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.

19 January 2018

90 years young!

As we approach our 90th anniversary, our Head, Sarah Thomas, looks at why a school that is proud of being young still celebrates getting older.

Bryanston will be 90 years old (or 90 years young, however you look at it) on 24th January. On that day in 1928, the school doors opened to the 23 boys and seven members of staff who were the ‘aboriginals’ in the old Portman palace at the top of the two-mile drive from Blandford Forum.

Bryanston really is still a young school, and one that is proud to remember its founding father’s vision, of a school offering exceptional care for, and genuine interest in, each of its pupils (through, amongst other things, the incomparable house and tutoring structure) and where pupils are encouraged to thrive and to find joy in whatever they happen, legitimately, to be excellent at, as well as guided and supported through the other things they might find more difficult or more tedious perhaps as part of their educational endeavours.

So, why should a school proud of being young celebrate being older? I think there are various reasons from my (very ephemeral) point of view. Firstly, Bryanston likes a good party. After all, it’s what the place was built for. Look at those magnificent rooms in the centre of the house, now Dorchester, Grosvenor and Cowley, and feel the sprung dance floor. I was once shown a guest book for the 1900 New Year’s Eve party at Bryanston when it still belonged to the Portman family. It sounds like a spectacular evening: fireworks and dry ice! And what is life if it is not possible to enjoy special occasions? It’s right to mark those significant moments in life. Next, I think it’s worth celebrating the fact that the Bryanston model – somewhat arriviste compared to those venerable schools which date back to the 15th and 16th centuries – is not only thriving, but that other older schools have, we like to think, adopted some of our ideas and methods (more adult interest in pupils; better tutoring; a junior boarding house system). Thirdly, I think it’s always important to remember, and to remember to re-state, the values upon which any school is founded. Schools which do otherwise invariably lose their way in matters of ethos and identity.

As a school, we routinely consider what is important to us, through regular reviews of our mission statement, strategic planning, prospectus and other communications to current and prospective parents and pupils. As part of the planning involved in identifying my successor, we recently put together Bryanston’s Guiding Principles.

None of these should come as a surprise. Although, of course, there is a certain element of Berocca about it all. Some of the headlines took a few tussles between us here and there (and rightly so), but you will, I hope, find these principles running through all we say and do – and all we always have said and done. As Bryanston gets ready to find and then welcome its seventh Head, as we eat cake and watch the 90 films put together by the irrepressible Simon Wheeler (C 1993), and as we raise our metaphorical (in some cases) glass to our 90th birthday, what better or more joyful way to do it than to ‘make a noise’ (as I believe they say) in the arid world of 21st-century education: “We are Bryanston! We know what really matters! We’re going strong and here’s to the next 90 years!”

et nova et vetera!

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5 December 2017

Perfection Paralysis

This week Sarah Thomas considers why we shouldn't let a focus on perfection prevent us from doing our best.

I’ve been thinking recently about perfection. I think it’s true to say that I have, from my earliest years, known that whilst I would like everything to be neat and tidy and practically perfect in every respect (Mary Poppins being something of a role model of mine, closely followed by the wonderful Joan Hickson as Miss Marple), you can’t, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger, always get what you want. Indeed perfection can be paralysing.

It worries me that the notion of perfection is so prevalent in the media and elsewhere that it can be all too much for our children. Please don’t misinterpret me, I am absolutely clear that we should all aim to do our best. I’m rather thinking of the pursuit of perfect cleverness, perfect appearance, perfect lives. But it’s hard to do your best if you feel from the very start that there’s no way you can be as good as some seemingly perfect peer; or if you know that, despite your best efforts, you are unlikely to achieve as highly as your teachers or parents would like you to. And it’s hard too being the seemingly perfect one. That’s what I mean about perfection having a paralysing effect.

It’s why at Bryanston we focus so much upon how each pupil does according to their abilities and interests and efforts, as opposed to how they compare to others, either in or outside the school. In this age of league tables, where it seems everything, even the uncomparable, must be compared, ours is a radical approach. But the value we add by the sixth form in terms of both academic and other outcomes is something of which I am very proud, as I am of the achievements of Old Bryanstonians and the contributions they make to the wider world. I very much hope, for a multiplicity of reasons, no Bryanstonian thinks that the world owes them a living. And that they all go on to lead happy, fulfilled and contributive lives.

The way to deal with all this focus on perfection and the fear of helplessness in the face of it is, in my view, to remember your Voltaire (“le mieux est l’ennemi du bien”) and aim not for the perfect, but the good. This approach has a profound effect upon your sense of self-esteem: if you know what you are doing is your best, and that it is recognised as such rather than belittled, you are likely to feel much better about yourself. It allows you also to divest yourself of the feeling of desperation or helplessness that can creep in, often from consulting social media or the popular press about the world at large.

We live, perhaps sadly but certainly bracingly, in interesting times. I think our job as educators is to recognise and react to the changing world, ensuring pupils leave ready to embrace the new opportunities that will open up (so, for instance, we are strengthening our computer science provision with a new high-level appointment from September 2018), but also maintaining the framework which has proven its worth over generations, in terms of teaching pupils how to learn and, as it happens, how to be positive.

At Bryanston, I see this philosophy in action every day, through our remarkable tutorial system. I see it also in the approach of our Director of Sport and the exciting new developments he has introduced, so that all can enjoy sport both in and beyond school. I see it in the exceptional music and drama (and if you didn’t see My Fair Lady, I am very sorry for you, as you missed an enormous treat: I saw it twice!). I see it on every occasion that we place our trust in our pupils to rise to the challenges that face them. I am enormously proud, for instance, of our First XV Captain, Ellis B (P, A2), who has shaped a team which lost more than they would have wished before half term into one which was unbeaten this side of half term until, agonisingly, their very last game. Because of that experience, the boys now form a fully committed team with a sense of common purpose and individual drive. And Ellis is to be congratulated for his major part in that and also for his very recent selection to the U18 Wales squad. I am proud too of how the whole school rose this term to the challenge of raising our annual amount of £1,000 per house (which would mean a school total of £12,000), to support our long-standing school link with charities in Nepal. The total currently stands at £17,000 and rising. And I was beyond proud to hear of how our money raised for the fantastic David Nott Foundation (the charity chosen by last year’s A2 in spring 2017) has been helping fund training courses for surgeons around the world and has specifically helped in Bangladesh, supporting doctors treating the Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing, often with cruel injuries, from ethnic violence in Myanmar.

This year’s Heads of School, Harry G and Lotte T, are now planning for the A2 Charity Weekend for next term. They’ll be in touch with pupils, staff and parents early next term and they are eager to make sure they lead another successful and contributive charity event in February. They also, incidentally, provide me with some of the best conversations of my week and are outstanding role models to the school.

It’s a privilege running a school like Bryanston. My main role is to ensure that all pupils can leave here ready for this world of ours, whatever shape it will take, and knowing that doing your best, in the classroom or outside it, is always good enough and can sometimes be absolutely brilliant. And that’s the way to stay sane, avoid perfection paralysis and enjoy life with all its ups and downs. Have a super Christmas and all best wishes for 2018.