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.


“The loveliest spot that man hath ever found” – William Wordsworth


By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

It is a curiosity of Bedales that the youngest entrants, the Block 3s, start their time here by arriving in verdant Hampshire before any other students – on the Thursday before most arrive on the Sunday – spend two nights at school and then head off to the Lake District, returning into circulation on the second Monday of term.  Why?

Enabling your youngest students to have their induction into school life and, for example, the mysteries of IT logins and classroom locations, before they are crowded out with lots of big and alarmingly adult looking teenagers makes sense.  Whisking them away to the North of England requires more explanation – it is a long way, 330 miles in fact and, like any expedition away from school, complicated to plan and resource-hungry; this is especially so as we take the Block 3 (Badley) tutors who accompany their tutor groups (usually with 8-10 students in each group).

Sitting in a very smart octagonal shed in the grounds of the Outward Bound’s centre on the edge of Ullswater (by Glenridding, the most flooded village in Britain), I am reminded why.  In this snug super shed or pod are the nine members of a tutor group,  an Outward Bound tutor and the Bedales tutor; they are all grouped around a table and surrounded by sheets of paper pinned to the walls which reflect the Block 3s’ journey over the first few days of their five day course.  The sheets from their first day reflect what they were hoping to get out of their time at the centre – their hopes and fears.  More recent ones show how the Outward Bound instructors tailor the students’ experience to our school aims.  I notice one sheet which has resulted from a discussion on how their time in Ullswater might mirror the Bedales aims:  HEAD: Think! HAND Do something! HEART Self-belief.

I am there for a couple of nights and, because the expeditions into the mountains this year takes place when I have to go south, I am able to spend plenty of time seeing the groups in action around the centre and, crucially for me, pinning names to faces, mannerisms, quirks of speech and all the other ways one tries to remember who the new students are.

I love going out into the hills, so it is with envy that I watch them all getting ready for their expedition on the Wednesday morning.   Even these preparations are done thoughtfully.  The comparisons with the quasi-military approach to expeditions that I grew up with – here’s your kit, pack it, off we go – are stark.  Students sit in their octagonal pods and are asked to think of all the different activities and needs when they are up on the hills.  There are discussions and debates and gradually a list is created.  Of course, the instructors will not let them go off without the essentials – and safety measures are second nature to Outward Bound – but the decisions and that kit list are shaped and informed by what the students discuss.

Culturally, this is a foreign land to most of our students: that’s not just the business of wild nature, but it’s also the North – little rivers called becks, different accents and meretricious weather.  It’s also a brilliant social mixing pot, with boarders and days, students from Dunhurst and many other schools all finding themselves in dorms or tutor groups with each other.  You get to know your fellow travellers pretty well.  Likewise, time on the hills or seeing youngsters overcome fears helps the tutors understand what makes them tick.

An additional bonus is that their return journey on Friday is broken by a sortie into Stoke for lunch, some painting of mugs and a tour of the Emma Bridgewater factory, thanks to the generous hospitality of Emma Bridgwater and Matthew Rice.

What with their time in the place that inspired the Romantic poets, their own journeys of self-discovery and this dotting into a thriving modern business in the former industrial heartland of England, it is well worth the journey.


Then and now

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Events over the past week or so have led to some thinking about how schools have changed over the last few decades; so I have found myself thinking about how independent schools seemed to someone starting out on his career – as I was – in the early 1980s.  What’s changed? How and why?

Within the sector that I have been working in, which is boarding, the big change has been from it being boys only to being co-educational.  The changes effected by this have been profound culturally, changing the typical group of teachers (“common room” in school speak) into a much more balanced, less clubby, less male dominated group of people.   Sherry before lunch in the common room gradually petered out during the 80s.  The old breed of schoolmaster, for whom schoolmastering was a lifestyle choice and who had sufficient private money to enable him to take some foreign holidays became a rarity.

Alongside this the commitment to high quality teaching and learning, which struck me as haphazard and dependent on outstanding individuals when I started, has become an expectation.  The English department I joined in 1980 remains in my mind the epitome of a brilliant department, but it happened because of a coincidence of extraordinary teachers, not because there was any top-down expectation or because of educational policy in the school.

This brings me to the effects of inspection and regulation, which have been profound.  Schools now are highly regulated places: heads are responsible for policies and systems that should make it very difficult for there to be marked areas of poor delivery within a school for any length of time.  Has this rubbed out some of the more colourful elements?  Probably, but it has improved the general standard considerably.  Lesson observation and appraisal – foreign concepts 30 years ago – are standard now.  When I started as a housemaster in 1991 I cannot remember having anything to do with a policy; now all teachers’ lives are underpinned by policies.

