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Meet the head: Bryanston School

A new school year, and at Bryanston School near Blandford Forum there's also a new head of school - meet Mr Mark Mortimer who takes up the reins after an incredibly successful tenure at Warminster

September 2019 saw a new head for Bryanston School, Mark Mortimer, so obviously we at Muddy had to hotfoot it down there to find out more about what makes him tick. Previously head of Warminster School, he has a strong interest in the arts, especially ballet, is a keen sportsman, particularly rugby, cricket and cycling, and enjoys 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. Wow.

Welcome to Bryanston! To start off, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background? 

Thank you. It’s wonderful to be at Bryanston, although it already feels like I’ve been here for years, such is the level of energy and pace of life at the School. It’s an amazing place to be.

In terms of my background, I went to boarding school, then read history at university and from there went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. After passing out there, I spent eight years as an infantry office in the 1990s (tours of South Armagh, Bosnia, Germany etc) before leaving the army. After a brief career as a management consultant I went back to university to train as a history teacher. That was 20 years ago and Bryanston is the fifth school I’ve worked at, following Giggleswick, Hampton, St John’s, Leatherhead and Warminster (where I was Headmaster for six years). My wife, Anna, is from Paris (she’s also a teacher) and we have three young children at prep school – Amélie, Hugo and Clara.

You had an incredibly successful (and much loved) time at Warminster School. How did the move to Bryanston come about?

It’s kind of you to say so. I was fortunate to work with a magnificent body of staff, pupils and parents at Warminster: they’re the ones who achieved the success.

I felt that six years at the helm at Warminster was the right length of time and that I had overseen many of the changes that I felt were needed when I arrived. From a professional point of view, therefore, I was ready to move; however, it needed to be a very special school to lure me away. The job at Bryanston came up at the right time and one look at the School’s website and its compelling Guiding Principles suggested that its educational philosophy was one that chimed with mine. Just one visit confirmed that – I defy anyone to visit Bryanston and not start to fall in love with the place! Geographically, it also meant that our family could remain in this beautiful, rural part of England (albeit 40 minutes closer to the sea, an added bonus).

What plans to you have for Bryanston? Any changes? How will you make your mark on the school?

Firstly, I’m not interested in ‘making my mark’ on Bryanston. It’s not about me. Leadership is about making yourself dispensable, not indispensable. The professional and leadership development of staff will always be one of my key priorities.

Bryanston is one of the leading co-educational boarding schools in Britain, but I think there’s even more potential here, in terms of what we stand for and what we believe in. My role is to help realise that. At the same time, our sector faces significant challenges and we must be mindful of those and take steps to ensure the School continues to thrive in the years ahead.

In recent years, Bryanston has built or updated some world-class facilities, but that programme is now finished. That allows us to focus on fundraising in support of transformational bursaries for local children who would benefit from a Bryanston education. That is a key goal, as is playing our full part in the local community.

You have twice rowed across the Atlantic and run across the Sahara. How do these accomplishments inform your role as head of school?

They certainly reinforced the importance of persistence and resilience. After the first row (75 days from Tenerife to Barbados with a fellow army officer), the two of us gave lots of talks and I was struck by how many people said they’d like to do something similar, but then listed all the reasons why they couldn’t, rather than why they could. I’ve never forgotten that. Equally, those events required far more mental than physical strength, another crucial message for pupils. They also reinforced the importance of taking calculated risks, being ready to fail, bouncing back and trying again. I very much think that those adventures, and my time in the army, have informed my attitude to life as well as leadership.

 

What about academics at Bryanston? You have a strong reputation for the calibre of your education. Are you happy with this current level?

Yes, I am, but in any school there’s always room for improvement and development. What is meant by the ‘calibre’ of education? We would each have a slightly different answer. We have to ensure that our academic provision remains relevant to the 21st century and equips our pupils with what they need to thrive in the modern workplace. Like many heads, I am not convinced that GCSEs are fit for purpose. If that’s the case, what might we replace them with? How do we teach in 2020? Should it be more about mentoring and guiding the pupils – helping them learn how to learn, to find out for themselves? Even more so than my generation, they’re going to need to teach themselves new skills as they go through life.

