What makes this Suffolk’s most star-studded school?
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Cast your mind back to your own school days. Do you remember anyone in your year who had star potential? Did any of your former peers go on to do anything big, or make a name for themselves?
For most of us, probably not. But if you were a pupil at Thomas Mills High School, it could be a totally different story.
The Framlingham secondary school and sixth form has an unusually high number of famous alumni – with many excelling in the arts and entertainment field.
This includes – and is not limited to – the likes of Keane bassist Jesse Quin, singer-songwriter Tom McRae, jazz singer Polly Gibbons, actress Naomi Watts, artist Jelly Green, concert pianist Beatrice Nicholas, acclaimed photographer and designer Zak Walters, composer Matthew Sheeran, and of course most famously of all, international superstar Ed Sheeran.
But what is it about the school that makes it such a hotbed of talent?
One man who has seen his fair share of superstars come and go is Richard Hanley.
Director of music at the school, Richard has been working there for over three decades – and has helped foster and harness the talent of some of the country’s biggest stars.
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“I’ve been here since 1989, and I suppose one of the things about teachers here at Thomas Mills is that they stay for a long time. That’s been a feature of a lot of the staff in the art, music and department departments, and I think that’s important and part of the reason why there’s been such a successful number of alumni, particularly in the arts, at this school,” he explains.
The arts are well-cherished discipline at the school, and while many educational establishments often don’t appreciate the importance of subjects such as music and art, Thomas Mills proudly encourages its students to chase their dreams.
“The arts are valued as a subject here in the school, and have been for a number of years. They’re a core part of our curriculum,” he says.
“I also think that because of where in the world the school is, a lot of parents are involved in the arts themselves, and that filters down to their children.”
At GCSE, pupils can choose to study media studies, music, photography, drama, and art. For anyone who progresses to A-Level or joins the school during sixth form, students can opt to further their studies with art & design, drama & theatre studies, music, or photography.
Subjects aside, the school also prides itself on a number of extracurricular activities that pupils can immerse themselves in.
“We always have lots of school productions on, gallery visits, music masterclasses, and lots of orchestras, bands, and choirs. Having a rich extracurricular life is so important in helping young artists develop.”
And as you make your way down the school’s hallowed halls, you won’t struggle to see (and hear) pupils taking advantage of the range of facilities on offer. “We’ve got a performance studio, a drama studio, a music room full of Mac computer and music technology, five practice rooms, and a photo lab with a dark room. We’re very well-resourced.
“There’s often sixth formers practising their craft or using the facilities in their free time – just earlier today I walked past the main hall and there was a group in there setting up a photoshoot. There’s always something happening here – there’s a really nice buzz and atmosphere about the place.”
Seeing the success stories of many former pupils has helped the school’s reputation far and wide - and around 40% of the students are out-of-catchment, according to Richard.
“The key thing for all of our students is that we give them the opportunity to perform, paint, or exhibit their work. It's not so much just down the teaching, but I suppose the fact we give them these chances to be creative and realise their potential to specialise in whatever field they’re passionate about.”
In Richard’s three decades of teaching at the school, he’s seen his fair share of performances and concerts – and he can easily spot a superstar in the making.
“We have our big concerts at Christmas and Easter, and a number of students have performed with their bands, or have asked if they can play something they’ve composed. When they get up on stage in front of lots of people when they’re young, you do think to yourself, ‘oh, they might have the ability to go all the way’. It’s just amazing, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed here for so long. There are so many children who keep coming through and going on to do great thing – it’s a constant conveyor built.”
Regardless of whatever creative path the schools’ former students find themselves on, one thing is certain - and that’s the fact they never forget their roots.
"A few of them have come back to visit,” says Richard.
“They still have fond memories of their school days, and want to keep in touch. We also have a strong alumni association.”
For instance, singer-songwriter Tom McRae visited his former school back in 2010, to give a talk to GCSE media studies pupils about the music industry and the dilemma of illegal file-sharing.
At the time, he told the East Anglian Daily Times: “It’s very weird to be walking about with my shirt not tucked in and thinking of excuses like ‘The dog ate my homework. I’m 12 again, walking through the door, with all that fear and tumultuous emotions you’re dealing with at that stage in your life. They come flooding right back – and I love moments like that, because they’re moments you thrive on. That’s what you want out of life and art: you want things that come at you in a rush; so this flash of emotion stays with you.”
And in 2014, Ed Sheeran popped back into the very same classrooms he was once taught in to give pupils a music masterclass, hoping to inspire the next generation on musical talent.
"Ed was here for a number of years of course, and music was his life even then. He used to spend a lot of time in the department with friends, in practice rooms or in the recording studio, making music, composing his own stuff - even at that age, and was here breaktimes and lunchtimes,” explains Richard.
“One of our former students, concert pianist Beatrice Nicholas, has also been back to do piano recitals. And during lockdown, she gave us access to online concerts, and did special deals for the students to watch them at reduced prices.”
With an impressive roster of talent attached to Thomas Mills’ - who does Richard think has star potential for the future?
