Muddy says: Looking for a country boarding school? Bryanston is an extremely impressive co-educational full boarding school, with some day pupils, perched in the most gorgeous of settings
What? Where? Founded in 1928, Bryanston School occupies a stunning palatial country house on the outskirts of the village of Bryanston, near Blandford Forum. Possibly the most attractive-looking boarding school in southern England, its 400 acres are home to 690 pupils and, 90 years later, still embodies its original ethos of offering a different type of schooling – independence, self-development and self-discipline.
The school was originally founded to do things differently – not a revolution in education so much as incorporating the best of the new with the best of the old. Bryanston is different from other schools, and thinks about itself differently; it challenges convention, incorporates new ideas, is innovative and embraces change while still offering a traditional education. There is no school uniform, yet there are firm expectations for academic achievement. It is highly creative, yet still outstanding in sport. Pupils experience more freedom than at many schools, yet the safety net of the one-to-one tutor system and one-to-one subject tutorials is also sturdier than most. Ignore the outdated rumour mill that pegs Bryanston as having a reputation for relaxed pupils in a slightly too relaxed environment, thriving in the creative arts but less so academically. It is so much more than that.
Well-known alumni include Lucian Freud, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Mark Elder, Ben Fogle, Emilia Fox and Sir Terence, Jasper and Sebastian Conran.
Most pupils come from up to an hour away but there are plenty from London, and the school is growing in popularity across the rest of the UK, plus there is a strong international contingent.
Facilities: …are pretty extraordinary. A DT block to blow your mind, impressive art department, music school with (unsurprisingly) professional standard facilities including a concert hall and recording studio. The Coade Hall Theatre stages productions from House plays and student-led performances to a recent co-production with local neighbour The Blandford School of Les Misérables which, I am told, was amazing. There are plenty of opportunities for future stage managers, lighting and sound designers too. Well known as a creative school, standards in art, design, drama and music are extremely high.
The main school building houses three boarding houses, English, Politics and Humanities classrooms, social spaces and a dining hall boasting some of the tastiest school food I’ve enjoyed (and I’ve scoffed many a school lunch in this job). All meals are taken here, and every day offers a bit of drama – omelette bars, make-your-own pizza, themed days including Wild Wild West, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, or the very best of Nordic cooking.
The biggest nod must go to the brand spanking new sports centre, with not one but three sports halls, a performance sport room with indoor sprint track, indoor climbing wall, fitness suite, dance studio and a very shiny swimming pool. While sport is encouraged for all (yoga and zumba are just as popular as team sports) Bryanston very much supports its elite players. The Performance Sport Programme offers supervised gym sessions with specific performance targets and one-on-one specialist coaching; force platforms and 3D motion analysis cameras analyse running and gait to support the training for an athlete’s growing body. A very impressive honours board celebrates past and present students who have represented their country in their chosen sport, and I was shown around by a future professional rugby player.
Extra- and co-curricular activities are no less impressive, with Pioneering (a programme of community service projects and practical skills that includes everything from growing vegetables to hosting a club for the elderly) replacing CCF, pupils encouraged to try everything from knitting to eventing to cross country, and a strong charity outreach programme including helping in local schools, visiting care homes and hosting riding for the disabled.
Academic results: Independent learning is the name of the game here. Assignments and prep are set a week in advance, with students encouraged to manage their own time. Assignment Periods (study periods, to you and me), are more prolific than in most schools, with Year 9s allocated three a week and more as you go higher up the school. It’s a system that prepares students early for Sixth Form, for university and for the world beyond, encouraging initiative and time management.
To support all this, a safety net if you like, the school has an extraordinary and extremely successful one-to-one tutoring system, providing strong academic and pastoral encouragement. Each pupil meets their personal tutor at least once a week to review how things are going, and the tutor remains with them throughout their time at Bryanston, becoming an important point of constant contact for both student and parent. The tutor also helps with GCSE and sixth form choices, as well as university or further study options and will ultimately write the pupil’s university reference. In the Sixth Form pupils also have one-to-one meetings each week with each subject teacher (three if taking A levels, six for the IB), a time to go through work or agree on how to progress. Not a system I’ve come across at other schools but surely a sensible, and much needed, one.
Each pupil has an eChart (it’s all quite visible and parents can read it online!) where pupils are marked each week on each subject – pupils and tutors discuss it together and it’s all about developing an ethos of self-motivation and independent study.
The impressive new Headmaster Mark Mortimer describes it as such: pupils are offered a wide corridor at Bryanston. They can choose to walk down the right side, or the left side, or down the middle, but they have to make a choice. Yes, it is a wider corridor than at most schools but pupils are still going in the same direction. And while independence is encouraged, the tutor system ensures an extraordinary safety net and if a pupil needs more structure, their tutor will offer this.
In the Sixth Form, students can choose between A levels and the IB, with about 20% opting for the latter. A large selection of subjects is on offer (students don’t have to choose options in fixed blocks), including Philosophy, History of Art, Drama, Business and PE. Although results are good and getting better, value added scores has the school in the top 15% nationally. And this, rightly, is what they are most proud of.
