14 July 2017

Balancing act

This week Sarah Thomas reflects on the importance of balance - a topic she covered on Speech Day last weekend.

At Speech Day this year I spoke of balance and how to keep it in this turbulent and unpredictable world. I even made reference to Weebles. For those of you who were not children of the 1970s, Weebles were egg-shaped toys, weighted so that, if you pushed them over, they always bounced back upright. “Weebles wobble,” the advert ran, “but they don’t fall down.” I think Weebles could be the icon for these turbulent times. 

A year and a half ago would we have believed we would be coming out of Europe? Seeing scenes of terrorism and heroism again on the streets of Manchester and London? Enduring another inconclusive General Election? And let’s try not to mention President Trump. So how are we to deal with all this, in our own families and in school? How do we aim for our pupils to stay balanced?

At Bryanston we offer the widest range of opportunities we can. We teach creatively and we offer the right level of encouragement and guidance, both inside and outside the classroom. We don’t expect anyone, child or adult, to be perfect. Indeed, to expect that creates a toxic effect for any child, however talented. We talk about our own wellbeing and are honest about our need for support, whether from exercise or music, or meditation, or God. Which reminds me of a Boris Johnson story I heard recently. In an interview about his Christian faith, he described it as “like tuning in to Virgin Radio
whilst driving through the Chilterns. Sometimes the signal is strong; sometimes you lose it.” A really lovely metaphor. We encourage our pupils to keep tuning in to a support system which works for them, and we let them know that’s what we, in our imperfect way, do for ourselves.

A key way we stay balanced at Bryanston is through positivity and this comes, in part, through engagement in good times. It is important to celebrate achievement and good times, as we did at Speech Day last weekend, and indeed do throughout the year. 

But finding balance isn’t easy. And it’s different for everyone. You can’t necessarily teach it in classrooms. You can’t measure it in exams. So it’s not something that many schools are prepared to shout about. Certainly not those which boast exclusively about their academic achievements. Or those which fail to recognise the connection between unreasonable academic pressure and mental health issues. Or those which shy away from the truth that so much of our educational landscape was designed to meet 20th- century challenges. In the future, our young people will need balance as
much as they will need imagination; creativity; perspective; the ability to take a step back, to take a wider view, to make links and connections; to have good ideas; to make difficult and brave decisions. Show me how each A level can test those skills. Yet a school which is not passionate about these things is not, in my view, doing its job.

As we wish our departing pupils farewell and look forward to welcoming a new intake in September, I hope that each Bryanstonian gets what they want from life and, above all, that they channel their own Weeble and find their individual balance.

You can see more photos from Speech Day here.

30 June 2017

Ten years on

Class of 2007
At the weekend the classes of 1987, 1997 and 2007 returned to Bryanston for their reunion. Benjy Barkes (Sa ’07) reflects on his return to school and what it meant to him.

What an amazing, rewarding and fun day! Mostly we hadn’t seen each other for 10 years and for many it was their first time back in Dorset, let alone the school grounds. The last time we were together as a group we knew a huge amount about one another, at least we imagined that we did. We had spent most of the previous five years in each other’s company, whilst going through the same experience.

But talking to others at the reunion, it became clear that we hadn’t had the same experience. Five of the most formative years of your life spent anywhere, but particularly Bryanston, are a unique experience, and we all have our own memories of our time at school.

Besides some smart new additions, the school feels and looks largely the same. The worlds we lived in – for me, the four corridors of Salisbury House and a few small bedrooms that were my home for years of my life – also look the same.

Even as we were given a tour of the house, the group of recent strangers slotted back into their former school roles: the loud ones, the shy ones, the musicians, the rugby players. It was nostalgic and curious, bouncing from mature catch-up chat to long forgotten school-boy banter.

I guess that we are still the same people that left Bryanston a decade ago, we certainly look similar! But we are all, without a doubt, so much better for those 10 years. The shy 18-year-olds are now young professionals. Some of those that played in bands at school are now musicians playing to crowds across the country, some of the rugby players are now professionals, hard workers are now accountants and bankers, some are married with children; there are soldiers, artists, naval officers, actors and composers.

