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

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!”

Liberal values in an illiberal age

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools and HMC Chair-Elect*

When I was visiting schools in Manhattan in late October, the teacher showing me round commented on how nervous the children in her school were about the Presidential election campaign. American teachers need to have a way of talking about it.  She was keen to discuss the challenge they face dealing with the election campaign: “We need to educate our children in the importance of the democratic process and, although most of their parents are solidly Democrat, we cannot take sides ourselves, so what we do is set the campaign slogans and promises against the school’s values and ask the children to compare them.”

The position of school educators on this side of the Atlantic mirrors precisely that Manhattan teacher: our students are jumpy; teachers are bewildered and uneasy. Here are some initial thoughts on what I think is going on.

The liberal values which seem to have underpinned much of our national life for the past two decades at least are under threat. Looking further back (albeit at the risk of an even greater historical sweep of the hand) to the Allies’ victory in 1945 and the Labour government’s landslide, this has been a long period of liberal advancement. Here’s a checklist of some of the products of liberal values that we think we aspire to and have in many cases become used to: freedom of expression, democracy, gender equality, international cooperation, human rights and secular governments.

Thinking locally for a moment, I reflect on the involvement that my school, Bedales, has had in the country’s political life: from its links with the counter cultural movement that was the Arts & Crafts period in the 1890s through to its association with the Fabian Society, Women’s Suffrage, the League of Nations and the Ramsay McDonald Labour government, Bedales has enjoyed standing up for what its liberal instincts were saying is right. Plenty of schools like ours have played their own small part in being politically conscious and welcoming change of a liberal kind.

But, thinking more broadly, where do we find these liberal values in our schools?  Take your analytical cleaver and cut into any area of most schools’ lives and you will find these values, like the proverbial Blackpool Rock, running all the way through, whether it is in PSHE, safeguarding or the curriculum.

In my own subject, English Literature, for example, a rite of passage for most Year 10s in the English speaking world is to study a combination of Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet. Conversations and literary analysis that follow will inevitably circle around liberal consensus and variants on the importance of following Atticus Finch’s sage advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Definitely out are such things as ganging up, intolerance, sexism, insularity and chauvinism.

In History almost all of our children will study the rise of fascism: beware populism, we counsel, and people saying that they are going to make your country great again. The curriculum is reinforcing this to them time and again.

Overarching all of this is the assumption, girded into every bit of school life, that the adults in school know what they are doing and are worth listening to – not least because, although they might be clueless about gaming or social media, they are experts in education.

But against this backdrop we are struggling – struggling both against the so-called post-truth, post-expert norm and against the increasingly coarse and nasty tone that presides in public discourse, where it seems to be fair game to make personal attacks on individuals, rather than robustly challenging their views.

The liberal approach has been to be content with discourse that is rational and even-tempered and to fight shy of political engagement: demonstrations and making a noise about things seem, well, a bit not us.

It is becoming increasingly clear that such an approach has been overtaken by events and that we as teachers need both to engage politically ourselves and also that we need to encourage our students to do so.  If we sit on our hands and assume that the tide of history is going to resume its liberal amble in due course, we are living in la-la land.

*Originally published on the HMC website and reproduced here with kind permission.

Liberal values in an illiberal age

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Who could have guessed that ‘post-truth’ would be declared as the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year? ‘Post-truth’ is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” I certainly didn’t think I would be standing before the Bedales students at an assembly, as I was last night, giving a talk under that title and with the political background that we are currently adjusting to.

It all takes some explaining, which is what I was trying to do.  Where do you start?  Here are some reasonable questions that any sentient Bedales teenager might be thinking:

  • If that former education minister, Michael Gove, tells us that “the people in this country have had enough of experts” and the views of experts, such as judges, are widely decried on the front page of the Daily Mail, what’s the point of education, which is, after all, about becoming more expert?
  • Likewise, if what matters is that governments listen to the people and the views of experts such as MPs are being pushed to one side, why should I worry about voting – here in Petersfield for example?
  • What about the so-called liberal elite? Aren’t our teachers people who are part of that group? I think our headmaster would certainly like to think he is. I thought that it was a good thing to be a liberally minded person.
  • What about our school’s values? We are asked to live by values such as tolerance, kindness, respect for each other’s feelings – aren’t these being downgraded?

It is with this kind of background that teachers – perhaps headteachers in particular – need to assert the value of a liberal education. By that I mean liberal in these two senses: the promotion of values such as tolerance, kindness and respect for others’ feelings; and the willingness to respect and accept the opinions that are different from our own and an openness to new ideas.

In this post-truth world, sadly we need to be vigorous in asserting the value of knowledge over opinion. Our business is to help educate young people to be kind, humane, inquisitive people who love learning and want to keep learning. The world needs plenty of people like this – people who are fuelled by the idea of becoming experts and want to make the world a better place.

There is also a less characteristic call to arms, which is to exhort our students to become much more engaged in the big political debates. People of my generation who have known nothing other than the success of Western liberal democracy and ideals – especially from the moment of the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 onwards – it is a rude shock to find these certainties challenged as they are at the moment. In transmitting our shock and dismay we can help alert our students to the dangers in what is going on.

Political engagement might have seemed like something for others – now it is something for us. The values that underpin a liberal education need to be more urgently and, even (uncharacteristically maybe) stridently voiced.

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.

 

 

 

 

School and The Future

How much should schools be refuges from the realities of the adult world?  To what extent should we alert our students to the challenges they will face in adult life?

Starting here in the early noughties, I felt that Bedales offered too much of a warm bath of reassurance – too impermeable a bubble.  A formative early experience was the outrage I faced from students when telling a 6.1 cohort that they weren’t working hard enough and that it was simply no good for them to compare themselves with their contemporary here, but they needed to think about the person they were competing against, who was at Manchester Grammar, King’s Canterbury or a high performing sixth form college.  I was roundly told that they regarded their school as somewhere that needed to keep that world at one remove – I had no right to be trying to frighten them into action like this.

Things have changed – within the school and outside it.  The zeitgeist out there is different, now we realise that the la-la land of continuously rising living standards and secure-ish jobs is no longer a fixture.

I gave an assembly last night which looked at the speed and extent of automation – the fourth industrial revolution that the World Economic Forum is telling us about – in the light of humankind’s striving for the ideal; so there is Utopia, Brave New World and, almost contemporaneously, G.M. Keynes’ famous essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren where he envisages the world of 2030 where the leisure which “science and compound interest” have won for the imaginary grandson will enable him “to live wisely and agreeably and well.”  In Keynes’ high-minded view, it is not just that we will have enough money not to need to work for much of the time, but that we will have moved beyond money – that’s another topic, albeit an intriguing one.

I then paid court to Moore’s Law and the likely impact on middle class jobs that this speedy wave of automation will bring – using one of my favourite pieces of holiday reading, Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots; but what I was most interested in sketching out was what schools need to do to prepare their students for this rapidly changing world.

So, this was my list:

  • Cross-disciplinary thinking – working across subject disciplines, especially Science and Humanities.
  • Collaboration – interconnectedness will put this at a premium. The place of the lone scholar with his quill is limited.
  • Communication – hand in glove with what’s above and below.
  • Empathy and respect for people from different backgrounds and cultures.
  • Love of learning and with it an appetite for life-long learning.

Although I think we do a lot of this quite well, there is more that we can and should do.  I am sure that our independent-minded students will happily join the debate.