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The Gordonstoun Schools

by Stuart Crawford

Plus est en vous is the Gordonstoun motto, and it pretty well sums up the ethos of this extraordinary school. Founded by Kurt Hahn in 1934, Gordonstoun has been synonymous since with the unique philosophy which he brought to the education of young people. Hahn had been Headmaster of Salem School in Germany before he was driven out by Nazi antipathy. As a young man he had visited Morayshire in the north of Scotland to recover from illness, and when forced to flee his native Germany he chose to found his international school there. Today, the Gordonstoun Schools encompass Gordonstoun, the original school, its affiliated preparatory school Aberlour House, and the International Summer School.

The main School is centred on Gordonstoun House, formerly seat of a branch of the Gordon family. The campus, entered by a tree lined drive from the nearby village of Duffus, comprises some 300 acres in all, split almost evenly between the main area around Gordonstoun House and about 150 acres on the coast of the nearby Moray Firth. The House is a most imposing building in the grand Scots baronial style, and has a magnificent aspect to the south across lawns to the lake. Nearby is the "Silent Walk", where Hahn used to send wayward pupils to contemplate their sins. The tradition carries on today when pupils walk to Kirk. Close to Gordonstoun House is the equally architecturally fascinating Round Square, formerly the stables and now housing staff common room, a boysÈ house, and various classrooms.

There are approximately 420 pupils at the senior School, which is "substantial enough for the provision of life shaping experiences, yet sufficiently intimate to create the atmosphere of a thriving family", as the prospectus has it. Roughly one third come from Scotland, another third from the rest of the UK, and the remainder from the rest of the world with 40 or so nationalities represented. The gender mix is 60 percent, boys, 40 per cent girls, housed in eight single sex school houses. Aside from Gordonstoun House and Round Square, the remainder of the SchoolÈs buildings are a mixture of old and new, timber and brick, scattered around the campus. There are vast areas dedicated to sports, including the outstanding facility of the floodlit all weather pitch, big enough for 12 tennis courts and also used for hockey and football. There is also an ageing sport hall, now in need of replacement, where other sporting interests can be pursued.

Mark Pyper has been Headmaster of Gordonstoun for 10 years now, arriving from Sevenoaks School in Kent where he had been housemaster, registrar, and deputy head. A Balliol man, he comes from a long line of headmasters, his father, grandfather, and great grandfather having been headmasters too. He is quite understandably enthusiastic about the SchoolÈs fundamental philosophy, which is that young people should realise their full potential by the simultaneous development of all their attributes ‰ intellectual, cultural, physical, social, and spiritual. And above all else, he says, Gordonstoun is a philosophy led school.

Pyper believes that GordonstounÈs greatest strength is that it is a school for individuals, but with the long term aim of benefiting the communities which they eventually join. This contrasts, he asserts, with other schools which concentrate on a "product" rather than encouraging individuality. This is most marked in many of the mainstream Scottish private day schools. This concentration on the individual inevitably means a rich pattern of influences being brought to bear, aided by the international flavour of the school and a certain flexibility in the fee structure to encourage broader social spectrum participation. Indeed, Mark Pyper goes so far as to claim that, contrary to some popular (I suspect he means tabloid) perceptions, Gordonstoun is "a more comprehensive School than comprehensive schools" in that it is "not exclusive in clientele nor snobbish in attitude". The fact that between 200 and 250 local residents are able to use GordonstounÈs sports facilities every week merely emphasises his point.

All this aside, there are one or two aspects in which Gordonstoun is markedly different from most other schools in its class. Pupil empowerment is one of them, which the Headmaster sees as an essential part of his chargesÈ education on rights and responsibilities. For example, the pupils have run the SchoolÈs refectory on their own, and very successfully, for the last 5 months or so, proving many merchants of doom wrong. Pyper says he will do more along these lines. The other is the Services. Gordonstoun runs its own Services, including amongst others the Coastguards, Mountain Rescue Unit, Inshore Rescue Unit, and Fire Service Unit, the latter a bona fide part of the Grampian Fire Brigade with two appliances based on the campus. All pupils join one of the Services in the fifth form, and they allow them to become involved in, and help, the local communities, thus imbuing them with a sense of responsibility to society as a whole. ItÈs a wonderful initiative and unique in Scotland, on this scale at least.

Half an hour away from the main campus is GordonstounÈs affiliated preparatory school, Aberlour House, which is spectacularly set on the banks of the River Spey overlooking the picturesque town of Craigellachie. It shares the same ethos and philosophy as the main School but retains its own distinctive identity. The Headmaster there, Neil Gardiner, is an old Aberlour hand, having been head of English here in the period 1980 ‰ 90. He believes Aberlour House to be a "vibrant, positive place" and has 87 pupils of both sexes on the roll, of whom 24 are day pupils and 63 are boarders. Whilst most pupils go on to the main School, it is by no means unusual for them to go elsewhere after their time at Abelour.

The final part of the Gordonstoun Schools jigsaw is the International Summer School, when 250 boys and girls aged between 11 ‰ 17 from around the world congregate for 4 weeks to sample the Gordonstoun experience and philosophy. The emphasis is on challenge and international friendships, and the courses include English, sports, adventurous expeditions, and creative arts as the media to explore them.

With all of this on offer, Gordonstoun is on its own in Scotland, if not in the UK, in its educational and social orientation. The only other place I know like it is Millfield School in Somerset which, although much larger, shares the same kind of philosophical approach, international appeal, championing of the individual as a useful part of society, and flexible approach to fee structure. For many people, mention of Gordonstoun conjures up images of cold showers and early morning runs. The Headmaster believes that these had their purpose in their day, but new challenges have taken their place. It is quite clear that the School offers an outstanding holistic education based on a proven formula, pioneering in the early years but increasingly replicated around the world. Prospective parents can be assured that their offspring will benefit from a once in a lifetime experience in one of ScotlandÈs leading boarding schools.

© S W Crawford 2000

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