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Downside School

What says..

The academic life (and it is academic) of the school is bound up with the Benedictine idea of transformation, so the journey is as important as the destination. Downside is not a school which delivers 21st century education through technical wizardry or fabulous facilities but through rigorous and intellectual teaching. We liked the translation of prayers into Spanish and students seemed happily immersed in a French listening exercise through headphones, but the biology lab we saw .....

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What the school says...

Founded in 1606 Downside is one of England's 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 leading universities in the UK, the USA and Europe.

80% of Downside pupils are 7-day-a-week boarders and 40% 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 STEM provision, drama, and music. Performing arts facilities are excellent.
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What The Good Schools Guide says


Since 2018, Andrew Hobbs BA (mid 50s), previously deputy head. A product of Worth Abbey, not unlike the school he now heads, Mr Hobbs read classics at Cambridge before a couple of years teaching at Hurstpierpoint, 16 at Canford, where he was also in charge of cricket and rugby (he is a rugby blue), before arriving at Downside in 2008 as deputy. He took the helm as acting head after a difficult period for the school but went through a rigorous selection process to get the top job. ‘I always wanted a school with a purpose at its core,’ he told us – ‘and at this point, Downside needed continuity.’ That purpose is to educate children ‘for eternal life, not just till the age of 18,’ as he puts it - and ‘our results are the by-product of everything else, particularly acting in accordance with our Benedictine values’. Of these more anon, but while of course rooted firmly in the Christian faith, there are very contemporary references to community, concern for the individual and service to others. Only the second lay head of Downside, Mr Hobbs is married to Damaris, an NHS physio, and a father of four grown-up children, two working (one in teaching) and two still at university. It is possibly his palpable pride in his family or perhaps his appealingly wide smile, generous guffaw, little round glasses and shiny pate - or maybe just the cut and thrust of his sparkling conversation - which makes him so well liked by students and parents alike – the usual plaudits like ‘approachable, visible and knows everyone’ don’t really do him justice. Our session with him overran massively, so engaging was the chat and full of references to books we had not got round to reading, such as Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman) and Rebel Ideas (Matthew Syed), but he clearly had. Cerebral yet warm, full of spirituality yet down to earth, Mr Hobbs is an ideal role model and seems the right helmsman to steer the school into calmer but uncharted waters as it severs its links with the monks who plan to leave Downside Abbey for a new home.


A few into year 7 but mainly into year 9 and about 25 into sixth form. Year 7 entry is by online CAT tests plus an assessment day and interviews held in January each year. For year 9, the process is more formal and starts earlier, with ISEB pre-tests or CAT tests and an assessment day in February of year 6 or 7. At sixth form, unconditional offers are made on the basis of sufficiently good entrance papers in chosen A level subjects; conditional offers are dependent on predicted GCSE grades and school reference. Surprisingly high numbers also join in other years, including year 11 - some of these will be short-term overseas students.


A handful leave after GCSEs (we wonder if it will be even less in future, with the opening of the new sixth form centre in 2024). After A levels, Downside students depart to eg Bath, Newcastle, UCL, Exeter, Loughborough, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff to study a broad range of subjects. One to Oxbridge in 2023. Sometimes a few overseas.

Latest results

In 2023, 42 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 38 per cent A*/A at A level (66 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last pre-pandemic results), 36 per cent A*/A at A level (63 per cent A*-B). School has not provided 9-7 grades at GCSE for 2019.

Teaching and learning

The academic life (and it is academic) of the school is bound up with the Benedictine idea of transformation, so the journey is as important as the destination. The curriculum is broad from the start. A modern language is encouraged rather than enforced - French from the off but keen linguists can take up Spanish or German (or indeed Latin or ancient Greek) in year 9 and keener ones still can avail themselves of private lessons in Russian, Chinese or Italian. Ten or 11 GCSEs are the norm (12 on request) from a range of 20 subjects. Religious studies is compulsory alongside core subjects of maths, English and sciences. Weaker scientists can opt for combined science rather than the rigours of biology, chemistry and physics. Students for whom English is not their native tongue take IGCSE in English as a second language and there’s an intensive one-year GCSE course for international students. At A level, 24 subjects are on offer including history of art, psychology, Latin and Greek, plus a BTEC in sport. A level sets are run with tiny numbers (we met students who were the sole takers of physics and Latin) but we picked up a little parental dissatisfaction with GCSE option blocks. Student satisfaction, however, is generally high and their experience enhanced by the academic clubs - many of which are open to all ages - which enrich each subject, such as the Oolite Society (geography), Bede Society (history) and Aelfric Society (linguistics).

