Tonbridge School: Good Schools Guide 2021 review

What The Good Schools Guide says ...

Headmaster

Since September 2018, James Priory, previously head of Portsmouth Grammar School.

Read English at Oxford before his first teaching post at Bradford Grammar School, moving on to PGS in 2000 as head of English, from where he climbed the ranks. Governor at various local prep schools. Three children. A very nice, unassuming, amusing man who puts one at ease. Talks with such passion and warmth about the poetry of Edward Thomas that we are inspired to read some of it for ourselves. We weren’t surprised to hear that he gives a cracking school assembly.

Parents told us that he's 'very approachable and not at all self-important' and 'there for every event and always comes to say hello.' Spends Saturdays cycling round the pitches so that he can see a few minutes of every fixture. Liked and respected by parents, staff and pupils, who trust him completely and enjoy spending time with him.


Entrance

Most join at 13+ from 50-60 prep schools. Computer based ISEB pre-test and assessment afternoon in year 6, plus school reports including CAT scores where available. Assessment afternoon ‘allows us the opportunity to see what the boy’s like as a person’.

School makes unconditional and provisional offers, maintaining close contact with prep schools. Overseas students expected to demonstrate excellent fluency in English and a willingness to integrate. Around 6 join in year 10 and about 12-15 join in lower sixth.

Sixth form entry via tests in subjects to be studied at A level. Process of choosing a house starts when boy receives unconditional offer, though ‘days of the housemaster running his own fiefdom have gone’, we are told, so parents need ‘not get too stressed’ about the decision. Admissions team’s ‘unusually human approach’ praised by grateful parents — ‘superb registrar was pivotal to our decision’, we were told.


Exit

Popular destinations are the usual suspects — Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Durham, Bristol, Warwick, Imperial, UCL. Mostly to read traditional academic subjects, but some for art foundations or other creative subjects.

Good relationships with European and American universities and provide on-site training for SAT exams — in 2020, eight overseas to Trinity Dublin, Chicago USA, Duke USA, Limestone College USA, Vanderbilt USA, McGill Canada and two to Hong Kong. ‘World class university destinations matter to us — they’re a sign of intellectual health,’ says the head.

Four medics and 22 offers to Oxbridge in 2021. Head acknowledges that Oxbridge becoming more competitive, ‘but boys benefit anyway from the experience of application’. No unhealthy level of expectation.

‘Phenomenal’ careers department provides guidance using psychometric testing to suggest suitable routes for the boys and helping with work experience — ‘really empowering’ for the boys.


Latest results

In 2020, 94 per cent 9-7 at GCSEs; 71 per cent A*/A at A level/Pre-U (92 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 92 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 68 per cent A*/A (91 per cent A*-B).

To read more on 2020 results: 
GCSE results: Tonbridge boys make it a record year

Boys achieve A-level success 


Teaching and learning

Very impressive. Sixth form curriculum recently re-evaluated to ensure depth and breadth. Twenty-four subjects offered at A level including computing, theatre studies and business studies. Most popular is maths, with economics also attracting big numbers.

Boys still find time for further academic work, excelling in national essay competitions and maths and physics olympiads each year. One parent commented that her son, ‘brilliant at prep school’, had ‘a bit of shock’ — not a place for those not thriving academically.

Most take 10 GCSEs, mostly IGCSEs. Among the best results in the country. Science offered as dual award or individually — particularly good showing in individual sciences. A language compulsory at GCSE — French, German, Spanish and Mandarin offered at GCSE and A level. Art GCSE offered as fine art or photography. All do non-examined course in divinity — largely discussion based and includes critical thinking — and seminar programme in years 11 and 12 also encourages debate.

Everyone takes digital creativity (ICT) in three fab digital creativity labs. EPQ launched in 2020 with around 75 boys taking it up. Lots of support when choosing GCSE and A level options.

Good liaison between teaching departments — very dedicated team, 18 of them female, ‘who really seem to care,’ according to the boys. ‘Masters are funny, treating the boys like university students’, we were told — and the boys ‘love them’. Teachers also involved with coaching sport. ‘An unusually close, respectful rapport’ between boys and staff.


