Digital divergence

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Get 15 heads in discussion about the use of mobile phones in their schools and you will get 15 views; get 467 Bedales students in a symposium and you will certainly have plenty of divergent views.

On Tuesday, at the meeting of our heads’ cluster group (the 86 Group) each head described the policy towards daytime use in each of their schools: the range is from prohibition to full acceptance.

On Wednesday, we had our first whole school symposium for a long time.  I started symposiums off here as a replacement to the whole school meetings which had taken place from time to time. The shortcomings of the whole school meetings was that there was no method to garnering the views of all and the voices of the most confident and vocal older students would be bound to predominate.  This symposium, led by Head Students Maisie, Ritchie, James and Scarlett, was preceded by an online questionnaire which engaged students in the issues and provided some very useful findings which were produced at the start of the plenary session and helped shape the debate that ensued.

The next stage will be for some of the key proposals to be discussed in School Council over the next few weeks.  What is clear is that there is sufficient  appetite for some change.  As with the best change here, it will occur because there has been informed discussion with the community’s welfare at its heart – in this case through the questionnaire, symposium and the resulting discussions.

The best kind of behavioural change happens when there is a consensus about what is reasonable, considerate and decent behaviour towards other members of the community.  At the heart of this must be the primacy of the living, breathing people that surround you in the flesh, not the distracting digital image or text.

Winter rites and pedantic wrestling

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

We know winter has arrived when we all stop being able to walk on the grass and when the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness gives way to the season of feasts.

Feast happens to a student when, following an academic review, his or her academic efforts give cause for celebration. Like many good ideas here, Feast came from talking to students. A few years ago deputy head academic, Al McConville, asked his student teaching and learning group how they would like to see their academic efforts recognised.  At that stage recognition was based on my or my deputy “seeing” students individually or on sending postcards – we continue to do both, with meeting students in groups over tea a handy Louise innovation. These things happen out of the winter months (winter = autumn half term to February half term). Al’s group said that it would be really nice to have a special meal at Keith and Moony’s house. So, during the winter months, and in the Northern European tradition we feast.

Interestingly – and here I unleash my inner pedant/punctuation-geek – students had no truck with an article preceding the noun – Feast stood, capitalized proud and uncluttered, a proper noun needing no diluting article.

Visiting one of our New England exchange schools, Putney in Vermont last month, I was struck by their weekly communal singing session. It’s called Sing!  Yes, it’s that most wiry of verbal forms, the imperative. So, in the spirit of grammatical top trumps, here’s my suggestion for our own homespun culinary festive event: Feast!

Louise, being an hispanist, is no doubt going to suggest ¡Feast!

My imperative (Feast!) would capture the cry that goes out in the staff review meetings when teachers are acclaiming a student’s efforts – “Feast!” they exclaim, (I now like to think), imperatively.

An additional spin on this is because of the emoji effect on punctuation. See the photo below for how one breakfast cereal imbues a word with additional glory through its own mixture of embroidery and punctuation. I look forward to the next iteration of the design with invented/emoji based punctuation.

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Finally, here is a homely touch to give you some sense of what the doormat looks like at 50 Church Road when you have 40 or so Bedalians to supper and it is wet and wintery outside. Cosy inside – Viking style candelabra fired up and Moony’s chocolate brownies hoovered up appreciatively.

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Celebrating Badley

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

This coming weekend helps us celebrate the vision of the school’s founder, John Badley or, to his pupils and colleagues, Mr Badley or the Chief.  Its activities range from the Whole School Effort at Bedales (when 500+ students and teachers will create potential pasture from raggedy scrub) to the Bedales Community Festival on Sunday when we work with three charities and offer a range of activities to the wider community.

Amongst all this we have (on Saturday afternoon) a reception for donors and (on Sunday) a reunion of Old Bedalians who left 50 years ago. For me the weekend really gets going when, on Friday evening, I don my tweed plus twos and a red tie and go to Dunhurst to do my annual Badley Jaw.

Each year there is something new to add to the life of this multi-faceted and visionary man:  last year I showed slides of the very fine watercolours he did when he visited Palmyra on his Middle East tour.  This year I am going to talk about his penchant for skiing – he took skiing trips of current and former students well into his 60s.

But amongst all his many writings, it is his advice to teachers which rings as true as anything.  Here are some to ponder:

We shall do more by encouragement and the stimulus of example.

Planning a scheme of work is to be done for at least a year ahead.

Our whole system at Bedales is based upon intimate individual knowledge and personal influence.

I know that the happiest work is done when there is felt to be freedom.

Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

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.

School and The Future

How much should schools be refuges from the realities of the adult world?  To what extent should we alert our students to the challenges they will face in adult life?

