Leading independent thinking

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Bewitching days here now – steady heat and even a nightingale singing in one of the trees between 50 Church Road and the Village Hall as Moony and I sit on the terrace / patio / stoep as dusk gathers.

Even in the teeth of public exams, there has been fruitful stuff happening in terms of student voice and engagement.

On Monday evening, Josh, a 6.2 student who is close both to the end of his A Levels and to the end of his time at Bedales, gave a talk to the Pudding Club – the gathering of our 3i group.  Josh had chosen to talk about ‘How we learn and what makes us tick’.  His talk reflected on his decade spent within the Bedales Schools and how well he felt that these environments worked  alongside the innate drivers that help us learn and underpin our behaviours: valorisation – the values and behaviour of teachers which students naturally copy and which creates the self-confidence and “willingness to do what’s good” in the students;  the need to find out about the world and how it works, reflecting the “intelligent thinking” that lies at the heart of our education; and finally the sense of wonder, “innate curiosity” that is so closely linked with creativity.

The power of Josh’s talk was shown in the quality of discussion it evoked – clearly what he said had resonated with many of the students in the meeting.

Wednesday’s Jaw was taken by Richie (6.1) and was about music – its use for propaganda and protest.  Beginning with a remarkable film from 1908 of the Marseillaise being sung and the use by the French government of this rousing song (inspired by the need to defend Strasbourg), he went on to talk about the role of the piano in middle class European life, before crossing the Atlantic and involving us in the role of music in the Vargas 1930-42 Brazilian government.  He then made protest music the thread, with Bob Dylan, Martin Garvey and then the extraordinary story of Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, set up in Nigeria in the 70s and destroyed by the Nigerian government in February 1977; this was partly in response to the popularity of his protest song Zombie which attacked the mindlessness and power of the Nigerian military.

Student initiatives and talks of this kind are the best kind of inspiration for other students – and all the more powerful coming at a time of year when schools and students tend to be thinking exclusively about exams.

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.

Lasting influence?

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Preparing an assembly on Politics’ effect on education, I find that my usual seasonal reflections on Charles Dickens (Christmas jollity and Scroogery etc) take me down a different channel and into his influence on education.

Dickens’ lifetime (1812-1870) spanned the creation of something that approached a rudimentary universal education system for England: the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which established the basis for English elementary education.  It is neat to connect this with what Dickens said in the early stages of his national popularity in a speech in Birmingham in 1844:

“If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education – comprehensive liberal education – is the one thing needful, and the one effective end.”

Given that the England of  Dickens’ birth was one where there was still a debate about whether there was any point educating large swathes of the population, it is unsurprising that so many of the downtrodden poor of his novels show such a strong desire to learn and to better themselves through education.  For me it is this profound sense of the moral value of each person and the right that he or she has to be something other than a workhorse or a young criminal – the encouragement to good and ultimately the right to be educated.  Through presenting all sorts of different models of what he saw as good and bad models of education in his novels, he both reinforced the public’s sense of moral feeling and established a tradition of dealing with education in novels.

More specifically, in Hard Times, he gave us one of the best images of the tension between the extremes of heartless utilitarian education and the education of the heart: a reading of the first chapter of that book captures that age-old tension as well as tomes of educational theory.

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mating tunes

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

The last week has been a combination of much getting to know new students, quite a bit of talking, signpost work outside the Orchard Building and listening to some stimulating talks – most of which have been in school.

Last Saturday’s Philosophy Of…  conference is led by students (6.1s when they started planning it a year ago, 6.2s now) and is designed to get us to think – a handy prompt for sixth formers especially at the start of an academic year.

Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Imperial College, London, showed how areas traditionally dominated by humanities graduates are now being taken over by scientists and how scientific methods of data analysis are being used to identify musical and literary trends and the ingredients that make a hit song or a best seller.

