24 March 2017

Education: a life-long process

This week Bryanston Head, Sarah Thomas, looks at the purpose of school and and why education isn't merely a preparation for life, but a part of life itself. 

The notion that school is a training ground (or worse, a holding pen), where you must hold your breath until you’re allowed to leave 13 years later and only then practise the stuff you’ve been taught therein, ought to be a pretty outmoded concept. Some people, of course, still cling to this idea that school is a place in which you acquire those particular skills and qualifications which will see you gain a particular job when you join the workforce. One is reminded of the sixties poster: “Be alert. Your country needs lerts.”

Many years ago I listened to a headmaster telling a hall full of parents that life is a great journey – and school is the place where you pack your suitcase. An interesting metaphor. There was an implication that stuffing your bag with academic qualifications was the best preparation, and I am reminded of this whenever I interview supremely qualified graduates who can’t find their own way out of my office.

From its beginnings in 1928, Bryanston has taken a different approach. We’re interested in learning as well as teaching, and doing as well as thinking about doing. I can’t honestly think of a more stultifying thing to say to a child at five, 13 or 16 than “Keep being taught; one day you’ll find it useful.” One of the great things about a boarding school education is that you don’t just attend lessons or take part in matches or concerts, rather you really live your life, at school, throughout term time. Your friends are here; your work and play are here; your active life is here.

Living life is a good idea whatever age you are. We none of us know what is just around the corner. Thankfully all attempts to predict the future, whether by astrologers, or economists (and remember the saying ‘Economics is the only field in which two people can win the Nobel Prize for saying exactly the opposite thing’), or even the gloomy Calvinist determinists, are easily debunked by evidence … and if you need cheering up on that final score, just watch the ‘Thank God it’s Doomsday’ episode of The Simpsons (series 16, episode 9) in which Homer predicts the Rapture.

One of my favourite poems is Days by Philip Larkin.
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come and wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

And we encourage our pupils to do just that. At Bryanston, the abundant life (the phrase from the Bible which former Bryanston headmaster Thorold Coade so liked about a life well lived) is about work and friends; it’s about imagination and creativity; it’s about living in a supportive environment where you can try out new things and discover what you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at; who can support you and whom you yourself can and should support. It’s about making friends, learning to get on with people (even those with whom you are not naturally friendly) and the different ways to finding a sense of fulfilment, whether you are 16 or 60. I hope it’s a learning that takes pupils way beyond the lovely gates of Bryanston School.

Education is a life-long process for all of us. I’m still learning: some days more than others. And I’m absolutely convinced that learning is not something that simply happens to you. It is something to be embraced and engaged with. It should be active and lively and difficult and fun. Just like life.

10 March 2017

Pre-testing

This week we welcome Bryanston's Director of Admissions, Edrys Barkham, who looks at why we are introducing pre-testing as part of our admissions process.

Can you tell all you need to know about a child’s academic potential at the age of 11? At Bryanston we don’t think you can. We think that many children are still developing in years 6, 7 and 8, when many senior schools undertake pre-testing, and by allowing them longer to mature and getting to know them as they develop, we can admit children who are likely to thrive at Bryanston and will bring to the school a breadth of skills that reach beyond the classroom.

So, why are we introducing pre-testing? In an increasingly uncertain world, we hope that the introduction of the ISEB Common Pre-test for children starting year 7 in September 2017 will remove a family’s anxiety about where their child might go to senior school, by giving a better indication of the suitability of Bryanston for their child earlier in the admissions process than we have hitherto been able.

The ISEB pre-test is age standardised, which means that a child who is young for their year is not disadvantaged and the questions are adaptive so that the answer to one question will determine the level of difficulty of the next question. This means that the tests should allow each child to feel that they have achieved.

However, we recognise that this standardised test evaluates a child’s performance on one particular day and does not take into account any other factors, and therefore the result of the pre-test is not the only criterion that will determine the offer of a place. For children who don’t perform at their best on the day of the pre-test, we will continue to talk to their current school and keep their name on the development list. It is important to us that we continue to admit children with a broad range of talents and interests into the school and we know that some children’s academic development is later than others. We will not want to lose a great sportsperson, musician, actor or artist because they get a low score on the day. We rely on the professional opinion of the heads of prep schools and other junior schools, most of whom know us well, through pupils they have previously sent to Bryanston, and they know their own pupils very well. We trust that they have a good sense of whether each individual child will thrive with us.

