PRINCE GEORGE’S NEW HEADMASTER BEN THOMAS ON INSPIRING PUPILS

Ben Thomas, Headmaster at Thomas’s Battersea, Prince George’s £6,000-a-term private preparatory school, discusses the importance of a broad curriculum… 

Words: Madeleine Howell

As our children return to school, it’s important to foster a love of learning that reaches beyond exam results and league tables. For Ben Thomas, who has been the Headmaster at Thomas’s in Battersea for 17 years, it’s ‘a drum that [he] has to bang harder and harder, because of the surge in competition to achieve results’.

Thomas has concerns over the pressures of the 11+, and suggests that too much focus on box-ticking can be counter-productive: ‘The exam reduces everything to English, Maths and reasoning, at an age where children’s minds ought to be being opened to the wonders of the world, and to the fascinating possibilities of science,’ he explains. ‘I’m not a huge fan of the 11+ process at all, and I wish we could find a better way.’

Taking maths as an example, Thomas suggests that enjoyment and inspiration can be retained with the help of a renewed focus on the practical applications. ‘The danger with maths is that you can carry out the functions without understanding the concepts, which come from an unpressured, tactile, hands on experience of the subject,’ he says.

For Thomas, the 11+ shouldn’t be the ‘be all and end all’, and passing it should be a by-product of a rounded education, rather than the sole focus. Although children should be practised and confident (‘the obvious thing to say is that they should have been drilled endlessly’) at the point at which they sit the exam, Thomas stresses that it’s also important that they maintain perspective and continue to pursue their interests in other areas like music, art and drama.

‘My biggest plea, and it’s a case of Canut standing against the waves,’ he admits, ‘is that we maintain a breadth of education and that the 11+ is only a small part of Year 6.’ Thomas is much more positive about pre-tests and the 13+ entrance exams, which he feels better reflect a child’s individual progress and capabilities.

More and more schools are using the ICB online pre-tests, which I welcome, because it’s a test for which relatively little preparation can be done. It tends to reflect more accurately our own opinion of a child

‘More and more schools are using the ICB online pre-tests, which I welcome, because it’s a test for which relatively little preparation can be done. The pre-testing process is much more spread out, and more account is taken of school reference information. It tends to reflect more accurately our own opinion of a child, whereas with the 11+, you can get very odd results depending on a child’s performance on the day.’

According to Thomas, the sheer volume of the common entrance exams at 13+ can be daunting, but he believes they lay a good foundation for GCSE’s to follow, and are beneficial in that they ensure a common curriculum.

‘I used to be quite critical of common entrance, but I’ve come round to thinking it lays a strong academic foundation for a senior school career,’ he ponders, ‘provided attention is also paid to a child’s sporting, artistic, spiritual and moral growth.’ These days, the 13+ often serves as ‘more of an exit than an entrance exam’, confirming decisions that have already been made based on pre-tests.

Knowledge alone is going to become less important than skills like teamwork, creativity and collaboration – which feeds back into my obsession with a broad curriculum

At time of writing, after his 17-year tenure as head at Thomas’s in Battersea, Thomas is preparing for a new role as Chairman of the Group Board. As part of the role, he will apply his philosophy that ‘education is about the flourishing of the human condition – a broad and noble pursuit’ with a ten-year view, looking to the future and working across the Thomas’s group.

‘There’s going to be lots of changes in education. It will be a luxury to have the time to develop our curriculum to suit the world our children are going to enter,’ he tells me. ‘There’s lots of predictions about how technology is going to affect the world of work.

‘Knowledge alone is going to become less important than skills like teamwork, creativity and collaboration – which feeds back into my obsession with a broad curriculum, and my view that creative endeavours shouldn’t be just a sideline. In fact, they’re central to our ability to survive and thrive.’

thomas-s.co.uk