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.


Spring resolves

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Snuck in when the gloss on the term is still sparkly comes the HMC Spring Conference; “Putting ourselves in parents’ shoes: new ways of working between schools and families”. As usual with conferences and training sessions, it is the sustained reflectiveness, here on a single topic, combined with hearing some stimulating new thoughts, that provides the benefit. In this case I came away with two clear resolves.

The first concerns the new challenges that living in a digital age place on us all – parents, students and teachers. HMC has been working closely with Digital Awareness UK. This company, led by sisters Charlotte and Emma Robertson, has worked initially with the Girls’ Day School Trust and now with HMC to produce material that is suitable for students and parents. Their approach is all about embracing technology’s benefits but learning to live without the potentially harmful consequences that it so easily brings – not least for family life. In particular the new short film which Digital Awareness has produced in partnership with HMC was especially effective at communicating potential traps and suggesting solutions. Resolve one is to ensure that we are being yet more proactive in this area.

The second was the fresh perspective that you can gain from seeing your own school through the lens of a set of very different schools. This was provided by a talk by Tony Little, former head of Eton and now working for GEMS Education, which has a vast number of schools across the world. The fast growth of British style education globally has brought with it the creation of schools by organisations like GEMS – right across the price range – in response to parental demand. These schools, catering virtually entirely for parents whose expectations are likely to be more based on what they see in the commercial world, rather than their own schooling, need to forge ways of promoting themselves and working in partnership with their parents that meet those needs and expectations. In particular, given that in an international school a student stay of 18 months is typical, they need to do it all in double quick time. Result? They are doing some things – clarity about school values and parental engagement in particular, better than UK schools are. There are all sorts of interesting things happening; the relatively staid world of UK independent education can, I am sure, learn much from what is going on in these schools across the world. It is something that I have already built into the main HMC conference I am organising in Belfast this October. Resolve two: we are engaging our parents quite well, but we can do it better and will.

Keith Budge | HMC Spring Conference | Digital Awareness UK | Tony Little, GEMS Education

Time on and off the treadmill

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Having spent too much time sitting, some of it eating, I find myself in the gym on the treadmill watching snippets of Anne Robinson’s Britain which looks at parenting and the first of that erstwhile autumnal favourite, The Apprentice.

My sitting and eating has been matched by listening (a lot) and talking (a bit) at the annual Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in  its appropriately heart of England location, Stratford-upon-Avon.  It was a very stimulating three days when we were encouraged to think about creative leadership, which may be why, no doubt under the influence of a shock of endorphins,  I find myself speculating about the respective worlds of Robinson and Sugar.

Crosspatch Anne’s exploration of families’ values – from the ‘gentle attachment mother’ to the one who describes herself as more lioness than tiger – could be nicely applied to schools  (boarding schools especially), which after all have family-like characteristics and embody their values in the upbringing of children.  Look here – this family even has written policies and timetables: all set for a good inspection.  I think Anne likes that.  Anne would have an entertaining time doing such work in our schools.  When two parents swap and look at each others’ lives, I am reminded of the value of exchanges, even my swap with my colleague, Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds in summer 2015.

Then, in the wake of the imperious and hatchet-faced Sugar come the latest batch of apprentices, who must surely be coached in how to outdo each other with the absurdity of their hubristic brags and the lurid nature of their imagery.  One contestant’s tasteless boast that “the only things I fear are tsunamis, volcanoes and Ebola” takes, so to speak, the biscuit.  Apprentice-speak has crept into the world of job interviews, I fear, albeit rarely garnished with quite such sickly figurative dressing.

It would, I speculate, be good entertainment to put a group of headteachers through an Apprentice-style exercise, having asked them to talk about themselves in the obligatory argot; not least because we like to feel we are open to ideas and experiences – as we were in Stratford this week.  Here is just a sample of the goodies we had:

Will Gompertz on why everyone should think like an artist.  If ever there was a talk that gave 285 headteachers a stack of ideas for a term of assemblies, it was this one.  Watch out for them popping up, ranging across the need to ensure our students could think creatively enough both to avoid being replaced by “snazzy algorithms” and to have “a lovely life.”   So, we had Cezanne, Baudelaire, Titian, Manet, Hirst and Ai Weiwei.  Artists have to be collaborative, entrepreneurial and properly sceptical – qualities that our young need much more than in their post school lives than the ability to pass exams.  Rubens was a compelling salesman of The Three Graces to aristocrats who didn’t really think they needed one until he spotted just the ideal spot in the banqueting hall.

Greg Doran, director of the RSC’s King Lear, its Artistic Director and possessor of a leonine mane that must make A C Grayling envious, talked to us about how the RSC’s work with schools and communities aims to change young lives and make us think about our lives.  Their new Roman series will ask such questions as this:   Is politics inherently unfair and can it work for the benefit of the many?  Ask Caesar, yes, but let’s spread the debate as well and avoid too much fighting in parliaments as well.

We have the chance to learn through doing (hoorah!) and I sign up for a class with one of the RSC’s voice and movement coaches – a very good two hours and lots of good advice about how to make better use of our voices and to take better care of ourselves to boot.  We are taught about cat and dog gestures – the welcoming palm (Labrador, tail wagging) and the keep-your-distance over turned hand (cat, tail swirling).

But the best session  – and one I will write about next week – was the Young Creative Leaders panel when three young (millennial, we can say) female entrepreneurs talked about their careers, the aspirations of their generation and what schools can do to promote creative leadership.   No Apprentice-speak there.