We therefore still firmly believe that children should be selected through a holistic overview of each individual and the result of the pre-test will form just a part of that picture. It is an additional strand, rather than a decider, but one we hope will provide reassurance for many families. Our new approach, which combines the pre-test with meeting the child on several occasions and an ongoing dialogue with their junior school, will give every child a genuine opportunity to reveal their potential.

24 February 2017

Turbulent times

This week we welcome our Deputy Head (Academic), Dr David James, who explains why we are hosting our inaugural Education Summit later this year.

We live in turbulent times. Every day seems to carry a strapline of ‘what fresh hell is this?’ And the politicians, who are charged by the public to provide answers, seem at best stunned into inaction by the speed of events or, worse, actively conniving to make things more chaotic. WB Yeats’s lines from The Second Coming seem especially apposite at this moment in time:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It is easy to see how prosaic matters, such as education, slip down the Government’s To Do list. But I have argued elsewhere that, for schools, there is only one thing worse than a busy, conviction-led Secretary of State at the Department for Education, and that is not having one. And there is no doubt that ever since Michael Gove was defenestrated by a Prime Minister who wanted to win the last election, schools occupy fewer headlines, and probably take up less discussion time in cabinet, than they used to.

This can lead to drift, and drift in turn can lead to uncertainty, which in turn can store up problems for society in the future, because the issues affecting schools (such as academic underachievement or poor behaviour) are rarely contained behind the school gate. There are worrying trends developing in the maintained sector: it is estimated that four out of ten newly qualified teachers leave the profession within their first year of teaching; at the other end of the career ladder there is a retention crisis, with record numbers of headteachers stepping down, or taking early retirement. With so much talk about the crisis in the NHS this winter it is understandable that the challenges facing schools are overlooked, but they are there, and this is something that the National Funding Formula seems to be exacerbating, with some headteachers warning of a ‘bleak’ future for schools.

You will no doubt have noticed that I have decided not to discuss new GCSEs, with their still-to-be understood new grading system, as well as the death of AS examinations and the new, more rigorous A level with high-stakes terminal examinations that nobody, including our more selective universities, has total faith in.

It would be easy to be cynical. But of course there is much good happening in schools: students continue to excel beyond their own expectations, and regardless of what happens to the courses they study, or how they are assessed, thousands of inspiring, committed teachers will continue to do their best for the young people they teach. Public trust in teachers is second only to doctors (and considerably higher than politicians and estate agents, which is reassuring). To paraphrase George Eliot, it is because of the ‘unhistoric acts’ that teachers do every day that the ‘growing good of the world’ is added to. Or I like to think so anyway.

In such a climate we felt it appropriate to run an event that addressed some of the major issues facing schools today. And so, on 7 June, Bryanston is hosting its first Education Summit, which will bring together some of the most influential and knowledgeable voices in education today. Among those speaking is Lucy Crehan, whose book, Cleverlands, has been rightly praised as providing us with a startlingly clear insight into how teachers in other national systems achieve outstanding results with their students. It has been described as ‘audacious’, but mandatory reading for all those designing future education policy. Other contributors include Professor Dylan Wiliam, a seminal figure in education, consulted by leading companies, universities, and governments. There are few who know more about teaching than Dylan. And he is joined by Professor AC Grayling, one of this country’s leading intellectuals and academics. Toby Young and Claire Fox are also going to be asking difficult questions, and no doubt provoking strong responses. Other confirmed speakers, such as Ian Fordham, Microsoft’s Director of Education, will be focusing on the role of technology in the classroom; and others will be discussing the importance of partnerships to schools, and new developments in teaching and learning.

Why run an event like this, especially at the end of a tiring term? Because we believe that by bringing people together from across the education sector, to establish new connections, we can begin to find solutions to issues that affect everyone involved. It would be easier to not do this, to sit back and passively accept the slings and arrows hurled at us daily by opinion-formers and policy-makers, or to hunker down, and retreat into a bubble, hoping that the changes happening will sweep over us, leaving us untouched. Both approaches are unwise, especially as there are challenges and issues for all schools, including those like Bryanston. Both are also inimical to Bryanston’s ethos which actively promotes in its pupils an active engagement with the world around them. It is better to shape the debate than to be talked over and ignored.

This is not an event for teachers only: it is for everyone, including parents, who are interested in education today. Do join us, and take part in the debate.

For more information visit www.bryanston.co.uk/educationsummit.
More speakers will be confirmed nearer the time, and please do keep checking our website for further details, as well as following the summit on Twitter (@bryedusummit).