Leavers mostly go to university, with a couple to Oxbridge each year, and a growing number to overseas colleges. Plenty of arts applications, too.
The Head: Mark Mortimer, previously head of Warminster School, has been the man at the helm since September 2019. Before his extremely successful tenure at Warminster, he was deputy head at St John’s School, Leatherhead, following appointments at Hampton School and Giggleswick School. As well as an interest in the arts, especially ballet, he is a keen sportsman, particularly rugby, cricket and cycling, and has coached pupils at various levels during his career. His other interests include cooking, leadership development and military history. Not afraid of taking on an adventure, Mark has twice rowed across the Atlantic Ocean and in 2017 he successfully completed the Marathon des Sables footrace across the Sahara.
The obvious question I always ask a Head new in their post is what changes they will make. And while many are naturally coy, we chatted a fair bit about his clear pride in the school and its pupils, and about how he can make Bryanston even better. There is greater potential, too, to engage with the local community, and the recent drama production of Les Mis with The Blandford School was a true partnership of equals – neither could have done it without the other. He has also introduced a loyalty card scheme for staff, parents, alumni and pupils, to encourage even greater support of the School’s local high street.
One of the misconceptions about Bryanston is that it is just a creative school. Yes, music, dance, drama and art are exceptional here but creativity means so much more. Old boy and biochemist Frederick Sanger twice won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Mark Mortimer cites him as an example of the importance of creativity in science (or maths, or geography) as well as in the arts.
Intelligently challenging convention are the buzz words here – this is what Bryanston is about and what Bryanstonians do. Bryanston is not a place where there are no boundaries, where kids are free and easy and not pushed to succeed; there are boundaries and certainly high standards, and, though the channel be wider, the pursuance of excellence is still very much here. There is no Bryanston ‘type’, instead the school strives to turn out those who can think for themselves, solve problems and have a conscience.
Our thoughts: watch this space. We think this ambitious Head might shake things up a bit!
Boarding: Bryanston offers a uniquely individual boys’ boarding structure, with Year 9 boys heading into two junior houses of 40 each, before being divided up into five boys’ houses for the remaining four years. It makes for a jovial first year where new boys settle in and get to know fellow pupils across their year, not just those in their house or sports teams. Girls, on the other hand, go straight into one of five girls’ houses at the very beginning. The role of stripes (house prefects) are popular and hard fought for in the Sixth Form – it says a lot when an 18-year-old chooses to hang out with their younger cohorts.
Weekends are divided into ‘Whole School’ weekends, which are what they say on the tin, ‘Open’ weekends when pupils are able to leave after matches on Saturday afternoon and return on Sunday evening, and exeats (Friday lunchtime to Sunday night), although these are rare. It is a fuller boarding model than many and each day pupil has a bed so the switch from day to boarding is common, too. The plus side of this is that even on Open weekends the school doesn’t feel empty as plenty of pupils choose to stay in.
What else? I could go on, but let’s focus on the number of activities on offer. From sports to art to drama to community service, pupils are encouraged from day one to step out of their comfort zone. The captain of the First XV will play Romeo in the school play or participate in the dance show and nobody will snigger, which all stems from Year 9s being given a taster in all sorts of activities – and who knows what they’ll be good at. Bee keeping? Climbing? Jewellery making? While there is a high level of coaching for those who excel at sport, there is plenty going on on the sports fields for those who don’t have a natural affinity with traditional team sports, plus a full fixture programme of up to five teams per year group in the main sports, so anyone wanting to play for the school gets a go.
Fees: £13,231 per term. A non-refundable fee of £200 is payable on registration of a pupil for entry, and a deposit of £1000 is payable 18 months before entry to confirm a pupil’s place.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Unpretentious, joiner-inner types who thrive in a bustling atmosphere and who aren’t afraid of independent study. This is a true full-boarding experience, reinforcing the palpable sense of community and family at the school – great for those overseas pupils making a home from home. Busy London kids who’d benefit from the hearty, rural experience would also be well served. This is a school with a myriad of opportunities, so anyone with a positive give-it-a-go attitude will love it. The school is less interested in how many A*s they churn out but that each child achieves the best they possibly can, both inside and outside the classroom. Saying that, because of the tutor system they absolutely can support the brightest and best.
Despite the Dorset setting, the cry of “it’s not as far as you think!” was one I heard many times. Bournemouth, Poole and Salisbury are not far off, giving access to a strong train network.
Probably not best for: Pupils who don’t like trying their hand at lots of different things. Joiner-inners are the thing here, but introverts can thrive too once they step out of their boxes.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it. Instead of open days, Bryanston offers school visits in small groups for up to a dozen sets of parents. These take place most weeks during term times – see here for more info.
Bryanston School, Blandford DT11 0PX, Tel: 01258 452411, www.bryanston.co.uk