4 December 2015


“I’ve never really felt alone here,” a girl reported about settling in at Bryanston in the pupil pre-inspection questionnaire at the start of this term. Music to my ears. Belonging seems to me to matter enormously, not least in this fast-moving, virtual world some would have us believe we live in. Why? To explain that, it’s time for the famous camel story, courtesy of my old and wonderful ex-colleague, Stephen Winkley.

There was a family of camels enjoying a good graze and gossip. The baby camel was chewing, as baby camels do, and wondering some wondrous thoughts. He asked his mother, “Mum, why have we got these bumps on our backs?” “Well,” said his mother, “Those bumps are humps and they store gallons of water in them which means we can walk for days across the desert without stopping for a drink.” The baby camel thought about this, ruminatively, and as baby camels often do, came up with another question. “Mum, so why have we got these great big splashy feet then?” And his mother answered him patiently, as mother camels do, “Those are to allow us to walk for miles and miles through the trackless sands without getting bogged down and to keep on going and going.” The baby camel turned this interesting new fact around his baby camel mind and asked, “Mum, so why is it we are in Chessington Zoo?”

The point of the story is that we all know when we feel out of place and we much prefer to know where we belong. It makes sense of who we are and what our talents and dispositions are. It allows us to give of our best and to feel valued and recognised for who we are and what we bring to the party. And that way you don’t feel alone or lonely but you feel part of a place that is right for you, which nurtures those talents and helps them grow, which allows you to learn from others around you. All real boarding school stuff; none of that gaming or social media nonsense. It’s all about drama and sport, music and bell ringing.

It may be that those who believe in ‘character building’ arguments about schooling would argue that we could do the same from being in a totally alien environment and not having a chance of fitting in. This is the cold baths and ‘it never did me any harm, being hung by my heels out of the window’ school of thought about life in a bracing boarding school circa 1810. That seems to me to be illegal as well as unreasonably demanding of a 13- or even 18- year-old. I am delighted that pupils talk about this place as a family, a home from home, a place they feel supported, guided and cherished. It makes my job, which is not always entirely straightforward, really worthwhile.

And how seasonal this all feels: camels, belonging, being cherished. Time for writing my Christmas cards and another mince pie. I wish you all a restful Christmas holiday together when it arrives and the very best of all things for 2016.

20 November 2015

Academic Bryanston…a new boy’s impressions

This week we are delighted to welcome our Deputy Head, Academic, David James, with a guest blog on his first impressions of Bryanston's academic system.

David James
Every independent school in the UK likes to see themselves as unique: they might market themselves as distinctive, but the language used on websites, or in glossy brochures, often has the same buzzwords and phrases (‘holistic education’, ‘well rounded individuals’, ‘self-confident’ and so on, as if there are any schools in the country who would not endorse these). The reality is that most schools have more in common than they would care to admit (and I would include state schools in that): teachers teach their pupils, mark their work, enter examinations, and then send them out into the real world. Bryanston, however, really is different: the modified Dalton Plan, upon which Bryanston’s academic system is based, puts it into a tiny minority of schools worldwide. When I worked at Dauntsey’s I knew of Bryanston from afar, and ever since then have wanted to know more about it: did it really work in practice, rather than in theory? What results did it get? And so after nearly a term of being here I think I’m beginning to get a sense of the school’s academic system. It’s been an education!

We know from the recent ISI inspection that Bryanston is officially ‘excellent’ in every category. And I know from conversations with the inspection team that one of the (many) things that impressed them about the school is our academic system: it was seen as a unique and integral part of the school’s identity, and something which clearly added real value to the quality of our pupils’ learning. The inspectors noted that:
In line with the school’s original founding aims, teaching is effective in promoting pupils’ progress through learning to work independently, guided by individual tutoring.
It was Bryanston’s ‘one-to-one’ support that was singled out as a means of ‘promoting the pupils’ personal development’. This progress is at the core of every pupil’s experience of Bryanston: there is an emphasis placed on individualised care and support, so that everyone, regardless of their ability, is able to meet with an adult (either a tutor or their subject teacher) to discuss their studies, as well as their extracurricular commitments. It is this ‘close connection’ that, the inspectors said, contributed to the ‘rapid progress’ they make in their subjects, and it also explains why so many OBs retain such a strong bond with the school.

Key to this is the tutor. In most schools tutoring is unevenly delivered: in boarding schools tutors usually have a group of about 10 pupils whom they see once a week; usually, they give this group up after one year. It could not be more different at Bryanston: here, a tutor has individual tutorial pupils whom they meet, one-to-one, every week. There is no group because we view everyone as an individual. And this selection of tutorial pupils is governed not by house, but by a careful process of selection. Crucially, the tutor remains with their tutorial pupils throughout their school career, ensuring a mutual, and deep, form of understanding and trust.

Correction periods build on this: at Bryanston each sixth form pupil will see their subject teachers one-to-one once a week to discuss key areas of their course. This can be transformative for the pupil who can quickly go from a sense of uncertainty about a topic, to one of insight and understanding. Again, the key here is that personalised care. Compare and contrast that with the increasingly depersonalised, screen-driven ‘interactions’ that dominate our digital lives. Little wonder that the system is so valued, and felt by many to be authentic, have academic rigour, and the pupils’ interests at its heart.

I have visited a lot of schools in my career, both as an inspector, and as someone interested in different school systems. Among those that have impressed me most are the fully IB schools in the Netherlands and Germany, the Harkness schools in New England (such as Philips Andover and Philips Exeter), and the Core Knowledge schools in New York. These are very different, but equally world class, institutions. But Bryanston’s academic system is equal to them because, like them, we have an academic philosophy that works and an ethos that supports it. More importantly, we know that the academic system we have works for us, rather than because a new government initiative says it should. That’s not to say it cannot improve: it can and will, but I hope that the school continues to remain true to its founding principles, adapting its approach on its own terms. That is the value, and measure, of true independence.

