Teaching: place and people

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Teaching’s especially on my mind as the term’s start coincides with summer warmth.  Sunday’s assembly for freshly returned boarders allows me to talk about the way this place can spur us to engage both with each other and to think differently.  My seasonal higher education talk mid week is about how inquisitiveness – fostered here and then furthered in higher education – is the motor for lifelong learning: being interested in stuff makes you more interesting, both to yourself and to others.  Take advantage of these amazing opportunities – Roger Penrose ‘n all.

Teaching is important to headship – for your own wellbeing as well as showing others that you are as much a teacher yourself as someone gesturing in the distance in order to get others to do things and (you trust) make the right things happen.  So by Thursday lunchtime, I have met two new classes (a Block 3 and a Block 1) and taught some Chaucer (suitably enough “When April with his shoures soote…) and some Larkin  (Cut Grass).

I have also done some learning as finally I manage to coincide with sausage-making, seeing the outdoor work team and a Block 5 student in action in the Bakehouse.   Here is the pork (double minced), the rusk (gluten-free) and the seasoning – all nicely mixed in water and ready to be fed into the proverbial sausage machine – delicate job this bit and best not described too intricately so I will move on.

Last thing and I am watching Living with the Brainy Bunch (BBC), which, although billed as an interesting account of the effect of parental influence on students’ progress, is as much about the power of patient, encouraging, determined teaching.  Jack is something of a detention king (105 last year, he says with a smile) and Holly goes walkabout in her lessons, more through fear of failure than anything else.  Both are moved from their low expectation homes to the homes of high-performing students with whose parents have high expectations.  Academic achievement and self-esteem improve.  Jack’s smile and demeanour at the end say as much as his much improved Maths score.

But most on my mind is the telling conjunction of two extraordinary Bedales teachers, sadly now dead, who were Bedales teaching colossi and who inspired generations of students:  Ruth Whiting, who died last Friday and who taught History here from 1963 to 2000, returning after that to invigilate and do amazing work with the archives, in particular commemorating the OB dead of the First World War; and John Batstone,  Head of English from 1968-1993, who died in December but whose memorial service takes place tomorrow.   Testimony to the power of great teaching abounds in the way in which these two are remembered by their students.

Teachers Matter

In the wake of Professor Stephen Hawking’s testimony to the influence of his Maths teacher from St Alban’s School, we have our very own Professor Alan Lucas, former student of Dunhurst and Bedales, giving us a powerful account of how an inspirational Bedales Biology teacher, Andrew Routh, changed his life.

The occasion was Civics, when Alan Lucas, speaking to students and parents, told the story of his extraordinary journey of ground-breaking research into paediatric nutrition.  In the audience was Andrew Routh, aged 91, the Biology teacher who had particularly inspired Alan during the later stages of his time at Bedales in the early 1960s.

Gemma Klein Photography

OB Alan Lucas with his former teacher, Andrew Routh

Alan’s description of the Damascene moment when his weak academic trajectory started to climb was particularly telling: his Physics teacher, Bill Crocker, sees him dawdling over a piece of work and gives him a strong verbal prod – “Who do you think you’re doing it for, me? No, you’re doing it for yourself.”  That comment changed his whole approach to school, making him an early riser and hard worker: it changed his life; he then went on to outstrip the two other undergraduates on the same course at Clare College, Cambridge who had been to a school with a much more “coercive, carrot-dangling ethos.”  Alan put his success down to this formula:  “inspiring teaching + life-changing self-motivating remark + freedom to develop in my own way.”

Currently Chair of Paediatric Nutrition at UCL and Fellow of Clare College, Alan has been instrumental in changing the way that babies all over the world are fed through alerting the medical world, not only to the importance of breast-feeding but to the effects of early nutrition on long term health and development.  The advice being given to nations across the world – whether by their own governments or by the World Health Organisation – is influenced by his work.

Like Stephen Hawking, Alan extolled the importance of inspirational teaching – both the kind he had here but also at university where university academics need to have the excellent presentational skills that the best teachers deploy. His advice to the students “If a teacher inspires you, try to analyse how they do it, because that is a great thing to learn.”

Alan spoke briefly last night about what he did when he won the James Spence medal for life-time achievement in British paediatrics.  When I talked with him in the autumn he told me the full story.  As soon as he had won this award, he phoned up Andrew Routh and told him “We’ve won a medal.”  He then drove down to Hampshire to see Andrew to show him the medal, congratulate him, thank him and, as he said last night: “We had a moment then.”

For any of us lucky enough to spend time with Alan and Andrew last night, it is difficult to feel anything other than gratitude for the power of great teaching and life-altering scientific research.