Starting here in the early noughties, I felt that Bedales offered too much of a warm bath of reassurance – too impermeable a bubble.  A formative early experience was the outrage I faced from students when telling a 6.1 cohort that they weren’t working hard enough and that it was simply no good for them to compare themselves with their contemporary here, but they needed to think about the person they were competing against, who was at Manchester Grammar, King’s Canterbury or a high performing sixth form college.  I was roundly told that they regarded their school as somewhere that needed to keep that world at one remove – I had no right to be trying to frighten them into action like this.

Things have changed – within the school and outside it.  The zeitgeist out there is different, now we realise that the la-la land of continuously rising living standards and secure-ish jobs is no longer a fixture.

I gave an assembly last night which looked at the speed and extent of automation – the fourth industrial revolution that the World Economic Forum is telling us about – in the light of humankind’s striving for the ideal; so there is Utopia, Brave New World and, almost contemporaneously, G.M. Keynes’ famous essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren where he envisages the world of 2030 where the leisure which “science and compound interest” have won for the imaginary grandson will enable him “to live wisely and agreeably and well.”  In Keynes’ high-minded view, it is not just that we will have enough money not to need to work for much of the time, but that we will have moved beyond money – that’s another topic, albeit an intriguing one.

I then paid court to Moore’s Law and the likely impact on middle class jobs that this speedy wave of automation will bring – using one of my favourite pieces of holiday reading, Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots; but what I was most interested in sketching out was what schools need to do to prepare their students for this rapidly changing world.

So, this was my list:

  • Cross-disciplinary thinking – working across subject disciplines, especially Science and Humanities.
  • Collaboration – interconnectedness will put this at a premium. The place of the lone scholar with his quill is limited.
  • Communication – hand in glove with what’s above and below.
  • Empathy and respect for people from different backgrounds and cultures.
  • Love of learning and with it an appetite for life-long learning.

Although I think we do a lot of this quite well, there is more that we can and should do.  I am sure that our independent-minded students will happily join the debate.

 

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.

Adolescent Mental Health

At last government has woken up to the crisis in adolescent mental health, with the Chancellor announcing £1.25 billion extra spending over the next five years on mental health, with particular support for adolescent mental health. The upsetting accounts of parents striving to get their children the care that they need through the NHS, the awareness amongst us heads about the number of students in our schools whose mental health is of concern and the raw figures that illustrate this crisis are all deeply worrying.  The Sunday Times, which is doing really good work on this score with its campaign to improve the mental health of Britain’s schoolchildren, cites the grim statistic that in 2014 more than 17,000 children were admitted as emergency psychiatric cases last year – twice the number of four years ago.

The experience of parents trying to get help for what is after all an illness, with the potential to mar young lives no less than other well publicised illnesses that affect adolescents such as cancer, is salutary: waiting times that are long that the alternatives are either not having the help when it is desperately needed or going private. The step which we all trust government and NHS funding bodies have taken is true recognition that this is an illness which, like any other illness, needs treatment.

Two further questions: what has brought this increase about?  How can parents and schools help our children keep mentally healthy?

Responses to the first are speculative and anecdotal, but I have little doubt that the pressures on young people to succeed at school – academically, socially and outside the classroom – have increased since the great recession. At the same time the pressures that we as adults – whether as parents or as teachers – often unwittingly – push down to our children have increased – pressures “to succeed”, which means securing a job and lifestyle which ensures fulfillment, material success and (always nice to have it all) social admiration.

What else has changed since the haphazard and, let’s face it, inglorious days of the 1970s when my lot bumbled through? Social media, the increased use of prescription drugs to deal with mood, society’s acceptance of recreational drugs as part of many children’s growing up and high expectations about personal happiness and fulfillment; after all today’s adolescents and twenty-somethings are the offspring of baby boomers and their successors who have (for no reason after all other than historical luck) enjoyed the rising living standards and a relative secure job market that cannot any longer be taken for granted.

So what can we do in schools and at home to keep our children in the best mental fettle?

1) Help young people develop resilience and self-esteem through experiencing activities that challenge them, often things outside their studies.  (Jenni Brittain’s blog on the Independent Schools Council website deals more fully with this.)

2) Accept that all of us as parents and teachers have a responsibility for children’s mental health and that we model the behaviour that our children will emulate.

3) In schools, ensure that the structures and the support systems are in place to give the students the ability to work their way through as many of their own problems as they can and to have the skills to help other students – crucially, knowing when they need to gain adult support from a teacher. (Our forthcoming conference for pastoral staff – Thriving in a Changing World – could help here.)

4) Being proactive with simple things like mindfulness, exercise, healthy eating.

5) Listening and being attentive to their needs.

6) Having the right support network – pastoral staff, counsellor and then referrals as necessary to additional health professionals, GPs and more specialised, which takes us back to the Chancellor – let’s trust that money makes a real difference.


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.