Downside School, near Radstock
This Catholic day and boarding school with Benedictine values may be steeped in history and tradition but is keeping ahead of the game
Independent Catholic day and boarding school for girls and boys aged 11 to 18 set in 500-acre grounds in the village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse, on the edge of the Mendip Hills, just 12 miles from the World Heritage City of Bath. As you drive through the village down the Fosse Way, the ancient Roman road linking Exeter and Lincoln, Downside school seems to go on forever.
The school was founded in France in 1607, by exiled English and Welsh monks from the Benedictine community of St Gregory the Great, as a Catholic boys’ school. Monks and school returned to England in 1795, initially based in Shropshire, before moving to the present location in 1814 and becoming co-ed in 2005. Today, Downside Abbey and school sit side by side and, whilst some monks are involved in school life – chaplaincy, school assemblies, Mass, theology lessons – the school and Abbey are now separate trusts.
Education is based around the core values of St Benedict – more of which later on. Around with 60% of the pupils are Catholic but the school welcomes pupils and families of all faiths or none.
There are currently around 370 pupils on the roll from the UK and abroad; with 26 nationalities, it’s a rich and diverse community.
The school’s big and rangy with impressive buildings and towers, including The Old House – built in the 18th century – at the heart.
It’s an atmospheric, peaceful place, with parquet flooring, wood-panelled walls, cloisters and corridors with names like the Court of Arches – all very traditional.
But then you suddenly come across a state-of-the art recording studio or a huge and amazing interactive Periodic Table installation in the Science dept.
You shouldn’t judge a school by its chapel but the Abbey Church (partly designed by Giles Gilbert Scott of Battersea Power Station fame) is truly, madly, deeply glorious and well worth a trip alone. When the Schola Cantorum, the UK’s oldest Roman Catholic school choir, are singing it must be amazing.
The bells and whistles Performing Arts Centre has a 450 seat theatre (productions over the past two years include Little Shop of Horrors and Singin’ in the Rain Jr), a state-of-the-art recording studio and music rooms. Music is big here; there are four different choirs, an orchestra and three bands, including a pipe band and a rock band and numerous other groups including sax, percussion and brass.
The Art block has an art studio air complete with an artist in residence, currently an animator/illustrator. Tailoring the work to talents and interests of individual pupils, whether that’s advanced drawing, ceramics, screen printing or textiles, it’s well-equipped with an A1 etching press, Mac suite and a new print studio.
Design Tech is also impressive with metal working workshop, 3D printers, laser cutters, subliminator press (had to ask – it’s for printing on textiles). I want the student-designed folding bike on the wall.
Catering’s an important part of wellbeing at Downside. Staff and pupils help themselves cafeteria style to an excellent array of food (lots of inventive stuff for vegans and veggies from award-winning caterers Holroyd Howe) and eat in the Potteresque Main Refectory. Snacks and drinks are available at other times of day in the more contemporary Downside Weld Café.
Talking of wellbeing, there’s a 24/7 health centre.
Entry is test-based. Hero subjects are STEM, performing arts, sports and languages. Linguists take note: French, German, Spanish, Latin and Greek on the curriculum and private lessons in Mandarin, Italian and Russian. About a third of pupils take a modern language onto A Level, bucking the downward national trend.
2021 results: GCSE: 9-7: 58%. A levels: A*-A: 62%, A*-B 84%. Impressively, in the most recent Government league tables for Added Value (how much progress pupils make) at A level, Downside has been ranked 2nd in Somerset and 39th nationally.
Leavers go on to mainly Russell group universities. Learning support: diagnostic tests for all junior pupils; pupils with specific issues monitored and specialist support. Each dept offers weekly support clinics.
Andrew Hobbs took the helm in 2018 after 10 years as Deputy Head, previously at Canford School, with a degree in Classics from Magdalene College, Cambridge. He emphasises that, whilst results are celebrated, they are the by-product of the school’s Benedictine values on which the ethos and culture is based. He makes clear to the pupils that they are valued for who they are and not defined by what they achieve. The school’s religious foundation is there to support pupils rather than something which is imposed upon them. The school retains its traditions but, under his headship, is moving forward more quickly now, with a major focus on enriching the intellectual side of school life. The recently published Tessara, an academic journal celebrating the work of pupils, is testament to this.
