28 September 2018


“Progressive societies outgrow institutions as children outgrow clothes." Henry George

I have been in institutions for practically all of my adult life. Sounds worrying doesn’t it? I mean this in the best possible way. From Bryanston School to Birmingham University (then a brief period of ‘finding myself’) to Sandhurst, followed by a career in the British Army, to my PGCE and Loughborough Grammar School and finally back to Bryanston, in all of that I have worked as part of an institution. And yet I think that my time as a boy at Bryanston between 1982 and 1987 gave me a rather different view of institutions from many of my contemporaries that I think is even more valid when applied to the world today than it was then. Thankfully nobody ever tried to turn me into anything that resembled a typical Bryanstonian when I was at school (or an Old Bryanstonian when I left), and as a result I’m afraid that the whole idea of shared institutional values, this need for institutional conformity, leaves me rather cold.

My time in the British Army gave me an insight into perhaps the most closed and intense of all institutions - the Regimental Family. Now the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment is a fine unit of fighting men and I totally ‘get’ the historic need for a deep sense of belonging in a fighting unit where your life depends upon those around you. The seams of ingrained identity run very deep from learning all five verses of the Lincolnshire Poacher (the Battalion’s nickname is The Poachers) to memorising battle honours and from the badges of identity to the fierce protection of and pride in the Queen’s Colour and Regimental Colour. And yet, as deep as my pride is at having served in The Poachers, I find the regular statements posted by my former soldiers on Facebook stating ‘Once a Poacher, always a Poacher!’ to be rather curious. I left the Army in 1998 and, having narrowly escaped having a Regimental crest tattooed on my backside, all I have left are good memories and some old uniforms that no longer fit. 

My time with The Poachers has given me some friends for life, some life-changing experiences and a deep affection for the Battalion, but I cannot say that it has changed my essence as a person. What it did do was encourage me to shed some of my teenage/early-20s immaturity and encourage me to approach life in a more disciplined and open way. I have moved on the better for, not defined by, my time in the Poachers and I think that this should be the aim of any educational institution also.

The issue of conformity versus creativity in schools is nothing new, and in many ways, it has been the least conformist pupils who have achieved the most in spite of the search for a collective identity. Whether it be the awkward Arthur Wellesley (future Duke of Wellington) failing to fit in with the routine of Eton life or Winston Churchill whose Harrow report opines: ‘He has no ambition. He is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or other. He cannot be trusted to behave...He is so regular in his irregularity that I don’t know what to do with him!’, educational establishments have always struggled to enforce conformity on some of their pupils. Partly this is an eternal generational conflict, of course, but in respect of some British public schools there is something more - a tacit promise of a traditional identity that can be bought into and which subsequently gives access to a world of institutional connectivity. It promises to take a raw product and form it into a recognisable shape. Again, nothing new. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte announced his educational policy stating that: ‘It is essential that the morals and political ideas of the generation which is now growing up should no longer be dependent upon the news of the day or the circumstances of the moment. Above all we must secure unity: we must be able to cast a whole generation in the same mould.’ Most would react against this form of centralised, state-controlled educational manipulation of children’s destinies yet is ‘..cast(ing) a whole generation in the same mould.’ really so different from what many schools promise to deliver on a smaller scale? 

Education for me should be about celebrating individuality rather than enforcing conformity. I do not apply this to school rules of course, which need to be consistent if they are to work, but to the expectations of what the children that we teach should be like. I understand that this is a counter cultural concept to broach as the search for a magic wand that will turn our children into something different is long-established.

I think that it is fair to say that in all bar a few professions people are no longer defined by the institutions that they previously attended. The ‘old school tie’ still carries influence in some quarters, but is slowly dying out as the light of fairness, social mobility and increased openness is shone on institutions of all types. All of this means that we cannot rely on ‘buying’ a package of educational identity, which will see us right in the wider world. Views abound about the innate personality traits of school alumni, but I think that this is massively overstated. After all, do we not want our children to ‘leave’ school and move out into the rest of the world to mix with, and work with, people of all backgrounds?