But the biggest and best change has been in the safety of students under our care.  The impact of the Children Act 1989, subsequent statutory requirements and the sea-change in schools’ awareness of the risks facing young people have been profound.  Accompanying this has been a cultural change in the recognition given to listening to young people and involving them in their own education – something I suspect that Bedales has always been particularly good at.

I suspect these changes mirror what’s happened in many other areas of our national life as institutions and professions have become more accountable and as successive scandals have shown the Emperor not to have as many clothes as he thought: Shipman was to Medicine as Savile was to Church and School.  The City no longer runs on booze, trust and a good measure of insider dealing.

Creeping greyness is the danger.  Passionate and inspirational teaching remains the elixir which lies at any good school’s heart.


Conferring on boarding

Just about to leave the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) conference in the heart of Victorian Manchester. Much good idea sharing and updating on everything from safeguarding to outreach, but it will be the memory of positive advocates for boarding that will stick with me above all.  Both are men who exemplify the degree to which the right kind of boarding experience can have a transformative effect on the individual’s confidence.  In the BSA magazine, Tony Little, former head of Eton, described the quality well: “through my own experience [in boarding] I have seen students metamorphose from cautious caterpillars into bold caterpillars ready to take flight”.

The first example was Ben Fogle whose speech, early in the conference, referred to the way his experience at Bryanston had transformed him.  In the BSA magazine he summarises it: “Shy as a mouse, I lacked a voice and probably a personality”.  Boarding was a powerful ingredient of “confidence… confidence in me. I began to feel comfortable in my own skin.”  He concludes by describing confidence as the antithesis of the public school swagger: it’s “a virtue. A skill. A feeling. A value.”  His testimony and his subsequent life are fine examples of the effect of that miscellaneous bundle of experiences, mainly encountered outside the classroom, that go under the dry expression ‘co-curricular’ (switching on the TV late last night, there is his large frame, commenting on the mating habits of wildebeest).

The second example of confidence in action was last night’s after dinner talk by Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Security Correspondent and ex Marlborough student.  Although he would be the last one to describe himself in this way, his talk and his life are, like Fogle’s, an example of physical and moral courage.  Frank described how his experience at school made him hungry to get out and do new things once he left Marlborough.  This translated into him, as a student of Arabic, having the chutzpah to knock on the door of a family in Cairo and ask if he could live with them and learn their language.  His account of his near fatal wounding at the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates (“losers”, as he described them) in 2004 was especially powerful: his extraordinary luck in surviving that attack and the way that writing his experience down had been decisive for his state of mind.  Here is an example of both confidence and an inspirational, cheerful resilience: his conclusion “life is still an awful lot of fun”.

Why top professions favour independent school pupils

Reading the Sutton Trust’s recent report, Leading People 2016The educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite, I am taken back nearly 20 years to a large assembly hall in a faceless RAF base in Lincolnshire where heads of independent and maintained schools were gathered to hear venerable, senior members of our three armed services tell us why we should be encouraging our students to join the Navy, Army and RAF.  New Labour was about to be elected and John Reid, then Shadow Defence Secretary took to the stage.  Early on in his session he was asked a question by a maintained school head: “What are you going to do about the current, unacceptable situation which means that such a high proportion of officers recruited to the British Army are privately educated?”  Reid’s comment surprised us all: “Well, rather than trying to limit the numbers coming from private schools, I am going to look at why such a high proportion of those applying from private schools have what the Army is looking for – and then work with my colleagues in education to give more of our young people coming through the state sector the same qualities that clearly these successful applicants have.”

The approach taken by New Labour and subsequently both by the Coalition and current Government has been to attempt to bring various elements of independent schools’ DNA to the state system, with the academy programme being the clearest example. Within the independent sector, the growth of partnerships between state and independent schools has shown that there is plenty of willingness from both sectors to work together for the benefit of young people.

The Sutton Trust does commendable work in increasing the access for particularly able maintained sector students to top independent day schools through its Open Access scheme (which it would like to see expanded) and through its Pathways and summer school programmes.  Meanwhile the money committed to means-tested based financial assistance (aka bursaries) from within the independent sector grows year by year – according to the Independent Schools’ Council, these bursaries are valued at £340 million, supporting 41,400 pupils. Within my school, the most popular fundraising cause has consistently been for bursaries to broaden access to the school – above all to bring people here on 100% awards.

There are many areas of the Sutton Trust report which are intriguing, but for me the discussion about ‘soft skills’ is one of the most interesting. The report’s executive summary refers to the idea that “increasing importance is being attributed by recruiters to ‘soft skills’, including certain social skills which are not always as accessible to those from less privileged backgrounds.” Read the full article, originally published in The Telegraph (03/03/16).

School and The Future

How much should schools be refuges from the realities of the adult world?  To what extent should we alert our students to the challenges they will face in adult life?