What sort of pupil do you think thrives at Bryanston?

Pupils who are willing to play their part, get stuck in, be kind and seize their opportunities. That doesn’t mean it’s a school just for extroverts or children who are brilliant at this or that; what it does mean is children with the right attitude.

We pride ourselves on the fact that there is no Bryanston ‘type’. One of our most cherished principles is the idea of the development of a community of individuals, with an equal emphasis on both.

 

Bryanston School is unique and prides itself on offering a holistic education. How do you achieve this?

Like any outstanding school, Bryanston has high expectations, high standards and expects much of its pupils. They are encouraged to enthusiastically give 100% in everything they do, to seize the many opportunities on offer, to think big, to take calculated risks, to fail sometimes, then come back, adapt and go again. In that sense, they are being channelled while they are here; however, the corridor down which they are travelling is wider than at many more orthodox, traditional schools. We do not force them down a narrow passage of conformity. Of course, there are still clear boundaries, but there is also room to travel down the left-hand side, the right-hand side or even zigzag along it. This greater freedom allows pupils to focus on who they are and who they want to be rather than what they want to do. That, to my mind, is what constitutes a ‘holistic education’.

Bryanston has a strong focus on non-academic subjects, especially music and the visual arts. Indeed, the breadth of interests and talents of your pupils are part of what makes Bryanston what it is. Why are these subjects important to a pupil’s education? Are these subjects as important as the typically academic subjects for life beyond school?

I’m afraid that I would disagree that music and the visual arts are ‘non-academic’. However, that notwithstanding, I believe that each child is good at something and a school’s job is to help the pupils find and nurture what that is for them.

Creativity has long been another Guiding Principle at Bryanston, and we have been extolling its importance at the heart of the curriculum for many years. It’s much more than a skill – it’s an ability to see things differently, to use one’s imagination to create alternatives or new ideas. We are an imaginative species, and each of us has the potential for creativity in any subject or field, be it history, maths, physics, music, sport or business. What is vital to give it power and purpose is a focus for it – an area of interest that first sparks the imagination.

Frederick Sanger was a pupil here and went on to win two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. Don’t try telling me he wasn’t creative!

You’re a strong believer in fostering individuality, aren’t you? Tell us more. Any tips on how to encourage a teenager to embrace their uniqueness when they’re so often just trying to blend in and not stand out?

The answer to this is similar to my earlier answer about not wanting to force children to conform or to be shoved down too narrow a corridor. Again, as said, we aim to develop individuals with a sense of the duty of service.

Take the fact that we have a dress code rather than a uniform. It’s about the freedom we aim to give our pupils. However, I would argue that the greater choice that a dress code presents is indicative of an approach that actually requires more structure and more self-discipline than a more restrictive approach. It makes different demands on pupils, but it also offers them the chance to think for themselves and to reflect on the purpose of rules, regulations and restrictions; this is closely linked to the core Bryanston aim of encouraging pupils ‘to intelligently challenge convention’. This doesn’t mean being obstructive or argumentative for the sake of it, but it does mean thinking about or looking at things from another perspective.

A person’s willingness to ‘embrace their uniqueness’ and stand out when necessary is linked to their self-confidence, the strength of their values and beliefs and their sense of self. This is as applicable to adults as it is to teenagers. It’s too easy to make excuses; we have a great many pupils here who regularly demonstrate their readiness to stand up for a cause or a point of view. That’s great.

 

A co-educational full boarding school, with some day pupils, for ages 13-18 in the most gorgeous setting near Blandford. The school has an extraordinary, and extremely successful, one-to-one tutoring system, providing strong academic and pastoral encouragement. It is also a school that welcomes individuals, nurturing talents and interests – it’s a pretty exciting school in our view, so watch this space for our review! School visits take place in small groups for up to a dozen sets of parents instead of open days. 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

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