At Bedales Prep, Dunhurst, pupils will mark Mental Health Awareness Week with a Pupil Voice Conference on the topic of this year’s theme – loneliness. Like Bedales Senior, where the School Council was one of the first in the country when it was established in 1916, Dunhurst has a long tradition of listening to pupils’ views. Today, empowering children to find their voice and put forward their views is just one of the school’s initiatives designed to support pupils’ wellbeing and mental health – but it is far from a tick-box exercise. At Dunhurst, the wellbeing of its pupils is at the heart of everything the school does.
It is especially noticeable at this time of year, when most prep school pupils around the country are preparing themselves to sit the Common Entrance exam. Head of Dunhurst Colin Baty considers Common Entrance “an antiquated way to select” and cites evidence around adolescent mental health as a reason to exercise caution when forcing prep school children to jump through such hoops in preparation for senior school. As such, Dunhurst pupils do not sit the Common Entrance exam – and instead use the time to head off on ‘Camps Week’, a whole school residential trip to different areas of the UK, where they take part in a plethora of outdoor activities, including mountain biking, moor walking, cycling, kayaking and horse riding. As Dunhurst’s Deputy Head (Pastoral) Graeme Thompson explains: “We give our pupils the space and time to grow. Each child experiences childhood at their own pace.”
Camps Week is an example of pupils’ access to green and blue spaces – such as parks, meadows, woods, rivers, lakes and sea – which, as studies show, have a positive, immediate and long-lasting effect on people’s health and wellbeing. At Dunhurst, however, pupils don’t need to leave the school grounds to access green spaces; the school, along with Bedales’ senior and pre-prep schools, is set in 120 acres of South Downs National Park, and pupils are encouraged to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Uniquely, the school’s Outdoor Work curriculum – a core subject which incorporates nature and conservation, horticulture, animal husbandry, bushcraft and country crafts – enables pupils to develop an awareness, appreciation and knowledge of the natural environment in line with Bedales’ founder John Badley’s original aims, whilst developing self-confidence, passion, empathy and teamwork.
As part of the curriculum, Dunhurst pupils are actively involved in the care of the Outdoor Work department’s chickens, ducks, guinea pigs and bees, and there are opportunities to feed and care for other livestock on the Bedales estate, including pigs, sheep, goats and ponies. But interaction with animals – which is proven to have a calming and de-stressing effect – isn’t limited to the school farm. As a dog friendly school, staff dogs – or the ‘pastoral pups’ as they are affectionately known – are a familiar fixture. From Colin’s Goldendoodle to the boarding house’s resident Black Labrador, the dogs are an integral part of school life and provide pupils with an array of cognitive, social, emotional, physical and environmental benefits.
Fundamental to Dunhurst’s approach to wellbeing is relationships, which is ingrained in Bedales’ distinctive ethos. The school’s founding motto, ‘Work of Each for Weal of All’, may be over 100 years old, but it hasn’t faded in relevance. “The school motto underpins everything we do,” says Head of Wellbeing Debbie Baty. “Every pupil has the right to enjoy a childhood at school, but this right comes with a responsibility to be a positive influence within the Dunhurst jigsaw.” The ethos offers opportunities for pupils to support fellow pupils – for instance, peer to peer listeners, known at Dunhurst as ‘RAKtivators’, promote ‘Random Acts of Kindness’.
In contrast with other schools, staff and pupils address each other by first names, and pupils shake the hands of all staff after assemblies and talks – features of a culture that values the individual and celebrates relationships with one another and the school. Such an approach allows for a closer collaborative relationship between teachers and pupils, and this collegiate approach is extended to parents through three-way communication between teachers, parents and pupils known as the ‘Dunhurst triangle’. Debbie has recently launched a ‘Let’s talk about…’ series for parents, which will focus on teenagers’ development as well as sharing the content of pupils’ Wellbeing lessons, which supports and teaches skills to enable children to increase their awareness of emotional health and wellbeing.
Whilst wellbeing is at the heart of everything Dunhurst does, it isn’t at the expense of academic success. In fact, Deputy Head (Academic) Andy Wiggins says: “It’s always been borne out, year after year, when we look at how Dunhurstians perform when they take their GCSEs and A Levels, and compare them with students who have been academically ‘hot housed’. Time and time again, Dunhurstians prove that they get comparative or better results – and they’ve had a much richer, holistic experience.”