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.

029_DSC4211 (Large)

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

Teaching: place and people

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Teaching’s especially on my mind as the term’s start coincides with summer warmth.  Sunday’s assembly for freshly returned boarders allows me to talk about the way this place can spur us to engage both with each other and to think differently.  My seasonal higher education talk mid week is about how inquisitiveness – fostered here and then furthered in higher education – is the motor for lifelong learning: being interested in stuff makes you more interesting, both to yourself and to others.  Take advantage of these amazing opportunities – Roger Penrose ‘n all.

Teaching is important to headship – for your own wellbeing as well as showing others that you are as much a teacher yourself as someone gesturing in the distance in order to get others to do things and (you trust) make the right things happen.  So by Thursday lunchtime, I have met two new classes (a Block 3 and a Block 1) and taught some Chaucer (suitably enough “When April with his shoures soote…) and some Larkin  (Cut Grass).

I have also done some learning as finally I manage to coincide with sausage-making, seeing the outdoor work team and a Block 5 student in action in the Bakehouse.   Here is the pork (double minced), the rusk (gluten-free) and the seasoning – all nicely mixed in water and ready to be fed into the proverbial sausage machine – delicate job this bit and best not described too intricately so I will move on.

Last thing and I am watching Living with the Brainy Bunch (BBC), which, although billed as an interesting account of the effect of parental influence on students’ progress, is as much about the power of patient, encouraging, determined teaching.  Jack is something of a detention king (105 last year, he says with a smile) and Holly goes walkabout in her lessons, more through fear of failure than anything else.  Both are moved from their low expectation homes to the homes of high-performing students with whose parents have high expectations.  Academic achievement and self-esteem improve.  Jack’s smile and demeanour at the end say as much as his much improved Maths score.

But most on my mind is the telling conjunction of two extraordinary Bedales teachers, sadly now dead, who were Bedales teaching colossi and who inspired generations of students:  Ruth Whiting, who died last Friday and who taught History here from 1963 to 2000, returning after that to invigilate and do amazing work with the archives, in particular commemorating the OB dead of the First World War; and John Batstone,  Head of English from 1968-1993, who died in December but whose memorial service takes place tomorrow.   Testimony to the power of great teaching abounds in the way in which these two are remembered by their students.

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.

Live things

Being away can be stimulating; being back always is.  Evening events and livestock seem to be the two themes of the last few days.

Take last night’s Global Awareness Jaw. Led by Block 5 reporting back on their visit to Woodstock School, Mussourie, India; it began with an extraordinary piece of music composed by Richie and music teacher Giacomo Pozzuto, with Richie on the tabla* and Giacomo on the oboe.  All of the students who went to this remarkable spot, perched on the Himalaya, have a hand in the composition of the presentation and three head it up.  Amongst the various memories that will anchor in the young minds watching, I suspect the spell cast by the sight and sound of tabla and oboe – the interplay of  East and Western musical traditions – will feature most.

Other evening excitements included Sunday’s Professional Guidance department presentation to 6.1 parents on Higher Education: primarily about university entry, it’s an encouraging picture that we present – not only of some of the most sought after universities being able to offer more places to candidates who gain ABB or above at A Level, but of the increasing proportion of our students gaining places at Russell Group universities.  It is the start of the cycle for the new 6.1s.  Next week I will give my annual assembly to the school on higher education, as the most important message is the old adage:  hard work + passion for your chosen subjects + working closely with your teachers = success; and the earlier that starts, the greater the success – and the more enjoyable the journey.

Tuesday evening and I am entertaining a group of fellow headteachers (collective name possibilities, a swelling of heads or a lakh of principals), initially to a meeting and then to dinner at 50 Church Road.  The 86 Group, 20 years old now, comprises 16 schools from across the south east who have enough in common and who enjoy each other’s company enough to meet termly to discuss things of common interest.  Trust and humour are the glue. Meetings of heads of 86 group schools’ departments also happen and are generally handy.  Sitting in the alcove at No 50, the evening light on the great oak tree is particularly wonderful and the birdsong stunning.

