A top choice for families looking for the proper full-boarding experience from the get-go, Downe House combines tradition with a refreshing balance of work and play. Girls get punchy results and are encouraged to develop character and charm, before heading off to top universities with invaluable grounding and a solid group of friends for life.
A two-mile drive off the M4 and a stone’s throw from Newbury, the low-slung whitewashed buildings and tangy orange roof tiles resemble a Spanish hacienda, but the sparkly Murray Centre (the largest building project in the school’s history) adds a modern touch. This new, light-filled centre for learning is an impressive hub, bang in the middle of the campus, and here, pupils can grab a coffee (in their reusable cups), top up on tuck, knuckle down to some work in a den-like study cove or attend highbrow lectures in the auditorium.
Celebrating a century on its current site in 2022, Downe House is set on slightly rolling grounds in pretty wooded Berkshire countryside. The vibe is more university than all-girls boarding school, and the grounds cover over 100 acres. Kudos to the groundsmen for the immaculate gardens.
Central London is around a 90-minute drive away, and trains from nearby Newbury connect directly to London Paddington.
Emma McKendrick – aka ‘Kenny’ – is a true Downe House legend. She has been at the helm since 1997 (the school has had only five headmistresses in its history) and lends the school a soothing stability. Parents and pupils praise her calm and capable demeanour, as well as her ability to listen and to know everything and everyone. The cosy feel of the school is down to her desire to not greedily increase numbers – our insider felt the manageable size was ‘Kenny keeping her stamp on things’. Parents value the school’s policy of taking an ‘achievable number of pupils, rather than trying to cram in too many’.
Entry is at 11+, 13+ or 16+ and Mrs McKendrick interviews girls at all entry points. She is after sparky ladies who will embrace and make the most of what Downe House has to offer. Three applications per place is the going rate.
Around 55 girls join at 11+ from more than 60 different prep schools following an assessment day (packed with group activities, team building, a school tour, interview with the head and creative writing task) and Common Entrance. Scholars are identified by a particularly strong pre-test score. Offers are unconditional for entry at 13+ (there are around 45 places up for grabs at this point; assessment takes place in the Autumn term of Year 6) and CE is used purely for setting purposes.
Girls looking to join the sixth form must sit three exams the year before entry; two in subjects they currently study, and one ‘general paper’, and there’s also an interview with the head of sixth form.
In 2021, 22 pupils were on a full or partial means-tested bursary, which are available at all entry points. To celebrate the school's centenary, the school recently launched a number of Centenary Day Bursaries, which will cover up to 100 per cent of the day fee (plus an allowance for extras) for local pupils.
Academics and university destinations
A very well-oiled machine academically, one parent told us that they relish the emphasis on ‘a well-rounded girl being more likely to reach her full potential, rather than a girl who has been focused on nothing but A*s’. There’s no sense whatsoever that this is a hot house, but results are superb, with 98 per cent A*-B at A-level last year.
The Key Stage 3 curriculum has had a spruce: girls are now offered more choice from Upper Fourth (their Year 9), with a chance to specialise in key areas and have a firmer foundation for the GCSE years. Last year, girls achieved an impressive 71 per cent of 9-8 grades at GCSE. There’s a dedicated EPQ department, and a brilliant new elective programme kicks off in the Lower Fifth, with a series of bespoke subject-specific modules on offer covering everything from ‘the physics of music’ to ‘cognitive science’ and ‘the power of China’. It’s all part of the school’s super-curriculum, encouraging intellectual curiosity and challenge, and there’s no doubt that girls leave well-honed for the intellectual rigour of university.
Each girl has a weekly one-to-one catch up with her academic mentor to check in on her progress and smooth out any concerns, be they academic or pastoral.
In 2021, 25 per cent of leavers chose to read STEM subjects at higher education and while Oxbridge is encouraged, the school doesn’t want girls to ‘narrow their pathways’. Some head on to US big-hitters including McGill, NYU, U Penn and Barnard, while art and drama schools are also a popular route – RADA and Parsons have taken a shine to Downe House alumnae in the past.
The school breeds fine sportswomen. Lacrosse is top of the list (there are no fewer than 14 different teams) and rivalries run deep – don’t get the girls started on Wycombe Abbey or Queen Anne’s. Some pupils join national squads, and more than half of girls participate in weekly lessons on the eight dedicated courts.
Tennis is extremely popular, with more than 300 lessons every week and semi-professional coaches (an ex-Wimbledon star is head of tennis). Add netball, swimming, cross-country, hockey (which is growing at a rapid pace), equestrian (the school has a partnership with Oxford Polo Club), cricket and football to the list and a 100 per cent match-play rate on Saturday in the lower school – these sporty lasses mean business. They even scoop up medals at the British Schoolgirls’ Ski Racing Championships in France.
