Drop Everything And Read… with dogs!

DEAR reading blog Dunhurst 1Each Monday and Friday the Groups children (and anyone else who wants to join in) have 30 minutes of reading time, known here at Dunhurst as DEAR Time: Drop Everything And Read.

Because of our busy lives, we sometimes forget how important and how lovely it is to find a few minutes in our day for some quiet reading. During the colder months we read in the library, but we are looking forward to when we can read outside in Cobb’s field.

While most children seem to enjoy this period of calm and quiet reading in their day, there are some who no doubt find DEAR Time absolute torture – either because they do not like reading, or perhaps just find it difficult to stay still and quiet for 30 minutes. Research reveals the worrying news that there are millions of children who simply don’t like to read and, more and more, are choosing not to. The challenge for us is to make the reading environment irresistible, and the experience itself delightful and satisfying.

DEAR reading blog Dunhurst 3

In the lead up to World Book Day we introduced a new reading programme, DEAR Time with Dogs, which we are very excited about. Research suggests children, especially those who struggle with reading, can be nervous and anxious when reading aloud in class.  Reading to dogs has been proven to help children develop literacy skills and build confidence, through both the calming effect of the dog’s presence and the fact that the dog will listen to children read without being judgmental or critical. And, we all know what great listeners dogs are!

Here at Dunhurst we are fortunate to have our very own dogs to read to in the familiar surrounds of their owners’ (our teachers) classrooms, and this comforting environment helps to nurture children’s enthusiasm for reading. Reading is such an important skill which is used in every part of our lives, but reading aloud can be a scary thing if you are a reluctant reader. Like any skill, it needs practice, practice and practice, andDEAR reading blog Dunhurst 2 if reading to Gertie, Vinnie, and their friends Star, Stubbs, Jackson, Dozer and Frazzle can help develop children’s self- confidence and passion for reading while they are still finding their voice, who knows what else we will discover and where this journey will take us.  Aren’t we all lucky to be at a school where this can happen as part of our normal, everyday life?

By Tess Tamvakis, Dunhurst Librarian

Risk and the resilient child

Recently, Bedales parents gathered at the school for an absorbing presentation on ‘Building Resilient and Happy Young People’ by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg – adolescent psychologist of 30 years standing, Honorary Psychologist to the Australian Boarding Schools Association, agony uncle to Girlfriend magazine and Old Dunhurstian. Those of us present were left in little doubt as to what our children need from us with regard to their developing ‘resilience’. Michael describes this as “The capacity of your sons and daughters to face, overcome, be transformed or strengthened by adversity,” and advises parents that they must let their children learn that life is sometimes hard.

And yet, increasingly in today’s society we fail to allow our children to do things for themselves, and the vital experience of things going wrong. We really need to look at this again. Recent research suggests that we believe children are more at risk now than they were a generation ago, when the reverse is true. Also, that the majority of children want more adventurous play opportunities – it seems that activities such as climbing trees and playing in a park without adult supervision; or playing conkers, hide and seak, and chase, lie beyond the experience of many.

We underestimate our children. They are perfectly able to light fires and cook outdoors without adults stepping in when things get hot. How do I know this? Because I can remember the joy of grabbing a packet of sausages from the fridge, a frying pan, some oil and a box of matches, and heading out into the woods with my friends. After several failed attempts we lit the fire. However, it was a cold day and the fat in the pan didn’t get hot enough – nonetheless, we ate the resulting oily and soggy snack and headed home with upset stomachs. The next day we repeated the exercise, and this time cooked the bread to perfection.

Children can make things using a range of tools without adults hovering over them. I can remember raiding the family shed and finding bits of wood, nails, screws, brackets and fixtures and making all manner of bird boxes, coffins for dead mice I found in the garden, dodgy go-carts, musical instruments and rustic furniture for my less than grateful guinea pigs. It didn’t always go smoothly – I cut and bruised my fingers every now and then, suffered my share of failures, and was guilty of tantrums when things didn’t go to plan. Despite this, or more likely because of it, the experience gave me a great deal. Michael Carr-Gregg stresses the importance to the wellbeing of young people, and indeed all of us, of ‘spark’ – that passion for something that gets us out of bed, and which sees time fly past, such is the extent of our absorption. To this day I remain a DIY fanatic, and I am certain that these childhood opportunities were the foundations of this and other interests that keep me happy and fulfilled as an adult.