6 November 2015

Nepal and beyond

There’s an episode of Friends in which Phoebe, the only really interesting (as opposed to likeable or funny) character, decides to work out if there is such a thing as a truly unselfish act. Everything she tries proves either to be in fact not a good thing at all, or something from which she benefits by making her feel good about herself.

It’s hard in life to do the right thing sometimes. Especially when some of the issues are so fantastically complicated. What should we do, for instance, as a country, a school, an individual, about the fate of so many Syrian refugees?

Every religion I can think of has the same golden rule of ‘Do as you would be done by’, from ancient Chinese philosophy to Hinduism and Christianity. Jesus was particularly tough on this. He told those who asked him how to live a good life to love God and their neighbours as themselves. He told his disciples to give away their worldly goods, to leave their family, and to follow him. Nothing complicated about that, although the leaving your family behind bit is particularly hard to come to terms with and sort of paralyses us.

Toby Ord, a young Australian philosopher at Oxford University, set up some years ago a charity called Giving What We Can. He gives 10%, or a tithe to the medieval historians amongst you, of his own earnings every year to those in the world who need our support. He does this on the basis that those of us who earn more than the UK national average wage are, in global terms, millionaires. And because his logic is simple: if you can, you should. Over his lifetime he calculates he will contribute £1 million and he hopes his example will encourage others to do likewise.

The ruins of Marpak, Nepal
after the earthquake
This weekend at Bryanston, we will host our annual Nepal Fair and hope to raise somewhere in the region of £12k at the fair and an additional £23k thanks to Mr Dickson’s extraordinarily generous offer to cut off his dreadlocks. We shall do what we can, and in doing so make things a little better in Nepal. It won’t change the world but it will make a difference.

School still goes on
We have supported charitable work in Nepal for well over 20 years now and will continue to do so; this is not something we can one year decide not to get involved in, as these small charities have come to rely on our regular support, especially as the world’s focus moves on to the next disaster. Whatever charitable activities we undertake, they won’t be one-off acts designed to make us, Phoebe-like, for all her best intentions, feel better about ourselves for a short while; they will be careful, thought-out, ongoing and simple. Because that’s what works. I very much hope we continue to get such opportunities and in the meantime, let’s do all we can to make this year’s Nepal Fair a success.

See you there!

16 October 2015

The thinks you can think

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try”. 
Dr Seuss

Creativity is something you have to work at in a school because, according to a great many successfully active creative thinkers and doers, schools and the very process of growing up are pretty good at beating out the spark rather than fostering its subtle flames. Picasso famously observed that every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up. I think all parents would instinctively agree with what he says in terms of watching their own children’s self-confidence about expression when in primary school and how things change with the self-consciousness of adolescence.

It’s also a big ask to tell a child or adolescent “Be creative!” What does that even mean? Where do you start? I think it’s important therefore to build creative thinking and the opportunity for creative doing into all aspects of a school curriculum, wherever and whenever you can. I don’t pretend that this is always easy (being creative about the gerundive of obligation can defeat you on a damp Friday afternoon) but I do think it’s the critical aim of all teaching and learning. Open wide the windows and let in the air. To quote Vinegar Joe’s certainly very creative use of the gerundive of obligation, non illigitimis carborundum.

The advantages of retaining the childhood spark of creativity into self-conscious adolescence and then professional adulthood are, in my view, too obvious for words. I don’t see that these need rehearsing or defending (but if you do, look at anything Ken Robinson or Bill Gates say). The bit that I think matters and does need asserting loud and clear is that after a decade or more of measuring the pig (through league tables of schools, through examination and assessment change, et cetera…) we should have learned how arid and useless that activity is in terms of creating well-rounded, happy, successful, creative, contributive young men and women. And frankly I don’t think education has any other purpose than producing just that.

Time to stop treating children as widgets, figures, statistics. By all means ensure all children receive an equal opportunity to enrich their lives through learning. It’s about time we did. But define education as an active, creative, two-way engagement, not as some dead hand of what must be learned. Stop encouraging only a focus on core curriculum; stop telling children what they can’t do, what they are no good at.

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try”……

2 October 2015

British values

This week we welcome Second Master, Peter Hardy, who looks at what British values are and how they are embodied at Bryanston.
Peter Hardy

For many the idea of a boarding school typifies British traditions, values and culture. Bryanston has always taken what it believes to be the best of these traditions and values and combined them with new ideas and thinking – et nova et vetera in action.

All schools in the UK are now required to ‘promote fundamental British values’ rather than simply respecting them, as previous government guidance stipulated. This change in language from respecting British values to actively promoting them is one that has resulted in a close inspection of how we promote these values at Bryanston across the school, whether in the classroom or simply through our daily interactions with each other.

The government outlines the fundamental British values as:
  • Democracy 
  • The rule of law 
  • Individual liberty 
  • Mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs.

As far as the rule of law is concerned, this is regularly emphasised. Pupils are taught about rules, regulations and expectations and this is underpinned by our own Rules and Regulations, Behaviour Policy and associated documents. The teaching of this is set in the context of the rule of law in the country as a whole and within the context of living together successfully in a full boarding school.

Pupils are also taught about the importance of making choices in the knowledge that they are living in a safe, secure and supportive environment at Bryanston. Individual liberty and personal freedom are emphasised, as are the risks that may apply. Underpinning this, boundaries and consequences are clearly laid out so that pupils are able to make their own sound judgements and informed decisions, as well as learning from their mistakes.

Respect for and knowledge of other faiths is welcomed, and is delivered regularly through both assemblies and also through the PSRE curriculum. In Chapel each week with D pupils the Chaplain promotes tolerance and a healthy respect for difference.

Underpinning all of this is the central role of democracy, which is also regularly promulgated in school assemblies and explored in various aspects of the curriculum and ECAs, including a Model UN and mock elections.

At Bryanston these values have been central to our ethos since our early days, even if we haven’t always labelled them as specifically “British”. Indeed, one could argue that these values are not unique to our own culture, either as a school or as a country. However one views them, it is clear that Bryanston pupils are exposed to the importance and significance of our shared British values and expected to live by them and be guided by them both in school and beyond.

