5 December 2013

Not to do everything but to do something

‘Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.’

John Wesley might seem an unlikely hero for a girl sent to a convent school as a small child but his famous saying is fantastically clear and keeps us straight. It would perhaps be easy otherwise to take refuge in that unpleasant First World phrase ‘charity fatigue’ as we watch the world from our comfortable armchair in Dorset. But thankfully Bryanston pupils are keen not to stand by. This term alone there has been the Nepal Fair (raising funds for Child Welfare Scheme and Right 4 Children whom we have supported for 12 years), followed by a Frugal Lunch for the children of Syria, and more recently by a day we called “Jeans for the Philippines”.

Contribution to the world we live in can be in this charitable form. And so it should be, both when there are disasters and emergencies which require all of us to respond and when we are continuing to support our long-term chosen charities. But contribution goes beyond this. Contribution is a frame of mind.

It’s about noticing others around you and looking outside your own needs and ambitions. It’s about being outward not inward looking. It’s about real life and real activity rather than a virtual version of both. Schools like Bryanston thrive on this way of living. Sport, music, drama and all social engagement are based upon this outlook on life. I strongly believe that you are not a fulfilled person without this sort of engagement and contribution to something larger than your own small orbit whether to your team or in the orchestra. I also believe this way of living can lead a child or adult to the realisation of the need for the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of others as well as themselves. Which might, for all kinds of reasons, be the most important lesson ever learned in school. All of this matters a very great deal to me.

The theme of our all being connected, even to those we might well not choose to be, by a common humanity is not a new one. John Donne was writing of this in the 1600s and before him Homer too composed epics of great scope and understanding that put victor and victim in the same humane focus. In the dark days of December, remembering what it is that really matters and looking forward to a Christmas holiday of joy and contribution can at least begin to make sense of our conflicting and complicated duties in this fast-changing world.

25 November 2013

Thrift and adventure

We welcome Ian McClary, Head of Sixth Form at Bryanston, with his guest blog on the importance of the co-curricular Current Affairs Programme.

In the current educational climate, in which we chase ever higher grades at traditionally respected
Ian McClary
universities, it can look like something of an extravagance to devote two periods each week to a co-curricular, non-examined lecture for a year group preparing for essential IB and A level exams (especially with no January exam session as a safety net). Nevertheless, the A2 Current Affairs programme remains a mainstay of the sixth form academic enrichment programme because, as Winston Churchill's mother put it, thrift and adventure seldom go hand in hand. And these talks are, in a way, mini adventures. They provide the pupils with insights into worlds and realms of experience perhaps unthought of or unreflected upon, and they broaden their moral and cultural horizons along the way.

As well as being very well received by pupils, providing an enjoyable and stimulating feature of their weekly timetable, their real value lies in the questions raised by this series of talks. Questions which, very often, we don't realise need asking, for example: why are there around 500 cults operating in the UK and how might we be vulnerable to their influence? Does Britain now hate men? Why, through examining the bizarre life cycle of a jellyfish, should we have more respect for our oceans and take marine conservation much more seriously? How easy is it to end up in prison and what challenges might face us on the inside? How have we lost touch with our musical heritage and why are we the poorer for it? Is Britain really broken? How do failed states abroad impact upon our lives at home?

As well as being thought provoking, I have also found that these talks can give direction and focus to future aspirations and plans. At the end of a talk about the world of marine biology, everything fell into place for one pupil as she realised exactly what she wanted to study at university and, more importantly, why. Another pupil, lacking confidence in his abilities as a writer, found great inspiration in a man who managed to hone his skills in one of America's toughest jails, smuggling out his work on pieces of toilet paper written on with a pencil sharpened on his cell wall. It was also touching to see a group of budding musicians remaining behind after a talk on the history of popular music to sit at the feet of a master and hang on his every word.

And some of the talks are also just plain fascinating. From an exploration of how exactly hypnosis works, to an explanation of how police forces solve major crimes, to a personal account of what it was like to be a spy in the Cold War, the A2 Current Affairs programme is enriching in so many ways. It is an extravagance but it is also, I believe, a necessity. It is a welcome prospect at the end of a busy week and year on year the pupils ensure that the next cohort approach this compulsory lecture on a Saturday morning eagerly and with an open mind, for which I am extremely grateful.

11 November 2013

Time and space

If you ask Old Bryanstonians about what they remember of their school days the reply is always pretty much the same: the people and the place. The people you might think speak for themselves, and to some extent they do, given that you really would hope that the people who have had a profound effect upon your educational and emotional progress as a teenager and the friendships made would rate highly on any school leaver's list of strongest memories. But the place at Bryanston ranks almost equally highly; the two, people and place, are to my mind inseparable.

The thing about a boarding school education that no day school, however exceptional, can emulate is the provision of time and space. The boarding school day seems barmily long to a child of 13 who wants to be home at 3.30pm or even 6pm eating peanut butter on toast and watching CBBC. The day at boarding school, where boarding is done properly, finishes at 9pm or later. The week finishes on Saturday afternoon after sport and starts the following morning on Sunday when, during whole school weekends, there is a choice between Sunday service in church, with our incomparable Chaplain, or a non-religious but hopefully entertaining Sunday Assembly. On those weekends when a good deal of the boarders may go home, there is the option of a long lie-in on Sunday and cracking food when you get up, thanks to the award-winning Mike Thorne and his team of caterers. Busy weekends are full of activity, from balloon debates to battle of the bands; quiet weekends might take the form of time with friends in the house, trips to the cinema, or even, mirabile dictu, work.