I know that for some first-time visitors to Dunhurst, the informal atmosphere and slightly chaotic medley of lessons and activity that makes up the school day can seem a little bewildering. This is a necessary part of our wish to make school an exciting place in which to grow up and find out who you really are. Essential to what makes Dunhurst different to other schools is that we allow pupils to do things for themselves whenever possible. We encourage children to take appropriate risks and we see mistakes as an indication that they are being challenged in the right ways – leading an assembly and speaking in front of over 200 people, asking the community to bake cakes and raise money for charity, lighting fires and eating their own cooking in Outdoor Work, designing and pursuing their own science experiments, taking on maths problems that seem way too difficult (and perhaps getting the answer wrong), reading out a poem that shows how you feel about yourself and the world around you, or speaking up when you think something is unjust.

To paraphrase Dr Carr-Gregg, our role as teachers and parents is not to protect our children from risk, but to nurture and encourage sensible risk-taking. Risk is what enables children to learn and grow and to know themselves well. So when you visit Dunhurst and see the smoke of children’s fires burning in Outdoor Work or hear an alarming noise from the science labs, fear not. It is no more and no less than children enjoying the pleasures of learning through taking risks – suffering the odd setback, perhaps, but in danger of little more than developing a love for something that will reward their investment many times over.

By Jane Grubb, Head, Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst


The Snow Queen

There is often a misplaced perception that all pupils who come to Dunhurst are super confident and at a drop of a hat will jump in front of a large audience, sing, dance, act and take their bow in the limelight with an apparent casual ease well beyond their years. In the latest performance of The Snow Queen we saw a fabulous cast of actors doing just that; the mesmerising white apparition of Evie as the lead role captivating the audience with her beautiful solo singing pieces before being carried off by her pack of highly accomplished dancing wolves during her death scene. Tilly’s incredible presence as the truly terrifying Crystal Shard was joined by her team of equally animated and eye catching fellow travellers who could all sing, act and dance in equal measure. The dance numbers were both full of fun and life but also very beautiful as seen in the gorgeous choreography of Ella and Monty.  Dan and Ella took the fascinating and compelling story through its journey from their orphanage to the villagers and then onward, meeting ever more strange and wonderful creatures, fairy tale characters and even gardeners, a royal family and politicians. A large cast of extremely talented young people indeed.

In many ways what we saw on stage was the tip of a very creative iceberg; behind the scenes there were those who have a wealth of other creative talents and who are blessed with a tremendous community spirit, keen to support their peers on stage whilst gaining great pleasure and satisfaction from their work behind the scenes. Firstly the musicians who are concealed in the pit, but at such a young age played alongside highly accomplished adult musicians. The music and all the beautiful songs were composed and arranged by Ben Harlan our Director of Music and were complex and challenging but it was clearly evident that all the band loved being part of this new creation – adult and child alike.  Up in the lighting box were Joly and Will; a complex task ensuring that all the amazing lighting effects (including a spectacular sky of stars) appeared at the right time. Billy had the difficult job of sound, working with our wonderful new Gap students Alec and Verity he worked ceaselessly over the rehearsal period supporting the acting.

Back stage is a very frenzied place as actors transform into character. Frances, Charlotte, Emma and Georgie had produced clear designs and organised the make-up area. It is no mean feat to put makeup on a very large cast of pupils, many with more than one part thanks to Simon Kingsly-Pallant’s highly imaginative adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story. Working like removal men were the stage crew, Joaquin, Ivan, Hugo, Lorenzo, Max, Nicholas, Charlie, Jamie and Herman. They deftly carried a myriad of props and stage elements on and off with great care; not a glamourous job but very indicative of their good heartedness to be involved and support their peers. Beatrice and Ernie made up the production team and a large number of pupils (and staff) helped to fold the programmes into a rather natty star shape.

