Creativity benefits

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Amongst the good places to be in Britain, the National Theatre and the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon are up there.  What I see or do when in these places is almost secondary to being there.  Soaking it up in the National Gallery is a close second.

Why? Because being in places which celebrate the creative power of the human spirit heartens.  Knowing that this country once had the courage to provide the necessary subsidy to create a national theatre; it is daily fillip to see what a beacon our two great theatres are for work that makes us think about how we live.

This feeling is compromised by knowing what is going on in maintained schools at the moment.  Why are we squeezing creativity out of our schools?  Asks Director of the NT, Rufus Norris, in The Guardian.   I would add to Norris’ hard-nosed statistics about the benefit to the UK economy of the creative industries (which are of greater value to the UK economy each year than the automotive, oil, gas, aerospace and life sciences combined) the view that a major factor in keeping Brexit-sensitive highly paid jobs in London will be the strength of the capital’s cultural life, as well as the quality of its independent schools.

The practical benefits of the so-called creative industries in the world after school are mirrored in schools.  In thinking about what schools should offer, it is fun/scary to imagine a school stripped of something so central and life-enhancing that we currently do: so imagine a school with no music, art, dance, design or drama.  No bewitching glimpse yesterday of the forthcoming Dunhurst Blocks’ play (Curious Children) as the stage heaving with most of its 100+ actors brimmed with life; no Daniel Preece art master class on cityscapes; no stream of potential designers heading off to art and design schools;  no scholars’ concert; and no musical performances at assemblies and Jaws.  It’s a dystopian vision akin to imagining a school without Maths and Science.  In short, misery!

Here is Yeats to sum up:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

– W.B. Yeats Among School Children

Resolutions and challenges

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Never a fan of New Year’s resolutions, I find myself wondering why: simple, I like resolutions and challenges too much and don’t see why they should be simply for the year’s start.

So, what weremy Christmas holiday’s resolutions and challenges and, thinking more broadly, what might be some of this term’s?

Re-discover Wales: go to the Gower Peninsula, enjoy the restaurants of Mumbles, climb (most of) Pen-y-Fan,  traverse Rhossili beach’s splendour.

Remind myself of Dickens’ riches: re-read Little Dorritt.  Grapple imaginatively with something truly unpalatable,  the plight  women of the USSR  armed forces in the Great Patriotic War (The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich).  Discover an author I haven’t properly appreciated – Helen Dunmore  (Talking to the Dead, Counting the Stars). Read someone I didn’t know existed – Elizabeth Taylor (Mrs Palfrey at the Claremonth). Wonderful.   Read a book that challenges my thinking: Money: the Unauthorised Biography, Felix Martin.

See another thoughtful musical (after Spring Awakening) – Sondheim’s Follies at the NT with its echoes of Death of a Salesman. See the RSC’s Imperium, six hours of drama based on Robert Harris’s account of Cicero’s life. Unexpected bonus here was finding OB Pierro Niel-Mee in two central roles – Clodius and Agrippa.

Chuck out a load of old stuff – de-clutter.  Happily seeing my family doesn’t involve the need for resolutions, at least so far.

But, much more importantly, what are the challenges thrown up by the start of the term?

Our first Wednesday notices brings some: knit something creative and try for the Jacob’s Sheep Society’s (JSS)  Lady Aldington Memorial Trophy. (Warning: if you flirt with the excellent JSS website, you could be gone for some time.  But at least read about the history of the breed, which is suitably romantic.)

Be there at the Junior or Senior Literary Society’s discussions of the books they have read over the holidays – The Talented Mr Ripley and The Hare with Amber Eyes on two evenings next week.

Come to the Classics’ Society’s revival meeting on Mythology (which underpins most things classical –ask Cicero) or hear Charles Hall’s Civics on Venice.

Most pressing in most students’ minds will be the imminence of mock exams (for Block 5 and 6.2) and the challenge of getting a great deal done in the mere ten weeks of term.

But by the close of Wednesday, quotidian concerns, vital though they be, are put into a different context by the first Jaw of 2018, given by Charterhouse’s chaplain, Clive Case, who talks arrestingly about the value to us all of  bringing into our lives more silence.

Today’s eye

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Up early this morning and catching the end of the farming programme, where discussion is all about how to sell food to millennials, who relish the authentic, unlike smug baby boomers like me who have occasional cravings for those sweetly synthetic sausages that on a good day you found in your beanz.  Reading yesterday’s paper on the train I finally read an article by George Monbiot on the connection between immersion in a virtual world and the rise of fascism and racism (our greatest peril? Screening ourselves off from the real world).   Thinking about the way the natural world impinges on our lives, I read in Country Diary’s account from Wenlock Edge that the origin of our homely word daisy is from the Anglo Saxon daes eage or day’s-eye and that a group of nuthatches is called a gidding.  I find delightful links like this as reassuring as crumbling soil between my fingers or hearing our Head of Outdoor Work, Andrew Martin, refer to the birth of his own daughter  in the same breath as our sow’s farrowing (“our little piglet has been joined by other little piglets…”).  The pungency of the world of real experience surpasses the virtual.

