Muddy best schools guide #1 – Downsend School, Leatherhead
What? Where? Downsend School is a selective independent prep school in Leatherhead for boys and girls aged 2-13. The main school – for years 2 to 8 – is on the Leatherhead Road. There are three pre-prep schools on three different sites – one just down the road from the main school in Leatherhead, the second in Ashtead and the third in Epsom.
The main school is divided into the Lower and Upper Schools, which are in separate buildings but connected. Of the 415 children here, it’s a pretty even mix of girls and boys (54 per cent boys, 46 per cent girls), with the percentages swinging closer to 60 per cent boys and 40 per cent girls at the top end of the school. There are between 3-5 classes in each year group, with an average class size of 17 students. It was an all-boys school until 1988, when girls joined.
The school is set on a 13 acre site. The main school building was originally the home of the Lindford family, who owned the school, and who headmastered over three generations, and it’s an impressive looking building. Later buildings have been added over the years, and while this isn’t the prettiest school in the world, I’ve certainly seen much worse (like um, my secondary school, which we only half jokingly called the pink prison!)
Facilities: You’d expect any prep school charging nearly £14k a year to have some decent sport, drama and music facilities, and Downsend has invested heavily in the last few years so it’s all looking pretty spick and span. There’s the usual array of outdoor tennis/netball/basketball courts, sports fields, modern sports hall and indoor swimming pool. The tennis/netball courts were re-tarmaced this year, much to the children’s delight. There are outdoor grass pitches, as well as an astro turf pitch.
Over the summer, a timber fort was added to the outdoor play area, and £250k was spent updating the pool changing rooms. This year, there are plans to upgrade the dry change rooms. The swimming pool and sports hall are housed in the sports complex, which also includes a social area used for parent meetings and the like, with viewing platforms over both the pool and the indoor sports hall. There’s also a tuck shop that is open all day until 5pm. Kids in the Upper School (yrs 6-8) are allowed to pop in during their breaks for healthy snacks, such as mini wraps and fruit. It’s also a great place for parents to go if their little ones are involved in after school clubs. And at £1.80 for a cappuccino, it’s got to be the best value coffee around!
What else? There’s a strong emphasis on drama, with a musical production staged every term by each of the year groups. Mr Thorpe says the children don’t have to get involved, but most chose to, whether it’s behind the scenes or in the leading roles. Music wise, all children receive regular periods of class music, and from Year 2 individual tuition is available from specialist peripatetic tutors in a range of instruments. Most of these are taught in the school’s sound resistant music pods.
The school has also spent big on the ICT suites throughout, and they’re now all spinky spanky and bright and modern. The science labs have also been upgraded, and there are plans afoot to buy a laser cutter for the design and tech labs.
Like most independent schools, House events are an important part of school life at Downsend. Children are divided between four houses – Wisley, Ranmore, Headley and Norbury – and the houses compete for house points. There’s even a house bake off, modelled on the Great British Bake Off. I had a peak at the school’s food tech rooms, and they’re pretty impressive.
The academic results: As you’d expect, Downsend achieved a 100 per cent pass rate at the Common Entrance, with a range of A*, A and B grades. Forty-nine scholarships were awarded in 2016. Of these scholarships, 27 were at 13+, out of 57 pupils, and 22 were at 11+, out of 86 pupils. Most of the scholarships were to St John’s in Leatherhead and Reigate Grammar. As you’d probably expect, some kids move on to other senior schools after year six – but two-thirds choose to stay on.
Other boasty bits: The school likes to recognise the achievements of its students, and ‘well done’ boards are up in the various parts of the school. I like that the school puts these boards up where the children will see them (and be inspired by them), rather than as a show-off to school visitors.
Sporting successes include: Surrey School Football Champions in 2014 and 2015, runners up in the National School Swimming Championships, and UK National 100m Sprint Champions in 2016.
Oh, and if you’ve been to see Kinky Boots in the West End, one of the little stars is a current Downsend student.
