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


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

Thoughts on the problem of talking in class

Kathy Misson - Banner

Earlier this month, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan wrote to teaching unions expressing concern at what she considered to be unnecessary work imposed on teachers that takes them away from the classroom.  This raises interesting questions: whilst it is undoubtedly true that many administrative tasks demanded of teachers do little if anything to inform their effectiveness in the classroom, it is wrong to conclude that time spent away from the classroom is unimportant or, conversely, that time spent in the classroom necessarily results in valuable learning for students.

A case in point is the subject of talking in class – not the perennial teachers’ bugbear of the kids who won’t pipe down and listen, but of teachers who themselves talk too much. Professor John Hattie of the University of Melbourne proposes that when teachers stop talking, and instead engage closely and listen, ‘deep learning’ takes place. Kimberley Mitchell of Chief Sealth High School in Seattle advocates teachers slowing down, asking questions and talking less, and responding neutrally to correct answers as she says that students take more risks when they don’t know exactly what their teacher wants.  This analysis has proven controversial, which she ascribes to political differences around testing and curricula – something we know plenty about in Bedales schools.

With a focus on the UK, my judgement is that a listening approach is deemed appropriate for younger EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) and Key Stage One pupils who, through a highly kinaesthetic and interactive approach, are encouraged to explore and verbalise their knowledge and ideas. Much of the work in primary schools also encourages group work, discussion and peer-to-peer marking. So far, so good.

However, some teachers, particularly those new to the profession, find it difficult to effectively hand over control to those whose voices really matter. And it is perhaps telling that those teachers who do ‘let go’ invariably have already carved an open environment for pupils to explore through their careful pre-planning of the lesson.

Thus, our attention is directed to the wider institutional context in which teachers practise, rather than simply what happens in the classroom – especially important at the stage in a young person’s education when a more prescriptive curriculum kicks in.

Under conventional educational prescription, Key Stage 3 and 4 increase the pressure on teachers to deliver facts for exams, encouraging a reversion to ‘chalk and talk’ or tasks that cut out the valuable discursive elements prevalent in the learning of younger students. We can only speculate as to the effects of such approaches on young people’s understandings of what learning means and should look like as they enter society, and the value they come to place on taking the time to think and discuss. It need not be like this, and indeed should not be.

Nicky Morgan has correctly identified that teachers should not be burdened with tasks that do not contribute to their practise; however, this is not enough. Teaching for ‘deep learning’ requires that teachers are supported by their schools in such endeavours and, in turn, that schools are supported by political institutions. For example, any teacher required to sit through staff meetings, contributing little, and with a view to compliance with objectives predefined by the school’s management or governing body is unlikely to be able to embrace the requirements of ‘deep’ learning. Similarly, a performance table culture is unlikely to encourage anything beyond lip service to notions of innovation within schools. Alternatively, when schools are freed from over-prescription, and where teachers are given time for planning, and encouraged to discuss and experiment rigorously with their practise, the culture of teachers’ professional lives in schools can begin properly to support what is increasingly considered to be best practice in the classroom.

Kathy Misson

Deputy Head, Academic, Dunhurst

************************************************************************************************* 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.

Building Learning Power

Kathy Misson (Director of teaching and Learning at Dunhurst) and I went to a very interesting lecture by Guy Claxton at Winchester University on Building Learning power. In the lecture we explored the skills we felt young people will need to succeed and live life to the full in the 21st century. We accept that the world our children will live in will be fast changing and demanding. In a recent UK governments major Foresight project on ‘Mental capital and well being’ they gathered a wide range of expert advice on foreseeable social and technological trends and the personal and material resources that will be needed to meet the likely challenges and opportunities. The report concluded that human well being will become increasingly dependent on the ability to be curious, inquisitive, experimental, reflective and sociable in short to be lifelong and life-wide learners. One of the most reliable sources of happiness turns out to be learning. People report feeling happy when they are engaged in wrestling with something difficult but worthwhile; when they feel in charge, and are not criticised by others.

