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Education: a life-long process

Former 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.