Insightful visit to Brockwood Park

By Blossom Gottlieb, 6.2

A vegetarian school where the students choose whether to take exams or not? Sign me up!

On 13 March, a group of three students in 6.2 took a trip with Al McConville to Brockwood Park School, only 15 minutes away in Alresford, to join their Inquiry Time (described as their “weekly opportunity to look deeper at issues arising in life, living together, the intentions of the school and how we respond to them”) and get involved in their Human Ecology (aka Outdoor Work on steroids!)

I was struck not only by the beautiful surroundings of the school, but the sense of community that we experienced in the assembly as soon as we arrived. Sat in a circular formation around a few meditating people in the centre of this octagonal timber-roofed room, the atmosphere of peace was incomparable.

Inquiry Time is an hour and a half session where students and teachers discuss a topic of importance, without debating it, enabling them to share their opinions without fear of judgement.  The question for last Wednesday was How does education affect us and how do we affect education? This led our group to question what ‘education’ is, semantically; whether examinations serve a purpose; whether schools actually ‘educate’ their pupils; and the impact education has on society.

After this, we got involved in Outdoor Work-style jobs. For Al, this was repotting plants and digging; for me, it was watching a documentary on re-growing vegetation in land that has been deforested, then wiping leaves, a task which allowed me to time to reflect on the morning.

It was a delightful and enlightening experience and I really enjoyed getting to know a few of Brockwood’s lovely students and teachers – I only wish more Bedalians had taken the opportunity to visit such a wonderful school.

Encouraging lifelong interest in sport

Bedales-football

By Spencer Leach, Director of Sport

In 2017 a survey by Women in Sport found that only 56% of girls in secondary school enjoyed participating in sport compared with 71% of boys, and only 45% of girls saw the relevance of PE to their lives against 60% of boys. The gender split is worrying, but in truth none of these figures are good enough – at Bedales, we want all students to leave the school having enjoyed sport in some way, and minded to continue some kind of participation in their adult lives. Something I think we’ve done particularly well at Bedales is to help students who have arrived feeling that sport isn’t for them to find something they enjoy. No matter the student, they will always get a warm reception from us, and we will try to find something for them that is suited to their abilities and preferences – for various reasons.

For example, sport brings distinctive opportunities for students to learn about themselves and others, and to develop confidence – although this needs careful management. In a classroom you can make three errors in, say, maths, and it is not immediately obvious. However, if you commit three howlers in the context of a team sport, everybody sees them and it may prompt disappointment and frustration. This requires staff to be alert to the dangers when mistakes happen, and to help students deal with them in an appropriate way. This requires some emotional maturity. It is interesting that some of our best athletes can find this difficult. In such cases, the coaches will be aware of it, and we are prepared for when students’ thought patterns are less than constructive. We encourage them to see that they are still in the game, that they haven’t blown it, and even if they don’t prevail on that occasion the world won’t end.

Of course, in all of this there is sometimes a tension to be managed between competing and ensuring everybody is involved, which is particularly evident in team fixtures against other schools. There may be the temptation to pursue a win at all costs, but I’m pleased to say over the last 10 to 15 years a more sensible approach has come to prevail, not least because national governing bodies have played a big part in making the experience of young people more central. So, in setting up a fixture I will have a conversation with my opposite number about our relative strengths and what we can do to make the encounter meaningful. Will the students enjoy it? Will they be inspired to practise and get better? The results will take care of themselves – in a well-planned season we’ll win some and lose some, and have some thrillers along the way. We enjoy success, and try to learn from things that didn’t go quite so well. And if we win 10-0 there will be some reflection on how we can make the next encounter between the teams a more challenging affair for the sake of both teams.

Although we are keen to find something enjoyable for all of our students, I like to think that we can also give our excellent athletes what they need from us. We work hard to find ways of challenging them that are meaningful and which they will appreciate. If we think they can cope, we find them opportunities with older year groups, and if we feel students might benefit from moving up to another representative level, we can make that happen. Our links with local clubs and regional representative structures are very strong.

We are not a big school and it is unlikely that we will have sustained national sporting success, but if we’ve got lots of children who have a positive attitude to being physically active, and will keep that attitude in their adult lives, then we do the subject justice – just so long as we make sure that we also stretch those students who really do have the appetite and aptitude for great things.

Visiting Thomas Hardy’s Wessex

Last Saturday, a group of 6.2 English students visited Dorset to visit some of the key sites in Thomas Hardy’s life, to complement their study of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and some of his poetry. Here are two perspectives from the trip.

By Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales

Thomas Hardy didn’t move far in his life; the distance from his birthplace in Lower Bockhampton to Max Gate, the house he built for himself on the outskirts of Dorchester once he had found success, is less than two miles.