A fantastic team of parents produced the costumes, with the wolves costumes receiving much acclaim and the overall colour and vibrancy of the costumes alongside the more minimal black and white set worked magnificently. At the end of the play, Evie thanked Jake for her Snow Queen dress. It was an incredible creation and something that represented hours of designing, thought and work from our very talented Block 1 fashion designer. What was very tangible was the gratitude those on stage felt towards their support teams, designers and techies. It was a fabulous whole community production where all pupils could participate according to their own skills and passions, with those on stage having the humility to appreciate the talents and generosity of their peers behind the scene, and those behind the scenes happily celebrating the talents of those they were supporting.

By Jane Grubb, Head, Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst

Passionate men, and how to get more of them

Sometimes it seems that we think of little else. Whilst you could be forgiven for believing that I spend too much time reading a certain type of women’s magazine, I am in fact talking about male primary school teachers. To be more specific, I want to share some thoughts on the benefits of having them in junior schools, why achieving this can be so difficult, and how the problem might best be approached by school heads and policy makers respectively. Whilst there is no magic bullet, I believe that the right school ethos and culture can help persuade potential applicants that they will be given the opportunity to do what they most care about, and that this can go a long way.

In a recent article in The Telegraph, Julia Hartley-Brewer applauds the rising numbers of women in boardroom positions in the UK and the positive effects this has on organisational performance, but laments the lack of gender balance in primary school classrooms. Also in The Telegraph, Neil Lyndon has argued that boys fall behind girls as a consequence of the relative lack of male teachers working with younger children. Whilst I find myself raising an eyebrow at some of the arguments he employs in support of his claim, I agree that there is merit in having a strong male presence on the teaching staff, and that achieving this can present a challenge.

Rectifying this gender imbalance can be easier said than done however, not least as there is a range of disincentives to men considering the profession. As Lyndon points out, it offers relatively low status, and issues around child protection can see men attracting scrutiny as to their motives. Nor are the salary prospects great. It takes some courage, then, and a commitment to early years’ education, for men to enter the profession and contend with all that accompanies being a primary school teacher.

This is a great pity. In my experience, men can be valuable role models at a formative point in young people’s lives. Men are able to relate to boys, in particular, in ways that that carry a special kind of weight – essential if we are to deal with the ever-present danger that boys see learning as something that only girls do. Hartley-Brewer observes that boys often need a “more competitive, hands-on style of teaching that male teachers are more likely to understand.” I am not so sure: without it ever becoming overt, there is something very powerful in a man giving lessons that encourage deep thinking, or modelling the kind of gentleness, restraint and respect that is valued and expected at school and beyond.

Lynton ascribes the feminisation of primary school teaching to the introduction of pay parity for the genders in the early 1960s, followed by what he describes as a “feminist mission to raise the self-esteem and social position of girls” at the expense of the education of boys. I have never experienced any kind of ideological intent or overt gender preference in teachers with whom I have worked, and the culture of Bedales means that such dispositions in any applicant would be detected and dealt with during the process of interview.

During my time at Bedales, the prep school has enjoyed consistently the benefits of broadly equal numbers or male and female staff. At the time of writing we have 15 male and 23 female teachers. I like this ratio – it brings with it a culture that we value, and which is thrown awry whenever the balance shifts. It matters to us enormously that – as with staff – the boys and girls in our care should appreciate each other first and foremost as colleagues.

So – is there a secret to attracting passionate men that I might share? For heads, I suspect that the trick lies in developing an educational ethos and accompanying culture that attracts the very best applicants with the promise of the licence to do what they do best. Seek to recruit the teachers that most suit the requirements of the school, and have applicants undergo the assessment of a number of people – both staff and pupils. Above all, develop an educational ethos that values inquisitiveness, individualism and creativity, because I suspect that somewhere within such a mission lies the attraction of primary school for male teachers. Any policy makers persuaded that, instead, a good education necessarily comprises a rigid curriculum and ever more testing, please take note.

