Conference conclusions

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

What do some 300 headteachers want to do when they convene for their annual conference, say in Belfast?

Having just returned from this event and having done it, here is a pithy summary.  People want three things: to be inspired, to come back with some useful things, and to have plenty of chances for fellowship.  Time and sundry survey monkeys will no doubt tell whether my august colleagues found the balance right in the conference I have shaped but here are some highlights from each of these categories.

Inspired we were on Monday by Jonathan Powell telling us about the Northern Ireland peace process and the role that he played as chief negotiator.  On Tuesday, Barb Oakley (Professor of Engineering at Oakland University) and John Lloyd (creator of QI and so many of the great satirical TV shows of the last 35 years) inspired us to think about how we learn and how he might better galvanise children’s curiosity.  On Wednesday we heard from one of our colleagues, Mark Steed, on how educational experimentation in Dubai may be indicating a future where education in its current form, say at Bedales, becomes as unusual as bespoke tailoring and most learn through a combination of technology and a small amount of classroom contact.

Useful things are done mainly in workshops, which cover areas such as legal, strategy, neuroscience, gender identity, entrepreneurship, partnerships and even pensions.  Heads’ panels exploring different kinds of innovation in our schools give us ideas we can take away – people are keen to share ideas and there is a spirit of collaboration.  A final heads’ panel has six of us describe particularly testing times that we have faced – here, as is so often, usefulness and inspiration blend.

Fellowship?  Leading is, we think, a lonely business.  Moving into headship you go from having plenty of colleagues you can share confidences with to very few: the relationships you develop with fellow heads become a critical part of your personal, as well as professional support network.  So, planning a conference, you want to make sure that there are plenty of generous breaks for coffees, teas (as purveyors of these beverages on the railways uniquely say).  You also want to make sure that the evening events are sufficiently attractive to make sure that people do want to congregate and that food and drink are compelling. For me, no conference is complete without a poetry reading so we had Alice McCullough on Monday evening.  You need to allow people to do other things together, so have an afternoon when you can tramp the beautiful hills of Mourne or seek out the mysteries of the Titanic.

Having the unusual privilege of organising such an event is itself quite thought-provoking, but I can recommend it.


Find out more about the Headmasters’ & Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), and view films from this year’s conference on the HMC YoutTube channel.

 

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.

Making time

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By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

The emphasis that Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) have on coursework and the conclusion of those courses at the end of this month means that this stage in the Spring Term  entails much making and doing – whether your creation is an English Literature essay, your History chronicles, a gargantuan Utopia project, a student-crafted play or your Design artefact, we are coming into the zenith of the season of Block 5 doing and making.

The new Art & Design building is always an interesting place to visit, but doing so around midday on Sunday was especially gripping.  Turn right and you’re in a beautiful Fashion Design studio full of Block 5s making sumptuous clothes: here is Lettie’s MRI-scan themed tie-dyed (and multi-coloured) corset. By contrast there is Mia’s magpie themed (suitably black) dress with its multiple feathery tassel bits.  Over by the window pinned to the mannequin is Tiger’s shapely aquamarine sea-water-themed chiffon dress; and so she mulls:  the ripples in the chiffon are suitable, it seems, but when does a ripple become a ruck?  The 60s tend to feature – and, yes, here is an octagon inspired dress: Fleur is mapping out the octagons’ geometry – tricky work.

Over in the Product Design side, Cian is sanding his maple clock and Goose has created the most exotic of tables, with a mariner’s top and a bark-covered base which will be coated in a PVA and water mix to ensure it lasts.  Lily is making a very different table which has a reversible top – backgammon on one side and general purpose on the other.  Jack’s wellie and coat holder has involved some serious welding and is at least as tall as I am.  Joel’s glider launcher combines an electric motor with a crafty take-off pad, whilst Archie’s Cooking Camping Stove Unit even has a mini cool box – handy indeed.  Happily the new Jewellery Bay has had some action. MIllie’s steel bracelet needs some intricate cutting.

