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What says..

Blissfully small classes – school teacher:pupil ratio is an enviable 1:5.4 – this is nurturing indeed. Most exciting, memorable and generally aaaahed over is the term spent in every girl’s second year at the school’s own converted farm in the heart of Perigord. The uniform is standard school green skirt, shirt and jumper, though the sixth form still cling to their floor length black skirts – ‘They wear them so they can keep their pyjamas on underneath,’ one mum told us….

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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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Curricula

Cambridge Pre-U - an alternative to A levels, with all exams at the end of the two-year course.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 1997, Mrs Emma McKendrick BA PGCE FRSA (40s). Educated at Bedford High and at the universities of Liverpool and Birmingham (German and Dutch). Previously at The Royal School, Bath, where she had been i/c careers and sixth form, a housemistress and deputy head before becoming head in 1994. Remarkably young when appointed to her first headship - that this was so is to the credit of the school’s governors. She is soft-spoken, stylish, somehow very grown up, calm and relaxed. Her office and the room in which she receives visitors is a joy – windows on three sides so she can ‘see everything’, bright, light and tasteful. Parents – who tend to be deeply passionate about the school and many of whom are old girls – sigh with pleasure: ‘She is excellent, on top of everything’; ‘She is miraculous - I can say nothing against her. She is so professional, warm, and has a sense of humour. One cannot but be in awe of her, but you love her too’.

Academic matters

Had opted for Pre-U in preference to A levels in all but a few arts subjects - ‘It really has made a difference to my upper sixth,’ said the head. ‘They are forced to be more independent. They are far better served by the Pre-U in terms of coping with what they will get at university.’ However, with demise of ASs, now returning to A levels for most subjects.

In 2016, just over 70 per cent A*/A at A level or DI/MI at Pre-U. Maths very popular, with biology and English close behind. Good numbers for Latin and the odd taker for Greek. Politics, photography and economics offered along with history of art, plus all the trad subjects. Wide range of languages including support for home ones. Eighty-six per cent A*/A at GCSE in 2016. Blissfully small classes – this is nurturing indeed.

Most teachers highly praised, many seen as ‘inspiring’. Learning skills support given to those with mild dys-strata plus those who need extra help with organising themselves or time management. Also stretching help for the most able. Hopeless site for anyone in a wheelchair – the buildings are too scattered and the site is too up and down for this to be possible. EAL support given where needed – 35 in receipt of individual help when we visited.

Games, options, the arts

That the extracurricular life of the school is run from its own sizeable woodland cabin in the heart of the site with designated staff tells you everything. Every kind of opportunity is offered here – from trips to The Royal Opera House to playing lacrosse for Berkshire, to preparing soup for hungry people in South Africa from sackfuls of bones fresh from a slaughterhouse during a trip to a link school there. Lots of visits from outside speakers, who clearly inspire and motivate. Much lively and imaginative charitable activity – often with the boys from Radley. Excellent drama – again, often with Radley – generously supported by old girl Geraldine James, who opened the performing arts centre and has been known to take aspiring actresses under her wing. Two recent successful auditions for the National Youth Theatre. Successful and popular debating.

Sports are many and varied and include, for older girls, pilates, fencing and golf. Several girls are England lacrosse players - lax taken more seriously here than other sports. Internal competition between houses seemingly counting more than fixtures against other schools. Art is lively, though housed in the least attractive building on site – great range of activities: we loved the individuality of work in textiles, ceramics and woodwork, along with truly impressive painting. Ballet, modern dance, tap and hip hop on offer and around half the girls take speech and drama. Practically all of them learn at least one instrument. ‘They all do so much extra,’ a parent told us, half-admiring, half-concerned. ‘They do whack on the pressure - the girls themselves, that is.’

Houses clearly of immense importance here – friendly but significant rivalry in all areas of school life. Lots of trips at home and abroad – all with sound educational or charitable purposes. Most exciting, memorable and generally aaaahed over is the term spent during year 8 at the school’s own converted farm in the heart of Perigord. Those who join the school in year 9 seem to spend the next five years biting their lip at having missed an unforgettable experience. A seasoned sixth former told us – as if it were obvious – ‘Oh, we never stop talking about it.’ It’s about French and French life, cuisine, charity work, community and living ensemble.

Boarders

All but a handful of local day girls are full boarders. One boarding school veteran told us that the boarding staff were much the best she’d ever come across. The boarding houses themselves are much loved. We relished the dressing up boxes in the junior houses.

New lower school house for all year 7 and 8 girls, providing a sheltered introduction to boarding life. Older girls are in mixed age houses – dorms are mostly spacious; singles and doubles for the older girls are homely and attractive. Everywhere is properly carpeted and curtained. Fresh flowers abound – no sense here that ‘nice’ areas are just for show – this is home and it feels like it. All houses either wireless or with network points.

Sixth form houses are exceptionally well designed and furnished. Pigeonholes for girls’ post and newspapers; sofas, careers areas, meeting rooms, kitchens. Girls can be independent here, if they wish - no wonder so few leave after GCSEs. All have a personal safe in their rooms. Further extension to and enhancement of the boarding facilities planned.

