Standing up

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Chutzpah – one of our language’s most zesty borrowings  (Yiddish, 19th C)  – is a word you don’t often hear in educational circles, but it’s what springs to my mind on Thursday morning as I listen to Bella’s assembly at Dunhurst.  She stands in front of her teachers and fellow pupils and captures all our attention as she engages us with her subject – Malala Yousafzai and her book Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Changed the World.  Bella, a Block 1 (Year 7) student has launched a book club, based around this book; she tells us about Malala’s life, the Taliban’s attempted murder of her in 2012 and her subsequent survival and work, including speaking to the United Nations and meeting President Obama.  She commands the stage, managing to ask questions of the audience and still keep momentum and rapt attention.  She is loving it – and so are we: the book club will, I am sure, flourish.

A culture which expects young people to stand up in front of their peers and engage them, whether through enthusing them with their own interests like Bella did or through a debate, a musical, dramatic or even a feat of magic is helping generate chutzpah in its young people. It’s a scary and foreign business, standing up in front of large groups – but what a brilliant thing to have once you’ve overcome your nerves.  An integral part of the three day residential assessment (that our candidates for Block 3 entry sit) is a Merry Evening when each group of 10 has to prepare and perform a short piece, based on a chosen theme, in front of their peers and teachers.  It creates a colourful and enjoyable evening, but it also reflects the expectation that all our young people should be able to stand up and engage an audience, having developed their own style and their own reserves of this particular kind of chutzpah.

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.


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!

Nailing it

Want straight-talking no-nonsense advice on looking after yourself or, if you have stumbled or waltzed into parenthood, your child?  Call Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, one of Australia’s leading adolescent and child psychologists.  We are lucky: he has chosen to visit his old school – Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst – 51 years after he left, after a brief but happy stay as (yes..) a seven year old boarder.

Having spent Monday evening with Michael, heard the positive ripples from the seminar he led with Bedales and Dunhurst pastoral staff in the afternoon and seen him in action in his illuminating lecture in the Bedales theatre in the evening, I can see why he is such an influential and sought after figure in the topical area of adolescent wellbeing and mental health

Like the best teachers, he clearly likes, understands and relishes working with young people.  There’s no whiff of condescension.  There’s no beating around any bush or ducking any issue.  That look on the face of an outraged teenage girl when her parent has told her that she cannot have what she wants is memorably named by Michael in the title of his best-selling book – Princess Bitchface Syndrome.  We might think it – he says it.  In his clunky terminology, nailed.

Parents’ occasional, supine feebleness over things digital is also nailed: “Find your digital spine!” he exhorts; if what your youngster is telling you s/he should be able to do is clearly against their wellbeing, forbid them!

Likewise nailed are things that anyone who has worked with children and been a parent knows intuitively.  For me, one powerful truth is foremost in my mind: the value of what he calls “islands of competence” or sparks.  This is what educators see on a daily basis: the impact on a young person’s life – and therefore wellbeing in the broadest sense – of something catching their interest, energy and ultimately passion.  Michael talked with typical humour about his son’s passion for leg-spin bowling. It could just as easily be the violin or blacksmithing or tennis or Beowulf or the guitar or cross-country running or running your own car-washing business.  The role of schools and parents is to create the environment which gives children plenty of choice – and then to allow the child to fan the spark into a fire, cheering on what they do.

Sometimes it takes a while to see the effect of those islands of competence or sparks.  Intriguing then on the night following Michael’s talk to be at one of our first Old Bedalian gatherings based on a particular career area – in this case Art and Design.  So, I and colleagues far better qualified to be there – Art and Design teachers above all – have such an enjoyable and stimulating couple of hours in a (stylish, hipsterish) place under a rumbling arch by Waterloo.   Here are around 100 OBs – aged 19 upwards –  who have made their ways in areas connected with Art and Design.  Many conversations go back to those moments at school when a spark caught – and the fires keep burning and burning.

Timely reminders

Having been unavoidably away for much of last week, it has been good to spend some time reminding myself of the important constants of school life – the equivalent perhaps for a farmer of getting in amongst the stock and crops – and of the energy that animates a school.

