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‘You can never stand still’: British School of Brussels looks to the future as it celebrates 50th anniversary
There is a special room inside the British School of Brussels' campus in Tervuren that not many people get to see. "At first I thought it might just be a cupboard," says Melanie Warnes, BSB's principal and chief executive since 2016. "But once I stepped inside I realised that we've got this amazing archive room, full of original letters, deeds and photographs. It's been a real discovery, pulling together memorabilia about the story of BSB."
It's a time for nostalgia - but also for looking forward - as BSB has embarked on a year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary. A lot has changed in Brussels, in Europe and in international education since the Duke of Edinburgh inaugurated the school in 1970. "When BSB opened there was just a handful of international schools worldwide," says Warnes. "It was a really bold thing to set up."
The school has since grown from 223 pupils to a record 1,400 today from all corners of the world, representing 70 nationalities. "We're definitely an international school now, with all the richness that brings," says Warnes.
But as she dug through the BSB archives, she discovered some things had remained constant: "I found the original prospectus. What struck me is that the absolute core values of the school have not changed. They've been like a golden baton that's been handed on from one generation to the other. They're liberal, progressive values - providing a holistic education, one that doesn't prioritise academic achievement over the development of character."
The 1970 prospectus says the school will work "towards the formation of well-balanced, self-disciplined, creative and responsible persons with a sense of good citizenship. It aims at true balance in education, recognising the importance of the children's intellectual, creative, emotional, physical and social needs, and that some of those needs will suffer if any one is emphasised at the expense of others." The same could be said of BSB today.
Warnes talks of a "tangible harmony" throughout the school and "a sense of togetherness". "I could feel it when I first visited," she says. "It's a school built around trust and relationships. It's not a school where you'll find lists of rules - you won't find lots of 'you must not' notices everywhere, more there is a sense of collective responsibility and self-regulation."
Strong pastoral care is another BSB hallmark: "We're not just educating a child - we have our arms around the whole family, we're very attentive and caring. We do so much work to help families settle. Moving around the world is an amazing opportunity for a child - but for parents it can bring a level of anxiety particularly about their child’s schooling. We try to build relationships with them really quickly, to establish their confidence and trust in us."
The 50th anniversary year began in style with a cake and a Happy Birthday singalong for all 1,400 students and the staff. A special magazine has been published bringing together stories and photos from the past half-century. A celebratory event at the British Embassy is planned for the autumn, along with a gala dinner for alumni.
So what's next? "You can never stand still," says Warnes. "We're looking at the next 25 years." The school has been busy organising a "big education conversation" - including a reflection on how its Tervuren campus should adapt to changing educational needs. "Our buildings should reflect the learning we want to happen in them. What students will need in the future is not what students needed last year or 10 years ago."
BSB sees students as "agents of change". The challenge lies in preparing them for a workplace and society that is constantly reinventing itself. "We're prioritising a broader range of skills like negotiation, teamwork and networking," Warnes adds.
Anyone researching BSB's next big anniversary in a decade's time will find interesting reading in the 2020 archive. BSB put its continuous learning plan into place when the coronavirus shutdown occurred in mid-March, and students and teachers have adapted enthusiastically to a whole new way of learning.
School years 2 and 12 returned to the campus part-time last week, and other year groups will be welcomed back before the summer break. Even during the shutdown, BSB continues to welcome new students, with a virtual tour, pre-joining meetings on Skype and the provision of laptops and iPads for distance learning.