Emily Turner talks to Joanna and Ben Thomas of the eponymous group about the changing face of independent education
Forty five years ago, I was one of the first batch of children attending a new nursery school in Pimlico. It was a small, family- run set up and one of the boys (Joseph to my Mary in our first nativity play, see photo below) was the son of the lady who owned it. Today I am sitting in the Headmaster’s office of Thomas’s Battersea with Ben Thomas (Joseph) and his mother, Joanna.
There are four schools and a kindergarten in the group, educating approximately 2,000 children. There is also a foundation in Nepal and a partnership with a state primary in Fulham, Thomas’s Academy. Ben has been at the helm of Battersea since 2000 but this is his last year as Head. Next year he is moving to take on the role of Chairman (his older brother Tobyn is Chief Exec). So it seems a good time to take stock and, while this is plainly not a family who sits on its laurels, to look at what they have achieved.
Joanna is quick to point out that she and her husband have not been involved in the day-to-day running of the schools since 1999, though they remain partners. She says that the fundamentals of what she wanted to establish back in the Pimlico kindergarten still underpin the whole Thomas’s philosophy today. A broad curriculum; outdoor learning – we went to Whipsnade to find donkeys and camels for our nativity; drama and music (Joanna trained as an actress); quiet discipline (she remembers a lot more ‘don’t run’s' back in the cramped space of a Pimlico church hall) and most of all, the Thomas’s mantra, ‘be kind’.
The prep schools grew organically and by 1977, when they moved into their first building, the broad curriculum was well-established. “We had a co-ed model when it was dead unfashionable,” Joanna remembers. It has not all gone swimmingly; there have been some bumps along the way, not least when they had to persuade the openly hostile parent body of Thomas’s Kensington (a pretty formidable group one can imagine) that their whippersnapper son, aged 26, with a total of six months’ experience as a Year 4 teacher at Thomas’s Clapham (after Eton, Durham and a couple of years in the City), should take over as Headmaster. Ben’s philosophy, that “children should have fun”, didn’t really wash. Both can still remember the moment when the Chair of the PTA addressed the 400 assembled parents explaining why it was a ‘bonkers’ plan. They pressed ahead anyway. With typical self-deprecation, Ben says that he was bound to do better than feared, as “expectations were so low”. The staff knuckled down and got on with it and he learnt on the job the collaborative approach that he has used successfully over the next twenty four years.
If Joanna is an instinctive, spontaneous ‘do-er’, Ben is more cerebral. He is conscious how, in the context of traditional, single-sex prep school education, his parents’ model was ahead of its time. But today their co-ed, broad curriculum approach has become the established order – stable, safe, conservative. And that troubles him. So where is the next wind of change going to come from? He frowns; he’s a worrier, in a good way. He talks enthusiastically about the association with Thomas’s Academy. He has just come from the Academy’s Year 6 graduation assembly and says that independent/state partnerships “must be on the agenda”. State or private, he quotes the statistic that 65% of today’s children will work in jobs that have not yet been invented, needing a new set of skills. And to prepare them for this brave new world? "We are still churning out a CE syllabus,” he says ruefully. In addition to extra emphasis on IT and languages, outdoor learning is key. To this end Thomas’s have just bought a hotel in the Austrian Tyrol (with which they have had a long association) to enable access across the board to a tailored mountain adventure programme.
He says that in London far too much emphasis is put on academic achievement. He shows me a sheet setting out the Thomas’s ‘Values’: Kindness, Courtesy, Respect and, one that needs explaining to many of today’s pupils, Humility. In a world of over-achievers, Joanna chips in that is as important for children to find what they can’t do, “You MUST be rubbish at something,” she laughs. I ask about increase in pressure and stress and they both agree that it is a fact of life for many of today’s kids. They have counsellors on hand three days a week. Dealing with it is as much about managing parents’ expectations as helping the children. To an extent, this is fuelled by parents’ experience of the workplace, says Ben. Parents see jobs being offered only to Oxbridge graduates with top degrees and they are determined to get their children onto that trajectory.
He would love to be able to offer a Thomas’s education from ages 4–18. Then they wouldn’t have to “skew” the curriculum to cope with the 11+, which he describes simply as “hideous”, or 13+, “not as bad but still too much emphasis on testing”. So why no Thomas’s Senior? It is a question of finding the right place, at a price that is workable. “I am not going to put a Thomas’s in an office block”, he says firmly. Who knows, he adds with a smile, maybe Brexit will do us a “massive favour” by making a suitable property in London affordable.