15/9/17: As the new school year gets well under way, Bryanston Head Sarah Thomas reflects on the importance of a good relationship between school and home, including her own experiences of this as a parent.
Each year when I welcome new parents to the school at the beginning of September I talk about the importance of communication. It matters a lot that we, who look after pupils for the majority of time during term time, know what we need to know. It matters too that we as a school are in touch with parents to keep them in the picture. So I tell a series of silly stories to the new and slightly anxious parents sitting in front of me, leaving their 13-year-old in our tender care for the first time, in order to underline the fact that we are listening and will keep communicating and that we rely upon our parents to do the same.
I learned this lesson at Uppingham when I worked with the legendary Headmaster, Stephen Winkley. He told me of the time he was standing at the Leavers’ Ball watching the fireworks with particular parents whose child had been not entirely straightforward for the two sixth-form years. The parents turned to him and told him that their child was adopted and Stephen said to me, “In that moment, all of the previous two years made sudden, blinding sense.” Since then, even though I cannot nowadays imagine such an example happening, I learned his mantra: tell us what we need to know.
Some schools tell new parents to go away and leave them alone. That they are the experts and parents should leave it all to them. I have limited sympathies with this approach, but think it’s quite wrong. It can, of course, be very galling indeed to have a parent tell you how to run a school based entirely upon their knowledge (sometimes biased; often partial) of their own child and upon the fact that they once went to a school themselves. And we honestly do believe at Bryanston that we are pretty expert in the ways of adolescence. But, we also know that parents know quite a lot about their own child, that we will find this information extremely useful in terms of helping us do our job of looking after them as well as we possibly can, and that the relationship between parents and school is, at its best, a collaborative one. I’m pretty certain that the tutorial system at Bryanston allows for this collaboration to be done at a very individual level.
When my two girls were at school here they had two exceptional (now retired) housemistresses and two very different, exceptional tutors. What it’s worth making clear at this point is that as the Head of their school as well as their mother, I easily won the prize of the most embarrassing mother in the world. The elder daughter, who is and always has been the most gripped up of the four of us (which is another way of saying she is a force of nature), was tutored by Neil Boulton who did not allow her just to sail through academically but ensured, which neither my husband or I could have, that she represented the school at sport. He also got her out of various moments of hot water and I will always be deeply grateful to him for the way in which he did not allow me to be part of the problem. My younger daughter, who not once was in hot water, was tutored by the remarkable Hannah Fearnley, aka Doccy F, now housemistress of Greenleaves, and when my daughter was unsure or wobbly (I brought them up the same, I promise, and their parental genetic make-up was identical), Hannah kept her (and me) sane. She further ensured that this quiet and clever, uncertain and ambitious little girl more than fulfilled her potential. She is now a confident and happy young woman and I will always bless Hannah for her (ongoing) part in that. I know how lucky I have been. But it is this sort of support, direction, kindness, toughness, and honesty which I firmly believe is the basis of a grown-up relationship between school and both child and home, and I know how very highly I valued the support I had from these wonderful professionals.
Bryanston and Bryanstonians, present and past, make me more and more often sentimental. It must be my advancing age. It’s to do, I reckon, with the fact that the job of teacher, tutor, housemaster/housemistress, Head is a hugely privileged one. Certainly I know that my role allows me to spend time with such vibrant pupil talent and energy; and that sense of connection is never-ending, year on year, and goes on way beyond 18 and for a lifetime. What will our children end up doing in their lives? It may not be clear at 11,12,13 (at least I rather hope it’s not!), but with the sort of relationship between home and school that we’re aiming for here, you can know that these things will begin to become clear over the course of five years and that as your child (and yourself vicariously) pass through the occasional turbulence of adolescence, there will always be both a strong line in to your child and an ocean of professional support and love along the way.