Which takes me on to livestock.  The new lambs are in Butts’ Field now and (yes, honestly) are gambolling in the evening sunlight as I walk back from home after Jaw and chat to some Block 3 boys about why lambs like going into the wooden shelter that our alpacas so scorned.  We will all feel easier about the lambs’ transition along the food chain (mint sauce is the clue here) when the time comes, because they have not been named.

This is not the case with the new quartet of 50 Church Road hens, who have recently been named.  Unlike their predecessors, who were uniformly brown, either Waitrose rejects or rescue hens, depending on how you spin it, these are proper, svelte and gorgeous young creatures, a mere few weeks old and full of adolescent preening, with a good three of four years of productive laying ahead.   Given the hopes that we pin on them, the capital outlay (x 6 of their predecessors) and their splendid distinguishing plumage and general pomp, we take the bold step of naming.  Following a brief and entirely frivolous What’s App consultation with our own offspring, they are named: Snowy (the white one), Bluebell (bluish and that’s her breed and its bluebell time in Steep woods), Chicken (brown and looks like one) and Chardonnay, after the memorable character in Footballers’ Wives, Series 1, who was herself named after the over-worked varietal type of the extravagant 80s.  I trust that they are all going to behave, especially Chardonnay.

 

*NB The left hand plays the bass on the wider drum called the “dugga” and the right hand plays the lead drums on the “tabla”. Together, the drums are also called “tabla”.

‘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.

Top degree corrections

Red faces at the Higher Education and Funding Council of England (HEFCE) as our professional association, HMC, confronts them with a rookie error in the report that they published in early September.  When they published the report, the data seemed to point to a significant and unfavourable difference in degree outcomes between students from the independent sector and their state sector peers.  Now – aha! – it turns out that the headline statistic published by the HEFCE contained a basic mathematical error. Those interpreting the report had got their columns mixed up, claiming initially that 73% of independent school entrants received a 1st or 2:1 compared to 82% from state schools and 6th form colleges – in fact it is the other way round.

You can make your own conclusions about what the HEFCE wanted the research to show, but a clue might lie in the fact that the HEFCE silently changed the mistake in the numerical appendix to its online document but not its overall interpretation in the body of the report which continues to maintain that evidence points to generally higher performance achieved by state school graduates compared with independent school peers entering with like for like grades.

Since the error came to light, Professor Alan Smithers from the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham has analysed the report further and produced his own paper, which shows that students’ performance in entry qualifications is the single strongest predictor of subsequent degree performance, which is why the proportion of students getting a 1st or 2:1 degree is much higher for independent school students – 82% versus 73% for the record.

Although it was HMC who did the heavy lifting with this and made HEFCE admit its error to the media, hats off to the eagle-eyed parent who spotted the error and alerted a member school.

Professional Guidance

So, we have a new department, I tell the Bedales students last Friday, and it is called Professional Guidance. Conveniently, if unflashily, situated in the bit of the Academic Village that looks out (enviously) on the Lupton Hall, it comprises Higher Education, University Liaison, Careers and Alumni matters. Through putting these overlapping functions under one roof under the leadership of our Higher Education Advisor, Vikki Alderson-Smart, we should help all the different elements work yet better together and be able to offer a range of new opportunities to students. There we have these people and functions: Sarah Oakley (overseeing Art College applications and also academic departments’ liaison with university departments in the UK and non-UK universities – apart from North American ones); Alison Mason (Careers and North American university liaison); and, new person on the block, Leana Seriau, our Alumni Officer. Leana will lead a significant expansion in our contact with Old Bedalians – in particular, she will be organising events when OBs in a particular career sector – let’s say, careers to do with Art and Design – can meet in a festive contact; such occasions and the contacts they provide will also be excellent opportunities for current sixth formers – or young OBs who are studying Design or Art at university – to meet people who are further down the career track.

Turning back to the name of this newly fledged department, it is both about guidance given professionally whilst at school and about guidance from outside school – from the professions that a student is interested in pursuing.

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.