Writing about Bedales

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

This happened from early on.  In 1896 Edmond Demolins, the French educationalist, visited Bedales.  In two of his subsequent books, A quoi tient la superiorité des Anglo-Saxons? (1897) and L’Education nouvelle he said that the national success of the English was due to the public school system and that the logical outcome of that system was to be seen in the “new schools” such as Bedales.  Never mind the supremacist premise of his first book and the poor logic of his thesis, Demolins’ books were widely read in France and amongst the educated classes in continental Europe.  As a result, there was an influx of students from there, including various exotic Russian aristocrats.  Schools based on the Bedales model had sprung up in places as various as St Petersburg, Hilversum (Holland) and Lake Geneva.

Last December I hosted Julian Astle of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA).  Julian has subsequently published his research The Ideal School Exhibition.  The RSA has a strong tradition in educational advocacy.  In his book Julian seeks to “expand the conversation to the purpose and essential character of school-based education” which he sees as increasingly being focussed on “education’s narrow instrumentalist’s value”.  Pointing to the broader value of education and the way that authoritarian regimes – such as Victor Orban’s in Hungary – will seek to close down educational institutions that make people think broadly, Astle has toured the country to find schools that are high in conviction and that manage to be successful whilst holding fast to their values – educational missionaries.

Bedales is one of these.  Here is the full report, and an executive summary can be found here.

An excerpt reads:

“Bedales, a fee paying school in Hampshire, defines itself by its humanity (the school was established to provide a humane alternative to the regimented austerity of Victorian schooling) and through its holistic educational philosophy, summed up by its motto “to educate the Head, Hand and Heart”. It strives to introduce its students to what is true (academics), what is beautiful (creativity and making) and what is right (morals and ethics).”

The other school that Astle sees falling strongly into this category is a state school founded in 2012, School 21 in Stratford, East London.  Its head and founder, Peter Hyman, visited on Thursday, met a range of teachers, toured with students and had a good chat with me.   Fascinating and stimulating to talk with someone who, against the grain of so much of the current arid educational orthodoxy, is making such a success of a school that promotes a very different and utterly humane vision.  Here are his ten points for what a school should do.

Have a look at what he says in the executive summary and also in the section where he writes about our school aims.

It is great that an enlightened organisation like the RSA, so wedded to enlightenment thinking, is taking such an important stand in what Michael Oakeshott called “the great conversation of mankind”.

 

 

Two days, two talks

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Two days into the week and we have had two talks which inspire and help all of us understand better this era of upheaval we are living through.

Monday and it’s the Global Awareness lecture, given by Afghan refugee, Gulwali Passarlay. This remarkable young man tells the story of his flight from Afghanistan in 2007 when he was 12.  The endemic struggles for control, the power of education in this turbulence, the mentality of Pashtun young men, the violent death of his father  – all these bring alive to us the reality of his native land and the need for him to leave.  Most poignant is his account of his year long journey to the UK, the cruelties and rare kindnesses he encountered – those oranges and croissants given by the Italian police.

For his audience,  sitting in the safe oaken glow of our theatre in woody, safe Hampshire,  we are jolted and inspired as we hear of his response to not seeing his mother for 11 years and his swift learning of English, succeeding at school quickly here – 10 GCSEs from scratch in two years – and his subsequent education, achievements such as The Lightless Sky and further ambitions.

Tuesday Civics and it’s John Ridding, CEO of the Financial Times group, on news in the era of upheaval.  As his talk proceeds – 20 minutes of razor sharp observations supported by four slides and 40 minutes of questions – pennies are dropping amongst the student audience.  Yes, I really am listening to someone who leads one of the most influential, opinion shaping news groups in the world; and yes, this is pretty amazing.

John talks about the prevalence of fake news – it’s always been there (think Zinoviev) but now it is systematic and operating at scale. Quality news, which costs money, works through a collision of ideas – “there are… unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know” (D Rumsveldt, unlikely but true source).  On the contrary Facebook’s cunning algorithms give you more of what you like.  He’s had the debate with its boss.

