12 May 2017

Managing the move from junior to senior school

This week's blog is from our Director of Admissions, Edrys Barkham, who looks at ways to manage the move from junior to senior school.

As nervousness for the Common Entrance (CE) starts to take hold for some children, parents, who are always ahead of the game and have already worried about CE for many months, will now be feeling twinges of nervousness about their child starting at senior school. Will they manage the workload? How will they organise themselves? How will they cope with the older pupils? Will they sleep? Will they eat? Will they wash? Once you start worrying, the questions go on and on!

The transition from junior to senior school can therefore be a stressful time for both children and parents. What can you expect as your child settles into their new school? The change in routine, food, and activity can lead to feelings of dislocation and being a bit lost. Interactions with new people can result in unexpected reactions, which cause uncertainty and can result in a loss of confidence. Identity is defined by the roles we play and the responsibilities we take on; the transition from the top of a junior school to the first year at senior school involve change in roles and responsibilities. Whilst this can promote feelings of excitement and anticipation it can, at the same time, trigger feelings of pressure and defensiveness. New relationships have to be established and new support structures developed. Change affects the way children think about themselves and as they develop new habits, vocabulary and ways of thinking, a new self-identity emerges. The transition process can take between 6 -12 months and there is much that can be done to make this process as easy and successful as possible.

Adopting a new school routine is one of the key ways in which new pupils start to feel they belong to a wider community. At Bryanston tutors meet their new tutorial pupils every day for the first couple of weeks to go through the daily timetable and help them plan out their extra-curricular activities and preps. In the junior boys’ houses the housemaster can focus entirely on their new charges and remind them of what they should be doing, when they should do it and where they should be. With small numbers of new girls in each house, the housemistress is able to help the girls individually and notice if they are struggling to cope. Housemasters/ housemistresses (hsms) and tutors both play a vital role in helping to explain the culture of the school, allowing children to understand the reactions and behaviours of those around them. Peer mentors and house prefects are important in helping new pupils make sense of the school’s expectations of behaviour. Through all these regular conversations, new pupils learn how to communicate effectively, which, in turn, helps to establish trust so that they know where they can go for help and advice. In tutorial, tutors identify the positives in their tutorial pupils’ lives, help them discover their strengths and talents and, through conversation, clarify their roles and responsibilities at the school. Establishing good relationships with staff and making new friends help new pupils to develop resilience and build confidence.

However, the process of settling in is not always smooth and parents are often the first to be told this, sometimes in a tearful conversation. Whilst this conversation is likely to leave your emotions in tatters, the fact your son or daughter has unloaded on you often means that they feel better and they head off to be with their friends, leaving you thinking you have a distraught child. Usually, the reality is they have bounced back and feel fine; a quick conversation with their hsm can reassure you all is well.

Allowing children to learn their own strategies for coping with change is a necessary skill for future life. If they learn how to deal with issues of identity, relationships, roles and responsibilities and reactions of others, with the help and guidance of their tutor and hsm, they will be better prepared to manage the multitude of transitions they will meet in future life.

The move from junior to senior school can be challenging, however, it is important to remember it also brings with it an exciting array of new opportunities and challenges. Each year we survey our new D pupils (year 9) at the end of the autumn term, partly to help us understand how they are settling in and also to identify any areas for improvement. Among other things, they are asked which three words best described their first term at Bryanston. The results of this year’s survey show that although they found it interesting, challenging, different, exciting and tiring, most also said it was fun!

28 April 2017

Food for the soul

As the new term gets under way, Bryanston Head, Sarah Thomas, looks at the need for us all to explore our spirituality and find a way to feed our souls.

James Norton, thankfully appearing again on our television screens on Sunday evenings in Grantchester, this week spoke about how he felt television did too little to portray faith in a positive light and tended, instead, to focus on either exorcisms or cults. I suppose we should not be surprised on any level, neither that a man who read Theology at Cambridge and was attracted to playing the part of a vicar should raise such a view, nor that television has taken the popular, currently fashionable and, I think, lazy approach to what is by any measure one of the most important areas of our world.

When I was a little girl I went to a convent school and then, at 11, to an avowedly secular school. The Catholicism of the mid '60s was, for me, a puzzle. It involved my class polishing our own desks (because no one else did) and raising money for the starving children in Biafra (a country whose location no one bothered to explain). Vatican 2 meant the Mass was in English and catechisms went out of the window. Then my 11+ school, Birkenhead High School GPDST, taught me that being non denominational meant notices, hymns (admittedly rather better ones than the Catholic versions), a reading and prayer once a week. All in all, it was a bit ‘meh’.

Having spent the years following my mother’s sudden death when I was 11 forgetting all I ever knew of religion or belief, and actively avoiding church, I then taught at Uppingham, where Chapel is at the centre of the school and where the Chaplain, Alan Megahey (the master of the three-minute sermon), and a tradition of superb Chapel music did something totally unexpected: they drew me back to the idea of faith through a sense of belonging.

So I believe schools have a real part to play in allowing pupils to explore their spirituality. By all means we should also teach ecumenical approaches and remove ignorance about world religions. But if we are to prepare our children to be happy in their world, we should, in my view, also allow them to consider the issue of faith both intellectually (who shouldn’t be exposed to credibile est quia ineptum est?) and emotionally. Our lives need mystery. Faith is one way of exploring what we cannot immediately understand; science and philosophy others. I believe all those elements deserve proper consideration and none should be pooh poohed. At Bryanston, our pupils are encouraged and supported to discover their own personal spiritual fuel in a number of ways, for example through one of the diverse extra-curricular activities, the breadth of curricular and sporting options, or through discussions with the Chaplain, who meets with Ds (year 9) once a week in Chapel to prepare them for that freedom of choice in worship which is the normal Bryanston pattern. And, whatever their faith, the Chapel provides pupils a place of warmth and peace for private prayer or simply somewhere to be quiet.

I’m on record in various places as saying I cannot imagine carrying out the role of Head without having my own, often rickety, faith. The idea that there is not something more important than my current preoccupations (which are more than occasionally solipsistic) fills me with gloom; part of keeping my mental well-being on a nearly even keel is attending church and being refreshed weekly, either at the school church with the remarkable Andrew Haviland leading our lively worship, or when I’m on holiday in the still more august setting of Bath Abbey. I’ll never understand what or exactly why I believe, but communion with friends and weekly ritual certainly fills my tank. I know it’s fashionable to sneer at this, as though it were an embarrassing weakness, but I am long past caring what people think of me, certainly in terms of how clever or not they think I am. I do what works for me. And I do my best.

If you can’t do something like this at least weekly then I think it’s harder to fill that tank. You might get your fuel from music, drama, sport, some or all of which can touch the soul at a deep level. You might satisfy that need for mystery through the world of archaeology or molecular biology or neuroscientific study, thereby seeing yourself as the speck in human existence that we each are. You might have the strength of intellect to find this sustenance entirely from humanism. I take my hat off to you if you do especially when you are in extremis. For some, meditation might help (though recent research suggests that’s much more likely if you are female). But for me, the most sincere and immediate way to find sense and hope in life is through trying to make sense of my faith.

So let’s take on board what Mr Norton says and do our bit in school to keep our children educated and emotionally fed with faith, curiosity, and mystery.

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.