Broad Experiences, Broader Minds


L-J Andrew catches up with Gordonstoun principle, Lisa Kerr, to discover what’s involved in creating a curriculum that’s designed for life

Gordonstoun has a rich and fascinating history. Is there a singular, defining moment that has shaped the school?

Due to our reputation, people often forget that Gordonstoun is quite a young school. Founded in 1934, we are still deeply connected to our founder, Kurt Hahn and his original ethos on learning for life. Hahn fled Nazi Germany, came to Gordonstoun, and set up a school where he thought it should be so much more than just academia and this is still our approach today. Clearly exam success is a vital ticket for students, to take them on to the next stage of their lives, but like Hahn, we believe the best classrooms don’t have walls; pupils learn through experience, by pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. Thanks to Hahn’s vision, Gordonstoun is still encouraging students to do precisely that.

How does Gordonstoun’s academic reputation influence teaching and learning approaches?

We believe in learning through a variety of means and knowing that the ‘inner classroom’ can learn from the ‘outer classroom’ experience and vice versa. Within the classroom we try to help students draw comparisons between the challenges they might face on an expedition or in learning a musical instrument for example and applying that same tenacity and resilience to their academic studies. It’s about moulding the two environments - its symbiotic.

The School Motto is ‘plus est en vous’, (there is more in you). Tell us about the origins of this motto and how it’s relevant to school society today?

Kurt Hahn introduced this motto and it’s still woven into everything we do. There’s not a day goes by where I don’t hear it being talked about by both staff and students. Its power comes from its simplicity, there is more in you, meaning there is always more we can do, and it resonates across every single aspect of our lives. I’ve heard from so many alumni - they speak about how it has been this saying that has got them through really challenging times in their life. It’s an inner belief that we can achieve, that we can always do more, that we can always do better. As a school, continual improvement is vital. One of the aspects I’ve really focused on as principal, is embedding this concept, it’s a cycle of self-evaluation that can make all the difference.

What makes Gordonstoun the world leader in character education?

From day one, we have been the pioneering school in this sphere, which is based on the principle of character development beyond the classroom. Round Square Schools are named after the Round Square, a boarding house in the middle of Gordonstoun. This is a collection of schools that believes in change in the way that education happens all over the world. Outward Bound, a programme founded by Kurt Huhn and The Duke of Edinburgh Award, began at Gordonstoun, and it’s another example in our DNA to lead and to innovate.

More recently, we commissioned a research survey by the University of Edinburgh, to look into the lifelong benefits of outer classroom learning experiences. We’ll use the findings from this research as a further launch pad for making sure we’re continually updating and refreshing how we approach learning experiences, to ensure they are relevant in today’s world.

How is Gordonstoun adapting to the challenges of a hybrid learning environment?

It’s a challenge we relish. We successfully leapfrogged our digital learning station, receiving a huge number of accolades for the programme that we have put in place. Parents were delighted and our students quickly adapted to the reformulated online curriculum. We built a bespoke website for our broader curriculum too, so students could also continue to be of service to their community and engage with wider curriculum areas. We continued debating online, set art and fitness challenges, in addition to a range of other ‘converted’ activities which resulted in our students feeling they were still part of the Gordonstoun community. We even had online socials for our boarding houses and evening ‘gatherings’ for students during lockdown, to strengthen bonds. We are naturally focused on what happens outside the classroom and getting our students away from screens, but there have undoubtedly been benefits to being propelled into the digital world and we have been making the most of those.

To what extent does the school foster an international outlook?

Internationalism is at our core. Prince Philip, our tenth pupil, was an international student, joining us from Greece by way of Germany, and today, international students make up at least a third of our student body. We have more than 44 nationalities represented in the school. When parents are asked to describe Gordonstoun, international is one of the first words that they choose. We see our students as global citizens in a changing world, and we want them to be active in that role. We attract international families to Gordonstoun because they know it’s a place where their children will be welcomed and celebrated because they are different and not in spite of their difference.

How would you define a well-rounded educational experience?

It’s about giving young people exposure to the broadest experiences possible. It’s important to learn to fail and that it’s ok to fail, and that sometimes in life you have to do something you don’t want to do, or that isn’t necessarily your forte - yet through that, you gain a sense, not just of what you can do, but what other people can do.

We are talking about an education that involves academic rigour at its core, but we build a whole range of outer classroom experiences geared at learning to relate and be with others. Due to the school’s extended holidays, our boarding students have very strong relationships with home, but they are also spending time in an educational environment where they are learning to live alongside people that are different from them. Building those social skills can be a revelation – but in a good way.

What approaches and experiences from your time in business have you applied to your current role?

All sectors face the same challenges, which revolve around defining who you are and what you are trying to achieve. One of the first comments I made, when joining Gordonstoun was that we were going to be very people focused. Our students have the most extraordinary relationship with teachers and support staff here. It’s a close relationship that’s built on trust and understanding. I know we will transform the life of young people, as we do every day, by having the very best staff who are supported to be the very best they can be. Also a determination never to give up and a sense that it’s quite easy in any organisation to think ‘we are the only people to face this challenge’ – invariably that’s not the case. I’ve been able to bring in lessons that I’ve learnt in other sectors from my time in media, health and transport, and approaches for resolving challenges – it’s about tackling a problem or issue in the right way.

As the first female principal in the school’s history, what legacy would like to leave?

We are just starting to build our new classroom village, so in a very practical way, I’m hoping that my legacy will be some wonderful new academic learning spaces to complement our amazing outdoor learning zones: our theatre, sports centre and music department. From a broader perspective – I’d like to lead a community that’s ambitious for its young people, that sees every child with the potential to grow and support them to achieve that.

Photography by Esme Saville

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