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.

Inspiring futures

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

I’m talking at the Inspiring Futures conference tomorrow and am mulling over what I might say.  I need to provide the schools’ perspective on how we should be preparing our students for the future – in particular 4IR – or the Fourth Industrial Revolution – aka the Digital Revolution.   I have 20 minutes and, at my request, it is the final slot.  So, I plan five slides.  Here’s a shrinklet version, slide by slide.

A cheesy crystal ball: we humans love predicting the future and we will so often be wrong.  The hapless verb “to future-proof” is a notable example of this.  Yet, human beings are remarkably adaptive and, in spite of our poor planning for the future, are often fleet-footed in response.   Preparing for 4IR may be too late – but how can we best prepare for whatever 5IR and 6IR are going to look like?

A frontispiece of Silas Marner, showing how the sad, miserly spinner has become part of his loom: work has made him into a machine; tempting to think this is all about preparing our young people for work, but it is also about preparing them to live enriched, fulfilled lives.  In this respect, we need our students to have an understanding of the ancient verities of philosophy and literature and to appreciate the Arts, as well as having a strong science and maths base.

The rear view mirror of a car: our educational systems prepare us for the world that has just passed.  My schooling prepared me well to serve the needs of the British Empire, just as it had gone.  Education ministers tend to hanker after the past – the fixations of Michael Gove and poor primary school children’s subsequent current fixation with adverbial clauses, for example.

A set of ball bearings beautifully balanced:  how to achieve this balance?  The state needs to limit what it requires of school children, especially in those formative GCSE years, and provide much greater freedom within the curriculum; so cut the requirement for so many GCSEs – Maths, English and Science are the only ones that the government needs to assess.  If you allow head teachers in schools to exercise their independence, you create space and therefore flexibility in the curriculum.  Such an approach challenges the current sclerotic, silo mentality of the curriculum.  How can you expect students to develop the necessary flexibility of mind and creative thinking if the curricula they encounter are often so dull and formulaic?

A blossoming chestnut tree:  how to give our youngsters the best chance of living the most fulfilled lives?  See W B Yeats’ image of the chestnut tree (“great rooted blossomer” from Among School Children). Here is a list of some of the qualities we need to help bring out in our students:

  • Capacity for independent thinking and problem solving
  • Appetite for lifelong learning: establish a love of learning early and it stays
  • Enjoyment of teamwork and collaboration
  • Understanding of other cultures – enjoyment of international links
  • Sense of wonder: to inspire and be inspired

Standing up

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Chutzpah – one of our language’s most zesty borrowings  (Yiddish, 19th C)  – is a word you don’t often hear in educational circles, but it’s what springs to my mind on Thursday morning as I listen to Bella’s assembly at Dunhurst.  She stands in front of her teachers and fellow pupils and captures all our attention as she engages us with her subject – Malala Yousafzai and her book Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Changed the World.  Bella, a Block 1 (Year 7) student has launched a book club, based around this book; she tells us about Malala’s life, the Taliban’s attempted murder of her in 2012 and her subsequent survival and work, including speaking to the United Nations and meeting President Obama.  She commands the stage, managing to ask questions of the audience and still keep momentum and rapt attention.  She is loving it – and so are we: the book club will, I am sure, flourish.

A culture which expects young people to stand up in front of their peers and engage them, whether through enthusing them with their own interests like Bella did or through a debate, a musical, dramatic or even a feat of magic is helping generate chutzpah in its young people. It’s a scary and foreign business, standing up in front of large groups – but what a brilliant thing to have once you’ve overcome your nerves.  An integral part of the three day residential assessment (that our candidates for Block 3 entry sit) is a Merry Evening when each group of 10 has to prepare and perform a short piece, based on a chosen theme, in front of their peers and teachers.  It creates a colourful and enjoyable evening, but it also reflects the expectation that all our young people should be able to stand up and engage an audience, having developed their own style and their own reserves of this particular kind of chutzpah.

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

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.

 

Lasting influence?

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Preparing an assembly on Politics’ effect on education, I find that my usual seasonal reflections on Charles Dickens (Christmas jollity and Scroogery etc) take me down a different channel and into his influence on education.

Dickens’ lifetime (1812-1870) spanned the creation of something that approached a rudimentary universal education system for England: the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which established the basis for English elementary education.  It is neat to connect this with what Dickens said in the early stages of his national popularity in a speech in Birmingham in 1844:

“If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education – comprehensive liberal education – is the one thing needful, and the one effective end.”

Given that the England of  Dickens’ birth was one where there was still a debate about whether there was any point educating large swathes of the population, it is unsurprising that so many of the downtrodden poor of his novels show such a strong desire to learn and to better themselves through education.  For me it is this profound sense of the moral value of each person and the right that he or she has to be something other than a workhorse or a young criminal – the encouragement to good and ultimately the right to be educated.  Through presenting all sorts of different models of what he saw as good and bad models of education in his novels, he both reinforced the public’s sense of moral feeling and established a tradition of dealing with education in novels.

More specifically, in Hard Times, he gave us one of the best images of the tension between the extremes of heartless utilitarian education and the education of the heart: a reading of the first chapter of that book captures that age-old tension as well as tomes of educational theory.

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

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.