18 September 2015

Every year a new start

Every year I enjoy walking down to the pitches on the first Tuesday afternoon of the autumn term to see the new Ds in their brand new sports kit tackling the business of learning the ropes of rugby and hockey. The sports kit is pristine – you can even still see the folds in the shirts. It’s also a great deal of fun for me to see the members of staff involved with coaching these neophyte teams, teaching them, as actively as in a classroom, about the elusive skill of being both an individual and a member of a developing team.

A wise colleague of mine observed that there is one particular thing in a teacher’s job which distinguishes it from many other professions. And no, it’s not just the wonderful summer holidays. It’s that, in September, there is an enormous sense of turning a new page. Academic diaries change colour; new and/or updated policies are uploaded to the school website; all the children move on into a new year of learning; 172 new pupils enter the school. Few fellow professionals have quite the same ‘new shoes’ start to any session. And I think this makes teachers very fortunate.

Starting in a new school, or indeed in a new job, can be daunting. We do our level best to make sure that all who join us in September can quickly involve themselves – and be involved too – in activities so that relationships are forged through shared enterprise. And that goes for the staff too. Each year we welcome a number of new faces to the team. They hit the ground running and learn alongside the pupils the arcane vocabulary of HMC, ECA, Room 17 and other such Bryanston vernacular (though no pupil will ever be allowed in Room 17!).

One of our key new staff is David James who comes to us as our first Deputy Head Academic from his role as Head of IB at Wellington College. As an English teacher he is engaging in the classroom with a fair few Bryanstonians, new and returning, and I am much looking forward to watching him drive developments in the academic area. I’m also very pleased that he is here to help us remain a characteristic more-than-one-step-ahead of all the various changes in the examination sphere and he is, of course, charged in his wide-ranging brief with pushing the school onwards and upwards with individual as well as collective academic ambition and success. He’s already made a promising start.

So much for the nova. The vetera still thrives at Bryanston. Laurent Johnson and Pippa Quarrell each take on the role of Senior Tutor and their responsibility is to ensure all the new staff settle in and that the ever-evolving issue of appraisal (not a topic that gets many of us jumping out of bed in the morning) is further strengthened. Richard Boulton joins us from his role in charge of training for GB rowing as Head of Rowing at Bryanston and will build upon the loving work of Graham Elliot, who took care of the Boat Club for nearly 20 years. My own daughters owed their love of rowing to his work on the river. I know Richard will breathe an external gust into this rewarding corner of the school and I am looking forward to watching him coach aspiring Matthew Pinsents, Katherine Graingers and, more likely, lots of interested and enthusiastic youngsters who are starting in a boat for the first time ever.

There’s a sense of a new start every September and this September is no exception. I wish you all a fantastic beginning to your child’s new school year and hope to see lots of you at matches, concerts, and in the newly rebranded (Nero) Café!

10 July 2015

People, not things

Another summer term has drawn to a close and another successful Speech Day has allowed us to send off with love and every best wish both departing staff and 150 or so departing A2s. It’s always a time of nostalgia (how can you forget those 18 year-olds as their 13-year-old selves, bright eyed, bushy tailed and very nervous, five short years ago?). But mostly this time of year is a time of looking forward, we hope not too sentimentally, to the great things ahead of them in life. It’s what makes this job of mine the best in the world.

Speech Day allows me to see these young men and women ready to move on and ready to achieve still more. It allows me too to say to them my final words as their Head. This year I spoke of David Foster Wallace, Ken Robinson and Gillian Lynne. The theme, as mine so often is, was about what really matters in life.

There can’t be anyone on the planet who has children in a school who hasn’t listened to Ken Robinson’s TED Talk. But those of you who don’t know David Foster Wallace’s This is Water might like to add it to your own summer reading list. It’s short because it’s a commencement speech (a graduation speech, I think, in British English) and it’s a really good read. He talks about the absolute necessity of knowing what it is that matters to you. Of never ignoring the blazingly obvious. Of looking after your inner self so that you can be a social and happy self too. I recommend it to you in the warmest terms. Here’s its opening, to whet your appetite:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
It’s important in life that we work out what we really need and what it is that really matters. It won’t be the size of your house or how much you earn that makes you happy. It will be how you feel about yourself and how you then interrelate with others. As David Foster Wallace puts it, “In the twenty years since my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand … that the liberal arts cliché about ‘teaching you to think’ was actually shorthand for a very deep and important truth. ‘Learning to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

For me, how I keep that control is by reminding myself of an old friend’s wonderfully simple, rather hippy mantra, “People, not things”. By reading and immersing myself, whenever I can, in an internal imaginative landscape. By spending time with my husband and daughters. By walking the dogs and finding time for quiet reflection.

The A2s, as they leave this wonderful garden, will go on to play their part in the world. We hope very much that they will take Bryanston with them. As part of them. Take with them the memories of their friends, their teachers, their (best in the world) Chaplain. We very much hope that they have learned to enjoy learning, of course; but more than that, that they have learned the importance of friendship, of shared experiences, of their own emotional and spiritual well-being. That they have real goals, not fake, hollow goals. That they know how to love life. That they put people before things.

I am about to sign off for a little while and head off for a summer holiday. I’m taking a pile of books up a long lane in Devon (with no internet connection, I hope), re-establishing my link with quiet, and having fun with family and friends too. I wish you all a wonderful and fun-filled summer too. See you all back refreshed in September.

Intelligent Life: David Foster Wallace, in his own words
Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?
Huffington Post: People, not things, bring happiness, study shows

23 June 2015

Procrustes and his bed

Akshay Sanghrajka
This week we welcome Akshay Sanghrajka, teacher of Classics and D year coordinator, who looks at the positive impact of recent changes to the structure of the first year at Bryanston.

