At Bedales Prep and Pre-prep, wellbeing is at the heart of everything we do to ensure we nurture and nourish our pupils so they thrive to be able to be the best version of themselves. We passionately believe that a child will successfully achieve self-actualisation when teachers, pupils and parents work in unison and are on the same team, the team of the child. Our children are not born with a manual, and even if they were, I’m sure it would have been ripped up and thrown out of the window at the first parenting hurdle!
This term, Dunhurst’s Head of Wellbeing Debs Baty has introduced parent workshops. They are a safe space for parents to come together, have a coffee and share thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way. They are a supportive space where parents can ask for advice or simply hear other parents who are in the same boat as them. Somehow, it’s quite reassuring to hear that you are not the only one having trouble with a particular area of parenting.
Debs has three teenagers of her own and has worked in boarding schools for the whole of her career, starting as a nursery teacher to three-year-olds and working in a sixth form boarding house. Debs doesn’t have all the answers, but she is passionate about supporting parents on the road to creating happy, healthy children ready for life in the 21st century.
‘Let’s talk about…’ is a series of workshops that covers important stages and common issues in parenting life, whether a first time parent or not. The course aims to give parents information and step-by-step tools to create a happy home life, to manage those every day hotspots, like morning routines and sibling squabbles, and to help their children thrive.
Some of the workshops from the Autumn term include:
Child Development – building an understanding of the developmental drives of childhood and how to use this knowledge to meet the social and emotional needs of your child.
Motivation – learn how to motivate your child in ways which encourage cooperation and, allows them to fulfil their potential and build resilience.
Communication with children – learn how communication can be used to build strong relationships, help children manage difficult feelings, increase cooperation and build a culture of mutual respect.
Boundaries – strategies to help you set effective boundaries, which help children feel safe, and solve recurring problematic behaviour.
By Fiona Read, Head of Bedales Nursery & Pre-prep, Dunannie and Harriet Rhodes, Teaching Associate, University of Cambridge
All children deserve great teachers. This is something that no one can or will ever argue about, although what exactly that means in practice can be hard to pin down these days. In recent years, teachers have felt increasingly stifled by central prescription and ‘one size fits all’ approaches to teaching.
In synthetic phonics, children are first encouraged to pronounce the individual sounds in words, and then to blend them together to make words. Supporters claim benefits in terms of literacy, and particularly so for disadvantaged pupils. Government has been heavily invested in their use since their endorsement by (then) education minister Michael Gove, who introduced a phonics screening check for all children in year one (five or six year olds) to establish progress.
However, use of synthetic phonics, or at least the extent of their use, has been controversial. Critics have argued that phonics training only helps children to perform in tests, and that it does not develop understanding or encourage a love of reading. Research shows that teachers feel pressured by the compulsory screening check, with a survey of teachers finding that synthetic phonics was their main focus for teaching reading.
Importantly, the UCL researchers argue that claims for the effectiveness of synthetic phonics are not underpinned by the latest evidence. Their study was no light undertaking, involving analysis of multiple systematic reviews, experimental trials and data from international tests such as PISA (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment). The results must be taken seriously, and not least the finding that the successful teaching of reading in England may have declined since the adoption of synthetic phonics.
In early years, establishing a literacy-rich play environment is a prerequisite to pre-literacy skills – young children develop literacy such as listening to others, representing their ideas, narrating their play and experiencing the pleasure of seeing their thoughts transformed into a structure populated by their imagination. Phonics is a useful tool as a part of a greater whole, but limiting childrens’ experiences of learning to read to an adult-directed, dry and reductive approach is counter intuitive.
Instead, the educationalist Helen Tovey says “Learning should be joyous, meaningful and relevant. It should inspire further learning, or it is nothing”. And this is particularly true of learning to read. Through the use of techniques such as Helicopter Stories (Trisha Lee’s interpretation of Vivian Gussin Paley’s Storytelling and Story Acting curriculum), young children become sensitive to narrative structures and develop new vocabulary, helping their reading development and comprehension skills.
We know that children learn best when something pricks their curiosity and is playful – using real children’s books that speak to their experiences and enable them to encounter different emotions, subjects, vocabulary, rhyme and rhythm will unlock a lifetime love of reading far more effectively than any reading scheme. Children are motivated to read if it is fun. Dr Seuss wrote The Cat in The Hat in response to concerns about children’s literacy. His imaginative and silly stories are still effective ways of teaching children how to play with language and learn to read.
The report’s authors acknowledge that there are some strengths to England’s current approach, but they are concerned – as are we – by the demise of a balanced approach to the teaching of reading, and by the straitjacket government’s enthusiasm for phonics places upon teachers. Prof Dominic Wyse, one of the authors, explains: “Our view is that the system doesn’t give teachers enough flexibility to do what they think is best for their pupils, nor to encourage pupils to enjoy reading.” There are many studies suggesting that children who are taught to read through synthetic phonics can be turned off reading for pleasure and meaning.
