Precepts for good health

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

I’m glad that Wednesday evening’s assembly, led by our senior deputy, my colleague, Louise, is centred around the School’s founding values.  Louise has asked students to read excerpts from John Badley’s book, A Schoolmaster’s Testament (1937).  The chords struck resonate.  Here is a selection.

  • There can only be thoroughly good work- good in its indirect as well as its direct results- and there can only be a thoroughly healthy life where there is a general feeling of happiness.
  • [On the balance between freedom and discipline…] without a sense of freedom there cannot be the happiness that is a condition of the fullest health.
  • In every branch of school work there should be abundant opportunity for original effort and the delight that comes from creation and discovery.
  • [On the need for full happiness…] only if all sides of their nature, physical, intellectual, and emotional, find satisfaction, can they have the full sense of wellbeing which is at once a condition of health and its mental counterpart.

These precepts are running through my mind as I think about two events this week and one to come after half term.

The first is Dunhurst’s assembly yesterday morning when director of teaching and learning, Andy Wiggins, talked about precepts – mainly from books and films – engaging the audience wonderfully with sayings that are designed to help us live more happily. I am watching the assembly through a series of luggage labels hanging on a rack, each with its writer’s pledges – in effect, pupils’ own precepts to themselves – which range from the desire to eat more carrots to more general wishes to be more kind.

The second event was seeing the sixth form play, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol.  Could there be a better example of “the delight that comes from creation and discovery”?  Cast and crew, under director in residence, Jamie Wood’s expert guidance, have woven John Berger’s tale into 80 minutes of engrossing drama, with the energy and imagination of the young actors at its heart. A cracker.

Finally, the event being planned for after half term is a whole school symposium on 8 November.  Led by the four head students – Scarlett, James, Ritchie and Maisie – it aims to answer a question:

How can we achieve the right balance between the benefits of students’ personal digital devices and the broader needs of the community?

The symposium, which takes the place of tutor time and assembly, will be preceded by an online questionnaire which will be sent out immediately after half term.  The fact that the symposium takes place in Mental Health week is fitting.  Badley’s precepts about  wellbeing will be at the forefront of our minds as we debate the issues and decide what measures might be taken.

 

Standing up

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Chutzpah – one of our language’s most zesty borrowings  (Yiddish, 19th C)  – is a word you don’t often hear in educational circles, but it’s what springs to my mind on Thursday morning as I listen to Bella’s assembly at Dunhurst.  She stands in front of her teachers and fellow pupils and captures all our attention as she engages us with her subject – Malala Yousafzai and her book Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Changed the World.  Bella, a Block 1 (Year 7) student has launched a book club, based around this book; she tells us about Malala’s life, the Taliban’s attempted murder of her in 2012 and her subsequent survival and work, including speaking to the United Nations and meeting President Obama.  She commands the stage, managing to ask questions of the audience and still keep momentum and rapt attention.  She is loving it – and so are we: the book club will, I am sure, flourish.

A culture which expects young people to stand up in front of their peers and engage them, whether through enthusing them with their own interests like Bella did or through a debate, a musical, dramatic or even a feat of magic is helping generate chutzpah in its young people. It’s a scary and foreign business, standing up in front of large groups – but what a brilliant thing to have once you’ve overcome your nerves.  An integral part of the three day residential assessment (that our candidates for Block 3 entry sit) is a Merry Evening when each group of 10 has to prepare and perform a short piece, based on a chosen theme, in front of their peers and teachers.  It creates a colourful and enjoyable evening, but it also reflects the expectation that all our young people should be able to stand up and engage an audience, having developed their own style and their own reserves of this particular kind of chutzpah.

Technicolor worlds, bravely lit

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Wednesday was one of the highly flavoured days when I have a series of technicolor moments that animate life, even in November’s neutral tones, and make me feel very lucky to be doing the job I am.

Bedales Notices first thing not only includes adverts for the forthcoming Hunger Banquet, production of Medea and visit to Florence (please wear a coat too), but a Movember message from moustachioed men: the message from Boys’ Flat housemaster duo Chris Bott and Peter Thackrey is about men’s health – let’s talk about it, blokes – but it’s done with humour and humanity.

Over to Dunhurst now for my weekly lesson with Block 1 English and another short poem for us to explore. After reading short gems like Larkin’s Cut Grass and local lad Thomas’s Adlestrop, this week we are talking about Yeats’ Wild Swans at Coole. 

The Block 1’s initial insights are impressive and I think of an adage a recent interviewee slipped in (“Children can smell qualilty..”) as I move along the corridor to the packed hall where Dunannie’s production of The Tempest is about to begin.