The arts are robustly encouraged at Downe: 500 individual music lessons fill the school every week, there are six different choirs and 12 ensembles and the art room is a riot. We rejoiced at the paint splatters everywhere – it feels like a space where you can let your imagination run wild. House drama is hotly contested every year, with five plays performed in a day to a 2,000-strong audience, with more than 300 girls taking part. Famous adjudicators have included Sir Tim Rice, Alexander Armstrong and Geraldine James.
Global-exchange programmes are on trend. Downe House is part of a network of 12 schools across the world (some as far afield as Australia and Japan), and girls in Year 10 and 12 can apply to visit for a three-week stint. It’s a great way to keep pupils open-minded, and in return, international pupils ‘slip into uniform and become part of the happy throng’, says the school. Younger pupils can sign up for trips ranging from a tennis tour to Portugal to a history and politics trip to Washington DC.
Clubs are plentiful: pupils can work towards their Leith’s Introductory Certificate in Food & Wine in cookery club, Cheese Society sounds tempting and the Phoenix Society caught our eye – girls link up with boys from nearby schools to chat about any subject, from climate change to Kenyan rhinos. The Mendley Lecture series attracts a roster of high-profile speakers: recent attendees include journalists Max Hastings and John Simpson and the writer Simon Sebag-Montefiore.
Lower school pupils get to sign up for the Wakefield Award, the school’s own mini DofE/Young Enterprise hybrid leadership scheme. The school also runs a community volunteering programme, with girls popping into care homes, helping out at local primary schools and assisting with riding lessons for the disabled.
A point to note: girls have the opportunity to spend a term in France in their second year (lower fourth), where they benefit from a total immersion in the French language – the pupils we met bubbled over with enthusiasm for the ‘unforgettable experience’ and warned that ‘girls talk about it for years afterwards’.
Full boarding is the ticket here and Downe House is ‘unapologetic in its philosophy that it generates distinct benefits’. There are a small number (around 20) of local day girls, but the school is not a fan of the to-ing and fro-ing of weekly or flexi boarding. Along with fixed exeats, girls have one or two ‘floating’ weekends they can take each term, and girls are allowed home on Saturday afternoons after matches. Closed weekends are filled to the brim with activities – boarders are present and engaged with wellness weekends, dance afternoons, movie nights and wackier options such as indoor skydiving.
Boarding houses are arranged by age group: girls spend the first two years split across three lower-school houses, before taking the grown-up step in Upper Fourth to one of the five main houses (Aisholt, AGN, AGS, Holcombe and Tedworth). The final stop is a two-year stint in one of the two dedicated sixth-form houses, which are seen as a stepping stone between school and university. Some houses sit bang-centre in the middle of the campus; two are located in the main building and one is tucked away in the surrounding woods. We peeked into a few – all were wonderfully homely, decked out in smart Farrow and Ball colours and with plenty of spaces to study or practice music.
Wellbeing is the buzzword here, with a strong focus on yoga and mindfulness. Each boarding house has trained ‘wellbeing champions’ to help with stress management and sleeping and to offer pamper treats. There are also counsellors and life-coaches on hand if needed. The school uses AS Tracking – an online assessment tool designed to track pupils’ wellbeing – to help guide staff’s pastoral interactions and interventions. Every member of teaching staff takes a number of tutees under their wing, checking in with them weekly.
A dedicated lecture programme for sixth formers sees guest speakers pop in for talks on nutrition, online safety, personal finance and revision strategies, while parents are invited to join seminars on diet, drugs, the party scene and much more, to help keep the dialogue open.
The pupils we met were refreshingly unfussed about their appearance and all looked natural and smiley. One mother echoes the same sentiment: ‘They are not worrying about hair and make-up each morning and can enjoy just being girls for a little longer, while concentrating on their studies and developing strong relationships.’
Around 30 per cent of pupils come from London (the school hosts an annual drinks reception for London parents), and parents tend to fall into the ‘muddy Range Rover and black Labrador crew’, says an old girl. Girls have a very busy social life, and there are regular socials with Eton, Harrow and Radley (reeling parties seem to be a favourite), encouraging pupils to develop relaxed, platonic relationships with boys.
The Downe community is part of the package, with parents past and present and the alumnae providing an inspiring network of support. There are 3,600 old girls living in 52 countries, plus seven fourth-generation families. DH Links brings them all together and offers internships, work placements and networking events all over the world. ‘Downe is a school for real life, not just academic life,’ says a former parent, and girls stay firm friends for life, affectionately referring to themselves as DHOGS (Downe House Old Girls).
The girls alone sell Downe House – and the refreshing normality and happiness of those we met speaks volumes. This is a hugely successful, wonderfully nurturing school – doing a solid job at setting girls up for life.