Thinking of going into journalism?  Great opportunities but it’s more about news than it is about writing – increasingly stories area being told through means other than straight writing – here’s the FT’s popular Uber game which takes you into the life of one of their drivers.  If you have determination and initiative you will succeed in his vocation.  And, while we’re at it, cut the adjectives.

Perhaps above all what comes over is the sense of a man whom you would naturally want to follow and whom it is stimulating and enjoyable to be around.  He begins his talk with a reference to the David Watt book An Inquiring Eye.  This is his lode star, it seems.  He feels lucky being able to follow a career which allows him to do what he loves and credits this to a high degree because of the mindset and personality he developed here at Bedales.

We leave the SLT with more questions for John as I shepherd him across the Orchard.  Students return to their boarding houses, clutching Tuesday’s FT (read Janan Ganesh’s  ‘The real saboteurs of Brexit are its own amateur leaders‘ if nothing else).

 

The ripple effect of talks like these two amongst school communities is powerful.

Question time

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Wednesday brings Headmaster’s Question Time (HQT to be snappy).  It’s slow to get going, with gender change leading, but then the hands are up and I am facing all sorts of questions: choosing the new head, Saturday school, student self-evaluation, but the most unexpected question is the shortest: “Are you a feminist?”

In this admirably questioning school, I have been asked most things before but I haven’t been asked this question.  Although I have interrogated myself pretty firmly on whether I believe in equal rights for men and women I haven’t felt the need to make the further declaration.  I suspect my (no doubt not very thought through) position might have been influenced by seeing Ed Miliband grinning inimitably in a This is what a feminist looks like t shirt.

My response to the question in HQT was that, although I had been brought up by a mother with admirably strong views on women’s rights, I would consider it presumptuous to call myself a feminist, as, although I believe firmly in equal rights, I don’t consider myself ardent enough to describe myself as a feminist.  My response has evoked a good range of reactions – some quite strong – and I am meeting some of those who have expressed their concern to discuss things further.

I have since been finding out a bit more about the history of the feminist movement and the range of meanings attached to the word feminist. This article from the British Library looks handy.

There have also been a number of interesting conversations with colleagues and students about the degree to which any individual should feel that he or she should want to be categorised and identified with particular movements, however much they like or are interested in those areas.

I suspect that we have hit a rich seam and that there will be plenty further exploration.  I hope so.

Innovation and technology

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

A first for me – a visit to BETT  (British Educational Training and Technology Show) at the ExCeL (curious upper/lower case effect) in order to be part of a panel talking about innovation in schools.

Having talked with colleagues who are regular BETT goers, I had some idea of what to expect, but even so it was an eye opener.  Huge screens pulse and entice and a hubbub that mingles human voices with all kinds of electronic noises forms a distinctive fog of a soundscape.  It is bewitching stuff, with technology to advance learning at all stages in a person’s education.

Within this cauldron of technological opportunity sits the Times Educational Supplement‘s (TES for short, no messing with cases here) little theatre where, aided merely by some particularly svelte face mics and a question-asking app, I and two colleagues talk about innovation, spur on some group discussions and try to reach some conclusions.

Innovation is, of course, a word that comes with a health warning: it is, after all, the word most used in applicants’ cvs to describe themselves. In the context of BETT, I fear that it can also sometimes used as a synonym for being comfortable with digital resources in the classroom.  There is a danger that innovation has become a lazy self-promotional tag that doesn’t really add much.

So here are four brief thoughts about educational innovation in that context:

1) Complacency about educational methods used is the enemy of the search for better ways of teaching and learning: constant exploration as to how we can help this process may result in innovation, but the state of mind isn’t described by the word; neither is technology always the answer.

2) Beware hubris!  Each technological revolution risks sneering at previous ones and thinks it has got things cracked; it too often underestimates the role of the live teacher.  Technology has enabled new styles of teaching and learning but, as an early adopter student of audio-visual methods in language teaching back in the 70s, I remember my O Level German teacher’s lessons much more for his anecdotes about his favourite German wine than the audio visual slides of Heidi and Joachin’s lame romance.

3) Remember how the curriculum can shackle you: however smart your use of technology, if you are working with dull material in a constricting curriculum, you can think you are having more fun and feel decidedly contemporary, but you are still working within a constrained space, with all the ensuing limitations.

