Principal's Blog

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.


Valentine’s Day with a Japanese Twist – The Concept of Giri
Brian Christian


If, like me you’re only a man then, again like me, there will probably have been at least one year in your life when you have found yourself in the Valentine’s Day dog-house.

‘You forgot? Again?’

However, as is so often the case here in Japan, things are a little different. February 14th is the day when Japanese women give chocolate to the men in their lives.

Be careful, though. The gift of a luxury chocolate bar is not always intended as a declaration of undying love. Most Valentine’s Day presents are likely to be giri choko, or obligation chocolates, meant as an expression of appreciation or respect towards a fellow worker, or just as a friendly thank you. They are definitely not to be confused with honmei (true-feeling) choko!

In recent years, it is fair to say, the custom has generated no little controversy. Some have argued – quite rightly - that the idea of obliging women to give gifts to male colleagues has no place in the modern workplace and that it is symptomatic of attitudes towards gender that are now well past their sell-by date. Others suggest that it is a faux ‘tradition’ invented and perpetuated by chocolate manufacturers to maintain their profits and that the sense of obligation threatens to drain the day of its romance.

Despite these valid concerns, I have some sympathy with the thinking behind the notion of giri. It seems to me that in today’s society we are all too quick to recognise our rights and often much slower to accept our obligations. It was my grandmother who drummed into me the importance of writing thank you letters and it’s a lesson I hope I have passed on to my own children. Those two simple words can mean a great deal, but going beyond merely saying or writing them, and actually doing something to show your gratitude can mean so much more.

I recall an occasion when one of our guest speakers here at BST, a successful and highly regarded CEO, was asked to give the best piece of advice she could think of to her teenage audience. Her instant response was memorable: Remember to say thank you – say it often and make sure that you mean it. Her sincerity was obvious and her advice hit home. She was advocating the idea that genuine thoughtfulness is a quality that commands the respect of others and, as such, is central to good leadership. I think I probably owe her a box of giri choko!

Perhaps I should finish by letting my fellow men know that you’re not entirely off the hook. You need to put a note in your diaries that you have an obligation to return the compliment in exactly a month’s time. March 14th is White Day – with their typically pragmatic outlook, Japanese women clearly believe that we mere men are in need of a reminder and a few weeks’ notice. Apparently the most popular gifts we choose to give the ladies in our lives on White Day are a necklace, a ring, a handkerchief, some flowers or a cuddly toy. In my book, you’re a brave man if you opt for the handkerchief!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hard to say ‘Sayonara’...
Brian Christian

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

Hard to say ‘Sayonara’...

Tokyo’s a hard city to leave. Perhaps this is why colleagues at international schools here are all noticing a pattern: more and more students are deciding to stay, not only in Tokyo itself, but also more broadly, in Japan, in order to attend university.

No-one in the BST community will be surprised to see that this amazing city ranks #2  in the QS Best Student Cities ranking, but fewer might be aware of the sea change going on in Japanese, and indeed, Asian universities. With Singapore, Hong Kong and notably, Chinese universities producing outstanding international research and joining the list of the global top-twenty five, the centre of gravity of the higher educational world is shifting east, and faster than we might have anticipated.

This has been reflected in the applications and ultimate destinations of BST students. They are, with their parents, carefully weighing the varying potential returns on their higher education investments and considering the relative value of the networks that they’ll be able to build. There’s no doubt that perceived ‘instability’ or at least economic and political unpredictability in the UK and US have had an impact here, with international students numbers falling in both these countries.

It’s becoming more difficult for international students to get visas to study in these countries and also to stay on and work after their degrees have finished (although European and Canadian universities offer more welcoming systems) which are key factors for some students. Students and their parents often feel that they would like to add employment experience abroad to their CVs, as well as a prestigious degree, and so if that is going to be difficult in the UK or US, they rethink. These factors combine, no doubt, to fuel the trend toward Asian and Japanese universities, but there’s more to it than that.

