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 This is a family-run prep school that makes the most of the outdoors – overalls and wellies for outside play, and lessons in the forest school. ‘Our children are happy there, and safe, and cared for, and challenged.’  Science is popular and practical. Other subjects like history also use this tack – each year group has a history day, Vikings or Normans, for example. Pupils dress up, make weapons, re-enact battles.  The school council is busy ‘making small changes that make a big difference'; pre-prep would like mangos and strawberries in fruit snacks...

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Since 2001, Marcus Gunn MA (Ed) PGCE BA IAPS. Originally from Yorkshire, Gunn studied history at Liverpool before qualifying as a teacher. A keen windsurfer, he taught history and games for several years and went on to study a masters in education and leadership. Lives in the school grounds with wife Valerie, the ‘glue that holds it all together.’

Parents have nothing but praise. One told us, ‘he clearly likes children…He wants them to do well and he certainly wants them all to be happy.’ Another added, ‘[He is] not afraid to get his hands dirty and to reach the children on their level’.

Retiring in July 2020.

Working closely with Gunn is head of pre-prep, Heather Fulton. Originally from New Zealand, her previous post was head of kindergarten at DUCKS, Dulwich College. Like Marcus, she is an independent schools inspector.


The only independent prep school in the area. Now has its own nursery and pre-school from 6 months.

Admission by application and informal assessment. Inclusive, but restricted by numbers, and at least one or two children per year won’t be accepted if needs cannot be met by learning support. Scholarships available at year 4 entry, mainly for academic potential, and can equate up to 25 per cent of the day pupil fee. Means-tested bursaries also available.

On entry, each child is allocated a guide to help them settle. Parents told us, ‘The settling in process is smooth and anxiety free. Cleverly the school invites new mums to coffee on the first morning straight after drop off…the children are quickly distracted by cheerful classrooms, pet guinea pigs and smiley teachers.’


Almost all stay on until 13; at most one pupil a year leaves at 11. ‘They are prepared for the rigours of year 9 both academically and emotionally,’ parents told us. There are also privileges; on our visit, our year 8 guides showed us a ‘secret’ door under the oak panelled stairs. Stone steps lead down to a cellar and their very own common room equipped with sofas, TV, music system, mini pool table and a toaster.

Only school in the area that follows the common entrance syllabus. Families are supported in choosing the right school, so it is rare that pupils do not get accepted by their first choice. Many gain scholarships. In 2018, over half of leavers went on to Clifton College. The majority of the remainder went to Bristol Grammar School, Marlborough and Sherborne.

Our view

The long drive to the school, the stunning setting, the grand entrance with huge fireplace and oak panelled walls (even more amazing with Christmas decorations); it’s easy to see why parents are bowled over immediately. This is a family run prep school that makes the most of the outdoors – overalls and wellies for outside play, and lessons in the forest school. ‘Our children are happy there, and safe, and cared for, and challenged,’ parents enthused. ‘It is a haven in which all of my very different children are thriving and learning and playing in a culture of freedom and inclusivity that we as a family are delighted to be a part of.’

Situated in Charlton House, a magnificent Victorian mansion surrounded by 60 acres of idyllic parkland, it’s just five miles from Bristol. ‘Traditional’ but ‘progressive,’ claims the head. Old fashioned-expectations are the norm; standing when an adult enters the room, shaking teachers' hands at the end of the day, good eye contact. Old fashioned play too; building dens, playing with skipping ropes, making daisy chains. One parent confided, ‘Mr Gunn once told me that if the year 8 children didn’t still want to go outside and build dens then he wasn't doing his job properly. Children are encouraged to be children.’ The school is progressive because they are ‘brave enough to be independent and go off curriculum,’ the head told us. In addition to the curriculum, they teach theory of music, history of art, etiquette and even accountancy. Life and leadership skills are taught on camping trips.

Recently, well-being has been top priority and the very full curriculum has been reviewed. Up until 2004 The Downs was a boarding school and in some ways it is still run like one - long days and sports every Saturday. Breakfast is from 7.30am and the day finishes at 5pm (clubs until 6pm). Supper is available until 7pm. To ease the pressure and allow pupils to enjoy home life, sports fixtures on Wednesdays have been reduced as well as homework for younger pupils. And. One parent told us, ‘The Downs is a lifestyle choice…from year 3 they will be joining in Saturday sports, which can be at any time of day…If you are a family that likes to go away at weekends, it will not fit that lifestyle. ‘

Academically, pupils do very well. Two classes in each year group and class sizes average 15. Science is popular and practical. Other subjects like history also use this tack – each year group has a history day, Vikings or Normans, for example. Pupils dress up, make weapons, re-enact battles. French is taught from reception, Spanish from year 6, and Latin is available to those hoping to go to Winchester College. Parents say, ‘Some of the teaching is excellent (biology and chemistry, humanities, English, in particular), some is not so excellent but none of it is poor. All the teachers are very approachable, and as it is such a small school all teachers know all of the children…it's like a big family.’

