Fulfilling the four pillars of wisdom

13th February 2009 at 00:00
Last month, Gordonstoun advertised for a housemaster. Jean McLeish went along to Prince Charles's old school to see what life is like there and what kind of person applies for the job

For most teachers, the thought of pupils coming round to their house for pizza on Saturday night is about as welcome as a school inspector at a staff outing. But for girls' night in at Gordonstoun, more than 60 teenagers take over Suzy Morton's home, while her own children are sound asleep in bed.

The girls arrive in shifts - the younger ones at 9.30pm and senior girls at 10.45pm. Once the last hot chocolate has been drunk, it's lights out at Plewlands House, where Mrs Morton is housemistress to 68 girls and mum to Robert, 6, and Katie, 5. Husband David is a PE teacher at Gordonstoun and accustomed to their sitting room looking like a scene from St Trinian's, as a raft of schoolgirls devour industrial quantities of pizza.

It's 75 years since founder Kurt Hahn started Gordonstoun, based on holistic educational ideals - training body, mind, soul and spirit. There were four boys when the school first started at a country mansion near Elgin in Moray.

Girls came 40 years later in 1972, and over the years new facilities have been added. The 150-acre campus with a lake and chapel is home to 600 pupils. Life here is not all pizza and hot chocolate - children face physical challenges like expeditions into the mountains and sail training voyages on the school's 80-foot yacht, "Ocean Spirit of Moray". Among community service options, they can serve as fire-fighters or on coastguard or mountain rescue teams.

"One of the great things about Gordonstoun is that anyone can fit in," says Mrs Morton, also a PE teacher who came here 12 years ago with David, head of sport, PE and activities. Before their children were born, she was one of the school's fire-fighters and remembers battling a grass fire for several exhausting hours before being called on to a late-night warehouse fire. "My husband was driving back with the tennis team and there we were holding the hoses waving at him - it was surreal," she says.

Mrs Morton went to a state school and is a fireman's daughter, which may have given her the edge at those late-night blazes. Her children attend nearby Hopeman Primary and a nanny takes over when she's looking after Plewlands House boarders. Pupils ring the bell at the family quarters when they need her - she has two nights off a week and three weekends off each term. Even off duty, she is available if they need her.

When she first arrived she worried whether she would fit in - now it's home. "They are normal, everyday youngsters, with the same issues state school kids have. But they are here 24 hours, seven days a week and I found that exciting and that they were fully comprehensive; you've got a full academic range as well," says Mrs Morton, who previously taught in state schools.

Fees are around Pounds 26,000 a year and 40 per cent of pupils receive some assistance. "We've a complete mix of youngsters boarding - locals and those from the inner-city who are on full scholarships. I don't think you are aware who has the money and who doesn't, who has old money, who has new money - they come here and they are part of Gordonstoun," she says.

"I think most teachers come here because they like the full curriculum, the wider curriculum. They have their own love of outdoor education or their sport, or other passions they have that they can also get involved with here."

Founder Dr Hahn had run a successful school for 15 years but was expelled from Germany in the early 1930s when he took a stand against the Nazis.

"He was a penniless Jewish refugee in the south of England. But he'd been up here before on holiday when he was at Oxford University," explains Mark Pyper, the headmaster. "I think we are still pretty true to his philosophy. We have a wide range of young people in terms of nationalities - a third come from Scotland, a third from the rest of the UK, a third from the rest of the world, represented by about 50 different countries.

"It's a very broad base of socio-economic backgrounds as well, because we certainly have some wealthy people here, but we have a considerable number who are on full scholarships and therefore from all walks of society.

"We have one or two children in care, paid for by councils, so it's a tremendously broad spectrum. They usually come some time in their mid-teens and it works very well, because this is a school that caters for individuals."

