Principal's Blog

Our Children III
Brian Christian

Our Children, Our Planet, Our Responsibility (III)

Readers who regularly endure the unmitigated torture of long-haul flights with restless young children should look away now. I enjoy flying. It comes with the territory in my job and for most of this century at least I have been lucky enough to have criss-crossed the world at fairly regular intervals. There is always a sense of anticipation that even the most frustrating security protocols have so far failed to dispel, and I never fail to appreciate that moment when the doors finally close, for a few hours at least, on all the demands of everyday living. There may be jet-lag ahead but…

Photo credit: Andrey Khachatryan

I cannot imagine a world without air travel. What a privilege it is to be alive in an era when we can experience and appreciate so many of the diverse wonders of our planet so easily. Unfortunately, there is a catch. I only hope that my delight in the pleasures of globe-trotting will not deny my grandchildren the same opportunities.

Almost ten years ago, it was estimated that 2% of the world’s carbon emissions emanated from air travel. At the time this was thought to be a conservative estimate and we all know how airports have become busier, how many new runways have been built and how many more routes have opened up in the years since. The airline industry has made massive strides in terms of fuel efficiency in the last ten years, but a family flying economy direct from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to Heathrow just once will still add more to their carbon footprint than an average year of driving will.

The carbon footprint of our whole school community is huge. We regularly send staff and students on overseas trips for recruitment and training, we provide almost all of our teachers with annual return home leave flights and, of course, our parents clock up an incredible amount of air miles for business or pleasure in any given year. Compared to this, anything we do in terms of turning down the air-conditioning or switching off lights when we leave the room is very small beer.

I know that – like some proverbial polar bear – I am treading on very thin ice here. It is the nature of a community/business such as this one in a location like Japan that frequent long-haul flights are largely unavoidable. It is all too easy to veer towards hypocrisy, preaching a doctrine that contradicts the very philosophy of globalism upon which our community is built.

But we have to do something. We have no choice. We must do more than talk, and we must do it now.

Photo credit: K. Elliott, NOAA

A useful starting point would be to factor concern for the environment into our every aspect of our annual planning. Do we really need to send four teachers back to the UK or over to Singapore if we can bring one trainer out here? How important is it that our football team plays in a tournament in Hong Kong when there's an equally competitive opportunity for them in Kobe? If we offer a service expedition to Cambodia, do we factor the cost of carbon off-setting into the charge for the trip?

We recognise that there is an appetite among our students and their parents to make a difference. How can we make it easier for them? Our website now hosts a carbon off-setting calculator:
Anyone who chooses to do so can calculate the carbon cost of their travels and, if they wish, make a donation to compensate for the impact on the environment. As with all of these schemes, there is the potential for exploitation so it is important to be discerning but, once you know the size of your carbon footprint, there is always the option to support a local initiative where you can be sure that your donation is being spent effectively. One day, perhaps, we will be able to launch a scheme of our own.

All this goes hand in hand with the everyday things that we are trying to do in school - installing water fountains specially designed to make refilling reusable water bottles easy; selling reusable bottles and bamboo drinking straws; banning plastic cutlery, etc. We have even banished vending machines selling drinks in plastic bottles from our school building at Showa - a big step in Japan!

The British School in Tokyo is just one international school in a similar position to thousands of others around the world. Imagine the impact that a sector-wide approach actively promoted and pursued by organisations such as COBIS, FOBISEA and the Japan Council of International Schools could have on the health of our planet.

I have always believed that one of the primary aims of membership organisations such as these should be to model best practice, to set a clear example to the world of international education. This has clearly been the case with the admirable and highly effective stance taken on child protection and safeguarding. Can they now take steps to do something similar in response to a global emergency that so many of our students see as being the most pressing issue of our time?

Schools such as ours have to accept responsibility and must be prepared to be held to account. Here at BST, our next step is to share an annual Environmental Impact Statement with our school community. Will the organisations who accredit our schools now rise to the challenge and follow suit? I hope so - time is not on our side.

This is the last in a series of three short pieces about young people and their concerns about the environment, and about our responsibilities as parents and educators.

