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Taking lessons from sport into the classroom

Former Scotland rugby international and School Principal Graham Ellis uses his sporting experience to lead at Brookes.

This feature was first published in the Bury Free Press and reproduced with kind permission.

Graham Ellis remembers the occasion as if it was yesterday. Approaching the age of 32, the proud Scot stood on the hallowed Murrayfield turf bellowing out his national anthem ahead of making his Scottish rugby debut against Wales.

Just two years before, his hopes of an international debut had been cruelly dashed after rupturing a bicep muscle. But he was not to be denied.

Graham’s sporting story is one of overcoming adversity, never giving up and finally realising your dreams. As headteacher of Brookes School, in Risby, Graham has the perfect life experience to guide his young students.

He said: “I was in my early 30s when I made my debut for Scotland so I had to be very patient. It was something I had wanted for a long time and it was a dream come true when it finally happened.

“There are huge lessons from sport that you can take into the classroom. Lessons around teamwork, relationships, resilience, commitment and so much more.

“As a headteacher, as in a rugby team, I depend on the support of so many people – now more than ever.

“Fortunately, at Brookes, we have a fantastic team of staff and parents all pulling in the same direction and all incredibly dedicated to doing the best for their students.”

Graham’s reference to ‘now more than ever’ comes at a time when many independent schools are facing an uncertain future due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

To combat these issues, Brookes has adopted a new parent-led management structure to draw on the skills and expertise of its community while a significant reduction in fees – and further discounts for the NHS and Armed Forces – have been introduced.

Speaking in the same week pupils started returning to Brookes, in line with Government guidance, Graham said he remained hugely optimistic about the school’s future.

“These have been challenging and uncertain times for everyone,” Graham said.

“But the last few months have also highlighted what a special school community we have at Brookes.

Lessons have re-started at the school – complying with social distancing and safety regulations

“Over the last few weeks, everyone has worked so hard to get the school reopened while adhering to the national guidelines. It has been great to see some of the students in school while also continuing with our home learning for all. We couldn’t have asked for more support from parents who have offered to help us every step of the way.”

While primary schools across the country have wrestled with reducing class sizes, this has not caused a problem with Brookes which had around 15 pupils per room pre-lockdown.

This allows for more specialist and bespoke teaching, with the school particularly renowned for its SEND provision.

What has caused more of a challenge is how you adopt an online learning curriculum for both local youngsters and overseas students who boarded at the school before having to leave the country when the lockdown was introduced.

Showing admirable commitment and resilience in equal measure, overseas students have gone above and beyond to ensure they don’t miss out.

Graham explained: “We have had one young student from Mexico who gets up at 5am to join in with the remote learning.

“We have said to him that he can take part a bit later on ‘catch up’, but he didn’t want to miss seeing his classmates. It is lovely to see and shows the dedication all our students are putting in.

“It also gives our local pupils a valuable insight into the lockdown conditions in other countries.

“We have found this cultural mix and the chance to learn about other countries first hand is a popular part of Brookes’ education and offering.”

In all, Graham played four times for his country – all in the 1997 Five Nations Championship – before his international career ended in Paris against France in March 1997.

He admits that he sometimes casts his mind back and pinches himself – especially when watching international rugby.

But coming at a time when all rugby was part-time, teaching was his first love. He worked as a PE teacher for Stewart’s Melville College, in Edinburgh, before joining Castle Manor Academy, in Haverhill.

In December 2015, he joined Brookes School and became headteacher of the independent school on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds in April, 2019.

Founded just under 40 years ago, Brookes School is an independent day and boarding school for children aged between two and 16 years old.

At its heart is a wellbeing agenda that Graham thinks will be crucial in the months to come as students continue to make tentative steps back to school.

He said: “In the current climate, supporting a child’s wellbeing and mental health has never been more critical.

“Our whole-school curriculum is based around producing good young people as well as achieving good grades. It is a child-centred approach that we are hugely proud of.”