Inspiring futures

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

I’m talking at the Inspiring Futures conference tomorrow and am mulling over what I might say.  I need to provide the schools’ perspective on how we should be preparing our students for the future – in particular 4IR – or the Fourth Industrial Revolution – aka the Digital Revolution.   I have 20 minutes and, at my request, it is the final slot.  So, I plan five slides.  Here’s a shrinklet version, slide by slide.

A cheesy crystal ball: we humans love predicting the future and we will so often be wrong.  The hapless verb “to future-proof” is a notable example of this.  Yet, human beings are remarkably adaptive and, in spite of our poor planning for the future, are often fleet-footed in response.   Preparing for 4IR may be too late – but how can we best prepare for whatever 5IR and 6IR are going to look like?

A frontispiece of Silas Marner, showing how the sad, miserly spinner has become part of his loom: work has made him into a machine; tempting to think this is all about preparing our young people for work, but it is also about preparing them to live enriched, fulfilled lives.  In this respect, we need our students to have an understanding of the ancient verities of philosophy and literature and to appreciate the Arts, as well as having a strong science and maths base.

The rear view mirror of a car: our educational systems prepare us for the world that has just passed.  My schooling prepared me well to serve the needs of the British Empire, just as it had gone.  Education ministers tend to hanker after the past – the fixations of Michael Gove and poor primary school children’s subsequent current fixation with adverbial clauses, for example.

A set of ball bearings beautifully balanced:  how to achieve this balance?  The state needs to limit what it requires of school children, especially in those formative GCSE years, and provide much greater freedom within the curriculum; so cut the requirement for so many GCSEs – Maths, English and Science are the only ones that the government needs to assess.  If you allow head teachers in schools to exercise their independence, you create space and therefore flexibility in the curriculum.  Such an approach challenges the current sclerotic, silo mentality of the curriculum.  How can you expect students to develop the necessary flexibility of mind and creative thinking if the curricula they encounter are often so dull and formulaic?

A blossoming chestnut tree:  how to give our youngsters the best chance of living the most fulfilled lives?  See W B Yeats’ image of the chestnut tree (“great rooted blossomer” from Among School Children). Here is a list of some of the qualities we need to help bring out in our students:

  • Capacity for independent thinking and problem solving
  • Appetite for lifelong learning: establish a love of learning early and it stays
  • Enjoyment of teamwork and collaboration
  • Understanding of other cultures – enjoyment of international links
  • Sense of wonder: to inspire and be inspired

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…

 

Conferring on boarding

Just about to leave the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) conference in the heart of Victorian Manchester. Much good idea sharing and updating on everything from safeguarding to outreach, but it will be the memory of positive advocates for boarding that will stick with me above all.  Both are men who exemplify the degree to which the right kind of boarding experience can have a transformative effect on the individual’s confidence.  In the BSA magazine, Tony Little, former head of Eton, described the quality well: “through my own experience [in boarding] I have seen students metamorphose from cautious caterpillars into bold caterpillars ready to take flight”.

The first example was Ben Fogle whose speech, early in the conference, referred to the way his experience at Bryanston had transformed him.  In the BSA magazine he summarises it: “Shy as a mouse, I lacked a voice and probably a personality”.  Boarding was a powerful ingredient of “confidence… confidence in me. I began to feel comfortable in my own skin.”  He concludes by describing confidence as the antithesis of the public school swagger: it’s “a virtue. A skill. A feeling. A value.”  His testimony and his subsequent life are fine examples of the effect of that miscellaneous bundle of experiences, mainly encountered outside the classroom, that go under the dry expression ‘co-curricular’ (switching on the TV late last night, there is his large frame, commenting on the mating habits of wildebeest).

The second example of confidence in action was last night’s after dinner talk by Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Security Correspondent and ex Marlborough student.  Although he would be the last one to describe himself in this way, his talk and his life are, like Fogle’s, an example of physical and moral courage.  Frank described how his experience at school made him hungry to get out and do new things once he left Marlborough.  This translated into him, as a student of Arabic, having the chutzpah to knock on the door of a family in Cairo and ask if he could live with them and learn their language.  His account of his near fatal wounding at the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates (“losers”, as he described them) in 2004 was especially powerful: his extraordinary luck in surviving that attack and the way that writing his experience down had been decisive for his state of mind.  Here is an example of both confidence and an inspirational, cheerful resilience: his conclusion “life is still an awful lot of fun”.

Lucky ducks and big thinks

This headline, a Lancastrian exclamation, certainly doesn’t refer to actual ducks (who are incidentally happy with plenty of water to splash around in after mid-September downpours), neither does it refer to the nine piglets I saw sleeping cosily alongside their proud mum on my walk with my canine friends earlier this morning, nor does it refer to said two dogs, one of whom managed to steal a French loaf from my kitchen table last night and escape detection through subterfuge; but it refers to students who are encouraged to think for themselves and have the stimuli to do so. They are the lucky ducks.

At the start of the last two academic years we have had a potent symbol of this through the “Philosophy Of…” conference. The brainchild of Oscar B-W when he was in 6.1, it aims to explore the thinking that lies behind different human activities.
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This year’s conference, organised by Becky G and Patrick N gave us six speakers who ran across the spectrum: conversation/writing; religion, feminism/the media, journalism in war zones, campaigning for climate justice and literary biography.DSC_0013

Here is a sample of the big thinks we were encouraged to have, drawn from the three talks I attended: when we want to be kind do we want to do so because we have been brought up to be so or because we are intuiting kindness? Would you rather save Venice for posterity or save 3000 people who might die in an earthquake in another part of Italy? What makes for a really good conversation? (Olivia Fane). What pressure can we put on our governments to ensure that the climate change talks in Paris this December are successful? How can we de-carbonize our economies? (Farhana Yamin). What are the most dangerous countries on earth? Why do we know so little about the most dangerous (the Democratic Republic of Congo)? To what degree is our view of what is happening in the world dependent on whether journalists are able to report from that country? What drives the John Simpsons and (this speaker) Oggy Botchev to take the risks they take?

We will run this conference again next year – indeed next year’s student organisers have already stepped forward. Big thinks are good at any point, but especially before the more routine business of A Level courses start to predominate.