The Downs Malvern
Muddy says: We love this vibrant day, weekly, flexi- and full-boarding prep, with an impressive 55-acre campus on the side of the Malvern Hills and its own working steam railway!
Looking for an under-the-radar, cosy prep that consistently feeds to some of the best senior schools in the land? Look no further than The Downs Malvern School, a non-selective rural school on the western side of the Malvern Hills. Founded in 1900, the school has 240 day, flexi, weekly and full-boarding pupils from three to 13 years old.
Checking out the slightly underwhelming (and shortly to be revamped) website before my visit, I was unprepared to be so charmed by what had seemed another country prep tucked into pretty hills. It’s not the swankiest-looking school – the majority of its building are pretty utilitarian and there isn’t much in the way of swishy, sweeping gardens – but lucky are the children who attend such a happy school, surrounded by nature and under the wing of Headmaster Alastair S. Cook.
Perched in 55 beautiful acres on the edge of Colwall in deepest Worcestershire, the school merged with Malvern Prep in 2008 and has recently formed an official link with senior school Malvern College, a few miles away. The comfy Edwardian, timbered main building sits in the centre of the campus and houses administration, dining, and kitchen, reception rooms and some dormitories. Buildings aren’t strewn across a large space – no scurrying across a big campus to get to science on time – but this adds to the inclusive atmosphere of the place.
Pupils: Fairly even ratio of boys (132) to girls (114). Day pupils are the majority (about 200), with about 40 boarders from across the country. Seven bus routes run from three counties to Malvern College and then onto shuttle buses morning and afternoon to the prep. Primarily British pupils, with only 10-12 overseas pupils in total, though come from as far afield as Armenia, Japan and Finland. Many forces families, with strong historical links to the military (SAS train in neighbouring Herefordshire). Children I met, clad in the navy and bottle-green uniform, seemed unaffected, funny, relaxed and enjoyed chatting to Mr Cook, who knew the name of everyone we came across. It’s the main feeder to Malvern College but pupils also head off to other toppies such as Rugby, Cheltenham, Repton, Marlborough, Shrewsbury, Abingdon and Sevenoaks.
Wrap-Around for Smalls: Children in pre-prep, which is nursery to Year 2, finish their day at 3.30pm, do a half-hour activity of anything from yoga to German to Lego, have sandwiches at 5pm and stay onto 6pm. Boarding is offered as young as Year 2. The amazing land around them is evidently well-used by the Forest School, judging from the number of tiny raincoats and wellies I spotted there!
Boarding: Run by Houseparents Sarah and John Warlow, and helped by two matrons, the “Warren” is situated behind the main building and felt entirely like a family home. Girls’ rooms were painted a vibrant pink (it somehow works) and newly laid with thick, cosy carpets. Boys’s rooms are, as usual, less-decorated but still comfortable. Flexi boarders can stay 1, 2 or 3 nights, or on an ad hoc basis. Weekends are busy with off-site activities, which in the past have included trips to Bristol Zoo and Giffords Circus, shopping in Worcester, zorbing or dry slope skiing. The Warren had one of the best games rooms I’ve ever seen – the opposite of done-up, but better for it – airy, light and charmingly old-fashioned.
Headmaster: Originally from Zimbabwe, rugby-loving Headmaster Sam Cook (60s) has been at the helm since 2009. Among other schools, he taught at The Dragon, Oxford for 17 years, and was headmaster at Pembroke House in Kenya before returning to the UK. Approachable, avuncular and casual (he was wearing hiking boots on my visit), his office was just what you’d imagine a head’s office should be – wood-panelled, clubby, slightly haphazard, showcasing military medals – his father was in the Dambusters squad – some excellent paintings, puzzles, models, comfy sofa and dog baskets (beagle fan). “This is a children’s office,” he says, playing host to pre-prep hot chocolate once a week. But as well, “happy parents, happy school,” he says. “It makes our job is a lot easier.”
What Else: On my tour I got the impression this is a very well-managed enterprise. Sam Cook has boosted numbers by about a hundred since his arrival, but in no way did this feel to its detriment. There’s money in the bank (and therefore available for bursaries) due in part to Cook’s preference for renovation of existing buildings over flashy new construction. I saw evidence of this in the theatre – a less lovely, 60s exterior but fitted inside with beautiful new floors and excellent lighting, and heavily used for assemblies, art shows, music and theatre production (Lamda is on offer, too). Recent productions have included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Royal Hunt of the Sun.
Facilities: As mentioned, the school prefers to refurbish what they’ve got, but there is a newish indoor sports hall, lighted Astro pitch, two hard netball/tennis courts and four Astro courts, as well as rugby and playing fields. Pupils are bused to Malvern College to make use of racquets courts and the 25-metre indoor pool.
Academic and Otherwise: High academic results for a non-selective school. I really rated the teachers I briefly met there. Class sizes are low, and in 2018 15 Leavers won 21 academic, drama, sport and music scholarships to three senior schools. The school has helpfully included a “Curriculum Map” (i.e. what topics are being covered and when) for each year group on the website, so there’s nowhere for your little darling to hide when they feign ignorance. Suggested reading lists are also posted. French taught from Early Years, with a second compulsory choice of German or Spanish from Year 7, when Latin is also introduced. There’s no formal prep for Years 3 and 4; three supervised preps a week from Year 5; two 30-minute preps every night in Years 6,7 and 8.
The art department, featuring lovely wide views to the north and west, was particularly impressive, and its head buzzy and enthusiastic. Work displayed there was one of the highest standard I’ve seen at any prep. I was also amazed at the quality and size of the school’s art collection dotted around the campus buildings. And for a small rural prep, it has some impressive historical connections – WH Auden taught there in the 1930s and it boasts two Nobel Science Laureates.
Formal Saturday school is a thing of the past, rather those mornings are taken up with “Hobbies” ranging from photography and computer club to jazz band, a school television channel, rambling and fencing, plus all the usual prep school sports.
What Else? Though no longer formally associated with the Quakers, there is a real sense of kindness, calm and social consciousness at The Downs. Upon learning that about 80 pupils at the village primary were entitled to free lunches, Cook got straight on it, fitted out a van and now sends a hot lunch there five days a week.
The school also boasts the oldest private miniature railway in the world. Built in 1925 and both bonkers and charming, it starts from its own tiny station, circling the playing fields and traversing a short tunnel. Pupils learn how to drive the locomotive along its quarter-mile of track, unwittingly soaking up lessons in maths, physics and geography at the same time. Open Day visitors get a go, too.
Muddy’s Verdict: Would suit a little soul in need of a secure and inclusive family atmosphere that nabs impressive results too. The supremely pretty setting may be a tad rural for some, and the small size means sports superstars might get slightly more in-house competition elsewhere, but for a timeless prep school experience based on solid values and far away from the rat-race of south-east England, you couldn’t do much better.
Nuts and Bolts: Fees increase incrementally by year. Day fees per term range from £2,457 for Reception to £5,905 for Years 7 and 8. Weekly boarders are £4,455 for pre-prep, up to £6,878 for Years 7 and 8; Full boarding starts at £5,063 and tops out at £7,816.
See for yourself: The next Open Day is 4 May 2020. Registering interest ahead of time is not necessary, and private visits are welcome any time during the year. The closing date for 11+ scholarship applications is 20 January 2020.
The Downs Malvern, Brockhill Road, Colwall, Malvern WR13 6EY, Tel: 01684 544104, www.thedownsmalvern.org.uk