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With 500 acres of grounds to run around in, fresh air and exercise are an integral part of Downside life. House staff are adept at helping children to settle in. ‘No one gets lost here,’ we were told. A housemother reckons that Ovaltine, warm wheat bags (the modern answer to hot water bottles) and talking helps to stave off homesickness. Pupils are kept occupied at weekends with lots of trips and inter-house competitions. A strong sense of spirituality pervades the school. Around 80 per cent of pupils are Catholic but…

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What the school says...

Founded in 1606 Downside is one of Englands oldest and most distinguished Catholic schools. Outstanding examination results are the priority. Everyone is encouraged to aspire beyond their academic expectations and the School has a thriving academic life with all pupils going on to the top universities in the UK, the USA and Europe.

85% of Downside pupils are 7-day-a-week boarders and 15% of its pupils are from overseas. Weekends for boarders are busy with a full programme of activities. The School provides outstanding pastoral support for all pupils and has long been known for its strong sense of community. Downside offers an exceptionally wide choice of co-curricular activities to its pupils. All boys and girls are expected to participate; there are extended time slots for activities, clubs and societies, drama, music and sport on every weekday afternoon and a huge range of activities also take place outside the formal co-curricular times. The School is particularly renowned for the quality of its drama, and music and facilities are excellent.
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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking French at an English Independent School (Level1/2 certificates)

2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Boys taking Art & Design (Photography) at an English Independent School (GCSE Full Course)

Sports

Polo

Fencing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since September 2018, Andrew Hobbs, previously acting head. Read classics at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he also gained a rugby blue. Taught classics at Hurstpierpoint; head of classics and then housemaster at Canford; joined Downside as deputy head in 2008, becoming acting head in January 2018.

Academic matters

Results have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. In 2018, 35 per cent A*/A and 64 per cent A*/B at A level and 48 per cent A*-A/9-7 at GCSE. Usual subjects at A level, plus business studies, economics, history of art, PE, photography and psychology. History department offers the Pre-U – head of history says the qualification involves ‘good, old-fashioned essay writing’ and enables youngsters to study topics such as monasticism in the 9th century and the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century as well as more recent fare.

Most pupils take 11 GCSEs. English, maths and RS are compulsory and all are encouraged to take at least one language, a humanity and a creative subject. French, German and Spanish are the main languages, but Italian, Mandarin, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese and Arabic can be arranged. Most pupils do three separate sciences. Computer science on offer too. Director of studies says the school believes in setting ‘ambitious realistic targets’ and tracks and monitors pupils’ progress throughout. School’s intake is ‘selective, but broadly mixed ability’ and its value added scores are particularly impressive. Maximum class sizes of 20 up to GCSE and 16 in the sixth form but classes are often smaller than this. Pupils are set in maths and science up to GCSE. A variety of academic societies, including the Knowles, where Oxbridge candidates present their own research papers.

Learning support department now in the heart of the school (it used to be housed in a separate block). Support given to 30 pupils, either one-to-one or in small groups, but department also offers drop-in sessions for anyone needing additional help. EAL is also available.

Games, options, the arts

With 500 acres of grounds to run around in, fresh air and exercise are an integral part of Downside life. As well as rugby, hockey, football and cricket for the boys and hockey, netball, tennis and rounders for the girls, there’s a wealth of other sports on offer, including aerobics, athletics, badminton, cross-country, fencing, squash and swimming. Pupils have three games sessions during the week, plus matches on Saturday afternoons, but many do far more than this. Sixth formers get just as much sport as their younger counterparts – everything from boxercise to circuit training. When we visited, a group of older girls were in the middle of an energetic zumba class, music blasting across the courtyard. Sports facilities include an indoor pool (donated by a family whose son tragically died in a Naples swimming accident in 1925), rugby pitches galore, football pitches, cricket squares, Astroturf, a glorious 1930s sports pavilion and a sports centre with a weights room and fitness suite.

Parents report that the music is outstanding. Half the pupils have instrumental lessons and there’s a multitude of orchestras, chamber ensembles and choirs (the Schola Cantorum is the oldest Roman Catholic school choir in the UK), along with jazz ensembles, a barbershop ensemble, pipe band, brass band, even an open-mic night. Art department has been refurbished and is equipped with Macs, photographic studio, 3D printers and glass making facilities. Printmaking, textiles, oil painting, landscapes, portraits, graphic illustration, photography, fused glass – you name it, Downside does it. ‘I’m a firm believer that everybody is creative in some shape or form,’ the dynamic head of art told us. School has strong links with Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the contemporary art gallery in nearby Bruton. Busy drama department. School puts on a whole school play and musical every year, plus a host of other performances in refurbished 500-seat theatre. Refurbished performing arts centre with recording studio, editing suite and 18 practice rooms circling around a 500-seat performance space is inspiring musicians, dancers and thespians.