No less worrying is that all of this is symptomatic of a wider trend. The profession as a whole is consistently excluded from policy making by a DfE which relies on consultation with very few educationalists. Meanwhile, teachers routinely report that they are disempowered, and unable to make decisions affecting their children. In this case, teachers are aware of the best reading strategy for each child, but as they feel compelled to replace broader English lessons with narrower phonics in order for children to meet the tests so they take another step towards becoming professionals without agency (and a far cry from the great teachers we all agree that children deserve).
The UCL report underlines the urgent need for those in the DfE to listen to the experts, and the open letter to the Education Secretary from educators and academics, urging a reassessment of the place of phonics based on the evidence and the greater autonomy of teachers, is one we wholeheartedly endorse. Teachers should be able to apply their own judgement as to whether phonics and other balanced reading approaches are best for their students. Pupils’ comprehension and enjoyment of texts, as well as phonics, should be the focus of our efforts in the classroom – a place where we, not politicians, should be making the calls.
By Fiona Read, Head of Bedales Nursery & Pre-prep, Dunannie
The world is slowly reopening. As I write, those of us in England are anticipating being allowed to mix indoors once more, to enjoy again the human contact we used to take for granted, and to travel – albeit in a limited way for now.
It is exciting and welcome, and also a time to think carefully about how we want, and need, the world to be in the future. Central to this is our relationship to the natural world, with the COVID pandemic having underlined that we simply do as we please at our peril.
So, why should any of this be a concern for a pre-prep school head as she thinks about her school’s curriculum? One answer is that children are inheriting from us adults a world in which the pressures we place upon it mean it is more likely to bite us back. Consequently, exploring our relationship with nature and understanding the consequences of the choices we make are important. For example, COVID is widely understood to have originated at the uneasy interface of human and wild animal populations, and to have spread quickly through burgeoning urban populations, and our ever-growing appetite for migration – these are both the products of our age, and associated with a range of other ecological and human problems. If we are to avoid repeats of the pandemic, as well as other unwanted impacts, we need to rethink how we do things. Today’s children will be the next generation of problem solvers and will need to find creative solutions to the global challenges they will face in the future.
At least in part, that is why Dunannie has incorporated the Harmony Project into its framework for learning. Inspired by the vision of HRH The Prince of Wales and designed to help schools develop a curriculum inspired by nature, the project explores how applying principles of nature – such as interdependence and adaptation – can guide us in the ways we live both individually and collectively.
An understandable response might be that this is a little young for children to be grappling with such ideas. However, recent protests underline the importance of a healthy planet to young people, and at Dunannie we have been struck by the interest and understanding of our children. We don’t need to introduce them to the idea that there is a relationship between the choices we make and their wider impacts – they already know.
Equally important is that our adoption of the Harmony Project does not happen from a standing start. The Bedales ethos as established by founder John Badley – ‘Head, Hand and Heart’ – prescribes an education for the whole person, combining the academic, the practical and the social. Accordingly, we already take every opportunity to get children learning outside, which they love, with most, if not all, subjects benefitting from the connection. The time they traditionally spend identifying birds, growing vegetables and caring for lambs is as much a part of them growing into their adult selves as is time spent in the classroom and library.
Curriculum and formal learning aside, our application of the principles of nature through the Harmony Project can better ensure our pupils’ wellbeing and connection to their world – a particularly hot topic right now. In 2020, the re-opening of schools saw a renewed appeal for government to support the use of outdoor learning in response to the pandemic. In a letter to the Chair of the Education Select Committee, the group ‘Our Bright Future’, which included representatives from the Wildlife Trusts, the National Youth Agency, the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Friends of the Earth, identified recovery from the pandemic as an opportunity to reassess “how we socialise, work and learn”. Research shows that time spent learning outdoors and interacting with the natural world can raise children’s educational attainment, resilience, and wellbeing. The group proposed that this should be the subject of a government inquiry, with a view to making outdoor learning part of the regular curriculum. We are far from alone, then.
This may sound rather ‘high concept’ and a big change, but in practice it need be neither. Rather, the Harmony Project brings additional focus to many of the things that we already do and love, and will see us do more. Ours is a broad and flexible curriculum and, shaped by the interests and responses of our children, it will evolve and grow in true Bedales tradition –learning with a cloak of fun.
More information on the Harmony Project can be found here. There is more about Bedales Pre-prep, Dunannie here.
Last Saturday was Bedales Pre-prep, Dunannie’s STEM themed Open Morning. Five of our Block 5 students – Rhiannon Griffith, Milo Whittle, Ben Bradberry, Mabel Watson and Athena Lucas – filled their lab coat pockets full of chocolates (the one and only time they will be allowed to put food in a lab coat!) and headed down to Dunannie to help the children with their science experiments.
There was an amazing range of experiments on offer, from making lava lamps using immiscible liquids and building circuits to power buzzers, to programming the Beebot robots to move and light up on command and looking at field line patterns using magnets. The students were tasked with judging each exhibit on presentation and also the scientific knowledge of the children manning the experiment. They also fielded questions from prospective parents about what studying at Bedales was like and the excellent opportunities on offer for students interested in pursuing science. I thought Milo was maybe a bit harsh giving one small six-year-old five out of ten for scientific knowledge – he did award a lot of chocolate though!