Every person, in every way, seemed a better version of themselves. A more confident, happier and developed version of the person that emerged from Bryanston all those years ago. I imagine that this, as an observation, would probably be consistent with other schools. However, with Bryanston there’s one clear difference: the diversity.

I cannot envisage that any other school produces such a happy mixture of people, who not only relish seeing each other, but also cherish their differences and are thankful for the school that offered the chance for everyone to find their niche. There truly is no Bryanston stereotype.

By and large, everyone at the reunion expressed the fondest memories of their time at school and loved the opportunity to spend the day together. It’s a curious virtue of our newly discovered confidence and maturity, that most of us had longer conversations with people in our year at the reunion than we ever had in our five years of shared classes. A missed opportunity, but such is life. Bring on the 20-year reunion!

See more photos from the reunion.

16 June 2017

Sharing ideas

This week our Deputy Head (Academic), Dr David James, reflects on our recent Education Summit and the future of schools post election.

On Wednesday 7 June Bryanston held its first Education Summit. Our strapline was: ‘delivering a world class education in turbulent times’. Just how turbulent these times are was driven home the following day when the first results from the general election started to come in. With so much uncertainty affecting so many aspects of this country’s future it seemed particularly important to bring people together to discuss what were the biggest issues facing schools today, and how could they be resolved.

And so we invited some of the most influential speakers working in education to give us their insights, and over 400 delegates arrived to listen, take notes, debate and disagree. Those attending came from all sectors: primary, prep, maintained and fee-paying secondary, and there were representatives from higher education as well. Themes developed over the course of a fascinating day: the role that technology could play was explored by Ian Fordham, Head of Education at Microsoft UK. Award-winning teacher Paul Turner looked at how technology could be used meaningfully in the classroom, and there were other sessions by, among others, Crispin Weston, James Penny and Jane Basnett, which looked at how far technology could shape learning. The answer? Quite a lot, but only if the teachers are fully trained. And that requires investment, of resources, trust ... and time.

And time was a theme running through the day. Professor AC Grayling discussed ‘educating the future in the present’, and Martin Robinson explored similar themes arguing for a return to the ‘trivium’ style of teaching which places emphasis on grammar, rhetoric and logic. Russell Speirs discussed the ten biggest educational trends in 2017, and a panel of prep school heads looked at the future of prep schools in a turbulent world with ever-changing priorities (and demographics).

In such uncertain times people often reach out to others, for guidance, and support. And colleagues from maintained schools discussed the nature of partnerships, both within the sector and across independent and state. Sharing, it was felt by many, results in strength, not dilution. But the pressures schools are under was also debated, with one panel of head teachers arguing about whether leading a school at such times is the ‘impossible job’. It was heartening to hear so many school leaders say it remained such a valuable and rewarding job, but the responsibilities are growing, and resources are shrinking.

There was also a strong evidence-based strand running through and across sessions. Experienced teachers and researchers such as Nick Rose (on using memory research in the classroom), Lucy Crehan (on the role that culture plays in creating education superpowers), David Didau (on the research that helps us make kids more academically successful), and, in the final keynote, leading educationalist Professor Dylan Wiliam talked about how we can create the schools our children need (which are different from the ones they actually have). It was stimulating, provocative stuff.

I end where I began: on uncertainty. Now that we know the result of the general election, it seems less likely that we will see a return to grammar schools, but what fills that policy hole? How important will schools be to a government that is struggling to retain a working majority while it is negotiating Brexit? My guess is that schools will slide down the political agenda quite quickly, and that is potentially very serious for the future of our country. On a more positive note, the summit showed what is possible when teachers come together, and share ideas, good practice, and find local solutions to perennial problems. Of course, such things cannot be scaled up to a national level, but perhaps this is the most we can achieve in the immediate future, and indeed this might be enough to ensure our schools still help produce gifted students ready for the 21st century. That is the hope, and until these turbulent times settle down, that might be just enough.