Academic Bryanston: a new boy’s first impressions

Every independent school in the UK likes to see themselves as unique: they might market themselves as distinctive, but the language used on websites, or in glossy brochures, often has the same buzzwords and phrases (‘holistic education’, ‘well rounded individuals’, ‘self-confident’ and so on, as if there are any schools in the country who would not endorse these). The reality is that most schools have more in common than they would care to admit (and I would include state schools in that): teachers teach their pupils, mark their work, enter examinations, and then send them out into the real world. Bryanston, however, really is different: the modified Dalton Plan, upon which Bryanston’s academic system is based, puts it into a tiny minority of schools worldwide. When I worked at Dauntsey’s I knew of Bryanston from afar, and ever since then have wanted to know more about it: did it really work in practice, rather than in theory? What results did it get? And so after nearly a term of being here I think I’m beginning to get a sense of the school’s academic system. It’s been an education!

We know from the recent ISI inspection that Bryanston is officially ‘excellent’ in every category. And I know from conversations with the inspection team that one of the (many) things that impressed them about the school is our academic system: it was seen as a unique and integral part of the school’s identity, and something which clearly added real value to the quality of our pupils’ learning. The inspectors noted that:

In line with the school’s original founding aims, teaching is effective in promoting pupils’ progress through learning to work independently, guided by individual tutoring.

It was Bryanston’s ‘one-to-one’ support that was singled out as a means of ‘promoting the pupils’ personal development’. This progress is at the core of every pupil’s experience of Bryanston: there is an emphasis placed on individualised care and support, so that everyone, regardless of their ability, is able to meet with an adult (either a tutor or their subject teacher) to discuss their studies, as well as their extracurricular commitments. It is this ‘close connection’ that, the inspectors said, contributed to the ‘rapid progress’ they make in their subjects, and it also explains why so many OBs retain such a strong bond with the school.

Key to this is the tutor. In most schools tutoring is unevenly delivered: in boarding schools tutors usually have a group of about 10 pupils whom they see once a week; usually, they give this group up after one year. It could not be more different at Bryanston: here, a tutor has individual tutorial pupils whom they meet, one-to-one, every week. There is no group because we view everyone as an individual. And this selection of tutorial pupils is governed not by house, but by a careful process of selection. Crucially, the tutor remains with their tutorial pupils throughout their school career, ensuring a mutual, and deep, form of understanding and trust.

Correction periods build on this: at Bryanston each sixth form pupil will see their subject teachers one-to-one once a week to discuss key areas of their course. This can be transformative for the pupil who can quickly go from a sense of uncertainty about a topic, to one of insight and understanding. Again, the key here is that personalised care. Compare and contrast that with the increasingly depersonalised, screen-driven ‘interactions’ that dominate our digital lives. Little wonder that the system is so valued, and felt by many to be authentic, have academic rigour, and the pupils’ interests at its heart.

I have visited a lot of schools in my career, both as an inspector, and as someone interested in different school systems. Among those that have impressed me most are the fully IB schools in the Netherlands and Germany, the Harkness schools in New England (such as Philips Andover and Philips Exeter), and the Core Knowledge schools in New York. These are very different, but equally world class, institutions. But Bryanston’s academic system is equal to them because, like them, we have an academic philosophy that works and an ethos that supports it. More importantly, we know that the academic system we have works for us, rather than because a new government initiative says it should. That’s not to say it cannot improve: it can and will, but I hope that the school continues to remain true to its founding principles, adapting its approach on its own terms. That is the value, and measure, of true independence.