Behind the scenes at Downe House

There is a scent of stocks and old-fashioned roses as I walk around Downe House School. Is it always this quiet? The white walls, the cloisters, the pantiled roofs-it might almost be a convent in some Mediterranean clime, rather than a fee-paying girls’ school near Newbury in Berkshire. But then the buildings originally housed an order of Spanish nuns. Perhaps their lingering presence has a calming effect.

Superficial impressions can be deceptive. I’m told that the Downe House lacrosse team took on a famous boys’ school (lacrosse, originally an Indian game, is played by both sexes); not only did they win 2-0, but left two of the opposing players in hospital. Perhaps that’s apocryphal but one would like to think it were true.

The school has always encouraged independence of thought and action. ‘During the Second World War, the girls captured a German pilot who baled out,’ remembers Karl Simpson, director of admissions and a science teacher. ‘It must have been a truly terrifying experience for the airman.’ These days, there aren’t many schools that only take girls, all of whom board. Perhaps as a result, the 600 or so pupils come ‘from 180 feeder schools, located anywhere from Northumberland to the Channel Islands’.

About 5% arrive from overseas because they’re of foreign nationality: places of origin include the Caribbean, the east coast of the USA, Germany, France and Morocco. Another 5% have parents who are British, but live abroad.

Downe House is a country school. Meals are eaten beneath tall oak arches in an Arts-and-Crafts dining room laid with table linen and flowers, beneath a pastoral mural. Outside, the grounds run to 110 acres. In this place of lawns and woodland, the hustle of London seems far away. But shhh, an elegant, slim figure in a tailored grey suit, piped in black, is walking briskly across the campus. It is Emma McKendrick, the headmistress. We drink tea out of china cups in a room furnished with striped-silk-upholstered armchairs and glass-fronted cabinets. I am told that she’s regarded as a divinity by her pupils. If so, she is a protective one.

An advantage of an all-girls school, she tells me, is that young people ‘can remain a little bit unsophisticated for longer than they might elsewhere. It builds confidence: it can encourage them to take risks in a safe environment’. They are encouraged to think for themselves, without the pressures-not all of them obvious-that the presence of boys would entail.

Mrs McKendrick mentions the surprise of a Downe House girl, who has gone to study engineering at Imperial College, London, at the small number of other women on the course. ‘It just wouldn’t have occurred to her that some subjects aren’t supposedly meant for girls.’ The sixth form, therefore, has as many sets for chemistry as English.

This wouldn’t surprise the school’s founder, Olive Willis. She wanted Downe House, which she established with a hockey-playing friend, Alice Carver, in 1907, to be different from the boys’ public schools, which were the benchmark for Edwardian education. Miss Wills herself had been to Roedean, before going to read history at Somerville, Oxford, in 1898 (although women weren’t admitted to the university until 1920, they could attend some lectures and sit examinations). Afterwards, she taught at a number of schools, private and State, her reach being far wider than that of the regular curriculum.

‘The lessons of Miss Wills were a revelation to me of what teaching could be,’ recalled a pupil, in characteristically intense language. ‘It was as if one had swum suddenly out of a narrow river into the limitless sea.’ With loans from their parents, the Misses Wills and Carter were able to acquire Down House, Charles Darwin’s old home near Biggin Hill, hence the name of the school; the study where he had written

On the Origin of Species became the girls’ common room. A laboratory was made in the garden, where ‘Miss Heather presided over bangs and smells’, according to another reminiscence. Part of Miss Wills’ philo-sophy was to make relations between the teaching staff and pupils as normal as possible. Private interviews between children and headmistress, known as jaws, were an essential medium for dispensing encouragement and influencing directions.

There was a confidence about pupils even then. One of them approached Miss Wills to borrow her green scarf, for a dance for a forsaken merman during a school play. ‘What else are you going to wear?’ she enquired. ‘Well,’ replied the girl, ‘we thought it’s under the sea, with green net between us and the audience-just my hair.’ It was kindly suggested that, although her hair was long, the concept might be too experimental, with the possibility of fathers present.

Jaunts to the theatre took place in a double-decker bus; coming home one foggy evening, the girls took it in turns to walk in front of the bus waving a handkerchief to guide the driver. Dogs were part of the regime. Until the 1970s, girls wore an unflattering shift known as a djibbah, which started with deep hems that were let down as their occupants grew older. The uniform now principally consists of a long green skirt and jumper.

For all its intimacy, Down House was eventually outgrown, and the move to the Cloisters Estate-the present premises-occurred in 1922. A large chapel was soon built. Christianity was important to Miss Wills, but her faith was far from complacent. ‘I have not found anything better than Christianity,’ she once said. ‘If I do, I shall certainly change my religion.’ Formidable but nurturing, Miss Wills casts a long shadow.

Downe House is blessed with all the facilities that you would expect of a fee-paying school for 11 to 18 year olds: art rooms and computer suites, a swimming pool and squash courts (where the squash coach John Payne says that, although ‘playing with Dad’ may be the prime motivation, the girls are ‘highly motivated and competitive’). Music and drama are big, dance popular, lacrosse axiomatic.

The Lower Sixth takes a Prue Leith cookery course, although it’s a sign of the times that proficiency, or even interest, in this area can’t be taken for granted: Kristin Simpson, married to Karl and a house-mistress, makes it ‘a mission’ to ensure that all the girls have mastered a ‘handful of recipes’ by the time they leave. But not every-thing is predictable. Car maintenance and DIY form part of the offering.

For 20 years, girls in their second year (12 year olds) have been going to France, where Downe House has its own operation at Veyrines, a hamlet near the Dordogne River: while they are there, all the lessons are in French. Each of the boarding houses is twinned with a school in a developing part of the world. A ‘sense of service’ is part of the ethos. ‘Love of learning, not the mechanics of it’ is how Mrs McKendrick characterises the Downe House approach.

The Saturday before my visit, a group of 14 young women who left 10 years ago returned to their old haunts. Like most Downe House girls, they had all been to good universities and were in high-achieving jobs, but, typically, their choices of career-employment lawyer, brand manager, IT boffin, history teacher, accountant-were individual. ‘They were all doing something they were proud of; it was very inspiring.’ Olive Wills would have approved.