Leading independent thinking

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Bewitching days here now – steady heat and even a nightingale singing in one of the trees between 50 Church Road and the Village Hall as Moony and I sit on the terrace / patio / stoep as dusk gathers.

Even in the teeth of public exams, there has been fruitful stuff happening in terms of student voice and engagement.

On Monday evening, Josh, a 6.2 student who is close both to the end of his A Levels and to the end of his time at Bedales, gave a talk to the Pudding Club – the gathering of our 3i group.  Josh had chosen to talk about ‘How we learn and what makes us tick’.  His talk reflected on his decade spent within the Bedales Schools and how well he felt that these environments worked  alongside the innate drivers that help us learn and underpin our behaviours: valorisation – the values and behaviour of teachers which students naturally copy and which creates the self-confidence and “willingness to do what’s good” in the students;  the need to find out about the world and how it works, reflecting the “intelligent thinking” that lies at the heart of our education; and finally the sense of wonder, “innate curiosity” that is so closely linked with creativity.

The power of Josh’s talk was shown in the quality of discussion it evoked – clearly what he said had resonated with many of the students in the meeting.

Wednesday’s Jaw was taken by Richie (6.1) and was about music – its use for propaganda and protest.  Beginning with a remarkable film from 1908 of the Marseillaise being sung and the use by the French government of this rousing song (inspired by the need to defend Strasbourg), he went on to talk about the role of the piano in middle class European life, before crossing the Atlantic and involving us in the role of music in the Vargas 1930-42 Brazilian government.  He then made protest music the thread, with Bob Dylan, Martin Garvey and then the extraordinary story of Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, set up in Nigeria in the 70s and destroyed by the Nigerian government in February 1977; this was partly in response to the popularity of his protest song Zombie which attacked the mindlessness and power of the Nigerian military.

Student initiatives and talks of this kind are the best kind of inspiration for other students – and all the more powerful coming at a time of year when schools and students tend to be thinking exclusively about exams.

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.

May ideas swim

Mizzling is the word, I think, for the gentle rain that greets me and my fellow Poetry Society breakfasters as we gather by Steephurst, ready to head up to the Poet’s Stone for our annual May breakfast.  The celebrants all bring poems and we have a good range:  plenty of Edward Thomas of course, some Shelley, Browning and a jewel of a Robin Robertson poem, Swimming in the Woods, which I read and I can’t resist copying in below.

The rain stops; early sun lights up Steep woods, which we admire from our vantage point on the Hangers’ flank by Thomas’ sarsen stone.  Magical stuff.

The week’s big external facing event has been our Liberating Leaders conference which we ran in partnership with the Times Educational Supplement and King Edward VI School Bury St Edmunds.  Most conferences have at least one soggy item; I could not spot one in our line-up.  So, here are some very personal highlights.

Sir Michael Wilshaw (Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills) reminiscing in a finely wrought speech about the maverick headteachers who had shaped his professional life and the need for schools to enable the best characteristics of the maverick to inform teachers’ work.  Look out for the cross backlash from educators who feel that this is a bit ripe given his time at Ofsted.

Danielle Harlan (Founder and CEO of the Centre for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential) on authenticity as a leader, employee engagement (which is – sad fact – stuck at 13% worldwide) and unleashing creativity.  An extraordinarily lucid but profound presentation that was in itself a masterclass in clear and memorable communication. New verb alert – to “geek out” over someone = state of admiration and adulation of a senior, august academic figure by a scholarly acolyte/admirer.

Barbara Oakley (Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan) on re-making  your brain and lessons learnt from her creation and co-teaching of the world’s most popular (1.5 million students) Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).  She is very keen that Bedales launches a MOOC – we will explore this.  An account – as scholarly as it was homely – of her distinctive path, her own learning and some of the ways in which we can improve our learning. Key tip: buy a Pomodoro (tomato shaped timer) or set one up as an app and work in 25 minute chunks; give yourself rewards after each 25 minutes; sleep and exercise aplenty.  That classy organ, the brain, loves these rhythms.  Get it right and, like Barbara, you start with Russian and end up a leading Professor of Engineering – and meet your future life partner at the South Pole.

Happily for our students, a number of them were able to attend the conference.  Most will have heard Danielle’s assembly on Monday and many also heard Barbara talk about girls and STEM subjects. You can view the speakers’ presentations here.

In all, the many of us who heard these inspiring people can justly feel lucky ducks (as they say in Lancashire).

So here is that poem: enjoy the half term break, and maybe some wild swimming.

Swimming in the Woods by Robin Robertson 

Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, finned by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.
When she stopped, the water stopped,
and the sun remade her as a tree,
banded and freckled and foxed.

Besieged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss,
I stare at the wet shape on the tiles
till it fades; when she came and sat next to me
after her swim and walked away
back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.

 

 

 

 

Celebrate the difference

To Frensham Heights on Monday for the Celebrate the Difference conference that Andrew Fisher and I have been co-running for the past 5 years. This time the theme is different kinds of leadership. Distinguishing feature of CTD is that it is a joint student and staff day. Nick Vetch, who founded and chairs the Big Yellow Group, sets us going with a self-deprecatory account of his own mistakes and near misses, followed by a series of key qualities that make for good leadership – courage, integrity, strong communication and self-awareness; then it’s into workshops and, within them, 2s or 3s for small group discussion. At the plenary the focus shifts to ways in which our schools can provide opportunities for student leadership – and whether leadership can be taught. Intriguing for the 17 Bedales students there to see the way that the different values of the 5 different schools show themselves in the views of their students. Next year, it’s with us: a plan is hatched and some cunning wheezes (suggested to me by the students that I drive back) to avoid that sense that you have at so many conferences of too much talking and listening and not enough learning by doing.
 
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.