Why Japan? Why now?

Japan’s universities are very good value, but now they offer a better range of courses than ever before. Part of the reason for the increases in international students in Japan was the government sponsored G30 Programme, which aimed to get 300,000 international students in Japan by 2020 (and they're nearly there). The G30 Programme provided a bit of momentum and led to a significant expansion of the range of subjects which could be studied at degree level.

Ten years ago, it was harder to study specific fields of Engineering, Economics or Humanities, but now there are some great, specialised programmes and more are being added. So, for example, you can now study Applied Marine Biology at Tohoku University or Fundamental and Applied Physics at Nagoya or Economics at Keio’s PEARL Programme in Economics. The Ministry of Education have published a handy list of all the courses that are currently taught in English at Japanese universities, and although it’s still quite postgraduate ‘heavy’, there is a pretty good range of undergraduate degrees to choose from.

Keio’s Mita Campus hosts their competitive PEARL Programme in Economics.

For those looking for choice and flexibility, Robert Stern, an experienced academic and college counselor (who supports students at BST every Wednesday) often recommends International Christian University (ICU), in Mitaka, Western Tokyo. ICU boasts a full range of 31 traditional and inter-departmental majors including Natural Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences. The system is modeled on private US Liberal Arts colleges like Amherst and Swarthmore and enables students to study a wide range of disciplines before selecting their major at the beginning of their third year. A student might take courses in Chemistry, Linguistics and History before choosing to major in International Relations.

National Universities

Many of the national universities of Japan, such as Tokyo, Osaka and Tohoku are all ranked in the top one hundred internationally, and Nagoya, which probably has the best range of undergraduate degrees in English, has remarkably been the academic home to six of the thirteen Japanese Nobel Prize-winners since 2000. As well as this, it has a lively and well-established international student population (15% of total student numbers). Hokkaido University offers highly regarded Japanese Studies and Integrated Science degrees as well as a major change of scene for Tokyo-ites.

Nagoya University: six Nobel Prize winners since 2000

Tsukuba is another of these national universities and a close partner of BST, sharing expertise in Sports Science with us and offering our students the chance to have a unique insight into the training programme followed by Olympic athletes. Tsukuba is also quite unique in that it offers a very good undergraduate programme in medical science, and is highly regarded for its life sciences and medicine courses in general.

Another advantage with Tsukuba is the genuinely diverse nature of its international intake. Whereas with most universities in Japan, Asian students dominate international admissions, Tsukuba tries hard to balance British and more broadly European (and US students) with those from neighbouring Asian countries, resulting an enviable diversity. Dr Louis Irving, an Assistant Professor in Plant Science, told me he’s pleased to see that each year they’re attracting more students from California, after forging links with a few high schools there.

One of the remarkable things about national universities is the low cost: a four year degree costs around $20,000 (USD) in total tuition fees and generous scholarships are often available. When you consider that for Engineering and Technology, Tokyo is ranked 8th in the world, sharing the spot with The University of Oxford, where a similar degree will cost around $150,000 (USD) in tuition, it’s easy to see why many of our high-flying students are considering UTokyo, as it’s known.

Tokyo is not alone in this; Nagoya and other national universities offer some great scholarships, which usually cover at least tuition fees and accommodation costs. But it’s not just the cost that is attracting higher numbers of students to national universities, they also often have larger, more diverse international students bodies, as we’ve seen.  It’s a good idea to ask about this when you visit campuses, as some English-taught courses really do have small intakes, and some students might find the tiny cohorts a bit limited, and limiting. If you speak or are studying Japanese, of course, you should be able to join the fray of the main student body, but still: asking about the breakdown of the students body will give you an important picture.

Private Universities

In 2009 when the G30 Programme started, it was many of the private universities, like Keio, which already had sizable international intake and a stated global ambition that took the helm. The private universities cost more, (usually around $10,000 USD per year) and so competition for places is commensurately lower, but at the top end, still significant.

