15 February 2019

Settling in at senior school: how junior boys’ boarding can help

Stephen Davies, junior boys housemaster explains how Bryanston's junior boys' house system helps ease the transition to senior school...

A long time ago, when I was at a not very distinguished school in Wales, the Year 9 boys were known as ‘plebs’. While one might admire the erudition of such a nickname, it was hardly a compliment. Teachers called us plebs, older pupils called us plebs and both told us how lucky we were because plebs used to have a much harder time of it in the old days. We should be grateful for small mercies. There was even a verb: one could ‘pleb’ a junior (i.e. ask them to do something menial or unpleasant) or the junior could ‘be plebbed’ (carry out such a task). I remember being sent to the not very local shop with a 1p coin and being told to buy a 1/2p sweet and bring back the change. The sweet wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point was that I was a pleb, so I should just grit my teeth and get on with it, and one glorious day I would be able to carry out the full range of plebbing activities myself.

I’m afraid I never really did, not that I can remember anyway . . . instead I find myself running a junior boys’ boarding house at Bryanston, catering exclusively to Year 9 boys. You might say that I have a house full of plebs and some might argue that my career is now entirely based on plebbing – telling small boys what to do – but I would say that is to misconceive what we are up to these days. No modern school worth its salt would or should tolerate any culture of exploitation. Thankfully, those days are long gone. What is striking and different, and brilliant about Bryanston’s approach to boys’ boarding, is that over 30 years ago (about the time that I was at school and getting plebbed) the school established the junior boys’ house system. 

To explain – because it is unusual – all of our 13-year-old boys go into one of our two junior boys’ houses, either Beechwood or Cranborne, for their first year. In each of these houses the boys have their own space: their own pool table, their own workrooms and common room.  So, on their first night of boarding at senior school (and for a good number, this is their first night of boarding ever) they are not likely to be bumped off the pool table by a large and hairy 1st XV prop forward. The boys will have time and space to get to know the others in their house in an environment that probably feels a bit like a prep school. If they are used to being a big fish in a small pond, the junior house acts as a sort of holding pond before they enter the tidal waters of whole school life. Friendships are forged. Hand-picked prefects from the sixth form (boys and girls) act as role models and work as mentors in the house, guiding the boys through their first few weeks and months. There is a lot of laughter and an awful lot going on. Add in the fact that Year 9 is a time of enormous change anyway, with adolescence often kicking in, a new sense of independence, physical, emotional and social growth, it seems desirable that these things can happen in a protected space.

The system also allows boarding staff to specialise. A junior boys’ housemaster is not distracted by sixth-form goings on, UCAS references, GCSE choices and so on. We can focus on and keep learning about our boys and their needs in those crucial months as they find their feet. We can ensure that they are making the most of the opportunities on offer. We can also offer guidance to parents – who need to settle in too – as we begin to recognise patterns and routines. In particular the sudden separation of school and home can throw up issues on both sides and the junior boys’ house offers the perfect context in which to discuss and resolve these things.

But as I often find myself saying to parents, the thing that makes Bryanston unique in its house system for boys is the way we allocate them to a senior house. We resist the tribalism of more traditional environments and we try to create a balance of talents and personalities across all houses. We actively encourage socialising between the two junior houses and then we give the boys a say in who they are with; they give their junior housemaster a long list of those friends that they would like to be with in a senior house. Neither the boys nor the parents get to choose a house (parents don’t have to audition housemasters, fortunately) and nor do housemasters recruit for their house (this seems invidious to me). Instead, the groupings for senior houses emerge in a series of meetings over several weeks in the summer term. The boys don’t always get what they want, but they do get, we think, what they need, in terms of their peer group for the next four years. The final piece of the jigsaw is the tutor; boys will be allocated a tutor by the Head before they arrive at the school. The tutor will support the boy on an individual basis throughout his time at Bryanston, so the work of the junior housemaster is always backed up by those one-to-one conversations that take place weekly in tutorials.