Our Children II
Brian Christian

Our Children, Our Planet, Our Responsibility (II)

If I look at my generation, the people who are running the companies and countries and society in general, I don’t know if we are going to be able at this point in time to make extreme transformative changes, because we love to do the things we way we always do things. If I look at young people, I am optimistic. They are people who have grown up with environmental concern. I think we are going to have this transformation from the old society to a new environmental society in the next 50 years. But if we cannot change business-as-usual we are going to be in trouble.

Ana María Hernández, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services.

As India faces the worst water crisis in its history and an unprecedented early summer heatwave scorches Europe, New York City has just announced that it has joined Sydney in declaring a climate emergency. Last month, the UK Government committed to zero carbon emissions by 2050, 71% of US Democrat voters identified climate issues as a voting priority and, here in Japan, the ubiquitous Seven-Eleven chain announced that the 2.2 billion onigiri it sells every year will soon be offered in a plant-based wrap. Perhaps we are finally waking up to the realisation that the impending climate disaster and the war on plastic demand decisive action today, not more vague promises for tomorrow. Perhaps…

I ended the first short piece in this series with some double-edged statistics that set loud alarm bells ringing while also offering a tantalising glimmer of light. In The Uninhabitable Earth, his searing assessment of a planet in crisis, David Wallace-Wells offers us a damning insight into the shameless refusal of the most privileged to see beyond self-interest and share responsibility for the harms we are inflicting upon our world:

If the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, US carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10% were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third.

We can still find a way through this - but only if the wealthiest and most powerful among us are prepared to countenance real change.

Here at the British School in Tokyo, led by enthusiastic students working in tandem with a committed group of parents, we are taking some small but important steps towards making a difference. The parents’ E-ASY Green team has raised funds to install additional water fountains specially designed to make refilling reusable water bottles easy; they have been selling reusable bottles and bamboo drinking straws, and campaigning to outlaw the use of plastic cutlery. The students’ E-Cool activists have been working to dissuade us from resorting to single-use plastics wherever possible and have even banished vending machines from our campus - a bold move in Japan!

Both groups recognise that these are baby steps, far from world changing in themselves, but designed to challenge the status quo and to raise awareness of the issues across our community.

We all know that education has to play a significant part if we are to have any hope of modifying deeply entrenched attitudes and behaviours; and international schools are ideally placed to be in the vanguard of such change. When our E_ASY Green group arranged for the renowned Japanese nature photographer and environmental activist, Junji Takasago, to visit the school, I was struck by the diversity of the audience he attracted: young children, teenagers and adults from a wide range of different cultures and backgrounds.  Every one of them was receptive to his message, so graphically illustrated, that we all bear responsibility for our planet, that we are all obliged to take action, and that time is rapidly running out.

Junji Takasago (Planet of Water)

So often when we speak of the importance of education, we think of its impact on the youngest members of our society. When it comes to the climate crisis and safeguarding our environment, it seems that many of our children have already passed the test; perhaps it is time for some more mature students to do their homework!

This is the second in a series of three short pieces about young people and their concerns about the environment, and about our responsibilities as parents and educators.


Our Children, Our Planet, Our Responsibility
Brian Christian

Parents, teachers, policy-makers – we all have an obligation to listen to the impassioned, angry voices of young people who fear that the future they deserve is being stolen from them.

I promised myself I was going to do everything I could do to make a difference…

Greta Thunberg


Earlier this month, the Fridays for Future movement won Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award for 2019. Previous winners include Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Ai Weiwei and Colin Kaepernick.

The movement’s founder is Greta Thunberg, a straight-talking, steely-eyed teenager from Sweden. Infuriated by the complacency of politicians and world leaders, in August 2018 she determined to miss school every Friday in order to protest outside the Swedish parliament until it took serious steps to tackle climate change. Her efforts to raise awareness of the climate crisis quickly went global. On the most recent international day of action, more than a million young people from around the world participated in school strikes. Headline-grabbing demonstrations took place in over one hundred countries, including Australia, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, United Kingdom, Germany, the Philippines and Uganda. And yes - here in Japan too.