Tunes can mate, he posits:  the Darwinian process of natural selection, speeded up by computers and aided by human beings eliminating the hopeless tunes and allowing the better ones through, causes random sounds to be created initially and then, through this process of continuous adaptation gives us some passable tunes at the end of the process.   OK, it is like a melodic ringtone but a computer has done it.   Watch out for Google’s Deep Minds project which has enabled a robot generated piano sonata.  Artificial intelligence can make a similar formula for a best seller.  The process that precedes it is the distant reading (meaning a computer doing the reading) of the five thousand best selling works of fiction of recent years  in order to identify particular types of plot and recurring ideas  (by spotting key words).  The model thriller/science fiction/Greek billionaire seduction (by rather than of) novel can then be constructed.  Yes, the latter is a popular genre.

Out with the English graduate, in with the data scientist, he says.  This writer, an English graduate, then goes over to the theatre to hear James Harding, History graduate, Head of BBC News and former editor of The Times: like Leroi he is another speaker with a gift for making us think.  Asked the question, “what will the world will look like in 2026?” he answers “I don’t know.”   Sensible, he argues, because the world is particularly unpredictable at the moment.  Four reasons why:

  • Inequality and interest rates: massive shift in wealth inequality as the rich can borrow what they want; asset prices rise, the poor get relatively poorer: the politics of anger prevail.
  • Islamic extremism competing with secularism.
  • The pace of technological change and the impact of everything from driverless cars and dating apps on human wellbeing and behaviour.
  • Identity politics: individuals are more likely to be influenced by what seems true to them and what they feel than by tribal loyalties to, say, political parties, which only 30% of us support.

But, he is upbeat when asked questions by students about whether they should be fearful of the future; and he is the first person for a while I have heard saying it’s a great time to start out as a journalist.

Lots to take on board and it’s only Saturday lunchtime.  Monday brings a conference run by the House of Commons Education Committee on The Purpose and quality of education in England, a consultation to which Bedales has made a submission.

Again, much food for thought, but it is Mary Beard, whose promotion of Classics and interesting thinking makes me a big fan, who has the last word.  Don’t think passionate disagreement about what people should learn is anything new: Socrates met his death through choosing the wrong curriculum – “corrupting the youth”.  Read Aristophanes The Clouds for a satire on a new curriculum and just remember if the twin drivers of education are ever increasing measurement (via exams) and regulation (because no one can be trusted) then it will all eventually collapse.  Abandon a good number of GCSEs as a starter, she suggests.  Well, yes, Mary…

 

May ideas swim

Mizzling is the word, I think, for the gentle rain that greets me and my fellow Poetry Society breakfasters as we gather by Steephurst, ready to head up to the Poet’s Stone for our annual May breakfast.  The celebrants all bring poems and we have a good range:  plenty of Edward Thomas of course, some Shelley, Browning and a jewel of a Robin Robertson poem, Swimming in the Woods, which I read and I can’t resist copying in below.

The rain stops; early sun lights up Steep woods, which we admire from our vantage point on the Hangers’ flank by Thomas’ sarsen stone.  Magical stuff.

The week’s big external facing event has been our Liberating Leaders conference which we ran in partnership with the Times Educational Supplement and King Edward VI School Bury St Edmunds.  Most conferences have at least one soggy item; I could not spot one in our line-up.  So, here are some very personal highlights.

Sir Michael Wilshaw (Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills) reminiscing in a finely wrought speech about the maverick headteachers who had shaped his professional life and the need for schools to enable the best characteristics of the maverick to inform teachers’ work.  Look out for the cross backlash from educators who feel that this is a bit ripe given his time at Ofsted.

Danielle Harlan (Founder and CEO of the Centre for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential) on authenticity as a leader, employee engagement (which is – sad fact – stuck at 13% worldwide) and unleashing creativity.  An extraordinarily lucid but profound presentation that was in itself a masterclass in clear and memorable communication. New verb alert – to “geek out” over someone = state of admiration and adulation of a senior, august academic figure by a scholarly acolyte/admirer.

