14 September 2018

The IB: as good as it gets!

It’s the time of year where as a school we gear up to admit a fine cohort of sixth formers for September 2019. Bryanston has always welcomed a pleasing number and quality of candidates at this point, and the existing yeargroups, year on year, enjoy and benefit from the injection of new ideas, talents, and energies.

One of the attractions of Bryanston (and there are many) is that we offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) alongside the now very traditional A levels. This provides the school with a varied offering and one which attracts really interesting pupils who study one or the other programme.
What is it about the IBDP that means it’s worth offering?  And how do schools convey that to 16 year olds and their parents without seeming to diminish the national A level programme?

I think there are some very key reasons for offering the IBDP that fit right into our Bryanston profile of all we do.  And that’s why Bryanston is a great place to study the IBDP.

1.      The Bryanston model of education is  and always has been all about producing independent learners and learners who will contribute their own particular talents to the world.  The tutorial system here of one-to-one support and guidance is a jewel in the crown for all pupils, whatever they are studying.  But in terms of a pupil managing the IB and learning fast the techniques of research and independent study, this tutorial approach is ideal.

2.   Bryanston rejoices in pupils with a wide range of talent.  They do not necessarily want to confine themselves to three subjects at A level (though some do) nor to follow necessarily an entirely ‘traditional’ system.  They may want to study Film or Psychology, both of which subjects have a strong syllabus at IB.  They may want to study English Literature which is not focused mainly on dead white males.  They may want to keep up a level of Maths to make them ready for their life in work, but not wish to study it at a higher level. They may be bilingual and wish to study both their best languages as a Language Av.

3.   The pupils enjoy the Core in the IB as much as they do their main subjects.  The extended essay allows them to research at a level which university admissions offices find compelling;  the CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) element is a key part of the diploma making sense of the world beyond their immediate walls; the ToK (Theory of Knowledge) component might be the best bit of their week.  The IB is in other words a diploma; the six subjects interrelate and the Core pins them together.  The diploma is about producing young adults who are ready to learn for the rest of their lives and to be part of a global world not just a small and self-referential slice of it.

4.   Bryanston has always prided itself on pupils leaving the school ready to live happy and purposeful lives, and ready to contribute to the wider world.  This is closely aligned to the IB’s mission. After Bryanston, pupils tend to study at university and importantly to study at the university which suits their interests and abilities in terms of providing the best degree course in that subject and for that pupil.  There is an increasingly international flavour in that respect from Georgetown to Melbourne from Cambridge to Berklee.  The world’s an exciting place and the IB prepares pupils for that beyond our foggy Brexit-obsessed island.

This is not to say that you cannot perfectly well achieve most or all of that whilst studying A levels. You can, but the IB insists upon it; has a mission and a vision; marries in its educational provision the rigorous with the comprehensive; promotes critical thinking throughout all subjects and the core; encourages cultural awareness, global responsibility, and resilience. It is as their motto states: ‘education for a better world’.

It’s hard to argue with. There are reasons for not studying the IB of course, but it’s hard to accept the one that A levels are ‘easier’. For two good reasons: (i) why is that in any way a good thing? And (ii) it’s not true. A levels are harder than they were, have no coursework and will not, in the next few years, be anywhere near as accessible to all as they once were. This may not be a bad thing, but it only reinforces the fact that they are not the ‘easier’ option.

So, at this time of thinking about the sixth form and future choices, I heartily recommend the outward looking, active and participatory, critical and creative IB diploma. I honestly think it’s as good as it gets.

13 July 2018

Speech Day reflections

As another school year comes to an end, Sarah Thomas looks ahead to the future with one foot firmly rooted in the past. Discover why she believes that Bryanston’s motto of “Et Nova et Vetera” – both the new and the old – is more apt than ever.

Back in January, Bryanston turned 90 and through OB Simon Wheeler’s (C ’93) extraordinary series of films, we are able to look back and remind ourselves of why this school is so special. The place, the people, the ideas and the principles that continue to guide us. In June, we were able to look forward, with the announcement of my successor.  I’m delighted that Mark Mortimer will be leading Bryanston onwards and upwards from September 2019 and look forward to having a year in which I can do whatever makes most sense to allow him, his lovely wife Anna and their three children, to get to know this wonderful school. 

Image of Head, Sarah Thomas conducting her speech
Speeches in the Elder Concert Hall
At last year’s Speech Day, the Chairman spoke on the theme of necessary change and evolution within schools. Schools do change.  They must; they would disappear into oblivion if they did not.  But that does not mean that the things that matter must change.  Our guiding principles of creativity, breadth of ambition, individuality, the sense of a loving family, of humanity, and of resilience, have been embedded in our DNA since 1928 and will endure, I am certain, because of Bryanston’s collective good sense, the quality of the governors, and their choice of excellent headmasters. Those guiding principles will ensure that Bryanston continues to evolve boldly and positively, without losing the critical constituents of what makes Bryanston Bryanston.

Peter Tait, former headmaster of Sherborne Prep and a great friend of Bryanston, likes to torment us with this question: ‘What is a proper curriculum?’ Are we still, in effect, teaching what we taught 50 years ago, regardless of new, more relevant subjects, and without reference to what our pupils actually learn from them?  Teaching is not after all learning.  Then there are the real-world issues: funding for state schools and affordability for the independent sector; the fact that more overseas children are now educated in branches of UK independent schools abroad than here in the UK; and above all there’s the looming threat of AI. What kind of world are we actually preparing our young people for? And how do independent schools – how does Bryanston – stay relevant in the face of the fantastically significant changes that are coming our way? 
Image of Duncan Emerson conducting the orchestra
Duncan Emerson directs the orchestra

Sir Anthony Seldon in his book The Fourth Education Revolution challenges the model which most schools still adhere to – that of The Third Revolution: industrialised learning; schools as factories; chalk and talk, or its 21st-century equivalent, Powerpoint and talk. Sir Anthony predicts we will meet the challenges of AI by adopting a new model and following a 5-point plan: (i) ending early specialisation in schools; (ii) investing in staff who understand learning and analytics and technology; (iii) emphasising the human in education, to produce competent adults who are better than any algorithm; (iv) personalising learning; (v) challenging and stretching young people, by making school more than about lessons.

Image of pupils and parents relaxing on the grass
Guests relax in the sunshine
This is precisely the model that Bryanston has striven to follow, and with some success, over the past 90 years, often in defiance of the conventional wisdom that academic success is the be all and end all. Ending early specialisation? Embracing personalised learning? Stretching our pupils beyond the classroom? Look at our tutorial system and the Dalton Plan, our correction periods and one-to-one attention to the individual.  Added to that, we have a curriculum that is particularly diverse in the formative D year, an extraordinary range of extra-curricular opportunities and an A level programme which always seeks to ensure there are no impossible subject combinations. And better still, the IB.

Image of pupils playing tennis on the grass courts
Tennis on the grass courts
Bryanston’s model has explicitly set out to help children to develop the human.  It’s why Bryanstonians invariably end up in such a range of careers and don’t necessarily trot off into those professions which, we are told, will soon no longer exist. At Bryanston we have always known that education is not about mere subjects.  It’s about an outlook, an attitude, a lifelong ability to learn and adapt; to work in teams; to influence and persuade; to direct and lead. To laugh at yourself and to put things right when you’ve gone wrong. The future requires real people, with real values and real emotional intelligence. And real education.

Whilst the changes technology have brought have been huge (both for good and bad) I am happy to predict that one of the longer terms effects might be that we refocus upon, and rejoice in, what makes us human, not machine. Because the world changes – we all know that – but what does not change is what it takes to be human.