5 December 2019

Running naked in the shrubbery

Headmaster Mark Mortimer reflects on the School's core aims of encouraging its pupils to think creatively and intelligently challenge convention...

In 1933, just five years after Bryanston was established, the new Headmaster, Thorold Coade, decided that he needed to persuade prep schools that ‘the rumours of its free and easy ways were false’. I have to admit that I laughed out loud when I came across this during a recent rummage around the archive. Even though I’ve only been here a few months, it is clear to me that some of these misperceptions still linger almost 90 years later. Given my army background (no one has ever described me as ‘free and easy’), I reckon I’m just the person to challenge some of these inaccurate views. So here goes … 

Like any outstanding school, Bryanston has high expectations, high standards and expects much of its pupils. They are encouraged to enthusiastically give 100% in everything they do, to seize the many opportunities on offer here, to think big, to take calculated risks, to fail sometimes, then bounce back, adapt and go again. In that sense, they are being channelled while they are here; however, the corridor down which they are travelling is wider than at many more orthodox, traditional schools. We do not force them down a narrow passage of conformity. Of course, there are still clear boundaries, but there is also room to travel down the left-hand side, the right-hand side or even zigzag along it. This greater freedom allows pupils to focus on who they are and who they want to be, rather than what they want to do. It fits with one of the most cherished principles of Bryanston: the idea of the development of a community of individuals, with an equal emphasis on both. Another of my predecessors, Robson Fisher, summed it up beautifully in 1961:

‘We set our faces against producing a Bryanston type because we assert the uniqueness of each person and feel it would be an invasion of a boy’s personality to roll and pat him like a lump of butter into a shape indistinguishable from the next lump.’

This freedom, and the space to avoid conformity, is one reason why we have a dress code rather than a uniform, but I would argue that the greater choice that that presents is indicative of an approach that actually requires more structure and more self-discipline than a more restrictive approach. It makes different demands on pupils, but it also offers them the chance to think for themselves and to reflect on the purpose of rules, regulations and restrictions; this is closely linked to the core Bryanston aim of encouraging pupils ‘to intelligently challenge convention’. This doesn’t mean being obstructive or argumentative for the sake of it, but it does mean thinking about or looking at things from another perspective; creatively.

Creativity has long been a guiding principle at Bryanston, and we have been extolling its importance at the heart of the curriculum for many years. It’s much more than a skill – it’s the ability to see things differently, to use one’s imagination to create alternatives or new ideas. We are an imaginative species, and each of us has the potential for creativity in any subject or field, be it history, maths, physics, music, sport or business. What is vital, to give it power and purpose, is a focus for it – an area of interest that first sparks the imagination.

Our aim is to develop pupils’ creativity and enable them to think differently, intelligently break convention, challenge assumptions and possess a curious, flexible mindset. In short, we aim to make them as unlike a machine as possible, even more important today than in the 1930s.

Oh, and the shrubbery… The story goes that a prospective parent, looking around the School, came across an informally dressed man:

“Excuse me, do you work here?”
“Yes Madam, I do.”
“Tell me, is this the place where the Headmaster runs around naked in the shrubbery?”
“Madam, I gave up running years ago.”

Coade again; you can see what may have fuelled those misperceptions!

2 December 2019

Celebrating difference

God made us all, each wonderfully different...

(Church of England, Common Worship service of Holy Communion)

School Chaplain Reverend Jo Davis reflects on the importance of seeking to understand the differences and similarities in everyone we meet whilst, above all, treating them with kindness as a fellow human being...

Since I arrived at Bryanston 10 weeks ago, I have been told many times that there is no Bryanston type. That our aim is not to fit everyone into a mould, but to support them to become a fuller, brighter version of themselves.

I believe that everyone in the world has an equal right to exist and have their own beliefs and opinions. As a Chaplain, it is my job to support and pastorally care for everyone in the school, religious or not. If their faith differs from mine, it’s my responsibility to ensure that they are supported in their faith.

You rejoice in our differences, yet we make them a cause of enmity.

As an RS teacher, I have taught all six of the major faiths including atheism. I consider it a privilege to do so, but I also think it is hugely important. Just because I disagree with someone, it doesn’t mean that I do not need to understand their point of view. Learning about Islam to teach it to GCSE level has given me many opportunities to reflect on my own faith. If we don’t understand the opposing view to our own, how do we know that we don’t agree with it? We should seek to understand the differences and similarities in everyone we meet whilst, above all, treating them with kindness as a fellow human being.

This culminated on Wednesday last week in my attending a book signing with Richard Dawkins in Bath, accompanied by a group of A2 pupils. A man who, it could be said, has views diametrically opposed to mine, but I was still looking forward to it. 

When doing some research beforehand I was staggered to come across a video entitled ‘Love Letters to Richard Dawkins’ where he reads out some of the horrifically offensive emails he receives, many from people claiming to be Christian, but wishing him a horrible death and eternal suffering in hell. 

