in 2022 and so, inevitably, the rumour mill is churning, though Mrs McKendrick is adamant that she’s not going anywhere. Isn’t she tired of it, we asked? Absolutely not: ‘It’s too important to ever feel tired about, young people don’t deserve that and neither do hardworking parents.’ What’s next? Continuing to develop the site - currently updating maths and computing facilities so that ‘girls can see that coding and tech is for young women’. Still loves watching girls grow up in a boarding setting; pops in to have breakfast with pupils, pops back again at supper.

Lives with her husband and two sons, one at Edinburgh and the other just starting his gap year; they went through Bradfield College and St Edward’s, Oxford.


Oversubscribed but not ludicrously so, with around three hopefuls for every place. Fifty-five join at 11; another 45 at 13. Register by end of year 5 for either. ISEB pre-test, assessment day and an interview with the head, who’s looking for kindness, ambition and a willingness to get involved in ‘community living’. Parents describe admissions process as ‘very slick’.

Sixth form candidates sit general and subject-specific papers, depending on their A level choices; they’ll be interviewed by the head and the head of sixth form if they do well enough.

Academic, drama, sport, art and music scholarships available at main entry points. No fee remission for scholars, though musicians get free lessons.


Ninety per cent stay for sixth form; a few go co-ed. Most year 13s off to Russell Groups, some to art colleges or conservatoires. UCL, Kings College London, Imperial, LSE, Edinburgh, Durham, Exeter, Bristol and Manchester all popular. North America and mainland Europe increasingly popular – in 2023, seven students went to The New School (Parsons), USA; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), USA; University of Wisconsin Madison, USA; European University of Cyprus; Semmelweiss, Hungary; and University of Hong Kong. Six to Oxbridge in 2023, and 11 medics.

‘We didn’t get involved in UCAS and the school did a really good job with it,’ says one parent. Another describes a veritable squadron of specialists: ‘She’s got an academic tutor, music tutor, scholar tutor, university advisor, Oxbridge advisor and an Irish university advisor all guiding her through.’

Latest results

In 2023, 81 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 64 per cent A*/A at A level (84 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last pre-pandemic results), 84 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 61 per cent A*/A at A level (86 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

No more than 18 in a class up to GCSE and 12 at A level, though often much smaller. Lower school – years 7 and 8 – taught in mixed-ability groups for all but French, maths and Latin. We found year 8, kitted out in goggles and lab coats, frantically stirring yeast solutions to test for respiration, a topic due to come up in their summer exam – ‘I did OK last year, so I’m not too scared,’ said one. Flexibility from year 9, when girls can choose up to three languages, including ancient Greek if they’d like to; everyone takes a modern language at GCSE from French, Italian, German, Chinese or Spanish. Options also include computer science. Default is triple science. ‘Nine is fine’ when it comes to GCSEs; a broader range of ability than you might expect. ‘Not a school that hangs its self-esteem on being academic, it’s about developing your character,’ parents say, ‘so you can be academic, but you don’t have to be.’

Advice on A levels is ‘quality not quantity’, we hear; no pressure to take on too much. Maths and English are most popular; Biology, chemistry, economics close behind. Lots taking art, textiles or photography. Tailored support is the name of the game: ‘If extra sessions are what you need then extra sessions are what you’ll get,’ parents say.

Every girl uses a Surface Pro (majority adorned by stickers of Harry Styles when we visited). Years 7 to 9 do their prep together; from year 10, it can be done in house or in the Murray Centre, where the library is. We visited during GCSEs, girls emerging from their physics exam relaxed (‘It was kind of easy, actually,’) and dorm walls covered in beautifully colour-coordinated spider diagrams. Atmosphere is productive, collegiate and not too pushy.

Learning support and SEN

Neurodiversity front and centre: ‘There is no one “right” way of thinking, learning and behaving,’ school says. Understanding has grown since new head of learning support started, parents tell us. No stigma; girls mutually supportive.

Multilingual learners' department provides EAL support for those that need it, predominantly girls who speak European languages or Mandarin at home.

The arts and extracurricular

Director of music ‘off-the-scale brilliant’, one parent reports. Over half learn an instrument; young musician of the year competition open for beginners to virtuosos. Every member of Lower School is in a choir. ‘Music here is one big adventure,’ says school, ‘and everyone who wants to sing, can sing.’ Six choirs and lots of performing opportunities, ‘but more about being part of the community than being the best,’ say parents. Polyphonix, the non-auditioned choir, won Barnado’s national competition in 2018 and 2019.

Musician-in-residence is Bob Chilcott, on-hand for masterclasses, mentoring, insight into Oxbridge scholarships or the professional music world. School runs events for local prep and primary schools, too, with an annual orchestral fun day.