4) The whizzbangs of BETT are mainly, I suspect, about jazzier and smarter delivery, mostly in the traditional classroom setting.   The biggest revolution will be in a quieter and more solitary area of online learning.  Here a recent Skype conversation with Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University and co-founder of the world’s largest MOOC is fresh in my mind.  Barbara (barbaraoakley.com) spoke at our Liberating Leaders conference in the summer. With the right online courses, especially in subjects such as Maths and Physics where there such great teacher shortages, UK students’ learning should receive a significant boost.  This quiet revolution is yet to happen.

 

Liberal values in an illiberal age

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Who could have guessed that ‘post-truth’ would be declared as the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year? ‘Post-truth’ is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” I certainly didn’t think I would be standing before the Bedales students at an assembly, as I was last night, giving a talk under that title and with the political background that we are currently adjusting to.

It all takes some explaining, which is what I was trying to do.  Where do you start?  Here are some reasonable questions that any sentient Bedales teenager might be thinking:

  • If that former education minister, Michael Gove, tells us that “the people in this country have had enough of experts” and the views of experts, such as judges, are widely decried on the front page of the Daily Mail, what’s the point of education, which is, after all, about becoming more expert?
  • Likewise, if what matters is that governments listen to the people and the views of experts such as MPs are being pushed to one side, why should I worry about voting – here in Petersfield for example?
  • What about the so-called liberal elite? Aren’t our teachers people who are part of that group? I think our headmaster would certainly like to think he is. I thought that it was a good thing to be a liberally minded person.
  • What about our school’s values? We are asked to live by values such as tolerance, kindness, respect for each other’s feelings – aren’t these being downgraded?

It is with this kind of background that teachers – perhaps headteachers in particular – need to assert the value of a liberal education. By that I mean liberal in these two senses: the promotion of values such as tolerance, kindness and respect for others’ feelings; and the willingness to respect and accept the opinions that are different from our own and an openness to new ideas.

In this post-truth world, sadly we need to be vigorous in asserting the value of knowledge over opinion. Our business is to help educate young people to be kind, humane, inquisitive people who love learning and want to keep learning. The world needs plenty of people like this – people who are fuelled by the idea of becoming experts and want to make the world a better place.

There is also a less characteristic call to arms, which is to exhort our students to become much more engaged in the big political debates. People of my generation who have known nothing other than the success of Western liberal democracy and ideals – especially from the moment of the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 onwards – it is a rude shock to find these certainties challenged as they are at the moment. In transmitting our shock and dismay we can help alert our students to the dangers in what is going on.

Political engagement might have seemed like something for others – now it is something for us. The values that underpin a liberal education need to be more urgently and, even (uncharacteristically maybe) stridently voiced.

Time on and off the treadmill

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Having spent too much time sitting, some of it eating, I find myself in the gym on the treadmill watching snippets of Anne Robinson’s Britain which looks at parenting and the first of that erstwhile autumnal favourite, The Apprentice.

My sitting and eating has been matched by listening (a lot) and talking (a bit) at the annual Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in  its appropriately heart of England location, Stratford-upon-Avon.  It was a very stimulating three days when we were encouraged to think about creative leadership, which may be why, no doubt under the influence of a shock of endorphins,  I find myself speculating about the respective worlds of Robinson and Sugar.

Crosspatch Anne’s exploration of families’ values – from the ‘gentle attachment mother’ to the one who describes herself as more lioness than tiger – could be nicely applied to schools  (boarding schools especially), which after all have family-like characteristics and embody their values in the upbringing of children.  Look here – this family even has written policies and timetables: all set for a good inspection.  I think Anne likes that.  Anne would have an entertaining time doing such work in our schools.  When two parents swap and look at each others’ lives, I am reminded of the value of exchanges, even my swap with my colleague, Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds in summer 2015.

Then, in the wake of the imperious and hatchet-faced Sugar come the latest batch of apprentices, who must surely be coached in how to outdo each other with the absurdity of their hubristic brags and the lurid nature of their imagery.  One contestant’s tasteless boast that “the only things I fear are tsunamis, volcanoes and Ebola” takes, so to speak, the biscuit.  Apprentice-speak has crept into the world of job interviews, I fear, albeit rarely garnished with quite such sickly figurative dressing.

