Creativity benefits

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Amongst the good places to be in Britain, the National Theatre and the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon are up there.  What I see or do when in these places is almost secondary to being there.  Soaking it up in the National Gallery is a close second.

Why? Because being in places which celebrate the creative power of the human spirit heartens.  Knowing that this country once had the courage to provide the necessary subsidy to create a national theatre; it is daily fillip to see what a beacon our two great theatres are for work that makes us think about how we live.

This feeling is compromised by knowing what is going on in maintained schools at the moment.  Why are we squeezing creativity out of our schools?  Asks Director of the NT, Rufus Norris, in The Guardian.   I would add to Norris’ hard-nosed statistics about the benefit to the UK economy of the creative industries (which are of greater value to the UK economy each year than the automotive, oil, gas, aerospace and life sciences combined) the view that a major factor in keeping Brexit-sensitive highly paid jobs in London will be the strength of the capital’s cultural life, as well as the quality of its independent schools.

The practical benefits of the so-called creative industries in the world after school are mirrored in schools.  In thinking about what schools should offer, it is fun/scary to imagine a school stripped of something so central and life-enhancing that we currently do: so imagine a school with no music, art, dance, design or drama.  No bewitching glimpse yesterday of the forthcoming Dunhurst Blocks’ play (Curious Children) as the stage heaving with most of its 100+ actors brimmed with life; no Daniel Preece art master class on cityscapes; no stream of potential designers heading off to art and design schools;  no scholars’ concert; and no musical performances at assemblies and Jaws.  It’s a dystopian vision akin to imagining a school without Maths and Science.  In short, misery!

Here is Yeats to sum up:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

– W.B. Yeats Among School Children

Thomas-y ramblings

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Out early this morning into the Ashford Hangers – daguerreotype shades initially as I climb up the muddy path, past black dog’s favourite pond (good dipping here) into the other green world where Edward Thomas loved to tramp.  A half hour’s climb in the half light is a tonic: imagine never wanting to come back to your home – to a cup of jasmine tea, the prospect of whatever ingenious notices our students will surprise me and my colleagues with and a varied, engaging day.

Walk in the Hangers to feel a bit Thomas-y;  saunter from Winchester to St Cross to feel a bit Keatsian, especially in this season hoping  that Autumn’s defining poem (“season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” etc) really was composed on that walk.  Having been born in the most unpoetic part of Britain (Fylde Coast), it is a constant delight to find myself in one of the most poetic places.  As usual, I wonder why I don’t do this every day.

A couple of weeks ago I couldn’t stop myself thinking about Thomas as I pick up an apple crossing the Orchard on the way to talk to the recently arrived Block 3s about some of the dos and don’ts of Bedales life.  Picking up the apple, a half-remembered line from a Thomas poem, which I taught decades ago, comes back into my head: “I cannot bite the day to the core”.  The Block 3s, being a responsive lot, come up with all available symbolic associations for the apple when I bring it into my talk – Apple (of course), temptation and experience.  Re-reading the E.T poem in question (The Glory) I am taken by his description of time – what sort of life must you be living if you find time “dreary-swift”?

But it is with the experience bit in mind, and the hope that the weekend really will be bitten to the core, that we set out on Badley Weekend – a combination of whole school efforts on Saturday at each of the three schools and the big community fair on Sunday, the weekend aims to be an example of John Badley’s founding principle of ‘Head, Hand and Heart’ in action.   It is an ambitious idea and each year we sit back and think hard about what worked and what didn’t.

Some of us would love to do more work in the whole school effort – once you get your method for filling your wheelbarrow with sand and steering it along the path, you do want to keep going.  Seeing the finished path (the Roman Road) and admiring not only what we did this year but also the fruits of our labours from last year, it is satisfying.   The community fair passes off very well – a big, different kind of effort where the work falls more on the staff than the students, but a good deal of money is raised for our three charities – Mencap, the King’s Arms and our own bursary fund, the John Badley Foundation.  Here are some photos to give you a flavour.