Learning support and SEN

All boys screened for learning difficulties on arrival – around 15 per cent on SEN register, mainly mild dyslexia and dyspraxia. Study skills and metacognition programme offers all boys help with note taking, essay writing, memory and organisational skills. Learning mentor programme trains boys up to help each other.

First year dyslexic pupils trained as dyslexic specialist mentors to help in partner primary schools. Two EAL teachers support with technical language. Reasonable adjustments made to meet accessibility needs wherever practically possible.


The arts and extracurricular

Growing numbers involved in music. Around five take music A level each year and over 40 per cent learn an instrument, including the Marcussen chapel organ — one of the best in the country. Organists play to a high standard, winning Oxbridge scholarships and performing at recitals in London. Steinway status means top quality pianos in every practice room.

Excellent facilities include two recital halls, a suite of teaching practice rooms, music library, designated rock and percussion suites, and a double recording studio. Director of music a professional conductor with links to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra — ‘a really wonderful, generous person’. Wide range of orchestras, bands and ensemble groups for all musical styles including flourishing jazz and pop groups and thriving choral music.

Numerous opportunities to perform — Octagon concerts feature a different instrument each week. Sell-out performance of all seven movements of Holst’s The Planets’ pre-Covid. House music competition an annual highlight — great gusto from performers and attendees alike.

Drama thriving, with 11 productions a year staged across three venues including the 380-seat EM Forster Theatre (complete with orchestra pit and studio). Three major school plays, with girls from local schools taking part in most productions.

Boys get involved with all aspects of production including set design, stage management and lighting — industry professionals show them the ropes.

Drama competitions and house plays, put together by the boys, give everyone the chance to have a go. Performances in Spanish, French and German. Covid has meant lots of monologues recently; a major production of Sondheim’s ‘Into The Woods’ has been in the pipeline since before lockdown. Boys enter the National Theatre’s play writing competition and upper sixth take a play to Edinburgh Fringe each year. Annual Short Films competition, organised by an Oscar-winning OT, culminates in glamorous awards ceremony.

Whole school in activities and clubs on Wednesday afternoons — set programme for first years, who have a go at all sorts, while older boys choose what they do. Boys involved in a huge range of cultural, political, scientific and sporting societies, anything from investing to Formula 1 design.

Rocketry club launches working model rockets. Popularity of the conservation unit, which includes beekeeping and rearing pigs, demonstrates boys’ commitment to green initiatives; when we visited they had been supporting with the management of ancient woodland on behalf of the local council.

Arts workshops by visiting professionals include street dance, masks and puppetry — parents say art is done ‘brilliantly well’. Creative writers visit the Arvon Foundation. Varied programme of lectures by visiting speakers; recent virtual Tonbridge Science Conference attracted students from Australia, Mexico and the USA as well as across the UK and included sessions on nuclear power and climate change.

Seminar programme in years 11 and 12 encourages boys to question their assumptions and see things from a different perspective eg sustainability in business or organ transplants. Around 200 take part in CCF across all three services. DofE also popular — approximately 12 achieve gold each year. Numerous foreign visits and exchange trips during the holidays.


Sport

Long tradition of sporting excellence, but ethos of participation by all. Everyone has the chance to play in a team — sport is for life here, and for all to enjoy. ‘It’s more about taking part than being a first XI god’, say parents.

Truly outstanding sports facilities (a training venue for London 2012 Olympics). A hundred acres of immaculately groomed playing fields, three Astroturfs, clay tennis courts and an all-weather athletics pitch.

Sports centre with cricket nets, 25-metre swimming pool, climbing wall and a swanky fitness suite — membership open to general public. Hockey, rugby and cricket academies — one of the best school rugby sides around and produces county and international cricketers.

However, as the school points out, even stellar sportsmen do not have to be ‘lads’ — current England rugby international Ben Earl ‘loves reading Jane Austen and playing chess’, says the head; England cricketer Zak ‘Creepy’ Crawley did very well academically.

Every imaginable sport — fives, ultimate frisbee, fencing, water polo, sailing — with novi encouraged to have a go at everything. In short, plenty of choice if you’re not first XV material.


Boarders

Seven boarding houses. Youngest (‘novi’) start in small dorms of up to six. Older boys have their own rooms. Strong system of pastoral care. Housemasters seen as ‘father figures’ who get to know boys and their families very well. Aided by assistant housemaster and tutors, with whom boys have regular meetings.

During the week boys eat in their houses but at weekends boarders eat together in the Orchard Centre. Most boarders are local — majority go home after games on Saturday, but have to be back in time for Sunday evening chapel. ‘For London parents, it’s long enough to have their boys home; for overseas parents, it’s short enough to know that their son won’t have an empty weekend’.

About a quarter of boys left in each boarding house at the weekend — if there’s a social event, more will stay. Most boarders seem to spend the odd weekend in school anyway, ‘catching up on work, playing their instruments, watching Match Of The Day with their friends’. Trips and outings organised to ward off loneliness for full boarders. Compulsory boarding weekend at the start of term and for Remembrance Sunday.


Ethos and heritage

Founded by Sir Andrew Judde in 1553, the school still has close links with the Worshipful Company of Skinners — Skinners’ Day celebrated each summer.

The school grew rapidly in the 19th century and has been rebuilt twice on the original site. Dominated by the fine rebuilt Edwardian chapel (gutted by fire in 1988), the school is set in 150 acres grounds behind the not-so-glamorous Tonbridge High Street. Imposing Victorian buildings combine with tasteful, modern additions to blend tradition with up-to-date facilities.

The Vere Lodge Centre for DT and art, with its spiral staircase and light-filled space for exhibitions, is particularly impressive. Well-used library — recently extended and refurbished — with 23,000 books, a number of which date from the 17th century, as well as the 1479 Jensen Bible. Boys seem to get most of their information online, though — plenty of digital technology here too. All boys bring their own devices into the classroom (purchased by the family unless the boy is supported financially).

Gleaming new science centre, shortlisted for RIBA award in 2020, puts Tonbridge at cutting edge of school science. New classrooms and very latest technology juxtapose with original architectural features, aiming to modernise the way science is presented, learned and understood.

A long list of famous old boys includes EM Forster, Frederick Forsyth, all members of the band Keane, Vikram Seth, Patrick Mayhew, several generations of the Cowdrey cricketing dynasty, Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, Tim Waterstone and Kit Hesketh-Harvey.


Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Boarding and day houses run along the edge of the playing fields and the high street, each with about 60 boys. Houses lie at the centre of pastoral care and close friendships are formed — ‘you don’t join as one of 800, you join as one of 12’.

‘Superb’ matrons are ‘really on it with the boys’, parents say. Strong sense of belonging in houses helped by range of inter-house competitions in art, music, film, sport plus house plays and concerts, though school ensures that it stays friendly — ‘you want healthy competition but you don’t want it to be tribal’. Socially, as wide a mix as possible in each house — boys from the same prep school split up to stop cliques forming. Good food on the whole (with grace before lunch) — we heard excellent things about the boys’ table manners too.

No ‘command and control’ culture here, and the perception that boys’ boarding schools tend to be alpha does not ring true. Yes, of course there’s a lot of testosterone pumping through the place, but there’s no Tonbridge ‘type’ and it doesn’t feel macho like it perhaps used to. ‘Because we’re in a town, and we have day boys, there is fluidity of movement and a sense of boys being able to be who they are and who they want to be’, says school. Boys are grounded and natural, happy to get involved. Wear their achievement lightly. Parents comment on how accepting the community is of difference — ‘they just get on with it and find their niche’. Student-led Bridge The Gap society celebrates diversity.