The headmaster: Ian Thorpe has been at Downsend for three years and is proud of what he’s achieved at the school. He’s very approachable, and clearly has the respect and admiration of the kids. As we walked around the school together, he stopped to chat to several kids, and knew virtually all of them by name. A passionate advocate of a broad, holistic education, he says he doesn’t run the school for the scholarships, but that it’s an affirmation that they’re getting it right. “Our job is to prepare the kids for senior school,” he says. Mr Thorpe has spent his entire career in Prep schools, the last 17 of which have been in senior leadership roles, both as a Deputy Head at Witham Hall in Lincolnshire and Caterham School, and Head of Junior School at City of London Freemen’s School. He was Headmaster of Chinthurst School in Tadworth before coming to Downsend.
Littlies: Most prep schools offer nurseries these days (get em in young!) and Downsend is no different. Little people can start here from the age of two, and move up through pre-prep into the senior school. Ninety-eight per cent of the littlies go up to the big school from the pre-prep – which says something, I think, about how happy parents are with the school.
Each of the Pre-Prep Schools has it’s own head teacher. I visited the Leatherhead Pre-Prep school, where Gill Brooks is the head, and I really liked what I saw. The school is divided into three parts, which are (rather sweetly) known as First Steps (for the two-year-olds), Rising Reception (nursery) and Reception. Right now, there are 110 kids here, but that’s expected to increase to about 140 by the end of this academic year.
Mrs Brooks says she wants to create an environment where the kids love to be, and don’t want to leave at the end of the day. I’d say they’ve achieved that. The classrooms are bright and light – most with double aspect windows, and because most of the classrooms are within a former house, the ceilings are high and there’s a real sense of space. The reception and year 1s are based here, over four 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. They also use the facilities of the main school – not least specialist teachers who come over to teach French, drama and PE to your little geniuses.
Quirks: Downsend School doesn’t do quirky in general. This is a good school with a strong academic and moral framework. It’s non-denominational, but stories with a strong moral message are told at assemblies each week.
Wrap around care: Learning begins at 8.30am, but the school’s doors open at 8am for supervised play. The day ends at 3.45pm for children in Years 2, 3, 4 and 5, and the Upper School day finishes at 4.15pm. There is provision for children to stay until 5.45pm, for an extra charge, with tea if it’s required. For kids in the Lower School, there’s a Late Class, which offers quiet time until 4.15pm, when siblings in the Upper School finish.
Outside of term time, there is the Downsend+ and Downsend Pre-Prep+ which offers up to 50 weeks of child care from 8am to 5.30pm. There’s also the usual array of after-school clubs (cookery, French, judo, ballet, samba, etc).
Fees: Average and on an increasing scale as you go up the school. In Year 2 it’s £3,845 a term, rising to £4,655 for Years 3-8. If you’re interested in the Pre-Prep it’s £3,490 for full-time attendance in the Nursery, Reception and Year 1. Lunch is compulsory and included in the fees.
Word on the ground: Downsend School is the down-to-earth of the prep school options in this area, with the bigger and pushier Danes Hill in Oxshott said to be the choice of the footballers’ wive set. One parent I spoke to has one child of each gender here, and she says it is a fabulous school for both sexes. Downsend has established connections with senior schools in the area, which parents definitely see as a plus. And the sporting opportunities are also seen as a plus.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Children who like ‘family’ oriented school – there’s a real sense of community and family. Parents who care about the academics but resolutely don’t want to hot-house their kids or force them to grow up too fast.
Not for: Those who like the ‘grandness’ of country private schools. The main building is attractive, but while the school couldn’t want for anything more in terms of facilities, it’s not on a huge site
Dare to disagree?! Have a look yourself, and let me know what you think. The main school has open mornings on Sat 24 Sept and Fri 18 Nov, from 9.15am-12noon (with the headmaster’s talk at 9.30am.) The Pre-Prep open days are on Sat 1 Oct and Thurs 17 Nov from 9.30-11.30am. Click here to register.
Downsend School, 1 Leatherhead Road, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 8TJ. Tel: 01372 372197. downsend.co.uk