Starting here in the early noughties, I felt that Bedales offered too much of a warm bath of reassurance – too impermeable a bubble.  A formative early experience was the outrage I faced from students when telling a 6.1 cohort that they weren’t working hard enough and that it was simply no good for them to compare themselves with their contemporary here, but they needed to think about the person they were competing against, who was at Manchester Grammar, King’s Canterbury or a high performing sixth form college.  I was roundly told that they regarded their school as somewhere that needed to keep that world at one remove – I had no right to be trying to frighten them into action like this.

Things have changed – within the school and outside it.  The zeitgeist out there is different, now we realise that the la-la land of continuously rising living standards and secure-ish jobs is no longer a fixture.

I gave an assembly last night which looked at the speed and extent of automation – the fourth industrial revolution that the World Economic Forum is telling us about – in the light of humankind’s striving for the ideal; so there is Utopia, Brave New World and, almost contemporaneously, G.M. Keynes’ famous essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren where he envisages the world of 2030 where the leisure which “science and compound interest” have won for the imaginary grandson will enable him “to live wisely and agreeably and well.”  In Keynes’ high-minded view, it is not just that we will have enough money not to need to work for much of the time, but that we will have moved beyond money – that’s another topic, albeit an intriguing one.

I then paid court to Moore’s Law and the likely impact on middle class jobs that this speedy wave of automation will bring – using one of my favourite pieces of holiday reading, Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots; but what I was most interested in sketching out was what schools need to do to prepare their students for this rapidly changing world.

So, this was my list:

  • Cross-disciplinary thinking – working across subject disciplines, especially Science and Humanities.
  • Collaboration – interconnectedness will put this at a premium. The place of the lone scholar with his quill is limited.
  • Communication – hand in glove with what’s above and below.
  • Empathy and respect for people from different backgrounds and cultures.
  • Love of learning and with it an appetite for life-long learning.

Although I think we do a lot of this quite well, there is more that we can and should do.  I am sure that our independent-minded students will happily join the debate.


Theatre, Privilege and Independent Schools- A response to Dame Judi

Olivier Theatre 1

Last week it was my great pleasure to be in the audience for an Analogue production of Stowaway in the Bedales Olivier Theatre.  I mention this because recent weeks have seen a flurry of press attention to concerns that acting is becoming a profession closed to all but the wealthy. Dame Judi Dench has expressed the view that working class talent is increasingly squeezed out as a consequence of the costs of entry (a point supported by David Morrissey), and associates the death of repertory theatre with a reduction in opportunities to both see and participate in theatre.

Others in the industry appear undecided on the question of access – whilst BBC Controller of Drama Ben Stephenson supports the view that acting is ‘too middle class’, Gavin Henderson of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama reports no noticeable shift towards the better-off in the School’s intake. Edward Kemp of RADA also disputes that the Academy’s students are all from wealthy families and, instead, directs attention to what he sees as a general downgrading of the arts and humanities in UK society. If borne out, his concerns a) that exposure to good theatre is being squeezed and b) that in terms of school provision independent school facilities are significantly better than their state sector counterparts raise an interesting dilemma.  Does this make independent schools the protectors of the interests of a wealthy minority seeking entry to the acting profession to the detriment of a socially diverse theatre or, alternatively, the guardians of arts and humanities under siege?

Inevitably, the answer must be nuanced. At Bedales we believe that theatre has an important social and educational function, that it has a value for everybody, and that its importance would be reduced were it to be colonised by any minority. From an early age, we encourage our students to develop their performance skills – not least because we believe that it develops confidence, and awareness and understanding of others. And we believe that this is true for everybody.  Simultaneously, we leave no stone unturned in trying to prepare our students for careers in acting, or indeed any other role within theatre and the creative industries more generally, should that be what they wish for.

There can be no disputing that Bedales’ commitment to theatre is expensive, and that is reflected in our fees. We know that not everybody can afford them, although we do, of course, try to make our provision more accessible through bursaries and similar support. However, we are adamant that our facilities should be accessible to those from outside the school, and we are committed to our role as a locus of regional theatre that helps to fill some of the gap left by the demise of repertory theatre.  Bedales theatre facilities are used by the local Petersfield Youth Theatre, and we value highly our association with such an accomplished and vibrant company. We also put on a diverse and regular programme of theatre that is open to the public: whilst we are not in a position to eradicate wealth disparities and associated privileges within society, we are in a position to encourage critical reflection on this and other issues – a responsibility we take seriously both as educators of our students and in planning our theatre programmes for wider audiences.

To return to last week’s production of Stowaway, it is possible that one or more of our students present may absorb the experience into their entry into an acting career, and should that turn out to be the case I will be very proud. What is beyond dispute, however, is that in addressing questions of labour exploitation and migration, the production challenged its audience – students, staff and members of the wider community alike – to consider together human experience as connected to the great social and economic forces of our times. I am no less proud of that.

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.