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Situated in a magnificent Victorian mansion surrounded by 60 acres of idyllic parkland, it’s just five miles from Bristol. Traditional but progressive is the enduring vibe. Parents value highly the ‘manners’ and ‘morals’ that the school prioritises – our guides held every door for us. ‘Shaking hands, looking at you in the eye, please and thank you, knowing how to use a knife and fork – these things matter in life and the school knows it,’ said one firmly. Old fashioned play too – skipping ropes, making daisy chains, ‘children are encouraged to be children.’ The progressive aspect comes from…

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headteacher

Since September 2020, Debbie Isaachsen (40s). Epitomising authentic leadership, she is one of the nicest, most genuine heads we’ve met. Heaps of humility, empathy and drive. Struggles to remember a time when she didn’t have her sights firmly set on teaching, her teddies having been her earliest charges; even at boarding school, she’d regularly pop down to help teach in the pre-prep. Ambitious too – ‘I knew early on I wanted to be a head.’ Attended the college of St Mark and St John, then part of the University of Exeter, and also has a master’s in educational leadership from Buckinghamshire. Moved to Bristol for the job from Bucks where she grew up and was head of Heatherton School, part of the Berkhamsted Schools Group. Before that, was head of the lower school and the deputy head of the pre-prep at Cheltenham College Prep School where she remembers ‘bringing the hockey team to The Downs and I’d always tell my husband how much I’d love to go there – lucky me because here I am!’ Lucky husband too, who teaches IT at the school. They have a teenage son and daughter at QEH and Bristol Cathedral Choir School respectively.

Goliath-sized shoes to fill after a 19-year reign from previous ‘tremendously popular’ head. Couple this with a demanding parent body who don’t mince their words and then add a pandemic into the mix. ‘What a baptism of fire!’ acknowledged one mother. But praise comes in thick and fast: ‘Such a breath of fresh air.’ ‘Can’t speak more highly of her.’ ‘She’s absolutely lovely.’ In particular parents like her communication and organisational skills and that she’s come in ‘tweaking not sweeping’ in her changes – eg with plans to bring in all-new STEM lessons and to update uniform (caps and boaters are still worn – perhaps not for long, to the relief of many parents) and to update and move library to more central spot (‘current one too hidden and unwelcoming’) as well as her own office (‘too tucked away’). Pupils say ‘the school already feels more modern’ and ‘she really listens to us.’ A keen sportswoman, she enjoys skiing, netball, walking and challenging outdoor pursuits.

Entrance

The only independent prep school in the area. Now has its own nursery (Bertie’s) and pre-school from 6 months, located by the entrance. Main entry point at reception, with odd ones joining in further year groups – increasingly from state schools. Oversubscribed only in a couple of year groups. Non-selective, with admission by taster day which includes observation and an informal assessment ‘to identify strengths and areas in need of development.’ One or two children per year are turned away because needs cannot be met by learning support.

Exit

Almost all stay on until 13; only a couple a year leave at 11. Head meets all families in years 6/7 to decide on the right school and it is rare that pupils do not get accepted by their first choice. Clifton College sweeps up the most, then Badminton, followed by QEH Bristol and Wells Cathedral. Then it’s ones and twos to Blundells, Bristol Grammar, Canford, Marlborough, Milton Abbey, Redmaids' and Winchester College. Many gain scholarships – over half in 2021.

Our view

The long sweeping drive, spectacular setting, grand oak panelled entrance hall with huge fireplace (even more amazing at Christmas) and sea of smiling, rosy-cheeked children tearing around the grounds must do more for the school’s marketing than any glossy brochure. For outdoorsy children, it’s cloud nine – den making at break times, lessons outside (orienteering for geography; pond dipping for science etc) and Forest School on curriculum for tinies and as a (popular) club for older children. Wild flower meadow also recently added. ‘The children run around in their boiler suits and wellies surrounded by open fields filled with cattle and sheep and you just don’t get that anywhere else in Bristol!’ raved one parent, with others similarly excitable when they get going on the fresh air, freedom and fun factor that these fortunate children grow up with. Wellies, caked in mud, line every changing area and our guides had several tales of taking art and writing equipment outside to paint and write about the rolling hills, striking mansion and rustic cottages and converted stables that make up the rest of the campus – as well as taking themselves off to pets' corner to see the chickens, rabbits and tortoises. ‘I absolutely fell in love with it and didn’t bother looking at any other schools,’ said a parent, typically.

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 is the enduring vibe. Parents value highly the ‘manners’ and ‘morals’ that the school prioritises – our guides held every door for us. ‘Shaking hands, looking at you in the eye, please and thank you, knowing how to use a knife and fork – these things matter in life and the school knows it,’ said one firmly. It will be interesting to see how the head’s plans to stop it being a leaping to your feet school ‘because it can interrupt learning’ goes down with parents - the practice was still in full swing during our visit. Old fashioned play too – skipping ropes, making daisy chains, ‘children are encouraged to be children.’ The progressive aspect comes from the school’s focus on skills that employers are screaming out for – resilience, perseverance, collaboration and taking risks. ‘I often say to the children in assembly: do you know what, I got something wrong today and this is what I learned from it,' says head. Also progressive is the school’s willingness to go off curriculum, with eg maths day, language day and Commonwealth Day.