If we want our children to be happy we need to help them to discover the ‘joy of struggle’ and understand and develop the craft of worthwhile learning. This all points to a need for a radical re-think of the priorities and practices in education. In many schools skills such as remembering facts, being deferential and doing what you are asked to do without question are given the most positive rewards and yet this now must be considered out of step with the skills our children will need in the future.

Many examination systems, particularly 11+ and 13+ Common Entrance and many of the GCSEs are now very dated and provide a straight jacket curriculum that requires children not to think but to regurgitate facts and leaves the teacher little option but to push facts into children’s heads. Social interaction, discussion and debate are forfeited for revision, practice questions and exam technique. Guy Claxton made a very good point that schools should put greater emphasis on analysing data regarding how our students are fairing two years after they leave school, how well they settled into their university study or job rather than just analysing the raw exam statistics. In schools where there is an obsessive focus on drilling pupils in exam techniques, absorbing facts and jumping through regimented hoops, the transition to University can be very difficult because students are suddenly having to think for themselves for the first time.

Our teaching philosophy across all three of the Bedales Schools is to promote inquisitiveness in our pupils. The teachers are encouraged to offer pupils open questions rather than questions that have a closed and teacher held single answer. For our Dunhurst pupils the facts are revealed through discussion and exploration and the teacher is not the only source of wisdom and ideas. The more we challenge our pupils to dig deeper and look beyond the facts, the more they own their learning and enjoy the process. The more our pupils enjoy and engage in their learning the more exciting they are to teach and so we have a very positive spiralling of positivity in the learning process.

Education is a long ball game but at the end we want to send our children out into the world well prepared. The best universities will put our children through rigourous interviews to see if they can think on their feet, articulate complex ideas and have individual outlooks and original and daringly unorthodox thinking. I am sure the success we are seeing with our Bedalian University applicants is due to our unique approach – we have been building learning power in our Bedalians for over a century now and Head, Hand, Heart is truer and more important to the education of our children today for preparing them for the complexities and demands of the 21st Century than it has ever been.

By Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

Halloween inspires young musicians

Around fifty of our young string players from Dunannie and Dunhurst joined forces to produce a wonderfully creative and chilling Halloween inspired piece of music. Around 15 Dunannie violinists  sent shivers down our spines as they used their instruments to make ghoulishly realistic sounds of chattering teeth and skeleton bones. Dunhurst’s Maisy R and Hector W quickly picked up the melodious tunes of the main refrain, Maisy first on violin and then echoed by Hector on cello. Pupils plucked, scraped and manipulated the strings to make a wide variety of sounds to imitate the atmosphere of Halloween.

Ben Harlan, our Director of Music was ably supported by the peripatetic experts to ensure that all our young musicians were given tips on the best techniques to use, strong bow action and nifty finger work. We were all delighted to see the pupils’ confidence grow as the session progressed. The level of the pupils’ concentration was impressive as they looked to Ben for timing, expression and the right moment to bring the music to a disturbingly sudden halt. We hope very much to have more of these experiences for our pupils as there was clearly a great benefit for our youngest pupils to work alongside older and more experienced musicians. The Dunhurst pupils clearly enjoyed playing with the Dunannians and we look to bring the very best of Bedales student musical talent to these events in the future.

Some of Bedales’ music students are meeting with Dunhurst pupils to give our musicians inspiring additional music sessions. These highly talented Bedalian musicians (some now playing well beyond grade 8) have an innate ability to share their love of music and their skills with their chosen instrument. Over 90% of our Dunhurst pupils play a musical instrument and our orchestras and ensembles continue to grow in number – We can’t wait for the next end of term concert!

By Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

Outstanding MFL?

