Downe House is an archetypal all-girl, selective English boarding school that scores consistently in the top five of all UK schools for academic attainment.
Outgrowing its original home within the house of Charles Darwin, the school moved to Cold Ash, a village near Newbury, in 1921. The original whitewashed Moorish inspired school building, “The Cloisters”, was built during the First World War by the architect Maclaren Ross, and has been subject to sympathetic additions and new buildings across more than 110 acres of school grounds.
The school’s reputation was tarnished by widespread reporting that HRH Kate Middleton left Downe House for Marlborough after two terms following bullying in 1996. As a result the school undertook significant measures to prevent and manage any further episodes of bullying, and its current Bullying Policy, which runs to some seven pages, is one of the most comprehensive and detailed of any public school in the UK.
Downe House was rated Excellent in its latest available ISI Educational Quality report (2017).
Downe House is well situated for London Heathrow, some 50 minutes from the school by car or taxi. Alumni include Clare Balding, Miranda Hart, Lady Gabriella Windsor, Sophie Dahl, Angie Bray MP, Sophie Conran, Geraldine James, Dame Alice Rosemary Murray DBE DL, Mary Midgley, Anne Ridler OBE, and Venetia Katharine Douglas Phair.
Facilities include the stunning new £6 million lower school Boarding houses for Years 11 and 12, 4-lane 25 metre indoor swimming pool with seating for spectators, squash courts, a modern sports hall with gymnasium and dance area, modernised and well-equipped performing arts centre, and a new digital language laboratory.
The multi-million pound Murray Centre for Learning opened at heart of the Downe House site in 2019, where “girls, parents, staff and alumnae can come together to learn from each other and about each other”, is in development.
Extensive playing fields emphasise the Moorish feel of buildings, and white-washed facades combine to create an intimate, monastic feel across the school. Main Downe House USP though is the school’s separate school in France. At 12, every girl spends their “Veyrines term” at Chateau de Sauveterre near Toulouse, where education includes charity work, an exchange with local French pupils, and local activities including truffle hunting.
The use of French as much as possible in and around the school is designed to develop the four language skills which are examined at GCSE (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), and increase overall spontaneity and confidence in the language.
International students account for 25% of the school and are currently drawn from 32 countries including the US, Cayman Islands, and Kazakhstan.
Entrance to the school is usually at 11 (50 places), 13 (35 places), and 16 (10 Places).
The diminishing number of places means potential applicants should aim where possible for entry at 11.
At 11 and 12, entrance procedure to the school requires initial application, references from existing school, a whole-day assessment (including an interview with the Head and written assessment), followed by success in Common Entrance or academic scholarship examination at the girls’ existing schools.
For 16+ entry, candidates are required to sit three examinations papers, two in subjects of their choice which they are currently studying and which they wish to study in the Sixth Form at Downe House, and a General paper. Candidates are required to achieve a minimum of seven I/GCSE examinations at Grade B or above, preferably with A* or A in those subjects she wishes to study in the Sixth Form. In every case, parents and prospective students are advised to visit the school through individual visit or “Prospective Parents’ Morning.”
Modest bursary provision at around 3.5% of student numbers is probably explained by the youth of the school compared to the older independents, but Downe House at least aims to increase this over time. Where it can, it also recognizes that some children not only require 100% fee remission, but also further help with extras to keep up. However, it does not particularly help its case when the school web site seeks to counter the weakness of its bursary provision by arguing that it provides education for “an average of 554 boarders and 23 day-girls… at no cost to the state.”
The school focuses on its “major” sports: netball, lacrosse, athletics, tennis, and hockey, although swimming, squash, gymnastics, cross country, and rounders are included within the curriculum and supported by diverse co-curricular sporting options ranging from wall climbing, sailing, and badminton, to horse riding, fencing, and ballet.