By Jane Grubb, Head, Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst

Mental Health in Schools

Former preparatory school Headmaster Peter Tait has written in the Telegraph that ‘schools are largely to blame for rising mental health issues’ in young people.

Whether you agree with this, or believe it to be a combination of more complex social factors, it is not difficult to understand the point he is making. With maintained schools having the threat of published league tables and many independent schools being judged on the success of common entrance results or GSCE’s, it could be said that livelihoods depend on these factors.

Before entering education I was involved in elite swimming coaching and often a reason given for a ‘national failure’ at a senior level was that the coaching at a young age focused on winning rather than age appropriate development. It is not just swimming, take a visit to a Sunday morning football match for under 12’s and see if the main message from the coaches and parents on the side is winning, or a positive encouragement to play football in the right way. As Mr Tait suggests in his article, it is not the desire to win or be competitive that is the issue in sport or education, but the fear and anxiety that occurs when anything other than ‘winning’ occurs.

For many independent school pupils and parents, that line between success and failure is evident during the time of entrance tests or public exams. If the sole aim of the assessment is for a pupil to get into a particular school or gain a particular grade, anything other than that specific result could be seen as failure by the child, or a failure of the school to do their job.

Many Prep school websites lead with long lists of Common Entrance scholarship successes; it’s easy to measure and gives the impression of a successful school to the prospective parent. It is much harder to celebrate and quantify the school that excels in tackling the anxieties children face and promotes pupil wellbeing above all else.

Whilst Bedales Prep cannot change many of the external factors that Peter Tait suggests are affecting young people, such as social media and the cost of university tuition fees, we are making a commitment that we know will make a difference here. The school has employed trained counsellors for a number of years and they are fully embedded in the culture of the school and are well used by many pupils and staff. In addition, staff will now receive mandatory training on mental health, delivered in the same way schools have to provide child protection training, to ensure that the issue isn’t seen as a passing fad or a one-off INSET event. We do not do Common Entrance, nor have a curriculum of rigorous testing, and the Bedales approach to learning has always been proudly different, with pupils challenged to become more independent learners.

Alongside this, parents clearly have a role to play as well. When visiting prospective schools, looking beyond the headline exam success and really scrutinising their approach to mental health and wellbeing would be a start. Evidence suggests that a young person’s self-esteem, self-confidence and having a strong feeling of being understood are crucial in helping to prevent mental health issues arising. If schools are expected, and indeed challenged to evidence this aspect of education more than exam results and scholarships, we would certainly be doing our part in tackling this worrying trend.

By Nick Robinson, Deputy Head, Pastoral and Head of Blocks, Mental Health first aider

Bremen and its new visitors

By Ben Harlan, Director of Music, Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

This morning, in assembly, I read a letter to the children. This letter is from my good friend Alexander Baillie who played his cello for us here at Dunhurst last year, and is the Professor of Cello at Bremen’s University of the Arts. He is writing about his first hand experiences of the influx of Syrian refugees.  Here are some extracts from his letter…

“Our Legoland city has doubled in size suddenly; this is the effect of the arrival of thousands of refugees, it is really noticeably different. There is a busy throng of people everywhere, these are the newcomers.

Yes, I know…..we are all still trying to work out what to call them. Perhaps visitors, immigrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, Syrians? Let’s stick with ‘PEOPLE’ as a safe all round description of them! Remember “Je suis Charlie Hebdo?” That translates in Bremen to “I am a recently arrived Syrian“, surprise, surprise, they are just like us!

The conditions in Bremen are especially easy. There was a big university complex in the north of the city with lots of vacant rooms and easily (relatively easily adapted) facilities. Otherwise there are tent areas. These ‘tents’ are more like semi-permanent mobile homes.

Games and activities for the kids are fantastically well organised – and by kids, it is a group from aged 3-18! Toys and helpers are plenty. Food does not seem to be a problem.

