5 June 2019

Learning happens when we listen: what’s the point of the Bryanston Education Summit?

”We need to create environments in which teachers embrace the idea of continuous improvement… an acceptance that the impact of education on the lives of young people creates a moral imperative for even the best teachers to continue to improve.” (September 2014) – Dylan Wiliam

As education establishments, it is our responsibility to help facilitate continual professional improvement. Events like the Bryanston Education Summit are excellent for bringing together a number of different professional development strands under one roof. Attendees can curate their own, bespoke programme for the day and hear from a wide array of expert speakers on a number of topics. The event is intended for many teachers from many schools and we cannot know what those particular schools or teachers are specifically interested in improving. Therefore, we lay on a variety of topics in the hope that there really is something for everyone.

That is not to say that an event like the Education Summit is not good for Bryanston. It creates tremendously good-value professional development for our own staff. They attend sessions where their teaching commitments allow and so digest many talks during the day. The knock-on effect is that it provides a frame of reference for our staff: they can discuss what they have heard and learned with others from the same context, which in itself adds a layer of benefit. To some extent, any school that is able to send more than one teacher to the event could benefit in a similar way.

Sustained CPD, as research has concluded, is one of the only truly effective ways to make professional improvement lasting and genuinely impactful in the classroom. At each Summit, we align at least a few talks and speakers with our own pedagogical focus for the year. That way, we can lay on a number of preludial pedagogical events in the months leading up to the Summit, send teachers to hear relevant talks at the Summit itself and then host follow-up meetings to truly embed some of the concepts discussed. This year, for instance, our pedagogical focus as a school is literacy. It is no surprise, therefore, that there are a good number of talks and speakers at the 2019 Summit specialising in that very topic. Among them, Alex Quigley will be giving a talk entitled ‘Where does literacy fit in the secondary school curriculum?’; Debra Myhill will be speaking about ‘Writing in subject disciplines’; and Marcello Giovanelli will be discussing the importance of ‘Knowing about language: what, why and how?’ By directing our own staff to these particular talks, I can guarantee that literacy will continue to gather momentum within our specific learning community.

Under the umbrella of our overall summit focus, ‘Revolution: the future of learning in a changing world’, we strive to provide an array of subjects. It is also important to us not to shy away from some of the more challenging issues facing us as educationalists. This year we have Robert Plomin summarising his 45 years of research on how ‘DNA makes us who we are’. This will not be entirely comfortable listening for some teachers. Anthony Seldon will be speaking about Artificial Intelligence and how it will change your world – whether you like it or not, again, possibly not making for the easiest of listening. We intend to begin debate, but not necessarily settle it. First and foremost, we aim to get teachers thinking and reflecting.

In Dylan Wiliam’s talk at our inaugural Education Summit in 2017, his final presentation slide was the following:

His first bullet points for both teachers and leaders concern the need for high expectations of continual professional improvement. Our Education Summit provides a focal point for such a requirement, both for ourselves and others. Learning happens when we listen, and our Summit has, at its heart, a desire to connect teachers, to spark debate, and to promote the idea that the best teachers – irrespective of age or experience – are always ready to listen, learn, and share their experiences. 

16 May 2019

“All change please, all change” – well, not quite: the transition from a junior to a senior boys’ house

Growing up in London and venturing onto the London underground system, I was always anxious about the need to change lines to get to my required destination. Was I aiming to head north or south, east or west, and what was I to do when the tannoy announced “all change please, all change”?

From the outside, moving up to a senior boys’ boarding house at Bryanston might seem a little like this. While a sense of anticipation, even some concern, is perfectly understandable, it is important to remember that it is not “all change” by any means. The grounding of a year in a junior house is already in the bag, so pupils know where to go when asked to meet in Main Hall, or realise that having an assignment in Dorchester is basically working on prep in the maths subject room rather than working on some undercover operation in Dorset’s county town.

Similarly, as Year 9 boys transform into Year 10s when they arrive in their second September at Bryanston, they have the immense comfort of returning to the guidance of their existing tutor. While the new academic year represents a clean slate, a tutor will knowingly ask about the summer break in Cornwall perhaps, or a particular theme from the previous term’s reports, and then of course, how their charge is settling into their new senior boarding house. The continuity provided by the Bryanston tutor system is one of the key elements that eases what might otherwise be a more fundamental transition.

The move has also been smoothed by the hard work undertaken in the summer of Year 9. The process starts with a senior housemaster receiving a confidential list in their common room pigeon hole; it is like Christmas, except we have no real idea at that point who is coming our way. There follows a rapid round of enquiries about this list of names, where we know there is no randomness or partiality at all – the list has been carefully crafted to meld together a group who will live under the same roof for the next four years of their school life. The boys themselves have suggested who they’d like to be with, the junior housemasters have balanced this against the need to share talent around the five senior boys’ houses and an honest assessment of what is best for each boy, and the alchemy is completed by a dash of careful social engineering. The senior housemasters then receive a ‘dossier’ on each new boy coming their way. All in all, it equates to the planning we might all make before embarking on a tube journey across a capital city.