Downside is not a school which delivers 21st-century education through technical wizardry or fabulous facilities but through rigorous and intellectual teaching. We liked the translation of prayers into Spanish and students seemed happily immersed in a French listening exercise through headphones, but the biology lab we saw could well use an update. The main library is handsome and run by a chartered librarian but small for the size of the school - well-stocked departmental libraries compensate for this and history lucks out with the Sligger library. Reading is undoubtedly part of the culture of the school.

Parents we spoke to endorse the high academic standards and expectations the school sets and appreciate the intellectual work-out their children get. ‘Downside is able to fulfil the high expectations I have of schools,’ one mother told us; another that her son had been admonished* for laziness (*not the word she used!). Equally, it is generally reckoned that any sense of a student being academically overwhelmed will be picked up by his/her tutor.

Learning support and SEN

The department comprises five members of staff whose expertise seems to be concentrated on literacy. All new junior arrivals are screened on entry and the school clearly states that learning support is open to all. Students with specific learning difficulties receive targeted help, sometimes on an individual basis. The department definitely gets the thumbs up and there is no stigma about attending it. More information on the website would be helpful.

The arts and extracurricular

First out of fabulous facilities must be the Grade I listed abbey church, not only the physical centre of the religious life of the school, but also a visually and acoustically stunning venue, particularly for music. Very strong here, with four auditioned choirs including the prestigious Schola Cantorum (invitation only) which provides choral music for school services in the abbey church. Organists are lucky enough to practise on its renowned Compton organ. In no way does secular music fall behind, with plenty of opportunity for instrumentalists to play in orchestras, chamber ensembles and bands, the newest of which is the function band comprised of students and staff, but still room for charming traditions such as the singing of madrigals on May morning from the top of the abbey church tower. Downside has long had a reputation for its brass and jazz, which shows no sign of diminishing, but masses of opportunity for aspiring rock stars, rappers and beatboxers too - there is even a staff band called The Educators with the head on drums… The CCF marches to the stirring strains of its own band. Distinguished Old Gregorian (as past students are called) musicians include classical pianist Philip Fowke, blues guitarist Todd Sharpville and former drummer of Echo and the Bunnymen Pete de Freitas.

The 400-seat theatre has recently benefitted from a refurbishment and has welcoming social space upstairs and down. Close collaboration between music and drama departments over productions such as Little Shop of Horrors, whose rehearsals started in lockdown. A ‘serious’ senior play and a couple of junior ones, plus house drama and the chance for committed thespians to take LAMDA qualifications, mean there is probably something for everyone. Those who have a backstage contribution to make are equally welcomed, plus anyone nifty enough to put on a production of Singing in the Rain in three days flat at the end of the summer term! Jared Harris (award-winning performances in The Crown and Chernobyl), Peter Morgan (screenwriter for The Crown) and Eugene Simon (My Family and Other Animals, Game of Thrones) are all OGs.

Visual arts and DT have their own adjoining dedicated space, open in the evening and at weekends also. Facilities include a Mac studio for digital design and a print screen room - creativity across different media is encouraged. Some younger students gave this part of the curriculum top marks. We loved the crinoline under construction for a GCSE art project we saw, but were sorry to miss the A level ballgown – sewing club and knit’n’natter for those who would rather keep their efforts outside the exam system. Lockdown inspired one fitness fanatic to design and make his own weights bench for home use – that was after he had designed a motorised stretcher for military use as his DT practical. In normal times, there is an artist-in-residence and plenty of trips to museums and galleries.

Downside has long had close and proud links with the Irish Guards and an active CCF, generally enjoyed by those who take part: the army section has recently adopted the headdress of the household division. We saw them marching to the beat of their own band on the school’s immaculate turf; elsewhere students were loading improbably large rucksacks for their DofE gold expedition.


