When Richard Jones recently wrote about the Japanese concept of ‘ikigai’ ― finding joy in life through purposeful work you believe in ― his words really struck a chord with ISMP readers.
And his belief that schools need to help children to find this “sweet spot” plays out at Bryanston School, where pupils are constantly encouraged to explore their passions.
But no one, perhaps, illustrates the journey towards ‘ikigai’ better than Jones himself. With a varied post-university CV, the economics graduate never imagined he would become a teacher, let alone a headmaster.
“My plan was always that I would go to the City and be involved in finance and it was pretty much the last year at university where I realised that wasn’t what I was going to do,” he says.
“I ended up buying a couple of Mazda Bongo camper vans, getting them wrapped in crazy graphics.”
Instead, he went travelling then “fell into graduate recruitment” in Manchester, where he was involved in assessing, recruiting and training graduates for sales-based roles. It was, he says, a “really good experience” that helped him develop skills he uses today in school management, including salesmanship and nurturing talent.
But as a young man keen not to get bogged down, he soon displayed an entrepreneurial side.
“After that, I went pretty left-field for a short period of time,” says Jones.
“I ended up buying a couple of Mazda Bongo camper vans, getting them wrapped in crazy graphics, hiring them out to lots of Aussie backpackers going around Europe, so I did that for a while and loved it.
“It got to the point that I either needed to scale it up and go for it properly or not do it at all. I went for the non-adventurous option and I didn’t take it any further.
“I spent three or four days in a school and loved the pace and energy.”
“Again, it was brilliant for developing a skillset, we talk about creative thinking [at Bryanston School] all the time. That’s at the heart of what we want our pupils to be doing, is taking risks and being creative.”
After a couple more mainstream sales-related jobs, Jones decided it was ultimately not what he wanted to do long-term. It was then that teaching came calling – catching him almost unawares.
Encouraged to shadow a teacher friend for a few days at a school in Feltham, South West London, he was gripped by the “pace and energy” of it all.
“I hadn’t given it any thought, and I spent three or four days in a school with him and I loved it and I decided I would do the Graduate Teacher Programme.” This route ― unusual for an independent school headmaster ― allowed him to earn as he gained teaching qualifications.
And while Jones cuts a smooth and confident figure as head of Bryanston, he freely admits to being somewhat underprepared for his first teaching experiences at a state school in Basingstoke.
He says: “I’m there teaching business studies and I hadn’t done a PGCE so I was kind of death by Powerpoint for the pupils. But straight away I loved the relationship side, the connections that you build with the pupils.”
“My job was more aligned with working for Public Health England. That was really difficult.”
He eventually made the decision to head to the private sector as he wanted to be involved in a school with a highly developed extra curricular offer he could become involved in, spending the next six years at St John’s Leatherhead.
He then became boarding housemaster at Canford School before being made second master at Bryanston School in August 2020. He became acting head in December 2021 and head in March this year.
His first experiences at Bryanston were marked by dealing with Covid, although he has since had time to develop some exciting plans for the school.
“In that first year, I didn’t really get to see the school in its normal context which was really difficult. My job was more aligned with working for Public Health England than it was working in education. That was really difficult,” he says.
“When students leave here, they can survive without all the structures that are around them.”
The USP of the school, he says, has always been a focus on the individual, backed up by a one-to-one tutoring scheme that nurtures both the academic and pastoral sides of a young person’s development.
He says: “Our aim during our time at Bryanston is to allow them to become independent learners so that when they leave here, they can survive without all the structures that are around them.”
From this year, all students joining Year 9 are given explicit lessons on how to become an independent learner and students are given “assignment periods” where even the youngest secondary pupils are expected to work independently on a project or essay.
“My experience is that people get to the sixth form and they have study periods and they don’t really know how to use them and they see them as free time,” says Jones. “By building it up it means when [Bryanston pupils] get to 6th form they know how to use it.”
“Mobile phones are not a genie we can put back in the bottle“
The ability to be creative in all areas of life is also important at Bryanston. But this can only be nurtured by giving young people time to develop it, says Jones, who underlines the importance of the school’s generous 90-minute lunch break.
Many of Jones’ plans for the school focus around tutoring although he is not yet ready to “go into details”.
Elsewhere, he wants to develop the school’s traditional strengths in the arts and sport to ensure there is the highest quality, tailored provision for both those who want to pursue careers in those areas, as well as others with a lower-level interest.
The school will also be emphasising digital literacy, innovation and entrepreneurship.
When Jones talks about technology, it’s clear he has an instinctive dislike of mobile phones and the problems they cause for parents and teachers – but understands the importance of helping children to sensibly navigate their use.
He says: “Mobile phones are the bane of my life and they make things very difficult, but we can complain about them or look at how we educate our children about how to use them.”
He bans his two sons, aged 5 and 7, from using technology on long car journeys, urging them to make up their own games to pass the time. After fighting for the first hour, he says, they soon settle into imaginative games.
But he’s not a hardliner. “It’s not a genie we can put back in the bottle,” he says. “We are not helping anybody by containing it all and then suddenly it blows open once they leave, that doesn’t help anybody.”
“Everyone’s got something and it’s not necessarily in the classroom.”
But what about his overarching educational philosophy? It is already “closely aligned” with what Bryanston does, he says.
“Everybody is an individual and we can’t just treat everybody the same and expect to get perfect outcomes from having one approach.”
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the word “ikigai” creeps into the interview.
“Ultimately, it’s our job to find the pupils who come through the school their purpose, the thing that motivates them, everyone’s got something and it’s not necessarily in the classroom.
“The benefit of a school like this, the pupils have got every opportunity to try and find something and for some pupils it will come easily and some will not identify it until they’ve left here.”
It’s a journey that Richard Jones can almost certainly relate to.