Talking heads: Tonbridge’s James Priory on Saturday classes and single-sex education

    12 March 2020

    There’s an old joke about public schools. ‘A lady walks into a room. The Etonian says: “Fetch that lady a chair.” The Wykehamist fetches it. The Harrovian sits in it.’ But where does the Tonbridgian fit? The headmaster of Tonbridge School, James Priory, thinks he knows. ‘Maybe he’s gone off to make the tea,’ he suggests. ‘Though I tried to offer you tea without success.’

    Tonbridge School takes pride of place on Tonbridge high street, Kent. Founded in 1553 by Sir Andrew Judde, sometime master of the Skinners’ Company, it is part of the elite Eton Group that includes Westminster, Dulwich and St Paul’s. All boys, day and boarding, Tonbridge’s alumni include former Wellington College master Sir Anthony Seldon, novelists Vikram Seth and E.M. Forster, and bookshop businessman Sir Tim Waterstone. But when these — and others — make the news, ‘Tonbridgian’ is rarely deployed. It is in the premier league, so why is it not better known nationally? ‘We operate without the pressure of being such a well-known brand that boys can’t be themselves,’ says Priory, diplomatically. I surmise that the fact of being ‘a Tonbridgian’ is not as important as a label might be at other schools.

    Priory, 47, the son of an accountant-turned-vicar, was educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and then at Taunton School, where he was head boy. He read English at Lincoln College Oxford, where he sung in the choir, and became acquainted with the Tonbridgian biochemist Norman Heatley, who brought flowers to the chapel. ‘He showed me his notebooks, and what emerged was that he had been very involved in the development of penicillin.’

    Priory hadn’t planned on going into teaching, but his father’s career change proved inspirational. ‘When I was 11 my dad went from working as an accountant to studying to become a vicar. I think that commitment to the life of a community influenced me.’ Both of his siblings are teachers, as is his wife Helen, whom he met at Taunton. The couple have three children — their youngest is at Tonbridge. Priory ‘knew of Tonbridge by repute’, but barely more, when he took over as head in 2018. He describes it as a ‘local school’ on account of 40 per cent of its pupils being day pupils, yet it ‘runs on a full boarding model’, where day boys attend school on Saturdays. ‘The fact that we are on the high street matters — Tonbridge is not an island.’

    Just a mile away is The Judd School, a boys’ grammar with girls at sixth form, one of the seven Skinners’ schools (of which Tonbridge is the only independent) and ranked 19th best selective state school in the country by the Sunday Times. The Judd is free, while Tonbridge’s full boarding fees are £14,035 per term. In some counties, those fees might not matter. But in Kent – which has 34 grammars, 11 of which are within 20 miles of Tonbridge — how can they be justified?

    ‘Single-sex schools don’t belong in some dinosaur age… If anything, it’s becoming more relevant in the 21st century’

    ‘Tonbridge is very scholarly in its traditions,’ Priory begins. ‘The school has a strong academic profile. It’s seen as being a source of innovation. Because our day boys access as much of the boarding as our boarders, you get the investment in the co-curricular time. The relationships which emerge from that are in a whole different ballpark. We have sport three afternoons a week, plus Saturday fixtures. Lunch is lunch — you sit in your house and have lunch together… The day is a long day, and the relationships that come out of spending time with teachers out and about as well as in the classroom mean that there’s another depth to the experience.’ The answer, then, is pastoral care. It is easy to criticise public school leaders on fees, when all of the top ten independent boarding schools charge over £40,000 per annum. That Tonbridge — ranked 34th among independent secondary schools nationally — is in that club is ‘the number one challenge that we face as a sector and a school’, says Priory. Still, it’s not putting parents off. ‘The number of applications has increased, but I know that’s not the case everywhere. We are in a privileged part of the country [given] our access to London.’

    Priory helped introduce girls to Bradford Grammar School in the 1990s, and his previous school, Portsmouth Grammar School, is also co-ed. When he arrived at Tonbridge he ‘used to flinch at the constant reference to “boys” rather than “pupils”, it felt alien’. But now he believes that ‘single-sex schools don’t belong in some dinosaur age… If anything it’s becoming more relevant in the 21st century to have a school that allows boys to define themselves not by simply being boys, but by being themselves.’ Could Tonbridge ever go co-ed? ‘It’s something that one should take a periodic review of,’ says Priory. ‘But the strength of demand and the character of the school [means] that we’re confident of being a boys’ school for the foreseeable future.’

    Ultimately, he says, ‘a great school is a great school, whatever make-up it is’. He grins, and sips his tea. ‘Priory by name, but not monastery by nature.’