Announcing the 2019 award, Kumai Nadoo, the Secretary-General of Amnesty International and himself a one-time teenage activist in apartheid-era South Africa, offered vehement support:

Young people are often told they are the leaders of tomorrow. I am so glad that Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future activists ignored that message. If they wait until tomorrow, there will be no future for any of us. They have proved that they are already leaders, and now it is time for adults to follow their lead

Having spent more than forty years as a teacher and educator, his words struck home. I recognised that I had been as guilty as any of my professional peers in resorting to well-meant platitudes to express my hopes for the next generation. In the light of my own generation’s failure to take ownership of the stewardship of our planet, that leaders of tomorrow cliché suddenly seemed to suggest an abdication of responsibility. No wonder so many young people are angry. Although we keep telling them that they are the future, we seem deaf to their accusations of wilful complacency. Almost a century has elapsed since rising global temperatures were first identified as a potential threat; since then we have made no real adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it. This is not to say that it cannot be done. As David Wallace-Wells asserts in The Uninhabitable Earth:

If the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, US carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third.

Tomorrow is too late. The time has come for us to listen to our children and to act upon what we are hearing. For their sake, for their children’s sake, and for the sake of our planet.

This is the first in a series of three short pieces about young people and their concerns about the environment, and about our responsibilities as parents and educators.


University in Australia
Brian Christian

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am always happy to include posts from ‘Guest Bloggers’. This blog is the third in a series of blogs on the topic of higher education, from Ms. Yamada, our Director of External Relations.

Australia’s Amazing Eight

This year, Australia is set to overtake the UK as the world’s #2 destination for international students, and at BST we have seen this trend reflected in a marked surge of interest in  Australia's Group of Eight universities. Last year, we were proud to send students to Monash, Melbourne and ANU.

Although studying in Australia is more expensive than continental Europe, Hong Kong or Japan, its three-year programmes make it cheaper than the US and the availability of scholarships for able international students make it an attractive alternative to the UK.

Melbourne is  famed for it excellent quality of life and world class sports, food and culture.

Why are Australian universities attracting so many international students?

The surge in the popularity of Australian universities seems to be due to a combination of factors: a reputation for academic rigour; outstanding employment prospects;  a friendly post-degree visa programme; a stunningly straightforward application process, and, last but not least, a quality of life which has been ranked consistently as the best in the world.

Research Intensive & Rigorous

Australia's universities are highly regarded around the world and Australia boasts 7 out of the global top 100 universities, which, given the country's modest population, is quite remarkable. The academic programmes are quite reassuringly familiar if you're coming from the UK: degrees take three years and students specialise early on, choosing their field before they embark on their studies.

The 'Group of Eight' comprise Australia’s most competitive and research-intensive universities

Unlike the UK, however, once you start, you can follow your interests within that field as they emerge, and create a unique combination of modules to make up your degree. A good example of this is Melbourne’s BSc in Science. You start with your broader subject area - science - but then you build the modules according to your own needs. You can then graduate with a major in Marine Biology, Neuroscience, Chemical Engineering or Astrophysics: but crucially, you don’t have to decide that before you arrive on campus.

As well as the 'double major' or 'joint honours' degree (as we say in the UK) Australia also offers another option, as demanding as it is unique: the double degree. Although this will add a year or two to your course of study, you will graduate with two full degrees, often in complementary, but nevertheless distinct subject areas. Not for the faint-hearted, but impressive on a CV.

Loredana Philips (Wollongong University), who works in BST’s Communications Department choose a double degree (Commerce and Media and Communications) so that she could ‘maximise flexibility and opportunities at university’. Although her double degree took four and a half years, instead of the standard three, she highly recommends the route, as ‘it certainly gives your CV a broader appeal’. 

Why are Australian Graduates so Employable?

Sydney and Melbourne rank #5 and #6 respectively for graduate employability, and I asked Anne-Marie Leo from The University of Sydney why she thought a degree from Sydney was so exceptionally attractive to employers around the world. Her answer chimed with what our students have said:  ‘We are positioned as a major trade hub in Asia and all large companies have a base here. This reflects how all our programs are taught with an international perspective. This, in turn, means students are globally-minded and adaptable, which I think is attractive to multinational organisations’.