One thing that I have heard many times over the last three decades is of people’s experiences of meeting Old Bryanstonians. Almost universally they comment upon a rather pleasing lack of conformity, but they also all seem to agree upon their personality and confidence, whilst insisting that they are not ‘arrogant’. This, it seems to me, may be a product of the way in which a Bryanston education is delivered. Pupils are held accountable to their own standards and skills rather than that of a traditional set of institutional standards. If they are confident, then that confidence is built upon their own journey through school rather than having conformed to an expected stereotype and expecting an automatic kudos from simply having been a member of the tribe.

Stock self-evaluation of personality based purely upon belonging to a particular school, institution, region, race, star sign or other such nonsense is always bogus, I believe, and can be positively dangerous if it continues into adulthood. A school’s job is to enable, not to indoctrinate, and I think that we do children and parents an enormous disservice by leading them to expect otherwise in a constantly uncertain and changing world.

14 September 2018

The IB: as good as it gets!

It’s the time of year where as a school we gear up to admit a fine cohort of sixth formers for September 2019. Bryanston has always welcomed a pleasing number and quality of candidates at this point, and the existing yeargroups, year on year, enjoy and benefit from the injection of new ideas, talents, and energies.

One of the attractions of Bryanston (and there are many) is that we offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) alongside the now very traditional A levels. This provides the school with a varied offering and one which attracts really interesting pupils who study one or the other programme.
What is it about the IBDP that means it’s worth offering?  And how do schools convey that to 16 year olds and their parents without seeming to diminish the national A level programme?

I think there are some very key reasons for offering the IBDP that fit right into our Bryanston profile of all we do.  And that’s why Bryanston is a great place to study the IBDP.

1.      The Bryanston model of education is  and always has been all about producing independent learners and learners who will contribute their own particular talents to the world.  The tutorial system here of one-to-one support and guidance is a jewel in the crown for all pupils, whatever they are studying.  But in terms of a pupil managing the IB and learning fast the techniques of research and independent study, this tutorial approach is ideal.

2.   Bryanston rejoices in pupils with a wide range of talent.  They do not necessarily want to confine themselves to three subjects at A level (though some do) nor to follow necessarily an entirely ‘traditional’ system.  They may want to study Film or Psychology, both of which subjects have a strong syllabus at IB.  They may want to study English Literature which is not focused mainly on dead white males.  They may want to keep up a level of Maths to make them ready for their life in work, but not wish to study it at a higher level. They may be bilingual and wish to study both their best languages as a Language Av.

3.   The pupils enjoy the Core in the IB as much as they do their main subjects.  The extended essay allows them to research at a level which university admissions offices find compelling;  the CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) element is a key part of the diploma making sense of the world beyond their immediate walls; the ToK (Theory of Knowledge) component might be the best bit of their week.  The IB is in other words a diploma; the six subjects interrelate and the Core pins them together.  The diploma is about producing young adults who are ready to learn for the rest of their lives and to be part of a global world not just a small and self-referential slice of it.

4.   Bryanston has always prided itself on pupils leaving the school ready to live happy and purposeful lives, and ready to contribute to the wider world.  This is closely aligned to the IB’s mission. After Bryanston, pupils tend to study at university and importantly to study at the university which suits their interests and abilities in terms of providing the best degree course in that subject and for that pupil.  There is an increasingly international flavour in that respect from Georgetown to Melbourne from Cambridge to Berklee.  The world’s an exciting place and the IB prepares pupils for that beyond our foggy Brexit-obsessed island.

This is not to say that you cannot perfectly well achieve most or all of that whilst studying A levels. You can, but the IB insists upon it; has a mission and a vision; marries in its educational provision the rigorous with the comprehensive; promotes critical thinking throughout all subjects and the core; encourages cultural awareness, global responsibility, and resilience. It is as their motto states: ‘education for a better world’.

It’s hard to argue with. There are reasons for not studying the IB of course, but it’s hard to accept the one that A levels are ‘easier’. For two good reasons: (i) why is that in any way a good thing? And (ii) it’s not true. A levels are harder than they were, have no coursework and will not, in the next few years, be anywhere near as accessible to all as they once were. This may not be a bad thing, but it only reinforces the fact that they are not the ‘easier’ option.

So, at this time of thinking about the sixth form and future choices, I heartily recommend the outward looking, active and participatory, critical and creative IB diploma. I honestly think it’s as good as it gets.