“The band Ikarus are one to watch,” says Richard.
Comprised of current students Tom Turner, Hunter Goddard, Hayden Peasey, and Archie Lucas, the indie/pop foursome have already played a handful of shows and recently released their debut EP, ‘Time To Play Outside’.
“They’re currently making a name for themselves, and I’m sure they’ll go on to do great things,” he adds.
“There’s also a number of year 10 pupils who are excelling in the arts. There’s a boy called Acer Smith who is a very talented classical musician. I’m sure great things will happen for him as well.”
With a never-ending pool of talent growing at the school, it’s exciting to see who else emerges in the coming years. Watch this space...
A quick look at some of Thomas Mills' alumni...
Undoubtedly the biggest star to come out of the school, Ed Sheeran attended Thomas Mills during his formative years – and his time at the school no doubt played a part in his success.
Not one to shy away from the spotlight, Ed would always jump at the chance to perform at school concerts, as Richard fondly remembers. "He would say: 'Mr Hanley, can I perform my latest composition?', and we never knew what it was going to be until nearer the time. So quite often we just used to put on the programme: 'New song by Ed', and he would bring the house down.”
Ed also took part in a number of school productions, including Grease, and The Sound of Music.
Since leaving Thomas Mills, Ed has gone on to become one of the world’s biggest pop stars. With four number one studio albums under his belt, and a slew of top-charting singles, the Framlingham native has reportedly sold around 150 million records worldwide – making him one of the planet’s best-selling music artists.
Having one musical talent in the family is great – but having two is something else. Ed Sheeran’s older brother Matthew has also carved out a name for himself in the world of music, and works an award-winning composer, specialising in music for film and television.
Just some of the productions to his name include With Love From Suffolk (2016), Viking (2016), The Third Date (2017), and The Haunted Hotel (2021).
Originally from Bedfordshire, the Keane bassist grew up in Suffolk and attended Thomas Mills (his mum Charity actually taught Ed Sheeran how to sing!).
A multi-instrumentalist, the former Suffolk student has been playing in bands since he was 11-years-old, and worked as a touring musician before being asked to join indie band Keane as an official member in 2011. His success with Keane has seen him and the band play every corner of the globe, playing some of the most prestigious festival and stadium stages across the world.
Touring aside, Jesse also owns Old Jet – an arts centre that allows creatives to flourish in the heart of the Suffolk countryside. “When I moved back to Suffolk, I actually started meeting all sorts of interesting artists and musicians who were all working from home, or wherever they could find. And I thought it would be nice to try and set something up that helped add something to the local art community,” he says.
Born in Ipswich, this talented 29-year-old spent her early years in Melbourne, Australia, before moving back to Suffolk where she attended Thomas Mills for seven years.
A promising artist from a young age, Jelly Green has since gone on to exhibit her works around the world, and has won the praise of other established artists in the field such as Maggi Hambling.
Born over the border in Essex, singer-songwriter Tom McRae moved to Suffolk as a young boy where he attended Thomas Mills. “My formative years were spent in Suffolk between 1979 and 1987,” he told the East Anglian Daily Times in a 2013 interview.
The son of two vicars, Tom has always had a passion for music, and it is this passion has seen him release a whopping nine studio albums and a number of singles and EPs. Eagle-eared listeners may recognise Tom’s music which has been used in a number of films TV shows, including Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Skins, Kyle XY, Without a Trace, Rescue Me, and Six Feet Under.
One of the world’s most recognisable photographers, you will have definitely spotted Zak Walters’s snaps out there in the wild.
The former Thomas Mills alum studied photography at the school, and it was during his time there that he met Ed Sheeran – who years later, reached out to Zak and asked him to accopany him on tour as her personal photographer. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Zak has since gone on tour with the likes of Lewis Capaldi, Anne-Marie, Snow Patrol, Zara Larson, James Bay, and One Ok Rock, getting up close and personal with these chart-topping musicians.
He has also had a successful career as a graphic designer, and is currently working in his Vinca brand of eco-friendly canned wines.
One of the country’s most respect jazz singers, former Thomas Mills student Polly Gibbons has been twice nominated as ‘Best Jazz Vocalist’ by the BBC and Jazz FM. She picked up her first BBC Jazz award in 2006 when she was still a teen, and has since gone on to tour around the world, including performances at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival and New York’s Birdland.
Soul songstress Alice Russell once attended Thomas Mills – and has since gone on to make a name for herself in the music world. Music runs through her veins – she's the daughter of an organist, at the age of nine, she began taking cello lessons and sang in choirs before moving to Brighton to study art and music.
A classical music virtuoso, Beatrice Nicholas is an incredibly talented pianist, composer, and arranged. The former Thomas Mill student has played in some of the biggest venues around the world including Royal Festival Hall, Royal Opera House, London Coliseum, Berlin Konzerthaus, as well as more local venues such as St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Snape Maltings, and Jesse Quin's Old Jet.
The award-winning film actress spent her early years moving around a fair bit, and spent time living in Suffolk where she attended Thomas Mills for a brief stint in the late 1970s.