The various great internship programmes that the Groups of Eight universities run enhance this. Sydney has a wide range of different internship programmes for students in different faculties, like the ArtSS Career Ready Programme for Humanities students. Ms Leo added:
‘Our rankings mean that employers know our graduates will be excellent; once a company has one of our grads they tend to employ more, so it's a snowball effect’.

The University of Sydney beats both Oxford and Cambridge for graduate employability scores

Visas for Australian University Graduates

Australia continues to have a high demand for skilled foreign workers and if you have studied at, and particularly if you have graduated from, an Australian university then you have a special work visa category. Even before you’ve found a job, you can get a 485 ‘Skilled graduate Visa’ which allows you to live in Australia while you find one. Getting your student visa is easier too, as BST students have a few months after their results arrive in August before enrolling at university in February. Once your results arrive you can get your certificate of enrollment which, coupled with your passport, is the most important paperwork you need. An important note is that at the moment, students from BST (since we’re in Japan) are still required to provide IELTS or TOEFL even if they’ve done IGCSEs or even an A Level in English.

The Application Process

There are a number of attractive aspects to the Australian application process, but first and foremost must be its wonderfully straightforward nature, particularly for international students. In a nutshell, each course has a published three grade threshold, and if you achieve those grades, you’re in. Simple as that. A Level grades of AAB will get you into Biomedicine at Melbourne; ABB will get you into Design Computing at Sydney. All these criteria are published on their respective websites, and no personal statements or references are needed. The process works like this:

  1. Apply once you have your predicted grades, usually this would be in Term 2 of Year 13. At the moment BST students (since it’s a non-English speaking country) will eventually need to have TOEFL/IELTS to get the final, official offer, but initially you don’t need this. Patricia Migallos, who’s the manager of Offshore Recruitment at Melbourne assures me that ‘the policy is under review’, so watch this space for an even simpler process in the near future. After applying you’ll receive a conditional offer in 4-6 weeks if your predictions meet the published requirements.
  2. Receive your final results in August and notify your university. At this point your offer will become firm and final within around a week, and you’ll receive your CoE (Certificate of Enrollment) so you can start your visa process. The only exceptions to this are subjects which require interviews, like Medicine, or portfolios, like Art.
  3. Start university in February!

Adelaide consistently ranks in the top ten cities in the world for quality of life.

The Most ‘Livable’ Cities in the World?

Australia boasts more than 10,000 pristine beaches where surfing, snorkeling, diving and all sorts of water sports bekon. There are fabulous mountain ranges, like the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, and a vast number of truly breathtaking national parks. The incredible and unique zoology and marine biology are of great interest, even if you’re not studying these subjects at university (Australia is, naturally, one of the best places in the world to study Marine and Ocean Science).

Amazing food is one of Australia’s big draws, and although it doesn’t yet have a Michelin guide, many gourmets argue that it should. Coffee is, I’m reliably informed, a religious experience in Melbourne; but international students are often drawn not to the macchiato, but to the traditional meat pies.

Sport is another factor which adds to the quality of life in Australia, and university campuses have really outstanding sporting facilities, which is another pull factor for international students. BST alumna, Evie, who’s studying Design at Melbourne was bowled over by the number of sports and clubs available on campus, ‘there’s everything from Quidditch teams to science societies and all these activities make the university incredibly social’.

The weather, the safety, the friendliness and openness of Australians, as well as a notably young and diverse population make Australia a great place to live during your studies and beyond. And of course, for students with a base in Japan, the one-hour times difference makes it that little bit easier to keep in touch!

Further Reading & Contacts

Students and their families at BST can log into their unifrog accounts to find a comprehensive library of information on applying to study in Australia and enjoying your time there.

Specialist International Admissions staff at Group of Eight universities

Anne-Marie Leo at The University of Sydney
Patricia Migallos at The University of Melbourne
Lantian Li at Australian National University
Jack Johnson at Monash
Anthony Craig at The University of Queensland
Frankie Yau at The University of New South Wales
Marian Moore at The University of Western Australia
Kristina Qiu at The University of Adelaide


Thinking Through Your A Level Options…
Brian Christian

Choosing A-levels should be relatively straightforward. In an ideal world, students would simply pick the subjects they most enjoy and focus on the areas where their abilities lie.