First up was Hardy’s birthplace, a small cottage that has remained largely unchanged from when Hardy lived there with his parents and siblings. We were led there by National Trust volunteer Wendy, who led us through the woodland above the cottage and read to us some of the poems Hardy wrote inspired by the landscape.

The most ambitious part of the trip followed with our group walking through steady Dorset drizzle, following the River Frome across which Angel Clare had carried Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, to Stinsford Church, where Hardy’s heart is buried in the family tomb.

Further walking across boggy flood meadow took us to Max Gate, and a meeting with Andrew Leah, Vice President of the Thomas Hardy Society, who lived at Max Gate for 17 years before the National Trust opened it as a visitor attraction.

Andrew gave us a tour of each room and described movingly the creeping melancholy that coloured most of Hardy’s married life at Max Gate, followed by the guilt that consumed him after his wife’s death. We sat in the study room in which Hardy wrote Tess, and then moved next door to the room he took over when he turned his back on writing prose and wrote only poetry until his death.

By Thea Sesti, 6.2

By walking from one of Hardy’s homes to the other, we explored the landscape and the place Hardy was so tied to and served as a backdrop for so many of his works.

We were at times accompanied by a National Trust guide who read out some of Hardy’s poetry in the Dorset woodland, which clearly evidenced the sensibility and attachment to nature he had from a young age and emerged so prominently in some of his later novels, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Having studied the text as part of A Level English, we were able to draw comparisons between the then appropriately damp and evocative scenery we came across walking and that in the book, making us understand all the more the area’s impact on Hardy’s life as an author.

We were thus able to retrace his life’s journey as he moved from his family cottage to Max Gate, the house he built for himself and moved into with the first of two wives, following the rise of his wealth and fame.

Speaking at HMC Conference

By Blossom Gottlieb, 6.2

I had the pleasure of assisting Alistair McConville last Friday at the Conference for Academic Deputy Heads and Directors of Studies in Brighton.

Al invited me to speak for around five minutes about my experience in education, with the view of how institution-led learning could improve our current curriculum. We ran two sessions, each addressing around 25 people for an hour and a half.

Supporting the concept of internally moderated assessments and our own Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) in front of a somewhat sceptical audience was more challenging than I had expected. However, Al’s eloquent and inspirational arguments encouraged innovation in the vast majority of our attendees.

It was enlightening to meet so many influencers in the educational field and hear their opinions on what improvements could be made. I learnt some valuable oratory skills from listening to Al’s presentation and thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it.

I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity – thank you Al.

By Alistair McConville, Director of Learning and Innovation

It’s daunting having ‘innovation’ in your job title… People expect you to be working on something earth-shattering!

No trips to Mars (yet), but Blossom Gottlieb and I did venture out to Brighton last week to address the Academic Deputy Heads of the Headmasters’ Conference on the subject of running your own innovative courses.

Blossom gave the Deputies a heart-felt blast about the damaging nature of metric-obsessed approaches to education, and the tedious treadmill of nine or ten GCSEs. I weighed in with our story of doing things more imaginatively through BACs and Enrichment.

We highlighted the ongoing gap between the skills that GCSEs test – memorisation; speed-writing; endurance – and the skills that young people really need for the world beyond: collaboration; communication; creativity, to name but a few, and showed how we had been able to incorporate these into our programme.

We hinted at what might come next: an even greater degree of inter-disciplinary, real-life, project-based work, which is what employers are crying out for, and by happy coincidence, what young people are engaged by!

Watch this space for Mars-based projects…

Commission on Religious Education

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Philosophy, Religion & Ethics

The Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) recently reported its findings after a long period of consultation with stakeholders. CoRE was set up by the RE Council, but was run independently of it. As independent schools, we are unlikely to feel the full force of CoRE’s effect, but times are changing for Religious Education, and independent schools will surely find themselves influenced by the findings.

These key recommendations are likely to have the biggest effect on independent schools:

1. Religion & Worldviews

CoRE recommends that ‘Religious Education’ should be renamed ‘Religion & Worldviews’. Do not be fooled: this change of nomenclature is no mere windowdressing. The Commission recognises the huge change that has taken place in religious affiliation in the last fifty years, and argues that the subject must evolve to recognise this. Around 50% of adults in the UK have no religion. 41% identify as Christian. Focussing on ‘The Six World Religions’ does not reflect the religious (or increasingly nonreligious) nature of the UK. By introducing ‘worldviews’ to the subject, and requiring students to handle concepts such as secularism as well as religion, it is hoped that the subject will be useful in reflecting the conversations students will need to have in their lives as well as at work. Even though most schools in the Independent Sector tend to call this subject ‘Religious Studies’ and not ‘Religious Education’, this name change, and everything it implies, is causing controversy. The term ‘worldview’ is defined by the report, but not closely enough. Couldn’t a worldview mean any set of beliefs that are in some way foundational to the way someone sees the world? As Philip Robinson, the RE Advisor to the Catholic Education Service puts it, “communism, libertarianism, capitalism, nationalism and socialism are just a few nonreligious worldviews; should they be taught in RE too? It…seems hugely ironic that the answer to declining religious literacy should be to teach less religion.”