To London for a course, ‘Leading MFL to Outstanding’, because at Dunhurst we’re always interested in how to move forward. But I arrive at the course and spend the first half hour wondering what I’m doing there. The other teachers speak in acronyms I struggle to decode, and their talk is peppered with references to the markers of their daily pressure; Targets, Levels, Controlled Assessments, Marking Policy, Listening Assessments, Written Assessments, Assessments, Assessments, Assessments. Some are in ‘Failing Schools’ and ‘Special Measures’. Some are Good With Some Excellent Features. The teachers themselves are coded by numbers; they are a 2 or a 3 or maybe they are a 1 within a Good Department in a Failing School. It is bewildering, because on paper – as heads of school language departments – we all do the same job. But here nobody is talking about love of language, or creativity, or experimental ideas in teaching. Nobody talks about the children.

We are invited to share typical errors made in our subject, which the speaker demonstrates how to teach better. More acronyms feature, and memory tricks. No consideration is made that through making mistakes, pupils learn to find the right answers for themselves, because in this world of teaching languages there is simply no time for such indulgences as exploration or trial and error. Over the next couple of hours we are strongly advised to embed good language learning habits in our pupils, and I begin to see why the approach these teachers take is necessarily different from mine. Everything is geared towards achieving marks at GCSE. Stock phrases are memorised and then inserted into paragraphs to score points in some kind of Language by Numbers. Numbered posters on classroom walls provide a cunning shortcut in communication between teacher and pupil.

Pupil: ‘How do I say…..?’
Teacher: ‘Poster 3, Line 4!’

Learning language sound-bites might teach you how to pass an exam, but it won’t teach you how to speak a language. In the artificial language-learning environment of a classroom, repetition does feed into remembering, but outside the world of exams, repetition means revisiting the same thing many different ways, and remembering is not the same as memorising.

‘Who here still teaches entire verb paradigms?’ the speaker asks us. ‘I don’t! If you do, that’s up to you. Why don’t I teach whole verb paradigms? Because pupils don’t need them!’

At Dunhurst, we teach verb paradigms because when you know the verbs, you can be creative. You can talk about anyone doing anything. If you know the whole verb, you can see how other parts of speech fit into the language too, and then you can really communicate. But we’re lucky. Here, we teach children aged 8–13 who are not bound by public exams. We don’t do Common Entrance either. What we teach is a love of language learning, and that language is about communication. Body language and facial expression, the tone of your voice and your desire to make yourself understood, all contribute to your ability to communicate. We teach French as part of a wide, varied and interconnected school curriculum, where, for example, our topic on Victor Hugo and Les Misérables crosses over with history, music and art. We write tests on edible paper with edible pens, then mark them and eat them, because the process of learning is more important than the assessment. We write letters in Spanish to children in Nicaragua, and we invent new Mr. Men characters to explore descriptions in French. We watch French films and listen out for key words. We don’t need shortcuts because education is not a sped-up system that we need to try and cheat, but a long, luxurious soaking in of information, of deep learning.

How did languages in schools become so distilled that for GCSE we have ended up with a potted version, a minimum requirement, a ‘Greatest Hits’? What if MFL at GCSE borrowed something from the Dunhurst way, and was restructured, to accommodate a wider style of learning? Where culture can be explored alongside language or where different languages can be compared. Where students can invent dialogues to explore the intellectual and creative exercise of saying what they want to say, instead of assembling Lego bricks of language in a prescribed order? Until we ask the question, ‘What are the extended benefits of learning a foreign language?’ and with that in mind, ‘How can children best learn languages in school?’ pupils will never have the chance to explore language widely; the many, different ways of saying something in a new language, or which non-European countries share European languages, or find out about those countries’ art or literature or music. And we will be forever stuck with the maxim I heard from a teacher on the course, hoping to achieve Outstanding for her department; ‘The pupils don’t need to understand it, they just need to learn it!’ while those around her nodded in agreement at her words of wisdom.

When achieving Outstanding in MFL means that pupils can really try to communicate in a foreign language, then it will be worth exploring. In the meantime it is just another memory test, in an education system lacking in enquiry and enrichment. And when I look at what was on my desk when I came into school this morning, I know which I prefer, mistakes and all.

Dunhurst MFL student work

By Olivia Burnett-Armstrong, Head of MFL, Bedales Prep Dunhurst