Teaching: place and people

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Teaching’s especially on my mind as the term’s start coincides with summer warmth.  Sunday’s assembly for freshly returned boarders allows me to talk about the way this place can spur us to engage both with each other and to think differently.  My seasonal higher education talk mid week is about how inquisitiveness – fostered here and then furthered in higher education – is the motor for lifelong learning: being interested in stuff makes you more interesting, both to yourself and to others.  Take advantage of these amazing opportunities – Roger Penrose ‘n all.

Teaching is important to headship – for your own wellbeing as well as showing others that you are as much a teacher yourself as someone gesturing in the distance in order to get others to do things and (you trust) make the right things happen.  So by Thursday lunchtime, I have met two new classes (a Block 3 and a Block 1) and taught some Chaucer (suitably enough “When April with his shoures soote…) and some Larkin  (Cut Grass).

I have also done some learning as finally I manage to coincide with sausage-making, seeing the outdoor work team and a Block 5 student in action in the Bakehouse.   Here is the pork (double minced), the rusk (gluten-free) and the seasoning – all nicely mixed in water and ready to be fed into the proverbial sausage machine – delicate job this bit and best not described too intricately so I will move on.

Last thing and I am watching Living with the Brainy Bunch (BBC), which, although billed as an interesting account of the effect of parental influence on students’ progress, is as much about the power of patient, encouraging, determined teaching.  Jack is something of a detention king (105 last year, he says with a smile) and Holly goes walkabout in her lessons, more through fear of failure than anything else.  Both are moved from their low expectation homes to the homes of high-performing students with whose parents have high expectations.  Academic achievement and self-esteem improve.  Jack’s smile and demeanour at the end say as much as his much improved Maths score.

But most on my mind is the telling conjunction of two extraordinary Bedales teachers, sadly now dead, who were Bedales teaching colossi and who inspired generations of students:  Ruth Whiting, who died last Friday and who taught History here from 1963 to 2000, returning after that to invigilate and do amazing work with the archives, in particular commemorating the OB dead of the First World War; and John Batstone,  Head of English from 1968-1993, who died in December but whose memorial service takes place tomorrow.   Testimony to the power of great teaching abounds in the way in which these two are remembered by their students.

Picking people

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Macbeth may be a peculiar starting point for a piece on picking the right people, but having seen the National’s latest (Anne-Marie Duff and Roy Kinnear) and being reminded of the nightmare vision of what happens when you make some wrong decisions in personnel, it is fresh in my mind.

In that little played parlour game when you imagine a school as run by a Shakespearean character, Headmaster Duncan isn’t doing so well,  although he realises “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”  he dies as a result of a bad choice: his most recent appointment to Cawdor House (previously Glamis) has, in breach of more than Health and Safety policy, done him in and now it’s Headmaster Macbeth (nickname, Mac the Knife, motto Dirk of Each for Weal of All).  Macbeth is, like the previous Earl of Cawdor, “a gentleman on whom I [Duncan] built / An absolute trust”; and he is very much The Boss.

As outlined elsewhere in this week’s Saturday Bulletin, there have been a series of appointments recently.  I am directly responsible for all of these except the Dunhurst deputy head, in which I was closely involved in the final stage interview.  Unusually, they cover the full 3-18 age range; unusually I will not be around to see how they prosper, as I am sure they will.

Heads need to be good at picking people: if you aren’t – or don’t become so quickly – things will go awry.  As in so many areas, I have learnt a lot from my Bedales experience.  So what are those lessons?

Involve plenty of other teachers, but remember it is your responsibility: pick a winner and all will celebrate; pick a loser and the fact that it is your choice will rest with you, so listen to others but remember to trust your own instincts as well.  See them in action: their craft is teaching and communicating with young people, not being plausible at interview.  Have them walk around the school with different people – watch how they react to different, sometimes surprising situations – a flock of sheep crossing the Orchard, for example.  Devote all the time and resources you need to the process: get it wrong and it takes much longer to unravel and your pupils’ progress suffers.  If you have any sinking feeling at all, don’t pick anyone – go round again.

