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

Question time

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Wednesday brings Headmaster’s Question Time (HQT to be snappy).  It’s slow to get going, with gender change leading, but then the hands are up and I am facing all sorts of questions: choosing the new head, Saturday school, student self-evaluation, but the most unexpected question is the shortest: “Are you a feminist?”

In this admirably questioning school, I have been asked most things before but I haven’t been asked this question.  Although I have interrogated myself pretty firmly on whether I believe in equal rights for men and women I haven’t felt the need to make the further declaration.  I suspect my (no doubt not very thought through) position might have been influenced by seeing Ed Miliband grinning inimitably in a This is what a feminist looks like t shirt.

My response to the question in HQT was that, although I had been brought up by a mother with admirably strong views on women’s rights, I would consider it presumptuous to call myself a feminist, as, although I believe firmly in equal rights, I don’t consider myself ardent enough to describe myself as a feminist.  My response has evoked a good range of reactions – some quite strong – and I am meeting some of those who have expressed their concern to discuss things further.

I have since been finding out a bit more about the history of the feminist movement and the range of meanings attached to the word feminist. This article from the British Library looks handy.

There have also been a number of interesting conversations with colleagues and students about the degree to which any individual should feel that he or she should want to be categorised and identified with particular movements, however much they like or are interested in those areas.

I suspect that we have hit a rich seam and that there will be plenty further exploration.  I hope so.

Hiraeth, hefting and hygge

DUN_Daffodils-1

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Soon to re-visit Trieste and woken early by owls, I am reading Jan Morris’ poignant slim volume Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.  An extraordinary book about an extraordinary place, it introduces me to the Welsh word hiraeth which has no direct translation into English; she describes it in her introduction as “an unspecified yearning”.   Inklings of Spring bring hiraeth for some – perhaps most famously in T.S. Eliot’s opening to The Waste Land.   Here, whether it is through the Bedales Orchard’s return to pedestrian use (although please avoid the daffodils), the contented snuffling of Lucky’s new litter in the Black Barn, my first view of a red kite over the Orchard Building or the Dunannie Spring Festival, I find myself thinking more of the word used by Lake District shepherds to describe the way that their sheep become attached to a particular piece of ground – hefting.

The Dunannie Spring Festival combines dance, song, poetry and film.  We have strip the willow, owl and humming bird songs, touches of Oliver and Sound of Music and splendid haikus, the most striking being those in the voices of birds. Here is a sample – thanks to Sebbie, Tom, Oscar and Ted (see below).  The Festival ends with the film of a homemade Spring Watch episode, Dunannie-style, featuring daffodil girls, snow drop queens, pupil rabbits and spring poets, all surely hefted in their orchard.

Hiraeth and hefting are words which have a poignant twist for anyone lucky enough to be at The Middle East Society Civics given by William Sieghart on Tuesday evening. Having set up the Middle East Society after spending most of my sabbatical term in 2009 in that region – Cairo mainly, but Jordan and Syria afterwards – it is pleasing to witness an occasion like this when we have not only a wonderfully clear account of the problems facing the Israelis and the Palestinians but also such a clear sense of the broader responsibility that Europe has for what has happened there.  It is intriguing and humbling to hear about the work that William has been so closely involved with in helping community leaders from both sides gain a better understanding of each other and of the links between this region, Northern Ireland and South Africa. Attending a talk like this must whet your appetite to know more, I think, as the questions to William flow.  Lucky us to have this talk and lucky us to have the unusual blessing of a beautiful secure place to live in and a society whose discords do not threaten our lives.

Hygge is on my mind too: this Danish term, maybe a bit over bought in the Christmas hype, is the subject of an Extended Project (EP) that I am overseeing.  The EP folk – some 1/3 of the 6.1s – have the exhibition of their work in the Library this week and then are in over the weekend completing their pieces.   Here’s trusting that there will be communal hygge as they survey their work and reflect on how much they have learned about managing projects and the thrill that can accompany a single-minded pursuit of what intrigues you.

