Principal's Blog

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


Celebrating another Happy Monday with Japan’s oldest citizens…
Brian Christian

Today we celebrate one of Japan’s four Happy Mondays, an annual public holiday held every September to mark Respect for the Aged Day - Keiro no hi.

The concept began as recently as the year 2000, when the Japanese government decided to fix the date of two public holidays so that they would always fall on the first working day of the week. Coming of Age Day in January and Health and Sports Day in October thus became the first of the Happy Mondays, offering all workers a guaranteed long weekend. In 2003, July’s Marine Day and the holiday we celebrate today were added to the system.

Initially observed on September 15th 1947, Toshiyori no hi, or Old People’s Day, owes its origins to the village of Yachiyo-cho in Hyogo Prefecture. It quickly became popular and the whole prefecture adopted the holiday in 1950 before it became a national holiday and changed its name in 1966.

As a relatively modern institution, there are no long-standing traditions or customs associated with the holiday, but it is widely observed in Japanese communities. In many towns and villages children prepare dances and songs to perform at local keirokai shows staged specially for senior citizens. Such shows are often followed by a community gathering at which the elderly are guests of honour and their contribution to society is recognised.                         

In Tokyo the Governor visits centenarians and presents them with a commemorative gift, and in recent years the national media have contributed to the day by raising awareness of age-related issues and highlighting the achievements of older people.

Today the Governor will have to manage a hectic schedule. In advance of this latest holiday, Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced that the number of Japanese citizens who were older than 100 had risen to a record figure of 69,785. Of that number, more than 88% are women. This represents an increase of more than 2,000 centenarians from 2017 and a staggering increase from 1965, when Japan first started collecting data on those who had lived past 100; remarkably, there were then just 153.

It seems to me that western society would do well to emulate the thinking behind Respect for the Aged Day. Japan’s rapidly aging population has been well documented: the data released by the Ministry last week also showed that people aged 70 or above now account for 20.7% of the population, up from 19.9% last year. Elderly people — defined as those aged 65 or older — make up 28.1% of the total population, totalling 35.57 million, up 440,000 from the previous year; those in work increased for the 14th straight year to a record 8.07 million in 2017, 12.4% of all employed people in Japan.

Greater longevity and falling birth rates are increasingly common phenomena in many developed nations around the world, including the UK and USA. If 70 really is the new 60, (and Japanese women now have every right to expect to live beyond the age of 85) then society has to adapt to these rapidly shifting demographics.

Older and, hopefully, wiser our senior citizens still have much to contribute and their voice should command respect. After all, as our esteemed politicians have surely noted, the grey vote is now an extremely powerful one.

*photo credits: Miyoko Ihara – Misao & Fukumura


If you go down to the woods today…
Brian Christian

Japan is a country rich in timeworn custom and tradition, steeped in superstition and folk lore passed on from generation to generation through the ages. Everything about this wonderfully bewildering country seems to have sprung from ancient cultural roots.

I had always imagined that one of my favourite Japanese expressions, shinrin-yoku (森林浴), must owe its origins to a national affinity for the natural world as deep-seated as the fascination with cherry blossom, bonsai trees or autumn koyo. Its literal translation is forest bath and, rather like the Danish Hygge, it has recently been appropriated by western wellbeing therapists to describe the healing properties of time spent re-connecting with nature.

Appearances can be deceptive.

Far from emerging from the mists of times long past, shinrin-yoku was first coined by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982. It is in effect little more than an advertising slogan.

This week’s Greenery Day – Midori No Hi (みどりの日) – has a similarly disappointing modern pedigree. It stems from the celebratory day associated with the birthday of Emperor Hirohito on April 29th. Following the ascension of the current Emperor Akihito to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, it was renamed Greenery Day, honouring Emperor Showa’s well-known love of plants. It was only in 2007, as part of a wholesale review of Japan’s public holidays, that it was eventually moved to its current date, May 4th, in order for the old Emperor’s birthday to be renamed Showa Day.

Does it matter?

I don’t think so – no matter what its origins might be, a national public holiday in recognition of the joys of nature has to be a cause for celebration. More so today than ever before.   And the broad concept of forest-bathing, of washing away the stresses and strains of daily life with a walk in the woods, a stroll on the beach or a hike across the moors is as old as… well as old as the hills, I suppose – even if the phrase itself first saw the light of day in some ad-man’s office.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to escape from work this Friday, perhaps you might take the opportunity to soak up the rejuvenating joys of a forest walk.

May the 4th be with you!



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 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 49% of all AQA FM candidates were awarded an A* or A grade in 2017, 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 4.7% of all AQA entries were awarded an A* and only 13.8% achieved an A. This is not because Psychology is more difficult than Further Maths, nor does it mean that either is a better subject; it might, however, be because 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. For some years, parents and teachers have suspected some universities of operating unofficial blacklists of subjects that are not considered suitable preparation for a degree course. 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 facilitatingsubjects – 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 group’s latest Informed Choices document, offering up-to-date advice on choosing strong A Level combinations and published at the start of the 17-18 academic year may be found here:

Students can still win a place at 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 really 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 and an essay-based subject such as History or English Literature 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 two at grade D 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 may be found here in the Matriculation section of our Secondary School Profile:

Secondary School Profile



Why the Robots Will Never Win
Brian Christian

Curiosity, irreverence, imagination, sense of humour, a free and open mind, an acceptance of the relativity of values and of the uncertainty of life, all inevitably fuse into the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation. He conceives of creation as the very essence of the meaning of life. In his constant striving for the new, he finds that he cannot endure what is repetitive and unchanging. For him hell would be doing the same thing over and over again.