However, as thousands of Year 11 students are finding as they make their selections around about now, the reality is not so clear-cut. On top of their own interests and aptitudes, they also have to take into consideration two other key factors: are they more likely to get a higher grade in certain ‘easier’ subjects, and will university admissions departments view particular combinations more favourably? In short, are some A-levels better than others?

These questions are entirely relevant to our own students in Year 11 here at BST as they contemplate their options for next year. For many of them the choice will be quite an easy one, and they will indeed opt for the subjects they most enjoy and to which their abilities are most suited; but there will be those who are uncertain and perhaps more than a few who feel quite daunted by the whole process.

Let me begin by confronting the key question: are some A Levels better than others? The answer is, of course, a resounding Yes… and an equally loud No! If you want to read Medicine or indeed any medically-related degree, then Chemistry is a better subject than History, and Biology is probably better than Art. In fact, Chemistry is pretty much compulsory for admission to medical courses all over the world. On the other hand, 64% of all UK Architecture students have an A Level in Art and 38% of all Law students studied A Level History. If you have clear idea of what you want to study at university, a little bit of research will quickly tell you which A Level subjects will be most helpful to you. A good starting point might be this comprehensive guide to post-16 choices, The Subject Matters, published last November by Cambridge University.

But perhaps better simply means more difficult? Most studies seem to suggest that Further Mathematics is one of the most challenging A Levels - yet 58% of all FM entries were awarded an A* or A grade in 2018, a significantly better percentage success rate than entrants in almost any other subject. Does this mean that everyone should opt for it? Of course not; the point is that the students who choose to take the subject in the first place tend to be strong mathematicians: they enjoy the subject, they know what it involves, they like the challenge – they do well.

Contrast this with Psychology; a perfectly good option but one with demands that are often less well understood by those who choose to take it. Last year, just 4.5% of entries were awarded an A* and only 13.2% achieved an A, results not too dissimilar from our own here at BST. This is not because Psychology is more difficult than Further Maths, nor does it mean that either is a better subject; it simply suggests that too many students who opt for a subject that is largely unknown to them fail to see that it does not suit their particular aptitudes. Do your homework – know your subject and know yourself!

Then another factor enters the equation: whether all subjects are given equal weight by universities. To try to bring some transparency to the system, in 2011 the Russell Group of 24 leading UK universities published its first list of what it called facilitating subjects - those that should provide a good preparation for a wide range of degree courses. The subjects singled out then were Maths and Further Maths, the Sciences, Languages, English Literature, Geography and History.

The latest (sixth) edition of the group’s Informed Choices document, offering up-to-date advice on choosing strong A Level combinations may be found here.

Students can still win a place at UK Russell Group universities if they choose other subjects, but it can be a good idea to take at least one from the list and, as the document clearly states: If you don’t know what you want to study at university then it’s a good rule of thumb that taking two facilitating subjects will keep a wide range of degree courses open to you.

Making decisions often involves closing doors – even if you are not necessarily locking them and throwing away the key. The more you limit the range of your studies, the fewer the pathways you can easily follow. Given its focus on just three or four subjects, the A level system asks you to specialise at a relatively early age so for most sixteen year-olds it makes sense to consider ways of keeping as many doors open as possible, especially those of you who are not at all sure of your next step. The best way of doing this is, of course, to achieve top grades; but, like all investors in a competitive market, you need to balance your portfolio. Maths, a Science, a Language or an essay-based subject such as History might seem the safe all-rounder’s bet; but this is only true if you are the sort of student who can perform equally well in all of these very different areas of study. Two A* grades and one or two D grades hardly represents a balanced return.

Most of us do best when we play to our strengths, when we enjoy what we are doing and when we are excited by the challenge. Do all the research, listen to advice, make informed intelligent decisions – and then it’s up to you, and only you, to ensure they become the right decisions. The best A Levels are the ones that suit you and match your ambitions.

*BST graduates are now studying at a range of top universities around the world; a full list is included in our Secondary School Profile.