First stop is Outdoor Work, where you usually see the best of people and where there is always something new – in the polytunnel great care is being taken by the Block 3s to make an A frame up which beans will grow and I see a student’s face light up in a way that I had not seen before. In the barnyard I find two Block 5 boys, Ed A and Henry F and their BAC ODW project, a duck house. I had already taken the liberty of giving Ed a little context on the political resonances of duck houses which he has taken on board, so this conversation was much more granular and, of course, admiring, because this is going to be some duck house, but I still needed to be reassured about waterproofing and also buoyancy. It is going to be like a lake palace – lucky ducks.

Watching Maths being taught is another calming and anchoring activity. I take a wander round Block 3 Maths groups, noting a sympathetic and “no fear” approach to helping the students understand the concepts behind what they are doing, rather than simply feel it is about being right or wrong.

As we have our first Block 3 Review of the term and, hearteningly, many Block 3s’ efforts need to be recognised through congratulatory cards or brief meetings with me (“seeing” to use the vernacular), I am busy congratulating first thing on Thursday morning.  It is great to hear first hand from these students what they are particularly enjoying and any other thoughts they have about their first half of term at Bedales.

The only sadness is I arrive at Dunhurst too late for their Agincourt assembly, which I am very sorry to miss. It cannot match the way Dunhurstians commemorated the anniversary of Waterloo (with much colour, bangs and ingenuity) but it had clearly animated attendees. However, I catch Lisa Whapshott as she is taking her pupils in to their Design lesson. What are they doing this lesson? I ask.  Designing a trug, they answer. Trugs are wonderfully esoteric things (having that badge of honour of not being recognised by spellcheck) and sounding as splendid as they are reassuring to carry; it is very comforting to know that someone is working at designing and then making them in an English school.

So, trugs and duck houses – their future is safe with us.

Dunhurst quest

Believing as I do that you often spur youngsters into inquisitive action through quiz and play (“game” rather than “ernest”, says Chaucer), how good to be at our prep school, Dunhurst for the launch at assembly last week of the splendid treasure hunt A La Recherche des Carambars Perdus. Up stands Eli Chilton, French teacher to announce this quest: find one of the carambars hidden around the school; open it and find, not gooey stuff, but a French idiom, which you can cherish and deploy; collect as many carambar-idioms as you can, remembering them as you go – pupils can compare them and ultimately possibly win a prize, even beyond that of being more gallically figuratively armoured than they were before.

Some will not be tickled by this quest – chacun à son goût (I used to say), until one of my children, more in tune with modern French idiom, said it was “so out of date, like saying b’gad” and I should be saying chacun à son truc, which I say now. So here’s to keeping your idioms out of flares and in skinnies – and to ingenious ways of spurring on our natural inquisitiveness. Also, here’s to having fun with weighty titles. My ancient American uncle’s chronicle of his early life – escape from Scotland, go to Hawaii, find yourself invading Okinawa – is titled La Triviata, which shows at least that British understatement survived the journey.

Idioms will be on the minds of those of us lucky enough to hear the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, when she reads in our theatre tonight at 8 pm. To set the poetic hares and juices running and to nod at this beautifully Keatsian “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” we are having, here is a haiku from the letters page of a weekend paper:

Although detached
Even a monk must feel
A sense of wonder:
A heron takes wing from a marsh
In autumn twilight.

Saigyo (1118-90)

Fun constructing: the wright stuff


Construction is in the air – literally in the case of the steel skeleton of the new Art & Design building, which is being assembled like a piece of outsized meccano in the previously undisturbed sky outside Steephurst. It is also proceeding apace outside Design, where Sammy M’s gracefully engineered skateboard ramp is nearing completion. No doubt the final layers of varnish are being applied to pieces we will admire on Parents’ Day.

But it is the shaping of word and song that I want to celebrate for a moment. Here are three topical instances from across the age range.

