UK Independent School of the Year

The Sunday Times Independent School of the Year

30/11/11

The Sunday Times has announced that the winner of its much coveted Independent School of the Year Award 2011-12 is Brighton College. This is the most prestigious schools award in the United Kingdom.

Here is what Alastair McCall and Sue Leonard of The Sunday Times had to say:
Brighton College is the stand out candidate for this year's Sunday Times Independent Secondary School of the Year award.

Five years ago, Brighton College was a middle-of-the-road public school. Not any more. Under the leadership of headmaster Richard Cairns, the school has made a staggering climb up our league table from 147th position in 2006 to 18th this year based on its ever improving exam results, which now rival those of much more selective establishments. A rise of more than 20 places in our performance tables in one year to 18th might have been reason enough to make the award, but this was Brighton College's fifth successive rise in our rankings since 2006, an unparalleled achievement. 

This remarkable journey wins it our Independent Secondary School of the Year award, and gives Cairns his second taste of success in our annual awards. He was deputy head at Magdalen College School in Oxford, which won the title in 2004.

While credit must go first and foremost to the children at this co-educational school, the shift in culture engineered by head teacher Richard Cairns cannot be underestimated.  The school has been transformed in five years from one of middling academic achievement into one of the powerhouses of the independent sector - and all achieved without restricting entry to only the very brightest.  Children are encouraged to achieve through exceptional teaching and pastoral care - and they are pushing the bar ever higher with the passing of each year.

This summer saw Brighton College students surpass themselves. At A-level, 95.7% of all examinations achieved an A*, A or B grade, with 65 students getting at least one A*, the new super grade introduced to allow top universities to discriminate between the best candidates.

Meanwhile, at GCSE, 91% of all exams were awarded A* or A, up from 83% last year and a key factor in the college jumping from 41st in 2010 into the top 20. Performance at both A-level and GCSE was record-breaking for Brighton College, which is now the highest ranking coeducational school in the country and the only one in our top 20.

These results are all the more impressive given that the college, a day and boarding school, does not cream off the top 10% or 20% of applicants. The pass mark for the entrance test to get into the senior school at 13 is just 55%, a level Cairns refers to as "the bright side of average", but as their results demonstrate when they leave five years later, pupils are among the country's highest achievers. Eighteen pupils won places at Oxford and Cambridge this year.

"I am a great believer that children develop at different ages so we try not to be too selective," says Cairns, who puts Brighton College's phenomenal turnaround down to good teaching and the school's emphasis on tolerance and kindness.

"It is a very gentle environment, very tolerant. If children feel cared for and supported they will work hard," he says. "A good school does not focus just on good results but creates the right environment in which, as if by magic, children get results beyond their imagination."

Key to that environment is inspirational teaching. Cairns, who on his arrival made it clear that coasting teachers had no place at the school, has devoted much of his time to recruiting "the best teachers in the land" with many new staff holding degrees from Cambridge or his alma mater, Oxford. "I think too many heads focus on astroturfs and buildings. I wanted to nurture in pupils a genuine love of learning," says the head, who teaches every day.

Cairns, who got the bug for teaching while working at a United Nations school in a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza after graduating, has put his own stamp on the curriculum. In addition to introducing a well publicised compulsory course in life skills in areas from social etiquette and ironing to ballroom dancing and writing formal letters, he introduced Mandarin Chinese as a compulsory subject up until Year 9 (the first group to take the subject at GCSE this summer - 28 of them - all gained A* or A grades). Also, the academic day was shortened by an hour and a half to give pupils time to spend doing drama, sports and music rather than working until 5.30pm at their desks.

"I believe in teaching children when they are able to learn," says Cairns, who has introduced an annual Make a Difference Day when pupils take part in community service projects, all part of his drive to make sure children are part of the town and not just educated in it. "It makes them realise there is a big world out there. Too many independent schools are remote from society. I love the fact we are in Brighton and children feel a part of the world not apart from it."

Pupil numbers have grown by more than a third to 940 since Cairns took over in 2006, the number of boarders (270) is at its highest since 1929 (forcing Cairns to give up his house in the grounds for extra pupil accommodation) and applications for places have more than doubled. To cater for demand from parents, a new lower school for 11 to 13-year-olds was introduced.

The facilities are everything you would expect of a good public school - a swimming pool, performing arts centre, acres of beautiful grounds, listed buildings and an impressive range of modern ones too. Cairns is overseeing an ambitious development programme on the six-acre site which aims to see one new building go up a year. Next summer sees the start of work on a new music school.

The school, which has received glowing reports from school inspectors, (outstanding from Ofsted and excellent in all 10 areas assessed by the Independent Schools Inspectorate), is tapping into the overseas market with a chain of franchises. Brighton College Abu Dhabi opened last month to 580 pupils with South Korea and Qatar next on the list.

The school provides about £1m in financial support for pupils, including full scholarships to the sixth form for up to three young people from Kingsford Community School in Beckton in east London, which has lost three pupils to knife crime in recent years. Brighton College is also one of the key schools involved in setting up a new sixth-form academy in Newham in east London, which got the go-ahead last month. "What I am doing with Kingsford is offering a lifeboat for the few," says Cairns. "If we establish the academy we are offering a cruise liner for the many."

Founded in 1845, Brighton College, located close to the seafront, was originally a boys' school but has been coeducational since 1988.

While coeducational schools in the past have not traditionally performed as well as single-sex schools in our league table, that is changing. Cairns argues that schools are good not because they are coeducational or single-sex but because they are good schools. He loves teaching in a setting where boys and girls benefit from opportunities that only a mixed school can bring, including feeling comfortable and equal in each other's company.

Ballroom dancing is popular among the boys, and girls can play in the first XI cricket team. The school has produced several members of the England women's cricket team, including Clare Connor, the former captain, Holly Colvin and Sarah Taylor. Test cricketer Matthew Prior is also a former pupil. "There is a sense that whether you are a boy or a girl everything is open to you," says Cairns.

But it's not just cricket that pupils can excel at. Hockey, netball, tennis, football, squash and golf are played and there are more than 70 clubs and activities at lunchtime and after school.

Cairns, who was approached by MI6 as a student but chose teaching rather than a James Bond lifestyle, is clear about his mission. "We are now an outstanding school and it is my job to keep it that way."

Whether Brighton College will continue its remarkable strides forward next year waits to be seen but what is clear is that they will have a lot of fun trying.

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