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.

Hiraeth, hefting and hygge

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By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Soon to re-visit Trieste and woken early by owls, I am reading Jan Morris’ poignant slim volume Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.  An extraordinary book about an extraordinary place, it introduces me to the Welsh word hiraeth which has no direct translation into English; she describes it in her introduction as “an unspecified yearning”.   Inklings of Spring bring hiraeth for some – perhaps most famously in T.S. Eliot’s opening to The Waste Land.   Here, whether it is through the Bedales Orchard’s return to pedestrian use (although please avoid the daffodils), the contented snuffling of Lucky’s new litter in the Black Barn, my first view of a red kite over the Orchard Building or the Dunannie Spring Festival, I find myself thinking more of the word used by Lake District shepherds to describe the way that their sheep become attached to a particular piece of ground – hefting.

The Dunannie Spring Festival combines dance, song, poetry and film.  We have strip the willow, owl and humming bird songs, touches of Oliver and Sound of Music and splendid haikus, the most striking being those in the voices of birds. Here is a sample – thanks to Sebbie, Tom, Oscar and Ted (see below).  The Festival ends with the film of a homemade Spring Watch episode, Dunannie-style, featuring daffodil girls, snow drop queens, pupil rabbits and spring poets, all surely hefted in their orchard.

Hiraeth and hefting are words which have a poignant twist for anyone lucky enough to be at The Middle East Society Civics given by William Sieghart on Tuesday evening. Having set up the Middle East Society after spending most of my sabbatical term in 2009 in that region – Cairo mainly, but Jordan and Syria afterwards – it is pleasing to witness an occasion like this when we have not only a wonderfully clear account of the problems facing the Israelis and the Palestinians but also such a clear sense of the broader responsibility that Europe has for what has happened there.  It is intriguing and humbling to hear about the work that William has been so closely involved with in helping community leaders from both sides gain a better understanding of each other and of the links between this region, Northern Ireland and South Africa. Attending a talk like this must whet your appetite to know more, I think, as the questions to William flow.  Lucky us to have this talk and lucky us to have the unusual blessing of a beautiful secure place to live in and a society whose discords do not threaten our lives.

Hygge is on my mind too: this Danish term, maybe a bit over bought in the Christmas hype, is the subject of an Extended Project (EP) that I am overseeing.  The EP folk – some 1/3 of the 6.1s – have the exhibition of their work in the Library this week and then are in over the weekend completing their pieces.   Here’s trusting that there will be communal hygge as they survey their work and reflect on how much they have learned about managing projects and the thrill that can accompany a single-minded pursuit of what intrigues you.

Albatross
By Sebbie

The albatross flies,

Viciously eats fish for life,

He shimmers the sky

 

Little Brown Owl
By Tom

Brown, silky feathers,

Illuminous eyes glowing

Scampering for prey

 

Tawny Owl
By Oscar

The glow in the sun

Shines on my feathery breast

Brown with speckled white

 

Sparrow Hawk
By Ted

Ready for action,

Dive with speed amazingly fast,

Sweet delicious prey

Dystopia revisited

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

A while back and in another school, I taught a sixth form General Studies course that was based on the idea of nightmare worlds; central to it were dystopian novels.  Unusually for such a course, the students seemed to have read most of the books on offer and when the course stopped after its one term’s duration, they seemed keen for more.  1984 (1948) and Brave New World (1932) were there of course, but it was Zamyatin’s We (1924), which arguably laid the imaginative foundation for 1984, that seemed to attract a good deal of the discussion.  Shortly after its publication, I taught Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which gripped its teenage readers with its nightmarish world and was an intriguing text to be talking with teenagers about in the ’80s.  Over the holidays I returned to Attwood with her very readable The Heart Goes Last, as well as finding Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror as my annual box set.

More’s Utopia (1516), the book that coined the adjectives, is now 500 years old; each Spring, our Block 5s who are taking the much admired Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (PRE) Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) become caught up in creating their ideal worlds; so the idea of Utopia is very much a feature of our shared cultural life.  So, it is salutary – scary actually – to stop and think about how many dystopian echoes there are in the way that the world seems right now. Early Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits (2011) especially, where the game show and unintended consequences of an increasingly digitally based world combine to create a garish living nightmare, now seems spookily prescient.

Specific to the USA, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) is thought-provoking.  I’m told we should be reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

But it is the masterly portrayal of totalitarian thought control in Orwell’s 1984 that seems to be capturing people’s interest.  I suspect that there will also be many more teachers who are encouraging their students to carry their reading of Orwell on into the essays, in particular Politics and the English Language with its memorable concluding thought:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Young creatives’ thinking

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

I finished my ramblings last week saying that the Young Creative Leaders session at the HMC conference was for me the most stimulating.  Why?

Three entrepreneurs, who had left school in the last 12 years or so, talked about the so-called millennial generation’s aspirations – what are young professionals looking for in their lives and how can we prepare them?  Lizzie Fane, founder of Third Year Abroad and Global Graduates, Phoebe Gormley, founder of Gormley & Gamble and Charlotte Pearce, founder of Inkpact made up the panel.

The threads that emerged from their session resonated strongly with what I hear from their contemporaries who are OBs and my own three children who are of that generation.

  • Do something you love, something that you find fulfilling, that makes you feel alive
  • Find something that gives you the satisfaction of seeing something through
  • Spend as much time as possible seeking out different experiences, especially through travel: this will help you spot a problem that you could solve through your business
  • Look out for the ways that “digital nomads” make their livings – people who have found ways of earning money whilst living in different places: technology transforms things
  • Enjoy having control over your time; you can share working space with other creatives
  • Look for all opportunities whilst at school to take new things on, take risks, work out practical solutions for yourself, even if you seem to be one of the awkward squad
  • Building a business is all about being able to inspire people with an idea and keep them motivated – look for chances to do this at school
  • Schools need to help students understand the business basis for schools through showing them how a school needs to operate.

Interesting to reflect on the influence of their parents in all this.  The cultural, social and financial capital of their parents has been a factor in enabling them to take these risks and start their businesses. But what is also interesting is that the millennials’ determination to have greater autonomy over their lives and give greater emphasis to their personal fulfilment is partly a reaction to seeing their parents disgruntled by their work – within the corporate world in the cases cited here.

All the above are handy reminders as we look at how the Bedales experience evolves and especially how we create the right spaces to enable our students to take responsibility and risks within a safe environment.

Being as open with students as possible concerning how their school is run and how decisions are reached is part of that.  An element of this is our annual Governors’ Question Time.  Mirroring Headmaster’s Question Time which happens termly, the Governors’ one has three governors in the panel with me in the Dimbleby role.

Last night most of the questions take the three governors – Matthew Rice, Tim Wise and Michele Johnson – into suitable areas which help show their role – areas such as how the school spends its income, reviews decisions I make and what are the next building projects.  Afterwards, School Council has a session with them.  These things should help increase our students’ understanding of how their school works – and by extension give them a better insight into how complex institutions and businesses operate.

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.