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Lockdown Reading: reflections on a school

July 4, 2020

If there’s one thing parents with children at home will never take for granted again after three months of lockdown, it’s surely our schoolteachers.

Why teaching ranks relatively low in public esteem compared with other professions is beyond me. And why we’re so snobby when we call one occupation a profession and another a vocation or a trade is also beyond me. Do not plumbers, police, electricians, accountants, lawyers and teachers all require skills to do their jobs? And do they not all require training and knowledge of the underlying theory – be it in law, psychology, science and communications – to be considered competent?

Anyway, these distinctions – between professions, vocations and trades – have deep roots in our society that go back to the Middle Ages. Are they relevant today in terms of the impact that those who fall into such categories have on our lives? I’m not convinced.

A police officer, a doctor or a firefighter might save our lives once or a number of times, for which we should be profoundly grateful. The training is different, the impact often the same.

Teachers don’t normally save our lives. But they do shape them and influence them. The best teachers inspire us to build on our potential. The poor ones send us on different paths, as did a maths teacher who told me at the age of ten that I gave a passable imitation of a fool. Was I bad at maths because I lacked talent in the subject, or was I put off numbers for life – or at least until the arrival of spreadsheets – by the real fool who taught me?

I prefer to dwell on the best teachers. They’re the ones we never forget until we forget everything.

I certainly took them for granted, as many students do. Only after becoming an adult did I think of them as people, rather than as the occasionally quirky moving parts of an institution. At school, their influence was not always obvious, perhaps because we were bombarded with so many competing experiences that we absorbed them without thinking too much about what we were absorbing.

My reason for this homily is that whereas many parents under lockdown have come to look at education in a new light, and perhaps with a new respect for those who teach their children, I’ve been looking back at my own school, fifty-odd years on, also in a new light.

Back in ancient history, otherwise known as the beginning of lockdown, I started on a number of long-delayed projects. One of them was sorting out my books, of which a sub-project was assembling a mini-library of coffee table volumes – mainly art, history and photography. One of the books I came across was Bryanston Reflections, a lavish collection of photographs, stories and general recollections of my school, written by former students and teachers. It was produced in 2005 and cost £40 – expensive for any hardback. I imagine it was a fundraising initiative, which was probably why I bought it.

At that time I browsed the photos, and read some of the written content, but by no means all. So given the oceans of leisure that lockdown allowed, this time I read it properly.

Bryanston, where I was educated between the ages of 13 and 17, was and is a private boarding school. Also known in Britain rather oddly as a public school. It sits in the middle of a estate that used to be the country seat of one of Britain’s wealthiest landowning families. After World War 1, many of these landowners were subject to punitive death duties. In 1928, the entire Dorset estate, including woodland, gardens, a stretch of the River Stour and an impossibly grand house built by the same person who designed the Houses of Parliament, became a school.

Which is how I and thousands like me got to be educated in the equivalent of Downton Abbey. Right from the beginning, the founders were determined to be different. Pursuit of academic glory and sporting excellence took second place to what you might describe as an all-round education.

As a result, the school didn’t provide a ready stream of politicians, cricketers and administrators of empire. But it did turn out a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist, one of the greatest artists of the last century, two world-renowned music conductors and a Lord Chief Justice among a host of people with impossibly wide backgrounds. Oh, and an England rugby captain, though that was never seen as a summit of achievement as it might have been in other schools.

The book speaks of these people, and contains contributions from Fred Sanger, the Nobel Laureate, and Nicholas Philips, the judge. But only in the context of the school, rather some grand “how Bryanston made me what I am” puffery.

There are two things I see now that I didn’t before.

One is love. How deeply so many people, teachers and students, loved the school. And by the school I mean not just the buildings and the staff, but the woodlands, the wildlife, the river and the opportunities for exploration and fun they provided. And yes, love for the institution too, that didn’t try to force you down a path through some absurd sense of tradition. And for the teachers, some eccentric, some impossibly rigorous, and many ridiculously versatile.

I have to say that Bryanston gave me more than I gave it. I wasn’t one of the high achievers. There were times when I was deeply frustrated that the prizes of universal esteem never came my way. But I always knew that I loved it too.