The first year of senior school used to be one that had to be endured rather than enjoyed.  Now, thanks in a significant part to the real boost in confidence and security that boys (and parents) get from the junior house system, most older boys will look back fondly on that time.  “Do you remember when, in Beechwood . . .”  is often a conversation opener from a cheery-looking A2 school prefect. It is a year to be enjoyed, a year of great change and development, and, we hope, the best start to a very positive school career. 


5 February 2019

"You just don't understand" - Part Two

In part two of her blog about teenage girls, Edrys Barkham focuses on the years from GCSE onwards...

GCSE is about as close as we get in Western society to a rite of passage. It is an ordeal and requires perseverance and persistence from 16-year-olds. It requires her managing fear of failure and self-doubt, and understanding that supporting others helps to support herself. Sharing exam technique and revision practices can bring a year group together and it is through this that girls start to develop further a sense of responsibility for themselves and for others. It’s the recognition that they have to do past papers not for their teacher or to please their parents, but to improve their own understanding of the subject and exam requirements. Working with friends allows them to identify what they do understand and where they need to do more. Learning ways to manage exam nerves and cope with a fear of failure are all critical life skills that are honed through the exam year.

Girls throughout early adolescence will dump their emotional load on their mothers and, having done so, move back into their social life feeling relieved, leaving their mothers as emotional wrecks. I would receive a ‘distraught’ phone call from mum saying her daughter was in floods of tears and really struggling. I would rush into the boarding house and discover them dancing on their desk or laughing with their friends. When I called mum to tell her this it always sounded so implausible; today, I’d be able to email video footage, which might be the solution to convince mums that their distressed daughter is actually fine!

For A3 (year 12) returning to the Sixth Form armed with a string of numbers from GCSE results that they recognise as part of their adult identity, but that don't totally define them as a person, improves teenagers’ self-esteem and confidence. Having selected their subjects for study, school now is more about personal achievement than doing what everyone else is doing. During A3 they are more confident to express themselves as an individual in both appearance and opinion.  They are more secure to do things on their own, there is often less antagonism with parents, but disagreements can be vigorous as they feel more independent and adult, confident in their own opinions and ideas, and more focused on what they want to achieve.

During the final A2 year (year 13) there tends to be better and more adult communication with parents; girls feel more established as individuals and begin to enjoy taking more responsibility in looking after others. The year group usually finds a new cohesion and all the different personalities and characters become more interconnected and tolerant of each other’s differences. They take on the shared responsibility of the community and discuss their thoughts and ideas more freely with their parents. Our girls leave us as young adults, generally comfortable in their own skins, confident in their strengths, but not arrogant about their talents and ready to contribute positively to their society.

The five-year journey can be calm and gentle, or it can be tumultuous and chaotic, or it can be a mixture. The relationship between the parent and child changes and develops throughout this time, but the skilled and highly experienced hsms and tutors here at Bryanston will help you and your daughter find a route through adolescence, so that you can enjoy a well-deserved and long-lasting adult relationship.

1 February 2019

"You just don't understand" - Part One

As a companion piece to Simon Vincent’s blog about teenage boys, Edrys Barkham, experienced tutor and former hsm, demonstrates that we also know a great deal about teenage girls. She shares her insights below in part one of her blog…

The teenage years are about developing self-identity, learning to take responsibility for yourself and for others, establishing independence, as well as achieving good qualifications. As a housemistress (known as ‘hsm’ at Bryanston) for 13 years and a tutor for 27 years, the trials and tribulations of teenagers from the ages of 13 to 18 have been both my challenge and my personal fulfilment throughout my teaching career.

Some of my best years at Bryanston were as hsm of Hunter and I offer the following insights to anyone who is wondering what their delightful 12-year-old girl has turned into as she enters her teens. The following are personal observations. They are not a complete guide to adolescent girls, but insights from a life lived with teenagers. I could not have achieved a fraction of what I did without the support of the whole team of staff dedicated to the development of our wonderful teenagers. The school has valuable expertise and endless patience in allowing girls and boys to find their adult selves through their five years with us.

