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.

Teachers Matter

In the wake of Professor Stephen Hawking’s testimony to the influence of his Maths teacher from St Alban’s School, we have our very own Professor Alan Lucas, former student of Dunhurst and Bedales, giving us a powerful account of how an inspirational Bedales Biology teacher, Andrew Routh, changed his life.

The occasion was Civics, when Alan Lucas, speaking to students and parents, told the story of his extraordinary journey of ground-breaking research into paediatric nutrition.  In the audience was Andrew Routh, aged 91, the Biology teacher who had particularly inspired Alan during the later stages of his time at Bedales in the early 1960s.

Gemma Klein Photography

OB Alan Lucas with his former teacher, Andrew Routh

Alan’s description of the Damascene moment when his weak academic trajectory started to climb was particularly telling: his Physics teacher, Bill Crocker, sees him dawdling over a piece of work and gives him a strong verbal prod – “Who do you think you’re doing it for, me? No, you’re doing it for yourself.”  That comment changed his whole approach to school, making him an early riser and hard worker: it changed his life; he then went on to outstrip the two other undergraduates on the same course at Clare College, Cambridge who had been to a school with a much more “coercive, carrot-dangling ethos.”  Alan put his success down to this formula:  “inspiring teaching + life-changing self-motivating remark + freedom to develop in my own way.”

Currently Chair of Paediatric Nutrition at UCL and Fellow of Clare College, Alan has been instrumental in changing the way that babies all over the world are fed through alerting the medical world, not only to the importance of breast-feeding but to the effects of early nutrition on long term health and development.  The advice being given to nations across the world – whether by their own governments or by the World Health Organisation – is influenced by his work.

Like Stephen Hawking, Alan extolled the importance of inspirational teaching – both the kind he had here but also at university where university academics need to have the excellent presentational skills that the best teachers deploy. His advice to the students “If a teacher inspires you, try to analyse how they do it, because that is a great thing to learn.”

Alan spoke briefly last night about what he did when he won the James Spence medal for life-time achievement in British paediatrics.  When I talked with him in the autumn he told me the full story.  As soon as he had won this award, he phoned up Andrew Routh and told him “We’ve won a medal.”  He then drove down to Hampshire to see Andrew to show him the medal, congratulate him, thank him and, as he said last night: “We had a moment then.”

For any of us lucky enough to spend time with Alan and Andrew last night, it is difficult to feel anything other than gratitude for the power of great teaching and life-altering scientific research.

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Andrew Routh during his teaching days at Bedales

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).

Dangerous foreign amblings

Poetry, literature and the dangers of monolingualism are all front page news – thanks to a timely debate sparked by Jeremy Paxman’s comments after judging the Forward Prize, Michael Gove’s impact on the national provenance of GCSE texts and the welcome alert to the shortage of strong British modern language students given by the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, Professor Borysiewicz.

I feel unusually smugly Govian as I teach my Block 1 lesson on Tuesday: they start by reminding me of the splendid Shakespearean insults that they have learnt and, yet more importantly, the appetite that their (proper, full time) English teacher, Melissa Canter has given them for the sheer flex, sinew and oomph of Shakespearean language; then I gather their thoughts on what they think makes for poetry before drawing on a few adages on the topic  – from Hardy and Larkin (Govian murmurs of approval, please) – segueing into the stunning and unusually  (for someone better known for being urban-dreary) lyrical Larkin poem Cut Grass. So, a lesson that begins with Shakespeare, dallies with Hardy and then concludes in the sweet spot of the English pastoral-lyrical tradition – 10/10 for me on the Govian British Isles scale. And I suspect I am doing quite well too by Wordsworth and Paxman benchmarks on accessible poetry – stuff ordinary folk can appreciate.