Conferences should encourage you to think as much about what might be as about what currently is.  In that respect my time at HMC in St Andrews was also stimulated by reading John Browne’s book Connect, which has been written with the help and insight of OB and McKinsey partner Robin Nuttall. Drawing on discussions with current business leaders, Browne’s time at BP and case studies ranging from Carnegie (whoops..) to Cadbury (yay..) he invites thought about how schools connect with the people they serve.  It will be a treat having Robin here on 4 December to do a Civics and to hear more about the ideas underpinning this book.

In this connection it is a busy time with regard to connecting with stakeholders, with the Bedales Parents’ Association meeting last Saturday and plenty of governor activity this week – the Finance and General Purposes meeting on Thursday and Governors’ Question Time on Wednesday when three governors face the Bedales students’ questions in the Quad.

Back to St Andrews for a moment: this short film started our conference.  Its aim is to illustrate the important things that HMC schools do.  The profile of our school amongst the 275 is important – being known for doing useful and important stuff is helpful in so many directions, not least the profile amongst the profession that helps us attract strong teachers.  So, here it is – we feature early on. View film here.


HMC, or the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference meets each year in a place with a hotel sufficiently big to handle us. This year we are in St Andrews where one of our oldest universities began early in the fifteenth century and where the curious game of golf also started.  It’s a bracing spot for the 270 or so heads of leading independent schools to meet. Our numbers have grown by about 10% over recent years as some of the stronger Girls’ School Association schools have joined.  Happily, although HMC still feels too much like a blokes’ gathering, the number of female heads is growing each year. My predecessor, Alison Willcocks, was the second.

What do we do then, perched scenically on the North Sea’s brink? Confer, yes: about exam marking (its unreliability), student wellbeing, higher education (the independent sector’s access to the most in demand universities) and broadening access to our schools (through financial assistance).

Alongside this, there are two other threads. An impressive range of speakers helps us reflect on what we do and how we could do it better: Rohit Talwar on what the future world of work might be like and how our schools might modify what we offer in order to avoid education’s usual trap of preparing students for a vanishing world; Monty Halls on leadership and how we can extend the quality of leadership both within and outside our schools; and Matthew Syed on the power of growth mindset.

The final thread is one of fellowship and sharing problems with colleagues whom we might have known for decades.

HMC thoughts

Bald fact: Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) schools met this week in London over three days. Question 1: what is HMC? It is a small group (253) of independent schools identified by the OECD as the best group of schools in the world. We are a diverse bunch – the most formal and household name schools are not typical – neither is Bedales. 35% of HMC students are girls (with 83% of HMC schools being co-educational and a growing number all girls), a quarter of students are from ethnic minorities and 6% are from overseas. HMC has played a leading role in calling government to account – most notably perhaps in 2002 when we cast a shining a light on the A Level marking fiasco and again in 2012 when HMC led in publishing an enquiry into the quality of marking and conduct of appeals about examination results; the DfE found it “persuasive and the conclusions shocking”. The grip of HMC students on the most vulnerable subjects at university (SIV – Stategically Important and Vulnerable, as defined by the government) is considerable: we supply 25% or more of the entrants to these SIV subjects at the UK’s top 30 universities – from 26% of those studying French to 42% of all studying Economics. One in four students at the UK’s ten leading universities are from HMC schools. Finally, two stats that might surprise: there is greater ethnic diversity in independent schools in England than in state-maintained schools; and over 35% of students at HMC schools receive help with their fees, with £365 million in fee assistance being provided in 2013.

Question 2: what goes on at an HMC conference? Lots of chat and lots of thinking. From a Bedales perspective, this year was particularly notable in that it is the first time that the HMC Chair has been a Bedales governor – Tim Hands of Magdalen College School and formerly of Portsmouth Grammar School. Tim made the theme of this year’s conference The Child. In his address he referred to the three most important elements of the education we provide as the pastoral, the academic and the extra-curricular, declaring that the “first and most important is the pastoral..pastoral care is the essence of independent schools..” The conference was cleverly and humanely organised so that the first full day (Tuesday) put us in the position of our students, starting with an assembly, moving on to have a range of lessons (in PPE and Classics for me), a University Talk (with Sir Rick Trainor, Principal of King’s College, London to the fore), a Careers talk (albeit from Lords Levene, Myners, Waldegrave, Sir Peter Ogden and Sir David Walker and in the stunning setting of the Mansion House) and finally an evening that could have been at Bedales – with student music and poetry, both from HMC’s own competition and from the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. In all it was a day that reminded us that we are here to serve children.  Wednesday offered us professional training through covering a day in the life of the head – from managing IT to Managing yourself.

Just in case we started to get complacent we had a serious ticking off – from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools who, with surprising hamfistedness, lambasted us as a group for not doing enough for disadvantaged pupils in our local communities. His speech was clumsy in its lack of recognition of what is already happening in this regard and, as an educator he should know that you don’t tend to get the best out of people when you tick a large group off on the assumption that they are all guilty.

So, overall, a really invigorating time: even better than all the public stuff is, of course, all that you learn through talking to other heads – whether fresh-faced newcomers or my relatively grizzled contemporaries, some of whom I have known since university.  Conviviality and fellowship refresh after all.

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Life-changing opportunities for Bosnian scholars

Week begins in Sarajevo where I am interviewing potential HMC (Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference) scholars for the HMC Eastern European Projects, a scheme that started soon after the collapse of the USSR and was initially backed by Soros money. We are picking 55 scholars from 11 countries and I am doing Bosnia- Herzegovina. So, although I am quite used to interviewing potential 6th formers, there are some big adjustments to make and it is intriguing and humbling to be part of it. I am reminded how life-changing are the opportunities that our schools can provide, especially if you come from an area like Sarajevo, which has had such a grim time, making so many headlines it would rather have avoided. 

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music school. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.