Remember that they need to combine a passion for what they do or are applying to do (whether Art, housestaffing, headship or deputy headship) with sufficient nous, method and craft to make their ideas a reality.   Avoid Peter Pans or people with some preconceived sense that they can come to our schools to indulge their whims and wear a particularly outrageous pink corduroy suit, for example (true story…).

Apply the tests: would I like my own child to be taught / congratulated / looked after / told off by this person?  What would I feel like after half an hour’s train journey in their company?  Are they going to make people feel more or less cheerful after a chance encounter in school?  This is sometimes known as the radiator/drain test.  Will they light fires in young hearts?  Will they still be cheerful in their own way at the end of a 12 hour day?

Enough! Now evaluate the respective benefits of Headmaster Prospero, Headmistress Cleopatra, Headmaster Caesar or Principal Lear’s Academy for Young Ladies.

 

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.

 

‘Seeing afresh’

It’s a crisp April early morning – sun shining and another pair of Jacob lambs born – just three ewes yet to lamb as singular black dog and I enjoy an amble around our beautiful estate. Woodpeckers are hammering away and a small skein of yelping Canada geese swoop in to the lake as we set off.

My usual sense of vicarious trepidation at the prospect of lots of students taking public exams is tempered by the memory of last night’s assembly from Head of Academic Enrichment, Clare Jarmy.  Her other role as Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics gives her a clear advantage in developing a compelling reason why all our students have good reason to look forward to exams and to see them as underpinning a very important stage in their learning.  Going over her reasoning on my morning stroll, it makes yet more sense as I rehearse the argument in my mind.  So here goes.

In order for us all to move our learning forward we need help making the jumps from what we can currently do to the next stage: seen pictorially this is about us jumping up a further stage – or, using the educational terminology, the zone of proximal development.  Teachers are the most usual way that we are helped to make that shift –

Clare’s point is that revision for exams – best described not using its literal meaning of “seeing again” but considered as “seeing afresh” – is the point when we as learners have to consolidate the learning that we have previously been assisted with.  Put differently, we re-make the learning and make it our own.

Finally, she identified another critical distinction that should help our students understand the potential benefits of this process more fully.  This has to do with the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – the difference between doing something because it gets you something else you want, and doing something for its own sake.  Clare left the students with the possibility that one thing that many of them might be discovering was that the process of revision helped them understand that they had a strong intrinsic motivation to learn.  It was at this point I learned my new word for the day – “enculturement”, which Clare used to describe the educational process central to humanity which enables people to gain an understanding of the world and what is intrinsically worthwhile.  This view, central to the writing of philosopher John McDowell, is that it is through culture that we acquire a “second nature” above and beyond our animal needs.  Education, and in particular independent learning, makes us who we are.

Intriguing stuff: Clare’s article, published here, will further enlighten.

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

Adolescent Mental Health

At last government has woken up to the crisis in adolescent mental health, with the Chancellor announcing £1.25 billion extra spending over the next five years on mental health, with particular support for adolescent mental health. The upsetting accounts of parents striving to get their children the care that they need through the NHS, the awareness amongst us heads about the number of students in our schools whose mental health is of concern and the raw figures that illustrate this crisis are all deeply worrying.  The Sunday Times, which is doing really good work on this score with its campaign to improve the mental health of Britain’s schoolchildren, cites the grim statistic that in 2014 more than 17,000 children were admitted as emergency psychiatric cases last year – twice the number of four years ago.

The experience of parents trying to get help for what is after all an illness, with the potential to mar young lives no less than other well publicised illnesses that affect adolescents such as cancer, is salutary: waiting times that are long that the alternatives are either not having the help when it is desperately needed or going private. The step which we all trust government and NHS funding bodies have taken is true recognition that this is an illness which, like any other illness, needs treatment.

Two further questions: what has brought this increase about?  How can parents and schools help our children keep mentally healthy?

Responses to the first are speculative and anecdotal, but I have little doubt that the pressures on young people to succeed at school – academically, socially and outside the classroom – have increased since the great recession. At the same time the pressures that we as adults – whether as parents or as teachers – often unwittingly – push down to our children have increased – pressures “to succeed”, which means securing a job and lifestyle which ensures fulfillment, material success and (always nice to have it all) social admiration.

