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.

 

Then and now

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Events over the past week or so have led to some thinking about how schools have changed over the last few decades; so I have found myself thinking about how independent schools seemed to someone starting out on his career – as I was – in the early 1980s.  What’s changed? How and why?

Within the sector that I have been working in, which is boarding, the big change has been from it being boys only to being co-educational.  The changes effected by this have been profound culturally, changing the typical group of teachers (“common room” in school speak) into a much more balanced, less clubby, less male dominated group of people.   Sherry before lunch in the common room gradually petered out during the 80s.  The old breed of schoolmaster, for whom schoolmastering was a lifestyle choice and who had sufficient private money to enable him to take some foreign holidays became a rarity.

Alongside this the commitment to high quality teaching and learning, which struck me as haphazard and dependent on outstanding individuals when I started, has become an expectation.  The English department I joined in 1980 remains in my mind the epitome of a brilliant department, but it happened because of a coincidence of extraordinary teachers, not because there was any top-down expectation or because of educational policy in the school.

This brings me to the effects of inspection and regulation, which have been profound.  Schools now are highly regulated places: heads are responsible for policies and systems that should make it very difficult for there to be marked areas of poor delivery within a school for any length of time.  Has this rubbed out some of the more colourful elements?  Probably, but it has improved the general standard considerably.  Lesson observation and appraisal – foreign concepts 30 years ago – are standard now.  When I started as a housemaster in 1991 I cannot remember having anything to do with a policy; now all teachers’ lives are underpinned by policies.

But the biggest and best change has been in the safety of students under our care.  The impact of the Children Act 1989, subsequent statutory requirements and the sea-change in schools’ awareness of the risks facing young people have been profound.  Accompanying this has been a cultural change in the recognition given to listening to young people and involving them in their own education – something I suspect that Bedales has always been particularly good at.

I suspect these changes mirror what’s happened in many other areas of our national life as institutions and professions have become more accountable and as successive scandals have shown the Emperor not to have as many clothes as he thought: Shipman was to Medicine as Savile was to Church and School.  The City no longer runs on booze, trust and a good measure of insider dealing.

Creeping greyness is the danger.  Passionate and inspirational teaching remains the elixir which lies at any good school’s heart.

 

Students quiz the governors

Wednesday night is the annual Governors‘ Question Time at Bedales – a unique event in UK independent schools (to my knowledge, at least) when the senior school is able to quiz a panel of three governors, in this case Seona Ford (curriculum advisor, OB and on the Education Committee), Daniel Alexander (OB and intellectual property lawyer) and Nick Vetch (current parent, businessman and chair of the Finance and General Purposes Committee). Questions cover an impressive range and are generally pitched at the right level – i.e. to do with strategic decisions and broad policy, both educationally and on finance. It is good to hear clear assurances being given on consultation with all stakeholders on the new Art & Design Building. We conclude on the sometimes vexed matter of the hurdle into the sixth form and whether in certain cases deserving students haven’t been allowed through when they should – something I will want to discuss with School Council as a follow on. The evening ends with the three governors having time with School Council afterwards, so other issues will also come to light via that.

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. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Students question the governors

I wonder if any other independent school puts its governors in front of the school and invites the students to ask them questions. Governors’ Question Time last night had Nick Vetch, Avril Hardie and Matthew Rice facing the troops – albeit reduced in number by exam absence and piratical preparations for the final night of Treasure Island. Questions covered the full range and were generally (as I would expect) searching: why a new Art & Design building rather than a new Music School? Why are trees being felled and shouldn’t we be planting more? Big plans for the future?  How much longer will the academic village stand? How much does parental pressure count? Should students’ views, for example, on drugs testing, be taken into account more by governors in reaching decisions? Is a school like ours by definition elitist and how does this sit with our ethos? Afterwards, School Council, bolstered by some additional willling voices subbing for exam casualties, had a further discussion session over juice and sandwiches with the governors to complete the evening.

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. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.