All year 9s are expected to do CCF for at least part of the year. Many carry on while others opt for D of E and Ten Tors expeditions across Dartmoor. Action-packed co-curricular programme includes chess, astronomy, Model United Nations, Young Enterprise, sewing, contemporary dance and fly fishing.

Boarders

Most pupils board – boarding is ‘part of our USP'. Four boys’ houses and two girls’ houses. All junior boys (years 7, 8 and 9) start in Powell, a boarding house located in the main school, with open plan dorms and bunk beds for the youngest and a homely kitchen where boys get to cook (and eat) cookies, crumbles and pizza. A parent said some of the boys’ dorms could do with a bit of updating but her children think they are fine as they are. Junior girls go straight into Isabella or Caverel, the two girls’ boarding houses.

House staff are adept at helping children to settle in. ‘No one gets lost here,’ we were told. A housemother reckons that Ovaltine, warm wheat bags (the modern answer to hot water bottles) and talking helps to stave off homesickness. Pupils are kept occupied at weekends with lots of trips and inter-house competitions. Up until the sixth form pupils hand in their mobile phones at night so they get a good night’s sleep and aren’t distracted by Facebook, Snapchat and the like. Parents thoroughly approve.

Although technically doesn't offer weekly boarding, boarders can go home on any bar four of the weekends each term. These are 'closed' weekends, the ones immediately after or just before holidays or half terms. Otherwise, pupils are welcome to go home after they have completed their sports involvement on a Saturday afternoon, which is some time between 3:30pm and 5:30pm, on other weekends. They then return to school for the Sunday evening.

Background and atmosphere

The magnificent Downside Abbey adjoins the school and is visible for miles across the rolling Somerset landscape. The school has been on its present site in the village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse since 1814 but dates back more than 400 years. The Benedictine community of St Gregory the Great was founded in France in 1606 by English and Welsh monks living in exile because of the penal laws in England against Catholics. By 1617 English Catholics were sending their boys across the Channel to be educated there. When it became safe in the early 19th century for Catholics to provide education once more the school moved to England. Downside’s monastic community (currently 12 monks, some of whom teach) has been in residence for 200 years. Members of an apostolic community from Chile – the Manquehue Apostolic Movement – have a base at Downside too. The school went co-ed in 2005 and the boy/girl ratio is now 60:40.

Downside has a rich cultural heritage. The abbey’s Monastic Library, housed in a 1970s building, is one of the largest private libraries in the UK and has a collection of more than 400,000 books and papers, many of them very rare. ‘It’s like having an Oxford college library on the campus.' The school’s atmosphere and setting are traditional, with historic corridors (the science corridor is lined with pictures of old boys who died in the First and Second World Wars), parquet floors and pupils hurrying to classes in their eye-catching uniform. Worn by all (including the sixth form), the uniform comprises mid-length kilts and red or black jumpers for the girls and black jackets and pinstriped trousers for the boys. The pupils’ maroon and gold game kit is particularly jazzy – good for spotting players on the games pitch.

School food much improved following the appointment of new caterers (manager formerly worked for River Cottage Canteen Bristol, part of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s culinary empire). A stylish café serves cappuccinos, cookies and toasties during breaks and evenings. Fifty per cent of teaching staff live on site or in Stratton-on-the-Fosse.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

A strong sense of spirituality pervades the school. Around 80 per cent of pupils are Catholic but children from other Christian denominations are welcome. School has a distinctively Catholic and Benedictine character and incorporates the eight aspects of a Benedictine education – welcome, listening, reverence and humility, teaching and learning, personal discipline, concern for the individual, building communion and stewardship of gifts.

School’s most recent inspection report commented that ‘pupils of all faiths and none possess an inner confidence, and a strong sense of their own identity.’ Everyone is expected to participate in the school’s spiritual life. Sunday mass in the abbey is compulsory, as is hymn practice on Friday afternoon. While Downside’s monastic community prays formally six times a day, each boarding house has prayers in the morning and evening. School chaplains visit each house at least once a week and the school chapel is always open for those who want to go and pray. A third of the school takes part in voluntary prayer groups but it’s very much up to individuals. A father with two children at Downside emphasised that religion isn’t forced on the pupils – ‘it’s a gentle, subtle part of what is there,’ he said. A mother we spoke to praised the school’s ethos. ‘There’s an emphasis on the whole person,’ she said. ‘Everyone is made to feel welcome.’

Excellent pastoral care and tolerance for the individual produces happy children. Each pupil has a tutor to oversee academic matters and there’s a raft of people to talk to if they encounter problems – tutors, housemasters and housemistresses, housemothers, the chaplaincy team, health centre staff and a school counsellor who visits twice a week. Pupils generally well behaved. Policies on smoking, alcohol and drugs are very clearly spelled out. Smokers are enrolled on a smoking cessation programme in the health centre. ‘Responsible’ drinking permitted at the sixth form bar.

Sixth form has its own study centre (very quiet and studious when we visited). UCAS coordinator guides pupils through their university entrance. Pupils are prepared well for life after school via spiritual, moral, social and cultural education (SMSC) – topics covered include how to set up a bank account, relationships, even mortgages. School also runs themed weeks on issues like e-safety, alcohol and drugs.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which looked closely into historical, and relatively recent, cases of abuse by monks at Downside, and at the Benedictine practices which appear to have made them more likely, came to the damning conclusion: 'the evidence that we have seen and heard during the course of our Inquiry, outlined above, indicates that a number of systemic child protection and safeguarding challenges remain at Downside to this day'. It mentioned in particular that the school has still not become separate and independent from the monastery, 10 years after this was recommended. If/when you visit, it might be worth asking questions because, at the very least, whilst pupils may well remain unaffected, these will almost certainly have proved a distraction internally.

Downside have been admirably open on their website about the difficulties that they have faced with safeguarding, and have had an encouraging ISI inspection report on the improvements that they have made. We await a substantial reform of the governing body, to introduce the strong independent voices that it lacks at the time of writing.

Pupils and parents

Boarders (28 per cent international students) come from all over. At the beginning and end of term school buses ferry pupils to London, airports and local stations. Day pupils tend to live within a 30-minure drive – places like Shepton Mallet, Frome, Bruton and the Chew Valley.

School says that while some of the pupils are from very privileged backgrounds no one is materialistic or showy. A parent with three boys at the school concurred. ‘A lot of schools are quite flash these days,’ she said. ‘Downside isn’t like that at all. The pupils are very well mannered and the school gives them really good values. They know what is right and what is wrong.’ An old boy with two children at the school told us that while his daughter was ‘almost surgically attached’ to her mobile phone before moving to Downside she hardly uses it these days. ‘The school is very good at keeping them busy,’ he says. ‘In my day Sunday was a quiet day but now there are coaches going off all over the place.’

Alumni (known as Old Gregorians) include writer and journalist Auberon Waugh, hotelier Rocco Forte, scriptwriter Peter Morgan and interior designer David Mlinaric. You can spot an Old Gregorian at a dinner party, we were told, because they will always offer to do the washing up afterwards. ‘It’s that blend of good manners and service,’ explained the director of pastoral care.

Entrance

Pupils must be able to cope with the school’s ‘traditional academic curriculum.’ At 11+ and 12+ entrance is via the Downside Junior Assessment Test (English and maths), plus reports and references from pupil’s current school. At 13+ most applicants take CE (required mark of 50 per cent but the average is 65 per cent). At 16+ pupils sit tests in subjects they are planning to take at A level. B/6 grades at GCSE required (A/7s for maths and the sciences if they are planning to study these at A level).

Quite exceptionally helpful and welcoming admissions staff. A real sense - not found everywhere - that they will take the time and care each applicant deserves.

Exit

Some leave after GCSE (a quarter in 2018), usually for day schools or to study vocational subjects. At 18 the vast majority head to university (gap years not so popular these days). Cardiff, Cardiff Met, Edinburgh, Exeter, Manchester and Oxford Brookes are favourite destinations. Two to Oxbridge in 2018 and three to do medicine.

Money matters

A ‘substantial number’ of scholarships and exhibitions are available (the number and size are at the discretion of the head). Means-tested bursaries, discounts of 2.5 per cent for children of Old Gregorians and 10 per cent for siblings.

Our view

A boarding school with a strong moral compass. Downside is a great choice for Catholics and those seeking strong spiritual direction in a school. Its unpretentiousness, happy atmosphere and keen academic focus give pupils the chance to concentrate on acquiring their own intellectual and spiritual toolkit and to grow up in their own time. However, as the IICAS report concluded, there remain safeguarding challenges here.

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

Downside has long experience of supporting pupils with mild Special Needs, especially dyselxia and dyspraxia. Pupils must be able to cope with with a mainstream academic curriculum, within which they can receive additional one-to-one support.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
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 Y
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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