‘Laidback’ and ‘liberal’ have long been the buzzwords for Bryanston, but for those in the know, it’s anything but. Rippling with energy, talent and individualism, this school may feel much more innovative and progressive than some (and yes, creativity is still at the heart of everything it does) but we rarely come across anywhere with the same level of one-to-one attention – and sky-high standards too. What's more, close ties with Bryanston Prep means the school offers a sterling all-through education all the way from three to 18, all set on one blockbuster, bucolic Dorset campus.
You can’t dispute the magnificence of Bryanston’s first impressions. Meander past the Doric column archways, pootle along the long, long drive – weaving through rugged woodland and past elegant stables – and you’ll finally arrive at the school’s knockout Norman Shaw-designed red-brick mansion, which was modelled on a Loire Valley château. Set just outside the sleepy Dorset village of Blandford Forum, deep in gorgeous West Country countryside, the estate spreads out across 400 acres, with the River Stour running parallel to it.
And it’s not all historical treasures. The facilities here are smart, splashy and out of this world – including the Terence Conran-masterminded dining hall and The Sanger, the mega wow-factor science and maths centre named after two-times Nobel Prize-winner and OB Freddie Sanger, and designed by the same architects as the London 2012 velodrome.
Bryanston’s recently-appointed new head is Richard Jones, who initially joined the school in 2020 as second master before stepping up to a short stint as acting head before bagging the role full-time. With a masters in educational leadership and experience both as a housemaster and teacher from his time at Canford and St John’s School Leatherhead, he definitely comes well-qualified for the top spot. He’s a likeable and liberal man with a steely edge, and he is evidently proud of everything Bryanston has to offer – from its unique one-to-one tutoring system to the new ‘Bold Voices’ partnership, where sixth formers become ambassadors and gives talks in the local community to help promote and tackle gender inequality and sexual violence.
Like many things at Bryanston, the approach to admissions is highly bespoke. There is a far greater emphasis placed on references from previous heads than test results, and children flock here from over seventy different prep schools and 39 different countries. As a result, there’s a huge amount of diversity and no real Bryanston ‘type’. Instead, the aim is to make Bryanston pupils memorable for being open, ambitious, entrepreneurial and to take risks and succeed.
It’s a popular place, so be prepared to start enquiries three years before entry; prospective parents are taken on an initial tour with a dozen or so other families, but there are plenty of opportunities to pop back for another look around. For entry at 13+, prospective pupils are invited to an activities day in Year 7, after which it’s the ISEB pre-test. Conditional offers are handed out on the basis of a 50 per cent pass mark at CE (in reality, most pupils aim far higher), and interviews before arrival help staff line up best-fit tutors and get a grasp of co-curricular interests. There are roughly three applicants per place for Year 9 entry, (80 boys and 56 girls max) but entrance is nicely broad; Bryanston prides itself on its superb value-added. Around 20 to 30 places open up at sixth form – entrance is via maths and English exams, and at least 40 points at GCSE.
Academics and destinations
Spoon-feeding doesn’t exist at Bryanston – and much of Year 9 is spent teaching pupils the ‘Bryanston method’, which empowers students to take independent control of their learning and manage their time and assignments effectively. Pupils are carefully matched with a dedicated tutor who sticks with them right through from Year 9 to Year 13, becoming their life coach and mentor as well as their academic guide. Free periods (of which there are more than average) can be spent in the pupil’s choice of study area, and long lead times on assignments help to encourage self-motivation – all of which translates to a more bespoke education than you might find elsewhere. In short, the curriculum here is underpinned by three pillars: creative learning, individual spirit and unbounded thinking.
Despite the very creative environment and the overriding sense of freedom, there is still a great deal of academic rigour and structure, and expectations are high: pupils are graded weekly on eCharts (which parents can look at via an app). The result: brilliantly robust academics – as long as your child is prepared to push themselves. Sixth-formers choose between A-levels and the IB (around 80 per cent do A-levels) and get weekly one-to-one meetings with every subject teacher (slackers beware: there’s nowhere to hide), who lend advice on everything from UCAS applications to pastoral niggles. Results are good, but value-added even better: Bryanston’s score puts them in the top 15 per cent nationally. But alongside academic results, which are undoubtedly important, the school also places a great deal of emphasis on what each pupil will gain from their time at Bryanston. Pupils head on to anywhere from Oxbridge to music conservatoires, catering college, art foundation courses, apprenticeships or even straight into work – a delightfully individual range of destinations of which Mr Jones is very proud.
