24 March 2017

Education: a life-long process

This week Bryanston Head, Sarah Thomas, looks at the purpose of school and and why education isn't merely a preparation for life, but a part of life itself. 

The notion that school is a training ground (or worse, a holding pen), where you must hold your breath until you’re allowed to leave 13 years later and only then practise the stuff you’ve been taught therein, ought to be a pretty outmoded concept. Some people, of course, still cling to this idea that school is a place in which you acquire those particular skills and qualifications which will see you gain a particular job when you join the workforce. One is reminded of the sixties poster: “Be alert. Your country needs lerts.”

Many years ago I listened to a headmaster telling a hall full of parents that life is a great journey – and school is the place where you pack your suitcase. An interesting metaphor. There was an implication that stuffing your bag with academic qualifications was the best preparation, and I am reminded of this whenever I interview supremely qualified graduates who can’t find their own way out of my office.

From its beginnings in 1928, Bryanston has taken a different approach. We’re interested in learning as well as teaching, and doing as well as thinking about doing. I can’t honestly think of a more stultifying thing to say to a child at five, 13 or 16 than “Keep being taught; one day you’ll find it useful.” One of the great things about a boarding school education is that you don’t just attend lessons or take part in matches or concerts, rather you really live your life, at school, throughout term time. Your friends are here; your work and play are here; your active life is here.

Living life is a good idea whatever age you are. We none of us know what is just around the corner. Thankfully all attempts to predict the future, whether by astrologers, or economists (and remember the saying ‘Economics is the only field in which two people can win the Nobel Prize for saying exactly the opposite thing’), or even the gloomy Calvinist determinists, are easily debunked by evidence … and if you need cheering up on that final score, just watch the ‘Thank God it’s Doomsday’ episode of The Simpsons (series 16, episode 9) in which Homer predicts the Rapture.

One of my favourite poems is Days by Philip Larkin.
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come and wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

And we encourage our pupils to do just that. At Bryanston, the abundant life (the phrase from the Bible which former Bryanston headmaster Thorold Coade so liked about a life well lived) is about work and friends; it’s about imagination and creativity; it’s about living in a supportive environment where you can try out new things and discover what you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at; who can support you and whom you yourself can and should support. It’s about making friends, learning to get on with people (even those with whom you are not naturally friendly) and the different ways to finding a sense of fulfilment, whether you are 16 or 60. I hope it’s a learning that takes pupils way beyond the lovely gates of Bryanston School.

Education is a life-long process for all of us. I’m still learning: some days more than others. And I’m absolutely convinced that learning is not something that simply happens to you. It is something to be embraced and engaged with. It should be active and lively and difficult and fun. Just like life.

10 March 2017


This week we welcome Bryanston's Director of Admissions, Edrys Barkham, who looks at why we are introducing pre-testing as part of our admissions process.

Can you tell all you need to know about a child’s academic potential at the age of 11? At Bryanston we don’t think you can. We think that many children are still developing in years 6, 7 and 8, when many senior schools undertake pre-testing, and by allowing them longer to mature and getting to know them as they develop, we can admit children who are likely to thrive at Bryanston and will bring to the school a breadth of skills that reach beyond the classroom.

So, why are we introducing pre-testing? In an increasingly uncertain world, we hope that the introduction of the ISEB Common Pre-test for children starting year 7 in September 2017 will remove a family’s anxiety about where their child might go to senior school, by giving a better indication of the suitability of Bryanston for their child earlier in the admissions process than we have hitherto been able.

The ISEB pre-test is age standardised, which means that a child who is young for their year is not disadvantaged and the questions are adaptive so that the answer to one question will determine the level of difficulty of the next question. This means that the tests should allow each child to feel that they have achieved.

However, we recognise that this standardised test evaluates a child’s performance on one particular day and does not take into account any other factors, and therefore the result of the pre-test is not the only criterion that will determine the offer of a place. For children who don’t perform at their best on the day of the pre-test, we will continue to talk to their current school and keep their name on the development list. It is important to us that we continue to admit children with a broad range of talents and interests into the school and we know that some children’s academic development is later than others. We will not want to lose a great sportsperson, musician, actor or artist because they get a low score on the day. We rely on the professional opinion of the heads of prep schools and other junior schools, most of whom know us well, through pupils they have previously sent to Bryanston, and they know their own pupils very well. We trust that they have a good sense of whether each individual child will thrive with us.

We therefore still firmly believe that children should be selected through a holistic overview of each individual and the result of the pre-test will form just a part of that picture. It is an additional strand, rather than a decider, but one we hope will provide reassurance for many families. Our new approach, which combines the pre-test with meeting the child on several occasions and an ongoing dialogue with their junior school, will give every child a genuine opportunity to reveal their potential.