Spring resolves

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Snuck in when the gloss on the term is still sparkly comes the HMC Spring Conference; “Putting ourselves in parents’ shoes: new ways of working between schools and families”. As usual with conferences and training sessions, it is the sustained reflectiveness, here on a single topic, combined with hearing some stimulating new thoughts, that provides the benefit. In this case I came away with two clear resolves.

The first concerns the new challenges that living in a digital age place on us all – parents, students and teachers. HMC has been working closely with Digital Awareness UK. This company, led by sisters Charlotte and Emma Robertson, has worked initially with the Girls’ Day School Trust and now with HMC to produce material that is suitable for students and parents. Their approach is all about embracing technology’s benefits but learning to live without the potentially harmful consequences that it so easily brings – not least for family life. In particular the new short film which Digital Awareness has produced in partnership with HMC was especially effective at communicating potential traps and suggesting solutions. Resolve one is to ensure that we are being yet more proactive in this area.

The second was the fresh perspective that you can gain from seeing your own school through the lens of a set of very different schools. This was provided by a talk by Tony Little, former head of Eton and now working for GEMS Education, which has a vast number of schools across the world. The fast growth of British style education globally has brought with it the creation of schools by organisations like GEMS – right across the price range – in response to parental demand. These schools, catering virtually entirely for parents whose expectations are likely to be more based on what they see in the commercial world, rather than their own schooling, need to forge ways of promoting themselves and working in partnership with their parents that meet those needs and expectations. In particular, given that in an international school a student stay of 18 months is typical, they need to do it all in double quick time. Result? They are doing some things – clarity about school values and parental engagement in particular, better than UK schools are. There are all sorts of interesting things happening; the relatively staid world of UK independent education can, I am sure, learn much from what is going on in these schools across the world. It is something that I have already built into the main HMC conference I am organising in Belfast this October. Resolve two: we are engaging our parents quite well, but we can do it better and will.

Keith Budge | HMC Spring Conference | Digital Awareness UK | Tony Little, GEMS Education

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.

Young creatives’ thinking

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

I finished my ramblings last week saying that the Young Creative Leaders session at the HMC conference was for me the most stimulating.  Why?

Three entrepreneurs, who had left school in the last 12 years or so, talked about the so-called millennial generation’s aspirations – what are young professionals looking for in their lives and how can we prepare them?  Lizzie Fane, founder of Third Year Abroad and Global Graduates, Phoebe Gormley, founder of Gormley & Gamble and Charlotte Pearce, founder of Inkpact made up the panel.

The threads that emerged from their session resonated strongly with what I hear from their contemporaries who are OBs and my own three children who are of that generation.

  • Do something you love, something that you find fulfilling, that makes you feel alive
  • Find something that gives you the satisfaction of seeing something through
  • Spend as much time as possible seeking out different experiences, especially through travel: this will help you spot a problem that you could solve through your business
  • Look out for the ways that “digital nomads” make their livings – people who have found ways of earning money whilst living in different places: technology transforms things
  • Enjoy having control over your time; you can share working space with other creatives
  • Look for all opportunities whilst at school to take new things on, take risks, work out practical solutions for yourself, even if you seem to be one of the awkward squad
  • Building a business is all about being able to inspire people with an idea and keep them motivated – look for chances to do this at school
  • Schools need to help students understand the business basis for schools through showing them how a school needs to operate.

Interesting to reflect on the influence of their parents in all this.  The cultural, social and financial capital of their parents has been a factor in enabling them to take these risks and start their businesses. But what is also interesting is that the millennials’ determination to have greater autonomy over their lives and give greater emphasis to their personal fulfilment is partly a reaction to seeing their parents disgruntled by their work – within the corporate world in the cases cited here.

All the above are handy reminders as we look at how the Bedales experience evolves and especially how we create the right spaces to enable our students to take responsibility and risks within a safe environment.

Being as open with students as possible concerning how their school is run and how decisions are reached is part of that.  An element of this is our annual Governors’ Question Time.  Mirroring Headmaster’s Question Time which happens termly, the Governors’ one has three governors in the panel with me in the Dimbleby role.

Last night most of the questions take the three governors – Matthew Rice, Tim Wise and Michele Johnson – into suitable areas which help show their role – areas such as how the school spends its income, reviews decisions I make and what are the next building projects.  Afterwards, School Council has a session with them.  These things should help increase our students’ understanding of how their school works – and by extension give them a better insight into how complex institutions and businesses operate.

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.

Connecting

Conferences should encourage you to think as much about what might be as about what currently is.  In that respect my time at HMC in St Andrews was also stimulated by reading John Browne’s book Connect, which has been written with the help and insight of OB and McKinsey partner Robin Nuttall. Drawing on discussions with current business leaders, Browne’s time at BP and case studies ranging from Carnegie (whoops..) to Cadbury (yay..) he invites thought about how schools connect with the people they serve.  It will be a treat having Robin here on 4 December to do a Civics and to hear more about the ideas underpinning this book.

In this connection it is a busy time with regard to connecting with stakeholders, with the Bedales Parents’ Association meeting last Saturday and plenty of governor activity this week – the Finance and General Purposes meeting on Thursday and Governors’ Question Time on Wednesday when three governors face the Bedales students’ questions in the Quad.

Back to St Andrews for a moment: this short film started our conference.  Its aim is to illustrate the important things that HMC schools do.  The profile of our school amongst the 275 is important – being known for doing useful and important stuff is helpful in so many directions, not least the profile amongst the profession that helps us attract strong teachers.  So, here it is – we feature early on. View film here.

Conferring

HMC, or the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference meets each year in a place with a hotel sufficiently big to handle us. This year we are in St Andrews where one of our oldest universities began early in the fifteenth century and where the curious game of golf also started.  It’s a bracing spot for the 270 or so heads of leading independent schools to meet. Our numbers have grown by about 10% over recent years as some of the stronger Girls’ School Association schools have joined.  Happily, although HMC still feels too much like a blokes’ gathering, the number of female heads is growing each year. My predecessor, Alison Willcocks, was the second.

What do we do then, perched scenically on the North Sea’s brink? Confer, yes: about exam marking (its unreliability), student wellbeing, higher education (the independent sector’s access to the most in demand universities) and broadening access to our schools (through financial assistance).

Alongside this, there are two other threads. An impressive range of speakers helps us reflect on what we do and how we could do it better: Rohit Talwar on what the future world of work might be like and how our schools might modify what we offer in order to avoid education’s usual trap of preparing students for a vanishing world; Monty Halls on leadership and how we can extend the quality of leadership both within and outside our schools; and Matthew Syed on the power of growth mindset.

The final thread is one of fellowship and sharing problems with colleagues whom we might have known for decades.

University applications: early thoughts

The university cycle is, as you would expect of a cycle, starting up again: like those images of Egyptian snakes with their heads attached to their tails, it has an eternal as well as an agricultural quality. The harvest is almost in with the majority of universities having made their offers. Oxbridge have declared (a very good seven offers for us) and the whole cycle is starting to kick off again – for our current 6.1s and for our Professional Guidance team.

Timelines are being scanned by parents new to university application 2015 style and Top Up  (= Top University Preparation) classes are starting up. How handy therefore to find an article that gives both overview and reassurance; and it’s by one of our governors, Tim Hands, whose various hats (Master of Magdalen College School, former Chair of HMC and former chair of Independent Schools’ University Committee) put him in a particularly good position to comment on the changing landscape. And, for those of you who are Gilbert and Sullivan fans there’s some of that too. Click here to listen to the article (scroll down to End Piece).


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.