Downe House

Logo of Downe House

Pupils Info

Gender – Girls School
Age range – Age 11-18
Number of pupils on roll – 593 Pupils


Average Class Size: 12
Day and Boarding school
Oxbridge Entrance Percentage: 13%
Day: £23,040 – Boarding: £31,830
A* to B at A-Level Percentage: 75%

A former convent built for Spanish nuns “in the middle of nowhere” – in one former pupil’s words – overlooking the Berkshire Downs near Newbury, Downe House has long been one of England’s best known and most highly regarded all- girls boarding schools. Its unusual architecture of white arches and pink- tiled roof bears testament to its exotic past. Old girls are as varied as they are impressive: from Clare Balding to Lulu Guinness to Miranda Hart and Lady Gabriella Windsor. The school maintains a strong reputation for both academics and sport, but has never been known as a ‘pressure cooker’ and prides itself on giving girls a ’rounded’ education. It’s a popular option amongst parents slightly terrified by the idea of a more formidable place like, say, Wycombe Abbey. But Downe House girls are no shrinking violets (as shown on the lacrosse pitch, more of which later); and the school – which has traditionally had strong social links with both Eton and Radley – is proud of turning out girls with a ‘can-do’ mind-set. The school has also impressed inspectors, with both Ofsted and ISI awarding Downe House an ‘Outstanding’ in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

Background & Reputation

Downe House was founded by Olive Willis, its first headmistress, in Charles Darwin’s former home in Kent (in the village of ‘Downe’ from which the school takes its name). Willis’ motto was that girls should learn for learning’s sake, not just for the sake of taking exams; and though the inevitable focus on exams has crept in, the school has done a better job than many in staying true to this. Downe House has long maintained a social, academic and sporting cachet and is a top choice for ambitious parents of daughters. Girls hail from a large catchment – from London to Scotland, and, of course, plenty from the local area around Berkshire and Hampshire. Its very rural setting – the school is very much not, unlike many of its rivals, in a town – helps to keep girls here down to earth. There is also a strong emphasis on morals here, with community service very much a part of the Downe House way of life.

Academic and Exit Results

Though this is no ‘hot house’, academic results are impressive – and always have been. Old girls consistently mention the Sciences – and, in particular, Chemistry as a very strong area in the curriculum, with wonderfully inspiring teachers, and a high proportion choose to take A levels in this subject. Girls are very much allowed to take the academics here at the pace that suits them. Girl A lamented, “I could have been pushed harder, to be honest. Sometimes I think I was allowed to coast.” But Girl B says: “I think the school made a real effort to suit everyone: there was a top tier academically in each year and plenty who took it less seriously.” Both girls agree that working hard was never seen as “uncool” here. “It didn’t make a difference. There was a lot of respect for people who did work hard, particularly in the upper years, but no looking down on those who didn’t.” Oxbridge applications were encouraged and those applying given extra help with their applications. “If anyone expressed an interest,” says Girl B, “they would be told to go for it. The school was always encouraging us to dream big, so unless it was hopeless I can’t imagine anyone would be discouraged from applying.” She adds that no one ever felt forced into applying. There was particular praise for the system of Downe House old girls coming back to the school to talk to girls about their universities, to give a clear picture of what life is like at particular universities from someone who the girls respect. This years results are indeed impressive, with 75% of girls achieving grade A- B at A Level and 82% achieving A- B in their Pre-U examinations. 13% of leavers went to Oxbridge, and 86.6% of students gained A*- A at GCSE level.