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals 1971

The robots are coming: they are coming to take our jobs, they are coming to take our place in the world and in some doomsday scenarios they may even be coming to take our lives.  The first have already arrived and they are making their mark – in our factories, in our homes and hospitals and schools, and in our armed forces. Time is running out…

Or so some of the more lurid headlines would have us believe.

The truth is that, while there have been some remarkable advances in AI and robotics in recent years with the promise of even faster development in the near future, it is surely self-evident that human beings, flawed as we may be, still hold the best hand in the game. Providing we choose to play it wisely. And that means playing to our strengths.

This is my fortieth year of working in education and it sometimes seems to me that throughout every one of those years the notion of 21st Century Skills has been bandied about interminably, an endless mantra tunelessly chanted by one educational guru after another. As if creativity, collaboration, communication, et al were somehow new to the classroom and their sudden arrival on the scene was going to change everything.

It is a long time since I was at university but recently I came across a reference to a controversial American writer and political thinker who – all those many years ago – was the source of much heated debate and discussion. I feel sure that Saul Alinsky was a man who would have had a great deal to say about the rise of the robots. In Rules for Radicals, written just a year before he died in 1972, Alinsky set out his list of the ideal elements of a community organiser, the term he used for what we might now call a political activist. With just a little poetic licence, I believe these key characteristics are what give us the edge over the machines that threaten to overthrow us.

The first is curiosity

For the organiser life is a search for a pattern, for similarities in seeming differences, for differences in seeming similarities, for an order in the chaos about us, for a meaning to the life around him and its relationship to his own life – and the search never ends…

And the second is irreverence

Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. Curiosity asks, “Is this true?” “Just because this has always been the way, is this the best or right way of life, the best or right religion, political or economic value, morality?”

Now it may well be that we can develop an inquisitive robot and, indeed, we may already have done so. A year after a computer beat a human world champion in the ancient strategy game of Go, researchers claim they have now constructed an even more powerful version of the earlier program – one that can teach itself without the benefit of human knowledge. The program, known as AlphaGo Zero, became a Go master in just three days by playing 4.9 million games against itself in quick succession. In this way it managed to acquire all of the Go knowledge accumulated by humans over thousands of years of playing, sometimes actually choosing to go further, seeing patterns no human had discovered in all that time.

But curiosity and irreverence? A deliberately disruptive and anarchic robot? Outside the realms of science fiction that might prove to be more elusive, particularly if we accept the deep paradox at the heart of Alinsky’s questioning irreverent organiser:

He is challenging, insulting, agitating, discrediting. He stirs unrest. As with all life, this is a paradox, for his irreverence is rooted in a deep reverence for the enigma of life, and an incessant search for its meaning. It could be argued that reverence for others, for their freedom from injustice, poverty, ignorance, exploitation, discrimination, disease, war, hate, and fear, is not a necessary quality in a successful organiser. All I can say is that such reverence is a quality I would have to see in anyone I would undertake to teach.

The third and fourth attributes are imagination and a sense of humour

Alinsky understood that life is essentially tragedy teetering precariously on the edge of comedy:

One can change a few lines in any Greek tragedy and it becomes a comedy, and vice versa.

Knowing that contradictions, sometimes apparently absurd and unpredictable contradictions, can be signposts of progress, the organiser is always on the lookout for them – and a healthy sense of humour helps him to identify and make some sort of sense out of them. It is our sense of humour that enables us to maintain our perspective and to see ourselves for what we truly are while, conversely, an irrational unpredictable world offers uncomfortably hostile terrain for the marching machines!

Then there is what Alinsky calls a bit of a blurred vision of a better world

I like this. It goes without saying that an organiser must be good at organising and, of course, this generally suggests the ability to focus, an eye for detail and an understanding of priorities. All important, I know – but these are the forte of the machine, the realms where robots rule.


That blurred vision of a better world is a distant ill-defined image of something bigger that is worth reaching for, that makes all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile and gives life meaning. Many of the greatest advances in human history have come about because someone believed life could be different, because someone dreamt that the world could somehow become a better place.

Almost completing the list we have ego and a free and open mind

Ego is a difficult concept but I think that Alinsky uses it to describe self-belief, the confidence to overcome doubt in order to do what needs to be done. And, of course, it takes a lot of confidence to stand comfortably in the shoes of others. If you believe in yourself you can live with the knowledge that the world is an uncertain place, that values are relative and that, no matter how much you think you know, there is much that you still have to learn. You may even have the strength of mind to entertain the possibility that you might be wrong.

And finally, there is communication

One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer – with one exception – and still be effective and successful. That exception is the art of communication. It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.

Communication with others takes place when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them. If they don’t understand, then you are not communicating regardless of words, pictures, or anything else.

Almost half a century has passed since Saul Alinsky set out these ideas in Rules for Radicals and I freely admit that I may have taken just a few liberties in my interpretation of them here. Nevertheless, I think the central tenet of my argument still stands: if in our schools we can encourage the growth and development of the kind of person whose greatest joy is creation, the robots will never win.