Downsend School, Leatherhead
Downsend School is an innovative independent co-ed school in Leatherhead with a strong academic offering and a thriving sense of community.
What? Where? Downsend School is a selective independent school in Leatherhead offering education for boys and girls aged 2-16 and has recently undergone a significant expansion to be able to offer a three-year GCSE programme from September 2020. And already there’s been a lot of interest in their impressive senior school offering both from parents with children already at the school, and parents with children elsewhere.
The school’s motto Inspiring Young Minds is at the core of the school’s values with the aim to instil a love of learning and confidence in each child.
The main school – for years 2 to 11 – is on the Leatherhead Road. But they start them young at Downsend – and there are three Little Downsend schools, teaching children aged 2-6: 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 Junior and Senior which are in separate, but connected buildings – so there’s a real feeling of unity here.
Of the 510 children, it’s a pretty even mix of girls and boys, 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 3-4 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 building is well underway of a new Creative Arts Centre which is expected to open early 2021.
Facilities: You’d expect any school charging over £15k 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. The school has invested heavily in the STEAM classrooms creating light, bright and wonderfully flexible spaces which are designed to bring Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths to life.
There’s the usual array of outdoor tennis/netball/basketball courts, sports fields, cricket nets, modern sports hall and indoor swimming pool. There are outdoor grass pitches, as well as an Astro turf pitch.
There is a timber fort in one of the the outdoor playgrounds and a Science garden. The swimming pool and sports hall are in the sports complex, which also now houses the junior school’s brand new STAR (Science, Technology and Art Room), a huge, bright and flexible learning space equipped with a modern teaching wall, science benches with gas taps, and a prep room, as well as triangular desks which can be arranged flexibly for collaborative working.
There’s also a tuck shop in the Sports Pavilion that is open for kids in the Senior School (yrs 7-11) to pop into 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!
Music and drama: 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. In Year 3 all children join the Music Scheme and spend the year learning an instrument (trumpet, violin, clarinet or flute) that many continue with into Year 4 and beyond. Most individual instrument lessons are taught in the school’s sound resistant music pods. The highlight of the school’s musical year is Downsend Rocks, a no-holds barred musical extravaganza featuring entirely student-led rock bands.
Science and technology: 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 is a laser cutter for the design and tech labs.
What else? 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 compete for house points in events ranging from photography to gymnastics. 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.
And the school’s response to the Covid-19 restrictions? Lockdown came as a surprise to us all, but after the initial shock wore off Downsend went full throttle to deliver an online teaching and learning programme that included face-to-face sessions in the core subjects, humanities and languages, independent arts projects and sports challenges. There were also weekly PSHE sessions to monitor the pupils’ wellbeing. For the children’s return to school, a bubble system has been put in place, and by the start of the new academic year in September 2020, all pupils had been given an opportunity to return for a week to see their friends and teachers before the school closed for summer.
The academic results: As you’d expect, Downsend achieved a 100 per cent pass rate at the Common Entrance. In 2019, 30 scholarships were awarded – five academic, three all-rounder, four music, 11 sport, one art and one D&E and five other.
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. There are also honours boards to boast the Academic, All-rounder, Art, Drama, Music and Sport scholarships awards achieved.
There’s a ridiculously long list of sporting wins – so it’s no wonder the school was selected as a finalist at the Independent Schools of the Year 2019 Awards in the category of sporting achievement.
The headmaster: Ian Thorpe has been at Downsend for six 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. He’s not too busy for anyone – pupils, parents and prospective parents – which is hugely impressive. Both times I’ve visited Downsend, it has been Mr Thorpe who has shown me around. As we walked around the school together, he stopped to chat to several kids, and knew all of them by name.
He’s chatty and easy going, with clear love for his job and pride in what he’s achieved at Downend. And rightly so! 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 the future,” he says. Mr Thorpe has spent his entire career in Prep schools, the last 19 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 Little Downsend before they join the Junior school in Year 2 ready for the next step of their journey through Downsend.
There are three Little Downsends in this stable of schools on three separate sites: Ashtead, Leatherhead and Epsom. which all feed into the Downsend Junior school in Leatherhead. I visited all three Little Downsends and while they have plenty in common, they all retain an individuality and uniqueness. 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.
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 and there is an ‘Early Bird’ provision from 7.30am for a nominal charge. The day ends at 3.45pm for children in Years 2, 3, 4 and 5, and the Senior School day finishes at 4.20pm. There is provision for children to stay until 5.45pm, for an extra charge, with tea if it’s required. For kids in the Junior School, there’s a Late Class, which offers reading and homework time until 4.15pm, when siblings in the Senior School finish.
Outside of term time, there is the Downsend+ and Downsend Early Years+ 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, Electronics & Robotics, Golf, Gymnastics, Pottery and Squash to name a few).
Fees: Average and on an increasing scale as you go up the school. In Year 2 it’s £4,410 a term, rising to £5,350 for Years 3-6; £5,400 for Years 7-8 and 2020 fees for Years 9-11 are £5,995 a term. If you’re interested in the Little Downsend it’s £3,990 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 school options in this area, with the bigger and pushier Danes Hill in Oxshott said to be the choice of the footballers’ wives 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 Sixth Form providers 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 at their online open event on Fri 13 Nov. Personal tours are also available all year round. Book here.
Downsend School, 1 Leatherhead Road, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 8TJ. Tel: 01372 372197. downsend.co.uk