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.

Influencing

In our range of annual talks, the Global Awareness lecture is fast becoming one not to miss.  In 2013, the first speaker in this series, Dr Shahidul Alam spoke powerfully about what he called the Majority World – the Developing World in current Western parlance; he also spoke compellingly about “othering” – the sense that we needn’t treat other kinds of people as well as we would expect our own to be treated because they are different or other to us – imperial subjects, refugees, people of colour, disabled people.

Last night Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty,  gave as fluent, clear and compelling a case for human rights and civil liberties as most of us are likely to hear.  Take, for example, her stance on surveillance and the terrorist threat.  Worldly and risk averse in terms of accepting the government measure of the security threat, but fiercely principled on the surveillance that is deployed being targeted and proportionate rather than the kind of universal surveillance as proposed in the draft Investigative Powers Bill.  Do not be fooled by the “innocent have nothing to fear, nothing to hide” reassurance.

For the students proactive enough to get tickets, this was a brilliant example of the best kind of advocacy: warm, forensic, logical and rooted in a fierce belief in human dignity and rights.

Let’s hope that Shami’s next role will enable her to continue to deploy her gifts in the public arena.

Standing in silence…

Standing in silence on Tuesday morning notices, Bedales students and staff reflect on Friday’s horrific events in Paris – and how they strike at the heart of all we believe in – in particular the freedom we have to live our lives as we choose; we remember the dead and bereaved of these murderous attacks; reminding ourselves that we stand in total solidarity with the people of Paris and of France.

Dangerous foreign amblings

Poetry, literature and the dangers of monolingualism are all front page news – thanks to a timely debate sparked by Jeremy Paxman’s comments after judging the Forward Prize, Michael Gove’s impact on the national provenance of GCSE texts and the welcome alert to the shortage of strong British modern language students given by the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, Professor Borysiewicz.

I feel unusually smugly Govian as I teach my Block 1 lesson on Tuesday: they start by reminding me of the splendid Shakespearean insults that they have learnt and, yet more importantly, the appetite that their (proper, full time) English teacher, Melissa Canter has given them for the sheer flex, sinew and oomph of Shakespearean language; then I gather their thoughts on what they think makes for poetry before drawing on a few adages on the topic  – from Hardy and Larkin (Govian murmurs of approval, please) – segueing into the stunning and unusually  (for someone better known for being urban-dreary) lyrical Larkin poem Cut Grass. So, a lesson that begins with Shakespeare, dallies with Hardy and then concludes in the sweet spot of the English pastoral-lyrical tradition – 10/10 for me on the Govian British Isles scale. And I suspect I am doing quite well too by Wordsworth and Paxman benchmarks on accessible poetry – stuff ordinary folk can appreciate.

Sadly – and here is the confession – I have erred over the course of half term. Foolishly, I allowed myself to be bundled onto a train by my well organised wife (Dutch extraction, a few generations back, I fear); I then found myself in a very comfortable armchair travelling at high speed towards Paris (where awkwardly that almost British Isles author Joyce wrote a bit) and then on to Strasbourg, still sitting comfortably. Even more dangerously, I found myself confronted with a range of books, some of dubious origin: Burial Rites, an enthralling and thought-provoking first novel by Hannah Kent, an Australian, about a young Icelandic woman condemned to death for murdering her lover;  Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s eagle-eyed commentary on cultural cross-currents between the UK, USA and Nigeria; The Mighty Heart,  Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson – about, well, what it says, but one of those mind-whirring books which sets you both thinking and wanting to visit all sorts of places across North Africa, the Mediterranean and the near East; and The Undertaking by an Irish author, Audrey Magee, about Stalingrad and domestic life in Berlin.  (Didn’t like that one but loved the other three, by the way, and didn’t read them all on the train, of course.)

So how did I do on the Gove scale? Well, The Mighty Heart is fine because Adam Nicholson is British, although being mainly a Scot, he could easily soon fall foul to a re-defintion of the British Isles; sadly, though, the book is about Greeks and others from outwith these isles, although Homer’s yarns have been quite influential on much of British Isles literature, even Joyce’s Ulysses (if permitted).

Aside of feeling relieved that our own, homegrown Bedales Assessed Course in English Literature will allow us the scope to choose the texts, from Britain or elsewhere,  that we feel are right for our students, I feel embarrassed that, maybe unwittingly, Michael Gove has allowed himself to appear Farage-like in his literary parochialism. Enough from me – here is Michael Rosen’s much more balanced and fully referenced Letter from a curious parentDear Mr Gove…

Appreciating the frailty of civil liberties

How do you jog young people into appreciating the frailty of civil liberties? Bring someone like Andrei Sannikov to speak to them. For many, an abstract concept was made real, as his story and that of his sister, Irina Bogdanova, who also spoke, unfolded at Civics last night. We started the evening seeing a ten minute film about Andrei, co-founder of Free Belarus, and in particular the consequences for him and his supporters of standing up against President Lukashenko, as they did on 19 December 2010 when they mounted a peaceful demonstration in central Minsk. The shots of the riot police beating their shields in unison and then charging at the demonstrators was chilling; Andrei had both his legs broken and was imprisoned, initially with a five year sentence for “organising mass disorder”. It was only after considerable intervention from Amnesty International and other humanitarian organisations that he was released. Granted political asylum in the UK and living now with his sister in Woking, Free Belarus, the movement for democratic change that he leads now continues to lobby for action against Lukashenko, in particular through economic sanctions. Andrei’s dignity and courage, understated and (in the best sense) modest, came over powerfully as he talked of the continuing struggle, of the links between corruption and dictatorship, of being in a Minsk jail (“horrid”), of the importance of organisations that work for human rights and of the need never to take civil liberties for granted.  Note to self is to ensure that a regular thread within our range of visiting speakers is someone who can speak from personal experience about their own struggle for liberty.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.