I recently chanced upon the word 'procrustean' in a novel I was reading and didn't know what it meant. It turns out that it's a great word, certainly in my pantheon along with the likes of ‘prolegomena’ (which is what these are - introductory words) and ‘smorgasbord’ (to which I shall come anon). Procrustes was some of kind of rogue bandit in Greece who assaulted people by forcing them to fit themselves into an iron bed that he hitched around the Greek countryside. So the word 'procrustean' comes to mean attempting to fit something of different size or proportion into one arbitrary standard; that is, attempting to diminish life's infinite variety by forcing it into one mould or framework.

Part of the reason I like this word is that it neatly encapsulates the precise antithesis of a Bryanston education. One of the things I think we as a school are very good at is nurturing a variety of individuals, creating the right conditions for a smorgasbord (there we are) of different pupils to flourish.

It was to this end that we recently made some changes to the structure of the D year, the first year at Bryanston. We made a decision to move the D exams from the end of the summer term to the end of the spring term. This may seem like a rather niggling procedural move but it was done in order to key into the centre of our educational philosophies.

The summer term now becomes a term in which teachers are freed from the shackles that exams necessarily impose. Our aim in this period, then, is to urge our pupils to make a step up from the initial D settling-in period to a more mature style of working. This happens in several ways, most notable among which is the requirements of assignments set. We try to elicit work from pupils which is of a more creative, independent nature. This might be by setting research assignments and encouraging pupils to use the Alexandrian libraries in our main school building; or by coming at a traditional subject from an oblique angle to provide our pupils with a fresh perspective. Thus, pupils feel more empowered over their own work and can complete it in a way which is idiosyncratic to their own style.

That fellow Procrustes, he naturally came to a sticky end. Panhellenic superhero Theseus happened to be passing by on his journey from Troezen to Athens and fitted Procrustes to his own iron bed.

Now, far be it from me to compare Bryanston to Theseus, who did all sorts of things from slaying minotaurs, to abandoning damsels in distress, to forgetting to change his sheets - with fatal consequences (as any matron of a junior boys' house could have told him). But as a self-declared foe of procrustean measures, Bryanston does have something in common with the wily old Athenian.

5 June 2015

Embracing change

This week we welcome Bryanston's Chaplain, The Rev'd Canon Andrew Haviland, who shares his thoughts on the importance of change.

It always surprises me how so many people don't like change, with many thinking that keeping the status quo is the right way to go about things. We so often hear, 'If it is not broken don't fix it'. However, I do wonder how society would have managed to evolve if there hadn't been people who could embrace and look for change. Watching a repeat of Top Gear one evening, I saw Jeremy Clarkson talking to Ellen MacArthur, who was the guest in the 'Star in a Reasonably Priced Car' segment. He summed it up well:
"What is it about some people that makes the human race so advanced? So many of us would still be in our caves saying, 'It is very nice here,' not wanting to go out and explore as it is quite comfortable here. If it wasn't for people like you wanting to explore, we would all be still in our caves eating deer and wearing fur."
It seems to me that embracing change is a vital part of our human development.

At school we are used to change. At this time of the year we start to prepare to welcome new pupils and colleagues into the school in September. This gives the place new energy, vision and opportunity. At the end of term we also say goodbye to those pupils and colleagues who move on to pastures new.

For those of us who remain, there are changes too. Pupils move year groups, new prefects are appointed, and our junior boys move to senior boys' boarding houses. For my colleagues exam boards change, schemes of work are altered, new colleagues are welcomed and we value the new insights and ideas that they will bring into how we can make Bryanston even better. As reflective practitioners we are constantly looking at how we can deliver what we teach more effectively. The motto 'et nova et vetera' is at the heart of how we operate.

The very basis of Christian living should be to embrace change as well. At times it can seem that new ideas and new ways of thinking are not welcomed: change seems to take an awful long time. The issue of women bishops in the Church of England is a case in point. And I for one thank God that at last we have a number of women who have been appointed to be the episcopate.

Being flexible and open to new ideas is something that I encourage pupils interested in being confirmed to do regularly. Good faith should be a living, dynamic, challenging and, at times, controversial way of life. Bad faith happens when one thinks one knows it all and is resistant to listening or embracing change. In his ministry Jesus criticised those who did not embrace new ideas and wanted to keep their feet firmly in the comfort of doing things as they have always been done.

We all recognise that change can be uncomfortable – going into the unknown can be unsettling – but that can be offset if we have around us a community who support and encourage conversation and recognise our anxiety. And at Bryanston we strive to do just that.

22 May 2015

Why IB?

Sophie Duncker
This week we welcome Bryanston's Head of IB, Sophie Duncker, who explains why she thinks pupils benefit from studying the IB Diploma.

Why would a pupil choose the IB at sixth form? There are many who believe that IB pupils are constantly studying with no time for anything else and that A levels are the easier, safer route.

I don’t agree! Yes, it can seem challenging at first glance, but the benefits that pupils gain through studying the IB Diploma are considerable. And as to constantly studying? IB pupils at Bryanston are fully involved in school life: last year’s cohort included the Heads of School, three prefects, the captain of the rowing team, several lead actors in school theatre productions, and a soloist in the Dance Band. Indeed, the IB actively encourages pupils to get involved in a range of activities alongside their studies through CAS (Creativity, Action, Service), a part of the ‘core’ of the IB Diploma programme.

The breadth of the IB, in both the subjects studied and combination of assessment methods, enables pupils to develop a much wider view of both their studies and their personal approach to learning. With six subjects, plus the ‘core’ of Theory of Knowledge, Extended Essay and CAS, pupils not only quickly develop strong organisational skills, they also learn how to be flexible and thrive outside their comfort zone. All key skills for their later lives.

While the range of subjects studied in the IB Diploma programme is an obvious benefit and the holistic approach to these subjects highlights how they are linked to each other in the real world, pupils also have the opportunity to delve into one area in depth as part of their Extended Essay (EE). The EE is an independent research project which allows pupils to investigate a topic related to one of their six chosen subjects and which is of special interest to them. Not only do pupils develop a deep understanding of their chosen topic, they also gain practical experience that will prepare them for undergraduate research.