Barbara Oakley (Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan) on re-making  your brain and lessons learnt from her creation and co-teaching of the world’s most popular (1.5 million students) Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).  She is very keen that Bedales launches a MOOC – we will explore this.  An account – as scholarly as it was homely – of her distinctive path, her own learning and some of the ways in which we can improve our learning. Key tip: buy a Pomodoro (tomato shaped timer) or set one up as an app and work in 25 minute chunks; give yourself rewards after each 25 minutes; sleep and exercise aplenty.  That classy organ, the brain, loves these rhythms.  Get it right and, like Barbara, you start with Russian and end up a leading Professor of Engineering – and meet your future life partner at the South Pole.

Happily for our students, a number of them were able to attend the conference.  Most will have heard Danielle’s assembly on Monday and many also heard Barbara talk about girls and STEM subjects. You can view the speakers’ presentations here.

In all, the many of us who heard these inspiring people can justly feel lucky ducks (as they say in Lancashire).

So here is that poem: enjoy the half term break, and maybe some wild swimming.

Swimming in the Woods by Robin Robertson 

Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, finned by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.
When she stopped, the water stopped,
and the sun remade her as a tree,
banded and freckled and foxed.

Besieged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss,
I stare at the wet shape on the tiles
till it fades; when she came and sat next to me
after her swim and walked away
back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.

 

 

 

 

Space to make and grow

Much talk here about creativity and its links with entrepreneurship.  This comes partly through discussions with parents (current and prospective), colleagues and students, partly because of the changes we are seeing to buildings and spaces at Bedales and partly because of the way in which the aspirations of young Britons in their twenties seem to have changed.

Let me try to flesh out each of these three threads in turn.

You do not need to be a futurologist to see that the world of work has changed markedly from the one most parents of secondary school age parents emerged into.  Jobs within corporate structures for life are rare; serial careers will increasingly become the norm; individuals will have to become much more proactive in the development of their own personal “brand”; and chunk of jobs in professions currently considered to be relatively safe from automation will disappear as some of the more routine work done by, for example, lawyers and pharmacists is automated.

Accompanying parents’ awareness that this will be the case is a healthy scepticism about schools’ ability to prepare children for the future.  Strange to find me saying this? Maybe.  But think about the way that the state determines the curriculum: decisions taken by Michael Gove in, say, 2011 will affect those sitting some GCSEs in 2017 and therefore those students emerging into the workplace from 2019 at the earliest – 2022 if they have gone to university.  And this was a (famously) quick curriculum change (and maybe with an eye more to the past than the future, but that’s another topic).

You do not need to have seen Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk to know that the way that our schools are organised, with the emphasis on orderly progression and the silos of individual subjects is largely a Victorian creation.  Schools are good at doing all sorts of things but in general they adjust only in miniscule ways to the needs of the future.  My education equipped me splendidly to stride out into the empire that had more or less disappeared by my birth.

Second thread: changes to buildings and spaces.  Create a new building which combines all the different elements of Design (i.e. designing anything and making anything) with all the different elements of Fine Art and you have new possibilities; put that new Art & Design building close to the department (Outdoor Work) that also builds, creates and grows things (from lettuces to pigs, via hedges and barns, not to mention chutney, pizzas, duck houses and fleeces) and you are making a space where all sorts of additional things will happen.  Have an idea? Good, you can probably see if it will work.

Creating the space within and between these areas of endeavour will only result in interesting things happening if these moves are accompanied by a no-fear, can-do, give-it-a-go approach by the teachers who oversee them and a broader willingness to trust students to develop their initiatives.  I am very confident that this instinct is alive and well here.

Third thread: young Britons in their twenties (aka millenials) are much more likely to want to run their own business and to favour a high degree of autonomy over their lives than their parents.  Having children and numerous nieces and nephews in these areas, it is clear that the proportion of them and their friends whose interests lie in either starting a business themselves or joining a small enterprise is considerable.  The reputation that London – and in particular its hipster /start up centres such as Shoreditch – has gathered as a start up hub is of course a factor, but I suspect that this is much more trend than fad.

My spur to writing about this came on Monday morning when I watched a lesson which involved the making of butter in Outdoor Work.  There in the folksy surroundings of the Bakery I saw eight Block 3s make butter from scratch: the pouring of Jersey unpasteurised cream into little hand churners; the careful churning; the separation of the butter from the butter milk; the patting of the butter and then the addition of different flavours – garlic, radish, tarragon or chilli.   As the Outdoor Work farm shop (under the ODW clock tower) becomes a reality next academic year, the incentive for students to devise new things they want to make and sell will increase.  I heard yesterday that one is now developing a business making soap.  Expect a farm shop with a big range of products. This is a space definitely to be watched.

Live things

Being away can be stimulating; being back always is.  Evening events and livestock seem to be the two themes of the last few days.

Take last night’s Global Awareness Jaw. Led by Block 5 reporting back on their visit to Woodstock School, Mussourie, India; it began with an extraordinary piece of music composed by Richie and music teacher Giacomo Pozzuto, with Richie on the tabla* and Giacomo on the oboe.  All of the students who went to this remarkable spot, perched on the Himalaya, have a hand in the composition of the presentation and three head it up.  Amongst the various memories that will anchor in the young minds watching, I suspect the spell cast by the sight and sound of tabla and oboe – the interplay of  East and Western musical traditions – will feature most.

Other evening excitements included Sunday’s Professional Guidance department presentation to 6.1 parents on Higher Education: primarily about university entry, it’s an encouraging picture that we present – not only of some of the most sought after universities being able to offer more places to candidates who gain ABB or above at A Level, but of the increasing proportion of our students gaining places at Russell Group universities.  It is the start of the cycle for the new 6.1s.  Next week I will give my annual assembly to the school on higher education, as the most important message is the old adage:  hard work + passion for your chosen subjects + working closely with your teachers = success; and the earlier that starts, the greater the success – and the more enjoyable the journey.

Tuesday evening and I am entertaining a group of fellow headteachers (collective name possibilities, a swelling of heads or a lakh of principals), initially to a meeting and then to dinner at 50 Church Road.  The 86 Group, 20 years old now, comprises 16 schools from across the south east who have enough in common and who enjoy each other’s company enough to meet termly to discuss things of common interest.  Trust and humour are the glue. Meetings of heads of 86 group schools’ departments also happen and are generally handy.  Sitting in the alcove at No 50, the evening light on the great oak tree is particularly wonderful and the birdsong stunning.

Which takes me on to livestock.  The new lambs are in Butts’ Field now and (yes, honestly) are gambolling in the evening sunlight as I walk back from home after Jaw and chat to some Block 3 boys about why lambs like going into the wooden shelter that our alpacas so scorned.  We will all feel easier about the lambs’ transition along the food chain (mint sauce is the clue here) when the time comes, because they have not been named.

This is not the case with the new quartet of 50 Church Road hens, who have recently been named.  Unlike their predecessors, who were uniformly brown, either Waitrose rejects or rescue hens, depending on how you spin it, these are proper, svelte and gorgeous young creatures, a mere few weeks old and full of adolescent preening, with a good three of four years of productive laying ahead.   Given the hopes that we pin on them, the capital outlay (x 6 of their predecessors) and their splendid distinguishing plumage and general pomp, we take the bold step of naming.  Following a brief and entirely frivolous What’s App consultation with our own offspring, they are named: Snowy (the white one), Bluebell (bluish and that’s her breed and its bluebell time in Steep woods), Chicken (brown and looks like one) and Chardonnay, after the memorable character in Footballers’ Wives, Series 1, who was herself named after the over-worked varietal type of the extravagant 80s.  I trust that they are all going to behave, especially Chardonnay.

 

*NB The left hand plays the bass on the wider drum called the “dugga” and the right hand plays the lead drums on the “tabla”. Together, the drums are also called “tabla”.