The Bryanston Difference: Nurturing Individuality

Bryanston Head Richard Jones talks to about how this Dorset boarding and day school is preparing students for the future by focusing on independence, cultivating creativity as a mindset, and delivering an holistic education through programmes including A Levels and the IB Diploma.
The Bryanston Difference: Nurturing Individuality
By Carli Allan
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“Bryanston is different – it always has been,” says Head Richard Jones.

After taking the driveway through the school’s 400-acre estate and past sports pitches, riding school and stables, tennis courts, climbing tower and boathouse, this Dorset co-ed school for four to 18 year-olds certainly feels remarkable and exceptional; it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic and rural location for a child to spend their school days.

But Bryanston School truly sets itself apart from others by embracing a unique approach to education – something it has done for over 90 years. 

Bryanston allows students to take control of their own learning. It gives them the freedom of more study periods, a liberal dress code, and a choice of academic and vocational pathways – all with the support of a one-to-one tutor system and weekly subject tutorials. 

It’s also known as a forward-thinking school where creativity is a way of thinking – whether problem-solving in maths, designing new technologies, or writing poetry in literature – and where students learn entrepreneurship by tackling real-world challenges.

As a new term starts for 2023-24, Bryanston Headteacher Richard Jones talks about how West Country all-through school is preparing students for their future by focusing on independence, cultivating creativity as a mindset, and delivering an holistic education through programmes including A Levels and the IB Diploma.

Located in the Dorset countryside, Bryanston is an all-through, co-ed full boarding school with some day students.

How does Bryanston remain true to its founding principle that students should be recognised as unique individuals – and how is your approach to learning so “different” to other UK independent schools?

“I think Bryanston has always been progressive and seen as slightly different in terms of our educational approach. Our commitment to the Dalton Method sets us apart in this regard. Originating in the US, this approach places a strong focus on fostering independence and empowering students to take ownership of their educational journey. 

In the senior school, we prioritise independent study skills from Year 9. Students have a dedicated lesson each week focused on developing these skills. Additionally, out of their 35 weekly lessons, approximately three are designated as 'assignment' periods when students have the freedom to choose their work; this could be completing a geography assignment in one of the specialist subject rooms, for example.

"While they work independently, a member of staff is available to answer any questions they may have – and this approach serves as excellent preparation for study periods in the sixth form.

“Often referred to as "free periods" by other schools, these study periods become more frequent during A Levels in the sixth form, where up to 50% of their timetable can be allocated to independent study. By drip-feeding independent study from Year 9 onwards, students have the opportunity to develop this skill over three years, culminating in Year 12. This approach makes a massive difference as students enter the sixth form with a solid foundation in independent study, which means they can make the most of their study periods.

“Bryanston has always been about independence, and ensuring students are prepared for life beyond the school. When we say that Bryanston is different – it always has been.

"Our model has always been different, and now we see other schools recognising the value of a similar approach. In many ways, this is fantastic as it acknowledges that our approach has been always been the way to go. What truly matters, though, is that we have evidence to support this; our approach has been in play for many years.”

Bryanston has a unique one-to-one tutorial system, where students meet with their own dedicated tutor who acts as a coach and mentor; Head Richard Jones is one of many tutors in the school.

While tutors are commonly found in senior schools, they play a very significant role in every student’s time at Bryanston. Central to the Bryanston Method is a unique tutorial system – a one-to-one relationship between each student and a carefully selected tutor based on shared areas of interest. Why would you describe this as one of the school’s defining strengths?

Rather than being part of a tutor group, our students have their own dedicated tutor who acts as a coach and mentor. These tutors meet with students on a weekly basis to discuss their academic progress, and they get a weekly attitude grades and attainment scores, which they can review and discuss during these sessions. This live reporting system involves frequent one-to-one conversations with adults, helping students to develop the skills needed to interact effectively in such a setting.