2. National Entitlement

Provision for RE has been found to be patchy in recent years, and increasing academisation of maintained sector schools has diminished the amount of RE being taught. 34.1% of academies with no religious character were not teaching any RE in KS3 in 2015; 43.7% at KS4. CoRE recommends that a National Entitlement is created to ensure that all students can access the subject. This might cause some independent schools to examine the provision they have in place themselves. Whilst there is no suggestion that independent schools will have to conform, the National Entitlement confirms the importance of the subject, and some independent schools might see fit to follow suit.

3. An ‘Academically Rich & Rigorous’ subject

A key aim that has come out of CoRE is a call for an “academically rich and rigorous” approach to the subject. Religious Education has historically served many goals: community cohesion; spiritual development; formation of world view; tolerance and understanding of others. Academic rigour has not always featured at the top of priorities in RE for successive governments. In the independent sector, there has been a longer history of an academic approach as the term ‘Religious Studies’ implies. The sector has a wealth of expertise amongst its teachers: expect to meet lots of textbook authors at the ISRSA Conference! Having argued that this is a challenging and academic subject, CoRE recommends that Religion and Worldviews is finally given the status that, as such, it deserves. For its whole history, RE has been a bit different, in its legal status, in its provision, in its locally agreed syllabuses, and, many would argue, this was for some good reasons. Yet, its unique place on the curriculum has also made it a bit of an outlier, difficult to categorise, and difficult, for some, to take seriously as an academic pursuit. Recent government decisions, namely the exclusion both of RE from the EBacc and of short-course RE from schools’ performance figures, have hugely undervalued the subject and led to a dramatic downturn in uptake nationally at GCSE. The Russell Group’s list of ‘facilitating’ subjects, where Religious Studies A Level is conspicuous by its absence, also hugely underestimates the usefulness of the subject for all sorts of areas of further study. CoRE requests that the Russell Group re-examines its list. Here, CoRE could have direct implications for the independent sector: some Heads of RS feel under an unfair amount of pressure to justify their subject, purely because of its seemingly arbitrary exclusion from that list. If CoRE’s recommendations are taken up, we can hope for better resourcing for teacher training, and hence higher quality applicants for jobs in both sectors. We can hope that students expect RS to be taught, and to be taught well, as it so often is by colleagues in the independent sector. More thanthis, we can hope, finally, to be understood for what we are. We are teachers of a valuable, viable, challenging and rigorous academic subject: so much more, but nothing less.

This article was originally published in Independent Schools Magazine

Remembrance Jaw

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Philosophy, Religious Studies & Ethics

At Dunhurst and Bedales, students commemorated the centenary of the Armistice at a Remembrance Jaw. Jaw at the Bedales Schools takes the place of chapel in more traditional independent schools. It is the time during the week for reflecting on philosophical, spiritual, religious and moral ideas and views.

Remembrance Jaw is the most solemn event in our calendar. The Bedales Archives project creating profiles of those Old Bedalians who died provided the substance for our commemoration. Students heard in much more detail than before about three Bedalians who died in 1918.

We heard about Edmund ‘Gabriel’ Rice, nephew Mrs Badley the founder’s wife. We remembered Ellis ‘Lynn’ Doncaster, who was shot down on the first day of the Battle of Amiens, and hence the start of what was to be known as the Hundred Days Offensive that ended the war. Finally, we remembered Oswald Horsley, known universally as ‘Pump’, a gentle giant, a lot of fun, and a popular choice for Head Boy.

Oswald was clearly an extremely courageous man, injured three times at the Front. In the offensive where he suffered considerable abdominal wounds, he continued to command his troops from where he lay injured. He was the only Officer to survive that day, and was awarded the MC. The day before he died in a test flight, having refused to retire after his injuries made a continued career in the infantry impossible, he came back to Bedales. As he left, he said he’d be back in a week. Tragically, he was right, as his body was brought back to the village for burial.

Our Founder, Mr Badley, wrote this poem dedicated to Oswald, which was read at his burial.

To O.H.

At parting, five short days ago
“This time it’s not for long” you said;
“You’ll see me back within the week.” And lo,
Your comrades bring you dead.