Classrooms are in Charlton House, and also in the recently built new block. ‘Much warmer!’ pupils told us. Interactive whiteboards in all classrooms, and two ICT suites with touchscreen computers. IT is taught from reception. There is a strict no mobile phone policy. One parent felt that technology could be improved, ‘The school has been slow in embracing new technology that can help children with learning differences…it's getting better.’

Around 22 children need extra support from the learning support team, mainly for dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. ‘The learning support department is lovely, very kind and supportive. Help with maths is superb,’ one parent told us. Head of the department used to be head of learning support at Clifton College. Team members are all specialist trained; there is an in-house speech therapist and an occupational therapist. As well as one-to-one therapy, they also provide informal group therapy in the form of social interaction role-play sessions, aimed at pupils with behavioural management issues. One parent told us their story: '[My son] is a very intelligent child with very complex learning difficulties who felt he was useless….Within one term [he] had transformed into a confident child who began to love school.’ The school also challenges talented children (scholars) – they do well here; results are impressive all round.

Sport is a big part of life. Great facilities. Two Astroturf pitches, rugby and cricket pitches, sports hall with cricket nets, an outdoor heated swimming pool, two netball courts and nine tennis courts. Remarkable success for such a small school. One parent explained, ‘[My daughter] had only seven girls [in her year] but made it to the netball nationals in years 6 and 8, and hockey nationals in year 6, an amazing achievement.’ Rugby and hockey are the main players and there was a recent tour to Edinburgh. Many of the sports are played at national level, including athletics. All pupils from year 3 play in a team. Girls can play rugby and cricket. For non-sporty children there is The Downs Award Scheme, offering alternatives like caving, climbing or orienteering.

Good art facilities including a pottery and textiles room. The parents' association sponsors an annual arts week, inviting artists in for workshops. The Christmas pre-prep production of the Nutcracker Nativity was in full flight on our visit, and year 8s were busy preparing for the talent show auditions (the school now has a new drama studio). Other recent productions include Bugsy Malone and Porridge, a ‘nursery-noir’ by year 6, ‘Goldie Lox and friends do organised crime.’ Every year group performs a production annually. All productions take place in the school's theatre. Dance is on offer: jazz, tap and ballet tuition, plus Bollywood and street dance after school clubs. Some 85 per cent play a musical instrument. In year 3, pupils learn the violin, ukhele and clarinet. In year 4, trumpet, violin and fife. Years 4 and 6 study the theory of music, taking Associated Board exams. Choir is compulsory. There are four choirs plus a soul band. Formal and informal concerts allow everybody to ‘have their moment of glory.’

As expected of any traditional school, there is a house system, and each regularly raises money for charity. The eco-committee has made a big impact with its ‘switch off fortnight’ and is planning a ‘waste week’ and a ‘water week.’ The school council is busy ‘making small changes that make a big difference'; pre-prep would like mangos and strawberries in fruit snacks, and the preps would like a pot in each classroom with spare ink cartridges. Parents told us the school allows ‘them to explore within and without their comfort zones, always encouraging adventurous decisions and offering praise when due.’ Annual exchange trips to France and Spain, geography trips, camping trips and the usual local visits to museums and galleries.

Definitely no complaints about the pastoral care. Matrons, led by a qualified nurse, ‘are absolutely fantastic. [The nurse] knows all the children well and is happy to give plenty of hugs and TLC whenever required.’ Another told us, ‘Our eldest son has a severe nut allergy…The school was brilliant; it wasn't a problem for them at all.’ Pastoral care is stretched to give parents support too. Head of pre-prep regularly sets up coffee mornings and organises seminars, most recently on the teenage brain and e-safety. The school has an open door policy for parents and pupils alike.

There is so much on offer at The Downs School it’s hard to see how they fit it all in. But they do, and the children thrive on it; ‘They love the longer days, the more varied education, eg match teas and socialising with opposition after sports matches, the vast music opportunities, informal and formal concerts, and the clubs available.’ The Downs is a school where tradition is important, but not to the point where outdated thinking holds back development. It’s a school that challenges academically, but never loses sight of the fact that children need to play, and enjoy to learn. And where the parents love school life as much as the pupils.

Special Education Needs

At The Downs we try to cater for the needs of all the children. In doing so we offer about 45 (50) lessons a week of learning support in numeracy and literacy. Some of the children supported have been assessed as dyslexic or dyscalculiac, others have been identified as needing some help from their teachers. We offer help to any reasonably bright children as long as we have the facility to do so; if after assessment, we feel they need some support, we will not offer a place unless we have the space in the allocated (5) lessons a week. The Learning Support we offer is of a very high quality; indeed it is excellent, however, we do not 'market' the department.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL)
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 Y
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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