Next week, the big HMC (Headmasters and Headmistresses) conference that I have put together takes place in Belfast.  There are already some by-products of that event which will benefit Bedales  – more from there as the three days evolve.

The Glory

The glory of the beauty of the morning, –
The cuckoo crying over the untouched dew;
The blackbird that has found it, and the dove
That tempts me on to something sweeter than love;
White clouds ranged even and fair as new-mown hay;
The heat, the stir, the sublime vacancy
Of sky and meadow and forest and my own heart: –
The glory invites me, yet it leaves me scorning
All I can ever do, all I can be,
Beside the lovely of motion, shape, and hue,
The happiness I fancy fit to dwell
In beauty’s presence. Shall I now this day
Begin to seek as far as heaven, as hell,
Wisdom or strength to match this beauty, start
And tread the pale dust pitted with small dark drops,
In hope to find whatever it is I seek,
Hearkening to short-lived happy-seeming things
That we know naught of, in the hazel copse?
Or must I be content with discontent
As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?
And shall I ask at the day’s end once more
What beauty is, and what I can have meant
By happiness? And shall I let all go,
Glad, weary, or both? Or shall I perhaps know
That I was happy oft and oft before,
Awhile forgetting how I am fast pent,
How dreary-swift, with naught to travel to,
Is Time? I cannot bite the day to the core.

– Edward Thomas

Mid-term musings

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Approaching mid-February, the academic year’s mid-point and that welcome time when the black dog that scampers in front of you is visible as you stride out into the dawn light before breakfast.

This week leading up to half-term has our spirited Valentine’s Ball as a highlight for sixth formers. Invitations to the V Ball pop up, sometimes in early morning Notices, sometimes in German, sometimes dramatically choreographed. Meanwhile our Block 3s are musing on the grotesqueness of the industrialised mass killing as they survey the Flanders battlefields.  Alongside all of this our 6.2 theatre studies students produce their devised pieces – 30 minute creations of their imaginations, influenced by the practitioners they study and honed into dramatic form with acute negotiation and teamwork amongst their teams of five or six.

Over the years, I have seen the most gorgeous medleys of absurdism, tragedy, kitchen sink realism, mime, comical-fantastical – you name it, this is the theatre of the possible.  Here’s the recipe: take human minds at their most fervently creative; provide stimulus (a polaroid picture this year); encircle with sufficient expert teacher structure; and finally, give space, light, sound and audience.  Result? Pieces that make you think – both about how we live but also about what can happen dramatically when ingenuity, verve and skill collide.  Over recent years I have seen these plays enacted in live graves dug by the theatre; I have seen the most stinging dramatising of how it feels to be objectified as a young female; and this year’s trio was as powerful and expert as I can remember.

In their own way, plays like these are part of something that all good schools need to be doing constantly, alongside the necessary granular work of academic pursuit: exploring what it is to be human.

What better mid-week treat then to have a Jaw given by Gary Wade, a man who (lucky fellow) knew Seamus Heaney personally.  It is a masterly account – in tender admiration – of (arguably) the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century writing in English.

A lover of Heaney myself, I find myself rootling amongst his poems late at night after the Jaw and a subsequent meeting. I am taken back to some of the classes that I taught Heaney to a long way back – Death of a Naturalist, North and The Haw Lantern. But there is so much more. Gary concluded with his favourite Heaney poem, Postscript. Its final lines describe so beautifully what human insight through art can do (“catch the heart off guard and blow it open”).  But, as the days lengthen and we need to at least nod to that V day, here’s a poem that is its own distinctive love song – to a person, place and creature:

The Otter

When you plunged
The light of Tuscany wavered
And swung through the pool
From top to bottom.

I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,
Your fine swimmer’s back and shoulders
Surfacing and surfacing again
This year and every year since.

I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.
You were beyond me.
The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air
Thinned and disappointed.

Thank God for the slow loadening,
When I hold you now
We are close and deep
As the atmosphere on water.