The IB really can be the choice for every pupil – a scientist too will need to ‘think out of the box’, to consider ethical questions and be able to express themselves both in his or her own language, as well as in others. Some see a very clear route through school and a choice of one and only one university before them; then A levels may be a credible alternative to the IB. The choice however isn’t necessarily between A Levels and IB, but between specialising and widening horizons.

15 May 2015

A level reform: Evolution not revolution

Ian McClary
This week we welcome Ian McClary, Head of Sixth Form, who looks at the changes to A levels that will begin to take effect from September and the opportunities these changes bring.

Next year the reforms to A levels, introduced by Michael Gove as Education Secretary, will begin to take effect. Instead of completing half the A level course in A3 and the other half in A2 (a change introduced by the previous Labour government in 2000), the reformed A levels will, over two years, return to something similar to what we experienced in ‘the olden days’, when we were examined at the end of two years.

In an attempt to halt grade inflation, make A levels more rigorous and ambitious and better prepare young people for the demands of employment and further study, an extensive consultation process, which drew on advice from universities and subject associations, has taken another long, hard look at our educational ‘gold standard’.

Even though it can seem like just another raft of unnecessary and confusing changes, it is important to remember that we have again been presented with a valuable opportunity to reflect on how best to serve our pupils in the sixth form as they prepare for higher education and beyond. Everyone knows that you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it but exams in their right place are an important tool and an important rite of passage.

For pupils currently in B, things won’t look any different. They have chosen their subjects as usual and will sit a mixture of reformed and legacy AS units at the end of A3. Depending on the subjects they have chosen, some of these AS units will count towards their A level grade together with their A2 units; in other subjects they will not and the pupils will be required to be examined on that material again at the end of A2. This will not be much different to what happens already, with some pupils choosing to resit AS exams in the summer of A2.

What we will also be thinking carefully about next year is how we move forward into 2016 when all the subjects we offer will be reformed. There will be advantages and drawbacks to these changes, just as there were to the changes back in 2000. What is important, though, is how we teach children to learn and provide them with a rich experience in the sixth form.

Was it wise, for example, back in 2000, to spend a term of teaching at the end of A3 focusing on preparation for AS exams (knowing full well that trying to get pupils started immediately afterwards on the A2 courses would be a non-starter)? After 15 years of that, why would we continue to offer the new AS qualification when, as a standalone qualification, it is worth less than before (only 40% of an A level) and does not contribute towards the A level grade? And, if the reformed A levels are going to be more rigorous, why would we not jump at the chance to have more time to teach them?

This is something we currently enjoy with the IB Diploma programme, enabling more interesting and diverse assessment methods along the way, as well as terminal exams at the end of a two-year linear course. Given that the IB Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge qualifications (the core of the IB Diploma) are worth together more than an AS qualification in a fourth subject, which may well not be relevant to what a pupil wants to study at university, how can we instead make those elements of the IB available to a wider range of sixth form pupils studying A levels, together with other supplementary qualifications like the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) or the Gold Crest Award?

Like an AS qualification these supplementary qualifications will not, in most cases, form part of a university offer (which will continue for the majority of our pupils to be based on three A level predicted grades) but their value as an academically enriching experience goes without saying. I hear time and again from admissions tutors that if a candidate wants to make their application more competitive, apart from demonstrating a genuine interest in their chosen field, the two most important things they need to show are evidence of independent research skills and a commitment to their community through volunteering.

Apart from the shape and pace of the academic year in A3 and A2, I don’t think that much is going to change. Pupils will continue to rise to the challenges placed before them and we will continue to explore ways of providing more opportunities for them to enrich their time in the sixth form so that they are more than just the grades they get. That will be achieved in many different ways, depending on each pupil, so we certainly won’t be seeking to offer a one-size-fits-all programme.

1 May 2015

The lighting of fires

A million years ago when I was learning to teach we were set a question: why do we learn what we learn? It is a question that has haunted the teaching profession for as long as it has existed. Socrates, a teacher of aristocratic young men, thought education was all about asking the right questions so that one could live a good life. That didn’t go entirely well for him as the teacher; he ended up put to death. We didn’t push ourselves that hard at King’s College London in 1986.

Nowadays, what the government thinks we ought to teach in our classrooms (which might, I suppose, be the same as what they think pupils ought to learn) is called the national curriculum. Maths, Science and English are the core subjects. Modern Foreign Languages were taken out of that core some years ago and the numbers of pupils studying them nationally are now in something of a free fall (particularly in French and German). Teachers of Art, Music and Drama worry like mad, particularly in the state sector, because they aren’t compulsory and so may not attract the numbers of pupils required to sustain the subject. There’s every danger, in my view, of too few pupils doing anything more than the bare minimum if the curriculum is treated in this way. It is reductionist thinking and it is damaging.

Such reductionism does a disservice to all subjects. My first Head of Department, when I was a junior chalkie at Sevenoaks School in 1987, used to describe Maths at GCSE as a ‘licence to bore’, because pupils were compelled to study it and the teacher could assume there would always be an audience. Maths is so much more than that, of which I am now getting glimpses, thanks to assemblies from our Head of Maths, Alex Hartley, upon subjects as diverse as Alan Turing and Euler. How dreadful to reduce Maths to ‘you need to do this’ or ‘because I say so’. Stephen Winkley, ex Head Master at Uppingham School, used to like winding up those who taught compulsory subjects by suggesting that most 15-year-old pupils would far prefer doing Drama GCSE than being compelled to do, let’s say, Physics. In my view, the best response to this mischief is in explaining the joy of Physics, rather than resorting to the argument of ‘you have to do it’ or, even worse, the clearly meretricious argument that Physics is the more ‘useful’ subject.