I could not believe it, and it spurred me on to attend the signing and be nice to the man. But I wanted to do more than that and felt called to show him a different side of Christianity, the faith that teaches me to love God, and love my neighbour as myself. Love is the most important command, and overrides everything else. I have recently discovered the Craftivist movement, which seeks to spend time and effort protesting positively, quietly and kindly through handmade items. I set about creating a gift for Richard that celebrated our commonality. Nothing inflammatory or that challenged his world view, apart from maybe what Christians were like. It was a challenge to find him after the Q&A session, but I managed it, and was able to shake his hand and pass over my letter and gift.

I was amazed to receive a personal email from him later in the evening, thanking me for the gift. 

This week I have challenged all the D pupils to investigate a view that is the opposite to one they hold, to do some research and look into their similarities and differences. Difference should be celebrated, not feared.

As a result, I’m really looking forward to Bryanston’s Craftivist Group, an extra-curricular activity (ECA) which I will be hosting from January. Craftivists aim to change the world through well-thought-out, quiet and kind acts of loving protest.

22 November 2019

Learning the importance of decision making and accepting responsibility through outdoor education

Head of Outdoor Education Duncan Curry explains why outdoor education plays such a crucial role at Bryanston and how it goes hand-in-hand with the challenges pupils face in everyday life…

Just recently, someone complimented me for making ‘playing outdoors’ into a career. Although this was certainly never my intention at school, 14 years in the outdoor education sector have made me realise that it has indeed been the perfect choice for me. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to witness the transformation of many pupils, from nervous, shy first years into powerful and confident sixth-form leavers.

I have always been sure of the benefits of outdoor education and spending time in the natural environment, which include but are not limited to: enhanced personal and social communication skills, increased physical health, enhanced mental and spiritual health, and an improved ability to assert personal control.

As a department, we believe that it’s often what happens outside the classroom that pupils remember most from their school days. That’s why we greatly value the outdoor education programme at Bryanston and work hard to ensure that pupils can transfer emotional strength gained during these activities and use their experiences to their advantage in meeting and overcoming the challenges they face in the classroom and everyday life.

Whether it’s striving for higher grades, forging supportive and productive relationships with others or engaging with the world around us, outdoor education makes us all stronger, more resilient and more likely to achieve our full potential.

In life we need role models. We can be taught the theory of action but until we see this in practice, we don’t fully understand what is required of us. Most of us are lucky enough to gather this information through our parents or siblings, but the older we get, the more challenging it is to find suitable role models.

The best role models work even harder in their absence. For my own, I created two figures sitting on each shoulder, the first my university tutor, and the second my head of department in my first job. Climbing high above the ground in the Italian Dolomites, leading pupils at 5,000 metres in the Indian Himalaya, or balancing along a ridge in the Scottish Highlands, Lee and Rupert would keep me on track. If I was about to rush a dangerous move, or take a shortcut with my rope work, they would immediately put me in place. Their words would echo back to me from a lesson learnt in the past, ‘Take your time, check that knot, tread carefully, stop, turn back or move fast’.

When I am asked what the best part of my job is, my answer is that I am able to work with the same pupils for five years whilst they are at Bryanston. This is a great deal of time to impart as much knowledge as possible and see significant developments. I now realise the important influence that a teacher can have on a young adult and I wonder how many shoulders I might now be sitting on? This is a powerful reality check and ensures that my lessons are succinct, clear and ultimately safe: perhaps the next time a pupil is tying into a rope, rather than having the luxury of a qualified instructor, they could be about to embark on a challenging adventure with a friend.

The beauty of the outdoors is there are very few rules. The freedom found when exploring, either by foot, by boat or through climbing, is huge. I remember being asked on Snowdon what time the rangers would be shutting the paths. Of course, this would never happen. Sunrise or sunset on Snowdon, when the crowds have disappeared, is certainly the best time to appreciate the mountain. It would be wrong for paths to be shut because of the apparent risk. Outdoor education, or adventuring in the outdoors, is one of the few environments left to us where we have to think for ourselves and accept the responsibility. If you walk into Coire an t’Sneachda in the Scottish winter and on to Carn Etchachan, you had better have a map and a good awareness of tough navigation. There will be no one to help you on the featureless Cairngorm Plateau as the early night draws in and you need to find your way home.

I believe outdoor education at Bryanston plays a crucial role in strengthening our pupils through their experiences. For young adults growing up in the present day, learning the importance of decision making and accepting responsibility for their own actions is a very valuable lesson. It is becoming more and more challenging to be allowed to make mistakes but only through our mistakes do we learn and develop. If a mistake can be made under a watchful eye, it can be a lesson learnt rather than one from which to run away. Once we have learnt these lessons under the guidance of a role model, we are then ready to experience them for ourselves.