Known for its sport and easily spotted on any pitch or Astro with its distinctive - not to say garish - maroon and mustard kit. Beautiful green spaces seem to run in all directions with Astros discreetly sited away from the main buildings. ‘But please could they build loos there?!’ begged some students. The most glorious asset is the immaculate cricket pitch, surrounded by mature trees and adorned by a handsome pavilion which looks down on the school. A touching memorial to a Second World War pilot killed in training and buried in the abbey churchyard, a tragic accident taking the lives of nine boys also, is set into one wall.

Usual sporting offer of rugby, cricket, hockey, netball and tennis, depending on the season; less usual is the promotion of the values of discipline, honesty and stewardship underpinning it all and emblazoned on the gym wall (‘could use updating,’ some parents reckon). Personal best is placed above winning at all costs, though wins are celebrated too. Girls’ sport beyond school enjoying particular success with girls trying out for league hockey, Somerset county cricket (one also winning a written commentary competition) and one being accepted onto the netball futures pathway at Bath University. Despite this, some parents think girls’ sport ‘could be polished up and paid more attention to by the head’. Closer links with the performance pathway at Bath Rugby have been forged in recent years, culminating in an academic scholarship for one talented and delightful young man to study for a degree in maths at Bath while continuing his rugby development. Plenty for those less inclined to team games and ball sports too, such as sailing (school has its own boats), weight-training and bootcamp. A full-time physio is there to get students back on the pitch when it all goes wrong. Somehow typical of Downside is the inclusion of sports outreach and sports leadership in its list of activities – it certainly isn’t all about winning. Legendary match teas too, we’re told.


Eighty per cent full boarders (no weekly) housed in one of six houses: one for junior boys up until the end of year 9, three senior boys’ and two for girls of all ages. The latter are purpose-built and fit modern expectations of boarding accommodation more closely than the boys’, who mostly ‘live above the shop’ in the main building. All jolly quaint but rather dark and old-fashioned in places with beds for junior boys lined up in long dorms with low ceilings to keep the heat in and divided into cubicles for privacy. They don’t seem to mind one jot, however, and parents are happy that ‘my daughter does not live in a five star hotel’ and ‘it’s not too expensive to play in – we’d rather have shabby and homely!’ said one. Verging on scruffy, we’d say.

We heard of one youngster who started as a boarder during Covid and has chosen to stay on, of another girl whose mother told us she would rather board, and from another parent who said her boarding children never have a problem going back to school. ‘Fun’ was the most common description from the students we spoke to, plus praise for house spirit and loyalty and the welcoming family feel of all boarding houses, where all year groups can mix. The calm wisdom of house staff goes down well too – ‘They are firm when needed but always caring and not swayed by teenage moods,’ parents told us. Day students are part of boarding houses, there is some flexi-boarding but at least every student has the same bed – not always the case at other schools.

A 9pm finish for almost everyone who wants to take part in the extensive activity programme means day students just about lay their heads on their pillows at home during the week in term time. Whatever the boarding lacks in luxury is made up for by the food, which is now outstanding and vastly improved from past visits. Contracted out to a catering firm, the menu reads very well, with healthy dishes and those good for the planet’s future given their own icons. Word had got out the day of our visit and the kitchen tried out its test menu for following week on us – restaurant standard it was too. Tempura battered seaweed and feta banana blossom, anyone?!

Ethos and heritage

Proudly and unequivocally Catholic, but equally firm on the idea of Benedictine community through the eight values which the school espouses. First among these is welcome, which means that non-Catholics are indeed welcome, although they are expected to respect and take part in the religious and spiritual life of the school. ‘Not the place for a dyed-in-the-wool atheist,’ in the view of one parent, but we were struck by the number of times students and their parents brought up the Benedictine values of listening, reverence and concern for the individual as being pretty good cornerstones of a school community - ‘a framework to function in,’ according to one mother. It’s perfectly okay to discuss questions about faith, dogma or to express doubts - ‘There’s a difference between a debate and a dialogue,’ the head mused, ‘and we are definitely pro free speech.’ ‘God is interested in individual gifts and talents and whether people are kind to each other – and not particularly in their sexuality,’ he went on, in response to our question about how the school resolves conflict between the teachings of the Catholic church on homosexuality and modern attitudes. The notion of personal best pervades school life in general, with academic excellence propelled by yet another Benedictine value, that of personal discipline. Students work hard here and a seriousness of purpose underscores academic life - ‘The kids are bloody well there to learn!’ said one father in no uncertain terms. The best EPQ submissions are now published in a journal named Tessera, ‘capturing the depth and breadth of academic endeavour in our community’.