This activity, high octane or low key, is what allows people to forge friendships with each other. It is far easier in my experience to make real and lasting friendships if you are working alongside someone in house drama or playing alongside them in house football, than if you sit together, passively, at a 'social event'. And at boarding school you really do find friends who stay friends forever.

And then there is the place. The place at Bryanston is 400 acres of Dorset countryside, which allows for all kinds of sporting activity. The obvious ones take place on pitches and courts and change according to season. But there is also a range of other activities allowed by the place such as beekeeping, bell ringing, kayaking, climbing, horse riding, rowing, playing in the grounds, climbing trees and camping.

If you are going to make the most of all of these opportunities, you need the time in which to do it. And we come back to the beginning: 'time and space'. The place itself and being happy and active in the place are inextricably linked. Bertie Wooster puts it succinctly in his flawless schoolboy Latin when he talks of 'the jolly old genius loci'. The campus at Bryanston adds to the opportunities on offer and provides the space in which these opportunities can be enjoyed to the full. Few people leave Bryanston without favourite memories of the countryside in which the school is set, be it the river, the playing fields, or Beechwood Lawn. And even fewer leave without memories of the Coade Hall, where we all meet at least twice a week, or of the Main School, the glorious original house, once a grand home to the Portman family and their household and now a comfortable home and school for 670 pupils. Generations to come will continue to remember Basement Corridor, the Cafe, and the social area of this warm and friendly house because it is here that they made their friends for life.

11 October 2013

Creativity unconfined

At the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference last week, Tim Hands, the chairman, spoke in masterly terms about the need for love in a school; schools are after all where we educate those who will shape our future. I happen to agree that love is a prime ingredient for a school as it is the most creative of emotions. And what is a school if not a Petri dish full of interesting organisms working out all kinds of useful symbiosis?

The Greeks knew a thing or two about creativity, from the pure thought of a philosopher (Diogenes in his barrel) to the geometry of Eratosthenes computing the circumference of the earth before the days of computers. The only ‘digital’ help he had was from his own fingers! The flourishing of thinking in the fifth century BC in art and drama, science and much else was in my day termed an ‘intellectual revolution’. The men of fifth-century Athens, and before them of Ionia, through their creativity of mind, re-thought our world. 

Megan Kilmister: Mixed media

So why do we fall for the argument that learning such as this is ‘to be assessed’ and done so  ‘summatively’? That it is easily packaged together? Any scientist worth their salt will tell you that creativity is essential to scientific progress, as without the ability to visualise that which could be, there would be no new discoveries. Is it because, in a time where education is dominated by government initiatives (there’s an oxymoron I suspect), the language used of learning is all about grades and league tables and floor targets; where ‘good’ is not good enough and only ‘outstanding’ will do? Is this why we tend to the parcelling up of bite-sized chunks of old knowledge and passing them on to children in order that they satisfy a measurement?

Quentin Martin: Rotating coffee table

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts”, to quote an American politician who came up the hard way. And of course I accept that children need to know certain things. But not at the expense of their learning to do, learning to create, learning to question pretty much everything, no matter how tiresome that is to those of us who are now antiques. As the great philosopher Karl Popper once said, “Every discovery contains an ‘irrational element’ or creative intuition”, and children need to be capable of breaking new ground. They need to be unafraid of any government’s twelve-inch ruler or league table.

If there is one other thing alongside love which to my mind makes for a proper school it is an enquiring mind from those who teach and those who learn. Then there can begin that creative, energetic, explosive act of learning, whether in the chemistry lab or the classics classroom, to pick two of my favourite subjects. Let creativity be unconfined!

The third edition of Nova, Bryanston’s anthology of creative work from the past academic year, was published this week. Click here to read the publication online.

20 September 2013

Big school

I’ve been much enjoying David Walliams and Catherine Tate in their take on ‘Big School’. It’s rather nice to watch a series about a school where there is a lot of good humour involved. This morning I spoke with the 130-plus pupils who have just arrived in D (year 9) about my top ten tips for settling in to a new school and of making a great success of life at ‘Big School Bryanston’; I sincerely hope there were not too many shades of Frances de la Tour’s outstanding headmistress!

My tips for the 13-year-olds, gathered over the years from various colleagues and schools, are all about making sure you are yourself: contributing to the house and school; being busy; avoiding the easy mistakes (like not being organized enough to get stuck in). And I also advise remembering to stay in touch with your prep school, who will certainly be very pleased to hear how you are getting on.

If you are busy and active and engaged you will soon find that you are a part of the place. In a week or so’s time it will feel like you have always been here. And then begins the growth of that very productive feeling, the feeling of belonging to a community of people or, if you prefer, a large and rather unusual family.

If you feel that you belong in a place, you can draw strength from those around you and train on to be the very best version of you there can be. It’s so important in life to know that there are people who might be better than you at some things and whom you can admire and emulate. But also, that you will doubtless have your own skills, talents, interests and qualities to bring to the party. Others will want to emulate you.

I like metaphors. I often use the ballerina in the jewellery box. Bryanston is proud of being a school where not all are alike. It rejoices in the diversity of talent and contribution amongst pupils and staff. But we are not a disparate group of inward-looking individuals. We are not that lonely ballerina turning forever in her own orbit. We are a happy convocation of outward-looking and generous-minded individuals who enjoy each other’s company. And that makes each of us stronger.

It’s those human ties that let us know how we belong. And the good thing is, once learned, never forgotten! This sense of purpose and belonging lasts for life.