Sadly – and here is the confession – I have erred over the course of half term. Foolishly, I allowed myself to be bundled onto a train by my well organised wife (Dutch extraction, a few generations back, I fear); I then found myself in a very comfortable armchair travelling at high speed towards Paris (where awkwardly that almost British Isles author Joyce wrote a bit) and then on to Strasbourg, still sitting comfortably. Even more dangerously, I found myself confronted with a range of books, some of dubious origin: Burial Rites, an enthralling and thought-provoking first novel by Hannah Kent, an Australian, about a young Icelandic woman condemned to death for murdering her lover;  Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s eagle-eyed commentary on cultural cross-currents between the UK, USA and Nigeria; The Mighty Heart,  Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson – about, well, what it says, but one of those mind-whirring books which sets you both thinking and wanting to visit all sorts of places across North Africa, the Mediterranean and the near East; and The Undertaking by an Irish author, Audrey Magee, about Stalingrad and domestic life in Berlin.  (Didn’t like that one but loved the other three, by the way, and didn’t read them all on the train, of course.)

So how did I do on the Gove scale? Well, The Mighty Heart is fine because Adam Nicholson is British, although being mainly a Scot, he could easily soon fall foul to a re-defintion of the British Isles; sadly, though, the book is about Greeks and others from outwith these isles, although Homer’s yarns have been quite influential on much of British Isles literature, even Joyce’s Ulysses (if permitted).

Aside of feeling relieved that our own, homegrown Bedales Assessed Course in English Literature will allow us the scope to choose the texts, from Britain or elsewhere,  that we feel are right for our students, I feel embarrassed that, maybe unwittingly, Michael Gove has allowed himself to appear Farage-like in his literary parochialism. Enough from me – here is Michael Rosen’s much more balanced and fully referenced Letter from a curious parentDear Mr Gove…

How do you ensure that your school has a strong teaching and learning culture?

Interviewing potential new Maths teachers and thinking about the Teaching and Learning Parent Forum we are running on Saturday, I find myself reflecting on how much has moved forward in the way that independent senior schools in particular view teaching and learning. Put simply, it is now central to everything we do. Go back 25 years and it was very different – many independent sector teachers operated much more in a bunker mentality – there was little observation of teaching and little collaboration. Underscoring all of this was a very British phlegm – “if you are any good as a teacher, you get on with it and do your stuff..and really the character-building stuff happens outside the classroom.”  As a new teacher you were expected to sink or swim – your classroom was very much your own business – your bunker or oubliette. Happily things have changed markedly. Although a major factor behind this has been inspection, which now puts pupil progress very much at the centre, much credit must also go to teachers who have emerged from really strong teacher training over the past 10 years or so brimming with good ideas. They have been much more wised up in the science of how people learn and the importance of understanding how different people learn differently. So, how do you ensure that your school has a strong teaching and learning culture – and ensure that it keeps bubbling? Here are some thoughts – not comprehensive and in no particular order. 1) Welcome opportunities to appoint new teachers – and ensure a fair number have recent maintained sector experience; don’t be afraid of a healthy level of staff turnover – say in the 10% range. 2) Create a reflective culture where teachers and students talk together about teaching and learning – a student Teaching and Learning group and a staff one. The more students understand the process, the more motivated they will be. Teachers need time in department meetings to share ideas – about teaching and learning. 3) Observation and sharing of good practice: create a culture of observation – not just of formal lesson observation and not just within a subject, but encourage teachers to buddy up and watch each classes across subjects – you always learn something new. 4) Celebrate learning as something which flies strongest out of the classroom and is to be cherished for its own sake – ideas often bubble best when taken outside, whether in an academic society, visiting talk or trip. 5) Keep adding to the brew and keep the pot bubbling: our own inquisitiveness and our capacity to develop our minds know no boundaries, so let’s keep pushing out and thinking about how we can do things better – working with outside agencies through INSET or research partnerships, for example. One final thought: sometimes people confuse a fervent interest in teaching and learning with academic hothousing – they are very different things. More on this on Saturday.

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.