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!