Up until 2004 The Downs was a boarding school and during our visit we still half expected to walk into a dorm. The boarding legacy lives on through Saturday fixtures (you might think twice about applying if you’re the kind of family that goes away for weekends) and long days that finish at 5pm (or 6pm if you do clubs and 7pm if you stay for supper). That said, head is considering shorter days while keeping up clubs (all the usuals plus drone club, LEGO club, science experiments clubs and more) and wrap-around care for those that want it. All stems from recent parent surveys, with parents agreeing they feel ‘well listened to.’

‘It’s pretty academic but caters for all,’ summed up a parent. Booster groups for those that need it, while high flyers and scholars also get stretch; no missed middle either – now a priority in weekly staff meetings. Small class size (two classes of 15 per year group on average) also helps. ‘Teachers know every child and have an open door policy for parents with any concerns too,’ said a parent. No slipping of standards even during the pandemic, when pupils were expected to wear uniform and have cameras on at all times. Pupils told us how they did karate and judo in PE and the head checked in with them weekly.

STEM is ever more important – fantastic to see the workbenches of the two labs packed with glass tubes and bottles – a scene more usual in senior schools, though it was the pestles and mortars that were in full use during our visit. Must be the first school we’ve seen that gets pupils to set their hands on fire - ‘It’s safe, honestly,’ a pupil reassured us. History is a favourite – each year group has a themed day eg Vikings, Normans or Tudors. Pupils dress up, make weapons, re-enact battles. French from reception, Spanish from year 6 and Latin is available on the rare occasions that senior schools require it. School has recently struggled with hanging onto English and languages teachers although this seems to have settled down. IT is taught from reception, with specialist teachers also in French and music at this stage; by year 5 everything is taught by specialists.

Around 22 children have learning support, either in-class or (at an extra cost) individually. ‘They’ve been brilliant at suggesting what my daughter needs to thrive,’ said a parent. Another told us the school had been ‘incredibly helpful’ in helping her apply for an EHCP and helped ‘not just with her work but friendships’. Most have needs at the milder end, mainly dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.

Sport looms large, though not as large as it once did. For some parents, ‘that’s a shame’ and a few felt, ‘we could do with better coaches,’ but most appreciate the remarkable success for such a small school. Rugby, hockey, cricket and netball are the main sports and some, including athletics, are pursued to national level. Everyone from year 3 plays in a team. Parents (perhaps more than pupils?) seem pretty competitive – ‘Well, we all like to win, don’t we?’ said one, and it’s definitely gloves off for the annual Father’s Day cricket tournament. The rugby and cricket pitches don’t seem to end, and there's even an outdoor heated swimming pool, though some parents feel ‘a school of this calibre should have an indoor pool.’ Girls play cricket but not rugby; no football for either except as a club. For non-sporty children there is The Downs Award Scheme, offering alternatives such as caving, climbing or orienteering.

Extensive art facilities include two studios and a pottery and textiles room. Lovely paintings of toucans, clay leaves and tree sculptures among the displays. The PA sponsors an annual arts week, inviting artists in for workshops. ‘Could be more drama,’ felt pupils and parents, the latter also grumbling that ‘the same children are chosen as leads.’ Head says she’s on it, and all agree the shows are amazing, the speech and drama exams are great for confidence and you can’t knock the superb theatre space. All praise to them continuing during lockdown too, including a virtual performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dance has its own hall – jazz, tap and ballet tuition all popular, plus Bollywood and street dance after school clubs. We heard singing and music practice throughout our tour. Given the idyllic views from the practice pods, we weren’t surprised that three-quarters learn an instrument. Ensembles include rock bands, orchestra, keyboard and guitar groups. Seven choirs, with all expected to sing in one (few take much persuading).

Strong house system, lots of charity work. Head boy and girl, plus eco-committees, school council and prefects. Year 8s also get their own common room. Fish and chips Friday (the food is excellent) and Sports Day were cited as ‘favourite days’ among pupils. Annual exchange trips to France and Spain, geography trips, camping trips and the usual local visits to museums and galleries.

There’s something Enid Blyton-esque about these easy-going, fresh-faced youngsters and their picture perfect environment. We were therefore surprised to learn that the sanction for misbehaviour is having to sit on the green bench (confusingly, it’s purple) for all to see. This seems strangely at odds with the school's otherwise nurturing ethos – ‘it’s horrible,’ shuddered a pupil (school says purpose is time for reflection). Counsellor and matrons on pastoral team, plus there’s a new school puppy, Wilf.

Parents from Bristol and environs and mainly (though not exclusively) towards the wealthier end of middle class spectrum. All incredibly supportive of the school and each other, though a few did mention there was some tiger parenting (in our experience there almost always is!).

Money matters

Fees are high, especially for the area, which school justifies by extensive grounds and facilities and calibre of teachers, many of whom are secondary school trained. Means-tested bursaries available.

The last word

If muddy knees and climbing trees are your child’s idea of heaven but you also want a good dose of academic rigour, get yourself down that sweeping driveway. Chances are you won’t look back, especially with the school under new dynamic leadership.

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
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
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 Y
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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