Curriculum – the last 25 years

In his last term after 17 years as Headmaster of Bedales, Keith Budge is writing a series of six reflections on the school. The theme of this fifth blog is ‘Curriculum – the last 25 years’.

Being an early riser, I choose what to do first thing. This morning I chose to walk for 20 minutes around the Bedales estate, noting a shriek of magpies mobbing a cat and querying an overgrown hedge – nothing as evocative as my occasional dawn walks in winter when the owls are competing for air space or in May when I hear the plaintive greetings of orphan lambs or even the snufflings of bleary-eyed piglets.

Choice enlivens us.  The curriculum is what schools choose to study – it is our daily bread.  As outlined in my previous piece, Bedales under Badley chose to study a different curriculum to the established Victorian public schools and chose to study it differently.

Arriving here in 2001, I found that the name carrier, the Senior School, Bedales, was teaching much the same curriculum as other schools, albeit often in an unusually vital and engaging way.  The school remained shackled to the dying animal that was the national curriculum, with its dreary GCSEs. At that point, even the Labour government was dissing GCSES. I started having thought-provoking conversations with long term supporters of the school: “why does this extraordinary school not exercise greater choice over what it teaches? Why are you not using your freedom?”

It was my good fortune to inherit some visionary colleagues who had done important work in this area with Southampton University’s Department of Education. Two were especially significant – Graham Banks (Head of English) and Philip Young (Director of Studies). With Southampton, they exploring the potential for the school to diverge from the GCSE curriculum in the 1990s, but the then Head, Alison Willcocks had decided not to press ahead.

I chose differently. Constructing a new curriculum has much in common with creating a new building: identify the need; write the brief; seek planning permission; gather your project team; assess the risks; and then build.

PRE dialogue

It was quickly evident that the territory where the greatest need coincided with the best potential to innovate was the so-called Middle Years curriculum – the GCSE years 10 and 11, Blocks 4 and 5. Governors were on side quickly. Universities were surveyed and came back positively twice, both in response to the embryonic idea and then when the concept had been fleshed out. The message was very clear: give us five or six GCSEs in the core subjects (English, Maths, two or three Sciences and a modern foreign language) and then use your freedom with the remaining four or five subject slots.

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I knew that our parents would warm to it when, as part of the consultation, Philip Young and I called a meeting of Block 1 (Year 7) parents from Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst.  These after all were the parents of the children who would most likely be affected, being the first year who would take the BACs. I displayed on the screen the wording of our (then recently minted) primary academic aim: to develop inquisitive thinkers with a love of learning who cherish independent thought. I interposed a big question mark and then on the other side of the screen wrote “ GCSEs”. The  room filled with laughter – the two things had nothing in common. We had to change the curriculum – and so we did, starting the courses in 2006. You can read more about its latest incarnation here.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Place: Inside

In his last term after 17 years as Headmaster of Bedales, Keith Budge is writing a series of six reflections on the school. The theme of this second blog is ‘Place: Inside’.

A big part of my Bedales education has been with design and architecture. In previous schools building  was all about utility – the most for the least, with aesthetics considered a frippery – whereas here it was to be different.  Why? The Arts & Crafts movement has beauty and utility at its core; and John Badley’s educational philosophy emphasises the importance of environment  –  the benign effect of  good surroundings on young people. The one school aim I inherited in 2001 was “the appreciation of the beautiful”. I have had the great good fortune to preside over two large and influential building projects – the Orchard Building and Art & Design.

Let’s do some stock-taking of what we had in 2001. Over 60% of teaching was done in the three Greville Rhodes “temporary” flat-roofed, conspicuously (for the time) modern blocks – North, South and Art (1968). These had been built – with great controversy – as the school expanded from 240 to 340. The classrooms in North and South block were small – a push to house 22 – with wafer thin walls: noisy, hot in summer and cold in winter. As teaching spaces they were poor, making it against the grain for teachers to depart from a traditional “chalk and talk” approach.

I did three useful things with the Orchard Building (2006): I suggested to the then Chair of Governors, Michael Blakstad, that we must have an architect on the Board and I wrote the brief for the building and worked closely with the architects to ensure that the ethos suffused the building.  We chose the architects, Walters & Cohen, because of their track record and their way of working, not because they had experience of building for schools – they had none.  Their approach was to come and spend time at the school – to understand the community and the pulse of the school day.  Whereas the Greville Rhodes buildings, in common with much of the icon-ruffling architecture of the 1960s, took no notice of our great signature buildings – the Lupton Hall (1912) and the Library (1919) – the Orchard Building, with the same pitch of roof reflects Arts & Crafts principles: truth to materials in particular, with its bold use of wood and concrete. Cindy Walters also led a master planning exercise which was decisive in creating the geometry at the estate’s centre: the first axis running from the red path in the car park (2005) to where Badley’s chair sits in the Quad, with the bisecting axis having the Theatre (1997) and Steephurst at its west and east ends.


When the Orchard Building opened in September 2006, the school became calmer.  It worked.

Much happened in the 10 years between this and the building of Art & Design (2016): the refurbishment of Steephurst (£0.5 million x 3 summer holidays); the exterior of 6.2 and interior of Boys’ Flat; the re-modelling of Dunhurst’s interior; the three new staff houses (2012) near Outdoor Work, and, on a  smaller scale but poignantly powerful for so many of us, the Sam Banks Pavilion (2013), the work of the OB twin brothers, the Russells, who had learnt much of their craft with the re-assembling of the 18th century Sotherington Barn in the 1980s.

