It’s Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting by the fireplace at 50 Church Road trying to explain to our Chinese guests – 13 students and two teachers from Chuansha School in Shanghai – the peculiarities of the English tradition of Afternoon Tea. This is relatively straightforward, however, compared to my hamfisted attempts to describe the ups and downs of Admiral Nelson’s popularity before he secured it by dying at Trafalgar. It’s a bit of a truism to say that things are as interesting as they are complicated once you start to delve into them, but there is nothing quite like trying to describe something central to your culture to people from a very different one and in comprehensible language to make you realise the limitations of language.
So, still wishing that I hadn’t got so embroiled in different pronunciations of “scone” or mentioned Lady Hamilton, I find myself later standing by the lake (on the Theatre side) watching the first of the five short devised shows that are part of the 6.2 Theatre Studies practical exam. As this first piece involves two girls emerging from the lake, the cast have been hoping for the good weather to continue; alas, it’s chilly – well, alas from a comfort/ Health and Safety point of view, but a dankish twilight beefs up the Gothic in my view – breath is steamy and the piece’s conclusion (too grisly to recount) is helped by what the Scots call the dreich ambiance.
Now the audience is back in the Theatre: the relative warmth is reassuring, but the next four pieces will be in the best tradition of Bedales student-devised work: inventive, thought-provoking, rich in ideas, sometimes visceral and usually bold in execution. Language plays its part, but is subsidiary to physical theatre.
The strongest thread running through these arresting pieces is of the complexity and pitfalls of human relationships, with the #MeToo movement and the objectification of women at its core. Having grown accustomed to a school environment where students can use devised theatre to explore their feelings so fully, it is difficult to imagine a school where such intelligent, demanding and exploratory work does not happen.
It’s Percy, of course, I now realise, as I have a quick search for what the green one is called – the Tank Engine, of course – that I nearly trod on when I came across it lying on its side when going towards Emma’s Walk this morning: a stray, be-dewed green engine, dropped from a passing stroller or by a toddler. I lift the lost toy reverentially and stand it off the path on a nearby tuft so that the bereft youngster has a chance of a joyful reunion. Having seen with one of our offspring how Percy, Thomas & Co were instrumental in spurring him initially into speech, I hold these toys in high esteem. The first time we heard anything spoken by him from a book was when he came out with an impromptu chunk from Thomas the Tank Engine. Well done Rev Awdry.
Inspiration is a funny old thing and I find myself musing on this in the light of a series of events over the past week.
The first is an occasion that I don’t attend, because it might cramp the participants’ style; that is the evening that our 6.2s have with nine Old Bedalians who are ten years on. I hear – both from 6.2s and from the 6.2 housestaff – that this was inspirational and thought-provoking, dealing as it did with the passions that students seek to follow and the challenge we all have of trying to match your passions with a way of making a living and feeling that you are doing something worthwhile. The range of OBs included roles which people (wrongly) don’t always associate with the school, such as lawyers with top London firms and a fast-track civil servant.
The second is a conversation I had with an OB who was back for the reunion of those who left the school between 1963 and 1967. Eminent now in his own scientific field, he talks about how it was a single reprimand from his biology teacher that set him going. Trying to make excuses for not having done a prep, as if he had failed to do it for the teacher, he was met by a gruff riposte: “Well who do you think you are doing the work for? It’s not for me, it’s for you…” The further, inspirational teaching from another biology teacher was what gave him the momentum that carried him through his degree at Cambridge and then his research.
The third is seeing Lela & Co, a new play by Cordelia Lynn (who left Bedales in 2007) at the Jerwood Theatre (Royal Court). This is a powerful piece of work which has been extremely well reviewed. You will need to work hard to get a ticket as it finishes on 3 October. Dealing with sex-trafficking, the effect of war on human relations and the nature of relations between men and women, it is a beautifully nuanced piece which cleverly avoids being preachy and maintains such a fine balance between the cheeriness of the central female role and the ghastliness of her experience. Catch it if you can. If not, look out for the next play from this rising OB talent.
The baton (of the athletic not police kind) is handed on: the strong 14/15 team of Margaret R, Rob M, Roly B and Esme A hand on their seals of office (fig.) to the incoming team of Max H, Becky G, Bea J and Patrick N.
The new team have already got weaving (fig.) – discussing with their peers other positions of leadership and service that they can take up next year. Here they are helped through their predecessors’ good initiative with a system whereby individual students act as champions of individual areas of school life – mainly academic subjects; the emphasis being on helping younger students with their work in that subject; jocularly named the dons system this has been piloted by the departing head student team and will be rolled out fully for September.
Alongside this, there is a good appetite amongst 6.2s to be a Badley Senior – again, very much a mentoring role, with some pig care thrown in, and playing to that strong feature of Bedales life – friendships which occur across the age range.
So here is a picture of the new head student team:
For many sixth formers up and down the land this weekend will have been one of revision for January A Level modules – as it has been for the past 12 years, since the AS/A2 system became fully fledged in 2000/01. But, with this group of mainly 6.2s (in our case) sitting January modules, it is the last time that modules will be available in January. What will be the consequences? Four spring to mind – two that directly affect students’ choices and two which are more pertinent to school organisation. The pressure to perform up to scratch at the first sitting in the summer of your 6.1 year will increase. For those who were going to take a gap year anyway, the relatively painless re-take option post A Levels goes, as you would now have to wait a year to re-take your modules. As far as our organisation goes, not having January modules increases uninterrupted teaching time – a welcome change. Less welcome is the further impact that will be felt because of all the marking now being concentrated in the summer months when the marking has been less reliable than in January) and therefore yet more effort and time spent in trying to ensure that the quality of marking is what we need it to be. On balance, it is a welcome move, although the reliability of marking remains a big bugbear.
By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales School
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.