At school we expect to learn those things we need to know to keep us healthy and safe; to enable us to do the things which matter to us; and, I would hope, to expand our minds. Some children find their minds expanded most in the undertaking of practical tasks; a design project, for example. (I can still in my mind’s eye see a current B pupil proudly wheeling his GCSE design coursework, a rather large drinks cabinet, into his hsm’s study at the end of last term!) Some find their world most enriched by the study of an ancient or modern language. Others will always prefer their intelligence to be fed by Art, or Music, or Drama; still others will find their talent best expressed on the cricket or rugby pitch, whilst very blessed souls will discover they can do, and enjoy, all of these things. The key to all learning however, is that most wonderful of human organs: the imagination.

We are more than mere drones who have to learn Maths so we can add up, or French so we can buy a baguette. Learning is about feeding our souls, our emotions and our imaginations. Maths is about big ideas, answering big questions, and seeing our world aright; French is about accessing a rich culture and literature as well as being part of a wider world than the Anglophone. And of course my own subject, Classics, is about it all. What is it to be a human being? How do you live a good life? And, to my mind, the best literature and philosophy in the world. All of these subjects, in their different ways, feed the mind, the spirit, the imagination. They allow us to glimpse the marvellous.

‘Nothing could be known about the world unless it was first pre-formed and transformed by the synthetic power of imagination.’ 
Kearney, Wake of Imagination

In the voyage of discovery that is teaching and learning, let us not forget the importance of the abstract; the importance of concept. To paraphrase W. B. Yeats, let’s not fill empty pails but light a whole range of different fires. Then our children might develop into the positive, creative, problem-solving adults the world needs them to be. And be happy, fulfilled souls too.

To find out more about the ongoing debate on creativity in schools, listen to the fascinating TED talk from 2006 by Sir Ken Robinson here.

27 March 2015

Co-education: redefining the battle lines

One of my friends many years ago at Sevenoaks once explained to me that his view was that the world was divided into Platonists and Aristotelians. His argument ran that the first tend to have a blueprint for the world and for life. They think the world ought to be a particular shape. Plato, after all, wrote a whole book about this and called it The Republic. He went on to say that Aristotelians are more pragmatic and aim for what is good, but also for what works. They are not keen on blueprints and tend to be less prescriptive and more individual in outlook. You might not be surprised to hear that my friend reckoned me an Aristotelian.

In the debate about what schools ought to be there is rather too much absolutism and Platonism for my liking. There is only one way of doing things: everybody must be excellent or outstanding, everyone must be examined the same way; though, interestingly enough, in the UK there is rarely any conversation about what it is that all this measurement and qualification might fit the pupil for at 18. Or, indeed, what it is that universities are for nowadays.

I wonder if the battle lines over single-sex education might be the most Platonic argument of them all. I won't call it a debate, because frankly the conversation has been going on for so many years with no sign of either side moving an inch. Those who support single sex believe there is no other way of educating those in their care. Or certainly no other right way. Co-educationalists like me tend to think that it is the school that matters, its ethos and the opportunities it provides, rather than whether it is single sex or not. What matters most is fitting a child to the right school. And seeing a child flourish and grow.

I can cite all kinds of anecdotal evidence for the superiority of co-education for the children I have known (some of whom have transferred from single-sex schools) but for me the argument that co-education is always right is as facile as the one, using the same but opposite anecdotes, which says co-education is always wrong. And about as scientific. I am the product of an all-girls' education and often say, without any particular evidence for it, that it did me no harm. I do wish, however, that I had gone to a school which had allowed for more options and more engagement. And that, before I had gone to university, I had both encountered boys in the classroom and done some boarding.

My father taught English at a then all-boys Christian Brothers' school in Liverpool. When I was in the sixth form, he was teaching Tess of the D'Urbervilles to his all-boys set, whilst I was being taught the same book, by a female teacher, in my all-girls set in Birkenhead. Over supper one evening I observed that we had been studying the passage where Tess hears Angel playing the harp in the garden. We had all wanted to vomit. My father replied that his set too had been studying the passage that afternoon and they had wondered how any woman could be so moronic as to pick the clearly vile Alec over Angel. “Put those two classes together,” he said, “and you have the makings of a really good conversation."

All these things are anecdotal. Platonists will never believe that their 13-year-old girls will be able to be their best with boys around, or indeed vice versa; Aristotelians will never understand why either gender needs to be ‘protected’ from the other as though they were an enemy. Rather, they argue, the disruption of adolescence can come from too much of the same sort of hormone.

I am a co-educational fan because as a teacher I want to teach both girls and boys. I believe they learn heaps from each other. I believe socially it preserves them from too much alpha behaviour of either gender (and although, perhaps naturally enough, I know a fair bit about alpha females, I have learned a good deal more over 20-odd years of teaching about alpha males). To me the benefits for girls from co-education have always been transparent. I was once, after all, a girl myself. However, I remember very clearly the boy, aged 13 and a half, who explained to me the reasons why he was so keen to move to a co-educational school. He clarified for me what girls bring to the co-educational party. "The thing is,” he said, "I know exactly how I will turn out if I go to an all-boys school because there's a blueprint for how boys in x house at y school turn out. And I don't want to." A budding Aristotelian at the time stuck in a Platonic landscape. He duly became one of the most successful Bryanstonians I can think of.

For me, this debate is arid and fruitless: a circular argument. The decision about education has to be firmly about which school best suits your child. The rest is a side-show. And, to quote Heraclitus, “ All things are in flux”. What suits a child at eight might not at 13 or 16. Focus upon the environment in which your boy or girl will learn and grow and it really will be job done, whether you have bred a Platonist or an Aristotelian….

13 March 2015

United by the language of science

Edrys Barkham
Last November, together with our Chair of Governors, Robin Pegna, I represented Bryanston at the memorial service for our double Nobel prize-winning OB Frederick Sanger. It was a wonderful celebration of a life of scientific endeavour that set the global standard for genetic research. I enjoyed hearing about his creativity, dogged determination and perseverance, and also admired anecdotes about his confidence to keep going when experiments didn’t work. We heard of one colleague who, on running into difficulties with his research, decided to ask Fred for advice; expecting insight and guidance, he was surprised to receive the following words of wisdom, ‘Try harder!’

