8 March 2019

Why we should be encouraging our children to read more

In celebration of World Book Day, Louise Boothman, Teacher of English reflects back on a time before digital distractions and explains why we need to be encouraging children to read more... 

Back in 1980 something, the Casio Databank really was a thing of wonders. With its red numbers, tiny-but-functional calculator and reassuringly Space 1999 aesthetic, it really was the birthday present of choice. We were confident that there was more technology on our wrists than went into getting Neil Armstrong to the moon. We were probably right. The flashing 24-hour clock – no hands for us, thanks – was a taste of the future and unpinned a lot of our spy game antics; press the back light and talk into your Casio, imagining that it had a walkie-talkie function, press the other button and a zip line would emerge. One friend sagely predicted that the little digital screen would one day be a tiny telly! As if. Imagine being able to watch Grange Hill on your wrist and radio your friends via your Casio…

Had I been given a sneak preview of the wristwear habitually sported nowadays, I think it would have blown my tiny mind. Everything and anything, that flashes, beeps and distracts, is available – if not on your wrist, then certainly on something that fits in your pocket and is little bigger than a match box… Had I had a smartphone at 13 would I have been quite so interested in books? The internet is full of endless rabbit holes to fall down, with click leading to click, so easy, so passive. Is it any wonder that reading for pleasure seems to be becoming something of a lost art, side-lined as niche and antiquated against such alluring technology? The first generation of tablet-savvy children are coming through our doors and it’s increasingly hard to match the lure of the smartphone, the laptop, the tablet or the smartwatch with the printed word. If I had a penny for every time a parent has lamented: ‘My child does not read anything, they used to love reading at prep school’, I would currently be mulling over this thorny perennial from the deck of my super yacht, but as it stands, we are all trying our best to work out how we make analogue sexy in an almost entirely digitised world. It’s tough.

Books are enchanting, they can take you anywhere, all from the comfort of your armchair, but they don’t sing for everyone. The allure of children’s fiction, with their gorgeous illustrations, all too soon ebbs away as the text grows denser, the pictures vanish and the pages contract down to the size of a house brick. This progression to ‘young adult fiction’ usually chimes with a move to senior school, the arrival of a new mobile phone and the marvel that is puberty. There’s a lot going on. Couple this with the boarding environment; deliberately busy and full of hustle, there’s not always time and space to be quiet and reflective. Besides which, when you do wind down of an evening, some well-meaning adult will bang your lights out at 9.50pm, so that thwarts most potential bookworms…

Reading requires time and space and quiet. It also requires a text that really grabs you. It seems a long time since the reign of the Goosebumps series, where obsessed children had resorted to stealing the next exciting edition of the horror series from bookshops. In the 2011 riots the only shop to remain blissfully ‘unlooted’ was Waterstones. The windows were fully intact, as nobody wanted to lift the contents. Not even the Moomin pencil cases. To be considered a ‘big reader’ (i.e. someone who reads a lot), Waterstones have set the bar at four books a year.

So how do we turn this around? It seems to me, that just like the resurgent vogue for vinyl records, ‘The Book’ is ripe for a hipster makeover. E-readers are all very well, but I have little truck for reading a book on your laptop or phone. I like paper in my grubby mit, I like to be able to flick back and read a favourite passage, and I like knowing how many pages I have left for the unknotting to unfold. So, let’s go old school and have a real, actual, physical book. We also have to model good reading habits; if you are endlessly noodling on your tablet, why should your children not do the same? Let them catch you reading. To that end, if you spot a member of staff reading in main hall, it’s all part of our ‘Visible Reader Scheme’, as spearheaded by our very own Will Ings. Designed to set a good example and flag the importance of reading for pleasure, we hope to get some older pupils onboard too in the coming weeks.
Emma Minter, our librarian, is full of plans and schemes to encourage reading; do visit Ashmore and see the work she has done. Now open to all, not just the preserve of sixth formers, there are some beautiful books to borrow; Emma has a wonderful eye and her displays are vibrant and carefully curated. Welcoming and cosy, the range of non-fiction she has brought in is particularly strong. In addition, Emma has also ploughed ahead with the introduction of the Accelerated Reader scheme, which places the emphasis on at least five, half-hour reading sessions a week. Hsms have been instrumental in facilitating this, while the English department are chivvying away to ensure that our Ds complete the accompanying comprehension quiz every time our pupils read one of the recommended books. 

