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

Space to make and grow

Much talk here about creativity and its links with entrepreneurship.  This comes partly through discussions with parents (current and prospective), colleagues and students, partly because of the changes we are seeing to buildings and spaces at Bedales and partly because of the way in which the aspirations of young Britons in their twenties seem to have changed.

Let me try to flesh out each of these three threads in turn.

You do not need to be a futurologist to see that the world of work has changed markedly from the one most parents of secondary school age parents emerged into.  Jobs within corporate structures for life are rare; serial careers will increasingly become the norm; individuals will have to become much more proactive in the development of their own personal “brand”; and chunk of jobs in professions currently considered to be relatively safe from automation will disappear as some of the more routine work done by, for example, lawyers and pharmacists is automated.

Accompanying parents’ awareness that this will be the case is a healthy scepticism about schools’ ability to prepare children for the future.  Strange to find me saying this? Maybe.  But think about the way that the state determines the curriculum: decisions taken by Michael Gove in, say, 2011 will affect those sitting some GCSEs in 2017 and therefore those students emerging into the workplace from 2019 at the earliest – 2022 if they have gone to university.  And this was a (famously) quick curriculum change (and maybe with an eye more to the past than the future, but that’s another topic).

You do not need to have seen Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk to know that the way that our schools are organised, with the emphasis on orderly progression and the silos of individual subjects is largely a Victorian creation.  Schools are good at doing all sorts of things but in general they adjust only in miniscule ways to the needs of the future.  My education equipped me splendidly to stride out into the empire that had more or less disappeared by my birth.

Second thread: changes to buildings and spaces.  Create a new building which combines all the different elements of Design (i.e. designing anything and making anything) with all the different elements of Fine Art and you have new possibilities; put that new Art & Design building close to the department (Outdoor Work) that also builds, creates and grows things (from lettuces to pigs, via hedges and barns, not to mention chutney, pizzas, duck houses and fleeces) and you are making a space where all sorts of additional things will happen.  Have an idea? Good, you can probably see if it will work.

Creating the space within and between these areas of endeavour will only result in interesting things happening if these moves are accompanied by a no-fear, can-do, give-it-a-go approach by the teachers who oversee them and a broader willingness to trust students to develop their initiatives.  I am very confident that this instinct is alive and well here.

Third thread: young Britons in their twenties (aka millenials) are much more likely to want to run their own business and to favour a high degree of autonomy over their lives than their parents.  Having children and numerous nieces and nephews in these areas, it is clear that the proportion of them and their friends whose interests lie in either starting a business themselves or joining a small enterprise is considerable.  The reputation that London – and in particular its hipster /start up centres such as Shoreditch – has gathered as a start up hub is of course a factor, but I suspect that this is much more trend than fad.

My spur to writing about this came on Monday morning when I watched a lesson which involved the making of butter in Outdoor Work.  There in the folksy surroundings of the Bakery I saw eight Block 3s make butter from scratch: the pouring of Jersey unpasteurised cream into little hand churners; the careful churning; the separation of the butter from the butter milk; the patting of the butter and then the addition of different flavours – garlic, radish, tarragon or chilli.   As the Outdoor Work farm shop (under the ODW clock tower) becomes a reality next academic year, the incentive for students to devise new things they want to make and sell will increase.  I heard yesterday that one is now developing a business making soap.  Expect a farm shop with a big range of products. This is a space definitely to be watched.

‘Seeing afresh’

It’s a crisp April early morning – sun shining and another pair of Jacob lambs born – just three ewes yet to lamb as singular black dog and I enjoy an amble around our beautiful estate. Woodpeckers are hammering away and a small skein of yelping Canada geese swoop in to the lake as we set off.

My usual sense of vicarious trepidation at the prospect of lots of students taking public exams is tempered by the memory of last night’s assembly from Head of Academic Enrichment, Clare Jarmy.  Her other role as Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics gives her a clear advantage in developing a compelling reason why all our students have good reason to look forward to exams and to see them as underpinning a very important stage in their learning.  Going over her reasoning on my morning stroll, it makes yet more sense as I rehearse the argument in my mind.  So here goes.