Personally, I came to Tokyo in 2001 to do research for my MA, generously supported by Keio as part of their exchange programme with SOAS in London. Keio’s Japanese Language Programme (which I took) is justly famous for being one of the best, and there was great support and opportunities available to international students, who felt  welcome on campus.

Waseda has a great range of majors too, more varied than Keio, which focuses on a few key areas around Economics, Environmental Science and Business. By contrast, Waseda is known in Japan for its excellence in the Humanities and Social Sciences, exemplified by its very well-regarded SILS Course; but it also offers degrees in Science and Engineering, including Computer Science.

Beyond these two leading Tokyo institutions (which like to model themselves on Oxbridge, right down to the rugby and rowing), there are some great private universities offering well-established courses in English. Kyoto’s Doshisha has admitted several BST alumni to their excellent ILA Course, and Meiji, Hosei, Ritsumeikan and Sophia are all attracting more applicants each year.

ICU, as mentioned above, has the greatest choice of courses and the the most flexible structure, plus a delightfully leafy campus in Mitaka, (and an exceedingly good canteen, it must be said!). The other nice point about ICU is that all students are integrated and all have to study in both English and Japanese which creates a really international experience for all its students.

ICU’s canteen on its leafy campus where it offers 31 majors.

2020 and Beyond?

Japanese universities aren’t likely to represent more than around 20% of our alumni destinations in the next decade or so, but it’s nice to see that students who are looking for a great value and well-respected degree closer to ‘home’, are being accepted onto increasingly competitive courses, including those at Tokyo and Nagoya.

Often, these students still intend to study in Europe or the US, but might plan to do postgraduate study there (when scholarships are more likely), or go abroad as part of an exchange with their Japanese university. You can study at Cambridge via Nagoya; Dartmouth via Waseda or UBC via Tsukuba.

As China’s universities vault up the league tables, will this mean that Japanese universities will bask in the broader East Asian research glow? Will regional pressures of competition finally force Japanese universities to become predominantly anglophone? Will Increasingly international student populations lead to changes in recruitment and employment at Japanese companies?

The falling population in Japan (The Financial Times have predicted a fall of 13 million workers in the next 20 years) certainly could mean that Japan Inc. will be particularly welcoming to skilled, multilingual, multicultural young people with a global outlook.

So will everywhere else, come to think of it.

Important Points for applying to Japanese Universities

●     Get organised: there is no central search site (although the Japanese government has produced this very handy list) so you need to be thorough and careful in your research - application processes are complicated and still, in some cases, paper-based, so you’ll need patience to get the golden goose!

●     Be aware that if you are admitted, you may be asked to pay quite a hefty fee, which can be equivalent to a whole semester’s tuition. For this reason, it is a good idea to apply to all your target universities within the same period. Japanese universities often have two or three different windows for applications, but unless all your answers arrive at (roughly) the same time, you’ll have to decide whether to commit to Keio, for example, before you have received a reply from Waseda.

●     Many universities require interviews and, while some like Doshisha can conduct these through Skype, most are still face-to-face interviews. Prepare thoroughly: they are often conducted by a panel of academics and will ask you questions about your proposed field of study.

●     There are so many generous scholarships available that preparing your scholarship applications needs to be a separate strand of your preparation. Start with The Mext Scholarship page.

●     Just as important with Japanese universities is the golden rule for all applicants: don’t be led into applying because of a name or a particular rank: visit the university, talk to students and staff and ask yourself if it will suit you.


Demon out! Happiness in!
Brian Christian

February. I have never been sure about February. Such a cold, contrary month.

Perhaps it is simply because we have tired of winter that it seems to drag. Despite being the shortest of them all it’s not a month that hurries itself. Spring might be on its way but it remains tantalisingly out of reach, just around the next corner, just over the next hill. At this time of year I can’t help feeling like an impatient child on a long car journey: ‘Are we nearly there yet?’