The children have been engaged in the story both through their teachers and through a visiting story teller. It’s clear from the first moment that the Dunannie children have truly inhabited the story. The adaptation, wonderfully constructed by teachers Camilla Bell and Catherine Claasen, with music by Ben Harlan and Mea Wade, comprises twelve scenes that light the imagination.

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Anchored especially in my mind’s album are moments such as the Boatswains’ song with its great rhymes, the evil Duke’s wicked single black glove, Caliban’s green gloves and the meeting between Miranda (with her classy umbrella) and the marooned Prince Ferdinand.

There’s something magical about The Tempest, which is a dramatisation of a kind of fairy tale, being brought to life by such a young audience, with parents and grandparents looking on as this tale of greed and envy being redeemed by forgiveness and the hope of youth is played out.

Bravo, Dunannie!

Nailing it

Want straight-talking no-nonsense advice on looking after yourself or, if you have stumbled or waltzed into parenthood, your child?  Call Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, one of Australia’s leading adolescent and child psychologists.  We are lucky: he has chosen to visit his old school – Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst – 51 years after he left, after a brief but happy stay as (yes..) a seven year old boarder.

Having spent Monday evening with Michael, heard the positive ripples from the seminar he led with Bedales and Dunhurst pastoral staff in the afternoon and seen him in action in his illuminating lecture in the Bedales theatre in the evening, I can see why he is such an influential and sought after figure in the topical area of adolescent wellbeing and mental health

Like the best teachers, he clearly likes, understands and relishes working with young people.  There’s no whiff of condescension.  There’s no beating around any bush or ducking any issue.  That look on the face of an outraged teenage girl when her parent has told her that she cannot have what she wants is memorably named by Michael in the title of his best-selling book – Princess Bitchface Syndrome.  We might think it – he says it.  In his clunky terminology, nailed.

Parents’ occasional, supine feebleness over things digital is also nailed: “Find your digital spine!” he exhorts; if what your youngster is telling you s/he should be able to do is clearly against their wellbeing, forbid them!

Likewise nailed are things that anyone who has worked with children and been a parent knows intuitively.  For me, one powerful truth is foremost in my mind: the value of what he calls “islands of competence” or sparks.  This is what educators see on a daily basis: the impact on a young person’s life – and therefore wellbeing in the broadest sense – of something catching their interest, energy and ultimately passion.  Michael talked with typical humour about his son’s passion for leg-spin bowling. It could just as easily be the violin or blacksmithing or tennis or Beowulf or the guitar or cross-country running or running your own car-washing business.  The role of schools and parents is to create the environment which gives children plenty of choice – and then to allow the child to fan the spark into a fire, cheering on what they do.

Sometimes it takes a while to see the effect of those islands of competence or sparks.  Intriguing then on the night following Michael’s talk to be at one of our first Old Bedalian gatherings based on a particular career area – in this case Art and Design.  So, I and colleagues far better qualified to be there – Art and Design teachers above all – have such an enjoyable and stimulating couple of hours in a (stylish, hipsterish) place under a rumbling arch by Waterloo.   Here are around 100 OBs – aged 19 upwards –  who have made their ways in areas connected with Art and Design.  Many conversations go back to those moments at school when a spark caught – and the fires keep burning and burning.

Timely reminders

Having been unavoidably away for much of last week, it has been good to spend some time reminding myself of the important constants of school life – the equivalent perhaps for a farmer of getting in amongst the stock and crops – and of the energy that animates a school.

First stop is Outdoor Work, where you usually see the best of people and where there is always something new – in the polytunnel great care is being taken by the Block 3s to make an A frame up which beans will grow and I see a student’s face light up in a way that I had not seen before. In the barnyard I find two Block 5 boys, Ed A and Henry F and their BAC ODW project, a duck house. I had already taken the liberty of giving Ed a little context on the political resonances of duck houses which he has taken on board, so this conversation was much more granular and, of course, admiring, because this is going to be some duck house, but I still needed to be reassured about waterproofing and also buoyancy. It is going to be like a lake palace – lucky ducks.

Watching Maths being taught is another calming and anchoring activity. I take a wander round Block 3 Maths groups, noting a sympathetic and “no fear” approach to helping the students understand the concepts behind what they are doing, rather than simply feel it is about being right or wrong.

As we have our first Block 3 Review of the term and, hearteningly, many Block 3s’ efforts need to be recognised through congratulatory cards or brief meetings with me (“seeing” to use the vernacular), I am busy congratulating first thing on Thursday morning.  It is great to hear first hand from these students what they are particularly enjoying and any other thoughts they have about their first half of term at Bedales.

The only sadness is I arrive at Dunhurst too late for their Agincourt assembly, which I am very sorry to miss. It cannot match the way Dunhurstians commemorated the anniversary of Waterloo (with much colour, bangs and ingenuity) but it had clearly animated attendees. However, I catch Lisa Whapshott as she is taking her pupils in to their Design lesson. What are they doing this lesson? I ask.  Designing a trug, they answer. Trugs are wonderfully esoteric things (having that badge of honour of not being recognised by spellcheck) and sounding as splendid as they are reassuring to carry; it is very comforting to know that someone is working at designing and then making them in an English school.

So, trugs and duck houses – their future is safe with us.

Dunhurst quest

Believing as I do that you often spur youngsters into inquisitive action through quiz and play (“game” rather than “ernest”, says Chaucer), how good to be at our prep school, Dunhurst for the launch at assembly last week of the splendid treasure hunt A La Recherche des Carambars Perdus. Up stands Eli Chilton, French teacher to announce this quest: find one of the carambars hidden around the school; open it and find, not gooey stuff, but a French idiom, which you can cherish and deploy; collect as many carambar-idioms as you can, remembering them as you go – pupils can compare them and ultimately possibly win a prize, even beyond that of being more gallically figuratively armoured than they were before.

Some will not be tickled by this quest – chacun à son goût (I used to say), until one of my children, more in tune with modern French idiom, said it was “so out of date, like saying b’gad” and I should be saying chacun à son truc, which I say now. So here’s to keeping your idioms out of flares and in skinnies – and to ingenious ways of spurring on our natural inquisitiveness. Also, here’s to having fun with weighty titles. My ancient American uncle’s chronicle of his early life – escape from Scotland, go to Hawaii, find yourself invading Okinawa – is titled La Triviata, which shows at least that British understatement survived the journey.

Idioms will be on the minds of those of us lucky enough to hear the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, when she reads in our theatre tonight at 8 pm. To set the poetic hares and juices running and to nod at this beautifully Keatsian “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” we are having, here is a haiku from the letters page of a weekend paper:

Although detached
Even a monk must feel
A sense of wonder:
A heron takes wing from a marsh
In autumn twilight.

Saigyo (1118-90)

New beginnings starting up

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Schools are refreshed each year by at least a quarter of their students being new.  The process of moving those (135 in Bedales’ case) students from being new to feeling part of the community takes a bit of thought and requires different kinds of (for want of a better word) induction.  This has been the case over the past 12 days with our new Block 3s and 6.1s, who comprise the great majority of those 135.

What are we wanting to accomplish through these inductions?  Three things: familiarity with places and systems; understanding what our values are, in particular the emphasis on close collaboration between teachers and students; and opportunities to get to know the others in their cohort.

So here is how it happens.  Three days before term begins, when teachers are still enmeshed in their in service training, in come the (95) Block 3s – just over half from our prep school, Dunhurst, just under half from about 35 different schools. I talk in the theatre to their parents about what they might expect of the next stage of their children’s education and what we expect of them.

The students then spend just under two days at Bedales when we are able to focus entirely on them and where they have the freedom of the school, enjoying for example a few skittish moments in our sunlit orchard, without any of the big people who can seem very big when you are a smallish 13 year old.  Then, strange though it seems, we whisk them away in two large buses to Ullswater in the Lake District, where, as has now happened for almost 25 years, they have a 6 day course which is specially tailored to the things we most want them to develop in their early time at Bedales – resilience, self-reflection and the ability to work in a team.  Each tutor group has its Badley tutor – the teacher who will work most closely with them – accompanying them, along with the Outward Bound leader.  It is a great 6 days and highly influential, both for them as a group and as individuals.  I (and my two wayward dogs) spend two nights there, one accompanying students on an overnight camp.

For the 6.1s, the journey is very different.  Although the majority of the cohort are students who are continuing through from Block 3 and have therefore been here for three years already, the assimilation of the new 27 students and the fact that the sixth form is a new start for everyone means that you need to give everyone an induction.

Their induction is more cerebral than the Block 3s’ and shorter, with a return a mere 30 hours before the rest of the school and the induction course focussed on the need for increased independent working and leadership.  Whilst the Block 3 induction is mainly focussed on doing, the 6.1s are reminded that good sixth formers are thinkers, readers and questioners.

In many ways the finale of the 6.1 induction is the student-led “Philosophy Of…” conference which, thanks to the good leadership of Becky G and Patrick N, came off splendidly on Saturday morning. More on this next time.