What else has changed since the haphazard and, let’s face it, inglorious days of the 1970s when my lot bumbled through? Social media, the increased use of prescription drugs to deal with mood, society’s acceptance of recreational drugs as part of many children’s growing up and high expectations about personal happiness and fulfillment; after all today’s adolescents and twenty-somethings are the offspring of baby boomers and their successors who have (for no reason after all other than historical luck) enjoyed the rising living standards and a relative secure job market that cannot any longer be taken for granted.

So what can we do in schools and at home to keep our children in the best mental fettle?

1) Help young people develop resilience and self-esteem through experiencing activities that challenge them, often things outside their studies.  (Jenni Brittain’s blog on the Independent Schools Council website deals more fully with this.)

2) Accept that all of us as parents and teachers have a responsibility for children’s mental health and that we model the behaviour that our children will emulate.

3) In schools, ensure that the structures and the support systems are in place to give the students the ability to work their way through as many of their own problems as they can and to have the skills to help other students – crucially, knowing when they need to gain adult support from a teacher. (Our forthcoming conference for pastoral staff – Thriving in a Changing World – could help here.)

4) Being proactive with simple things like mindfulness, exercise, healthy eating.

5) Listening and being attentive to their needs.

6) Having the right support network – pastoral staff, counsellor and then referrals as necessary to additional health professionals, GPs and more specialised, which takes us back to the Chancellor – let’s trust that money makes a real difference.


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.

Elitist Britain – cause for celebration?

In late August the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published Elitist Britain, which reported on the dramatic over-representation in the top echelons of public life of those educated at independent schools and Oxbridge. It argued, persuasively, that such homogeneity undermines the legitimacy of state and other institutions, through a focus on issues salient only to a minority. Fairness and meritocracy are core British values, the report says, but people are concerned that background is more important than ability.

As an independent school based in the south east, Bedales would appear to offer its students every possible advantage: Elitist Britain identifies these variables as dominant in the backgrounds of leading figures in parliament, the judiciary, FTSE CEOs and the Times Rich List. Should this be a cause for celebration for the school, which is unashamed about its success in priming its students for achievement? Well, yes and no. Elitist Britain asserts that the best people should be in the best jobs, and we agree with that. If what our students want is to achieve high office in the fields of their choosing, it is vital that the education we provide helps them to do that in every possible way. I don’t imagine there is a teacher in this country who would say anything different. We’re proud of the academic results our students achieve, and that so many of them who want to, go on to study at the Oxbridge universities before thriving in their chosen fields.

However, we don’t agree that our students’ education should be geared to their hothousing towards such traditional markers of success, and we certainly don’t value or pursue cultural homogeneity. Indeed, if we were to try to instil such a thing I am confident that our students would not let us. At the heart of the contract between school and student at Bedales is the value of educating the whole person – head, hand and heart – and of students creating as well as taking from their learning environments. We are committed to the idea of ‘active learning’, and have developed our own GCSE-level qualifications precisely because we found GCSE provision to be overly-prescriptive – homogenous, even – and stifling of imagination and creativity.

On Saturday 13th September, Bedales will host a philosophy festival. ‘Philosophy Of…’ is staged by our students, who have succeeded in putting together a varied and challenging programme. With an eye on the findings of Elitist Britain, it is notable that the speakers include Laura Bates, the force behind the Everyday Sexism Project and the campaigning feminist Beatrix Campbell OBE. As Elitist Britain reports that Parliament remains the domain of independent school educated white males, it is interesting that these speakers should visit our school at the behest of the independently-educated young people involved in the festival. We admire our students’ independence of mind in this venture, and take pride in the development of critical faculties antithetical to the idea of the simple preservation of the status quo.

Elitist Britain makes recommendations for how the homogeneity of key institutions might be punctured. For schools and education, it seeks additional efforts with regard to 11 year old high-attainers, and also for the gap between careers advice, work experience and extra-curricular activities to be closed. These are worthy suggestions, but they are not enough. More fundamentally, we must educate young people to understand the world in which they live and how they might shape it if they are to challenge the homogeneity that Elitist Britain describes, and its effects. Learning to challenge the world can begin with students learning how to shape their school experience – a daily reality at Bedales, living proof of which is the philosophy festival on Saturday 13th.

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.