Last week I had the pleasure of visiting The Downs School, a small preparatory school for girls and boys aged 4 – 13 in Wraxall, just 5 miles away from Bristol.
The school had invited me to spend a day there so that I could learn more. On my visit I met Mr Gunn, Headmaster of The Downs School for sixteen years, as well as staff and pupils of the school. I also went on a tour of the school with my pupil guides, Sophia and Ben, the Head Pupils of The Downs School.
The Downs School is situated in Charlton House, a beautiful Victorian mansion which is surrounded by 60 acres of rolling green hills and fine old trees.
The Downs School offers its 280 pupils a down-to-earth, healthy way of life. The outdoors plays a huge part of school life and playtime is spent in the woods, tree-climbing and playing in the ‘hobbit house’, wooden castles and dens!
Outdoors there is an amazing new tree house and fort for children to enjoy, plus, a ‘Pets’ Corner’ comprising of guinea foul, rabbits and chickens. These animals will also soon be joined by some battery chickens which the school is rehoming.
Other aspects of the school’s healthy ethos include a ban on children having mobile phones in the school and a new nutritious but tasty menu. Plus, all food waste is recycled into compost for the school grounds; the school’s aim is to become an ‘Eco-friendly School’ in the near future.
The Downs School has a strong reputation of academic success. Despite having a diverse range of abilities, every year almost all children achieve their first choice of school on leaving The Downs School at age 13.
Plus, there is a 50% scholarship success rate for children leaving The Downs at age 13 to other leading independent schools over the last decade and 70% scholarship rate in 2014/2015.
According to Mr Gunn, Headmaster of The Downs School, the formula to children’s success at The Downs School is a simple one.
First and foremost is that children must be happy. This may sound simple, yet is vital. As Mr Gunn explains, “If children are happy, content and safe then we’re going to get the best from them”.
Thus, the school prioritises the health and mental well-being of children and is particularly aware of issues that children face in the modern-day, such as body image and academic pressures.
There is a whole network of support available to pupils, including ‘listeners’, members of staff whose role is to listen and offer support to children when they have a problem or issue.
And, in my tour of the school later that morning with Sophia and Ben, I learned that they had never come across bullying in the school during their years at the Downs; both explained to me that the school has regular talks on bullying and any unkind behaviour from pupils is stamped out immediately.
The school also offers extra support for any extra learning needs that a child may have, for example, with Dyslexia or Dyscalculia or speech therapy for issues with speech.
The second secret of children’s success at The Downs, Mr Gunn explained to me, is the school’s well-rounded curriculum. While academia is certainly the school’s focus, sport, dance and drama also play a big part of school life and the curriculum, making it ‘a busy, rounded place”.
Mr Gunn explained that this well-rounded curriculum ensures that each and every child will find something that they are good at, academic or otherwise, which will be ” a good prop for self-esteem”.
80% of children play an instrument at The Downs School and school choir is compulsory. Plus, children have the chance to learn exciting instruments such as the ukulele, trombone and trumpet!
And, for children who are especially musical there is also a school chamber choir to be part of. The school has also reached the finals of the ‘Choir of the Year’ Doctor Barnardos competition for the last two years.
Sport is also a big part of The Downs School, so much so that it has a national reputation. The school has its own outdoors swimming pool, a huge sports hall, astro turfs, netball courts and acres of playing fields.
Drama is also a big part of life at The Downs School and is part of the curriculum and the school is planning to build a Performing Arts Centre. Every year each year group performs its own drama production in the school theatre which, Mr Gunn explained, is a performance hugely enjoyed by all.
There is also a wide range of dance on offer to children at The Downs including jazz and ballet. Every year a House Dance Competition is held at The Downs which is a source of great enjoyment for all! The pupils perform duets as well as its own version of the TV series ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ – a ‘Strictly Dance Off’!
The Downs School is divided into two halves: the Pre-Prep School which is for children in school years Reception to Year 3 and the Prep School which is for children in Years 4 – 8.
The Pre-Prep classrooms are bright, colourful and cheerful and I enjoyed meeting the children there, plus the reception teachers who were lovely.
Class sizes are very small at both the Pre-Prep and Prep at the Downs and classrooms are very smart. As well as the fantastic sports facilities and theatre, The Downs School boasts a fantastic ICT Suite which includes top-of-the range computers, a library well-stocked with great books, music department and science laboratories.
There are also a lovely large airy art studio and while on my tour of the school, I very much enjoyed watching children creating beautiful art work there.
I also enjoyed trying the new school menu; the food is nutritious and very tasty! The school dining hall is a light, happy room with bright murals on the wall recently painted by renowned artist, Natasha Clutterbuck.
Courtesy is very important at The Downs School and I was very impressed with the children with whom I met on my day at the school. Both Sophia and Ben and the children I sat with at lunch were pleasant and well-mannered, checking that I was comfortable, had everything that I needed and opening doors for me.
But, the children I met on my day at the Downs School were also genuinely nice, kind children and were a real pleasure to talk to.
Each and every teacher that I met at The Downs was very friendly and welcoming to me, plus keen to talk about what their class was learning and involved the children in the conversation. It was clear that they enjoy working at The Downs and are enthusiastic about what they teach.
The Downs School has a wonderful, warm and happy atmosphere and when I later went on a further tour of the school after lunch with Mr Gunn, I was impressed to see that he knows every child by name!
There is an Open Day at the Downs School on Friday 14th October, from 9.30am – 2.30pm. The open day will give parents and children the chance to go on a tour of the school with pupil ‘guides’ and to meet Mr Gunn and other members of staff. You don’t need an appointment to visit.
To find out more about The Downs School please visit http://www.thedownsschool.co.uk/.