Meet Martin Priestley, headmaster of The Leys School

PUBLISHED: 11:01 25 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:01 25 February 2014

EXG FEB 14 Meet the Head

EXG FEB 14 Meet the Head


If you hadn’t become a teacher, what career would you have chosen instead?

I was interviewed by MI6 and was briefly in the European Fast Stream Civil Service, so something in the diplomatic line might have worked. The fact is that I am an accidental teacher. Straight after university I taught politics and economics at a tutorial college in London simply to pay off my student debts while applying to the Civil Service selection board. Having succeeded in getting into the Civil Service, my ‘road to Damascus’ moment came when, sitting at my desk not far from the Houses of Parliament, I realised that I would much rather be in the classroom. So I wrote 50 speculative letters to schools and the positive reply I received changed the course of my working life.

Who would you most like to have as a pupil, if you could pick anyone?

It might have to be Albert Einstein. He wouldn’t learn anything from me, but I am sure I would learn from him. I gather he used to spend hours in his study at Princeton, just looking out of the widow. He infuriated people who assumed he wasn’t hard at work, but Einstein himself understood the value of what Guy Claxton has called the ‘tortoise mind’, not just the ‘hare brain’. I wonder if he was like that at school.

Was there any type of school dinner that you couldn’t stand?

Offal. Offal is awful.

What was your least favourite lesson?

Probably it was science at my prep school, but that was entirely because of the teacher, not the subject. He was the headmaster and we were all terrified of him.

If you were Prime Minister for one day, what would be the first thing you’d do?

Delegate all power to Sir Humphrey and get the first available train back to Cambridge.

If you were marooned on a desert island, what music would you want with you?

It might have to be Sergeant Pepper or possibly Glenn Gould’s early and later recordings of the Goldberg Variations.

What would you want to make disappear from this world?

It is tempting to give a global answer (poverty, climate change, injustice), but that isn’t in the spirit of Room 101. So I will opt instead for iTunes upgrades; they often seem to me to demonstrate something we all know – that not all change is progress.

Is there a television programme that you make sure you never miss?

No, but I was quite a fan of the various Nordic series including The Killing and Borgen. The pupils I used to teach will also attest that I used to be addicted to The Office.

Which is your favourite film of all time and why?

It might be Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others), set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the Stasi at the height of its power. As a depiction of the tension between the choices of the individual and the values of ‘the system’, I think it is utterly brilliant.

How do you relax away from work?

My wife, Alison, and I have our home in North Norfolk and in the holidays we love walking our four dogs along the beach in our village and down to the seal colony. Perfect.

What is special about your school?

Well, what is unique about The Leys is we are the only co-educational boarding school in Cambridge. However, that does not even begin to capture what is special about it. What has impressed me as the incoming headmaster is the atmosphere: it combines hard work with relaxation, discipline with informality and tradition with innovation. What is special about The Leys is that this atmosphere creates an environment where pupils grow in confidence and self-esteem.

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