Reassuring too, to think over the cheering encounters of my week; yes, of course, alongside some more quotidian concerns, but reminding me of how lucky I am to be doing what I am.

A Monday evening that finished listening to our senior literary society discussing Paradise Lost under the guidance of Head of English David Anson in his house.  For many it was their first encounter with Milton’s magic and insights were strong.  Tuesday evening brought a gathering of former students at the Royal College of Surgeons who are making their careers in STEM areas, from those in the higher reaches of academe to recent leavers tussling with Maths degrees or about to start out on their first engineering job.  Wednesday brings the two Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) devised Drama performances.  Based on the ideas of Space and Time, their exploration of complex and difficult ideas (mental illness, drugs, identity, perspective) is brought across with an impressive grasp both of theatre’s many resources but also of the power of collaboration. Rough magic at work, with brain and heart mining into the soil of experience to powerful effect.

All this is shot through with lots of conversations and other messages about my decision, announced on Monday, that in July 2018, I will pack up this particular kitbag and saunter off to pastures new.  Lots of heartening and flattering things, yes.  However, premature nostalgia is almost as bad as premature goodbyes, so here’s a resolution: to do my best to avoid the sentimental and any further mention of leaving in these missives in the intervening 17 months.  There’s much to do and relish in the interim.

Mid-term musings

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Approaching mid-February, the academic year’s mid-point and that welcome time when the black dog that scampers in front of you is visible as you stride out into the dawn light before breakfast.

This week leading up to half-term has our spirited Valentine’s Ball as a highlight for sixth formers. Invitations to the V Ball pop up, sometimes in early morning Notices, sometimes in German, sometimes dramatically choreographed. Meanwhile our Block 3s are musing on the grotesqueness of the industrialised mass killing as they survey the Flanders battlefields.  Alongside all of this our 6.2 theatre studies students produce their devised pieces – 30 minute creations of their imaginations, influenced by the practitioners they study and honed into dramatic form with acute negotiation and teamwork amongst their teams of five or six.

Over the years, I have seen the most gorgeous medleys of absurdism, tragedy, kitchen sink realism, mime, comical-fantastical – you name it, this is the theatre of the possible.  Here’s the recipe: take human minds at their most fervently creative; provide stimulus (a polaroid picture this year); encircle with sufficient expert teacher structure; and finally, give space, light, sound and audience.  Result? Pieces that make you think – both about how we live but also about what can happen dramatically when ingenuity, verve and skill collide.  Over recent years I have seen these plays enacted in live graves dug by the theatre; I have seen the most stinging dramatising of how it feels to be objectified as a young female; and this year’s trio was as powerful and expert as I can remember.

In their own way, plays like these are part of something that all good schools need to be doing constantly, alongside the necessary granular work of academic pursuit: exploring what it is to be human.

What better mid-week treat then to have a Jaw given by Gary Wade, a man who (lucky fellow) knew Seamus Heaney personally.  It is a masterly account – in tender admiration – of (arguably) the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century writing in English.

A lover of Heaney myself, I find myself rootling amongst his poems late at night after the Jaw and a subsequent meeting. I am taken back to some of the classes that I taught Heaney to a long way back – Death of a Naturalist, North and The Haw Lantern. But there is so much more. Gary concluded with his favourite Heaney poem, Postscript. Its final lines describe so beautifully what human insight through art can do (“catch the heart off guard and blow it open”).  But, as the days lengthen and we need to at least nod to that V day, here’s a poem that is its own distinctive love song – to a person, place and creature:

The Otter

When you plunged
The light of Tuscany wavered
And swung through the pool
From top to bottom.

I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,
Your fine swimmer’s back and shoulders
Surfacing and surfacing again
This year and every year since.

I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.
You were beyond me.
The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air
Thinned and disappointed.

Thank God for the slow loadening,
When I hold you now
We are close and deep
As the atmosphere on water.

My two hands are plumbed water.
You are my palpable, lithe
Otter of memory
In the pool of the moment,

Turning to swim on your back,
Each silent, thigh-shaking kick
Re-tilting the light,
Heaving the cool at your neck.

And suddenly you’re out,
Back again, intent as ever,
Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,
Printing the stones.

