Seasonal cycles

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By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Out early before the day bakes up;  literal black dog is jaunty as we walk  from Church Road, through the semi-natural Steep woods and up to the base of the Hangers, enjoying the whiff of wild garlic and a family of Canada geese in the small pond above the mill lade; we return via All Saints’ churchyard’s cluster of wild poppies and our own domestic creatures – russety pot-bellied pigs rootling and Black Rock hens taking the late dawn air as we return home via Outdoor Work’s handsome vernacular family of buildings, now joined by their big svelte cousin, Art & Design.   Agricultural cycles and care for the land been always been in my family’s marrow: the resonances with the educational world I inhabit are especially striking at this juncture in the year.

Last week I spent half an hour with the 10 new teachers who will join Bedales in September at the start of their induction day.  I talk, as I did with the new head student team, about trusteeship: so, we are all trustees of something much larger than we can ever be – a school’s culture, its better habits and instincts – and our responsibility must be to hand it on in better shape than we found it.  As well as giving them confidence in keeping to the high standards that most of them have established already in the craft of teaching, I alert them to the particularly high expectations that our students have of mutually trusting and respectful relationships between themselves and their teachers.  This is, I say, the most important and influential thing we have and something that they can and will in time find powerfully nourishing.

There is a palpable sense of expectation in the room – this talented crop of teachers with their energy, optimism and passions!  Of course, as the obscure saying goes, the proof will be in the pudding, but I leave the room feeling buoyed up, thinking that the school is lucky to attract such people and I am lucky to be able to see them start their Bedales journey.

“Life is a casting off”, so says Linda Loman in Miller’s great reflection on working life, Death of a Salesman, which I am delighted to see our Block 3s writing about as I nose around amongst their end of year exams on Monday morning.  These young people, less frisky but a bit more knowledgeable than they were in September,  have entertained their parents to a Saturday lunch virtually all grown or raised (“Happy Pigs” – see photo, above, which accompanies the barbecue) during this academic season by each tutor group under the careful, farmerly and pastoral eye of their Badley tutor.

Casting of a different kind is being contemplated as news of next term’s school play being a musical filters out.

Teachers retire and move on or back to places from where they came.  And we are now in the season of staff goodbyes, which are going on out of the public eye before the more formal, collective events of the end of term.

Amongst the students, the Block 5s have returned following their GCSEs and are having a week of taster lessons so that they have the best chance of choosing the right (generally) three A Levels.  I find myself in one such lesson where the class is being asked to match Greek statues of different eras with vases of a similar age.  Discussions of musculature, naturalism and the constraints of each  genre are a taste of how gripping and formative great sixth form teaching can be.  Plenty of good stuff for us all to look forward to.

Leading independent thinking

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Bewitching days here now – steady heat and even a nightingale singing in one of the trees between 50 Church Road and the Village Hall as Moony and I sit on the terrace / patio / stoep as dusk gathers.

Even in the teeth of public exams, there has been fruitful stuff happening in terms of student voice and engagement.

On Monday evening, Josh, a 6.2 student who is close both to the end of his A Levels and to the end of his time at Bedales, gave a talk to the Pudding Club – the gathering of our 3i group.  Josh had chosen to talk about ‘How we learn and what makes us tick’.  His talk reflected on his decade spent within the Bedales Schools and how well he felt that these environments worked  alongside the innate drivers that help us learn and underpin our behaviours: valorisation – the values and behaviour of teachers which students naturally copy and which creates the self-confidence and “willingness to do what’s good” in the students;  the need to find out about the world and how it works, reflecting the “intelligent thinking” that lies at the heart of our education; and finally the sense of wonder, “innate curiosity” that is so closely linked with creativity.

The power of Josh’s talk was shown in the quality of discussion it evoked – clearly what he said had resonated with many of the students in the meeting.

Wednesday’s Jaw was taken by Richie (6.1) and was about music – its use for propaganda and protest.  Beginning with a remarkable film from 1908 of the Marseillaise being sung and the use by the French government of this rousing song (inspired by the need to defend Strasbourg), he went on to talk about the role of the piano in middle class European life, before crossing the Atlantic and involving us in the role of music in the Vargas 1930-42 Brazilian government.  He then made protest music the thread, with Bob Dylan, Martin Garvey and then the extraordinary story of Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, set up in Nigeria in the 70s and destroyed by the Nigerian government in February 1977; this was partly in response to the popularity of his protest song Zombie which attacked the mindlessness and power of the Nigerian military.

