Much like his school, headmaster Simon Lockyer’s family history is steeped in seafaring. Educated on a military bursary because his father was in the Royal Navy, he understands what it is like to be a forces child. Now, he leads The Royal Hospital School in Ipswich, a school so infused with its maritime links it has the bow of a former training ship on display in its parade ground.
But the military aspects of the school are not exactly what drew him to the job, which he began in 2016. The challenge with The Royal Hospital School, he says, has been to evolve it from a school once reliant on military bursaries to become a school with a wider appeal to local and regional families.
“It’s had to play a catchup game in terms of things that other schools have done.”
He says: “I thought it was a school with massive potential and I think we’ve delivered on some of that but there’s still more to be done.”
He explains that since its foundation in 1712, The Royal Hospital School has only really been an independent school in its “truest sense” for a relatively short period. Up until the early 2000s, most of the students were supported by Greenwich Hospital, a Crown charity that supports serving and retired personnel of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and their dependants.
“It’s had to play a catchup game in terms of things that other schools have done: broadening its access to day pupils, marketing and admissions and all those factors that most schools have been in the game and considering for maybe 30 years,” he says.
The school, he says, has had to “work harder” to prove itself. “Like all independent schools they’ve got to think about making sure you do a good job and being an attractive proposition to parents, but also being in a position where hopefully they’re serving a need in the community.”
“It was sometimes still referred to as a school where children ‘just learnt marching’.”
Lockyer is adamant that the school remain accessible to children from all backgrounds, with 34 pupils currently on seafaring bursaries and 22 sponsored by the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation, among others. A total of 64 per cent of students overall are on discounted places.
Lockyer is also keen to continue to improve the academic reputation of the non-selective school.
He says: “It was a school which didn’t have the greatest academic reputation, it was sometimes still referred to as a school that was where children ‘just learnt marching’.
“There was an opportunity to articulate what the school could provide in terms of the broader education which stems out of the values that are linked with the Royal Navy in terms of adventure and teamwork. There was also that aspect of raising the academic aspiration of the pupils and giving us an academic credibility as a school.”
“Results have improved year on year for the last five years, and I think on top of that there’s also greater aspiration in terms of where our pupils are going to university, what they’re aiming for in terms of apprenticeships.”
“I think that’s most important when you talk about the bursary students, it’s giving pupils those opportunities to go on and really capitalise on the education that’s provided here.”
“The parent body is a completely diverse group of people, it’s a really comprehensive school in terms of our social demographic.”
Given that his school is doing so much to open access, what does Lockyer think of the somewhat negative discourse around independent schools and the idea that they perpetuate class privilege?
Are independent schools treated fairly, in his opinion?
“I don’t think they always are,” he says, “I think we are treated as an amorphous group that includes Eton, Harrow, Radley and one or two others and of course we are nothing like that and our demographic is nothing like that, our parent body is nothing like that.
“They are a completely diverse group of people, it’s a really comprehensive school in terms of our social demographic, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of culture, so many aspects of this school. It’s what I really love about it and our parents are not stereotypical in the way that perhaps the media would have us portrayed.
“We’ve got to make sure that schools like this don’t get misrepresented and in so doing making sure that there’s not a toxicity associated with parents having a choice to send their children to a school like this. I have that conversation quite a lot with parents who come through the door.”
“We genuinely do all we can to get people to come through the door and we’ve got some children with really really high levels of need.”
He says it is “beholden on schools” who can afford to do so to broaden access, and he believes there are some schools who can do more.
“We genuinely do all we can to get people to come through the door and we’ve got some children with really really high levels of need. The government talks about levelling up, we can do it on a micro scale to some extent.
“But it’s also about the cultures and attitudes you instil in the school…I really challenge people to come here and be able to discern those who are paying and those who aren’t.”