In order for us all to move our learning forward we need help making the jumps from what we can currently do to the next stage: seen pictorially this is about us jumping up a further stage – or, using the educational terminology, the zone of proximal development.  Teachers are the most usual way that we are helped to make that shift –

Clare’s point is that revision for exams – best described not using its literal meaning of “seeing again” but considered as “seeing afresh” – is the point when we as learners have to consolidate the learning that we have previously been assisted with.  Put differently, we re-make the learning and make it our own.

Finally, she identified another critical distinction that should help our students understand the potential benefits of this process more fully.  This has to do with the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – the difference between doing something because it gets you something else you want, and doing something for its own sake.  Clare left the students with the possibility that one thing that many of them might be discovering was that the process of revision helped them understand that they had a strong intrinsic motivation to learn.  It was at this point I learned my new word for the day – “enculturement”, which Clare used to describe the educational process central to humanity which enables people to gain an understanding of the world and what is intrinsically worthwhile.  This view, central to the writing of philosopher John McDowell, is that it is through culture that we acquire a “second nature” above and beyond our animal needs.  Education, and in particular independent learning, makes us who we are.

Intriguing stuff: Clare’s article, published here, will further enlighten.

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…

HMC warns: Gove’s exam reforms will be “built on sand” unless Britain’s decayed examining system is remedied

On Monday I touched on the marking scandal.  Here is a summary, posted by HMC.  You can download the full report and see the full scale of the dissatisfaction.  As you can imagine, we have contributed to the report.

HMC warns: Gove’s exam reforms will be “built on sand” unless Britain’s decayed examining system is remedied
26 September 2012   Posted by Heidi

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) warns today that the Government’s proposed reform of public examinations will be “built on sand” unless deep-rooted problems within the examining system are addressed.

HMC, which represents 250 leading independent senior schools, has today published a detailed report uncovering endemic problems with marking, awarding, re-marks and appeals at GCSE and A level between 2007 and 2012.

HMC welcomes recent Government proposals to overhaul GCSEs and A levels, especially moves to increase rigour in subject studies, reduce the burden of assessment on students aged 15-18 and differentiate student achievement more clearly across the grade range.

But in its report, which has been sent to ministers, HMC says these changes to qualifications (the ‘superstructure’) are almost certain to be undermined by long-standing failings in how young people are examined (the ‘foundations’).

“Unless examining is reformed substantially, the introduction of revised qualifications will amount to new houses built on existing sand,” says the report.

The report details key examples of what goes wrong and why – though much remains unexplained due to a “culture of secrecy” in the exam boards and lack of focus in Ofqual – and the wider implications of each of these failings.   

Specifically HMC detail seven failings of the current ‘examinations industry’ in England, grouped under three headings:

  • Poor quality marking: over the last five years, one school has had to challenge marking standards in 48 separate cases, covering 19 different subjects at GCSE and A level.
  • Inexplicable inconsistencies in the awarding of grades: one highly-selective school saw its English GCSE A* grades fluctuate between 11% and 65% over a decade.
  • Obstructions to redress: re-marks and appeals: the appeals process allows the boards to hide behind protocol rather than account for poor marking.

The authority for the findings derives from several sources: national data; collaborative work with schools and subject associations in the maintained sector; internal HMC surveys; and data from HMC schools, particularly from heads of departments.

In national terms the staff in HMC schools are exceptionally well qualified in subject knowledge and its schools are part of an independent sector that government research shows to be the most expert in the country at predicting student grades accurately.  

Christopher Ray, High Master of Manchester Grammar School and Chairman of HMC, said today: “The state of the examinations industry is truly shocking and is clearly no longer fit for purpose. The problems go far deeper than this year’s disastrous mishandling of the English language GCSE grades.

“We are publishing this evidence today on behalf of all students in state and independent schools in England who do not receive the marks or grades that accurately reflect their performance and achievement.  As Brian Lightman, General Secretary of ASCL says, the findings are important and are ‘likely to have uncovered the tip of an iceberg’.”

HMC welcomes recognition by ASCL of the significance of the enquiry and looks forward to discussing the report with the Secretary of State

Source: http://www.hmc.org.uk/hmc-warns-goves-exam-reforms-will-be-built-on-sand-unless-britains-decayed-examining-system-is-remedied/


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.