Thinkin’ ‘n doin’

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Starting out as a teacher, I was lucky to find myself in an English department which did a lot of thinking and a lot of doing: an inventive and adaptable programme of study and activities was combined with an ethos of hard work and high achievement.  A formative memory for me is the way that we collaborated and framed ideas as a department; every Wednesday we had a convivial working lunch (hosted in turn by each of us) which was our department meeting. Ideas (sometimes wacky) were knocked around and tested; good practice shared; there was lots of laughter and it was stimulating and productive. We agreed what we should do, planned carefully ahead and then made sure that our thinking resulted in the right kind of doing.

As this was my first job, I found myself running junior debating – a pretty sleepy little corner affecting a handful of devotees.  With my colleagues’ support I decided to turn this into an activity that every student in their first year had to experience.  I devised a scheme which meant that we had a series of mini-debates running across the school at the same time each week.  It involved my persuading a number of colleagues to help voluntarily with it, which they did and off we went.  It ran for several years, lasting for a year after I had left.

Being nosy and a bit pushy from an early age, I found myself observing the headmasters at the various schools I worked at:  here’s an ideas person (rare); there’s someone who gets things done.  In talking with heads I found that sometimes they themselves even talked in those terms about the business of headship, with all the dangers of self-fulfilling prophesy.

Reflecting on what headship is here, in our favoured nook of Hampshire, there is no doubt: it’s a role where the thinking and the doing have to work alongside each other.  Indeed, I suspect that the innovation and distinctiveness gene at Bedales is such that the school thrives through the sense that its routines and activities are being thoughtfully scrutinized and re-shaped continuously.  This is not quite John Badley’s injunction that the school should be re-built every seven years, but it is very  much  that spirit.

I found myself thinking (there we go again…) about this last night at the end of a stimulating Jaw debate: “This house would serve no meat” (decoratively done below).  Jaw, the time when the school engages in something that has a moral or spiritual dimension, has adapted from being a Sunday evening religious observance with a broad-ranging talk at its centre (up to 1981), to a non-religious event on a Sunday evening  (up to 2005) to its present incarnation – a fortnightly programme of talks, mainly from external speakers, with a Jaw debate each term.  Last night’s one evoked memories of the community-wide debate that led to us having one no meat lunch each week.  I suspect that this one will lead to a further debate about the amount and provenance of the meat we eat.

Thoughtfulness naturally sits within all elements of the school’s leadership, just as it does within its vibrant communal life.  Effecting consequent change likewise must.

This house would serve no meat

Middle East questions

Last night’s student-led Jaw re-told the stories of Syrian refugees – four poignant accounts of trauma and loss, culminating in that of Abdullah Kurdi whose family drowned and whose son, Aylan, became such a powerful image in turning the world’s sympathy more fully towards the plight of people fleeing Syria.

This was the second time that the community’s attentions have been focussed on the Syrian tragedy: an assembly two weeks ago by our two librarians featured John Badley’s watercolours of Palmyra and his journal entries. These fine paintings will become better known as they are reproduced as cards and sold to support Syrian refugees.

When I had a sabbatical in summer 2009, I chose to spend most of it in the Middle East. It was a part of the world I did not know and was interested in. I am glad that I did. The demanding and fascinating bit was trying to make as much progress as possible with Modern Standard Arabic through doing a beginner’s course at a language school in Cairo. Two of our children joined us when their summer term ended. They spent some time with us in Cairo before we travelled through Jordan and then into Syria. We didn’t visit Palmyra but stayed in Hama (where Assad’s father is reported to have killed anywhere between 1,000-40,000 Muslim Brotherhood), Damascus and Aleppo. Amongst all the pre-Arab Spring fascinations, Syria was the most fascinating and alluring: Damascus’s Umayyad mosque ranks in my mind amongst the most beautiful holy places I have visited. Damascus itself, arguably the oldest continually occupied city in the world, was bewitching. Aleppo, more bustling and deservedly legendary in its historic role as a great trading city. Unsurprisingly, the Syrians we encountered, although immensely hospitable and friendly, wisely would not be drawn on any of the less attractive features of living in a police state.

It is salutary and poignant to think now about the state of Libya, Egypt and, above all, Syria almost five years after the start of the Arab Spring.

The debate is well under way here as to what the community’s response should be to the refugee crisis.  These will certainly not be the only events which focus on the Middle East and the refugee crisis this term.

Leading voices, calming and cheering

FullSizeRender 3

Assemblies and Jaws, which make up such a large chunk of communal life at Bedales, are increasingly student led. This week is an example par excellence of this.