In Europe our very wise forefathers had an interesting attitude towards the rather dark, cold period that followed their tenth month, December: they disliked it so much that they tried to ignore it completely, making the depths of winter a monthless period and, figuratively speaking, stopping the clocks until the emergence of better weather in March. It was only around 700 BC that the workaholic Romans decided that we couldn’t continue to have a 304-day year and simply write-off the grim bit as if we were in some sort of snug hibernation. Thus Februarius was born – the month of purification, suggesting that even in days of old they were no strangers to the New Year detox.

It may seem odd here in Tokyo where February is one of the driest, sunniest months (and often the coldest) that the ancient Britons called it Salmonath or month of mud – hardly one for the tourist brochures! Another equally unappealing old English name for it was Kalemonath, or month of the cabbage, perhaps taking us back to that dreaded post-Christmas detox and those ghastly green ‘health’ drinks that make their annual appearance on office desks around the world at this time of the year.

The arrival of February in Japan is both ominous and auspicious. Ask any child. Setsubun (節分) on the third day of the month, the eve of spring according to the old Japanese lunar calendar, sees the spirit realm at its closest to our human world. It is a time to take care - strange things might happen. You wouldn’t want a wandering demon to sneak through your door and take up residence for the year ahead. In the dim, dark, distant past you might have banged a drum or lit a bonfire and burned evil-smelling sardine heads to frighten off unwelcome visitors, but these days mamemaki (まめまき) or bean-throwing is the preferred method of exorcism. Of course, once any itinerant ogres have been sent on their way, it makes sense to eat up the beans but you must make sure that you eat just one for every year of your age, plus one for the year ahead – especially as they now tend to come sugar-coated!

I like the notion of Setsubun. For all our worldly modern-day sophistication, I feel sure that we can learn much from the folklore handed down to us through the ages; so often there are messages worth listening to in these archaic rituals and customs if only we are prepared to hear them. Had a bad year? Not happy with the cards that fate has dealt you and hoping for better luck this time round? Then do something about it! It’s up to you to bang that drum and throw those beans because the alternative is to let your demons walk all over you.

At the start of this cold, contrary month, just when all that New Year resolution is beginning to weaken, maybe a bit of bean-throwing is just what we all need to get us back on track.

Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Bring on the Year of the Pig!

Shall we go Dutch?
Brian Christian

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

For many of us, our memories of heading off to university involve piling rugs, crockery and rucksacks into the family car, and heading off on the motorway to Exeter, or Edinburgh ….or Sydney...or Dublin...or even Georgetown. At BST however, most of our leavers are boarding a flight, and thinking of shipping and perhaps even visas instead of a three-hour drive with an emotional parent.

Of course, this is true for most international schools, where the very DNA of the school community reaches around the world.  Increasingly, however, the higher education market is becoming a global one, and even for those students finishing secondary school in their  home country, the idea of going abroad for the duration of your degree is taking hold. Nowhere is this trend clearer than in the UK, where recent increases in tuition costs have launched a thousand google searches and led to a surge in applications abroad.

The shift for thousands of British students has been about 300 miles east, over the English Channel, to The Netherlands, where A Levels are universally welcomed. Universities in Holland are attracting record numbers of applicants from the UK  and there has even been talk of adding universities like Amsterdam Groningen, (ranked 59th and 83rd in the world respectively according to the THE Ranking), onto the UK application system, UCAS.

Cost is a Key Incentive

As the application season gets underway, the BBC has reported that ‘open day visits now include trips to Dutch universities, which are pitching themselves as if they were offshore Russell Group institutions’. And indeed, in terms of the very high quality education on offer, the anglophone environment (thousands of courses taught in English) and the competitiveness of entry, they are very similar to Russell Group institutions, but with one enormous difference: the cost.

For EU passport holders (and that’s passport holders, not residents), degrees at universities in Holland cost around €2,000 per year in tuition; for non-EU students, the cost is around €8,500 per year.