Sunday, 4 pm Bedales Olivier theatre – the cast and crew of Everyone else is a superhero are working hard in the Olivier theatre as their all-in weekend nears its conclusion. It is the first time that I have seen these Block 3s and 4s in action and they seem somehow (given that they have been working on this play for 24 hours already) to still have boundless energy. I sit and watch. Are they rehearsing or are they constructing the play? In my (of course) old-fashioned way I still think that you find a play on a page and then you, well, do it; but life in the theatre has become much more interesting than that – so, no, you old fuddy duddy, you devise a play, creating something out of an idea and, lo, the play is constructed from the process. However much I know that this can happen in theory and indeed I have seen recent evidence of its success with Phil King’s productions, here I am, watching a rehearsal and I am seeing this play evolve. It is being made. Stuff happens in the rehearsal – yes, some funny and unexpected stuff (secret for the time being); and, yes, the funny, accidental stuff has gone into the play, with the decision being made instantaneously – bold and clever, I say, especially as at some point (I hope by now) Richard Weinman who is our director in residence, needs to say, “STOP, THAT’S IT, NO MORE CHANGES!” And the play will stop evolving and start being honed towards performance. Anyway I am looking forward to seeing how it turns out and I think it will be funny and thought-provoking – in the Theatre from Saturday onwards. It will have been great fun to be in – and a brilliant bit of education.

Monday, 7.30, Drama studio – three short plays performed by 6.1s. All have been written by sixth formers for the National Theatre’s New Views competition. Each is about 15 minutes long. The actors have had the unusual experience of working closely with the authors (their peers). The subject matter – lives on the edge, literally in one case – demands a high level of skill in the writing – especially that tricky business of creating dialogue that works. All three of the plays have something to say to the packed audience. Impressively all three scripts have been learnt and are performed with feeling. It’s a gutsy and powerful occasion.

Wednesday, 9.15, Dunhurst Well – the world premiere of The Gruffalo, the opera – musical settings and songs composed by the children of Dunannie. Here is the spirit of devising and improvising at large in Dunannie. Under the inspiring guidance of Mea Wade and Ben Harlan, the children have improvised tunes for the words of The Gruffalo. The tunes have been then quickly written down as they are being sung and chords have been created to support them. So what we hear in the Well was lots of different tunes stuck together with chords to make one coherent melody. First, the Forest Overture is performed by the Dunnanie Orchestra. Each creature has its signature tune, so for example the owl’s call is created on a battery of xylophones and recorders. Then comes that story itself, with the full choir in support. It is rapturously received: bravo!

Bedales Arts performs

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Up and out with our two contrasting mutts: Westie = delicate, reluctant, elderly, small and off-white; Labrador = black and big, galumphing in all directions in search of a soggy tennis ball.  But spring is in the air, the playing field grass has had its first cut (summery freshly dead grass smell) and the birds, as Chaucer has it “maken melodye”. Time then to reflect on a three days when I have been lucky enough to witness different kinds of artistic talent – at different stages in the Protean journey of striving and learning.

Tuesday evening and its Dunhurst Chamber Music where Ben Harlan and Mia Wade give the Dunhurst musicians an opportunity – for some their first – to perform; and it is in a friendly and informal setting which mirrors Western music’s early days of performance in private houses. The sense of accomplishment – of those, often halting, memorable first performances, sometimes battled through – is palpable. More young musicians are embarked! Wednesday night and I am in Chelsea at a comparable occasion courtesy of Hill House International, one of the largest prep schools in the country and the largest family owned one. Here one of their musical showcases, this one for brass, is the attraction and, as at Dunhurst, we see in many cases boys and girls rising to the difficult challenge of first performance.DSC_0009 (2)

Thursday brings a triptych of creativity in three media. The lunchtime St Luke’s, Chelsea concert by Bedales musicians brings pieces as various as seventeenth century madrigals, a Handel (Ombra Mai Fu) piece complete with James H singing male soprano and the old favourite, Somewhere, over the Rainbow. Early evening, back in Steep, and it is the private view for the Dunhurst Art exhibition where work ranges from traditional, draughtsman-like renditions of the Memorial Library (very difficult with all that Arts & Crafts irregularity) to Gormley-inspired sculptures and a tussock of riotously-decorated skate boards (sorry, nomenclature betrays my generation). It’s a wonderfully engaging exhibition and needs to be seen. Then on to the theatre for Bedales Dance Performs, where an enthralled audience sees 24 pieces, performed by a comparable number of dancers, ranging across the age span.  Under Liz Richards’ inspired tutelage these young men and women produce work that shows how freedom to explore, coupled with the discipline of hard work and talented direction can have extraordinary results. Truly Head, Hand and Heart in action.

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.