Monday sees Tom H and Foxey H, both 6.2 Psychology students, present on Happiness and positive thinking, interlacing findings from research with tips (that are especially handy given we are in 6.1 Mocks’ week) on how to prevent fruitless stress by positive thinking. In spite of some IT gremlins, the assembly is engagingly and neatly executed. I certainly feel calmer and cheerier.

Now it’s Wednesday evening and Jaw, which aims to mark significant points in the faith calendar, focusses on Chinese New Year. The entire occasion is masterminded by Block 4 students, all new to the school in September. Up front is the formidably eloquent and authoritative figure of  Hector C who takes us through the cultural background to Chinese New Year, via some facts about China, including sad ones about female infanticide and Hector’s lack of siblings (but happily he has a school of brothers and sisters, so good mitigation here). Then we have the most graceful of dances, performed by Kiki W, accompanied melodically by Bethy Y. This is a magic moment and, buoyed up by a finale of some Hector-led communal Mandarin (New Year’s greetings to each other in particular) matters close to much applause and cheering all round.

FullSizeRender 2


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.

Remembering anniversaries

The cargo of history weighs heavily this week, with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s funeral. In addition, two talks give us different perspectives on war: at Jaw John Bradshaw’s powerful talk on courage and humility in the light of his experience in Zimbabwe as a young man in the 1970s – being wounded whilst defusing a land mine and subsequently losing his sight; and Sir Hew Strachan’s shrewd comments in his talk to our history society, The Green Ribbon Club, about the way that our perspective of the First World War has been changed by the Second World War experience – that of  “the good war” vs the futile war. (Lucky Block 3s having such a talk, tailored around Ieper/Ypres, which will be the centre of their forthcoming visit to the WW1 battlefields.)

50 years ago, watching that little black and white TV and Churchill’s cortege, even as a very little boy (shorts, cross-legged in my parents’ sitting room), I could not but be aware of the weight of adult emotion in the room – the sense that this was the end of an era which I could not understand – and the sense of a great man’s passing.

40 years ago, as an early Inter-railer, I went to Dachau, an experience I recounted to some rather stunned Californian students I was teaching in the late 80s. The context was their collective inattention (rudeness in my book) to a Holocaust survivor who had come to talk at their (generally idyllically situated) school. They looked at me rather slack-jawed when I told them that I thought we all had a responsibility to visit such sites. I feel that even more now.


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.

Paris and schools

Je suis Charlie

Usually the start of a new term and a new calendar year in school has a predictable and inward-looking dimension; this term began in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. At the school’s first meeting on Tuesday morning, a backdrop of a pencil-gun cartoon was on the screen throughout Notices and my first words were about our need to be attentive to these horrific events and the threat they pose to the values that underpin Europe – the very liberal, democratic values of liberty, adherence to rule of law and tolerance that for me were captured in the banner Je suis Charlie, je suis flic, je suis Juif. The attacks on Press, Police and Jews should leave us in no doubt about the nature of the menace.

When on Wednesday evening, Clare Jarmy spoke at Jaw about this, there was a strongly-attuned attentiveness amongst the audience – a sense from the students that this was vital stuff – as complex as it was important. It is not just that all of us as citizens have a responsibility to engage with the issues, but that we as a school are particularly committed to these values, given that, unusually certainly for independent boarding schools, we put a strong emphasis on the values of a liberal democracy in the way in which our school life is fashioned. It is no accident that the Nazis infiltrated and bullied progressive German schools, such as L’ecole d’Humanitie, out of Germany to its current home in Switzerland.

Clare’s Jaw, a fine example of communication of really difficult ideas to a young audience, alerted us to the two concepts of liberal values. The first is where freedom means individual freedom and development is a good thing in and of itself – the idea that citizenship means having shared liberal values. The second where freedom means the government not interfering in what people do unless they have to, so guaranteeing diversity and the ability of different communities to live different lives within the same society without sharing the same values. So, the Enlightenment ideas of the freedom and autonomy of the individual vs post-modern pluralism.

This led on naturally to the nature of causing offence, especially within the Shi’ite tradition of Islam and the quandary that newspapers and TV channels have had over whether, for example, to show illustrations of the latest Charlie Hebdo cover with its images of Muhammad.  Again, we were being asked to engage with the complexity of issues and the competing values – freedom of the Press vs respect for religious sensitivities – that have different emphases in different liberal democracies. Clare’s Jaw ended with a statement from the Muslim Council of Britain which captures this tension.

These conversations need to go on – in classrooms, boarding houses, over meals at home and at school.


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.