– Seamus Heaney

Technicolor worlds, bravely lit

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Wednesday was one of the highly flavoured days when I have a series of technicolor moments that animate life, even in November’s neutral tones, and make me feel very lucky to be doing the job I am.

Bedales Notices first thing not only includes adverts for the forthcoming Hunger Banquet, production of Medea and visit to Florence (please wear a coat too), but a Movember message from moustachioed men: the message from Boys’ Flat housemaster duo Chris Bott and Peter Thackrey is about men’s health – let’s talk about it, blokes – but it’s done with humour and humanity.

Over to Dunhurst now for my weekly lesson with Block 1 English and another short poem for us to explore. After reading short gems like Larkin’s Cut Grass and local lad Thomas’s Adlestrop, this week we are talking about Yeats’ Wild Swans at Coole. 

The Block 1’s initial insights are impressive and I think of an adage a recent interviewee slipped in (“Children can smell qualilty..”) as I move along the corridor to the packed hall where Dunannie’s production of The Tempest is about to begin.

The children have been engaged in the story both through their teachers and through a visiting story teller. It’s clear from the first moment that the Dunannie children have truly inhabited the story. The adaptation, wonderfully constructed by teachers Camilla Bell and Catherine Claasen, with music by Ben Harlan and Mea Wade, comprises twelve scenes that light the imagination.

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Anchored especially in my mind’s album are moments such as the Boatswains’ song with its great rhymes, the evil Duke’s wicked single black glove, Caliban’s green gloves and the meeting between Miranda (with her classy umbrella) and the marooned Prince Ferdinand.

There’s something magical about The Tempest, which is a dramatisation of a kind of fairy tale, being brought to life by such a young audience, with parents and grandparents looking on as this tale of greed and envy being redeemed by forgiveness and the hope of youth is played out.

Bravo, Dunannie!

Readying the set to go

Returning home past our oak-clad theatre from a very respectable display by the Bedales Ist XI footballers (against the distinctively named Corinthian Casuals) as the dusk gathers late on Saturday afternoon, I notice a side door open on the flank of the theatre and slip inside into a golden glow.

Here is an Aladdin’s cave of activity: under the watchful eye of our theatre designer, Joanne Greenwood, the tech and stage crew are working at the set for the forthcoming main school production: Sound of The Night Feather.  I will not spill dramatic secrets here, but the set involves a novel configuration and I understand that when the cast had the run of the freshly minted set for the first time early this week, there was warm admiration for what Joanne and her crew had created.

For me these moments, when you see the process that underpins a production, are as stirring as the business of seeing the final performance itself.  Without the devoted efforts of this team over the course of many weeks, the vision for the production would be stillborn.

So there is Oli with his dinky control tablet testing all the lights.  Harry and Chris are our other tech-meisters. Hilda is sorting out a seam of masonry, whilst Tom is brandishing a drill and looking for a place to plant a hook.  Others will be busy in the lighting box.

I am told that there will be a reveal – great! But no, I certainly do not want to see it now, but greatly look forward to its revelation next week.

Students immerse themselves

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It’s a big weekend for all-ins, when Design and Drama students are free of the limitations of the 35 or 70 minute bitesize chunks we call lessons and can immerse themselves in true making with long stretches of time. So, Sunday afternoon and it’s all go in Design. Upstairs amongst the Block 5 BAC design fashionistas, Oli is mastering the intricacies of PVC as he crafts a space-age-looking concept dress whilst Charlotte A’s dress has intricate veiny patterns, Barny’s has a Brazilian cathedral as inspiration for its jagged, pixie tassels and Scott is ironing on 70s style crystals. All are working to demanding designs born out of their own inspiration and in materials that require patience and skill in the making. Downstairs where the materials are resistant, Ottoline is at the lathe fashioning the base for her light whilst Josh is in a haze of beeswax as he smooths his elegant disc. Keen football and tennis men, Taye and Orlando are creating bespoke, elegant homes for their kit, whilst Yoji is working metal to shape the roof on his model of his Utopian new Bedales music school. The workshops have the productive hum of people immersed in what they do – self-generating work of the best kind.

Over in the theatre the weekend is working towards its finale with the 6.2 drama students – a “tech” session then a first run through at 7pm of the two devised A2 pieces. Each group has been working throughout the weekend, with the help of director-in-residence, Georgie Sampson and head of drama Phil King. On Sunday afternoon the students have the additional benefit of a visiting practitioner, Lucy Ellison of Mapping 4D, who watches each piece, bringing “fresh eyes” and additional advice. Although the craft will result in a more ephemeral creature when these pieces are staged on Wednesday and Thursday, the hard work in shaping stubborn material into a finished shape is born of the same impulse and discipline that pervades nearby design. Tough but good work.


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.