One of the readings at the service was from Oppenheimer’s War and the Nations on how the language of science brings together scientists from around the world. For me, it reinforced the importance of ensuring that the Bryanston community is a diverse one, with pupils from all over the world, and I know how much our pupils from all walks of life contribute to the school’s unique atmosphere and buzz. At a time when the country appears to be becoming more euro-phobic and fears of outside threats loom large in the media, it is good to know that our pupils can celebrate their individuality and learn from their differences. I hope that children growing up at Bryanston learn that there are more similarities than differences between cultures, and that living and working together, whether in science or some other field, increases international understanding of humanity and reduces the fear factor.

All the readings and eulogies at Fred’s memorial service were quietly inspirational. I couldn’t help but recognise in what was said about Fred Sanger that he was a Bryanstonian: he had confidence but without arrogance, he was kind, he had a mischievous sense of fun, an ability to listen and a quiet determination to succeed, and, above all, he was modest about his outstanding achievements.

There are many parts of Bryanston that Fred Sanger wouldn’t recognise today, including the science building named after him, but I think he would recognise the Bryanston ethos that has changed little from his time here, and we will continue to follow his advice to ‘try harder’ to ensure that our principles and spirit of community survive well into the 21st century and, we hope, beyond.

27 February 2015

Who needs friends?

Peter Hardy
This week we welcome Bryanston's Second Master, Peter Hardy, as a guest blogger.

A recent survey by the Church Urban Fund found that loneliness is increasingly the biggest social problem in England, regardless of class or income. Loneliness can affect anyone and not just those who are on their own.

It can be a common worry for pupils starting a new school, for example, that they will be without a friend (or a best friend). Our advice to pupils as they join us is to ‘be yourself’ and get involved – use every opportunity to get to know others, whether in the common room of the boarding house, playing sport or in one of the many extra-curricular activities on offer. Boarding school, or any environment where we live in close proximity with a wide range of people, helps to develop the key skills needed, not only for making friends, but also learning to get along with those we may not choose as friends.

The nature of friendships can be complex and, as well as the lifelong friendships we develop, there can be those that pose potential pitfalls and problems, particularly in adolescence. There are issues of exclusivity (or having just one best friend) and jealousy if we feel that we are losing friends to someone (or something) else. There are also friendships that arise for the ‘wrong’ reasons: the friends we have to impress others, or those with whom we know we will always get our own way. In addition, friendships change over time and dealing with these changes can cause young people anxiety and distress, as some friends drift apart and the dynamics of friendship groups alter.

With all these potential problems, virtual friendships, for example via Facebook, can seem an easier alternative, but they can make feelings of loneliness and isolation worse, as the status updates of others can increase the perception that everyone else is having a more exciting and enjoyable time. The bite-sized communication that this type of interaction typically involves can be superficial and we all, especially young people, can miss out on the interactions and depth of connection that can be made face to face.

While we all recognise the need for friends and friendship, it isn’t always easy to make, and keep, friends. Everyone learns to do so through trial and error; making mistakes and learning from them in a safe, controlled environment, such as Bryanston, with an experienced network of support to help them get back on track when things do go wrong.

Emotional intelligence and making and keeping friends go hand-in-hand; having one will usually improve the other and at Bryanston we seek to improve pupils' emotional intelligence, helping them to develop not only lifelong friendships, but also the skills necessary to do so.

12 February 2015

Sporting reflections

We welcome guest blogger, Bryanston’s new Director of Sport Alex Fermor-Dunman, as he reflects on sport at Bryanston.

When talking about sport there is a tendency simply to list achievements, over-analyse individual triumphs and agonise over close losses. Highlights and lowlights will inevitably go hand in hand throughout a sporting term.

Of course there are successes, with teams winning county titles, qualifying for regional tournaments and marathon kayakers lifting titles (to name but a few from last term). These happen alongside many individuals pushing themselves toward club, county, regional, national and international representation in their respective sports and these individuals and teams are rightly lauded along the way. Equally important, however, is the need to take a brief pause every now and then for thought and reflection, to consider the vast scale of sport at Bryanston and the ways in which it has helped shape us and the school.

Sport has a perpetual nature; the constant planning and performing often leave little time for regular reflection, particularly on how sport has developed us. The injuries, bumps and bruises, the wins, draws and losses, the elation, despair, triumph and tragedy all develop the character required to be successful the next time. They shape the desire to be part of a strong, proud developing team whilst also being individually successful.

As with most terms, last term provided pupils with many sporting opportunities: 123 rugby fixtures, 156 hockey fixtures, countless riding competitions, rowing regattas, kayaking, squash, netball, cross country fixtures, pre-season cricket sessions, huge numbers of house matches and not to forget the two prep schools tournaments, which saw close to a 1,000 prep school pupils playing sport at Bryanston. All this, along with the sporting ECAs, adventure training and Duke of Edinburgh, make for as diverse a range of physical activity as could be shoe-horned into a 13-week term.

The fact that there is so much sport at Bryanston is no coincidence. It is to ensure that we, as individuals, teams and a school, grow, develop, enjoy, learn and continue to strive for progress and success. If everyone involved in Bryanston sport has managed some of this at some stage throughout each term then, leaving aside the trophies, titles and individual successes, we will have had a very productive sporting term indeed.

6 February 2015

Greenhouse not hothouse

There’s been more still in the media in recent weeks about what teachers must do to satisfy the grinding requirements of some moved goalpost or other, with several of my HMC colleagues rightly cross about league tables. At Bryanston, we decided to come out of as many league tables as we could some years ago, partly because of the utter nonsense of comparing apples and eggs, but more systemically because we think they are of such questionable value in terms of choosing the right school for your child. It’s perfectly clear that some very famous London all girls’ schools will always do very much better than Bryanston in a certain sort of measurement and, given that we never set out to compete in that particular race, it seems meretricious even to put your running shorts on.

I write a lot about education in terms of metaphors and have, I think, told before of how when I first began at Bryanston parents of prospective pupils would occasionally ask me how I mould the pupils. I’m not into the plasticine metaphor, as I don’t believe you should treat children like that. Plenty of people do, and they can soon tell that Bryanston is not for them. And they take their children off to a character-building sort of place instead of here. And both parties are entirely relieved and delighted.