My two hands are plumbed water.
You are my palpable, lithe
Otter of memory
In the pool of the moment,

Turning to swim on your back,
Each silent, thigh-shaking kick
Re-tilting the light,
Heaving the cool at your neck.

And suddenly you’re out,
Back again, intent as ever,
Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,
Printing the stones.

– Seamus Heaney

Poetry Corners

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FT Weekend’s First Person article features David Hunt, who works at Tufnell Park tube station. He started writing poems on the service information board each day – in effect a poetry corner – at this granular Northern Line station a couple of years ago. It began with a Wendy Cope poem on Valentine’s Day; he tries to be topical but is carefully unpartisan. “We get requests too. Teachers really get into it – for some reason they like Keats.” The article ends: “We get people doing all sorts of odd things at the station. Chucking beer around, throwing up all over the place, but the poetry is sacrosanct – nobody touches it.”

Here it has been something of a sacrosanct, poetry corner kind of a weekend, starting on Saturday evening with Edward Thomas-inspired performances in the Lupton Hall by folk groups, 3 Cane Whale and Pedal Folk. The latter especially base much of their work around Thomas’ poetry and prose; much of their performance revolves around their own re-creation of Thomas’ journey from London to the Quantocks which they did on their bikes last year. Happily this jolly, quirky and folksy event takes place on the eve of our celebration of the 100th anniversary of the genesis of Edward Thomas’ first poem, Up in the Wind, which we are commemorating with a day of talks, tours, walks, sausage-eating and tree-planting. So on Sunday morning (dry and clear, phew!) 120 outdoor clad people gather in the Bedales theatre to hear Thomas-editor and expert, Dr Guy Cuthbertson talk about his life and poetic importance. Guy is followed by the heads of English from Bedales and Churcher’s, the Davids Anson and Cave, who focus their appreciation on the poem, March. Then, assisted by students from Churcher’s and Bedales, we are out on tour in Steep, visiting Thomas shrines: Yew Tree Cottage, the nearest thing that Edward and Helen Thomas had to a home, (where we admire a Lad’s Love bush and hear the poem Old Man which was based on that yew-like plant); the crossroads by the Cricketer’s (where we hear Aspens, the last poem he sent to his poetic mentor, Robert Frost); and then onto All Saints Church where we hear about the Thomas windows, both the original Whistler one and its recent replacement. Then off up to the Hangers, tracing the path that Thomas would have taken at least once daily, between Yew Tree Cottage and the little room/shed that he retained in the grounds of the Red House and where he used to write.

Having toiled up the Shoulder of Mutton (good visibility, hooray!) and admired the Red House (built by Lupton for Thomas but unloved by ET), we are whisked up to the White Horse, aka the Pub with no Name, where a specially invented Edward Thomas sausage, soup and a hearty bun await us, courtesy of Georgie Stuart and her team. Yet more importantly, the culminating, precious moments beckon: renowned Irish poet Michael Longley reads two of his own poems about Thomas – one features the diary which was found, ridged by the shell-blast that killed him at Arras in April 1917 – before handing over to his wife, Edna, the leading authority on Thomas. She talks about the genesis of the poet Edward Thomas from the renowned prose writer – “emerging from his prose chrysalis” in November 1914 with his first poem, Up in the Wind, which, inspired by his over-hearing of a conversation by the bar of the White Horse and shaped by Robert Frost’s belief that sentence sounds animate blank dialogue, led to what she describes as the Frostian eclogue of his first poem, which we now hear, performed by Michael and Edna.

So it is uncanny and unrepeatable, this moment in a marquee 100 years on to the day, hearing the Longleys, poet and critic, devotees to poetry, side by side on a dais by the pub which inspired a Keatsian poetic flowering of poems in the shadow of the Great War as they read this angular, anguished and curious first poem of our local, poetic hero. The finale of this celebratory day is, suitably for a poet who loved outdoors, in the pub’s garden as Edward’s great-granddaughter, Lucy Milner, plants a beech sapling to commemorate the start of this extraordinary, brief and prolific poetic journey.

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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.