Dance is catered for through hip hop, tap, modern, and Zumba. Other sports include polo, Duke of Edinburgh's Award, squash, canoeing, volleyball, archery, and football. These, together with a plethora of other activities, are run from a deliberately separate wooden cabin situated away from the whitewashed “bricks and mortar” of the main buildings, to hint at the differentiation of academic and extra-curricular life.
Indicative of its highly selective intake, Downe House claims to “achieve success without having to adopt an academic hot house’ approach”, although it’s a million miles away from the relaxed and informal atmosphere of the progressive schools which that might imply. Core subjects at GCSE and IGCSE include English (including English literature), mathematics, science (at least two sciences, but usually three), a modern foreign language, physical education (non-examined), and Religious Studies (examined or non-examined).
Most girls will sit nine subjects, with some taking ten and, in exceptional cases, eleven, although the school emphasis that girls should “leave enough time and energy for other interests [because] in addition to excellent academic qualifications, employers and universities also want to know that you have a range of interests and skills.”
More than twenty-five subjects, countless language options, and a non-examined course in food are on offer. Cambridge Short Courses are offered in languages and mathematics, whilst traditional AS and A Levels are retained in twelve subjects, including design, politics, drama, and sports science.
Students sit three or four subjects with a Global Perspectives and Research (GPR) course in the Lower Sixth.
In 2020, 96% of A Level grades were A*-A/B; 83% were A*-A; and 46% were A*. At GCSE, 83% were Grades 9-7 (A*-A); 98% were Grades 9-6 (A*-B); 83% were Grades 9 – 7 (A*-A); and 98% were Grades 9-6 (A*-B).
Downe House has a highly creditable 9% Oxbridge slipstream, 99% of girls continue to university, and 94% girls head to a Russell Group university or St. Andrews.
Whilst girls of all faiths attend Downe House, a Christian ethos pervades throughout the school; the Chapel is its spiritual heart and a number of church services are compulsory. RE is a compulsory subject at I/GCSE and faith is centred around the belief that “we should treat others as we ourselves should be treated.”
Informal Mumsnet reviews are mixed and include discussion of eating disorders, a definite Downe “type”, and lack of pastoral support. In 2013, the Downe House Annual Leaver’s Ball was cancelled by the Head following a widely publicised drinking incident at the school.
One of the most traditional of the all-girl public boarding schools despite its relative youth, Downe House nevertheless has a very distinctive atmosphere with its attractive Moorish cloisters, abundance of whitewashed buildings, and isolated setting.
For the brightest children it certainly provides parents with the comfort of (almost) guaranteeing their child’s success in examinations – but other schools offer better league table performance (for example Wycombe Abbey), greater warmth (Rodean in particular for international students), and others have, perhaps, an overall better all-round reputation (Cheltenham Ladies).
There is no question that the school was damaged by accusations of bullying, although today, ironically, the result has been that Downe House is now the school that children are least likely to be bullied in.
Standout features, as well as its results, are the fabulous and unique exchange school in France, which parents by all accounts wish were extended to older years, and a powerful, committed alumni supporting the school’s ongoing development.
Downe House is not an easy school to get into, particularly at Sixth Form and at any age will not be a bankable option for the less than talented. It’s a school that definitely needs visiting to work out whether it will be a good fit.
• Traditional feel
• Fall-out impacts on reputation
• Lacks the history of Britain’s oldest independents
• Little published adjustments for international entry
• A tradition, all-girl selective education
• A fabulous exchange experience unmatched elsewhere in the sector
• Fabulous new boarding facilities for Years 11 and 12
• Co-educational schooling
• Mixed ability children
• Boarding number: 564
• Day number: 23
• Sixth Form: 169
• Number of full time teaching staff: 120
• Average class size: 10
• ISI Rating Academics (2017): Excellent
• OFTSED Rating Academics (2013)*: Outstanding
• OFSTED Rating Personal Development (2013)*: Excellent
• OFSTED Rating Leadership (2013)*: Excellent
• Year Founded: 1907
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