Albatross
By Sebbie

The albatross flies,

Viciously eats fish for life,

He shimmers the sky

 

Little Brown Owl
By Tom

Brown, silky feathers,

Illuminous eyes glowing

Scampering for prey

 

Tawny Owl
By Oscar

The glow in the sun

Shines on my feathery breast

Brown with speckled white

 

Sparrow Hawk
By Ted

Ready for action,

Dive with speed amazingly fast,

Sweet delicious prey

Making time

keith-budge-blog-6-3-17-fcb_bedales-school-of-art-and-design_-huftoncrow_022_

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

The emphasis that Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) have on coursework and the conclusion of those courses at the end of this month means that this stage in the Spring Term  entails much making and doing – whether your creation is an English Literature essay, your History chronicles, a gargantuan Utopia project, a student-crafted play or your Design artefact, we are coming into the zenith of the season of Block 5 doing and making.

The new Art & Design building is always an interesting place to visit, but doing so around midday on Sunday was especially gripping.  Turn right and you’re in a beautiful Fashion Design studio full of Block 5s making sumptuous clothes: here is Lettie’s MRI-scan themed tie-dyed (and multi-coloured) corset. By contrast there is Mia’s magpie themed (suitably black) dress with its multiple feathery tassel bits.  Over by the window pinned to the mannequin is Tiger’s shapely aquamarine sea-water-themed chiffon dress; and so she mulls:  the ripples in the chiffon are suitable, it seems, but when does a ripple become a ruck?  The 60s tend to feature – and, yes, here is an octagon inspired dress: Fleur is mapping out the octagons’ geometry – tricky work.

Over in the Product Design side, Cian is sanding his maple clock and Goose has created the most exotic of tables, with a mariner’s top and a bark-covered base which will be coated in a PVA and water mix to ensure it lasts.  Lily is making a very different table which has a reversible top – backgammon on one side and general purpose on the other.  Jack’s wellie and coat holder has involved some serious welding and is at least as tall as I am.  Joel’s glider launcher combines an electric motor with a crafty take-off pad, whilst Archie’s Cooking Camping Stove Unit even has a mini cool box – handy indeed.  Happily the new Jewellery Bay has had some action. MIllie’s steel bracelet needs some intricate cutting.

The patient students have to put up with my nosey questions – about materials and thought processes; but I find it as interesting as I do encouraging.  There is real pride in what they are doing and such a sense of purpose infusing the whole weekend: teachers, technicians and students are working closely together.

Next stop, Bedales Dance Performs on Thursday evening.

Today’s eye

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Up early this morning and catching the end of the farming programme, where discussion is all about how to sell food to millennials, who relish the authentic, unlike smug baby boomers like me who have occasional cravings for those sweetly synthetic sausages that on a good day you found in your beanz.  Reading yesterday’s paper on the train I finally read an article by George Monbiot on the connection between immersion in a virtual world and the rise of fascism and racism (our greatest peril? Screening ourselves off from the real world).   Thinking about the way the natural world impinges on our lives, I read in Country Diary’s account from Wenlock Edge that the origin of our homely word daisy is from the Anglo Saxon daes eage or day’s-eye and that a group of nuthatches is called a gidding.  I find delightful links like this as reassuring as crumbling soil between my fingers or hearing our Head of Outdoor Work, Andrew Martin, refer to the birth of his own daughter  in the same breath as our sow’s farrowing (“our little piglet has been joined by other little piglets…”).  The pungency of the world of real experience surpasses the virtual.

Reassuring too, to think over the cheering encounters of my week; yes, of course, alongside some more quotidian concerns, but reminding me of how lucky I am to be doing what I am.

