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Little Downsend School, Ashtead, Leatherhead and Epsom

Muddy says: For a small pre-prep with a strong family feel and an innovative approach, the three Little Downsend schools are hard to fault. Small but perfectly formed, teaching little people with very big ideas, the three Little Downsends are hard to fault.

Little Downsend Surrey


Little Downsend is a group of schools based in Ashtead, Leatherhead and Epsom, all catering for children from the ages of 2 to 6. Each then feeds into to the main Downsend School in Leatherhead at Year 2. There’s one head teacher Vanessa Conlan, who splits her time equally between them all.

While each of the Little Downsend schools retains its own individuality and uniqueness, there are also a common links anchoring them together: the innovative ethos and vibrant curriculum is the same across all three sites

Children at each campus start from the age of two in what is called First Steps (2-3 year olds), before moving into Rising Reception (nursery), then Reception and Year 1.


Little Downsend Surrey

In the First Steps and Rising Reception classes learning is mostly play-based as children develop their concentration, language (speaking and listening), hand-eye coordination, manipulative skills and physical coordination.  Teaching focuses on the skills that come before reading and writing, so the learning in Reception and Year 1 can be accelerated. Learning becomes more structured in Reception and Year 1.

There’s specialist teaching across all years at all three sites for French, music, art, dance, technology, sport and Forest School, and all children in Reception and Year 1 learn swimming. Children also make use of the sports and drama facilities at the main school, which is currently gaining a £5m Creative Arts Centre.

Teaching focuses heavily on fostering a love of learning, rather than simply learning by rote. Mrs Conlan instigates an innovative approach, through active learning, child-led investigation and collaboration between children to make discoveries of their own.


Results across all three sites are on par, with all children reading and writing by the time they finish Reception. In 2019, 56% of children in Reception exceeded the Early Learning Goal for Reading, against a national average of 18.6%. In Year 1 there is an expectation that children will be independent learners, and up to this point the foundations are being laid so children are academically and socially prepared.


Vanessa Conlan, head teather at Little Downsend

Vanessa Conlan is the head teacher across all sites. It’s a fairly new role that was created organically to bring synergy across all three schools as the previous separate head teachers retired. Mrs Conlan was previously in charge at the Little Downsend Epsom arriving there in January 2017. Before that role, she was headteacher at a large state primary school in Mitcham, south-west London.


At each Little Downsend there are Early Bird/Breakfast Club sessions in the morning, and an Extended Day until 6pm in the evenings which includes a snack or a light tea. The morning drop off times vary slight between each site; at Leatherhead it’s 7.30am and at Epsom and Ashtead it’s 7.45am. There’s also the usual array of after-school clubs (cookery, French, judo, ballet, samba, etc).


Little Downsend Ashtead, Surrey

What? Where? You’ll find the Little Downsend Ashtead down a quiet residential street in Ashtead in a converted 1930s house. It’s a little over a mile from the main Downsend School in Leatherhead. In common with all three Little Downsends, it’s welcoming and homely. There are currently 55 kids at the school, but this number grows as the academic year progresses and more two-year-olds join the First Steps classes.

Facilities: The school is divided by year groups with separate rooms and play areas for each. There’s a school hall where the kids have their lunch, and assemblies are held, as well as a modern kitchen that prepares healthy meals for the kids each day. The school is working towards becoming sugar free, and the day I visited the kids were offered a date and cinnamon loaf, which got the thumbs up from most.

Outside, the playground is astro turf so is in use all year round. It has zoned play areas that includes things like a mud kitchen, sandpit and quiet spots. Each week they introduce a theme – when I visited the theme was ‘space’ so there were boxes for making rockets, space hoppers, dress ups and a space station had been added.

What else? This is a school with a strong community feel to it – it’s relatively small and all the children know all of the staff, and vice versa. They also make good use of nearby Ashtead Common for things like the Forest School.


Little Downsend Epsom Surrey

What? Where? Tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac, Little Downsend Epsom is a similar size to the school at Ashtead with 46 children. And like Ashtead, that number will grow by the end of the academic year.

Facilities: The school is set in two converted houses each over two floors, with the First Steps and Rising Reception classrooms in the Junior House and Reception and Year 1 in the Senior House. There’s a big outdoor space, with separate play areas for the smaller kids, and a decent sized woodland garden at the back. The garden is also home to two chickens, Lucy and Chickaletta, and two guinea pigs called Charlotte and Elizabeth. There’s also a vegetable garden.


What? Where? The Little Downsend Leatherhead is the biggest of the three with 63 pupils, and is positioned just a few hundred metres down the road from the main school site. 

Facilities: The school is set over four floors in a converted late Victorian house. Most of the classrooms have double aspect windows and high ceilings creating a real sense of space. Reception and Year 1 are on the upper floors, while the First Steps and Rising Reception are in later ground-floor additions.

The outdoor space here is also worth mentioning because the site is a bit like a tardis. There’s a gate at the end of the garden which leads onto a further playing area (a secret garden, if you like), part of which has been laid with artificial grass making it practical for year-round use. 

Little Downsend School teachers and pupils


All three Little Downsend schools transitioned quickly to online learning – an impressive feat when you consider the age of the student. Mrs Conlan puts this down to the strong relationships teachers have with the pupils and the parents, as well as the support from parent company Cognita to roll out the very best in class online learning tech. Children took part in online rhyme time sessions, story time as well as face-to-face online phonics sessions. There were also social sessions which children could interact with each other as well as the teachers.


The fees for all three schools are the same. Full time school (Rising Reception, Reception and Year 1) is £3,990 a term; in First Steps and Rising Reception fees depend on how many sessions, starting at £1,069 for two sessions a week rising to £3,628 for nine sessions. All fees include lunch, except where the session is morning only. There are discounts if you have more than one child at Downsend schools, of 5 per cent for the second child, 10 per cent for the third, and 15 per cent for the fourth child.


Parents are happy with each Little Downsend and almost all children move onto the big school. Parents form close bonds with the staff at the schools, loving the innovative way in which their children are taught, in a down to earth environment, whilst also delivering on academic results.


In 2019, 56% of children in Reception exceeded the Early Learning Goal for Reading, against a national average of 18.6%. Pretty impressive!


Good for: Families looking for a family oriented unpretentious nursery and Key Stage 1 with strong pastoral care and a flair for innovation.

Not for: Those who want their little ones hothoused – all three schools are big on nurturing children and supporting their academic and emotional development.

Dare to disagree?!  Personal tours to any of the schools can be arranged all year around. There is also an online open morning on Fri 13 Nov at 10am. Click here to book a visit. 

Little Downsend Ashtead, 22 Oakfield Road, Ashtead, Surrey, KT21 2RE
Little Downsend Epsom, 6 Norman Avenue, Epsom, Surrey, KT17 3AB
Little Downsend Leatherhead, 13 Epsom Road, Leatherhead, Surrey, KT22 8ST

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