While there is a satisfaction to reading everything by a particular author, the Accelerated Reader homes in on the pupil’s reading age and encourages stretch and challenge, to help the reading age ‘accelerate’. We also have a Reading Passport, where D, C and B pupils are rewarded for reading x number of books in a term. Equally, in English we are pushing the Bedrock vocabulary builder to help give pupils the academic vocabulary they need to succeed; if you don’t have the vocab, you really can’t access the curriculum.

But reading is not just the key to academic success, it’s about your mental health, too. Reading to escape, reading to understand how other people tick and putting a hand across time to make a connection with someone from a different age is a most powerful thing. Reading shouldn’t be like taking your medicine; it’s good for you, but you don’t really like it. Being lent a book by someone you respect is a tremendous incentive to read it; it’s great to see some of our pupils reading challenging material that has been recommended by their tutors and I always enjoy having recommendations from my tutorial pupils. Thanks to one notable, I have just read my very first Agatha Christie. What can I say? I’m a late adapter.

In such a busy environment, it sometimes seems decadent to sit down with a book. And there is also the delightful contradiction that while reading is an activity that requires some form of isolation, it is also the very thing that helps you feel connected. I’ll leave my summation to F. Scott Fitzgerald: That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’

Books are wondrous, have your fill.

15 February 2019

Settling in at senior school: how junior boys’ boarding can help

Stephen Davies, junior boys housemaster explains how Bryanston's junior boys' house system helps ease the transition to senior school...

A long time ago, when I was at a not very distinguished school in Wales, the Year 9 boys were known as ‘plebs’. While one might admire the erudition of such a nickname, it was hardly a compliment. Teachers called us plebs, older pupils called us plebs and both told us how lucky we were because plebs used to have a much harder time of it in the old days. We should be grateful for small mercies. There was even a verb: one could ‘pleb’ a junior (i.e. ask them to do something menial or unpleasant) or the junior could ‘be plebbed’ (carry out such a task). I remember being sent to the not very local shop with a 1p coin and being told to buy a 1/2p sweet and bring back the change. The sweet wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point was that I was a pleb, so I should just grit my teeth and get on with it, and one glorious day I would be able to carry out the full range of plebbing activities myself.

I’m afraid I never really did, not that I can remember anyway . . . instead I find myself running a junior boys’ boarding house at Bryanston, catering exclusively to Year 9 boys. You might say that I have a house full of plebs and some might argue that my career is now entirely based on plebbing – telling small boys what to do – but I would say that is to misconceive what we are up to these days. No modern school worth its salt would or should tolerate any culture of exploitation. Thankfully, those days are long gone. What is striking and different, and brilliant about Bryanston’s approach to boys’ boarding, is that over 30 years ago (about the time that I was at school and getting plebbed) the school established the junior boys’ house system. 

To explain – because it is unusual – all of our 13-year-old boys go into one of our two junior boys’ houses, either Beechwood or Cranborne, for their first year. In each of these houses the boys have their own space: their own pool table, their own workrooms and common room.  So, on their first night of boarding at senior school (and for a good number, this is their first night of boarding ever) they are not likely to be bumped off the pool table by a large and hairy 1st XV prop forward. The boys will have time and space to get to know the others in their house in an environment that probably feels a bit like a prep school. If they are used to being a big fish in a small pond, the junior house acts as a sort of holding pond before they enter the tidal waters of whole school life. Friendships are forged. Hand-picked prefects from the sixth form (boys and girls) act as role models and work as mentors in the house, guiding the boys through their first few weeks and months. There is a lot of laughter and an awful lot going on. Add in the fact that Year 9 is a time of enormous change anyway, with adolescence often kicking in, a new sense of independence, physical, emotional and social growth, it seems desirable that these things can happen in a protected space.

