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Bryanston School: An individual approach

In teaching techniques as well as buildings, Bryanston School has a fascinating mix of the old and the new, as Joël Lacey discovers

The impressive former home of the Portman family, now the school's main building

The benefit of the enclosed campus-like layout of Bryanston School is clear from the occasional sight of school bags left hither and yon in the sure and certain expectation they will still be there when their owners wish to reclaim them. Aside from the slightly too youthful faces of those whom one sees when walking around, this could be a university, not a school; that feeling applies equally as well to the teaching methods employed at the school as it does to its landscaped surroundings and modern buildings.
This is no accident, nor is it a recent innovation. In 1934 the then new Head, Thorold Coade, described the emphasis on self-directed learning as leading ‘gradually up to the university tutorial system, and [being] analogous to it’. Each pupil at Bryanston has a chart – which is examined weekly with a personal tutor – on which subject teachers record individual development.
Each pupil’s individual tutor is hand-picked by the Head, Sarah Thomas: ‘What we try to do here is to have a lot of one-to-one contact and primarily that comes from the tutor; I decide who tutors which child and I do that on the basis of disposition, interest, talent and character – it’s not to do with what house you’re in.’
In order to make the right selection, she collects a lot of information on the child: ‘I get it from previous schools, I meet all of the children, I meet all of the children’s parents,’ she explains, adding: ‘I have people who are in charge of the tutors for me and nobody here tutors from day one; they spend a year going through the hands of the senior tutors, and I have to know my tutors as well as my children because that relationship (between tutor and child) lasts for five years.

Art is a visible part of the pupils' output, both around the school and in the art building

There are 665 pupils at Bryanston, 275 of whom are in the sixth form. Their needs – educational, pastoral and physical – are ministered to by 432 staff, of whom 128 are teaching staff. The combination of a high staff-to-student ratio, and the idea of fewer timetabled classes in favour of more self-directed learning, takes a little while to get used to for the casual visitor. As one walks round the school, small clusters of pupils and staff, often just one of each, can be seen talking through various topics, coursework or just for a mentoring chat.
It is all about the individual, as Sarah Thomas explains: ‘When you look round Bryanston, the kids are not all the same; they don’t wear a uniform, they’re not homogeneous, and they’re not all going to turn out in the same shape. Bryanston is all about their being the best that they can be, that, and what they can contribute to the world.’
This last concept may cause an eyebrow or two to raise, but it is clearly a sincere position. As Sarah seeks to explain the ethos she wishes the pupils to understand: ‘It’s a question of them saying “I know the world doesn’t owe us a living so we have to have the right frame of mind for being successful or happy”. It’s not about them saying “I went to a really lovely school and so the rest of my life will be really lovely”, it’s about them thinking “I’ve done things at school that mean I will be successful in my life, because I know how to contribute, in whatever form”.’ She underlines the point by saying: ‘You cannot expect them all to do or to be the same thing; that would be bonkers.’

Art is a visible part of the pupils' output, both around the school and in the art building

To this end, the pupils are expected, indeed obliged, to undertake a series of Extra-Curricular Activities (ECAs). As sixth-formers Beany and Will explain: ‘The best thing about this school is the ECAs; basically you can do anything – cooking, archery, water polo…, it’s compulsory in your first and second year to do an ECA. [The school] encourages you to do as many ECAs as possible because you never know what you’re going to be good at until you try. I [Will] thought I was going to be a good rower because my dad was a good rower; I had a go at it and hated it and haven’t done it since.’
This suck-it-and-see sentiment is echoed by Sarah Thomas: ‘When you are at school you can learn an awful lot about yourself and also about how some other people will be better than you are at some things, and that’s not damaging; it can actually be quite helpful to discover more about yourself.’
This is not to the extent that failure is inevitable. As Sarah points out: ‘You can’t say to children that “the world’s in a shocking state, you may as well give up now”, but they will be living in the world, so the morality of it is that you must give them the tools and equipment with which to deal with the world as it really is. Part of that is dealing with when things are difficult and that’s hard to teach, but you can encourage children to learn it. In order to do so, they have to occasionally be outside their comfort zone, so that’s why we put lots of emphasis on things like creativity and  performance – perhaps doing things they would not normally do.’

The entrance hall at Bryanston School; there is another floor below this one with a café, a chapel and the Terence Conran designed canteen

She cites the example of various artistic endeavours that the kids get involved in: ‘For example, we will have concerts where we have people who aren’t music scholars playing next to those who are, and one of the things which is very characteristic about Bryanston is an understanding that that is good: it isn’t competitive, they support each other. You learn an awful lot from it when you put yourself in a situation that is just a bit unsettling.’
She underlines the point by adding that school is a balance: ‘You don’t want to have children purposefully put in the position of making mistakes and then going “hahaha” at them, that’s wrong. We don’t let them fail, that would be a ghastly thing to do, but hopefully we encourage them not to be afraid and to ask the right questions.’
The idea of nurturing is a key strand within the school. Second Master Peter Hardy explains it as follows: ‘How do you define pastoral care? It’s the pupils’ wellbeing, how happy, purposeful and forward-looking they are as well as their material wellbeing. Everyone [at Bryanston] is involved in the pastoral care of pupils; it’s not pastoral people and teaching people, it’s everyone doing it, all the time.’
The notion is one that is also inculcated in the pupils. Sixth-formers will look in on the junior boys’ houses – although girls join a house from day one, the boys initially join junior boys’ houses before graduating to senior houses after a year – and ensure that all is well. Whilst the juniors may not be forced to live with the older boys, they do have contact with older pupils so they can have role models to whom they can talk. This also encourages a sense of responsibility and maturity in the sixth formers.

The school's boathouse on the river Stour

All this building up of individual responsibility and broadening of vistas is not just for its own sake, though. It is reflected in the pupils’ academic achievements too. Over half the Bryanston A levels in 2013 were A* or A, 81% A*-B; the GCSEs were 57% A*/A and 97% A-C. This summer will also show the performance of the first year’s cohort of International Baccalaureate students and the school’s emphasis on student choice comes into play once again with the idea that pupils may choose between traditional A levels or an IB qualification. The IB is particularly useful; to those foreign students whose native countries may not recognise A levels in the same way that they would an IB qualification.
There is something revealing about the high proportion of teachers who are themselves former pupils of Bryanston. Sarah Thomas is not one of them. Her upbringing in the less than bucolic idyll that was 1960s Birkenhead makes her even more appreciative of the school which she now leads: ‘I find myself here in the most glorious surroundings and I know what they’re worth.’
It is possible that the pupils happily milling around do not yet have that sense. Perhaps that realisation only comes with distance. Karen Brazier – who has a good deal of contact with the school’s alumni – explains: ‘When we have Old Bryanstonians back here visiting, they often say “We just didn’t realise at the time what we had when we were here. It’s not until you get out into the wide world that you realise how special this place is.”‘◗

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