Research Universities

Degrees in The Netherlands are very similar to UK degrees in that they are in a single subject or field and they can be completed in three years, although students are often encouraged to study abroad for a year, taking the programme up to four years. These ‘traditional’ degrees are offered at Research Universities - like Utrecht, Maastricht and Amsterdam. Last year, we sent a number of students on to these sorts of courses; Amy our Head Prefect, went on to International Relations and Law at Leiden.

University Colleges

For students who are looking for a more flexible model, like US Liberal Arts Colleges, the Dutch system has the perfect option: University Colleges. These are smaller institutions, within universities, offering the flexibility of classes in arts and sciences, engineering and humanities: a personalised curriculum  They were founded with the idea of creating small scale, fully residential, immersive learning communities and these courses have attracted large numbers of students from around the world.

This year, at Amsterdam University College, the students are 50% Dutch and 50% international, with BST alumnus Raiyu making up those numbers: he’s in his first year studying Liberal Arts and Sciences. He choose the course because it allowed him flexibility within ‘Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences: you don’t have to pick a field until the end of your second year’. Raiyu is planning the Literature track within the Humanities but has the freedom to do some History, Psychology, or even to pick up Dutch. Indeed, he might change his mind and end up with a BSc Psychology. University Colleges are often oversubscribed, and it's not unusual to be asked for Russell Group-style grades; University College Utrecht, for example asks for AAB for entry to its Liberal Arts course.

These smaller colleges charge a bit more, around €4,000 per year for EU passport holders and €12,000 for non EU students, but this still compares very favourably with the same sort of academic experience at an equivalently ranked US Liberal Arts College.

Universities of Applied Sciences

The Universities and University Colleges are complemented by the final option: Universities of Applied Sciences. These are vocational, profession-oriented degrees, which often have slightly lower entry requirements, compulsory internships and a more practical, 'hands on' approach. If you're interested in Fashion and Business; Digital Design, Midwifery, Hospitality Management or Fine Art, for example, then Universities of Applied Sciences are for you. They sometimes offer shorter 'associate degree' qualifications, as well as diplomas, and the tuition fees are similar to Research Universities. The Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, where Ain (who left BST this summer) is completing her degree, is one of these Universities of Applied Sciences.

Most Dutch degrees can be applied for using the Studielink application system, which is, like many other things in The Netherlands, clear, efficient and cheap. Final decisions are almost almost arrived at by April, but often a lot earlier. Application essays, predicted grades, references and academic records are often required, but interviews are common too, with the option of using Skype, naturally.

EU students are able to apply for interest free or very cheap loans to help with the cost of tuition, and help with accomodation can be applied for too, depending on the type of accomodation in which you live.

Find yourself in your 'Search Year'

For non-EU students, there are plenty of other advantages to going Dutch: you can apply for a one year visa to cover your search year: the year you might spend trying to find the right job, and once you've found a job, getting the visa is a simple process.

The Netherlands has been a centre of learning for hundreds of years with universities such as Leiden established in 1575, Groningen in 1614 and Amsterdam in 1632. These institutions consistently rank in the top 2% globally. As well as this, there's a prosperous economy, home to multi-nationals such as Unilever, ING and Shell; high levels of safety, and (almost) everybody speaks English.

A Growing Trend

Talking to this year's Year 13, there's a buzz about Dutch universities that's fizzing down into Year 11 and 12, and colleagues at other international schools in Tokyo are seeing the same trend. Certainly, exceptional value is one part of it, but the sense of being in the very centre of Europe, culturally and geographically, is a factor too. For Amy, where better to study International Law than The Hague? And Ain is only a short bicycle ride in the (perhaps elusive) sunshine from Vermeer's celebrated Girl with the Pearl Earring...Is it any wonder so many BST families are going Dutch?


Useful links:

The Independent


The Guardian

Study in Holland