Pupils I'll never forget

7th January 2005 at 00:00
A face in an old school photograph continues to inspire Kevin Riley

Whole-school photographs are usually pretty sombre affairs: serried ranks of students looking intently at the camera after they've been standing on the scaffold for 45 minutes. You don't get much spontaneity or many smiling faces.

That's certainly the case for the 1994 picture of Bristol Cathedral school.

Row upon row of black blazers and school ties, then in the middle one boy draws your eye. In a cream suit, with a light tie, Toby Thomas beams at the camera. The grin and his clothing speak volumes.

Toby Thomas was a remarkable young man. How many 16-year-old church wardens do you know? How many dyslexic 18-year-olds with a reading age of 10.8 who get two As and a B at A-level and go to read medicine at Guy's and St Thomas's? How many young men whose hobby is collecting old bicycles?

Toby was a character; he was different but his individuality never drifted into eccentricity. His dress sense, his extraordinary house assemblies and his sense of living life to the full always endeared him to his fellow pupils and, indeed, to his teachers.

How can you tell off a pupil who, in the midst of a turgid physics lesson, suddenly says: "Sorry Sir, I really can't stand this for a moment. Can I take a break?", then produces a ukulele, plays a song and says: "I'm ready to continue now, Sir."

After 18 months of medical training, Toby was killed in a road accident in London. Virtually all of his year came back for his funeral.

I'll always remember that sense of fun, that extraordinary maturity that twinkled at you and said: "I know you think this is important, but actually, in the wider scheme of things, I wonder just how important it is?" Toby had wider horizons than most. He had a powerful sense of justice and was always on the side of those with least; he worked hard to create a sense of school community. So I'll never forget him both for what he was and what he has come to represent in the school. Every day he reminds me, looking out from that photo, of what school is really about.

Kevin Riley was head of Bristol Cathedral school for 11 years. He starts as head of the John Lyon school, Harrow, this term

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