A Monday evening that finished listening to our senior literary society discussing Paradise Lost under the guidance of Head of English David Anson in his house.  For many it was their first encounter with Milton’s magic and insights were strong.  Tuesday evening brought a gathering of former students at the Royal College of Surgeons who are making their careers in STEM areas, from those in the higher reaches of academe to recent leavers tussling with Maths degrees or about to start out on their first engineering job.  Wednesday brings the two Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) devised Drama performances.  Based on the ideas of Space and Time, their exploration of complex and difficult ideas (mental illness, drugs, identity, perspective) is brought across with an impressive grasp both of theatre’s many resources but also of the power of collaboration. Rough magic at work, with brain and heart mining into the soil of experience to powerful effect.

All this is shot through with lots of conversations and other messages about my decision, announced on Monday, that in July 2018, I will pack up this particular kitbag and saunter off to pastures new.  Lots of heartening and flattering things, yes.  However, premature nostalgia is almost as bad as premature goodbyes, so here’s a resolution: to do my best to avoid the sentimental and any further mention of leaving in these missives in the intervening 17 months.  There’s much to do and relish in the interim.

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.

 

Mid-term musings

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Approaching mid-February, the academic year’s mid-point and that welcome time when the black dog that scampers in front of you is visible as you stride out into the dawn light before breakfast.

This week leading up to half-term has our spirited Valentine’s Ball as a highlight for sixth formers. Invitations to the V Ball pop up, sometimes in early morning Notices, sometimes in German, sometimes dramatically choreographed. Meanwhile our Block 3s are musing on the grotesqueness of the industrialised mass killing as they survey the Flanders battlefields.  Alongside all of this our 6.2 theatre studies students produce their devised pieces – 30 minute creations of their imaginations, influenced by the practitioners they study and honed into dramatic form with acute negotiation and teamwork amongst their teams of five or six.

Over the years, I have seen the most gorgeous medleys of absurdism, tragedy, kitchen sink realism, mime, comical-fantastical – you name it, this is the theatre of the possible.  Here’s the recipe: take human minds at their most fervently creative; provide stimulus (a polaroid picture this year); encircle with sufficient expert teacher structure; and finally, give space, light, sound and audience.  Result? Pieces that make you think – both about how we live but also about what can happen dramatically when ingenuity, verve and skill collide.  Over recent years I have seen these plays enacted in live graves dug by the theatre; I have seen the most stinging dramatising of how it feels to be objectified as a young female; and this year’s trio was as powerful and expert as I can remember.

In their own way, plays like these are part of something that all good schools need to be doing constantly, alongside the necessary granular work of academic pursuit: exploring what it is to be human.

What better mid-week treat then to have a Jaw given by Gary Wade, a man who (lucky fellow) knew Seamus Heaney personally.  It is a masterly account – in tender admiration – of (arguably) the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century writing in English.

A lover of Heaney myself, I find myself rootling amongst his poems late at night after the Jaw and a subsequent meeting. I am taken back to some of the classes that I taught Heaney to a long way back – Death of a Naturalist, North and The Haw Lantern. But there is so much more. Gary concluded with his favourite Heaney poem, Postscript. Its final lines describe so beautifully what human insight through art can do (“catch the heart off guard and blow it open”).  But, as the days lengthen and we need to at least nod to that V day, here’s a poem that is its own distinctive love song – to a person, place and creature:

The Otter

When you plunged
The light of Tuscany wavered
And swung through the pool
From top to bottom.

I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,
Your fine swimmer’s back and shoulders
Surfacing and surfacing again
This year and every year since.

I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.
You were beyond me.
The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air
Thinned and disappointed.

Thank God for the slow loadening,
When I hold you now
We are close and deep
As the atmosphere on water.

My two hands are plumbed water.
You are my palpable, lithe
Otter of memory
In the pool of the moment,

Turning to swim on your back,
Each silent, thigh-shaking kick
Re-tilting the light,
Heaving the cool at your neck.

And suddenly you’re out,
Back again, intent as ever,
Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,
Printing the stones.

– Seamus Heaney