It would, I speculate, be good entertainment to put a group of headteachers through an Apprentice-style exercise, having asked them to talk about themselves in the obligatory argot; not least because we like to feel we are open to ideas and experiences – as we were in Stratford this week.  Here is just a sample of the goodies we had:

Will Gompertz on why everyone should think like an artist.  If ever there was a talk that gave 285 headteachers a stack of ideas for a term of assemblies, it was this one.  Watch out for them popping up, ranging across the need to ensure our students could think creatively enough both to avoid being replaced by “snazzy algorithms” and to have “a lovely life.”   So, we had Cezanne, Baudelaire, Titian, Manet, Hirst and Ai Weiwei.  Artists have to be collaborative, entrepreneurial and properly sceptical – qualities that our young need much more than in their post school lives than the ability to pass exams.  Rubens was a compelling salesman of The Three Graces to aristocrats who didn’t really think they needed one until he spotted just the ideal spot in the banqueting hall.

Greg Doran, director of the RSC’s King Lear, its Artistic Director and possessor of a leonine mane that must make A C Grayling envious, talked to us about how the RSC’s work with schools and communities aims to change young lives and make us think about our lives.  Their new Roman series will ask such questions as this:   Is politics inherently unfair and can it work for the benefit of the many?  Ask Caesar, yes, but let’s spread the debate as well and avoid too much fighting in parliaments as well.

We have the chance to learn through doing (hoorah!) and I sign up for a class with one of the RSC’s voice and movement coaches – a very good two hours and lots of good advice about how to make better use of our voices and to take better care of ourselves to boot.  We are taught about cat and dog gestures – the welcoming palm (Labrador, tail wagging) and the keep-your-distance over turned hand (cat, tail swirling).

But the best session  – and one I will write about next week – was the Young Creative Leaders panel when three young (millennial, we can say) female entrepreneurs talked about their careers, the aspirations of their generation and what schools can do to promote creative leadership.   No Apprentice-speak there.

Golden times

May Bank Holiday weekend offers the best kind of refreshment: Stratford on Avon to see Anthony Sher in Greg Doran’s Death of a Salesman.

Stratford for me is so tied up with my being bitten by the English bug and therefore my route into teaching that I am tiresomely enthusiastic and nostalgic about it, so stop now if this is going to annoy you.

Growing up in one of the most culturally barren parts of the UK, the Fylde Coast (where the trees struggle to get past head height and seaside jollity is the main attraction), it was a revelation aged 16 to find myself in Stratford with a couple of friends from school at the RSC watching Macbeth – Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren bringing the dead butcher and his fiend-like queen to life. What a place! What trees! What people in this brave new world!

Inspired, I then found myself sitting in the garden at home (fringed by stunted trees) burrowing away in a tiny Collected Works that my sister and brother had given me for my 15th birthday. Here were some Shakespeare plays I hadn’t heard of – plays about a naughty young prince called Harry – sounded fun; I came from a family of historians, loved history and thought I would read history at university, so let’s start reading, it’s history after all. Hal’s and Falstaff’s muscular, irreverent prose is gripping. So, then I get a couple of friends together and we book to see Alan Howard in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2. It is riveting, amazing.  That pungent, sparky prose, those magnificently fluent series of insults that Hal and his fat mentor trade are brought alive: who couldn’t be captured by this?  Dazed by the power of the first show, we blunder into a good, earthy pub in Stratford – for me this is redolent with the whiff of Eastcheap and the circle is complete.

So, if you will forgive this unashamed nostalgia, those early visits to the other world of Stratford and the inspiration of the RSC are why I switched to English, why I started teaching and, I suppose, why I am here now. It is one of the reasons why I go back to Stratford, especially to see Death of a Salesman, which I was taught at A Level by the late Brian Slough, an extraordinary English teacher, who was the other big reason why I went down the route I did. He brought Arthur Miller’s greatest play alive and it has lived with me every since as a recurring caveat about family values and unchecked consumerism. Incidentally it has transferred to London now and shouldn’t be missed.


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.