Mindfulness meditation embedded within year 10 PSHE and all boys can pursue it as a Wednesday afternoon activity. Life skills programme for senior boys includes emotional literacy and cookery in a new dedicated classroom (fajitas with homemade guacamole, anyone?). On-site school counsellor.

All boys attend weekday chapel services four mornings a week, and other faiths encouraged to attend their own places of worship for special religious festivals. Local community is very important to the school and sense of social responsibility is something that parents praise — ‘We are synonymous with our town, we’re on the high street’, says the head.

Large numbers of boys involved with Tonbridge Community Action, helping in local primary schools, supporting disabled children with swimming lessons or playing their instruments at local retirement home.

Primary children come to use the labs in the science centre and enjoy inter-school sports days on the school’s grounds — whole school community day sees hundreds of local children onsite with Tonbridge boys running the show.

Tonbridge has close links with The Marsh Academy at New Romney, a fellow member of the Skinners family — boys act as e-mentors to provide help and support to Marsh students, and Marsh students come to Tonbridge for practical science work in the labs. Gap year boys can also work at Marsh Academy for a term.

Boys very driven and there are not many problems on the behaviour front. Zero tolerance drugs policy (and school has not been afraid to use it in recent years). These boys work hard and there’s much less of the fast-living party environment than you might find elsewhere. Headmaster has clamped down on mobile phone use. Where things do go awry, school is sensitive and low key — one mother described how pleased she was that the school had given her ‘very sociable’ son some ‘wise words of wisdom’ about his behaviour.


Pupils and parents

Most boys live within about an hour and a half of the school. School describes the typical Tonbridge parent as ‘understated and low-key'; parents themselves say that they are a ‘measured’, ‘professional’ group.

The boys have a quiet self-assurance — ‘We don’t want the pointy-elbowed kinds’, school tells us, ‘but boys who are capable of listening and empathising, who are comfortable with themselves.'

Sport dominant, but boys admired more and more for other things and music and culture increasingly important. 'A much more tolerant and a kinder place than it was some years ago,' we also heard. There doesn’t seem to be a typical Tonbridgian — some sporty, some less so, some musical, some not — but all seem to enjoy themselves, and the key seems to be to take part in everything. 

They have a keen sense of fun, demonstrated at the annual Pink Day when all boys dress up in pink in support of breast cancer charities with some very imaginative and outrageous outfits.

About 15 per cent foreign nationals from 36 countries , who are generally well integrated. Each house twinned with a house at Benenden for socials, restaurant outings and quizzes.

Parents encouraged to get involved, and there is always strong support for Saturday matches with lots of ‘touchline friendships’ forming between families.

Many parents, particularly of local day boys, are members of the Parents’ Arts Society, which organises cultural and social events each term, everything from private views at art galleries, theatre trips, wine tastings and lectures to weekend trips to Europe. ‘Healthily sociable,’ said one mother, ‘with no pressure to get involved if it’s not your thing’.


Money matters

A well-endowed school which offers numerous awards. A big push on Foundation Awards (bursaries). About 10 boys with significant Foundation Awards in each year — Tonbridge aims to double this by 2028 (the school’s 475th anniversary).

Foundation Awards can also help fund years 7 and 8 at prep school, followed by a guaranteed place at Tonbridge. Keen to recruit able boys from local primaries.

Dedicated person for Foundation Awards in admissions — ‘word is getting out there,' says school.

Up to 45 scholarships offered at 13+ — academic, music, art, drama, technology and sport. Academic and music scholarships offered in sixth form. These scholarships open the door to Foundation Awards of up to 110 per cent of fees.

Parents say that the school was ’very generous and sympathetic’ about financial hardship during Covid.

More on Scholarships and Bursaries


The last word

A brilliant school that somehow remains totally unsnobby. Boys make the most of world class opportunities to learn and have fun, but that’s not the best bit — Tonbridge’s modern, proactive approach to social responsibility and bursary funding ensures that they stay firmly grounded whilst doing so.

These rounded, engaging young men are destined to go far, we feel — but without a scrap of the entitlement that so often accompanies a top-notch education. Top marks to all involved.