Sports facilities are extensive with vast sports fields as far as the eye can see – seemingly designed for cross-country running – an indoor swimming pool, sports pavilion, astro pitches, a fitness suite and a sports hall.
The facilities are good enough for the likes of Somerset County Cricket Club and Team Bath Synchro team who trained here before the World Championships.
Girls play rugby in the Sixth and Fifth Form and a golf development programme started in 2020 for boys and girls of all ages – fore!
Lots of interaction with the local community with sports teams coming in to use facilities like the pool and cricket nets.
This is a school based on the fundamentals of Benedictine values including: welcome and hospitality; listening; reverence; humility; teaching and learning; personal discipline; care for others; building community; and stewardship – which run through all aspects of life at the school.
There is all-school Mass on Sundays and religious holidays and voluntary Mass every day for those who wish to attend. The Easter Retreat is a popular family affair and well-attended by alumni. Sixth Formers can go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes in the summer.
A full-time chaplaincy is supported by a lay Benedictine group from Chile called the Manquehue Community. Their weekly Lectio Divina ‘communities of spiritual friendship’ meetings are very popular – and not just because of the free pizzas.
Ethos, individual development and contribution to the School are all part of their Scholarship programme.
Old and new come together.
BOARDING AND WRAPAROUND
Originally a boarding school, today around three-quarters of pupils are boarders. Day and boarding pupils share two girls’ boarding houses and four boys’. First, Second and Third Form boys join Powell House, before moving up to one of three senior boys houses: Barlow, Roberts or Smythe. Girls join Caverel House at 13 or Isabella House (which I had a peep into) from 11 to 18 years.
Each House is headed up by a House Mistress or Master. No flexi-boarding as such but you can be a day pupil with 2 or 3 night-a-week boarding option called Day Plus.
Boarders are kept busy at weekends with ice skating, trips to Bath, bush craft, paint balling, go-karting and more as well being able to use the school facilities like sports, art and DT which are open at weekends.
As part of the wider curriculum, there are some 100 clubs and societies including an environmental committee, astronomy, Warhammer, sailing, stone carving, sewing, kayaking, fly fishing, fencing, vintners and Model United Nations. Their Abingdon Debating Society is the oldest of any school in the UK; there’s a Junior version too.
Overseas pupils have their own committee and organise international cultural events like Chinese New Year and Oktoberfest.
Pupils play the quirky Downside Wall Game, an historic outdoor racquet and ball game played against a wall. Here’s one of the bats, waiting to be painted by a pupil with their own Downside design.
There’s a pupil-run weekly Downside Radio Show.
They’ve got their own tank – the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) is very popular, with both Army and Navy divisions.
Turning things on their head, pupils are teaching the teachers to play a musical instrument or learn a new language.
They keep bees and the honey is sold in the Abbey’s Visitor Centre.
A community groups programme, which is all about ‘giving back’, involves teaching languages to local primary schools, visiting a local care home, gardening and litter picks.
Pupils publish their own academic journal, Tessera and hold TEDx conferences.
Alumni are called Old Gregorians, after St Gregory, Downside’s patron saint.
2021/22: Juniors (Years 7 & 8) day: £5,827/term; full boarding £8,968/term; Seniors (Years 9–13) day £6,908/term; full boarding £12,032/term.
WORD ON THE GROUND
One parent summed up what came across from several others, namely that Downside gets under the skin and people very quickly feel passionate about it. They talk about the school’s high standards, moral values and integrity, the sense of history and the Benedictine ethos which offers pupils a blend of learning, personal discipline, mutual respect and confidence. Individual and diverse talents are maximised. Support is given where and when it’s needed. Staff are friendly and accessible from Reception to the Head. Everyone but everyone talked about the close knit community and excellent pastoral care.
Good for: Anyone looking for a nurturing school with a strong sense of community and moral values; one that is steeped in history and traditions yet modern-facing and forward thinking. It’s gloriously rural but you’re close to Bath and Bristol Airport is only 40 mins away and Heathrow is 2 and a half hours.
Not for: The high percentage of boarders might not appeal to some, though Houses are mixed day/boarders to avoid ‘them and us’.
Downside School, Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Radstock, Somerset BA3 4RJ. Tel 01761 235100. downside.co.uk