Their task done, each in token how
They prized their sunniest, bravest, best,
Advancing, gives the last salute; and now
They leave you here, to rest,

Where, by the old grey church, the view
Of half a county, weald and hill —
Wide almost as your vision from the blue —
Lies round you silent, still.

Rest, then, where you so loved to be,
Living, and, dead, be with us yet.
You have come back to us again, and so
Like you, we’ll not forget.

— JH Badley

The student-led curriculum group gets organised

By Alistair McConville, Director of Learning and Innovation

What springs to mind when you hear the word “Dons”? A candlelit high table crowded with kindly academics passing the port? Or a gathering of Mafioso types gathered in a back room, discussing the destination of the next horse’s head?

At our school, The Dons was the deliberately ambiguous name chosen for our latest venture in student leadership. The students struck on the name themselves, and were delighted by the way in which it hints both at academic ambition and rigour, yet retains overtones of anti-authoritarian subversion in the cause of “getting things done” a la Corleone…

As one of the pioneers of progressive education, Bedales has a long tradition of taking “student voice” very seriously indeed. Our school council, chaired by our head boy and girl, recently celebrated its 100th birthday. The Dons are the latest incarnation of this commitment to devolving meaningful responsibility to our students.

Essentially, the Dons are student leaders for each of the important elements of our school. Primarily, they are associated with academic departments – so the Don of biology or Spanish, for example – though other areas of school life also have a Don, such as our precious library.

The project was the students’ idea some four years ago. Above all, they wanted there to be students who could be approached for subject-specific help and advice by younger pupils, and who could become spokespeople for the subject, as well as representatives of the student body’s views to the relevant head of department (HoD). A consigliere of sorts, or perhaps something akin to a Roman tribune. Truth to power, but politely…

Respect the family

In the early days, the students were adamant that there should be no active oversight or management of this layer of student involvement from the adult leadership team. This was their baby, and they wanted it to operate in an entirely free-standing, organic way. Somewhat sceptically, we let them have their head.

This, frankly, led to a rather variable set of contributions across subject areas. A good number of Dons poured hours into supporting younger years, especially around GCSE time, and ran clubs and activities that related to the subject area. Others largely sat on their hands, revelling in the title and kudos, and boasting of it on their Ucas form, but were disappointingly unaccountable and inactive.

The students recognised the unfairness and ineffectiveness of this system, and soon sought to formalise the relationship between their network and the school’s more well-established structures.

The first big change for “Phase Two” was around the appointment process. We moved from a rather underground mechanism, whereby Dons more or less emerged from the shadows to be announced to HoDs by the students, to a rather more transparent process whereby aspirant Dons applied to the HoD, laying out their motivations and vision for the role. HoDs formally took on responsibility for managing their Don, and shared expectations were set. The head boy and girl attended a HoD meeting to negotiate the finer points.

The Don of teaching and learning is my sidekick in keeping some light reins on the whole project, which now feels distinctly more collaborative, embedded and effective than Dons 1.0, which now sleeps with the fishes.

What do they do? It’s delightfully disparate, with some students going across to our prep school to help lead activities or get involved in the science fair there.

Others organise external speakers and take responsibility for extracurricular societies. They pop up at the A-level choices fair to tell potential subscribers “what it’s really like”. No sugar-coating.

Flora, the religious-studies Don, is working on a student-sourced resource booklet for the new A level. Dons even attend departmental meetings from time to time to act as a sounding board on the issues of the day.

By far the most frequent offering is that of scheduled subject clinics for younger year groups, especially during our “quiet time” – Bedales’ light-touch version of old-school “prep” time. This proves especially popular in the run-up to exams and coursework deadlines – they’re literally being made an offer they can’t refuse.

Our most recent initiative was in response to a request from the governors that we make greater use of student feedback in shaping departmental development plans.

HoDs and Dons alike baulked at the idea of generating sheets of data from online questionnaires – both conscious of the dangers of headline metrics generated from tiny sample sizes – and negotiated a more qualitative way of identifying development areas.

So we planned a “feedback afternoon”, roughly following the model of a parents’ meeting, but with Dons behind the library desks instead of teachers, and students taking the place of parents. Students rolled through by year group to offer their unvarnished views on their experience, by subject, with Dons scribbling notes to translate (diplomatically and constructively, we trust) for their HoDs.

We’re mid-experiment, so how well this feedback will be converted into useful development priorities remains to be seen, but, nothing ventured…

An undoubted upside of all this is the inclusion of the students in the broader conversation about how teaching and learning happens. They have a voice.

There’s undoubtedly more work to do be done to refine the role of our motley, idealistic Dons, but it’s a stimulating dialogue with the students about how they can best be involved in the running of their community, and it can only be good for their general political and organisational awareness. Most hearteningly, it brings out their deep commitment to our very special school.

This article was originally published in TES magazine.