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Downe House School

What says..

Wellbeing is key to the girls and staff and the school has introduced a raft of inspiring initiatives – yoga classes, copies of The Positive Bullet Diary for pupils, scented diffusers in the boarding houses and puppy therapy to help girls unwind. ‘It’s the girls’ home,’ says the boarding deputy, ‘and it’s really important that they feel secure. They need to get good grades but we want our girls to become women who are comfortable in their own skin and who won’t be afraid to stand up for what they believe in...’ 

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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, Emma McKendrick BA PGCE FRSA (50s). Educated at Bedford High School (now Bedford Girls’ School) and then read German and Dutch at the University of Liverpool. She spent a year working in a German school during her degree and found she loved teaching so decided to do a PGCE at Birmingham. Her first teaching job was at the Royal High School Bath, where she taught German, ran the boarding house and became head of the sixth form. Later promoted to deputy head, she was appointed as head at the remarkably young age of 29. Four years later she became head of Downe House.

Her office is stylish and calm, right in the heart of things, with views across the school. ‘It gives me a real sense of what’s going on,’ she says. The spirit and ethos of Downe House haven’t changed in her two-plus decades at the helm. ‘It’s modernised and moved forward – and I hope it will always continue to do so – but the spirit and ethos are very much as they’ve always been, with the focus on the individual and on the community,’ she says. ‘They are the two key things that have always been part of the school’s DNA.’

The head is firmly committed to girls’ schools. ‘It gives girls the freedom to grow up at their own pace,’ she says. She knows Downe House girls well, sees new pupils individually after they have received their first set of grades and has one-to-one meetings with older girls to talk about subject choices and their day-to-day lives. Staff are glowing in their praise. ‘Emma is the reason I’m here,’ one teacher told us. ‘She is the most amazing head. She doesn’t just know the girls’ names; she knows their pets’ names.’ Parents are equally effusive. ‘She is understated and incredibly calm but she is very forward thinking and full of compassion and belief that everyone can achieve,’ said one mother. Another commented on her sense of humour and told us: ‘She’s very good at finding out what’s going on in a very subtle way’.

Her husband is a HR director and they have two sons. They live in a house on the school site. The head’s interests outside school include spending time with family and friends, theatre, cinema and travel.

Academic matters

All the usual subjects offered at A level, as well as business studies, classical civilisation, economics and politics. In 2019, 61 per cent A*/A and 86 per cent A*-B (or equivalent) at A level. At IGCSE/GCSE, 84 per cent A*/A/7-9. We saw some exciting teaching – a year 10 history class discussing what they’d learned about Lenin’s New Economic Policy and a sparky year 8 physics class learning about pressure in liquids. Everyone does French from the start and from year 8 girls can take a second language – Chinese, German, Italian or Spanish. Most girls take all three sciences at GCSE. Five-strong learning skills team offers one-to-one support for pupils with specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder.

Blissfully small classes, with teachers highly praised by parents. ‘The head has a very loyal band of teaching staff,’ one told us. ‘There isn’t a huge turnover but the teaching definitely isn’t stodgy.’ Effective tutor system, with pupils seeing their tutors one-to-one every week, Sixth formers can choose their tutors, all of whom are trained to advise on higher education. The school is a Microsoft Surface Showcase school, one of 51 schools in the country. Year 7 to 10 pupils have their own Microsoft Surface – ‘it makes learning fun,’ one girl told us.

All years 8s spend a memorable term at Veyrines, the school’s boarding house in the Périgord region of France. They do their lessons as usual but also take part in activities like working with a truffle expert and a milliner, charity work and doing an exchange with pupils from a local school. Parents describe the experience as ‘the jewel in the crown of Downe House’ while a pupil says: ‘You don’t only improve academically, you also make close friends.’ As well as that, the expanded Global Schools Exchange Programme gives girls the chance to take part in exchanges with 16 partner schools across five continents.

Games, options, the arts

Traditionally a lacrosse school (lots of girls have represented the country at lax over the years) but they are very good at hockey too. For keen tennis players there’s a tennis development programme (more than 350 girls take lessons every week). Other sports include netball, swimming, squash, gymnastics, athletics, dance, cross-country and trampolining. Sport played almost every day, with matches on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Great facilities, including playing fields galore, tennis courts, huge sports hall and a 25-metre indoor swimming pool. The school promotes a ‘sport for all’ ethos. Sixth formers still have to do sport but they can choose options like yoga, aerobics, spinning and golf if they wish. A girl recently introduced tag rugby and staff say: ‘If a girl wants to do a particular sport we’ll go out of our way to try and help them.’

A wealth of musical ensembles to join – everything from classical orchestras and choirs to jazz bands and an a capella group. There’s even a Downe House young musician of the year competition. Drama opportunities include house drama and musical theatre competitions, large productions (including Billy Elliot complete with wire-flying) and theatre trips. Dance is hugely popular, with chances to do ballet, contemporary, hip hop, tap and more. Art is inspiring, housed in a slightly down-at-heel building the girls love. As well as art and design, textiles and DT are offered at both GCSE and A level. Photography on offer at A level.

Plenty of opportunities outside the academic curriculum too – D of E, Young Enterprise and the elective programme, where year 10 girls get the opportunity to develop lateral thinking skills and scholarly independence and discuss complex ideas. Around 12 sixth formers do global internships around the world each summer. Sixth formers can take an introductory certificate in food and wine run by Leiths Academy.

Boarders

All but a handful of local day girls are full boarders. Eleven boarding houses – four lower school houses (including Veyrines) for years 7 and 8, five upper school houses (years 9 to 11) and two sixth form houses.

Parents particularly praise boarding in the lower school, telling us that girls who start at Downe House at 11 ‘get a very precious two years’. For most lower school girls it’s their first experience of boarding and staff are in frequent contact with parents. ‘We’re in constant communication,’ a housemistress told us. ‘We feel it’s a partnership.’ Each house produces a weekly newsletter and tweets house news and views too – great for parents to keep up to date with what’s going on. The lower school house we visited was charming, providing a sheltered introduction to boarding life. Wholesome dorms, with family photographs and cuddly toys. Lots to do at weekends – including bike rides, cake baking and tree-climbing, trips out and Sunday breakfast in the house, when girls are allowed to come down for croissants and pancakes in their pyjamas.

Some closed weekends but there are also fixed long weekends when girls can go home. Downe House girls socialise with boys from neighbouring schools. Scottish dancing at Elstree School (a prep near Newbury) for younger girls and events, dinner parties and debates with boys from Radley, Eton, Harrow and Winchester for the older ones.

Background and atmosphere

Founded as an all-girls’ boarding school in 1907 by Olive Willis, the first headmistress. Originally located in Down House, Charles Darwin’s home in the village of Downe, Kent, it moved to its present home in Berkshire in 1922. Miss Willis wanted the new school to be in the countryside, on a hill and yet within reach of a town and a railway station – so a house called The Cloisters was perfect. Situated on a high ridge in the village of Cold Ash, four miles from Newbury, it was built during the First World War for an order of Spanish nuns who named it the School of Silence. The historic cloisters, with white walls, arches and terracotta pantiles, and the chapel remain but there are many new buildings – boarding houses and teaching blocks – nestling in the woodland and neatly planted gardens.

The swish, new Murray Centre (named after old girl Dame Rosemary Murray, the first female vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge) sits in the heart of the 110-acre campus, complete with a new library, collaborative learning areas, seminar room, performance space, gallery area and coffee shop. It’s a popular meeting place; when we visited girls were eagerly queueing up for hot drinks, all served in eco-friendly bamboo cups. The ultra-modern library has stunning views of the woods and we particularly liked a display of books that the staff were reading. ‘There’s a big focus on reading,’ our guides told us.

The uniform has recently been updated. Sixth formers wear a black suit (with skirt or trousers) and a shirt of their choice while younger girls look smart in green blazers, pale blue shirts and tartan skirts.

All girls get the chance to take on leadership roles. In the sixth form a head senior (Downe House head girl) and deputy, plus seniors (prefects) and ambassadors and there are leadership opportunities for younger girls too. The sixth form houses are run like university hall of residences. ‘There’s more freedom,’ a girl told us approvingly. Sixth form programme includes lectures on everything from personal and online safety to nutrition, sleep, risk-taking and personal finance. Pupils told us they like being in a single-sex school. As one girl said: ‘It’s easy to concentrate without boy-drama.’

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

The school has clearly put a lot of thought into pastoral care, educating pupils about issues like consent, pornography and social media. Parents describe the standard of pastoral care as ‘second to none’, with girls encouraged to talk to tutors, housemistresses, school nurses, matrons and peer mentors. Two school counsellors – so there’s always one on site. A mother described the school’s female chaplain as ‘one of the most outstanding people I have ever met’ while another said the school is ‘very cosy but doesn’t wrap girls up in cotton wool’.

Wellbeing is key to the girls and staff and the school has introduced a raft of inspiring initiatives – yoga classes, copies of The Positive Bullet Diary for pupils, scented diffusers in the boarding houses and puppy therapy to help girls unwind. ‘It’s the girls’ home,’ says the boarding deputy, ‘and it’s really important that they feel secure. They need to get good grades but we want our girls to become women who are comfortable in their own skin and who won’t be afraid to stand up for what they believe in.’ Sanctions for smoking, alcohol and drugs very clearly set out in pupils’ handbook. Few discipline problems although the head admits that the girls, like young people everywhere, test boundaries and inevitably get things wrong sometimes. Two areas she worries about for this generation are vaping and social media – and pupils are educated about these. Speakers like independent safety expert Karl Hopwood and the Digital Sisters talk to the girls about the importance of maintaining ‘a healthy digital lifestyle’. Tips offered on making screens less enticing by switching them to black and white, turning off WhatsApp and Snapchat notifications and useful mindfulness apps.

Zero tolerance to bullying. ‘It’s something we take very seriously,’ says the boarding deputy. ‘When you know pupils really well you can see any changes in behaviour. The girls can contact me or the head at any time.’ School has clear rules about mobile phones. ‘We take a staged approach,’ a housemistress told us. Year 7s aren’t allowed their phones for the first two and a half weeks of school while year 8 girls can’t have their phones outside the boarding houses.

Lower and upper school girls eat all their meals in the lovely main school dining room and say the food is good. We particularly liked the round tables for six, all with tablecloths and aiming to encourage girls to take time over meals. There’s a separate dining room for the sixth form.

Pupils and parents

There isn’t a Downe House type (‘Downe House girls are spirited in the best possible way,’ says the boarding deputy). Girls come from all over the UK and beyond, with a number of daughters of alumnae. Around 25 per cent, some expats, others from mainland China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Nigeria, Japan, Kenya, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. ‘It’s fairly diverse,’ says the head. ‘The health of the community is having a whole variety of characters. The girls need to enjoy community living but they can be quiet and reflective as much as extrovert.’

Famous alumnae include the aforementioned Rosemary Murray, Geraldine James, Clare Balding, philosopher Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Bowen, author Priscilla Napier, Sophie Conran, Lulu Guinness, Miranda Hart, broadcaster Fru Hazlitt, barrister Hannah Wright, the pioneering civil servant and Oxford don Jenifer Hart, archaeologist Aileen Fox – the list goes on and on.

Entrance

Mostly at 11, 13 and 16. Around 50 girls join at 11 and 35 at 13 (a few start at 12), arriving from up to 200 preps and primaries. A year prior to entry girls attend an assessment day, which includes activities like drama and DT, team-building workshops, an academic test and an interview with the head. Conditional offers are made after a successful assessment day and girls then take either CE or an academic scholarship. For 13+ entry standard assessment point is year 8 but early assessments are also offered in year 6 and year 7. Unconditional offers are made after the assessment day and CE is used for setting purposes.

For sixth form entry girls take three exam papers – two subjects they are already studying or wish to study at A level and a general paper. Applicants need a minimum of seven grade 6s at IGCSE/GCSE, preferably with grades 7-9 in subjects they want to take at A level. Successful candidates are then interviewed by the head and head of sixth form.

Exit

A few leave after GCSE, usually for co-ed sixth forms or day schools. At 18, virtually all to higher education, including art colleges and music conservatoires. In 2019 more than 17 per cent chose to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at university, with English, economics, politics, international relations, languages and art and design popular too. Four to Oxbridge in 2019 while other favourite destinations include Edinburgh, Exeter, Leeds and London. A girl recently opted to do a highly prized silversmithing apprenticeship and up to 15 pupils a year head to university in US, Canada and Europe.

Money matters

Scholarships offered for academic ability, art, sport, music and drama (they don’t carry any remission in fees). Full and partial means-tested bursaries are available at all points of entry and depend on family circumstances.

Our view

A delightful full girls’ boarding school that has definitely moved with the times. Downe House is an impressive blend of traditional and modern and produces spirited, able and go-ahead girls who achieve good academic results and go on to make a significant contribution to the world. As a parent told us: ‘Downe House has an exciting vibe.’

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
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
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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