“Tutoring is at the heart of what we do, so it's important that I am a personal tutor as well. I entered the teaching profession because I wanted to make a difference in children's lives; you can become very detached from that as a head, so it’s really important for me to continue with the tutoring and have a positive impact on these students.

“We also have implemented something called ‘correction’ periods in sixth form to foster independence and provide one-on-one feedback. Students have the opportunity to meet with their subject teachers outside of regular lesson time; these meetings take place individually or in small groups with one or two others for students to discuss and receive specific feedback on the assignments they’ve completed that week.

“This level of feedback is not commonly found in traditional school settings. Often, students receive their homework back with general comments from the teacher on areas for improvement. There may be individual comments written on the paper, but we know that students tend to be more interested in looking at the grade than taking on board that type of feedback. Our 'correction' periods provide a powerful opportunity for students to have that conversation about their areas for improvement. It reflects the way we learn in the world of work, where we learn through conversations and feedback.”

Just a short distance from the main campus, Bryanston has a small co-ed prep school for around 100 students aged 3-13 years.

Bryanston recognises that everybody is an individual, and it’s fully embracing the idea that there is no single approach to education. As a school that celebrates the individuality of more than 680 students, is there a typical Bryanstonian?

One of the things I think we're probably most proud of here is that there isn't a traditional or stereotypical ‘Bryanston student’ here. I talk about the corridors of Bryanston being a little bit wider compared to a conventional British public school. There are more opportunities for exploration and discovery. As a result, after spending five years or more with us, they go off in all sorts of different directions that align with their individual aspirations and goals.

“We don't measure our success solely based on the number of offers our students receive from Russell Group universities or Oxbridge. Our primary measure of success lies in how many of our students are able to attend their first-choice destination.

"One of our students secured a place in the highly competitive BBC journalist apprenticeship scheme, for example. Some students join esteemed programs like the JP Morgan apprenticeship scheme, while others pursue paths at an art foundation or music conservatoire. As long as we have equipped them with the skillset to pursue whatever it is they want to pursue, that's the main thing. 

“Bryanston caters to a diverse range of students, including the most academically bright as well as those who may not find academics as easy but have a strong passion for something else. Unlike some more traditional schools that primarily focus on top grades, we attract a wide variety of students. This diversity enables us to offer a broader range of qualifications at the sixth form. We want to be able to have a broad church in our student community. That's very important.”

The common factor at Bryanston then seems to be that students learn to think for themselves and follow their individual goals. How does your non-uniform policy support this sense of belonging at the school?

“Yes, our uniform code is different and I think it's a direction more schools will adopt. How can you authentically talk about wanting students to be themselves, to express themselves, and be comfortable with who they are – and then say they all have to dress identically. We let them be themselves. 

“I think that pupils appreciate the freedom we provide compared to more traditional schools. They appreciate that we try and give them a little bit more agency and ownership.

“If students enjoy their time in education, then they're going to be happier and you're going to get better outcomes. Of course, there still needs to be boundaries and some structure but, while we have a specific dress code outlining what they can and can't wear, they have a little bit more freedom to be who they want to be.”

The Bryanston curriculum is described as “deliberately broad” and the school’s emphasis on student choice continues into the sixth form. How is the school providing a choice of the academic or vocational, breadth or specialism?

Bryanston offers a choice of academic and vocational qualifications at sixth form, and there's a focus on creativity and the arts throughout the curriculum. 

“First and foremost, I'm a big believer in the International Baccalaureate (IB). Philosophically, I think it's a great programme. The UK is a global outlier, as our system requires 16-year-olds to specialise in three subjects at such an early stage, which is not the case in other countries. I don't anticipate A Levels being completely abandoned in the UK, as educational changes tend to progress slowly here. While the IB is well-recognised internationally, British families have limited knowledge about it because A Levels have always been regarded as the gold standard. 