The second aspect is literacy. What strikes me about the hundred-odd contributors is what good writers they were. Whatever their subsequent careers – architects, conservationists, farmers, engineers, lawyers, scientists or artists – the ability to write is the common denominator, because if nothing else, Bryanston taught you that.

The same goes for me. I’m no Wordsworth (though his great-grandson was one of my teachers), but if I have any writing ability it started there.

I could ramble on about plays in the Greek Theatre, bizarre punishments, wild strawberries in the grounds, music, wearing shorts as part of the school uniform until I was seventeen, walks down the river to the local town and being sent off the cricket field for swearing, but that would probably send you to sleep.

Enough to say that reading the two hundred pages of Bryanston Reflections reminds me of several things.

How lucky I was that my parents sent me there, even if I didn’t make best use of my luck.

How the best private schools aren’t instruments of class oppression to be torn down in the name of equality. Rather, they set a standard that publicly funded schools should aspire to meet, if not in terms of facilities, at least in the quality of teaching and the environment in which teachers are expected to teach and students to learn.

How important love is in education. The love of teachers for what they do. The love of students for inspirational teachers. The bond forged by a love of learning that parents, teachers and students can share.

Most of the people who taught me are dead now. But seeing their pictures brings them to life again. In many cases, they’ve become bigger people than they appeared at the time.

John Griffin, my classics teacher, for example. He was rather an austere person who suffered from polio in his youth and walked with metal calipers. He was rigorous, often, it seemed at the time, almost vicious in his appraisal of my indifferent talents. You could always hear him coming. He would clank endlessly round the cricket pitch during matches, just drinking in the sport.

What I didn’t know about him at the time was that during the Second World War, while he was studying classics at Cambridge, he was recruited by Bletchley Park to work on decrypting enemy signals. As a result, he became fluent in Japanese within six months. None of us knew, because the history of Bletchley remained secret until well after I left the school.

Above all, the book reminded me that we should never, ever, underestimate the influence teachers have on our lives. That teachers are just as important as lawyers, doctors, scientists, accountants and all those other people in occupations that we grandly call professions. And that if we don’t respect them, cherish them, nurture them, raise them to the status of national assets and yes, pay them accordingly, we only have ourselves to blame if our offspring spend their lives wishing they’d achieved more.

There are many other factors that lead to a successful society. But education is one of the main foundations. Good education leads us to want to educate ourselves for the rest of our lives.

I think we sometimes forget about our teachers. We shouldn’t.

8 Comments
  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    circulating on the ‘net:
    Who’d’ve thought that the hardest thing about self-isolating would be third grade (age about 8) math?

    • Would it be more to do with the age than the subject? Or possibly because many parents struggle with the concepts beyond the times-table stage, and therefore find it difficult to help their kids? My kids were taught maths in a different way to me, so I was always struggling to help them solve problems in the “correct” way. S

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        The age of the parent, yes. But the subject as well. Our math theory of teaching changed when I was in junior high school, again before I graduated, and several times since. All very confusing to those of us who don’t have reason to be in constant contact with “the latest”.
        I just wanted to be sure the age of the child was clear. I think school years are numbered differently in UK?
        I know that many American prep schools number the later years differently to make themselves sound ever so British, don’t you know.

      • The problem for me is that the state schools do have a school year system – years 1, 2, 3 etc, then different schools – elementary, primary, secondary. The private schools don’t. Just prep school and public school. At my school the years from 13 onwards were called D, C, B and A3 and A2. Don’t ask about A1!!! All very confusing. But then again we’re British, so what would you expect!

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        THAT’S why I put in the age. LOL!!!
        The parents can’t do what the 8 year olds are expected to do.

      • Not only that, but they couldn’t do what 6-year-old Victorian pupils could.

  2. Ronnie Spraggs permalink

    As per, I agree with all you say in this smashing piece of writing Steve.

    And my English teacher, Mr Jenkins, at my old school, Cyfarthfa Castle Grammar School (as was in my day) probably did save my life, and if not that then he certainly changed it enormously for the better.

    He was the man directly responsible for so many of the good things in my later, life and he wasn’t just a superb teacher, he was a genuine hero, as so many, many teachers are.

    Please see: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/cyfarthfa-high-school-pupils-merthyr-7359582

    • Thanks Ronnie. What an amazing building. Shame they had to move. But as we both know, it’s the teachers that count, even if having an inspiring environment also helps.

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