In last year’s Ofsted report on his school, Tony Smith was praised for his ‘principled and aspirational leadership’ that embeds a culture of strong pastoral care and high academic standards, and his determination to provide high-quality education for all pupils regardless of ability or circumstances.
For Tony, being at the helm of this progressive and inclusive educational establishment is a great privilege – in fact it’s what would have probably been the job of his dreams when he first decided to train as a teacher.
He left university with a degree in Development Studies and initially went into retail management as a graduate trainee, but before long decided that was not the right career for him.
“I didn’t like it but I stuck it for two-and-a-half years before deciding to train as a teacher, completing my training at the University of Sussex,” he explains.
“I have always taught in East Sussex, starting as a teacher of geography and economics at Heathfield Community College. I gained promotion early in my career and taught in Hastings for six years. Next I spent 11 years as a deputy head teacher at an Eastbourne school where I was twice the acting head teacher.”
Then came the opportunity to become head of the Priory School and Tony leapt at the chance, taking up the post at the start of the 2010-11 academic year.
“We have lived in and around Lewes since 1987 and when the opportunity arose to become Headteacher in my local town, I was really excited about giving it a go,” he says.
The school website reads: ‘Be Inspired. Be Here’. That philosophy aligns ideally with Tony’s own vision of building upon the concepts of freedom, democracy, equality and justice, developing a stimulating environment where all students are able to recognise and achieve their fullest potential.
“I think the school is very different now from when I joined in 2010,” he says. “It is constantly developing and I believe that one of the most important elements is part of what the governors wanted when they appointed me – reaching out more into the local community.
“My aspiration is for it to be as a more open school, fully embraced as part of the community, regarded as a very important element of not just the town but the surrounding villages.
“There’s an African proverb that says ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, meaning that an entire community of people must interact with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment.
“At Priory School we work together to create that kind of environment – learning is at the heart of what we do, of course, but we also teach the vision that everyone has rights, but with that comes significant responsibilities.
“We want our students to understand diversity and I believe it’s really important for them to understand that they contribute to many different communities – not just where they live or go to school, but through different interests and activities, for instance.
“Everyone here – staff, students and parents/carers – has high aspirations. Challenge is welcomed and helps us to appreciate difference and diversity, we contribute positively to our various communities, developing a sense of togetherness.”
When the possibility arose of schools in Lewes becoming part of a multi academy trust, Tony was a member of a working group which looked into this in great detail.
“I felt that we could set up something that would be ideal for Lewes, but unfortunately the local community was not supportive and it didn’t go ahead,” he says.
“I’m happy with that but there are big challenges both financially and socially for the current stand-alone model and I believe we have to find a way of developing greater partnerships.
“I’m very lucky to have a wonderful staff and very supportive, hard-working board of governors a number of whom have been parents of pupils here.”
Tony also had to steer the school through another controversial period when the decision was taken to introduce ‘gender neutral’ uniform, with girls having to wear trousers rather than skirts.
“Nobody likes change and there was some opposition at first but things quickly settled down and the new uniform rules were widely accepted,” he says.
Financial constraints remain one of the headmaster’s biggest concerns for the future.
“The financial situation is the worst I have seen since I became a teacher,” Tony says. “Our budget this year is only 0.44 percent higher than in 2014, that doesn’t even account for inflation. “It’s really challenging and we have had to make efficiency savings, but luckily we have a very skilled bursar. However, we are reaching a critical point and as a result I have to spend too much of my time worrying about finance.”
Nothing stands in the way of Tony’s determination to continue reinforcing the Priory’s excellent reputation for respecting diversity.
“One of the great things here is the number of students who understand life in a very diverse community. We want everybody to be happy to be here, to feel safe, secure. All our student body are very welcoming. We’ve never had a big issue with diversity or equality as in some other schools. There have been very few issues around gender, however we have a fantastic team who teach life skills.
“I have my own perspective and my own morals, so I’m very committed to reducing social inequality, and that is very helpful in encouraging students to be aware of the huge injustices about equality.
“I’m extremely proud of our very active student body, our student leadership, who are very committed to challenging topics such as climate change and Guantanamo Bay. Students have formed several action groups, including an Amnesty group, an Eco group and working with the Railway Land Trust. They are currently very active on climate change and about to start a petition.
“They are not only very well-informed, they are pro-active and actually want to do things. I hope they follow what Mahatma Gandhi said – ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’.
“The school is lucky to have a fantastic staff body who work very hard and want the very best for the students.
“Everybody has challenges during their years at this school – it would be unusual for any student not to encounter a challenge of some kind in that time, such as something happening within the family. It’s a great social leveller.
“I’m proud of all our ex-pupils, many of whom have been extremely successful in their chosen field. But I’m equally proud, if not more so, of the students who have had to deal with huge challenges or barriers and managed to overcome them.
“There is an ex-pupil who left us six years ago and who’d had a really difficult life. He had been permanently excluded from another local school and he wasn’t the easiest pupil for us to deal with. But he thrived here, got his GCSEs and became the first one in his family to go on to university.
“Our students welcome challenges and we want them all to have aspirations, set their sights high and dare to dream.”