“A Levels remain a fantastic qualification, which are well-suited to many students. However, I've noticed a growing interest from both British and international families in the International Baccalaureate (IB). Students are saying they want to maintain diverse range of subjects rather than specialising in just three. Considering that most students are expected to have around four to five different career changes on average, the IB's approach provides the breadth of understanding they need.

“We also offer two CECs, one in sport and another in business. It’s important for schools to provide both vocational and traditional academic qualifications, as there is the place for both. The vocational side of education in the UK is a little bit uncertain at the moment with the discussion around T Levels and not having CTEC and BTECS. However, we are committed to offering those more vocational courses.”

How do you define success at Bryanston? While grades and academic achievements are an indication of a student’s knowledge, how can success also be measured by the development of essential life skills?

First and foremost, academic qualifications open doors and provide opportunities. What’s also important is the value we add to each student's academic achievements and the additional skills we help them develop during their time with us. We don't really know what jobs we're preparing them for, which can be daunting. That's why it’s important to offer a breadth of subjects in programmes like the IB. 

“Creativity holds great significance, and it is applicable across various subjects, including maths, art, and design and technology. We want to create an environment where students feel at ease exploring creativity in maths, physics, and subjects like DT or art, and to encourage combinations of these subjects as a way to foster students' creativity.

“I also want to emphasise the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset, which we nurture through our four pillars of excellence – our creative and performing arts programme, sporting provision, digital literacy, and entrepreneurship and innovation.

Many of our students are already involved in entrepreneurial ideas where they're thinking about tackling real-world problems. They’re designing various products with the aim of making a significant difference to the world; these are genuine projects they are working on outside the confines of the classroom. It's more than just theoretical learning. We want students to feel empowered to lead products and ideas and follow their own path.

“It’s about creating an environment where they feel comfortable and confident to have open discussions about their aspirations. Not every student will want to be an entrepreneur, but it's about instilling the right mindset and confidence – and knowing how to apply those problem-solving skills when they leave school.”

85% of students board at Bryanston, which has 12 houses on its countryside campus – five for girls, five for boys, and two for Year 9 boys. 

Although there are some day students at Bryanston, the school is primarily a boarding school. How does a boarding school environment give greater room for students to develop independence – and what are the other key advantages of boarding?

What do teenagers want most? Independence. That's the first thing they want. Teenagers will often begin to assert themselves against their parents to try and establish their own personal space, while knowing that their parents are there for support and guidance. A boarding environment offers them exactly that – they can have that space while living in a safe environment with plenty of support.

“A boarding environment allows students to immerse themselves in the things that they really want to do. For example, if someone is a sports enthusiast, they can get up and go for a swim or work out in the gym as early as 6am or 7am. Similarly, a passionate cricket player can spend an hour in the nets in the evening. in the same way that an aspiring artist can spend a full eight hours in our art studio on a Sunday. With staff and experts available round the clock, there are opportunities to immerse yourself in an area interest that you're really passionate about.

“While we do have Saturday lessons, the afternoons are dedicated to a full sports programme followed by weekend activities. There are numerous opportunities for students to venture outside the campus; they can explore the coast, go out into the countryside, or take a train ride to London. For international students, it is particularly important to step outside of this amazing campus and experience what the UK has to offer.”

Reflecting on your own education, where there any formative experiences at school that have influenced your leadership as a head teacher today?

“When I was at school, I had one or two subjects that I absolutely loved. Economics and sport were my favourites and they made my school experience enjoyable. We have to be brave enough to say that we want our students to be happy – it’s important to prioritise their enjoyment of school.

“Too many students go through school feeling like they're being dragged along because they haven't found something they're passionate about. At Bryanston, it's about having those wide corridors and offering those opportunities so that each individual can discover what truly inspires them. By doing so, they're going to enjoy being here. 

“We definitely want to challenge and stretch our students but in a really positive way that allows them to enjoy school and take ownership of their learning. I think I was lucky to have found a few things that I truly enjoyed, and that's the goal we have for our students here.”

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