In his second post, our Deputy Head, Mr Godfrey, spends time in the Downe House boarding houses.
One of the most enjoyable and helpful things I did during my first half term at Downe House was to spend an evening in each of the boarding houses. I received a wonderful welcome in all of them. It is much easier to establish a rapport having spent time with the girls in their term-time homes.
Each House is distinctive, shaped by a unique mix of personalities, routines, activities, traditions, and idiosyncrasies. I never knew that bingo could be so much fun (thanks Darwin!); the chat during AGN’s book club was passionate and impressively wide-ranging, and Aisholt’s freshly baked cookies were fabulous.
I have been struck by how the girls plunge themselves willingly into organised, communal activities. There are bake-ins, dance-offs, pamper nights, movie nights, readathons, art workshops, council meetings… you name it. This sense of togetherness was more challenging to create in my boys’ boarding house, since the boys were more inclined to remain in their rooms.
My boarding house was within a co-educational school, and I often had to defend the boys when they were accused (often unfairly) of being messier than the girls. However, I am pleased to confirm that the Downe House girls are – almost without exception – keeping their rooms very tidy.
Most of our new junior boarders (Years 7 and 8) in Darwin, Hermitage and Hill had not boarded before their arrival at Downe. I felt special admiration for them as they are showing great strength of character and humour as they grow accustomed to boarding. The 111 girls across these three houses represent 20% of our whole school. However, in the UK, only a small fraction (just 7%) of boarders are in this age group (11-13 years).
These girls (and their parents) have recently made the bold, brave – and, in my view, wise – decision to board while most of their friends from junior school will have progressed onto a day school.
The girls love talking about their path to Downe House and their experiences in the school. One told me: “I wanted to board ever since I read Mallory Towers and saw Wild Child.” Another said: “My elder brother loved boarding so I knew it would be OK.”
One Remove girl explained to me: “My mother was determined that I should only board when I was 13, but I convinced her to send me at 11. I liked the idea of having a second home full of friends.”
Other girls admit to having been circumspect. “I never wanted to board,” said one. “Downe House was my reserve school, but I loved the assessment day and that made me want to come.”
Sometimes the path to boarding is paved with pragmatism. As one LIV girl explained: “My dad said that if I went to a day school in London, I would spend hours travelling to and from school and then to all my extra-curricular activities. I saw all the space here and realised I could get up later and have everything on my doorstep.”
“My mum and dad both work hard,” said a Remove girl, “so it’s better that I can focus on school during the week and spend proper time with them during holidays and when I see them at weekends.”
Darwin, Hermitage and Hill are beautifully appointed and very cosy. At least three friendly staff are on duty, available and fully involved with the girls each evening. Rules about phones have been relaxed recently (rightly, in my view) so most girls speak to their parents every day. The atmosphere is so much warmer and more homely now: only 10 to 20 years ago, boarding houses were far more austere.
One Remove girl spoke candidly about when she felt unhappy. “I was really upset on my first night. It took me a few nights to get used to the ‘lights out’ moment – I just didn’t like lying awake in bed waiting to fall asleep!” The most effective remedy? Flossie, Ms Scott-Kerley’s black Labrador: “She’s so sweet and cuddly.”
“I also had an argument with my roommate quite early on. It seemed really bad for a day or so but now we’ve realised it’s OK to disagree about stuff sometimes. We get on fine really.”
“It’s inevitable that there will be some bumps along the way,” says Alyson Scott-Kerley, who has worked with our youngest boarders at Downe House for over 12 years. “But the girls are wonderful, and we give the support they need so most issues pass quickly.”
“My dad gave me some good advice,” said one very smiley LIV girl. “He told me not to spend more than five minutes worrying about something that will not affect me in five years’ time.”
Mr Matt Godfrey