I start, as all the girls do, in D (year 9). At 13 the girls are well into puberty and there have already been significant changes to both the body and the brain. In particular, the number of connections between brain cells has proliferated massively in pretty much all areas of the brain and the adolescent years are used to prune these down to a reasonable number and myelinate (to use a biological term) the most useful connections to form fast networks throughout the brain. This perturbation in the brain, not surprisingly, results in changes to behaviour.

On arrival at senior school, there is an overwhelming need for the girls to conform. It can take many forms but do not be surprised if there is a massive use of blue eyeshadow, mascara, and eyebrow definer. You may well be asked for clothes she has never worn before in order to comply with the self-imposed uniform of the peer group – in my early years as a hsm it was long skirts and baggy jumpers and now it tends to be Doc Martens and black skinny jeans. This conformity allows the individual to start testing out their own identity in the safety of looking like everyone else. It is a time when friendships are quickly made and just as quickly changed, the best friend today is ‘like, such a pain’ tomorrow. It’s painful for everyone and parents can be as confused as their daughters, but hold your nerve and let the changes happen. Listen with empathy to the regaling of stories, but don’t believe it all and certainly don’t take it as a true reflection of the situation.

It is also the year when parents start to become more of an embarrassment to be tolerated than wonderful people to be celebrated. Arriving to watch matches, concerts and plays may elicit a nod of acknowledgement; you may not get the grateful hug you used to get, just a brief chat before they have to rush off with their friends. Not being in the middle of the peer group is a frightening thought in the mind of a 1314-year-old.

I remember a story from one father, bemused about the change in his daughters’ attitude, telling me that he used to promise to sing to his daughters in the supermarket in exchange for good behaviour. Once they started at senior school, he had to promise never to sing to elicit that same behaviour. Changing your behaviour towards your adolescent children is all part of the excitement and challenge of parenting teenagers.

In C (year 10), as the girls are rising 15, they become increasingly self-aware and want to discover their sense of self; so don’t be surprised if they try out different characters – kind and friendly one day, too cool for school the next, and then suddenly morphing into a party animal and rejecting all friends to concentrate on the latest craze or ambition. Trying out new activities, trying no activities, taking an interest in older boys, becoming irritated with parents, seeming not to be able to predict outcomes from their actions, wanting to be right about everything, but also being self-critical and developing self-doubt are all quite normal. It can be an emotional rollercoaster and long and wide experience tells us that it is not always helpful to tell them what to do at this stage. Suggestions that start with phrases such ‘If I were you …’ or, ‘What you should do is …’  tend to be scornfully rejected with retorts such as ‘Well, I am not you’, or ‘You just don’t understand’. If you do proffer advice, and you should as a parent, openings such as ‘You may like to consider…’ or ‘I am sure you have probably already thought of this ...’ but don’t be surprised if these approaches are also spurned. It is hard, but as they start to establish independence from you, they are more likely to listen to their friends, housemistress, tutor, or a friend’s mother: anyone but you!

I was always amazed by the way in which some of the girls spoke to their mothers. To me they were usually polite, respectful, funny, positive, interesting and generally a pleasure to be with, but when their mother appeared, they turned into sullen, difficult, pouty and angry behemoths. There seemed no provocation on the part of the parent, just a knee-jerk reaction from the girls to being suddenly put back into the role of the daughter.

The turbulence of the 15-year-old world, you will be glad to learn, begins to calm down in year 11. They still want to be with the ‘in crowd’, but they now start to show more of their own personal fashion sense and barriers between friendship groups begin to become more permeable. There is an increasing focus on work and ambition and, as exams approach, more contact with parents for a bit or reassurance and moral support.

Keep an eye out for Part Two of Edrys' blog...