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 This is a family-run prep school that makes the most of the outdoors too – 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, studied history at Liverpool, and qualified as a teacher almost a decade later. During that time, as well as windsurfing whenever possible, he taught history and games for five years, taking on such a wide range of duties that he now sees the whole experience as an apprenticeship. Studied a masters in education and leadership at 40. Now lives in the school grounds with wife Valerie, the ‘glue that holds it all together.’ As well as matron duties she hosts events for parents, even taking them out for a coffee and chat if needed. All three children have flown the nest. As a couple, they have transformed The Downs School from a failing boarding school to a leading prep. It is obvious that they live and breathe the place, even out of hours; Marcus is ‘weekend zoo-keeper’ for pets' corner.

Parents have nothing but praise for Marcus. One told us, ‘he clearly likes children,’ another agreed, saying, ‘He wants them to do well and he certainly wants them all to be happy.’ Others said, ‘I think Marcus Gunn is a very kind man.’ And, ‘He is definitely in control, but interacts well with the children.’ ‘[He is] not afraid to get his hands dirty and to reach the children on their level’. Even in our brief meeting it was clear he cares for the children here.

Working closely with Marcus is the new 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 also an independent schools inspector.


The Downs School is the only independent prep school in the area. Around 15 children a year come from Charlton nursery. One parent said, ‘Our eldest had started at Charlton Nursery at the top of the drive. We asked what went on down there and were told there was a very special school at the bottom. We duly drove on and before we reached the end we knew our son had to come here. It really was as simple as that.’

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 in. ‘Children at the Downs are really proud to be chosen as guides and do take the role seriously,’ said one parent. Another told us, ‘In reception 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. ‘By staying until 13 the children have the opportunity to mature emotionally and become comfortable in their own skin. They are prepared for the rigours of year 9 both academically and emotionally, and as a parent, that is something I am hugely grateful for.’ On our visit, our year 8 guides showed us a ‘secret’ door under the oak paneled 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. ‘They have enjoyed being top of the pile and having privileges like the year 8 common room and just generally being treated slightly differently by the staff.’

Only school in the area that follows the common entrance syllabus. Majority of pupils gain scholarships to senior schools. ‘Our eldest son left The Downs with a top academic scholarship to his next school, something we would never have expected, our next child received a sports scholarship,’ one mother told us. The Downs School helps pupils choose the right school, so it is rare that pupils do not get accepted by their first choice.

In 2017, schools pupils went on to: Badminton, Blundell’s, Clifton College, Bristol Grammar School, Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Millfield, Marlborough, Sherborne, King’s College Taunton and Winchester

Our view

The long drive to the school, the stunning setting, the grand entrance with huge fireplace and oak paneled 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 too – 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 love this school and they are all very much involved in life here, ‘The Downs School 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.’

It is situated in Charlton House, a magnificent Victorian mansion surrounded by 60 acres of idyllic parkland, just five miles from Bristol. Marcus says the school is ‘traditional’ but ‘progressive.’ They have old fashioned-expectations; standing when an adult enters the room, shaking teachers' hands at the end of the day, good eye contact. One parent told us, ‘The Downs has helped them to develop social graces eg meet and greet opposition or visitors to the school.’ They encourage old fashioned play; building dens, playing with skipping ropes, making daisy chains. Parents confirmed, saying, ‘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.’ In fact his latest building project is a treehouse, designed as a witch’s hat with a bridge, that is used as an outdoor classroom - a magical place to learn. So how is the school progressive? Marcus says they are ‘brave enough to be independent and go off curriculum.’ In addition to the curriculum, they teach theory of music, history of art, etiquette and even accountancy. Life and leadership skills are taught on the school camping trips.

Over the last year, well being has been the top priority. With this in mind the school has reviewed their very full curriculum. The school was a boarding school up until 2004 and has been run like one in many ways ever since; long days and sports every Saturday. Breakfast is available from 7.30am (around 40 children daily), and the day finishes at 5pm with clubs until 6pm (5pm for pre-prep). Supper is available until 7pm. To ease the pressure and allow the children to enjoy their home life, homework has been reduced for younger pupils who now have prep time at school. The number of sports fixtures on Wednesdays has also been reduced. One parent told us, ‘I would emphasise that choosing the Downs is a lifestyle choice, particularly if you have several children, as 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, The Downs will not fit that lifestyle. ‘

Academically, the pupils do very well. There are two classes in each year group and class sizes currently 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 (all the children know each other too - it's like a big family).’

Classrooms are in Charlton House, and also in the recently built new block. ‘Much warmer!’ pupils told us. There are interactive whiteboards in all classrooms, and two ICT suites with touchscreen computers. The head told us, ‘We have the infrastructure to embrace whatever technology we wish.’ Although tablets are available in several departments, they have decided against taking the next step, for the moment. IT is taught from reception. The school has a strict no mobile phone policy. One parent felt that technology could help some areas: ‘The school has been slow in embracing new technology that can help children with learning differences (laptop and iPad usage is hit and miss, depending largely on the individual teacher.) I'm not sure that all the teachers accept that children have different learning styles - it's getting better, but I am continuously in contact with the learning support department.’

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. The head of the department used to be head of learning support at Clifton College. Her 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 group therapy in the form of social interaction role play sessions. These are informal sessions and aimed at children that may be having some 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 offers talented children, or scholars as they are known, a real challenge – they do well here; results are impressive all round.

Sport is a big part of life here. Great facilities. Two astroturf pitches, rugby, cricket and rounders 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 told us about her daughter: ‘Her year at school had only seven girls but made it to the netball nationals in years 6 and 8, and hockey nationals in year 6, an amazing achievement with only seven girls.’ Rugby and hockey are the main players here 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 if they want to. ‘Parents are very, very actively supportive of the sports teams. Always the Downs will have a big crowd of parents watching matches (home and away, and for all the teams - all levels).’ For some parents, the sport has been too much in the past. ‘We used to find the status that sport held amongst the school community was too high and that the sporty children were put on a pedestal by everyone, often to the detriment of other children. However, Marcus Gunn and his team have been working hard to find an equilibrium between the academic, sport and performing arts balance, not to mention the myriad of other activities available on tap all hours of the day.’ For non sporty children there is The Downs Award Scheme, offering alternatives like caving, climbing or orienteering. However, pupils are still given the option to play team sports as well. This gives them the best of both worlds and means nobody is excluded.

Good art facilities including a pottery and textiles room. The parents' association sponsors an annual arts week for the school, 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 have specialist instruction for one term in the violin, ukhele and clarinet. In year 4, trumpet, violin and fife. Years 4 and 6 all study the theory of music, taking Associated Board exams. Choir is compulsory. There are four choirs: ‘My daughter in year 7 has sung at St George's Chapel Windsor Castle; the chamber choir which she is in has got to the final of the Barnardo's Choir of the Year last year.’ There are formal and informal concerts so everybody can ‘have their moment of glory.’ There is even a soul band which includes all ages, grown ups too.

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 recently 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, ‘What the school does is allow each of 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. My children all adore her.’ 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. Heather, head of pre-prep, encourages parents to engage by setting up coffee mornings, and the school organises seminars. Most recently, a clinical psychologist spoke about the teenage brain and underachieving boys, plus another talk e-safety. The school is aware of the pressure of secondary school admissions, and 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 loved 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. They have thrived from day one.’ 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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