A proper sport-for-all-ethos, with football, rugby basketball, lacrosse, squash, equestrianism et al and the extraordinarily good Performance Sport programme for the top set, plus lots of variety for those who prefer to play for fun (the brand-new skate park being a perfect example). The new sports centre is fabulous: a smart indoor bouldering wall, indoor sprint track with state-of-the-art laser timers, and a dedicated analysis room with 3D cameras and physiotherapy to ensure everyone is in peak condition. The equestrian centre is top notch and the show jumping lesson we spotted as we toured the grounds in the school buggy was impressive. Rowing is popular too (one of the coaches is a double Olympian), with a boathouse down on the river.
Creativity is a core part of Bryanston’s DNA, and art, music and drama are leading strengths. You only need to look at the star-studded alumni to get an idea: Lucian Freud, Emilia Fox, Jasper Conran, Sir Mark Elder, Max Irons – and we’ve hardly scratched the surface. The art and D&T departments will blow your mind, and when we visited, the Don Potter art school was bedecked with artworks that would put the Tate Modern to shame. There’s a Greek theatre for outdoor plays, masses of student-devised drama (and 15 large-scale productions annually) and an incredible standard of dance, everything from ballet to tap to hip-hop.
Every pupil gets a year’s worth of private singing or instrumental lessons and most choose to carry on way beyond that. There’s a concert hall, recording studio – and an all-pervading atmosphere of encouragement. Then there are the 80+ clubs and societies on offer (members of staff are all expected to run one, and taster sessions in Year 9 get pupils trying something new); compulsory outdoor education (but no CCF); and the brilliant Pioneering programme in which pupils run riding classes for the disabled, work as classroom assistants in local primary schools or create artwork to donate to the local community.
Everyone gets a bed (even day pupils, who stay till 6pm each evening) but most pupils opt for full boarding. Weekends are fairly flexible – many live within an hour or so of the school and head home every other weekend after Saturday lessons and matches, but all are obliged to stay in for regular whole-school weekends, dedicated to community work or school-wide projects. Importantly, day pupils are fully integrated into the boarding houses – meaning each and every pupil feels fully part of this wonderfully close-knit community.
The house system is slightly different for boys and girls: the former spend their first year in a junior house, acclimatising and settling in before moving up to a senior house; and girls stick with one house the whole way through their Bryanston career (it’s all to do with maturing at different rates). Some boarding houses are up in the main building, while others are dotted around the estate (no more than a four-minute walk away) – and although pupils and parents can express a preference, the final decision comes down to the head. We popped our heads in to Year 9 boarding house Beechwood, which was very welcoming and certainly had all the kit boys could possibly want, including ping-pong and pool tables and French doors leading out to a private garden complete with football goals.
Pupils head to Sunday services at the little church a mile’s walk across the estate (there’s the option to attend a talk from a visiting speaker as an alternative). Academic tutors – alongside house staff – play a vital pastoral role, and regular relaxed chats lead to phenomenally strong bonds, as well as the sense that there’s always a member of staff who’s got your back. Instead of a uniform, pupils follow a dress code: polo shirts, chinos and strictly no hoodies or jeans – the look may not be quite as smart as elsewhere, but there’s a rather lovely sense of individualism instead.
Bryanston is popular with the Dorset/Devon crowd, and buses ship pupils in from London, Oxford, Lewes, Exeter and Southampton. It’s only 1.5 hours by train from nearby Salisbury to London Waterloo. One thing to note: the school is miles from any of the London airports, so the deeply rural location might deter some overseas pupils; that said, there’s a healthy smattering of Europeans, attracted by the IB.
Quirky works here, because there’s no pressure to fit into a mould. The Bryanston Method not only serves to get pupils through their exams, but sets them up for a lifetime of making things happen for themselves – invaluable in today's fast-paced world. Busy, buzzy and a place where all talents are celebrated, Bryanston is a school for self-starters – and it’s those who really relish independence who will shine.