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.

Lasting influence?

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Preparing an assembly on Politics’ effect on education, I find that my usual seasonal reflections on Charles Dickens (Christmas jollity and Scroogery etc) take me down a different channel and into his influence on education.

Dickens’ lifetime (1812-1870) spanned the creation of something that approached a rudimentary universal education system for England: the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which established the basis for English elementary education.  It is neat to connect this with what Dickens said in the early stages of his national popularity in a speech in Birmingham in 1844:

“If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education – comprehensive liberal education – is the one thing needful, and the one effective end.”

Given that the England of  Dickens’ birth was one where there was still a debate about whether there was any point educating large swathes of the population, it is unsurprising that so many of the downtrodden poor of his novels show such a strong desire to learn and to better themselves through education.  For me it is this profound sense of the moral value of each person and the right that he or she has to be something other than a workhorse or a young criminal – the encouragement to good and ultimately the right to be educated.  Through presenting all sorts of different models of what he saw as good and bad models of education in his novels, he both reinforced the public’s sense of moral feeling and established a tradition of dealing with education in novels.

More specifically, in Hard Times, he gave us one of the best images of the tension between the extremes of heartless utilitarian education and the education of the heart: a reading of the first chapter of that book captures that age-old tension as well as tomes of educational theory.

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Liberal values in an illiberal age

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools and HMC Chair-Elect*

When I was visiting schools in Manhattan in late October, the teacher showing me round commented on how nervous the children in her school were about the Presidential election campaign. American teachers need to have a way of talking about it.  She was keen to discuss the challenge they face dealing with the election campaign: “We need to educate our children in the importance of the democratic process and, although most of their parents are solidly Democrat, we cannot take sides ourselves, so what we do is set the campaign slogans and promises against the school’s values and ask the children to compare them.”

The position of school educators on this side of the Atlantic mirrors precisely that Manhattan teacher: our students are jumpy; teachers are bewildered and uneasy. Here are some initial thoughts on what I think is going on.

The liberal values which seem to have underpinned much of our national life for the past two decades at least are under threat. Looking further back (albeit at the risk of an even greater historical sweep of the hand) to the Allies’ victory in 1945 and the Labour government’s landslide, this has been a long period of liberal advancement. Here’s a checklist of some of the products of liberal values that we think we aspire to and have in many cases become used to: freedom of expression, democracy, gender equality, international cooperation, human rights and secular governments.

Thinking locally for a moment, I reflect on the involvement that my school, Bedales, has had in the country’s political life: from its links with the counter cultural movement that was the Arts & Crafts period in the 1890s through to its association with the Fabian Society, Women’s Suffrage, the League of Nations and the Ramsay McDonald Labour government, Bedales has enjoyed standing up for what its liberal instincts were saying is right. Plenty of schools like ours have played their own small part in being politically conscious and welcoming change of a liberal kind.

But, thinking more broadly, where do we find these liberal values in our schools?  Take your analytical cleaver and cut into any area of most schools’ lives and you will find these values, like the proverbial Blackpool Rock, running all the way through, whether it is in PSHE, safeguarding or the curriculum.

In my own subject, English Literature, for example, a rite of passage for most Year 10s in the English speaking world is to study a combination of Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet. Conversations and literary analysis that follow will inevitably circle around liberal consensus and variants on the importance of following Atticus Finch’s sage advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Definitely out are such things as ganging up, intolerance, sexism, insularity and chauvinism.

In History almost all of our children will study the rise of fascism: beware populism, we counsel, and people saying that they are going to make your country great again. The curriculum is reinforcing this to them time and again.

Overarching all of this is the assumption, girded into every bit of school life, that the adults in school know what they are doing and are worth listening to – not least because, although they might be clueless about gaming or social media, they are experts in education.

But against this backdrop we are struggling – struggling both against the so-called post-truth, post-expert norm and against the increasingly coarse and nasty tone that presides in public discourse, where it seems to be fair game to make personal attacks on individuals, rather than robustly challenging their views.

The liberal approach has been to be content with discourse that is rational and even-tempered and to fight shy of political engagement: demonstrations and making a noise about things seem, well, a bit not us.

It is becoming increasingly clear that such an approach has been overtaken by events and that we as teachers need both to engage politically ourselves and also that we need to encourage our students to do so.  If we sit on our hands and assume that the tide of history is going to resume its liberal amble in due course, we are living in la-la land.

*Originally published on the HMC website and reproduced here with kind permission.

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…