House drama, lower school musicals and whole-school productions get girls on stage. Recent production of Chicago razzle-dazzled, apparently and 300 girls take extra speech and drama lessons; both drama and music are offered at GCSE and A level.

Non-stop programme of other activities includes crafts, ceramics, cookery and even a student-led cheese society, for those so inclined.


One hundred and ten acres of rural Berkshire, including six lacrosse pitches and 17 tennis courts. ‘For our sporty eldest it was like putting a dog in the chicken shed,’ laughs one parent; ‘she’s outdoors every evening, she was so cooped up in London’, says another. Very strong lacrosse and netball; hockey growing; year-round tennis; cricket and athletics in the summer. As we drove into the grounds on a sunny morning, we saw girls out practicing their serves; half the school takes private tennis and squash lessons on top of what they do in PE. Good engagement with swimming; triathlon growing. Equestrian (where it all started for Clare Balding) and even skiing on offer.

‘The higher teams are super competitive,’ girls tell us, ‘and win all the time.’ ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re not sporty,’ though, say parents – ‘there’s lots going on even if you’re not touch-line types’. Anyway, ‘they’ve taken our non-sporty girl and really brought her out,’ says another.


Over 90 per cent board. Years 7 and 8 board with their year group in lower school houses; from years 9 to 11, girls go into vertical houses; back into a horizontal structure for sixth form. Increasing flexibility, with the option to go home most weekends.

Dorm competition ensures tidy rooms; posters of Hugh Grant, textbooks tidily stacked, a tomato plant growing on a windowsill. Girls bring home comforts, ‘like their comfy pillow’. Increasing responsibility as they get older, and by sixth form, ‘if you haven’t done your laundry, that’s your problem,’ said our world-weary guides who reckoned that the lower school years are ‘like living in a hotel’.

Ethos and heritage

Founded in 1907 by Miss Olive Willis as a school which would value individuals and create a community of girls who weren’t ‘expected to rush around in a feverish attempt to behave like boys’, reads the unusually charming timeline on school’s website. Moved from original home in the village of Downe, Kent, to Berkshire in 1922 – whole buildings, including the chapel, came brick-by-brick. School’s new campus, an old cloisters, ticked Miss Willis’ boxes (hillside location, rural yet within reach of a station), and today its pretty courtyard remains the centre of gravity for school life.

At one end, the Murray Centre is a light-filled new development which has transformed the heart of the school: ‘They’ve made a real effort with facilities recently,’ parents say. Girls meet to collaborate on presentations and projects in the café area; we saw a few meeting with their tutors there, too. Sophisticated and professional, with possibly the most high-tech coffee machine we’ve ever come across (helpful pupils leapt to our rescue).

Meanwhile, in 2020 the school acquired a château at Sauveterre, near Toulouse, where year 8 spend a happy term immersing themselves in a new culture and doing all their lessons (except maths) en français. It’s a long-standing rite of passage - the school’s been taking year 8s to France since 1991, previously at Veyrines – and, according to girls, it’s ‘hands down the best term at Downe’. The new site is bigger and less remote; previously owned by boys’ prep school Cothill House, the Cothill Trust schools will continue to bring their year 7s in the summer.

Plenty of house loyalty though not as big a deal here as at boys’ schools, ‘there was no going to pick your house’, parents told us, no particular loyalty to one housemistress or another. Everything beautifully cared for and welcoming: pink and purple petunias tumbling from hanging baskets; Neom diffusers in the bathrooms; bunting wishing girls ‘good luck’ with their exams; a basket of pillow mists (Neom again, naturally) tucked in a corner for girls to borrow if they ever need help chilling out.

Increasingly global reach is prominent in our conversations with staff and, to an extent, pupils. Internships give them ‘a leg up’ with placements in places as varied as Canada, Zambia, Riyadh and London. Schools’ exchange programme – 16 schools on five continents – ‘provides pupils with a competitive advantage’. Online global academy, offering ten-week courses taught by senior teachers, ‘extends our style of learning to the Far East’. Sister schools in Riyadh and Muscat make sense, school says, giving Downe House an opportunity to champion girls’ education (‘gender economics – that’s how you bring about change,’ school says), whilst of course helping to stabilise school’s income in these uncertain times.

