Camilla Swift

The school beside the sea

Eastbourne College’s Tom Lawson talks to Camilla Swift about the limits of mindfulness – and being the only teacher in a family of famous journalists

The school beside the sea
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When you see the name Lawson in The Spectator, it would be understandable if you thought of financial or political matters. And it’s true that Tom Lawson, the headmaster of Eastbourne College, did study PPE at Oxford’s Christ Church like his father, Nigel, and his half-brother, Dominic, before him. But unlike the rest of his family — who have ‘all been journalists, all the way down’ — this Lawson decided to become a teacher.

‘There were two reasons,’ he explains. ‘Firstly I loved my subject; I was wonderfully taught, and I didn’t just want to use my PPE as a stepping stone to another job. I wanted to carry on with lifelong learning. The other reason was I quite fancied being a stand-up comedian. The best thing is, the kids are

a captive audience, and if they don’t laugh you can give them detention.’

And so from Christ Church he went straight to Winchester, covering a teacher’s sabbatical, then asking the headmaster for a contract after two years ‘as it seemed to be going quite well’. He stayed for 15 years, spending eight as a housemaster, and two as under master. From there, he went to Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, where he was deputy head.

Was it a bit of a shock moving from Winchester to a co-ed environment? (Lawson, after all, is an Old Etonian himself, and credits former head Eric Anderson with helping him realise what a difference a good headmaster — and his wife — can make.) ‘It was a change, but it was a welcome change. Winchester is an absolutely superb school, but I feel there’s a slight gap in the socialisation of a Wykehamist, and that gap is girl-shaped. Christ’s Hospital works as a co-ed school really beautifully, and I believe in co-ed with the zeal of a convert.’

He joined Eastbourne College as its headmaster in September 2016, and is loving the experience. Based on the East Sussex coast, the school takes co-ed pupils from ages 13-18. ‘The great thing is it’s really balanced — about 53 per cent day and 47 per cent boarding. You get a few more boys than girls, but it’s pretty balanced there as well.’

Like Winchester, Eastbourne is a town-based school, which Lawson enjoys, too. ‘Five minutes away you’ve got the South Downs, two streets one way the sea, and two blocks the other way the station with a mainline to Victoria,’ he says. ‘And for children, especially when they are 15 or 16, the ability to go into town and have a coffee or buy a magazine is really important. And Eastbourne is a nice, safe, pleasing place for parents to trust their children to wander about.’

It’s also important to him that the college is a real part of the town. The school is a member of the Eastbourne Schools Partnership, whereby 11 schools — only two of them private — team up to share resources and work together. They have Roy’s homework club (Roy is Lawson’s boxer dog), where Eastbourne College students mentor other pupils one-on-one with their homework, and a joint project to do with beach cleaning and blue health. ‘It’s a partnership of equals, and we learn an awful lot from the other schools.’ In fact, it’s doing so well that the chairman of Ofsted has described it as a ‘shining beacon’ of private schools partnering with state schools.

Wellbeing and mental health are buzzwords in schools at the moment. Lawson agrees with focusing on them — but he’s not necessarily sold on some of the solutions. ‘I don’t think 25 minutes of mindfulness every fortnight in a lecture theatre is the answer. Being in a seaside environment is uniquely healthy, and having plenty of sport and outdoor stuff as well. We’ve got 150 or so pupils doing silver or gold Duke of Edinburgh, 300 doing CCF [Combined Cadet Force] — it all creates the right balance to keep them working well and achieving.’

Pupils certainly do well in sport: Eastbourne was the only school to have two teams competing at last year’s Royal Windsor Horse Show, and the girls’ hockey and boys’ cricket teams are very successful.

It’s an exciting time at Eastbourne. The college is just about to finish a huge, £33 million 150th-anniversary building project which includes more than 30 new classrooms, as well as a new swimming pool, sports hall, cafeteria and pavilion. ‘It’s nice to come into a school where that’s all completed,’ Lawson says. ‘Eastbournians are fun and interesting, and people like being with them, and I want to maintain that USP. My job now is to build the reputation of the college to be the great school it can be.’

And what’s next on the agenda? ‘I’m quite young for the job, not through any brilliance of my own, but because I started so early in teaching. So I see myself here for a while. Maybe one day another school. And then I don’t know — into journalism. Become the editor of The Spectator like the rest of my family, I suppose.’