The biggest issue is language. Any ideas how to make German easier to learn will be warmly appreciated? I am working on my own idea of learning it through singing. Two tasks at once, helping the words go in through musical shapes and pick up some famous tunes at the same time.

There were never crowds in downtown Bremen, but now, it looks like Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday afternoon. They are walking around in groups, a curious mixture of a little bit careful and slowly but at the same time relaxed, they stick quite closely together, and smile a lot. When one speaks to them they answer in fluent but basic English and it’s not long before one of the youngsters says “Thank you Deutschland!“ 

Well, the German government too is wondering exactly what is now promised. The basic gesture of welcoming them was a historic one and Frau Merkel (who must surely be due for a Nobel peace prize?) has opened up a side of Germany which I had not seen like this before: incredible unanimous public generosity of spirit and warmth, and there is a huge tax surplus to pay for it, so – no problem!

German bureaucratic efficiency is stretched now to the maximum, processing them all is hard work and they are short of officers to do it all up to acceptable legal standard – especially since the laws are being changed every few days, it seems.

For the moment everything is okay. The minister in charge I just heard on the radio in the ‘Interview of the Week’ and she is completely confident that the problems can all be solved. Worrying is the sound of the fences going up elsewhere in Europe.”

Why schools may be the key to gender-happy workplaces

Recently, questions of gender, workplace practices and professional behaviour have made their fair share of headlines. Perhaps most obviously, we learned that barrister Charlotte Proudman had taken the decision to ‘shame’ solicitor Alexander Carter-Silk who had sent her a message, in response to her own seeking a connection on the professional social media site Linkedin, in which he described her profile photograph as ‘stunning’. She replied with a rebuke, and then published an account of the transaction on Twitter.

Predictably, the behaviour of both has drawn criticism. For some, he is a chauvinist – arguably emblematic of the culture ascribed to some of the country’s top companies by Clarissa Farr of St Paul’s Girls’ School, which she says sees high-flying young women driven out by ‘laddishness and low-level discrimination’. For others, she is a ‘feminazi’, who has chosen to misinterpret a well-intended compliment as an act of sexism.

I have no personal stake in this particular debate and no strong feeling as to culpability, or with regard to any prevailing trend. In my many years at work in a variety of professional environments, I have heard equally belittling and sexist comments from both male and female colleagues – the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus idea that the sexes are from different planets sometimes still prevails. However, as the headteacher of a co-educational prep school (Bedales was one of the first independent co-educational schools in the UK), I have more than a passing interest in how educational institutions might help to foster respectful, kind and supportive relations between men and women.

In July, Dr William Richardson of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference drew attention to the problems of a ‘laddish’ culture in some corners of Britain’s universities – a subject that in recent years has been a concern for the National Union of Students (NUS), and on which it is seeking institutional responses. My strong feeling is that the work of educational establishments, which are influential in the earlier lives of young people, may be the key to the ways in which they relate in gender terms later in life, and that this has implications both for what our schools do and how they are constituted.

It is important that all kinds of schools, whether co-ed or single sex, take care over the subliminal or even overt messages that they send out to young men and women about the opposite sex. If it is our shared wish that employees in Britain’s organisations might see each other as fellow human beings and professionals, then all schools share a duty to ensure that equality runs deep throughout their approaches to school life. If schools are truly to prepare our young people for their future places of study and work, then they should offer an environment that has close to equal numbers of both men and women in the staff room and girls and boys working, playing and building friendships together from a very young age. Teachers must set the example in how they treat each other in the workplace and take equally swift action in any behaviour that is sexist from girls and boys. The same rules must apply to staff themselves: I hope that we have the kind of ‘equalist’ environment at Bedales Prep School where we can pay each other compliments and know that they are meant with kindness and respect – we want our staff and pupils alike to have skins that are neither too thick nor too thin. That Charlotte Proudman was upset by the ‘stunning’ comment may say as much about the conditions within her places of work and learning as it does about her. That Alexander Carter-Silk felt confident in making it perhaps says much the same.

By Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst