Visiting Thomas Hardy’s Wessex

Last Saturday, a group of 6.2 English students visited Dorset to visit some of the key sites in Thomas Hardy’s life, to complement their study of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and some of his poetry. Here are two perspectives from the trip.

By Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales

Thomas Hardy didn’t move far in his life; the distance from his birthplace in Lower Bockhampton to Max Gate, the house he built for himself on the outskirts of Dorchester once he had found success, is less than two miles.

First up was Hardy’s birthplace, a small cottage that has remained largely unchanged from when Hardy lived there with his parents and siblings. We were led there by National Trust volunteer Wendy, who led us through the woodland above the cottage and read to us some of the poems Hardy wrote inspired by the landscape.

The most ambitious part of the trip followed with our group walking through steady Dorset drizzle, following the River Frome across which Angel Clare had carried Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, to Stinsford Church, where Hardy’s heart is buried in the family tomb.

Further walking across boggy flood meadow took us to Max Gate, and a meeting with Andrew Leah, Vice President of the Thomas Hardy Society, who lived at Max Gate for 17 years before the National Trust opened it as a visitor attraction.

Andrew gave us a tour of each room and described movingly the creeping melancholy that coloured most of Hardy’s married life at Max Gate, followed by the guilt that consumed him after his wife’s death. We sat in the study room in which Hardy wrote Tess, and then moved next door to the room he took over when he turned his back on writing prose and wrote only poetry until his death.

By Thea Sesti, 6.2

By walking from one of Hardy’s homes to the other, we explored the landscape and the place Hardy was so tied to and served as a backdrop for so many of his works.

We were at times accompanied by a National Trust guide who read out some of Hardy’s poetry in the Dorset woodland, which clearly evidenced the sensibility and attachment to nature he had from a young age and emerged so prominently in some of his later novels, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Having studied the text as part of A Level English, we were able to draw comparisons between the then appropriately damp and evocative scenery we came across walking and that in the book, making us understand all the more the area’s impact on Hardy’s life as an author.

We were thus able to retrace his life’s journey as he moved from his family cottage to Max Gate, the house he built for himself and moved into with the first of two wives, following the rise of his wealth and fame.

The next chapter in the story of creation

By Alice McNeill, Head of Partnerships, Initial Teacher Training, Academic Tracking and EPQs

Too often, when we think of creativity, we think of coloured pencils or a mind-boggling array of Post-it notes; we mentally interchange creativity and originality, or creativity and innovation. But creativity should be better defined in education – because I do believe that it’s the missing ingredient. I also think a creative education is the remedy to a great number of problems with our system, but creativity’s proper definition, “the ability or power to create, to make something”, has to be at its heart.

The only way to futureproof education is to place more value on creativity. It is a truth almost universally acknowledged among educators, especially since educationalist Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk on the subject in 2006, that creativity should be as important as literacy and numeracy in schools. “It is education that is supposed to take us into this future which we cannot yet grasp,” he said.

Back in 2006, Sir Ken’s argument was fuelled by problems apparent at that time – most probably the stifling emphasis on assessment, especially literacy and numeracy targets in primary schools, and the explosion in global tertiary education graduation rates. But a seismic shift in the educational debate has taken place in the decade following his talk. Michael Gove, in his time as education secretary, transformed the curriculum; testing has reached unprecedented levels; EBacc, Progress 8 and GCSE and A-level reform has narrowed the curriculum; and academisation has led to schools becoming larger than ever, and hence heavily reliant on data generated in specific areas of school life.

There has also been an acceleration in the pace of technological change. University of Buckingham vice-chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon, a former head of Wellington College, has made much of the problems that artificial intelligence will cause for the educational status quo in his book The Fourth Education Revolution. Creativity is becoming more important than ever if we are to avoid an educational cliff edge.

