Dunhurst brings Norse myths to Steep stage

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Pupils at Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst brought the Norse myths to life last week in a dynamic and compelling refashioning of the ancient stories for the stage. Burning Ice, Biting Flame told the story of how the Nine Worlds of Yggdrasil (the Great Ash Tree of Norse cosmology) are tricked into self-destruction by the god Loki. Desiring revenge for the maltreatment of his hideous family, Loki creates havoc and plays each world off against the other which culminates in Ragnarok – the end of the world.

Pupils in Blocks 1 and 2 (year 7 & 8) worked incredibly hard to bring this production to the stage with everyone working over the weekend to prepare for the final performances. They were set to work acting, rehearsing with the band, prop making, and organising back stage – the pupils were involved in every aspect of the production. They also had free reign to develop their on stage characters and add in lines they thought would work.

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Head of Drama at Dunhurst Simon Kingsley-Pallant, who wrote the play, said: “Following on from the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we wanted to do something a little different and to make it more unusual. The stories are very potent, full of vitality and adventure. And really, they should be much better known than they are.  Essentially the gods are a highly dysfunctional extended family, always bickering and competing with one another, sometimes with lethal results, and the cast thoroughly enjoyed playing these powerful yet flawed beings.”

With a beautifully created set by Susan Macfarlane, Head of Art at Dunhurst, depicting the Nine Worlds, the production was soundscaped by Ben Harlan and the band. Much of the music was improvised with voice, harp, drums, synths, bottles, cans, and crackling plastic to create some wonderful sound effects.  Rosie Nash choreographed the dances, two of which were epic – the Creation of Yggdrasil and the Binding of Loki, all contributing to a memorable and enthralling production.

*Photos by John-Paul Bland; to view the full gallery on the photographer’s site, click here and enter the password which can be found in your emailed version of the Saturday Bulletin 1 October 2016. Any purchase of image downloads from this gallery will benefit the John Badley Foundation which offers financial support through bursaries, giving more young people a chance to benefit from the transformational opportunity a Bedales education can provide.

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

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

Have you ever wanted to be a detective?

Have you ever wanted to be a detective? Have you ever felt that your opinions could make a difference? Valuing children’s thoughts on their learning experiences can have a dramatic effect on the day to day workings of a school as well as the longer term strategic planning. At Dunhurst where, along with the other two Bedales Schools, the motto is ‘work of each for weal of all’ it seems absolutely natural to involve children in all parts of their education including teaching and learning.

We have ‘Learning Detectives’ at Dunhurst. A group of Year 8 and Year 6 children who meet to set weekly investigations for themselves and discuss feedback from their observations over the previous seven days. You might be surprised at the depth of their thoughts; their summaries of teaching techniques; their insightful comments about the structure of the day and their ability to compare and evaluate different experiences and draw conclusions for timetabling purposes, but at Dunhurst we teach them to discuss and share so the meetings are comfortable, informative and purposeful.

Staff come to the weekly meetings too – these are staff who enjoy being part of a Teaching and Learning Group which promotes innovation and excellence. How does it feel to work with spies in your classroom, pupils who, as part of their role of Learning Detectives, critically observe you doing your job? Staff in the Teaching and Learning Group relish this interaction and the chance to continue their own learning and professional development. Their dialogues with pupils have two-way honesty and respect at the heart of them.

What does it take to make Learning Detectives happen in a school? Give pupils a sense of community achievement and responsibility, treat them with maturity, activate their suggestions and of course, have a pile of chocolate biscuits for meeting times! But you need to look around your school first. Do you see an environment where individuals are valued, where listening is a key skill and where rapport between staff and pupils is second to none? If you do, then take the next step and get your own Learning Detectives on the case!

By Kathy Misson, Director of Teaching and Learning, Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

A community of characters not lessons in character building

‘Our youth should be trained from the first in a stricter system, for if amusements become lawless, and the youths themselves become lawless, they can never grow up into well-conducted and virtuous citizens’. Book 4 of Plato’s Republic.

Throughout history fingers have been pointed at the young generation as the perpetrators of poor manners and anti-social behaviour. The shaping of the younger generation has repeatedly been viewed as the lynch pin to a better society. Dr Seldon’s latest advice, that schools should be delivering lessons in manners, is hardly a new idea. He identifies good manners, self-control, self-reliance, responsibility, punctuality, determination, resilience, appreciation, kindness and tidiness as the ingredients to build the kind of character that will compensate for the Government’s ever floundering ‘big society’ ideals.

Much as I support Dr Seldon’s view that these social graces and personal qualities are worthy attributes; if they are to become a natural and unconscious part of a child’s character they need to be engrained into the everyday culture of a school. Being happy, being self reliant, being responsible; they are skills that are learnt through a constant stream of experiences. I have often seen the character building qualities that result from some independent schools; pupils with manners that appear stiff and contrived; character traits that are superficial and that break under pressure. Manners and character need to go deep into the very fabric of a person they can’t just be absorbed by lessons.

I would also add to Dr Seldon’s list, attributes such as selflessness, social awareness, love and community. It is these qualities that are essential in making the other attributes have any real value. Schools that promote aggressively competitive approaches, where pupils are driven by rewards and prizes, will invariably tend to look too inward.

At Bedales Schools, whether a Bedalian is 3 or 18, young characters are nurtured through learning in a community that is built on mutual respect with high regard for acts of kindness and goodwill to others inside and outside of the school. It is having the right ethos and teaching approach that instils good manners in young people, not simply adding another lesson to the timetable.

By Jane Grubb, Head, Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

The neuroscience of learning

I was really pleased to see Alistair McConville’s (Director of Teaching and Learning at Bedales) response to Tony Little’s (Headmaster of Eton) article regarding academic underperformance of boys in the Times recently (follow link to read article). It is about time that we finally accepted that the difference between boys’ and girls’ neurologically is minimal and almost irrelevant to the learning process. It is clear that more research is required to gain a better understanding of how and why children learn.

Sadly this ‘neuromyth’ has perpetuated education for many years now, to the extent that too many educationalists have stopped seeing children as individuals and instead make blind assumptions about learning styles and needs based on gender. I challenge anyone to pick a group of boys (or girls) from a class within any of the Bedales Schools and find that the way that they think, approach life, lessons or a task is in anyway similar; why should their approach to learning be any different? The Bedales Schools have always offered its pupils and students choice; encouraged debate and discussion and attracted innovative, creative and questioning teachers. These teachers really get to know every individual in their class as an individual. They intelligently engineer their lessons to switch children on; they are careful in the learning language they use in the classroom; they closely monitor response, set the bar high and constantly adapt and redesign the teaching to capture the interest of each pupil.   When they plan their lessons, they are not thinking about providing for two gender groups, they are thinking about individuals.

The big voices in education need to stop giving credence to this ‘neuromyth’  and start to look for more tangible reasons for academic underperformance in some boys (and some girls) rather than perpetuating the same old nonsense . The Bedales Schools partnership with Harvard Graduate School of Education is already opening up discussion, particularly about how students and pupils engage in the learning process and will focus on the very heart of a Bedalian education; developing inquisitive lifelong learners, irrespective of gender or innate ability.

By Jane Grubb, Head, Bedales Prep, Dunhurst