The patient students have to put up with my nosey questions – about materials and thought processes; but I find it as interesting as I do encouraging.  There is real pride in what they are doing and such a sense of purpose infusing the whole weekend: teachers, technicians and students are working closely together.

Next stop, Bedales Dance Performs on Thursday evening.

Dystopia revisited

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

A while back and in another school, I taught a sixth form General Studies course that was based on the idea of nightmare worlds; central to it were dystopian novels.  Unusually for such a course, the students seemed to have read most of the books on offer and when the course stopped after its one term’s duration, they seemed keen for more.  1984 (1948) and Brave New World (1932) were there of course, but it was Zamyatin’s We (1924), which arguably laid the imaginative foundation for 1984, that seemed to attract a good deal of the discussion.  Shortly after its publication, I taught Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which gripped its teenage readers with its nightmarish world and was an intriguing text to be talking with teenagers about in the ’80s.  Over the holidays I returned to Attwood with her very readable The Heart Goes Last, as well as finding Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror as my annual box set.

More’s Utopia (1516), the book that coined the adjectives, is now 500 years old; each Spring, our Block 5s who are taking the much admired Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (PRE) Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) become caught up in creating their ideal worlds; so the idea of Utopia is very much a feature of our shared cultural life.  So, it is salutary – scary actually – to stop and think about how many dystopian echoes there are in the way that the world seems right now. Early Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits (2011) especially, where the game show and unintended consequences of an increasingly digitally based world combine to create a garish living nightmare, now seems spookily prescient.

Specific to the USA, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) is thought-provoking.  I’m told we should be reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

But it is the masterly portrayal of totalitarian thought control in Orwell’s 1984 that seems to be capturing people’s interest.  I suspect that there will also be many more teachers who are encouraging their students to carry their reading of Orwell on into the essays, in particular Politics and the English Language with its memorable concluding thought:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

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 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.

Winter rites and pedantic wrestling

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

We know winter has arrived when we all stop being able to walk on the grass and when the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness gives way to the season of feasts.

Feast happens to a student when, following an academic review, his or her academic efforts give cause for celebration. Like many good ideas here, Feast came from talking to students. A few years ago deputy head academic, Al McConville, asked his student teaching and learning group how they would like to see their academic efforts recognised.  At that stage recognition was based on my or my deputy “seeing” students individually or on sending postcards – we continue to do both, with meeting students in groups over tea a handy Louise innovation. These things happen out of the winter months (winter = autumn half term to February half term). Al’s group said that it would be really nice to have a special meal at Keith and Moony’s house. So, during the winter months, and in the Northern European tradition we feast.

Interestingly – and here I unleash my inner pedant/punctuation-geek – students had no truck with an article preceding the noun – Feast stood, capitalized proud and uncluttered, a proper noun needing no diluting article.

Visiting one of our New England exchange schools, Putney in Vermont last month, I was struck by their weekly communal singing session. It’s called Sing!  Yes, it’s that most wiry of verbal forms, the imperative. So, in the spirit of grammatical top trumps, here’s my suggestion for our own homespun culinary festive event: Feast!

Louise, being an hispanist, is no doubt going to suggest ¡Feast!

My imperative (Feast!) would capture the cry that goes out in the staff review meetings when teachers are acclaiming a student’s efforts – “Feast!” they exclaim, (I now like to think), imperatively.

An additional spin on this is because of the emoji effect on punctuation. See the photo below for how one breakfast cereal imbues a word with additional glory through its own mixture of embroidery and punctuation. I look forward to the next iteration of the design with invented/emoji based punctuation.

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Finally, here is a homely touch to give you some sense of what the doormat looks like at 50 Church Road when you have 40 or so Bedalians to supper and it is wet and wintery outside. Cosy inside – Viking style candelabra fired up and Moony’s chocolate brownies hoovered up appreciatively.

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