Bedales on national stage

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In Gwent and in London over the past week I have seen Bedales students competing with their peers nationally: in the Colditz-like setting of the Celtic Manor Hotel (chosen this year both by NATO and the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference – HMC for their shindigs) I saw two Bedalians awarded prizes in the HMC Eisteddfod which took place alongside the greyer considerations of our group: Chloe Z (6.1) was a close runner up in the Sculpture class, with her magnificent Sleeping Buddha; Georgina U (last year’s 6.2) meanwhile won the poetry prize for her excellent poem, Accent. Georgina’s reading of her poem was then followed by Wales’ own bard, Gillian Clarke’s reading of her own poetry. Great to be the only HMC school to have two prize-winners out of the 260 schools eligible for the competitions.

To London on Saturday where Flora S (6.1) was one of nine finalists in the ESU Winston Churchill Public Speaking competition that took place in the War Rooms buried beneath Whitehall. Flora competed strongly against an outstanding group of finalists drawn from schools across England and Wales. A brilliant achievement to be there amongst the best in the country and in a setting, nestling now beside the excellent newish Winston Churchill museum, which is as apt a reminder as any of the power of the spoken word.

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.

Creativity in China

On a British Council-sponsored visit to China, representing UK boarding and, via that, Bedales; so as I tap this it is early morning and I am sitting with my four headteacher colleagues  in the mother of all traffic jams in Dalian, up north on the coast (known in colonial times as Port Arthur) and, like most Chinese cities, a place of huge growth. Now it stands at about 6 million.  Most of our work us in and around Beijing but this is our excursion north to take our message to this increasingly affluent city.

Having spent some of my sabbatical in China in 2009, when Moony and I visited our partner school in Shanghai (Chuanshua) and then travelled more broadly, it is intriguing to see how things have shot on in the interim, not least in approaches to education. Yesterday we spent much of the day at Beijing No 80 High School. Situated in the Chaoyang district of Beijing and selected in 2010 as “an experimental school for the cultivation of innovative talents in Beijing”, it says much about the ambition of Chinese education. Using its international section as a way of making the school look outwards, it is throwing huge resources at teacher training and student exchanges. For example 300 teachers spent a month training in England this summer. The most intriguing part if the three hour conference we had there with local educators yesterday was the contribution of the boss of the Education Committee of the Chaoyang  district, which (to give you a sense of the scale) has 5 million people in it.  What became very clear is that the government is seeking to meet the growing appetite amongst the Chinese middle classes for a better global perspective through getting more of the educational world to come to it.  Also clear is the way in which schools like No 80 are taking seriously the need to make students think for themselves: expressions like lifelong learning and creative thinking abound.

All this is part of the Chinese “2020 plan”, set out in 2010, to prepare their students to compete better internationally  and for more to have the option of going to top foreign universities.  In recognition of the important work No 80 is doing, not only did they have us to visit, but also Premier Hu Jintao visited last year.

Even more enjoyable than the three hour conference or even the bewitching array of lunchtime dishes, was teaching an Edward Thomas poem (The Manor Farm) to a very orderly group of sixth formers.  The 35 students were very patient and receptive. We concluded with a shot of the memorial inscription about Thomas (“killed Arras…1917”) from the Poet’s Stone, which elicited a general, plaintive sigh – an endearing and memorable final moment.

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.

Emotion recollected in tranquility

It’s a curious but important thing to do – attending a poetry reading – but it’s something you should do, ideally before you leave school, and keep doing. People are often surprised and delighted by what they find; so it was on Tuesday evening when Douglas Dunn, lured down from St Andrews, read in our theatre. The additional privilege, for me, some fellow teachers and the Poetry Society students, was to meet him and have supper with him beforehand. 

Whether it is Andrew Motion, Robert Robertson, Don Paterson, Kate Bingham or Paul Farley (all visitors over recent years), the experience of sitting quietly and listening to poets reading their poetry reminds us of the need to be open to “emotion recollected in tranquility” or, as Paul Scott put it, “the single emotional spear-point” that poetry provides.

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.