23 February 2018

A face-to-face place

This week we welcome our Deputy Head (Academic), Dr David James, who reflects on the importance of face-to-face relationships.
Evidence seems to grow each week that mobile technology could be playing a significant role in the rise of mental health issues among young people. Of course, being online is not in itself a bad thing: you could be on Google Art Project researching Caravaggio, while listening to Handel’s Messiah on Spotify. There are endless opportunities to be educated and uplifted on an iPad or mobile phone, and it should not be forgotten, in the rush to ban technology from our schools, that, as one teacher puts it, not all screen time is equal. This is complicated enough when one is an adult: we should know when to close the lid of the laptop, or to switch our phones to airplane mode in order to get some rest, or to read a book. Having said that, many parents are as guilty of modern social faux pas, such as phubbing, as their children. How many meals have been ruined because Mum or Dad simply has to reply to that email? But teenagers may be under more pressure to keep Snapstreaks going, or to move to the next mission in GTA without letting their friends down, than adults are to keep email correspondence alive. To adolescents, friendships and being accepted by others have always been of profound importance. And, like much of the world today, a lot of that has moved online, which in turn has made it - and the possible concomitant shaming - more public.

Such things shouldn’t surprise us. But what should alarm all parents and teachers (and indeed anyone with any interest in the wellbeing of young people) is that social media companies have deliberately made their sites as addictive as possible. When Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook, claims that the company is deliberately “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” then the laid-back West Coast mask that Mark Zuckerberg wears begins to slip a little; and when Parker admits that Facebook’s effect on children “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other...God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” then the reality dawns that these new companies may be just as ruthless at exploiting human frailty, and addictive tendencies, as Marlboro, McDonald’s, and Jack Daniels. As Roger Daltrey once famously sang: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Where do schools fit into this? Well, we could go to one extreme and ban all technology from our site (just as a junior school popular with Palo Alto CEOs has done, which in itself raises some disturbing questions), but we suspect that teenagers, being teenagers, will find a way around that. In addition, parents understandably want to keep in touch with their children when they’re at boarding school, and so even asking pupils to hand over their devices for long periods of time (as is becoming popular in some US schools) presents certain problems as well. Plus, to reiterate what I said before, there is so much wonderful stuff out there that actively aids learning that only the most retrogressive and anti-intellectual educational establishment would contemplate switching it off at source.

But perhaps the solution to the challenges that technology is presenting us with now is, literally, staring us in the face. And what we’re looking at is another human face. An anecdote that might illuminate my point. When I was interviewing a pupil who wanted to join Bryanston from her day school last term, I asked her why she wanted to give up the 4.15pm finishes, and have lessons on a Saturday. Her answer has stayed with me ever since. She said: “I’m a face-to-face person, and I guess this is a face-to-face place.” She went on to say that the many arguments that teenagers have via WhatsApp and Snapchat tend to escalate after school. By the time the pupils return to school the next day, or on Monday, grievances have deepened because correspondence has occurred via text, not voice. We all know that a simple statement like “I hate you” can be spoken with venom and with humour, and how we modulate our tone makes all the difference. But as a flat, written text, it can be destructive. For my interviewee the answer was simple: she wanted to talk to people, and in doing so form bonds and friendships that are robustly independent of Zuckerberg’s nefarious network. For her, Bryanston would provide her with more opportunity to make real and lasting friendships. Through articulating our ideas to others we make sense of our thoughts to them, and to our own self, at the same time. For young people this is an essential part of establishing their own identities. In time, I have no doubt, the miracle that is the human voice will win out over cold digital dialogue. Ideally, both will add richness to our lives. But it is perhaps only in a boarding school that the time and space, and the opportunities, are so varied, and allow for such ongoing interaction, that our young people develop in a more fully human way.

2 February 2018

Discovering potential

This week we welcome our Director of Admissions, Edrys Barkham, with her reflections on our introduction of the pre-test now that we have made our first set of offers. You can find out why we introduced the pre-test in a previous blog here.

We have just sent out our first ever pre-test offer letters for pupils entering Bryanston in September 2019. We collated the results at the end of last term, which happened to be during the Jewish Hanukah Festival of Light. At that time, I heard a timely ‘pause for thought’ on the radio on my way to school outlining the different approaches of the House of Shamai and House of Hillel for the lighting of the eight candles of Hanukah. The Shamai start with eight candles and decrease by one each day, whilst the Hillel start with one and work up to eight. Both approaches have their origin in the last century BCE and have their own philosophies. To be admitted to the House of Shamai pupils were judged and had to be considered worthy of learning the Torah. The House of Hillel, on the other hand, were prepared to admit all those who asked, as they saw the potential in everyone. It made me think carefully about whether we should take the judgemental and selective eight-to-one approach with the pre-test, or see the potential in all and look to understand how we can nurture it. I had this very much in mind as we analysed the results. Should we have a cut-off and exclude all those below, basing decisions on the ability of a child on one particular day, at one particular time, and judge them suitable or unsuitable, and keep a small group of children in limbo on the waiting list, hopeful but helpless, relying on the chance of a place becoming available?

We are, and always have been, a selective school, but more in terms of what we can do for a child rather than what a child can do for the school. We see potential in all the children who went through the pre-testing process last term and we will not be rejecting any of them purely as a result of the marks they achieved. The reports we have received from their schools tell us far more about a child’s potential.

Our focus now, therefore, is on the children who haven’t yet reached the point at which we feel comfortable making an offer. They are on our development list, so called because we really do want to see how they develop over the next months. They have the priority for interviews, so that we can get to know them individually and discover their wider interests and talents. The key for us is to discover whether we are the best educational environment for them. “Will they thrive at Bryanston?” is always our key admissions question. Whilst we have to be certain they will be able to achieve their academic potential within our (modified Dalton) educational approach and recognise that we won’t suit all children equally, we do also look for the talents that can be nurtured over their five years with us, in order to develop confident young people, aware of their strengths and ready to contribute to our wider society. If a child on the development list is not suited to our system, we will advise that it will be in their best interest to be at a school where they will flourish.

In this uncertain, increasingly populist world of the present, our aim continues to be to educate reflective young people who understand who they are, are comfortable in their own skin and recognise what they are capable of achieving. To deny them that possibility purely on the basis of one test result, when they are at an age at which they are just beginning to discover their individual strengths and talents, would seem to be a waste of potential. Our sincere hope is that all our young people will develop the confidence and creativity to shape positively the world in which they find themselves.