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Speech Day reflections

13/7/18: As another school year comes to an end, Sarah Thomas looks ahead to the future with one foot firmly rooted in the past. Discover why she believes that Bryanston’s motto of “Et Nova et Vetera” – both the new and the old – is more apt than ever. 

Back in January, Bryanston turned 90 and through OB Simon Wheeler’s (C ’93) extraordinary series of films, we are able to look back and remind ourselves of why this school is so special. The place, the people, the ideas and the principles that continue to guide us. In June, we were able to look forward, with the announcement of my successor.  I’m delighted that Mark Mortimer will be leading Bryanston onwards and upwards from September 2019 and look forward to having a year in which I can do whatever makes most sense to allow him, his lovely wife Anna and their three children, to get to know this wonderful school.  

At last year’s Speech Day, the Chairman spoke on the theme of necessary change and evolution within schools. Schools do change.  They must; they would disappear into oblivion if they did not.  But that does not mean that the things that matter must change.  Our guiding principles of creativity, breadth of ambition, individuality, the sense of a loving family, of humanity, and of resilience, have been embedded in our DNA since 1928 and will endure, I am certain, because of Bryanston’s collective good sense, the quality of the governors, and their choice of excellent headmasters. Those guiding principles will ensure that Bryanston continues to evolve boldly and positively, without losing the critical constituents of what makes Bryanston Bryanston. 

Peter Tait, former headmaster of Sherborne Prep and a great friend of Bryanston, likes to torment us with this question: ‘What is a proper curriculum?’ Are we still, in effect, teaching what we taught 50 years ago, regardless of new, more relevant subjects, and without reference to what our pupils actually learn from them?  Teaching is not after all learning.  Then there are the real-world issues: funding for state schools and affordability for the independent sector; the fact that more overseas children are now educated in branches of UK independent schools abroad than here in the UK; and above all there’s the looming threat of AI. What kind of world are we actually preparing our young people for? And how do independent schools – how does Bryanston – stay relevant in the face of the fantastically significant changes that are coming our way? 

Sir Anthony Seldon in his book The Fourth Education Revolution challenges the model which most schools still adhere to – that of The Third Revolution: industrialised learning; schools as factories; chalk and talk, or its 21st-century equivalent, Powerpoint and talk. Sir Anthony predicts we will meet the challenges of AI by adopting a new model and following a 5-point plan: (i) ending early specialisation in schools; (ii) investing in staff who understand learning and analytics and technology; (iii) emphasising the human in education, to produce competent adults who are better than any algorithm; (iv) personalising learning; (v) challenging and stretching young people, by making school more than about lessons.

This is precisely the model that Bryanston has striven to follow, and with some success, over the past 90 years, often in defiance of the conventional wisdom that academic success is the be all and end all. Ending early specialisation? Embracing personalised learning? Stretching our pupils beyond the classroom? Look at our tutorial system and the Dalton Plan, our correction periods and one-to-one attention to the individual.  Added to that, we have a curriculum that is particularly diverse in the formative D year, an extraordinary range of extra-curricular opportunities and an A level programme which always seeks to ensure there are no impossible subject combinations. And better still, the IB. Bryanston’s model has explicitly set out to help children to develop the human.  It’s why Bryanstonians invariably end up in such a range of careers and don’t necessarily trot off into those professions which, we are told, will soon no longer exist. At Bryanston we have always known that education is not about mere subjects.  It’s about an outlook, an attitude, a lifelong ability to learn and adapt; to work in teams; to influence and persuade; to direct and lead. To laugh at yourself and to put things right when you’ve gone wrong. The future requires real people, with real values and real emotional intelligence. And real education.

 Whilst the changes technology have brought have been huge (both for good and bad) I am happy to predict that one of the longer terms effects might be that we refocus upon, and rejoice in, what makes us human, not machine. Because the world changes – we all know that – but what does not change is what it takes to be human.