In all, a striking mixture of old and new. Some seniors wear gowns, denoting positions of responsibility. Annual ‘handing over the gowns’ ceremony involves symbolic tussle between outgoing and incoming prefect. Far from fusty though: expect multiple earrings, nail varnish, glossy hair. New uniform is smart, modern: our guides called it ‘less green, more chic’ (colour, we assume, rather than eco credentials). Girls are sparky, confident and articulate. ‘As soon as we got to the open day, a girl popped up beside us: she was intelligent, chirpy and knew exactly who we were,’ says a parent. Alumnae include Clare Balding CBE (she was head girl), her contemporary the comedian Miranda Hart and Dame Rosemary Murray, the first female vice Chancellor of Cambridge University.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

A common-sense approach, driven by what will make sense for the pupils. Mrs McKendrick is ‘very hands-on and just not frightened of teenage girls,’ parents tell us. Partnership with Radley College aims to give ‘girls confidence to have boundaried friendships,’ she says, ‘and to say no.’ Mentor relationships between older and younger pupils allow them to discuss things that they wouldn’t bring up with an adult. School encourages them to ask questions, though there’s nothing sensationalist about Mrs McKendrick’s approach: ‘We are introducing trouser uniform in a timely way,’ she says, ‘and women’s fashion has changed.’ Parents praise pastoral care in the first couple of years and the sixth form. ‘It’s a good school if things aren’t going well,’ one mum tells us, ‘and when there have been issues I’ve felt very listened to.’ Another described how, ‘Mrs McKendrick gave us an hour on a Sunday evening to talk it through; where else would that happen?’

Not every school catering team has their own Instagram feed. Themed days, street food, wood-fired pizzas: yum. Girls sit at round tables in the convivial dining hall. Well-stocked tuck shop, including Ben & Jerry’s, though girls go back to house at breaktime for a snack – carrots and hummus, birthday cake or perhaps donuts (‘everybody’s favourite’). Dorms take it in turns to cook and eat dinner together in the kitchen, usually a home favourite like pasta bake. Girls’ relationship with food seems positive to us – parents agreed – and house staff alert to any changes in diet.

We asked pupils about their stress levels. ‘It’s a lot, definitely,’ but, ‘our teachers are pros, there are always people here to help.’ ‘I don’t get stressed,’ said another, ‘but some people do when they do a million things at the same time.’ Parents agree that it can be ‘frantically busy’. School supportive in allowing girls to drop commitments in these cases; there’s a big emphasis on light-heartedness and fun – the funfair rolled into school recently – and we saw plenty of girls taking a moment in the sunshine.

At the bigger end when it comes to the all girls’ schools (small by co-ed standards), ‘big enough to have amazing opportunities and facilities’. Clear boundaries set, though in speaking to parents we heard of a fair amount of ‘teenage hijinks’. A twinkle in the eye’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course: ‘My daughter absolutely loved it, made an amazing group of friends, she was a bit naughty in lessons, did loads of drama and had a great time.’ A bit of hierarchy between year-groups – ‘they’re a bit fearful of the year above’ – and girls require a level of social confidence, we felt. ‘They talked to us and our daughter in an even manner,’ one parent tells us, ‘and made it clear that it was her choice, too.’

Year 7s have phones every day for 20 minutes. ‘It’s difficult at first, when they’re used to a fluid line of communication with their parents, but her housemistress was amazing about it,’ says a parent whose daughter was homesick to start. ‘Workload can be a bit of a shock and there’s a steep learning curve in managing your own time,’ says another. School puts ‘amazing time and energy’ into communicating with parents in the early days, recognising that it’s an emotional time for everyone.

Pupils and parents

‘One third London, one third rest of the UK, one third overseas’ is how school breaks it down; biggest overseas markets remain in the Far East, though increasing interest from India, the Middle East and the USA. Most international pupils are well-integrated, parents tell us, ‘It’s all more modern than it was, this isn’t a little old country English boarding school.’ Girls described as ‘savvy, open, accepting’. Parents feel they are ‘quite London-centric’, ‘not a horsey bunch, particularly’ – it’s telling that the annual carol service is performed at St Mary Abbots in Kensington as well as in Newbury. Still, full boarding ‘delays the party culture by a year or so’, reckon parents, compared with the weeklies. Lots of brothers at the all-boys’ boarding schools, naturally, but parents say that Downe House is ‘not a trophy school, not a handbag school’.

Money matters

Bursaries offered throughout, a ‘fundraising focus’; Centenary fund provides for local day pupils. Works with Royal National Children's SpringBoard Foundation. ‘Predominantly but not exclusively transformational’, says school, up to 110 per cent. Hardship funding for existing families who find themselves in difficult circumstances.

The last word

‘She loves school, the lacrosse, the singing, even the Latin,’ says one mum; ‘She’s seen the light!’, says another, thrilled to have dodged the London scene. A modern boarding school with all the traditional trimmings, these girls are just as happy networking in New Zealand as they are reeling with Radleians. Busy and diverse, an unstuffy place producing confident young women who are well-equipped for whatever comes next.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Our Learning Skills Department supports both girls with mild specific learning diffculties and those who are outstandingly able. Girls are supported in a variety of ways. These may include regular individual lessons, occasional group sessions or visits to relevant lectures, workshops and seminars. The Learning Skills Department is an integral part of the school structure and the flow of communication to ensure all girls are supported in lessons is of paramount importance.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment Y
Hospital School
Mental health Y
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health Y
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

Who came from where

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