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Andrew Routh during his teaching days at Bedales

Nailing it

Want straight-talking no-nonsense advice on looking after yourself or, if you have stumbled or waltzed into parenthood, your child?  Call Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, one of Australia’s leading adolescent and child psychologists.  We are lucky: he has chosen to visit his old school – Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst – 51 years after he left, after a brief but happy stay as (yes..) a seven year old boarder.

Having spent Monday evening with Michael, heard the positive ripples from the seminar he led with Bedales and Dunhurst pastoral staff in the afternoon and seen him in action in his illuminating lecture in the Bedales theatre in the evening, I can see why he is such an influential and sought after figure in the topical area of adolescent wellbeing and mental health

Like the best teachers, he clearly likes, understands and relishes working with young people.  There’s no whiff of condescension.  There’s no beating around any bush or ducking any issue.  That look on the face of an outraged teenage girl when her parent has told her that she cannot have what she wants is memorably named by Michael in the title of his best-selling book – Princess Bitchface Syndrome.  We might think it – he says it.  In his clunky terminology, nailed.

Parents’ occasional, supine feebleness over things digital is also nailed: “Find your digital spine!” he exhorts; if what your youngster is telling you s/he should be able to do is clearly against their wellbeing, forbid them!

Likewise nailed are things that anyone who has worked with children and been a parent knows intuitively.  For me, one powerful truth is foremost in my mind: the value of what he calls “islands of competence” or sparks.  This is what educators see on a daily basis: the impact on a young person’s life – and therefore wellbeing in the broadest sense – of something catching their interest, energy and ultimately passion.  Michael talked with typical humour about his son’s passion for leg-spin bowling. It could just as easily be the violin or blacksmithing or tennis or Beowulf or the guitar or cross-country running or running your own car-washing business.  The role of schools and parents is to create the environment which gives children plenty of choice – and then to allow the child to fan the spark into a fire, cheering on what they do.

Sometimes it takes a while to see the effect of those islands of competence or sparks.  Intriguing then on the night following Michael’s talk to be at one of our first Old Bedalian gatherings based on a particular career area – in this case Art and Design.  So, I and colleagues far better qualified to be there – Art and Design teachers above all – have such an enjoyable and stimulating couple of hours in a (stylish, hipsterish) place under a rumbling arch by Waterloo.   Here are around 100 OBs – aged 19 upwards –  who have made their ways in areas connected with Art and Design.  Many conversations go back to those moments at school when a spark caught – and the fires keep burning and burning.

OB Minnie Driver champions education

How cheering to find Old Bedalian Minnie Driver championing great teaching, both for Obama and for Pearson. (View more on the Pearson Teaching awards website and watch Minnie Driver talk about her Bedales teacher Alistair Langlands). Her last visit here was memorable for her saying at a Bedales assembly how much she regretted not staying on for the sixth form. Minnie also reminded students what a wonderful gift for life it was to be taught what made for really good writing, as it informed so many of her subsequent judgements as to what was good and what wasn’t.

We are currently in the thick of the UCAS application season and checking UCAS references daily, reforms to the system look like good sense: Post Qualification Application (PQA) is now firmly back on the agenda, but it has been before and universities haven’t gone for it. The attractions are considerable: if students apply once they have their grades, say in July, then they are at least six months older, have their actual results and are in a much better position to know what they want to do and where.  UCAS’ figures on the number of A Level grade predictions that are correct (fewer than 10% are correct across all three grades) are a reminder of how approximate it all is at this stage. The biggest disadvantage of the new system would be the further erosion of teaching time. Summer holidays would need to be different, with the start of the school year moving into August, as it is in Scotland. Will PQA happen this time? I suspect that, with so much changing in the university sector there will be an appetite to push this through. If so, when? Not for a while – we are probably talking about the 2016 university entry at the earliest. See the consultation website for more details.

By Keith Budge, Head, Bedales Schools

Bedales sixth formers meet OBs from a decade ago..and more

Last Friday saw a gathering between our 6.2s and 11 OBs (Old Bedalians) who had left 10 years ago. Unusually, this is not a first-hand account as tradition has it that the head’s presence would make the OBs less candid, so I stay dutifully away, but always enjoy the accounts received. The 11 OBs talk about what they have done since leaving school – how university was for them and how working life has been – the routes they have taken to doing what they are now. The presentations are followed by plenty of time in the sixth form common room when students can quiz them individually. So, we had a Met police officer, a production assistant from the Harry Potter films, a political researcher and speechwriter-turned producer, a rock band member, a regional manager for Tesco, a financial outsourcer, a photographer, dancer and yoga teacher, accountant, digital designer for Mercedes Benz and a film maker working for Paul McCartney. Not only was there plenty of good down to earth advice but also inspiration, especially through that combination of passion and confidence that is so often the hallmark of the best Bedalian characters. To cap it all it emerged during the course of the evening that two – OBs that is –  had married each other this summer.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools