Conference conclusions

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

What do some 300 headteachers want to do when they convene for their annual conference, say in Belfast?

Having just returned from this event and having done it, here is a pithy summary.  People want three things: to be inspired, to come back with some useful things, and to have plenty of chances for fellowship.  Time and sundry survey monkeys will no doubt tell whether my august colleagues found the balance right in the conference I have shaped but here are some highlights from each of these categories.

Inspired we were on Monday by Jonathan Powell telling us about the Northern Ireland peace process and the role that he played as chief negotiator.  On Tuesday, Barb Oakley (Professor of Engineering at Oakland University) and John Lloyd (creator of QI and so many of the great satirical TV shows of the last 35 years) inspired us to think about how we learn and how he might better galvanise children’s curiosity.  On Wednesday we heard from one of our colleagues, Mark Steed, on how educational experimentation in Dubai may be indicating a future where education in its current form, say at Bedales, becomes as unusual as bespoke tailoring and most learn through a combination of technology and a small amount of classroom contact.

Useful things are done mainly in workshops, which cover areas such as legal, strategy, neuroscience, gender identity, entrepreneurship, partnerships and even pensions.  Heads’ panels exploring different kinds of innovation in our schools give us ideas we can take away – people are keen to share ideas and there is a spirit of collaboration.  A final heads’ panel has six of us describe particularly testing times that we have faced – here, as is so often, usefulness and inspiration blend.

Fellowship?  Leading is, we think, a lonely business.  Moving into headship you go from having plenty of colleagues you can share confidences with to very few: the relationships you develop with fellow heads become a critical part of your personal, as well as professional support network.  So, planning a conference, you want to make sure that there are plenty of generous breaks for coffees, teas (as purveyors of these beverages on the railways uniquely say).  You also want to make sure that the evening events are sufficiently attractive to make sure that people do want to congregate and that food and drink are compelling. For me, no conference is complete without a poetry reading so we had Alice McCullough on Monday evening.  You need to allow people to do other things together, so have an afternoon when you can tramp the beautiful hills of Mourne or seek out the mysteries of the Titanic.

Having the unusual privilege of organising such an event is itself quite thought-provoking, but I can recommend it.


Find out more about the Headmasters’ & Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), and view films from this year’s conference on the HMC YoutTube channel.

 

Inspiring futures

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

I’m talking at the Inspiring Futures conference tomorrow and am mulling over what I might say.  I need to provide the schools’ perspective on how we should be preparing our students for the future – in particular 4IR – or the Fourth Industrial Revolution – aka the Digital Revolution.   I have 20 minutes and, at my request, it is the final slot.  So, I plan five slides.  Here’s a shrinklet version, slide by slide.

A cheesy crystal ball: we humans love predicting the future and we will so often be wrong.  The hapless verb “to future-proof” is a notable example of this.  Yet, human beings are remarkably adaptive and, in spite of our poor planning for the future, are often fleet-footed in response.   Preparing for 4IR may be too late – but how can we best prepare for whatever 5IR and 6IR are going to look like?

A frontispiece of Silas Marner, showing how the sad, miserly spinner has become part of his loom: work has made him into a machine; tempting to think this is all about preparing our young people for work, but it is also about preparing them to live enriched, fulfilled lives.  In this respect, we need our students to have an understanding of the ancient verities of philosophy and literature and to appreciate the Arts, as well as having a strong science and maths base.

The rear view mirror of a car: our educational systems prepare us for the world that has just passed.  My schooling prepared me well to serve the needs of the British Empire, just as it had gone.  Education ministers tend to hanker after the past – the fixations of Michael Gove and poor primary school children’s subsequent current fixation with adverbial clauses, for example.

A set of ball bearings beautifully balanced:  how to achieve this balance?  The state needs to limit what it requires of school children, especially in those formative GCSE years, and provide much greater freedom within the curriculum; so cut the requirement for so many GCSEs – Maths, English and Science are the only ones that the government needs to assess.  If you allow head teachers in schools to exercise their independence, you create space and therefore flexibility in the curriculum.  Such an approach challenges the current sclerotic, silo mentality of the curriculum.  How can you expect students to develop the necessary flexibility of mind and creative thinking if the curricula they encounter are often so dull and formulaic?

A blossoming chestnut tree:  how to give our youngsters the best chance of living the most fulfilled lives?  See W B Yeats’ image of the chestnut tree (“great rooted blossomer” from Among School Children). Here is a list of some of the qualities we need to help bring out in our students:

  • Capacity for independent thinking and problem solving
  • Appetite for lifelong learning: establish a love of learning early and it stays
  • Enjoyment of teamwork and collaboration
  • Understanding of other cultures – enjoyment of international links
  • Sense of wonder: to inspire and be inspired

Lucky ducks and big thinks

This headline, a Lancastrian exclamation, certainly doesn’t refer to actual ducks (who are incidentally happy with plenty of water to splash around in after mid-September downpours), neither does it refer to the nine piglets I saw sleeping cosily alongside their proud mum on my walk with my canine friends earlier this morning, nor does it refer to said two dogs, one of whom managed to steal a French loaf from my kitchen table last night and escape detection through subterfuge; but it refers to students who are encouraged to think for themselves and have the stimuli to do so. They are the lucky ducks.

At the start of the last two academic years we have had a potent symbol of this through the “Philosophy Of…” conference. The brainchild of Oscar B-W when he was in 6.1, it aims to explore the thinking that lies behind different human activities.
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This year’s conference, organised by Becky G and Patrick N gave us six speakers who ran across the spectrum: conversation/writing; religion, feminism/the media, journalism in war zones, campaigning for climate justice and literary biography.DSC_0013

Here is a sample of the big thinks we were encouraged to have, drawn from the three talks I attended: when we want to be kind do we want to do so because we have been brought up to be so or because we are intuiting kindness? Would you rather save Venice for posterity or save 3000 people who might die in an earthquake in another part of Italy? What makes for a really good conversation? (Olivia Fane). What pressure can we put on our governments to ensure that the climate change talks in Paris this December are successful? How can we de-carbonize our economies? (Farhana Yamin). What are the most dangerous countries on earth? Why do we know so little about the most dangerous (the Democratic Republic of Congo)? To what degree is our view of what is happening in the world dependent on whether journalists are able to report from that country? What drives the John Simpsons and (this speaker) Oggy Botchev to take the risks they take?

We will run this conference again next year – indeed next year’s student organisers have already stepped forward. Big thinks are good at any point, but especially before the more routine business of A Level courses start to predominate.