Taking on the Headship at Tonbridge, one of the country’s most prestigious and oldest all-boys public schools, which counts the likes of authors EM Forster and Vikram Seth, as well as Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens and former England cricket captain Colin Cowdrey among its alumni, is something that James Priory, its new Headmaster appears to be very enthusiastic about.
When we meet to discuss what his key aims are since replacing former Head Tim Haynes, he is clearly keen to get on with things at the world famous school, which was founded in 1553 by Sir Andrew Judde and today boasts 788 pupils.
Mr Priory says his first task is to ensure the solid guardianship of the 150-acre historic seat of learning which lies to the north of the market town. “We want to maintain the high levels of success Tonbridge School is known for but to also drive it further forward,” he states.
Mr Priory, who joined the school at the beginning of this academic year, had previously been at Portsmouth Grammar School, an independent school, since 2000. He was the school’s Head of English before becoming Headmaster ten years ago.
‘We want to make it possible for more boys to benefit from a Tonbridge education’
“My previous school has a very similar ethos to that of Tonbridge, both academically and with its commitment to all-round experience, but Portsmouth is very different as it’s a co-educational day school for children aged from two and a half to 18.”
He says he’d always known of Tonbridge School by repute and that his appointment felt almost serendipitous as one of his favourite books, The Learning Game, was penned by Tonbridge School’s former ‘legendary’ Head of English Jonathan Smith.
“He wrote this very influential book for teachers which also draws on the poetry of a writer I love called Edward Thomas. It reflects on life as an English teacher; on what you’re actually doing in the classroom with young people, and examining what the art of teaching actually is.
“And because I knew Jonathan had taught at Tonbridge, which has a great tradition of teaching and learning, this book is what really put the school on the map for me.”
Mr Priory reveals that his time so far at Tonbridge, which has seven boarding houses and five for day boys, has been ‘amazing’ and he’s been busy immersing himself into school life.
“A bit like the Novi [Year 9 pupils, the youngest at the school] I’ve also been discovering Tonbridge this term and what its strengths are. I’ve been shadowing the Novi, doing some of their work, sitting in on lunch at their houses and reflecting on their experiences. It’s been very exciting to share that journey of discovery with them. And to see what a busy but happy place Tonbridge is.”
Now it’s almost the end of the year, and first academic term, has Mr Priory drawn up a To Do list? “There is some really great teaching and learning going on here with a very talented and specialist staff. So we’d love to build further on that, ensuring the boys are not only achieving great results and enjoying their experience of education, but also developing all those skills that are going to be important for their future lives.”
Mr Priory adds that although there are lots of things going on that are ‘pretty inspirational’, he wants to make certain that’s happening right across the curriculum.
“I’m very interested in teaching and learning and how we provide super-curricular opportunities. This means not only achieving outstanding GCSE and A Level results, but also having the ability to make creative connections between your subjects and to explore beyond what the exam specifications require.” An impressive 91% of Tonbridge School students gained an A* or A grading at GCSE this year.
Another important item on Mr Priory’s list is giving talented young boys who may not have the financial means to attend Tonbridge – termly boarding fees are just over £13,000 – the ability to do so through the school’s Excellence For All campaign.
“This is something that is very much in my thoughts and I’m finding it’s something that is also shared by my colleagues and the school’s governors. So we will be looking at how we can further develop our programme of widening access,” he continues.
The school, which attracts students from all around the globe, currently has a scholarship programme which offers means tested support but Mr Priory wishes to do more.
“We want to make it possible for more boys to benefit from a Tonbridge education and thus enrich the place by their presence, regardless of their financial circumstances.”
This all-encompassing approach and inclusive vision also extends to that of the wider community.
“I think it’s good to ask ourselves how far does the school mirror the community we serve? A big attraction about coming to Tonbridge was the strong relationship that already exists between the school and the wider local community and I’m keen to consider how we develop it further.”
Mr Priory cites events such as the school’s recent Pink Day, which raised £3,500 for cancer charities last month, as well as its community action group where boys and staff engage through weekly placements in schools and care homes.
“We don’t see Tonbridge School as an island,” states Mr Priory. “So exploring how young people from a diversity of backgrounds can experience what we have to offer, and even become a pupil at Tonbridge regardless of their financial status, is our very real challenge.”
Far from this being idealist rhetoric, Mr Priory says that Tonbridge School has a ‘responsibility’ to reach out.
The school is part of the educational charity The Skinners’ Company, which also has The Judd and The Skinners’ grammars and The Skinners’ Kent Academy under its umbrella. In the last ten years, however, an independent Board of Governors has taken on responsibility for Tonbridge’s governance.
“There’s no doubt it’s part of our moral purpose that we offer the chance to study here. There’s still a lot of work to do but it’s exciting to feel that others share that ambition.”
However, he insists this doesn’t mean the educational establishment’s outstanding reputation and results will be compromised: “We’re used to being a school where teachers, pupils and their parents aspire to high standards of academic achievement and personal development – and there is
no desire to compromise on that aspiration.”
Telling the story of what goes on at Tonbridge, such as the school’s voluntary work with the Join The Pipe and Porchlight charities, is another vital thing to do as Mr Priory says there are some ‘extraordinary things’ happening that aren’t known about or appreciated.
“That’s partly because the school has a surprising modesty,” he concludes. “I’ve learnt to really respect that in the boys whom I’ve met during my time here so far. There is a humility. The boys are proud of what they do and ambitious in what they want to achieve but they are also surprisingly modest and humble and I don’t want to lose that quality because I realise that it is
really rather precious.”