Student initiatives and talks of this kind are the best kind of inspiration for other students – and all the more powerful coming at a time of year when schools and students tend to be thinking exclusively about exams.

Mating tunes

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

The last week has been a combination of much getting to know new students, quite a bit of talking, signpost work outside the Orchard Building and listening to some stimulating talks – most of which have been in school.

Last Saturday’s Philosophy Of…  conference is led by students (6.1s when they started planning it a year ago, 6.2s now) and is designed to get us to think – a handy prompt for sixth formers especially at the start of an academic year.

Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Imperial College, London, showed how areas traditionally dominated by humanities graduates are now being taken over by scientists and how scientific methods of data analysis are being used to identify musical and literary trends and the ingredients that make a hit song or a best seller.

Tunes can mate, he posits:  the Darwinian process of natural selection, speeded up by computers and aided by human beings eliminating the hopeless tunes and allowing the better ones through, causes random sounds to be created initially and then, through this process of continuous adaptation gives us some passable tunes at the end of the process.   OK, it is like a melodic ringtone but a computer has done it.   Watch out for Google’s Deep Minds project which has enabled a robot generated piano sonata.  Artificial intelligence can make a similar formula for a best seller.  The process that precedes it is the distant reading (meaning a computer doing the reading) of the five thousand best selling works of fiction of recent years  in order to identify particular types of plot and recurring ideas  (by spotting key words).  The model thriller/science fiction/Greek billionaire seduction (by rather than of) novel can then be constructed.  Yes, the latter is a popular genre.

Out with the English graduate, in with the data scientist, he says.  This writer, an English graduate, then goes over to the theatre to hear James Harding, History graduate, Head of BBC News and former editor of The Times: like Leroi he is another speaker with a gift for making us think.  Asked the question, “what will the world will look like in 2026?” he answers “I don’t know.”   Sensible, he argues, because the world is particularly unpredictable at the moment.  Four reasons why:

  • Inequality and interest rates: massive shift in wealth inequality as the rich can borrow what they want; asset prices rise, the poor get relatively poorer: the politics of anger prevail.
  • Islamic extremism competing with secularism.
  • The pace of technological change and the impact of everything from driverless cars and dating apps on human wellbeing and behaviour.
  • Identity politics: individuals are more likely to be influenced by what seems true to them and what they feel than by tribal loyalties to, say, political parties, which only 30% of us support.

But, he is upbeat when asked questions by students about whether they should be fearful of the future; and he is the first person for a while I have heard saying it’s a great time to start out as a journalist.

Lots to take on board and it’s only Saturday lunchtime.  Monday brings a conference run by the House of Commons Education Committee on The Purpose and quality of education in England, a consultation to which Bedales has made a submission.

Again, much food for thought, but it is Mary Beard, whose promotion of Classics and interesting thinking makes me a big fan, who has the last word.  Don’t think passionate disagreement about what people should learn is anything new: Socrates met his death through choosing the wrong curriculum – “corrupting the youth”.  Read Aristophanes The Clouds for a satire on a new curriculum and just remember if the twin drivers of education are ever increasing measurement (via exams) and regulation (because no one can be trusted) then it will all eventually collapse.  Abandon a good number of GCSEs as a starter, she suggests.  Well, yes, Mary…

 

Is it all admin?

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Does my life consist of admin? I think this obtuse thought having done some of my early morning farming duties – feeding of chickens (increasingly friendly and productive) and walking of dog (always in search of old tennis ball) – as I walk around the estate, squinting at the Downs through the mist and greeting other early morning dog walkers.

Admin? In Scotland the stress is generally put on the second syllable, which gives it a jauntier feel, but it doesn’t have a jaunty reputation.  I am replaying a conversation I had last weekend at a wedding when I was asked by a teacher – do you spend your whole time doing admin?  No, I said, but now I am thinking about what I do and whether it is admin (however stressed).

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Bedales Taster Day

So, let’s give yesterday a whirl.  Big day on interviewing – that was about six hours.  Then, a quick excursion to our outdoor Sotherington Theatre that involved seeing the finale of a feeder school taster day  – a couple of entertaining playlets on quasi classical themes which mixed, for example, the Jack and Jill story with the myth of Sisyphus  (hills/pails/stones etc); all capped by an impromptu lunch of stuffed dates and the most delicious Roman dip of multiple herbs and spices – hypotrimma – courtesy of Head of Classics, Chris Grocock and his wife, Sally, who is a Roman culinary expert.  Seriously tasty and always nice to eat alongside toga-clad folk.

