Beginning in Block 3 with the theme ‘Empathy’, Bedalians are encouraged through the Wellbeing curriculum to develop emotional and cognitive empathy, whilst demonstrating empathetic practice through a healthy curiosity for the lived experiences of others. I hope the 6.2 Wellbeing speaker this week – the convicted murderer and columnist Erwin James – inspired students to embody such practice.
Erwin was released from prison in August 2004 having served 20 years of a life sentence. At the time of his conviction, he was an inarticulate and ill-educated individual with, in his own words, “massive failings to overcome”. From unpromising beginnings as a prisoner with bleak prospects, it was encouragement from a prison worker that inspired Edwin to embark on a programme of part-time education. Six years later, he graduated from the Open University with an arts degree majoring in history. Around the same time, he began writing for The Guardian, with the paper publishing his first article in 1998 and a regular column, ‘A Life Inside’, from 2000.
By Alistair McConville, Director of Learning and Innovation
Another way is possible. At Bedales we have long eschewed a narrow focus on preparing students for terminal exams. A nourishing educational experience must do much more than fill heads with knowledge for the sake of supervised regurgitation. We live out our Ruskin-inspired motto: “Head, Hand and Heart”. Every day at school should strike a balance between intellectual stimulation, creative work, and service to the community. We have recently re-structured our school day around this principle. There is choice about when to get up, since we know that autonomy is motivating, and that not all adolescents are designed for early mornings. Lots of students will opt to start the day with a co-curricular activity: meditation, feeding sheep, baking bread, a country walk; they might get into the kitchens to help serve and clear breakfast; others will choose a little more slumber before academic lessons and plan their activities for later. We know that an under-slept student is an inefficient one. Lessons start at 9.45. A full hour later than they used to be. We know that it’s refreshing for students to take breaks and to switch activity, so we have built a further blast of non-academic activity into the middle of the day. Music ensembles, drama rehearsals, service activities with local community partners, tending the vegetable garden, or a tennis lesson, for example. More lessons in the afternoon, followed by a final raft of optional activities in the evening. But, crucially, lots of choice about when to be active and when to rest. So, everyone chooses co-curricular activities, but by no means in every slot. It’s really important for young people to be able to opt for unstructured leisure, too, and they can choose when to get their homework done as long as they hit the deadline. No compulsory ‘prep’ times here.
We have baked our “Head, Hand, Heart” principles into curriculum and assessment. For a dozen years Bedales has been issuing the now famous ‘Centre Assessed Grades’ for its own GCSE-equivalent courses, the Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs). We have trusted teachers to report reliably and constructively on the broad range of work that students do, and so have universities. And we have been able to assess in a much broader way than GCSEs permit. As part of our Outdoor Work BAC, for example, a student’s ability to work in a team whilst renovating a tractor is as much a part of their assessment as writing about the process. Their ability to explain and defend their project to an audience counts towards their grade. This is ‘work that matters’ to paraphrase Ron Berger. We’re rolling out a Level 3 equivalent course in Living With the Land this September to teach students how to live in a radically sustainable way. Watch out for a proliferation of cob houses and hemp-clad foragers in the Hampshire hills!
We’re adopting a rigorous project-based learning approach in year 9, inspired by the Expeditionary Learning Movement and our friends at the XP School in Doncaster. Students will work on real-life enquiry questions and study across disciplines in order to respond practically to real-world issues. For example, we will look at the contemporary refugee crisis through the lenses of history, geography, religious studies and literature at the same time as planning practical responses to support our partners at the Rural Refugee Network.
It’s an enviable experience for our students and they know it, but we don’t want to keep it all to ourselves. We are eager to share this kind of rounded, enriching approach to education with others, knowing that far too many languish in an unfulfilling exam-obsessed rut. We’re working with a small number of independent schools to build a partnership with our innovative colleagues and friends in the maintained sector at Bohunt School, Gosport’s Key Education Centre, School 21 and the XP School to make the case for significant national assessment reform. Watch this space, but the time has never felt more ripe for a thorough re-thinking of the drudgerous, purgatorial treadmill of an education system obsessed with terminal exam results…
Quoting the German General Moltke rather than John Badley in a ‘beginning of the new school year’ blog might seem unusual, but given the exhaustive planning that has gone into re-opening the Bedales schools this week, an acknowledgement of the importance of planning and strategy seems appropriate. ‘No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength’ is often represented in snappier form as ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’. Having stepped unbidden into the role of senior mask monitor I share Moltke’s view. Day 1 of this much anticipated and much heralded term demonstrated the clash between plans and reality. Badley’s ‘work of each for weal of all’ has been prominently presented at all our beginning of term gatherings to underline how individual actions and decisions can have community wide resonance and consequence. With studied patience I say to an unmasked student squeezing their way through a crowded door, ‘Where’s your mask?’. To which they reply, ‘I don’t have one. I thought the school were supplying them’. Or rather, ‘Work of you for weal of me.’ I reach for my handy stash of disposable medical face masks and hope it might last beyond the end of the lesson.
The essence of the Bedales School rules are enshrined on a board in the corridor around the Quad that all Bedalians shuffle past on their way into the dining room. Badley’s stricture that whatever causes ‘Needless exposure of oneself or others to danger or infection’ has suddenly received extra historic resonance. Those rules pre-date 1942 and the development of penicillin by 40 years. Infection in 1893 could mean death, and the 1918 Spanish ‘Flu pandemic would not have left the Bedales community unscathed. There isn’t any direct reference to Bedales’ students losing their lives due to Spanish ‘Flu, but the fear of the spread of infection, as all seasonal winter ‘flu epidemics can spread, would have been very profound. ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ would have been as relevant and true then as it is now. So everyone in the Bedales School community: students, teaching staff and support staff across all three schools, some 1,300 souls all in all, have to safeguard and protect each other, from the immune to the vulnerable (who won’t necessarily know who they are).
Students, parents and teachers have had so much to endure since the end of March. The panicked decision to close schools and cancel exams, the A level results’ fiasco, and the uncertainty about when and how schools could re-open, were all caused by a dysfunctional government found wanting. At least now within our own school campus, re-imagined as a self-governed city state, we have the opportunity to return to that sacred exchange of teaching and learning that seeks to link ‘head, hand and heart.’
Block 3 have been prompted to reflect on ‘character’ from The Guardian article, The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. For centuries western culture has been permeated by the idea that humans are selfish creatures. That cynical image of humanity has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research. But in the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened. Scientists from all over the world have switched to a more hopeful view of mankind. As we are living through this unprecedented lock down and as our theme in Wellbeing for Block 3 this year is ‘empathy’ I felt this cross-curricular article would resonate with Bedalians. The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other, and that we should always look for what is good and positive in people. As a Block 3 student reflects: “I enjoyed reading this article a lot. I found it very interesting and I enjoyed the expectations vs reality of it all. Books make it appear as if people being trapped on an island together will lose all sanity. Good to know that isn’t necessarily true!”
For Block 4’s theme on identity this year we have been exploring self-awareness and acceptance. Dr Brene Brown’s research and teachings permeate the entire Wellbeing curriculum provision at Bedales, so it was opportune to task students with watching her two TED talks. Dr Brown is perhaps best known for TEDx talk, The Power of Vulnerability. Recorded at an event in Houston in 2010, the talk is one of the five most popular in TED history, with more than 60 million views. It summarises a decade of Brown’s research on shame, vulnerability and courage.