My metaphor has always been about riotous gladioli and shy daisies and about nurturing and allowing these wonderful flowers to thrive in proper measure by providing a safe and nourishing environment in which to grow. The Director of Admissions, who has been at Bryanston for 23 years and has had her three boys (to my two girls) thrive here, adds another metaphorical layer. She tells me Bryanston is a greenhouse not a hothouse, and I am now enjoying playing around with that new idea.

We believe strongly that you learn best in an environment with plenty of feeding for active young brains. That we, the adults, are not the only ones to determine how fast the learning process happens, though we shall train and gently support their tender stems throughout the amusing bumps of adolescence. And we will love each of them, and what they contribute to this special garden, regardless of their genus. I used to say of my own girls, when they were very much younger, that I wanted them to be strong and flourish like weeds. It’s perhaps why other, more determined, mothers looked askance at my dress sense when Ellie (now 23) would re-dress herself (I promise I dressed her nicely to start with!) as a makeshift pirate from some discarded clothes and the dressing up box. She looked remarkable and weird. But I was, and remain, strongly of the opinion that her character is hers, not mine to mould, and if she wants to dress as a pirate aged three, well go for it, girl! The only effect it appears to have had on her twenty years later is, besides a first class degree from a pretty decent university, an enviably balanced disposition and a love of the unorthodox.

Let’s not fall for any ‘weighing the pig’ arguments. Let’s instead encourage our children to be themselves in all their glorious technicolour and to be the best that they themselves can be. And love them for all they do to enrich our lives.

30 January 2015

Sad news

The last week has been one in which Bryanston has had to dig deep. We heard the terrible news of the death of Pete Simpson, much-loved husband of Becky Simpson and much-loved father of Niamh and Joe. The news has rocked us all. Most of all our sympathy has been with Becky, Niamh, Joe, and Pete’s family. We all want to support them in every way we can, whilst we do our best to cope with our own grief.

Pete was inspirational as a teacher and tutor. An outstanding Director of Studies. I am not going to write his eulogy, as others will do it better than I and at the right time. Becky has said that she wants a small family funeral. After that, and in due course, we can then consider a fitting memorial service to Pete. I know many will want to attend.

I wanted, however, to write a little now about two things. First, Pete and Becky’s daughter Niamh is a better writer than I and I direct you to her writings on Facebook. They, and she, are remarkable.

Secondly, an observation. Stephen Winkley, my old boss at Uppingham, used to say, ‘If something horrid has to happen in your life it better happen at a proper boarding school.’ He was right. It doesn’t make what happens any easier, but it does perhaps make some infinitesimal bits of it easier to bear to have around you the strength and purpose of a loving community and family.

We have set up a Facebook group for anyone who would like to share their memories of Pete or messages of condolence.

23 January 2015

Golden mean

It’s that time of year again where lots of the media is shrieking at us about detoxing. The saturnalian month of December is over; puritanical January is with us, and with it the annual call for self-flagellation. Saturnalia (feast) and puritanism (fasting) are, in my opinion, two sides of the same coin and both great for feeling satisfied, or even smug, with or about yourself. My view is that both activities demand a pretty unpleasant level of self-absorption, and as I get older I find both more and more questionable. It may be that I am turning into a follower of Cicero.

Cicero, the modern world’s godfather of Stoicism, is a fascinating man in many, many regards (not least the political life he led), but it is moral letters, his philosophy, based on Zeno and others, which interest me most at this time of year. He knew a thing or two about those ‘two imposters’ of Kipling’s famous poem, and dealt with triumph and disaster in barrowfuls in his own life. The most moving of all his letters for me are those dealing with his profound grief upon the death of his young daughter Tullia, and making sense of that grief as a stoic, a follower of the Greek philosophical school of thought which argued that you should learn to take both the ups and downs in life with comparative calm and aim always for a ‘golden mean’.

Cicero is an example to us, not just because of his very considerable professional and political triumphs (rather too loudly self-proclaimed for modern ears), but more so because of his disasters, personal and public. As a Stoic he aimed not to ricochet from the negative to the positive, and vice versa, but to keep an even keel throughout all that life threw at him. And it threw a lot. Not just the death of his Tullia but also the turning to ashes of his (utterly naïve, with our advantage of hindsight) plans to save the Roman Republic from men such as Pompey, Mark Anthony, and Octavian.

Did Cicero learn from his mistakes? Can we learn from ours? Is a golden mean achievable or is life forever a roller-coaster of success, disaster; happiness, disappointment; excess and fasting? Is the answer to live a life away from all fear of the negative? Should we, like Epicureans of old, withdraw from difficulty and keep ourselves safe and secure from the world?

No. That’s an impossible option, particularly nowadays in a world which is so very much more interconnected even than when John Donne wrote his famous line, ‘No man is an island entire of itself’. I think the answer to living a happy and successful life is that we accept that we make mistakes, that we learn from our mistakes, that we grow stronger from the difficulties hurled at us, that we share our experiences and support one another. We celebrate all the joys of life and don’t nag ourselves for doing so. And we don’t weigh our worthiness by how many pounds we have shed in January or how many perfect mince pies we have baked in December.

I recommend at this time of year a healthy disregard for those who want to make life a misery and who take superficial things too seriously. I recommend aiming instead for that very old fashioned virtue, humility, and for an acceptance that an awful lot of the concerns we are invited to care for are about as trivial as one could dream of. I recommend Cicero and Stoicism in times of trial. I recommend looking outwards and eschewing self-absorption. The minute you can see your life as part of something more important than just yourself, then this seems to me to make much more sense of the lumps and bumps in life, and of the joys too.

So my resolution for 2015 is to be less self absorbed. To learn from my mistakes. To embrace difficulty. To aim for humility. To weave my life’s thread in amongst those of others’. To keep on learning.

I wish you all a wonderful 2015.