Lessons until 12pm on Saturdays are followed by sports, so everyone signs up to the full boarding life. Saturday evenings are spent in rehearsal, at concerts, trips to theatres, cinemas etc. Sundays include trips, D of E activities and chillin’.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1907 by Olive Willis, its first headmistress, as an all-girls' boarding school. Its first home was Down House in the village of Downe, Kent – formerly the home of Charles Darwin. The school outgrew the house so Miss Willis bought The Cloisters in Berkshire – its present home – on a high ridge which provides occasional views over distant downs. The Cloisters – still at the heart of the school – comes as a surprise. Built by Maclaren Ross for an order of Spanish nuns, who named it The School of Silence, it has an arched walkway linking most of the classrooms which – with its white walls, arches and terracotta pantiles – is incongruously Moorish in the heart of Berkshire.

However, the school has grown many newer buildings – boarding houses, specialist blocks etc - around the main building and the site is now extensive – many buildings nestling amongst trees, woody areas and neatly planted beds. All maintained by ‘little green men’ who hover around the site on electric car-lets. No architectural gems here – nor any monsters – though a few blocks lack charm. The whole has a sense of modest purposefulness – described by one mother as ‘almost spiritual’.

The uniform is standard school green skirt, shirt and jumper, though the sixth form still cling to their floor length black skirts – ‘They wear them so they can keep their pyjamas on underneath,’ one mum told us.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

‘Completely faultless,’ a mother said of the pastoral care. 'The house staff are very responsive and email you back at once.' ‘When people complain, things do get done,’ another vouchsafed. ‘We’ve been bowled over by the pastoral care,’ said yet another. ‘The attention to detail is extraordinary – almost obsessive. Nothing is too much trouble.’

The loveliest school dining room we have seen in over 100 schools - proper tablecloths on round tables seating six to encourage time over meals. Food – ‘We make all our own bread and sausages and buy in the absolute minimum’ - which occasions rhapsodies in the girls.

Some sense that the sixth form centre separates older from younger girls and work still to be done on integrating those who arrive after the first year, but this is tricky in girls’ schools everywhere. Very few discipline problems – smoking sighed over as ‘an occasional safe rebellion which one wishes they wouldn’t do’, and illicit drinking looked upon as a threat to a girl’s personal safety – ‘You need to be safe, to look after yourself and to preserve your dignity,’ the head reminds them. No drugs incidents within memory and the very rare girl who ‘cannot stop being unkind has to go’.

Pupils and parents

Girls from all over the UK and beyond; increasing numbers of daughters of alumnae. Seven per cent from overseas – mostly from the Far East but also the US, Nigeria, Kazakhstan. Parents solid middle class, usually with boarding backgrounds.

Exceptionally impressive list of notable alumnae includes: chemist and educator Rosemary Murray, Geraldine James, Clare Balding, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Bowen, Priscilla Napier, Anne Ridler, Audrey Richards, Sophie Conran, Lulu Guinness, Fru Hazlitt, wildly different comics Miranda Hart and Laura Solon, Hannah Wright – pioneering barrister, Jenifer Hart - pioneering civil servant and Oxford don and Aileen Fox - pioneering archaeologist. Oh – and Kate Middleton. A rare degree of loyalty amongst alumnae – few schools excite more affection, it seems, and many keep in touch. Mrs McKendrick fosters this in imaginative ways, enlisting old girls to support newbies in their professions, eg an established barrister mentoring a recent alumna in her pupillage. A considerable attraction to potential parents.

Entrance

Lists close at 110 applicants and head interviews all those over four days, during which all are tested in maths, English and reasoning. They also participate in drama and sports activities et al to see whether they’re happy and likely to fit in with boarding life. Eighty then invited to sit CE for the 60 available places. At 13, around 65 are assessed similarly for the 35-odd places. Girls from 180+ preps/primaries have joined Downe in recent years – from all over the UK.

At 16, it depends on how many are leaving but usually around 8-10 places for the ‘huge’ number who apply. Applicants sit the school’s own papers and the strongest are then interviewed, the best offered conditional places. Seven I/GCSEs at B or above expected including A*/As in sixth form subject choices.

Exit

Some 10 per cent leave after GCSEs, often for co-ed sixth forms. Most to top universities, eg Bristol, London, Warwick, Exeter, Leeds, Edinburgh; six to Oxbridge in 2016. Some to universities in the US. Popular subjects include science/medicine, psychology, history of art, MFL, economics, politics, RS, business related degrees plus music and creative arts.

Money matters

Scholarships for sports, arts and academics more of an honour than a significant contribution to fees. Bursaries up to 100 per cent of fees plus additional help available for the right applicant.

Our view

Archetypal traditional girls’ full boarding school turning out delightful, principled, courteous and able girls who go on to make a significant contribution to the world. As one parent said, ‘We couldn’t be more thrilled.’

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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
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
Not Applicable
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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