The recent transformation of the area between the gates and Steephurst, with the new Art & Design building at its centre was Matthew Rice’s idea. He had the vision to see that it made no sense to follow the original Walters & Cohen idea of re-building on the existing site (of Art & Design) but that constructing it where the makeshift Facilities’ buildings were offered a triple benefit: a more prominent setting for one of the school’s great fortes; a brown field site with consequent cost savings; an enhancement to the school’s entrance; and the desirability of putting departments with complementary activities – Art, Design and Outdoor Work – together.

Codicil to all this is delight at seeing the beautiful recent restoration of the Lupton Hall, recounted precisely and tenderly in this article from the Old Bedalian Newsletter (click here and scroll to page 20) by Anna Keay, the governor who  succeeded Matthew Rice as Chairs of Buildings’ sub-committee.

My advice then about schools and building:  remember that nothing can happen until your finances are in good fettle; get plenty of architectural and property expertise onto the governing board;  put the school’s ethos at the centre of your buildings’ design; consult widely before you build; make your teachers who will use the building central to that consultation; and remember that great design doesn’t cost much more than indifferent design.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Governors’ Farewell

Our wonderful Memorial Library, setting this morning for an act of commemoration, is a place as serious and beautiful as anywhere here. It is used sparingly for things other than study.  Friday evening was one of those rare other occasions: the Library became the setting for the Governing Board and members of my senior team to say thanks and goodbye over dinner to a quartet of departing governors who had completed their eight years’ service.

Useful and timely therefore to be reminded about what governors do: they appoint heads and bursars; they are the trustees of the school’s values; they oversee the financial management of the school; they bring specialist knowledge in areas like education, property, law, finance and risk; perhaps above all they provide wise and humane sounding boards on all matters.

Way back when (as my American uncle says), a governors’ lot was a relatively ceremonial one and was confined to three full board meetings a year.  Not so now.  Inspection regimes require governors to have a good knowledge of our stack of policies and of the implementation of curriculum and safeguarding; therefore, they need to be more fully involved and more knowledgeable.  They also all serve on sub-committees and some take responsibility for individual areas, such as risk and staff welfare. Within our departing quartet, Francesca Bayliss and Brian Johnson had both chaired our Education Committee which has been such an important element in the development of teaching and learning across our schools.  Daniel Alexander and Tim Parker have likewise made considerable contributions in areas that their expertise in law and business have equipped them so well to do.

These are immensely well qualified and in demand people who are all volunteers.  It was wonderful to have such a fitting opportunity to express the community’s appreciation to them for all they have done for us over the past eight years.

Students quiz the governors

Wednesday night is the annual Governors‘ Question Time at Bedales – a unique event in UK independent schools (to my knowledge, at least) when the senior school is able to quiz a panel of three governors, in this case Seona Ford (curriculum advisor, OB and on the Education Committee), Daniel Alexander (OB and intellectual property lawyer) and Nick Vetch (current parent, businessman and chair of the Finance and General Purposes Committee). Questions cover an impressive range and are generally pitched at the right level – i.e. to do with strategic decisions and broad policy, both educationally and on finance. It is good to hear clear assurances being given on consultation with all stakeholders on the new Art & Design Building. We conclude on the sometimes vexed matter of the hurdle into the sixth form and whether in certain cases deserving students haven’t been allowed through when they should – something I will want to discuss with School Council as a follow on. The evening ends with the three governors having time with School Council afterwards, so other issues will also come to light via that.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

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.

Students question the governors

I wonder if any other independent school puts its governors in front of the school and invites the students to ask them questions. Governors’ Question Time last night had Nick Vetch, Avril Hardie and Matthew Rice facing the troops – albeit reduced in number by exam absence and piratical preparations for the final night of Treasure Island. Questions covered the full range and were generally (as I would expect) searching: why a new Art & Design building rather than a new Music School? Why are trees being felled and shouldn’t we be planting more? Big plans for the future?  How much longer will the academic village stand? How much does parental pressure count? Should students’ views, for example, on drugs testing, be taken into account more by governors in reaching decisions? Is a school like ours by definition elitist and how does this sit with our ethos? Afterwards, School Council, bolstered by some additional willling voices subbing for exam casualties, had a further discussion session over juice and sandwiches with the governors to complete the evening.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

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.

Reflections on Good School Governance

School governance seems to some a crusty, arcane and even nerdy business – some poring over reports, some “in my day..”, some hurrumphing and declaring from on high. Anyone closer to it knows differently – two things in particular: how onerous it is and how crucial governors are to the welfare of schools. Our termly full board meeting (Friday pm. and Saturday am.) and the publication of the Carlisle report into St Benedict’s, Ealing remind me of this. You only really notice poor governance when things go wrong – as they did terribly at that school. Lord Carlisle’s report makes some bold recommendations about the fitness of faith institutions to govern schools. His recommendations will be taken up by St Benedict’s whose press statement refers to the need for accountability and transparency in governance. 

Good governance enables the teachers who lead schools to take their schools forward and to improve the opportunities for the students. “So what do the governors do?” goes the refrain. Well, they appoint the head and the bursar, provide the financial framework, have responsibility for the strategy and act as custodians of the school’s values. The mechanisms for doing this are necessarily complex – you can gain some sense of this by looking at our list of governors and their responsiblities, especially with the sub-committees: Education, Finance & General Purposes, Buildings and External Relations. In addtion, it is governors who make up review panels when a student or employee wants to appeal a decision made by the school. But perhaps most importantly, they act as a source of wise counsel, not only on educational matters but drawing on the broad range of professional expertise they represent. So, a complex and highly demanding set-up which, working closely with the school’s executive, makes for a powerful combination.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools