Another in the occasional marlborough.news series profiling MARLBOROUGH PEOPLE TODAY – taking our cue from the book ‘Marlborough People’ which was published to mark the Millennium. Susan Litherland meets a former head of St John’s who enjoyed a short ‘exile’ on St Helena
On 14 October 2017 the British island of St Helena finally welcomed the first commercial flight to its airport. Described on its own visitor information website as “one of our planet’s truly lonely lands”, the island erupts from the South Atlantic Ocean about 1,900 kilometres west of the Angola-Namibia border.
In 1996 John Price left his post as Headmaster of St John’s School (now Academy) in Marlborough, and travelled with his wife to the island the long way round – courtesy of the RAF from Brize Norton to Ascension Island, and then two days at sea on the Royal Mail Ship – to be the island’s Chief Education Officer.
As Napoleon found during his exile on St Helena, the island is not just a lonely island, it is, even with modern communications, a very long way from anywhere else.
Born in Maidstone, John Price grew up with a love of the countryside and studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where he met his wife Angela.
He was intrigued by St Helena’s biological riches. Isolated for 14 million years, it is home to 500 endemic species and abundant sea life. John and Angela lived there for three and a half years before returning home to retire. He managed one upper school, three middle schools and eight first schools, as well as the oldest public library in the southern hemisphere…dating back to the sixteenth century.
John may be responsible for altering the island’s appearance. With a friend he found a single plant of the St Helena Boxwood growing on a remote scree slope. This plant grows nowhere else in the world and was thought to have been extinct for 160 years.
He brought it back to the scientists at Kew Gardens, who propagated it. It has since been replanted on the island: “It is quite important because it will colonise arid slopes, creating microclimates that allow other plants to move in and grow. Over time it will change the physical face of the island.”
This love of the natural world is a theme that runs throughout John’s life. After his first job teaching at Rugby School, he moved to Bishop Wordsworth’s Grammar School in Salisbury in 1967 to head a department.
During his seven years there, he helped develop the Nuffield Science scheme and pushed for the environment to be taught in classrooms.
The result was that Wiltshire started up a new A Level syllabus in Environmental Science: “Back then no one had heard of it, and now it’s a major subject.” For nearly 30 years he was also a trustee for Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, a charity that looks after wildlife and the environment.
From Salisbury he moved on to various administrative roles in the Local Education Authority, and then into the Headmaster’s post at St John’s in 1982, where he stayed until 1996.
The first thing he did was to make it truly comprehensive with setting in every subject. The second thing he did was to abolish corporal punishment: “This wasn’t met equally enthusiastically by all the governors!”
The third thing he strived to do was to the get the whole school onto one site: “Managing the two sites was a nightmare, with teachers and children commuting between lessons.”
He says at the time planning authorities would only allow new houses to be built within the footprint of the existing lower school and not to spill onto the playing fields. Fewer houses to sell meant they would not have raised sufficient money to build the new school.
A firm believer in a truly comprehensive education system, John dislikes faith schools “…as they can prevent people from learning about and from each other and can lead to a ghettoization of society”.
He also objects to the government’s school academy initiative of independent, state-funded schools, which receive their funding directly from central government, rather than through a local authority: “It is essential to have some sort of local planning authority for education. To make efficient use of resources you must have an overview.”
He is ‘horrified’ about Brexit: “The whole essence of the EU is that Europe stands together as a communal group so that we get to know, understand and value each other. We should be fighting from within to get things right, and not just about the economics.”
So what makes a good head teacher according to John? Apart from a genuine interest in education and pupils, appointing good staff who are willing to challenge you, involvement in the local community, and continuing to teach: “Although as head you can’t take a lot of lessons, you’ve got to teach. It keeps you in touch with your subject, with what’s going on in the classroom and it’s good for your sanity!”
In other roles, John has been chief examiner at A Level and chaired the panel that awarded A Level exams for the Associated Examining Board, which no longer exists.
When he returned from St Helena a debate was raging in the UK about the dumbing down of A Level standards. He was one of the examiners tasked with writing a report for Tony Blair’s government assessing whether standards of exam marking had actually dropped: “We found it had, the report was submitted… and nothing happened!”
John refuses to take things easy in his retirement. Until two years ago he was president of the Wiltshire Schools Athletics Association, which organises the annual inter school athletic championships. In his youth he was a sprinter and in 1961 competed for Britain at the World Student Games in Bulgaria.
At 77 years-old he remains a committed environmentalist and a great lover of books. In his role as chairman of the Richard Jefferies Society, he is able to combine both passions. Jefferies is best known for his writings about nature and his birthplace at Coate in Swindon, provides the backdrop to his many essays and works of fiction.
“I realised he responds to countryside in the same way I do, and that is what hooked me,” explains John. “Jefferies was looking at aspects of ecology that nobody else was to describe for another 50 years, particularly about succession – what happens to land if you leave it to nature.”
Jefferies died in 1887 and the Society exists to promote interest in his work. The challenge, John says, is to attract younger members. It now runs an annual literary prize for the best nature writing in conjunction with Marlborough’s White Horse Bookshop.
John also trades antiquarian books online through his business Price Wise Books. Some of them are 300 years old, and you might spot him hunting for additions at nearby auctions: “I’ve supplied academic books to university libraries all over the world. It’s fun.”
John and Angela’s son Tim teaches at Dauntsey’s School, and Tim’s wife Kirsten is a Librarian there. They have two school-age daughters and, living locally as they do, they are all able to keep in touch easily.
“What makes me happy,” says John, “is being in touch with nature – I’m not an urban creature. I like my wildlife garden. I also like reading, walking and comedy – particularly programmes that have a certain satirical humour. I like to go to bed on a cheerful note.”