I (and the other senior housemasters) then meet our new boys, inviting them to visit their new boarding house for a quick look around; in the following weeks there is also an overnight camp by the river, team-building, story-telling, a group BBQ perhaps, and a ‘graduation day’ when I also get to meet the new parents. Finally, before the summer holiday begins, the dorm combinations for September are arranged, i.e. the boys know who they’ll be in a room with in the first term of the next academic year, avoiding the peril of a tenterhooks return to school in September.

Once in the senior house, like all tube journeys, there is not one route that fits all, so the journey to the Leavers’ Ball at the end of Year 13 can take various detours with stops along the way, and the route each pupil decides to take is pretty unique to them. Some will take the Circle Line all the way from South Kensington to King’s Cross, while others will opt for the Piccadilly, Central or Victoria line, and that’s because a pupil will have different skills or preferences. It matters not because they all reach their final destination in the end and with their personal confidence pretty well complete. Some might take the circuitous route for a while, or pass through many more stops along the way. Some may even go south on the Bakerloo when they should go north; but between the housemaster, tutors and teachers, we will nudge them in order to get them going back in the right direction towards Baker Street.

During four years of travel, there is plenty of guidance offered so that any pupil should know what’s coming up and when they need to react. “The next station is Paddington. Change here for the Bakerloo line and National Rail services”. And then there is my own personal favourite – ‘Mind the gap’. Nobody aims to put a foot wrong, but it does occasionally happen, even if the warnings have been made clear. Unlike the junior houses, the adolescence card is in play rather more, and this is part of growing up – but we are on hand to avoid the ‘gaps’ or to pull the emergency handle as required.

Finally, unlike at some schools, the senior house does not alone define an individual at Bryanston, rather it is what they achieve in the milieu of the whole school which does. Yes, the friends and experiences they have in their house are deeply personal and unique to the surroundings, but, like each and every tube carriage, they will spend so much time with other people, each with their own individual personalities, that it is the journey through school as a whole which has the greatest resonance.

So, for those of you reading this who are curious or even a little uncertain about Bryanston’s transition of house for boys between Years 9 and 10, it is far less a matter of ‘all change’ than might seem. More like a little change, at the right time, at the right station, and onto the right line with plenty of comforting continuity.

2 May 2019

The importance of the spiritual

Life is not all about the here and now. Although, as we all know, the ability to live in the present, to take life as it is and not to hanker after how it ‘should’ be, or how it seems to be for celebrities who airbrush their life for social media, is one of the things that is likely to keep a person happy and healthy. As a happy coincidence, I think the life of a busy boarding school allows young people (as well as adults) to live lives of real engagement and to do so often at a pell mell pace so that, before you know where you are, the here and now is another successful term in the bank and the glory of long school holidays awaits. And this time of year, that’s particularly true: a nine-and-a-half-week term (squeezed in after a late Easter and before the second week of July) is closely followed by a nine-week summer holiday… which for me this year continues rather longer!

Busyness is a good thing.  But so too is the ability to enjoy the quiet time: reading, writing, playing your favourite sport, relaxing on the beach, travelling, soaking up those hours of utter boredom in airports, in cars and on trains. Most of life is made up of a balance between this busyness and the blissful rest. But imagine if life were ordered differently and all the joys came in one single and complete passage of time followed similarly by all the other, less joyful times. David Eagleman in his book, Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives, does just that, and in one of my favourite pieces from the book, he runs exactly that mind experiment about a version of the afterlife:

“You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, you’re agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out of a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt and you itch because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower.”

I like this experiment because it reminds me that, not unlike Forrest Gump with his box of chocolates, I must accept the bad days alongside the good days. And at Bryanston we have a range of people who encourage us all to keep sight of the bigger picture, from the teachers in the Philosophy department (secreted in the RS department) and the Sports department, to those in Music, Drama, Physics and Classics, and of course the incomparable Chaplain.

We all know that we shall miss Andrew Haviland with his entirely personal (and all the stronger for it) ministry at Bryanston over the last 11 years. But it’s time for him to move on and not least so that he and his family can spend the right amount of time together as Jo’s job keeps her at least half the week in Surrey. We have gained so much from all Andrew has done for us and we are deeply grateful to him for keeping us clearly focused on both the here and now of love and service as well as the deeper, bigger, more spiritual picture of other people and the big wide world.

Jo Davis, currently Chaplain at Milton Abbey, joins Bryanston as Chaplain in September. She has big shoes to fill and a sizeable personality to follow. I’m not going to be here to see her do so, but both Andrew and I are delighted with her appointment, will be supporting her from afar, and commend her to you as someone to cherish as she settles with her husband Stuart and their two young daughters into Woodlands and the school. A powerful teacher and a truly engaging preacher, she will be a strong presence at Bryanston, developing the spiritual work of Andrew and his powerful pastoral work too. I know she will keep her (and our) eyes firmly fixed on the bigger picture – the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the Bryanston family. Andrew and I are delighted to be handing that legacy, the mission which a Head and Chaplain share so intuitively, of cherishing a loving and vibrant school, both to Jo and to my own successor, Mark Mortimer.

See you on Speech Day! After which I’ll be off for that two-hundred-day shower…