Fast and slow lanes

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Catching the immediate aftermath of a Jacob’s lamb’s birth at 6.30 this morning and seeing the careful advice tendered by Andrew Martin (Head of Outdoor Work) to the student helping him (hold the lamb by the back legs and at its mother’s head height), I find myself yet more inclined to write about the things that schools usually do not do, rather than what they generally do do.

Here we are at the start of the main public exam term and it is tempting for heads to feel a little bit like the Roman battleship commander (iconic scene in the Kirk Douglas Spartacus springs to mind) who, faced with imminent battle, whips up the tempo of the galley’s drums so that the poor, sweating wretches chained to their oars increase their tempo to ramming speed. But, fear not.

The main pre-term INSET session for most of the Bedales staff was of the useful kind – two sessions where we were taught by a colleague about something we knew little or nothing about; so I found myself learning initially about the Russian and Greek alphabets; and then having an introduction to coding. Reminding yourself what it is to be a learner is a vital tonic for all teachers.

The other inspiration for the start of term was reading the last Harry Eyres Slow Lane column from the FT Weekend. I started reading the FT Weekend a long time before joining Bedales and appreciating that the FT’s CEO is an OB – John Ridding, who I asked down to talk here a while back. Harry Eyres came too and did a typically thoughtful Civics a few years back and his ruminative, countercultural writing has always chimed with me. So, I used it as the basis for my brief, welcome back assembly to the Bedales boarders on Sunday evening. The gist of it being that the Fast Lane momentum of exam preparation and timetables is strong and dominant and will run its course; try also to set aside some time to engage with the slower, more profound world that surrounds us, especially in this beautiful part of England.

I then outlined Harry Eyres’ ambition, as outlined in his final article:

“My ambition has been to set out a workable alternative to the romantic escapism of Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree. We can enrich our necessarily limited time by learning a short poem by heart, or even writing one; by returning to those viola or clarinet studies we gave up as teenagers, and finding that we can engage with the music in a deeper way and make it our own by popping in to a museum or gallery to see not a vast, intimidating blockbuster exhibition but just one dearly loved painting; or by playing, at whatever level and with whatever physical limitations, a sport you love rather than watching overpaid narcissists on TV….Many of these suggestions have involved a return to the active rather than the passive mode. Doing, making, healing, cooking, caring, conversing face to face, writing proper letters, rambling in nature – all seem to me infinitely more satisfying than merely buying things, being passively “entertained” by images on screens or engaging in various forms of digital non-communication.”

He goes on to talk about the “food for the soul” – above all poetry and music. We always have music at these assemblies – and often poetry so we started the term with the aforementioned Yeats and had a contrasting Larkin magical moment – Water, which for me captures the Eyres spirit of finding the extraordinary in the apparently mundane.

Thinking back to what I witnessed in the Hampshire dawn – anxious ewe, tottering lamb, kindly adult’s advice and a student’s initial lambing lesson – I suspect that the student will remember that moment even longer than she will today’s routine lessons.

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.