What then?  Some time with a group of parents discussing the importance of the Bedales ethos – how we endeavour to retain the right balance between giving our students an appropriate amount of freedom whilst keeping them safe and fulfilling our statutory responsibilities.  Then a prospective parent, who is Italian, which I always like.

This followed by a major annual landmark moment, which is the final Wednesday afternoon tutor time with my outgoing head boy/head girl team.  We have tea in strong late afternoon sunshine on the terrace at home and devour a jam sponge cake; then I let them know who their successors are going to be – they, along with teachers, having had a strong influence on the final decisions.  Next stage is for the five of us to go over to my office where there is much hugging (by them of the new people) and I meet each of the incoming head student team and pop the question.  The incoming team, accompanied by the outgoing one, then go across to Jaw where they do their first “shush” to much acclamation. It’s all very touching and affirming.  So, many thanks to Becky, Max, Patrick and Bea for all their great work and fine leadership; and congratulations and the best of luck to Luca, Sam, Ce and Michael as they set out on their year’s term of office.

Next thing is Jaw, which is taken by students – brothers Noah and Rafferty and Maisie (6.1 and 2 and Block 4 respectively) who recount their experience of working in refugee camps in Dunkirk and Calais over the holidays.  It is a powerful account and one of the strongest pieces of testimony I have heard to the transformative effect of working in those kinds of situations. Handshaking follows.

It’s now 7ish and, after a bit of scurrying around in the office (admin, I suppose) checking some letters and I am over in the main theatre greeting parents whose children are joining Block 3 in September.  We have our usual mixed panel – a range of staff and four students, mainly Block 4s.  The session is followed by a buffet supper in the Dining Hall. The hall is busy with new parents meeting their youngsters’ Badley tutors and house staff.  It is a convivial and productive occasion which always makes me feel good about the term to come and mitigates something of the impending sense of loss which comes with the prospect of losing a 6.2 year group that we have all become very fond of.

Back home to make a phone call to offer that job and then something to eat and a little bit of relaxation.

Admin? Not really.  Plenty varied for sure.

Trains of thought

It’s Percy, of course, I now realise, as I have a quick search for what the green one is called – the Tank Engine, of course – that I nearly trod on when I came across it lying on its side when going towards Emma’s Walk this morning: a stray, be-dewed green engine, dropped from a passing stroller or by a toddler. I lift the lost toy reverentially and stand it off the path on a nearby tuft so that the bereft youngster has a chance of a joyful reunion. Having seen with one of our offspring how Percy, Thomas & Co were instrumental in spurring him initially into speech, I hold these toys in high esteem. The first time we heard anything spoken by him from a book was when he came out with an impromptu chunk from Thomas the Tank Engine. Well done Rev Awdry.

Inspiration is a funny old thing and I find myself musing on this in the light of a series of events over the past week.

The first is an occasion that I don’t attend, because it might cramp the participants’ style; that is the evening that our 6.2s have with nine Old Bedalians who are ten years on. I hear – both from 6.2s and from the 6.2 housestaff – that this was inspirational and thought-provoking, dealing as it did with the passions that students seek to follow and the challenge we all have of trying to match your passions with a way of making a living and feeling that you are doing something worthwhile. The range of OBs included roles which people (wrongly) don’t always associate with the school, such as lawyers with top London firms and a fast-track civil servant.DSC_0012 (Large)

The second is a conversation I had with an OB who was back for the reunion of those who left the school between 1963 and 1967. Eminent now in his own scientific field, he talks about how it was a single reprimand from his biology teacher that set him going. Trying to make excuses for not having done a prep, as if he had failed to do it for the teacher, he was met by a gruff riposte: “Well who do you think you are doing the work for? It’s not for me, it’s for you…”  The further, inspirational teaching from another biology teacher was what gave him the momentum that carried him through his degree at Cambridge and then his research.

The third is seeing Lela & Co, a new play by Cordelia Lynn (who left Bedales in 2007) at the Jerwood Theatre (Royal Court). This is a powerful piece of work which has been extremely well reviewed. You will need to work hard to get a ticket as it finishes on 3 October. Dealing with sex-trafficking, the effect of war on human relations and the nature of relations between men and women, it is a beautifully nuanced piece which cleverly avoids being preachy and maintains such a fine balance between the cheeriness of the central female role and the ghastliness of her experience. Catch it if you can. If not, look out for the next play from this rising OB talent.