Many have written, myself included, in Tes about the urgent need for more creativity in education. After my latest article, many people approached me to ask: “So what next?” One colleague commented that the need to foster creativity was an oft-repeated mantra, but little advice existed about how the creativity gap could be filled. The comment led me to think more on the subject and to create something akin to a manifesto for creative education; this amounts to four main principles and 10 practical steps for school leaders and teachers to ensure creativity is given its place on the curriculum, both explicit and hidden.

So here is my take on what creative education should be:

  • Playful: We learn through play. Creative education must have intrinsic value – it should be fun – and we ought to learn it from the earliest years in education onward. Through play, we learn the importance of taking risks and making mistakes, as well as resilience and teamwork. Play is also the antithesis of the prevalent utilitarian, results-focused culture, which celebrates the tick above all else.
  • Problem-solving: We create to solve problems, to make things better. We do not create to destroy or diminish. So creativity should have a clear sense of purpose. If this begins at a very early age and continues all the way through school, it will equip learners to contribute positively to society in future.
  • Project-based: Working on long-term projects engenders commitment, collaboration and a more meaningful outcome than something shorter term. Where possible, people should be given the opportunity to work for a longer period of time on a project.
  • Future-focused: This involves ensuring there are clear pathways and opportunities to develop, to go forward. Links with industry are vital to demonstrate how one might take the learned skills, ideas and knowledge into a meaningful career.

Which brings me to my plan of action…

  1. Understand the importance of creativity and shout about it

Make it part of your mission statement; make sure educators understand its importance. There should be visual signs throughout the school suggesting the importance of creativity. Wherever possible, the school should be an ever-evolving display of creativity, from use of student voice to celebrations of work. It is always impressive to visit schools with a real sense of ownership of the environment that has come about through co-construction. For example, the student-led green initiatives at Ampleforth College, or the students’ input into the architectural design of London Oratory School and David Young Community Academy.

  1. Focus on building skills

Every subject can nurture and celebrate creativity if there is a good understanding of what creativity is. The word “creativity” has been used synonymously with innovation, but actually a better definition is “the power to make something, tangible or intangible”. In all subjects, we need to empower students to make things, whether it is a solution to a problem, a strategy for teamwork or an original piece of artwork, a project or an idea. It is only by doing this that students can find their inner motivation to succeed.

  1. Find creative role models and celebrate creative success

Every student wants to create something. And many do. We are often looking in the wrong places for things to celebrate. We should find time to praise creativity. A good way of doing this is to have a specific language to talk about creativity. For example, if there is a former student of the school who works in a creative industry, or someone of particular inspiration to the school, then their name can be given as shorthand for recognition of achievement in this area. A part of assembly each month could be given to recognise people in creative pursuits in the same way that sporting achievements is often be recognised.

  1. Imitate early years education

We have so much to learn from the joy, excitement and creativity that imbues the earliest years in education. Let’s find ever-more ways of getting back to the excitement of discovery and invention that is an everyday sight in Reception classes.

  1. Encourage invention

Much has been made of the four stages of investigative questioning: detective (what, when, who?); scientist (how? why?); judge (would you agree?); and inventor (what if?). By continually encouraging the fourth type of questioning, we can nurture lateral, outside-the-box thinking.

This approach is a brilliant remedy for the kind of thinking that is characterised by the refrain, “Is this in the exam?”

  1. Scan the horizon

Make sure the information that you have about how an industry is evolving is up to date. Students find it so much easier to be creative when they know why they are doing what they are doing. Are they writing about the latest antibiotic research for a medical application? Are they building a portfolio to showcase their fashion design? Are they researching a new genre in theatre to build a specific skill that they’re currently lacking? What will the working environment be like? It may be a single teacher’s responsibility to be aware of the market and the skills required for different pathways. But even better, make it every teacher’s responsibility.

  1. Build relationships

Many schools actively seek relationships with local companies to offer work experience or volunteering opportunities for students. It might take the form of a formal partnership or even sponsorship. These relationships can build slowly over time, but they can be immensely rewarding and give students a brilliant insight into how they might become agents for positive change in the future.

  1. Find opportunities for long-term projects

When a student works for a significant length of time on a project, they feel boredom, frustration, doubt, and often want to give up. These are all essential parts of the creative process that students must be facilitated to experience and to cope with. Nothing could be a better lesson to learn at school.

  1. Ensure students are able to leave school or university with a portfolio of projects

If you asked anyone which piece of work they were most proud of from their school days, it would most likely be a self-driven, creative project. In an ideal world, there should be an opportunity each year to do, and to showcase, a significant piece of work such as this. There are more and more opportunities to do this as part of the formal curriculum, from the International Baccalaureate to the Extended Project Qualification. Such tasks are demanding, time-consuming and challenging, but the effort and creative energy put in is directly proportional to the sense of pride and lasting effect that students will feel in their lives.

  1. Creativity should always be constructive

Obvious, perhaps, but it underpins everything a creative education should be. Ultimately, creative education builds, edifies, emboldens and serves others; students transform from passive recipients of information to active participants – a process that both shapes their futures and enriches society. The easiest way to ensure that education is creative is to continually ask ourselves the purpose of the curriculum. If we can be assured of the constructive nature of an activity, we can be assured that what we are doing is worthwhile.

Taken together, these ideas, I hope, will give readers something of a roadmap to building more creativity into the curriculum. Or at least a little optimism.

With thanks for their permission to publish on the Bedales School blog, this article originally featured in the TES magazine on 21 December 2018.

The student-led curriculum group gets organised

By Alistair McConville, Director of Learning and Innovation

What springs to mind when you hear the word “Dons”? A candlelit high table crowded with kindly academics passing the port? Or a gathering of Mafioso types gathered in a back room, discussing the destination of the next horse’s head?

At our school, The Dons was the deliberately ambiguous name chosen for our latest venture in student leadership. The students struck on the name themselves, and were delighted by the way in which it hints both at academic ambition and rigour, yet retains overtones of anti-authoritarian subversion in the cause of “getting things done” a la Corleone…

As one of the pioneers of progressive education, Bedales has a long tradition of taking “student voice” very seriously indeed. Our school council, chaired by our head boy and girl, recently celebrated its 100th birthday. The Dons are the latest incarnation of this commitment to devolving meaningful responsibility to our students.

Essentially, the Dons are student leaders for each of the important elements of our school. Primarily, they are associated with academic departments – so the Don of biology or Spanish, for example – though other areas of school life also have a Don, such as our precious library.

The project was the students’ idea some four years ago. Above all, they wanted there to be students who could be approached for subject-specific help and advice by younger pupils, and who could become spokespeople for the subject, as well as representatives of the student body’s views to the relevant head of department (HoD). A consigliere of sorts, or perhaps something akin to a Roman tribune. Truth to power, but politely…

Respect the family

In the early days, the students were adamant that there should be no active oversight or management of this layer of student involvement from the adult leadership team. This was their baby, and they wanted it to operate in an entirely free-standing, organic way. Somewhat sceptically, we let them have their head.

This, frankly, led to a rather variable set of contributions across subject areas. A good number of Dons poured hours into supporting younger years, especially around GCSE time, and ran clubs and activities that related to the subject area. Others largely sat on their hands, revelling in the title and kudos, and boasting of it on their Ucas form, but were disappointingly unaccountable and inactive.

The students recognised the unfairness and ineffectiveness of this system, and soon sought to formalise the relationship between their network and the school’s more well-established structures.

The first big change for “Phase Two” was around the appointment process. We moved from a rather underground mechanism, whereby Dons more or less emerged from the shadows to be announced to HoDs by the students, to a rather more transparent process whereby aspirant Dons applied to the HoD, laying out their motivations and vision for the role. HoDs formally took on responsibility for managing their Don, and shared expectations were set. The head boy and girl attended a HoD meeting to negotiate the finer points.

The Don of teaching and learning is my sidekick in keeping some light reins on the whole project, which now feels distinctly more collaborative, embedded and effective than Dons 1.0, which now sleeps with the fishes.

What do they do? It’s delightfully disparate, with some students going across to our prep school to help lead activities or get involved in the science fair there.

Others organise external speakers and take responsibility for extracurricular societies. They pop up at the A-level choices fair to tell potential subscribers “what it’s really like”. No sugar-coating.

Flora, the religious-studies Don, is working on a student-sourced resource booklet for the new A level. Dons even attend departmental meetings from time to time to act as a sounding board on the issues of the day.

By far the most frequent offering is that of scheduled subject clinics for younger year groups, especially during our “quiet time” – Bedales’ light-touch version of old-school “prep” time. This proves especially popular in the run-up to exams and coursework deadlines – they’re literally being made an offer they can’t refuse.

Our most recent initiative was in response to a request from the governors that we make greater use of student feedback in shaping departmental development plans.

HoDs and Dons alike baulked at the idea of generating sheets of data from online questionnaires – both conscious of the dangers of headline metrics generated from tiny sample sizes – and negotiated a more qualitative way of identifying development areas.

So we planned a “feedback afternoon”, roughly following the model of a parents’ meeting, but with Dons behind the library desks instead of teachers, and students taking the place of parents. Students rolled through by year group to offer their unvarnished views on their experience, by subject, with Dons scribbling notes to translate (diplomatically and constructively, we trust) for their HoDs.

We’re mid-experiment, so how well this feedback will be converted into useful development priorities remains to be seen, but, nothing ventured…

An undoubted upside of all this is the inclusion of the students in the broader conversation about how teaching and learning happens. They have a voice.

There’s undoubtedly more work to do be done to refine the role of our motley, idealistic Dons, but it’s a stimulating dialogue with the students about how they can best be involved in the running of their community, and it can only be good for their general political and organisational awareness. Most hearteningly, it brings out their deep commitment to our very special school.

This article was originally published in TES magazine.

Transformative Education

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Philosophy, Religion & Ethics

An education is a transformative thing, and a great education can lead to a great transformation. Every student at Bedales is fortunate to have so many opportunities. Being part of a school like this, someone has invested in that transformation. For many, parents make this investment. Sometimes, it is grandparents. I have even known students paying their own fees out of inherited money. Others, and I was one of them, get to come to a school like this with the support of others, through bursary programmes. I can speak as one who knows: bursaries transform lives.

Patrick Derham, OBE, the Headmaster of Westminster, and formerly Rugby, knows this better than most. We were so fortunate to have him speak at Jaw on Wednesday, and the impact his talk had on students was palpable. Having, like me, been to seven schools before the age of 12, he was an ‘Ari Boy’, educated aboard the permanently moored vessel Arethusa. One day, he was asked ‘Do you know what Public School is, Derham?’ ‘No, Sir’, he replied. The school aboard the Arethusa was disbanded overnight, and he was sent off to Pangbourne College, a beneficiary of a bursary from an anonymous donor. It changed his life, giving him opportunities beyond his wildest dreams.

He took advantage of every chance, getting to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and has spent his career determined to give back. He started the celebrated Arnold (bursary) Foundation at Rugby, and from that went on to found Springboard, a national charity linking young people to places at boarding schools. He is involved with numerous other projects, all concerned with providing excellent educational opportunities to young people in difficult circumstances.

I can see why he said this was what ‘gets him out of bed in the morning’. Last year, I was thrilled and deeply moved to be asked to be a trustee of our own John Badley Foundation. Through the work of the JBF, students with backgrounds more like mine, and those much less fortunate than I was, can get to come here, and just as happens with every child, experience the transformation that comes from a great education.

For more information about the John Badley Foundation, click here.