Pupils sit A-levels and are encouraged to fulfil their academic potential alongside their outdoor education. Key to Hahn's ideals are the four pillars of a Gordonstoun education - internationalism, service to the community, responsibility and the challenge of outdoor adventure. "International understanding and appreciating difference is absolutely essential. He believed young people should be challenged, and that doesn't just mean running around with nothing on until you drop," says Mr Pyper.

"It means putting people in challenging, but controlled situations - even in his day - from which they will learn, but still the social learning bit. We put people to sea in boats, we put people up hills. But the most important thing about that is three people who don't know each other living in a tent together for three days and getting on."

Being a housemaster or house-mistress here is a round-the-clock job: "It's very intense, because you are 24 hours a day with 55 young people. You are teacher, tutor, guide; you're a disciplinarian, and a parent.

"There are two major qualities - the flexibility of the person to be able to change roles and models, and the ability to communicate with a very wide range of different types of people," he says.

On special occasions, girls wear full-length Gordonstoun kilts with green sweaters and boys choose a kilt or suit. Everyday uniform is a pale grey sweater with skirts or trousers.

Seventeen-year-old Alice Stepski from Austria came here two years ago. She's trained as a lifeguard for the pool and spent a week aboard the yacht. "Everyone has to do it." she says. And if you are sea sick? "You just kind of - be strong".

Susie Sharp from Jersey was recently head girl - pupils take turns at leadership roles to share opportunities. Her community service involved teaching young children to sail. "I love it here - I didn't used to, but now I do. It was a long way from home and it was a huge step to come from a day to a boarding school, but I enjoy it - you never get bored."

Assistant house captain Michael Pan, 17, from China, wears his coastguard pager. "You've got so much to do, and the responsibility you get within the house is like a training exercise for what you expect when you leave."

Head boy Kevin Grey, from Portsoy, was at Banff Academy. He won a scholarship and came after Highers in fifth year. He hopes to join the marines after university, so sailing and serving with the mountain rescue team is a bonus.

Housemaster returns to his alma mater

Red-haired Scot Andrew Lyall enjoyed Gordonstoun so much as a pupil he came back as housemaster nearly three years ago. Andrew, 38, is a lawyer's son from Macduff, 40 miles along the coast. His father is a former Gordonstoun pupil and Andrew returned after 13 years teaching PE at Glasgow Academy.

He lives at Duffus House with his wife, who is a primary teacher, and their children Robert, 3, and Jennifer, 1. "Duffus House is home for us and Robert sees himself as having 58 big brothers and Jennifer's got 58 big brothers too, although she doesn't quite realise it yet," he smiles.

Prince Charles came here as a pupil in the Sixties and later reportedly described Gordonstoun as "Colditz in kilts". But times have changed and pupils enjoy more creature comforts. "It is different from when I was here," he says. "Education has moved on and, yes, it is a little less Spartan. There are carpets in my boarding house now - there were no carpets when I was here. It's far more comfortable."

Andrew's day starts before 7am to ensure everyone has breakfast before assembly. "After chapel, we have our PE teaching timetable. We do GCSEs and A-levels in PE, so it's an academic curriculum. Academic teaching runs until 2.35pm and then there's an activity programme, so we may or may not be involved in running, rugby, hockey or netball practice.

"In the afternoon, pupils have a full activity programme - that may be games, a work afternoon, music or international citizenship. Then after they've had supper, they'd be back in their houses to do prep - their homework. That's from 6.45pm until 8.15pm if they are a junior and until 8.45pm if they are a senior.

"Lights out starts at 9.45pm for the youngest to 11pm for the oldest, and I will go to bed when I am more than happy that I have dealt with any paperwork or issues and everybody is where they should be and accounted for," he says.

"I would honestly say it's probably up there with the hardest job I have ever done, but without a doubt the most rewarding. I can't think of a better place to bring up my family, if you just think of the environment and situation. Yes, I don't see them at certain times of the day, but my kids have got a 150-acre back yard, which sounds a bit spoiled, but Robert loves it."

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