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School rules

14/10/16: Every year I talk to the school at least once about our rules.

“There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says: “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes: “What the hell is water?”

“It’s about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.'

“This is water.”

David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some thoughts delivered on a significant occasion, about living a compassionate life

Every year I talk to the school at least once about our rules. As a school of 675 adolescents, you might expect pupils to need what the army calls ‘judicious repetition’. The result is that most Bryanstonians can quote these rules off by heart by the time they reach the B year … though that certainly doesn’t mean they’re all angels!

But why do we have rules? Simply put, without them we would find ourselves unable to live together in a number of more than two. And by and large, we human beings like each other’s company. As Aristotle put it over two thousand years ago: “Man is a social animal.”

I have worked in schools with endless volumes of school rules, neatly divided into sections and indeed subsections, which you were required to carry around in your blazer pocket and to produce on request – by the sort of teacher we all remember from our school days – with an appropriate flourish and an ability to quote with accuracy and reverence. 

Bryanston’s fundamental rules are, by contrast, ultra simple. There are just four of them.

  1. A breach of common sense or courtesy is a breach of school rules.
  2. A breach of the law of the land is a serious breach of school rules 
  3. We ban sex, drugs, alcohol and smoking and you are liable to be expelled for involvement in either of the first two. 
  4. Furthermore, the following are automatic suspension offences: 
    • night wandering, 
    • being on the roof of the main building, 
    • smoking in a building. 

Rules one and two cover pretty much everything that matters regarding anti-social, dangerous and illegal behaviour, whilst rules three and four are more specific, reflecting our own particular location and ethos. These four rules essentially form our constitution; they are the basis of our everyday interaction, helping individuals and the whole school to flourish. They make us Bryanston and not somewhere else. 

Given that at Bryanston we more or less really enjoy each other’s company, and given that we therefore need rules for each to be able to do so, I think these rules are about as reasonable as any could be. Each term I make plain to pupils that I hope for no infractions but, should infractions occur, that they will be fairly and firmly dealt with, including the use, if necessary, of the sanction of departure from the school. I also spell out what that generally means for their poor parents, as such events are rarely convenient and very few schools consider admitting pupils who have left another school after breaking such core rules and values.

But there’s a second vital reason for our having rules at school, I think. As well as keeping each and every member of the school safe and well and in an environment in which they can flourish, I have a further duty, which I take seriously: to prepare our pupils for being a success in life. 

Teddy Roosevelt used to say “The most important single ingredient in the formula for success is knowing how to get along with other people.” Put like that, it sounds easy. But I don’t think it is achievable without knowing you’re in the right place, recognising the rules of that place and the value of those rules. Pupils here at Bryanston might as well learn this life skill at 13, practise it until they get it spot on in this safe and stretching environment and then, hopefully, full of an enviable (perhaps even unequalled) emotional intelligence, they will be ready to go out and make a success of those next steps.

As adults, we are accustomed to encountering rules wherever we go. I want Bryanstonians to make sure they recognise the fundamental rules wherever they go; to question those rules if they need questioning; never to sign up for a set of rules which are morally bankrupt or with no core value; never to agree to play by rules they know to be wrong, lazy, or corrupting; and never to sell their soul for the sake of personal convenience or an easy life. Because that would make you an unhappy sheep. It’s about recognising and never letting go of what really matters. All of which leads me back, as do so many things that really matter, to the words of This Is Water, the wonderful commencement address by David Foster Wallace. 

I want Bryanstonians to work out where they want to be, and how to play by those proper rules, which are an essential part of their environment. Then they can make their own unique contribution to the world, confidently and generously.