Sunday, 8 July 2018

Final Interview with Mr Priory

As our Headmaster, Mr Priory, prepares to leave The Portsmouth Grammar School to take up his new role at Tonbridge School, archivist John Sadden asks him about his life and times at PGS.

Mr Priory as PGS Founder, Dr William Smith - with pupils from Reception (Autumn 2017)

Did you enjoy your own schooldays at the time, or rather more so on reflection?
I have learned that memory can be highly selective, possibly for evolutionary reasons!  You may want to take this with a pinch of Southsea salt, therefore, but I feel fortunate to be able to look back very positively on my own time at school and am sure that this was one of the reasons why it felt natural to become a teacher.  I remember Junior School as a time when I had great fun learning to write and perform in plays, Senior School as a time when I became more heavily involved in music and sport, and Sixth Form as a time when I was challenged to get involved in debating and public speaking.   I think I learned to love the rhythm of term time and seasonal holidays too!

Mr Priory, when he was Head of English, 2002
How was Oxford?  What did you put in and what did you get out of it?
Looking back, I realise that I was very lucky to be able to study there.  Lincoln College was one of the smaller colleges but with a big reputation for hospitality and a wonderful library and chapel, all of which suited me well!  I loved being involved in the Chapel Choir with various tours and recordings.  I was introduced to Romantic poetry by Wordsworth scholar Professor Stephen Gill, who would recite great passages from the Prelude from memory. I joined a writing group led by Martian poet Craig Raine in which we wrote poems anonymously and then critiqued each other’s work.  I even launched a rather short-lived literary society in honour of Lincoln College’s Edward Thomas. It was a happy time which now feels like a blur of bicycles and books.  Returning to Oxford years later I did feel somewhat of an outsider peering into the college, like Alice in Wonderland trying to get back into the Christ Church garden.  Places feel like they belong to other people very quickly in my experience!

What influenced your decision to go into teaching rather than the church?
I was thinking seriously about the Church having seen my father change from being an accountant to become a priest.  The college Chaplain advised me to take some time over my decision and encouraged me to find a teaching job.  My brother had done the same and was loving teaching, so I moved to Bradford Grammar School where a friend from Oxford was teaching Music and the rest, as they say, is History, or should that be English as that was what I was meant to be teaching?

How has your faith influenced your approaches to teaching and of being Head?
I like to think at the heart of what I do is a compassionate approach.  I also recognise that learning means we have to accept making mistakes and getting things wrong sometimes; and I know this because I do it enough myself.  It’s interesting that the challenges of wellbeing and mental health mean that the spiritual development of young people has probably become even more important in recent years, even when it is expressed in non-traditional ways.

Mr Priory, upon his appointment
as Headmaster of PGS, January 2008
When you became Head in 2008 you said that your favourite book was Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Does it remain so and, if not, what is it today?
I still love Thomas Hardy and am conscious of my family having its roots in Dorset chalk and clay.  I have discovered another West Country writer John Cowper Powys and was bowled over by his novel Owain Glendower set in a fictionalised fourteenth century mid Wales, an area where we have often retreated in half term holidays.  I am finally starting to read some of the great European and Russian novels- in translation, admittedly- so suspect there might be a few more rivals for Tess very soon!

Is there a particular period of history in which you think you would have felt more comfortable?
Tim Hands used to refer to me as Blondel because of Richard the Lionheart’s Pompey connections and my penchant for writing light-hearted songs on the guitar.  If not a medieval troubadour, then my wife thinks I would have been very happy as a bespectacled eighteenth century parson collecting flora and fauna and occasionally popping up in a pulpit somewhere. Sounds like Gilbert White, doesn’t it? I’m sure William Smith would have approved.

Which person in PGS history do you most admire?
William Smith was a polymath with a vision for education which continues to inspire the school we are today.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find a portrait of our founder in an attic somewhere and finally put a face to the name? I also admire figures like Canon Grant who championed the inclusivity of staff and pupils; and J C Nicol, who led the school through the tragedy of the First World War and whose memoir was miraculously discovered by our archivist, John Sadden, on e-Bay.

What are your proudest achievements at PGS?
I very conscious that anything that has been achieved over the last ten years or so has been thanks to an enormous team effort from people both past and present at PGS.  I am proud of us becoming an IB World School and of the significant developments in facilities we have been able to deliver: the Bristow Clavell Science Centre, the Sixth Form Centre, the excellent new Health and Wellbeing Centre and ambitious plans for the future of Performing Arts.  It was great to receive such strong endorsement for the quality of teaching and learning from ISI.  I am also really encouraged by the progress we have made in connecting with our alumni and in launching the William Smith Fund for bursaries. I think the pastoral life of the school has also grown stronger thanks to the commitment shown by staff and governors.

How important is a sense of humour in the teaching profession?
Crucial.  There was some interesting research recently which showed that the quality young people valued most in their teachers was a sense of humour and fun.  It doesn’t mean that schools have to become Hi De Hi holiday camps (though there’s a thought for the future of PGS).  What it means is that people should enjoy the experience of learning and feel involved.  There’s a phrase in A Midsummer Night’s Dream which has always seemed to me perfect: “manager of mirth”.  Now there’s a job description I’d like to write.

Which did you enjoy taking part in the most, the Great South Run or PGS Come Dancing?
I am told that the pupils at Tonbridge went straight to the You-Tube footage of my dancing when my appointment was announced.  What impression they have of me, heaven only knows.  I enjoyed both as both took me completely out of my comfort zone.  I think there was a particular satisfaction in finishing the Great South Run even if it took a long time to find my name in list of runners published in the souvenir edition of The News!

What is the most valuable thing you have learnt at PGS?
I’ve learned a lot about schools and about myself, and I’m hoping to put both to good use when I move to Tonbridge.  PGS has taught me that schools are about people and therefore relationships matter and so does communication.  I have also learned that whilst schools are about preparing young people for the future, an understanding of the story and values of the school to which you belong can also be powerful in generating a sense of identity and purpose.  PGS is a wonderful school and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here.

Why has raising funds to offer bursaries been so important for you?
I benefitted from bursarial support when I was at school in Birmingham and again in Taunton.  It enabled me to experience a fantastic education and to enjoy studying alongside a real cross-section of young people.  It’s really important for PGS that we continue to make it possible for young people from a wide range of backgrounds to have the opportunity of a similarly transformative education.  It’s why I am so grateful to all those who have given their support and are helping us to ensure that PGS continues to reflect the community it serves as a school and offers places to as many children as possible regardless of their financial background.

What will you miss most about the city of Portsmouth?
The sea.  I love the Historic Dockyard, the Cathedral, spaces like the Kings Theatre, Southsea Common, Albert Road, Fratton Park, all in easy walking distance.  It’s a great place in which to live, work and grow up.  But it is the sea which I will miss most of all and the freedom to go for a swim at the end of a summer’s day. Magical.

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