The system also allows boarding staff to specialise. A junior boys’ housemaster is not distracted by sixth-form goings on, UCAS references, GCSE choices and so on. We can focus on and keep learning about our boys and their needs in those crucial months as they find their feet. We can ensure that they are making the most of the opportunities on offer. We can also offer guidance to parents – who need to settle in too – as we begin to recognise patterns and routines. In particular the sudden separation of school and home can throw up issues on both sides and the junior boys’ house offers the perfect context in which to discuss and resolve these things.

But as I often find myself saying to parents, the thing that makes Bryanston unique in its house system for boys is the way we allocate them to a senior house. We resist the tribalism of more traditional environments and we try to create a balance of talents and personalities across all houses. We actively encourage socialising between the two junior houses and then we give the boys a say in who they are with; they give their junior housemaster a long list of those friends that they would like to be with in a senior house. Neither the boys nor the parents get to choose a house (parents don’t have to audition housemasters, fortunately) and nor do housemasters recruit for their house (this seems invidious to me). Instead, the groupings for senior houses emerge in a series of meetings over several weeks in the summer term. The boys don’t always get what they want, but they do get, we think, what they need, in terms of their peer group for the next four years. The final piece of the jigsaw is the tutor; boys will be allocated a tutor by the Head before they arrive at the school. The tutor will support the boy on an individual basis throughout his time at Bryanston, so the work of the junior housemaster is always backed up by those one-to-one conversations that take place weekly in tutorials.

The first year of senior school used to be one that had to be endured rather than enjoyed.  Now, thanks in a significant part to the real boost in confidence and security that boys (and parents) get from the junior house system, most older boys will look back fondly on that time.  “Do you remember when, in Beechwood . . .”  is often a conversation opener from a cheery-looking A2 school prefect. It is a year to be enjoyed, a year of great change and development, and, we hope, the best start to a very positive school career. 


5 February 2019

"You just don't understand" - Part Two

In part two of her blog about teenage girls, Edrys Barkham focuses on the years from GCSE onwards...

GCSE is about as close as we get in Western society to a rite of passage. It is an ordeal and requires perseverance and persistence from 16-year-olds. It requires her managing fear of failure and self-doubt, and understanding that supporting others helps to support herself. Sharing exam technique and revision practices can bring a year group together and it is through this that girls start to develop further a sense of responsibility for themselves and for others. It’s the recognition that they have to do past papers not for their teacher or to please their parents, but to improve their own understanding of the subject and exam requirements. Working with friends allows them to identify what they do understand and where they need to do more. Learning ways to manage exam nerves and cope with a fear of failure are all critical life skills that are honed through the exam year.

Girls throughout early adolescence will dump their emotional load on their mothers and, having done so, move back into their social life feeling relieved, leaving their mothers as emotional wrecks. I would receive a ‘distraught’ phone call from mum saying her daughter was in floods of tears and really struggling. I would rush into the boarding house and discover them dancing on their desk or laughing with their friends. When I called mum to tell her this it always sounded so implausible; today, I’d be able to email video footage, which might be the solution to convince mums that their distressed daughter is actually fine!

For A3 (year 12) returning to the Sixth Form armed with a string of numbers from GCSE results that they recognise as part of their adult identity, but that don't totally define them as a person, improves teenagers’ self-esteem and confidence. Having selected their subjects for study, school now is more about personal achievement than doing what everyone else is doing. During A3 they are more confident to express themselves as an individual in both appearance and opinion.  They are more secure to do things on their own, there is often less antagonism with parents, but disagreements can be vigorous as they feel more independent and adult, confident in their own opinions and ideas, and more focused on what they want to achieve.

During the final A2 year (year 13) there tends to be better and more adult communication with parents; girls feel more established as individuals and begin to enjoy taking more responsibility in looking after others. The year group usually finds a new cohesion and all the different personalities and characters become more interconnected and tolerant of each other’s differences. They take on the shared responsibility of the community and discuss their thoughts and ideas more freely with their parents. Our girls leave us as young adults, generally comfortable in their own skins, confident in their strengths, but not arrogant about their talents and ready to contribute positively to their society.

The five-year journey can be calm and gentle, or it can be tumultuous and chaotic, or it can be a mixture. The relationship between the parent and child changes and develops throughout this time, but the skilled and highly experienced hsms and tutors here at Bryanston will help you and your daughter find a route through adolescence, so that you can enjoy a well-deserved and long-lasting adult relationship.