To enter Wellington College, in Crowthorne, Berkshire, is as if to arrive at a stately home that’s open to the public. There are the smart signposts, the security box, the manicured lawns (with the requisite ‘keep off the grass’ signs). When I visit, it is the summer holidays, so there are no children littering the playing fields. Instead, the mower keeps on mowing, and the buildings enjoy their last bit of peace and quiet before term starts.
But that is where the stately similarities end. Wellington’s headmaster, Julian Thomas, is not of that ilk, he is proud to say. Thomas, 50, the former head of Caterham School in Surrey, was appointed the 14th Master of Wellington in 2015, after the departure of Sir Anthony Seldon. The two men are very different, something that has not passed Thomas by. When I ask him about Seldon, he looks slightly pained at being questioned yet again about his predecessor. ‘Look,’ he sighs, ‘Anthony and I are vastly different, and very similar. I suspect people would say there are some differences in some aspects of our personalities.’
Thomas, the son of a printer from east London, was educated at a state primary school before attending Bancroft’s School in Woodford Green, and then King’s College London, where he read computing. His early career was spent in the City working for BP. One morning, coming up the escalator at Liverpool Street station, he had his lightbulb moment, and decided there and then to switch careers.
‘It was the defining moment of my entire life, the realisation that I couldn’t do this for another 40 years,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. I thought there had to be more that I could do, more impact that I could make.’ After stints at Forest School, St Dunstan’s College, Portsmouth Grammar School and Hampton School, followed by an eight-year headship at Caterham, he was offered his ‘dream job’ at Wellington. ‘I was very happy at Caterham and I wasn’t looking to move,’ he says. ‘The only school that would have attracted me was Wellington, because it is such an innovative place. When you’re an educationalist like me, you want to come to a place like Wellington and make an impact, and be a part of the incredible work it’s doing. Just walking into this place every day is energising.’
Thomas is right at home with this energy: in April, he ran the Marathon des Sables, a gruelling six-day, 156-mile expedition across the Sahara Desert.
Wellington is a big school, with just over 1,000 pupils, most of whom board. But stuffy and old-fashioned it is not. Under Seldon, ‘mindfulness’ was the buzzword. Nowadays, that buzzword is ‘inclusive’. Inclusivity, Thomas says, is ‘the core of my educational philosophy. What I say to prospective parents is that if you’re looking for an exclusive club, then don’t come to Wellington. We’re not a country club’.
There are people on Mumsnet who might beg to differ, however: with parents who are said to include Geordie Greig, editor of the Mail on Sunday, Wellington did, at least for a time, have a reputation for being rather fashionable. Its list of alumni is considerable, including the writer Sebastian Faulks, broadcaster Peter Snow and a serious number of field marshals and General Sir Blah-de-Blahs.
But being inclusive means that supposedly ‘fashionable’ people can come, too, Thomas laughs. ‘To me, fundamental to the future of the country, let alone the school, is our ability to interact with each other, regardless of social status, gender, geographical location. If you’re not an inclusive environment, you become a bubble, and that’s going to make it much harder for that interaction to take place.’
Practically speaking, this inclusivity means more than just opening up bursaries (although that is a major priority). It’s about Wellington’s independent-state school partnership and its teaching schools partnership, its three international schools in China and its sponsorship of two state academies, ‘a cornerstone of what Wellington does’.
At home, Wellington’s market is changing, too, by accident rather than by design. Parents look around a variety of schools, ‘often the well-known boarding schools, but not exclusively’, Thomas says. Londoners are beginning to creep out to Crowthorne, too. ‘We’ve definitely noticed a trend in what would be the traditional London day school market looking at Wellington, perhaps for a different style of education.’
Thomas seems more than content with his lot. He has his dream job, at his dream school. ‘We all have our ups and downs,’ he says, with a grin. ‘Not every day is perfect, but I look forward to every day in this job.’