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.