Downside’s ethos and heritage are hard to separate. Although the school was founded in France in 1617, it did not arrive at its present magnificent home in the slightly down-at-heel village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse for another 200 years, after a history of persecution in France in the 18th century and a few years taking refuge in Shropshire. The school houses are all named for people who helped the school along its turbulent journey to the present day, Isabella (a Spanish/Portuguese infanta who protected the community) being the most recent girls’ house. Its (mostly!) impressive buildings hark back to an era when high Victorian Gothic architecture was popular and a lot of wide yet slightly gloomy corridors with acres of wonky parquet persist. Somehow that, and the somewhat old-fashioned uniform - particularly for boys with pin-striped trousers and black jackets and a hierarchy of waistcoats in sixth form (the apogee for head boy and girl is dove grey, double-breasted with a watch chain) - contribute to the strong sense of a 400-year-old school. Girls have been around only for just over 15 years, so their uniform is less distinctive - curious midi-length grey kilts, maroon jumpers for those below sixth form, black for sixth form, plus jacket.

Any mention of Downside is, regrettably, likely to stir recollections of historic child abuse, widely reported in recent years and resulting in an IICSA investigation and report in 2018. The resultant publicity has been very difficult for the school; on that point, the head expressed his relief that the allegations were now known and that there has been greater transparency. He regularly reiterates that the school can never be complacent and all staff members remain vigilant. One key requirement of the IICSA is the separation of the school from the abbey, which is now complete.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Highly thought of by students and parents alike, and plenty of people to turn to when the going gets tough. As well as tutors, housemasters/mistresses (HsMs) and house mothers (matrons), there’s an independent listener and a strong chaplaincy team, who look after the spiritual welfare of students. The health centre is staffed 24 hours a day and houses a counselling room and quiet space for students to retreat to when it all gets a bit much. A room with sensory resources is planned. We heard that the school is good at sorting out friendship issues and that bullies are fairly dealt with. Perhaps it is the Benedictine values of welcome and respect which make Downside as inclusive as it seems to be, plus the space for discussion in SMSC (the school’s PHSE programme) and the voluntary Lectio Divina, where a Bible passage is read and reflected upon by groups of students.

We picked up a slight sense of inequality between boys and girls (inferior sports kit and everyday uniform now being tweaked so girls can wear trousers – not sure if that will extend to boys wearing kilts) and the emotive publicity of Everyone’s Invited and the murder of Sarah Everard produced some tensions, now largely resolved.

Discipline does not seem to be a major part of life at Downside - skiving lessons and sports sessions will land you in trouble, smoking or drinking will get you suspended. The withdrawal of ‘Co-op privileges’, ie permission to walk to nearby Chilcompton and stock up on crisps and Mars bars, seems to be a huge deterrent. Punishments are generally reckoned to be a fair cop and students appreciate recognition for all sorts of achievement, not just academic or sporting.

Pupils and parents

About 70 per cent Catholic, many local, some seeking a more spiritual education if not actually Catholic; 26 nationalities (majority from Hong Kong and Poland) and 14 languages spoken. Not particularly affluent, as independent school families go - ‘The cars in the car park at Speech Day aren’t too flashy,’ one dad remarked. ‘People here are unpretentious – and very Somerset!’ another (from the home counties and very happy he stumbled upon Downside) told us. We found the young people we met to be articulate, thoughtful, positive and grateful for all they have with very few grumbles about anything.

Money matters

Fees broadly in line with comparable schools, although years 7 and 8 are notably cheaper. Usual array of scholarships at usual entry points although more options for year 9 admissions. Choral exhibitions and product design awards also. Bursaries can also be granted from the start in exceptional circumstances and in cases of unexpected hardship.

The last word

It would be hard to leave Downside without a sense of the ‘poetry of life’, whether that comes from the setting, the imposing buildings, the music or the ancient scholarship which the walls seem to exhale. A singular education, with its focus on the spiritual, but one which seems to equip its young people to look beyond the transience and insistent clamour of 21st-century life. ‘My daughter will come out a better person than if she had gone to the local competition,’ in the words of one father. Downside – a contradictory name, as we could find very few.

Please note: 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
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
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
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

Who came from where

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