9 March 2018

Why go to university?

In this week’s Bryanston Blog, Head of Sixth Form Ian McClary considers the reasons for going to university.

According to a report published in July last year by Universities UK, a university education is a powerful tool for social mobility and economic empowerment. Yet, on the other hand, there is also research pointing to rising rates of mental ill health among students who feel overwhelmed by debt and the rising cost of living. A recent study by the Sutton Trust also estimated that graduate debt in England is higher on average than any other English-speaking country.

And so, faced with such a financial burden, with more people than ever before proceeding to full-time higher education, perhaps we should ask the question: why go to university?

Many talk about the value of the university experience, but what exactly do they mean? Is it the process of rigorous academic endeavour, leading to a mark of intellectual distinction being bestowed on the individual in the form of a BA or a BSc? There are those who would argue that the sheer number of degrees being awarded these days, not to mention the proliferation of lightweight or ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, has devalued that currency.

Others might define the university experience more in terms of working out who you are, what you want, what you believe in, what your place in society is and could be, whilst also studying something you enjoy, find interesting or which is even, perhaps, relevant to intended future employment. But then, you don’t have to go to university and generate a large amount of debt in order to do this. And we’ve all heard of those for whom university was just a three-year-long party and a way of avoiding the inevitable question: what am I going to do when I grow up?

Others, still, might say that university is the new sixth form. In ‘the olden days’ the sixth form used to be about more freedom, time to explore and specialise, having more time for extra-curricular pursuits. Not so much nowadays. With the advent of league tables and the inevitable grades arms race, many schools have increasingly directed and regimented sixth formers’ time, facilitating a frantic scramble for places at universities marketing themselves as elite. The sixth form, sadly, can become all about getting the grades (two of which, if they are doing A levels, usually being a means to an end) to get them into a ‘good’ university, deferring the freedom, the exploration and the breadth that the sixth form should also have.

And so, when young people get to university, it can often be a shock to the system. Not only might they not really know what university is for, they also don’t know how to be independent, take ownership of and direct their learning, or manage their time and set priorities, because their schools had continued to do that for them. Thankfully, at Bryanston, the emphasis has always been on coaching rather than drilling and it is reassuring to hear OBs reporting time and again that they made the transition to university life very smoothly because they found Bryanston, and its sixth form in particular, such a good preparation for it.

Nevertheless, it appears to me that a lot of young people, Bryanstonians included, tend to see university as simply what comes next, rather than thinking about what it should be for them and what they need (and want) to get out of it. They won’t be told exactly what to do. Their university experience will, for the most part, be what they make it. If it’s not going to provide (or they are not going to engage with) intellectual and academic rigour, what’s the point? If they are going to distract themselves constantly and waste opportunities to understand themselves better and the world around them, what’s the point? If they are going to do the bare minimum, underachieve and leave without the skills and experiences which will help to future proof them, what’s the point? A degree is not a free pass to a better life. It never was, despite what statistics will say about employability and earnings potential. But as many of us know, it can be one of the most formative and enriching experiences of one’s life.

We need to be asking young people “Why go to university?” Essentially, it is about finding the right path for the individual. As teachers, advisers and parents we should spend as much time helping our young people to understand that university isn’t just what comes next, as we do helping them decide what to study; encouraging them to explore alternatives to the traditional, full-time undergraduate degree experience: living at home, part-time study, apprenticeships, the Open University, combined with whatever work experience/internships they can access in order to demonstrate a wider range of academic, professional and personal skills.

Whichever route they decide on, it is important to realise that for the next three (or more) years they will make their own university/apprenticeship/work experience, regardless of what they have to pay, and that they will surely get out as much, and no more, as they put in.

23 February 2018

A face-to-face place

This week we welcome our Deputy Head (Academic), Dr David James, who reflects on the importance of face-to-face relationships.
Evidence seems to grow each week that mobile technology could be playing a significant role in the rise of mental health issues among young people. Of course, being online is not in itself a bad thing: you could be on Google Art Project researching Caravaggio, while listening to Handel’s Messiah on Spotify. There are endless opportunities to be educated and uplifted on an iPad or mobile phone, and it should not be forgotten, in the rush to ban technology from our schools, that, as one teacher puts it, not all screen time is equal. This is complicated enough when one is an adult: we should know when to close the lid of the laptop, or to switch our phones to airplane mode in order to get some rest, or to read a book. Having said that, many parents are as guilty of modern social faux pas, such as phubbing, as their children. How many meals have been ruined because Mum or Dad simply has to reply to that email? But teenagers may be under more pressure to keep Snapstreaks going, or to move to the next mission in GTA without letting their friends down, than adults are to keep email correspondence alive. To adolescents, friendships and being accepted by others have always been of profound importance. And, like much of the world today, a lot of that has moved online, which in turn has made it - and the possible concomitant shaming - more public.

Such things shouldn’t surprise us. But what should alarm all parents and teachers (and indeed anyone with any interest in the wellbeing of young people) is that social media companies have deliberately made their sites as addictive as possible. When Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook, claims that the company is deliberately “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” then the laid-back West Coast mask that Mark Zuckerberg wears begins to slip a little; and when Parker admits that Facebook’s effect on children “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other...God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” then the reality dawns that these new companies may be just as ruthless at exploiting human frailty, and addictive tendencies, as Marlboro, McDonald’s, and Jack Daniels. As Roger Daltrey once famously sang: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Where do schools fit into this? Well, we could go to one extreme and ban all technology from our site (just as a junior school popular with Palo Alto CEOs has done, which in itself raises some disturbing questions), but we suspect that teenagers, being teenagers, will find a way around that. In addition, parents understandably want to keep in touch with their children when they’re at boarding school, and so even asking pupils to hand over their devices for long periods of time (as is becoming popular in some US schools) presents certain problems as well. Plus, to reiterate what I said before, there is so much wonderful stuff out there that actively aids learning that only the most retrogressive and anti-intellectual educational establishment would contemplate switching it off at source.

But perhaps the solution to the challenges that technology is presenting us with now is, literally, staring us in the face. And what we’re looking at is another human face. An anecdote that might illuminate my point. When I was interviewing a pupil who wanted to join Bryanston from her day school last term, I asked her why she wanted to give up the 4.15pm finishes, and have lessons on a Saturday. Her answer has stayed with me ever since. She said: “I’m a face-to-face person, and I guess this is a face-to-face place.” She went on to say that the many arguments that teenagers have via WhatsApp and Snapchat tend to escalate after school. By the time the pupils return to school the next day, or on Monday, grievances have deepened because correspondence has occurred via text, not voice. We all know that a simple statement like “I hate you” can be spoken with venom and with humour, and how we modulate our tone makes all the difference. But as a flat, written text, it can be destructive. For my interviewee the answer was simple: she wanted to talk to people, and in doing so form bonds and friendships that are robustly independent of Zuckerberg’s nefarious network. For her, Bryanston would provide her with more opportunity to make real and lasting friendships. Through articulating our ideas to others we make sense of our thoughts to them, and to our own self, at the same time. For young people this is an essential part of establishing their own identities. In time, I have no doubt, the miracle that is the human voice will win out over cold digital dialogue. Ideally, both will add richness to our lives. But it is perhaps only in a boarding school that the time and space, and the opportunities, are so varied, and allow for such ongoing interaction, that our young people develop in a more fully human way.

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.