This month SO Magazine meets James Thomas, Headmaster of Sutton Valence School. Here he explains his educational experience, before revealing the learning ethos he has put in place at the co-ed independent school which welcomes pupils aged 2 to 18…
I feel very lucky indeed to be able to say that I absolutely love my job. It is such a privilege to lead a school such as Sutton Valence. We have a very special combination here of inspirational young people, a hugely supportive and proud parental body, an outstanding team of teaching and support staff all set in a beautiful physical environment. Our values of community, support and treasuring individuals can be seen in so many ways, and was underlined in our recent inspection which secured excellent grades, and from the student and parent feedback which we regularly seek.
Getting around the incredible range of things which go on here is a challenge even for me as Headmaster, but it fills me with joy watching all the children in action, whether that’s seeing or hearing our endless creativity in music, art, drama and technology, catching a glimpse of a try from the touchline or perhaps just seeing someone having a piece of work returned on which they have worked really hard and noting their reaction can be inspirational.
A great passion of mine, and indeed a significant priority for the school, is the mental health and wellbeing of the community. We have recently recalibrated our provision, ensuring we have a great scheme of weekly sessions for all students focusing on their health, emphasising the positive and being prepared to face the challenges, self-care and care for others. We share the key information each week with parents via our newsletter, and have a number of open sessions for parents where we tackle tricky topics such as the impact of social media and the daily pressures on families. We have also started a course for students in their final year teaching them about finance, safety, driving, cooking and being ready for the world!
Another interesting recent development has been our increased focus on student leadership and contributions. Like many schools we of course have Prefects and leaders in activities such as sport, but here we also have a number of other opportunities for young people to develop their leadership potential. Our mentoring scheme – we have a number of students who have taken a formal course in Mental Health First Aid and act as our Wellbeing Ambassadors – is having a very positive impact. Likewise, our Subject Ambassador scheme enables students of all ages to display their passion for subjects via assemblies, student study support, competitions and working with staff to develop subject areas. Leadership is not always about being in front and being the loudest – here we celebrate it in many different ways.
Students come from all around the vicinity to us, and the Borough of Tunbridge Wells is certainly a growing market for us. We provide a number of bus services (one of which travels through Pembury and various locations) while others might take the train from Paddock Wood to nearby Headcorn (from which we operate a shuttle service.)
A growing number are becoming very interested in our flexible and part-time boarding options. Largely gone are the days of being given a trunk and packed off to board until the end of term, and much more popular is the approach we now have. While full and weekly boarding is available, the prospect of staying at school for three nights a week can benefit all. For a few nights, it saves parents time and considerable fuel costs for picking up and dropping off each day, protects the fridge from being raided constantly, and conserves the energy of the daily ‘have you done your homework?’ conversations, also leaving bedtime and getting up in the morning to us! Our boarding teams and pastoral staff are superb and very welcoming indeed.
I allocate a great deal of time each week to meeting prospective parents and families, and I simply love showing people around this very special place. Do come and meet me and see for yourself!”
James Thomas became Headmaster of Sutton Valence School in September 2021. He studied at St Paul’s School, London, and then went on to receive his undergraduate degree in Theology from Trinity Hall at the University of Cambridge.
He holds an MA in Educational Leadership from the University of London and also the National Professional Qualification for Headship. In his early career, he was a Head of Department (Theology and Philosophy) at both Dulwich College and Wellington College, where he was also in charge of Oxford and Cambridge applications.
Mr Thomas then became Director of Studies at Harrow International School, Hong Kong before moving to the British School in Tokyo for seven years where he was Head of the Senior School. Beyond work, he enjoys spending time with his wife, three sons (who attend Sutton Valence Preparatory School) and his old faithful Labrador. His personal interests include music, choirs, sport, travel and debating current affairs.
Student leadership at Sutton Valence:
The days of Grace Bartleet, Upper Sixth, and Charles Jacques, Fifth Form, are representative of the varied and busy schedules that pupils enjoy within the Sutton Valence School community. While Grace is a day pupil, Charles is a boarder, ensuring that he experiences the added sense of comradery amongst those who stay overnight. “It’s always nice spending time with your friends, and with boarding, you really develop close connections with people, you really understand them – and it cuts the journey in half, which I think was a big factor for my parents. It’s just a really good experience, and it also adds a bit of structure to your life. You’ve got two hours a day where you’ll sit down and do your homework, and you’re allowed to use the great facilities, the sports hall, the gym. And once we get into the summer term, the teachers like to get the barbecue out, and that’s always really good fun, to just sit out in the sun and socialise with other people.”
Like all students, Grace and Charles were enrolled into the School’s Combined Cadet Force in the Third Form – with divisions in the Army, Navy and RAF, and sessions taking place during the school day, rather than after school. Having both chosen to continue on in the CCF past this compulsory stage, Grace is now a Regimental Sergeant Major, leading younger students by example. She says: “I do CCF now by choice, and teach it to the Third Form, which gives me a lot of leadership experience – it’s beneficial to then put on your Personal Statement and when you’re looking further ahead than school.” Charles adds: “I think CCF is a really good option to have at the school, it’s different to sitting indoors on a Wednesday afternoon – it gets you out and able to build skills you wouldn’t in a classroom.”
Both students are challenged by the school’s strong academic focus, with Charles currently showing an aptitude for numbers: “I’m doing my GCSEs at the moment, and I quite like maths, so I think eventually I may go into accounting or something to do with that.” Alongside her school work, Grace takes on the additional and coveted responsibility of being a School Prefect.
“Prefects oversee open days and take visitors on tours, as well as having weekly meetings with the Headmaster, Deputy Head and the Head of Sixth Form. We’re always available to talk to the younger years if they need any advice or want to approach someone less intimidating than a member of staff, giving you that relationship with other year groups that other people might not have. It’s definitely an honour to have that role within the school, there’s quite a long application process for it, and the position is taken very seriously.”
Sport also plays a prominent part in the timetables of both students, with Grace also being an accomplished musician. She explains “We’re both sporty, so that’s quite a big part of our lives here. And I do a lot of music, with the ensembles being another chance to socialise with everyone, and develop better relationships with teachers, outside of the classroom.” Charles agrees, saying “The sport is really good at Sutton Valence School, and the opportunities you get that come with that.”