Social and Pastoral

“There is definitely a feeling of needing to respect your elders [as in, the elder girls]” that underpins life at Downe House, says Girl B. First years are expected to hold the doors open for the older ones; and it’s not taken particularly lightly if they don’t. “Being seen to be cocky is definitely not a good thing here.” It was agreed that, like at most all-girls schools, bullying does arise here. Kate Middleton is alleged to have moved to Marlborough College after having been bullied at Downe House. But all the girls were also agreed that the school deals with such problems incredibly well, and proactively. “When I was unhappy in my second year, there were so many different people I could have turned to,” says Girl B. “And unlike at some schools, Downe deals with bullying incredibly discreetly – they don’t make a big embarrassing fuss, but they sort it out, and they will move your house, or whatever they need to do, to make it better. There’s an incredibly integrated pastoral system.” The girls felt there was not a tremendous pressure to be ‘cool’ in terms of fashion and “London-type things”. Despite a strong presence of London girls at the school, “because we were in the middle of nowhere, with no shops to schmooze around in, people weren’t really focused that sort of thing,” says Girl B. Girl C emphasised the school’s “incredibly unglamorous uniform” – of trademark green skirt and jumper – as a deterrent to being fashion-conscious here. “There’s really nothing you can do to make it look cool,” she sighs. “There’s always a bit of an issue around eating disorders at girls schools,” says Girl C, “but it wasn’t too bad at Downe. If someone wasn’t eating, everyone would notice and wonder what was wrong with her.” She adds that the emphasis on sport was valuable in guarding against this sort of thing, as, presumably, is the fact that the school has excellent (and largely home-made) food – particularly in the Sixth Form dining room. Downe House is very much a full-boarding school, with only a handful of day pupils making up the population of just under 600 girls. And with classes going until 12-noon on Saturdays, the school remains full on weekends, with various activities laid on for this time, though Girl A says, “As we got older, we grew less enthusiastic about these activities and more enthusiastic about London [which is just a short train ride away].” The house system was unanimously praised, with first year girls living together in one of two houses; second to fifth years thrown together in mixed age houses; and then sixth years having their own – incredibly comfortable – houses with their own bedrooms and a greater feeling of independence. The high-quality of the sixth form facilities was widely cited as a reason why more girls do not leave for co-ed sixth forms. Girl C did lament, though, that, “despite the structure of the house system, there is not much friendship between year groups, and older girls can be very intimidating towards younger ones.” The school – though not particularly close to any boys’ schools – is in fairly close proximity to both Eton and Radley, “where most of the brothers go”, and has strong links, formal and informal, with both. Girl A says, though, that the events organised with the boys schools in the upper fifth and sixth forms were “quite cringey – forced social situations, like discos.” But a popular option for interaction was joining the Caledonian Society, or “Cal Soc”, to do Scottish reeling lessons with boys from Eton and Radley. Girls A, B and C agreed that drugs are all but non-existent here, but that some drinking does go on, “mostly people sneaking a bit in after an exeat”, as does smoking. “Out of 100 girls in a year, I’d say at least 20 of those would be smokers,” said Girl C. Girls would go into the woods to smoke, but if caught, the punishment would be quite serious – “community service, a call to the parents, a fine, and if it happened a certain number of times, suspension.”

Sport, Music & Drama

“Sport at Downe is a really, really big deal,” says Girl B. It is seriously cool to be good at sport here, particularly lacrosse, which almost everyone plays. “It’s so much fun to play and be good at it, and the rapport with the sports teachers is amazing,” says Girl C. “I think it would be harder, to be honest, to be happy at Downe if you weren’t involved in sport.” Girl A – who was less sporty disagrees – saying, “I never felt pressured to participate in sports here.” The consensus is unanimous that lacrosse is a leading sport at Downe House. Several girls play for England and the school has long been considered one of the top few girls’ lacrosse schools in the country. Everything else comes second. Girl C says “it’s a bit sad, but basically no one plays netball, because that would interfere with playing lacrosse.” But apparently plans are afoot to make hockey more prominent with girls playing at Regional and County level, and to this end, a new hockey pitch has recently been erected. Swimming is also popular and the swimming pool is “amazing”. Pilates, fencing and golf are more alternative choices; and inter-house sports fixtures are as competitive as those waged against other schools. Tennis and Athletics also feature, with girls competing at County level. Drama is also very popular here, with many joint productions with Radley. “It was very cool to be thespian,” says Girl C.


The extra-curriculum at Downe House is renowned. “Basically, if your parents are willing to pay for it, you can do pretty much any activity under the sun here,” says Girl B, from scuba-diving in the swimming pool to riding on Wednesday afternoons to every kind of dance imaginable and a strong music department. The term spent at the school’s own converted farm in France – Veyrines – during each girl’s second year is a particular highlight of the Downe House experience. “It really is the thing that makes Downe stand out from other schools,” says Girl A, “and explains why so many join the school at 11 or 12, rather than waiting until 13. It really is the best term in the whole Downe House experience.”

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