Comparing the English education system

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An article in School House magazine discusses the pressures on British school children caused by competition for places and excessive tutoring, whilst recognising the ‘soft skills’ and abilities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) of independent school pupils. Comparisons are made with the gentler more holistic approaches of Scandinavia and Germany.

In the article, Colin Baty, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst, expresses concern about the anxiety caused in young people as young as six from the 11-plus and Common Entrance exams. He also comments on a “national curriculum and associated qualification regime which is increasingly prescriptive, dull, narrow and inadequate for any education that seeks to help young people question, challenge and make mistakes as they become enthusiastic and independent learners.” He goes on to describe the approach at Bedales Prep, such as using first-name terms between teacher and pupil, and the lack of a school uniform: “These are symptoms of an ethos that values the individual.”

To read the full article, click here, with thanks to School House magazine.

School House | Colin Baty


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

What is the purpose of education?

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From my short experience in two secondary state schools on teaching practice, followed by three years in a 4-16 independent school, it is clear that extra anxiety is placed on pupils by pushing them to complete exams / tests. I can see why many deem them as unnecessary. End of year exams are built up to be a target to work towards, especially in the weeks preceding the dreaded ‘exam week’ held in my last school and that which I attended as a pupil. From my experience, lessons suddenly revolve around practice papers, teaching children to answer similar questions to those in the paper they are about to sit. This seems to ensure that teachers appear effective, with their pupils achieving good results. As a Year 9 Form Tutor in my last school, it was during the week preceding the exams that the volume of contact from parents increased and also an air of uncertainty and nervousness surrounding the pupils.

It is of no surprise that many people are questioning – Is this really what we want from our education system? Should we not be teaching to prepare pupils for their future rather than to pass tests? The thought brings me back to my experience learning to drive. At the age of 17 I remember vividly running through various manoeuvres over and over again to ensure that I could complete them to the accepted standard required by the DVLA. I am not convinced I was being taught to be a safe and effective driver.

I do believe that tests / exams have a place. They are a useful gauge of pupils’ levels of understanding and also a functional tool to measure progress, just as I asked clients to do at the beginning and end of a fitness programme when working as a personal trainer. I also believe that GCSEs and A Levels are useful markers to demonstrate skill areas and ability levels. They also provide a ‘reason’ for some to study hard (‘I need these grades to get in to college’) and can be used to suggest whether a child’s next step in their lives is suitable for them, for example, will they cope with the course they want to go on to? On the flip side, I feel that GCSEs only reflect the type of person you are aged 16. I am not convinced that they are treated with tremendous importance later in life by prospective employers. Following GCSEs I have to say I agree with selecting a narrower line of study in the courses that many colleges offer or to complete A Levels. By being given a finer range of subjects, it is possible to focus on areas that interest you most. Many courses also offer a qualification to go into a particular area of employment.

Although not a formal exam or test, I feel it is important to note the prominence of having to prove progress within lessons and throughout the school year. It is the constant need to evidence progress that I feel has a negative effect on teaching. Whilst completing a Masters research project I remember clearly one teacher visibly displaying their frustrations during an interview. They referred to how their lessons had to keep stopping / slowing down in order to conduct a mini plenary, demonstrating the pupils’ understanding and progress towards the learning objective, rather than continuing the learning process. Although important to know where the pupils learning is at, I feel that teachers should be able to make the judgement themselves based on what they are observing in the classroom. There is a need to document progress, though should this be the main focus of our schooling as it can sometimes feel?

I have been delighted in my newest teaching post to see the buzz of excitement around the school. I could not believe how pleased the pupils were to be back during the first week of the school year. There is a relaxed feel amongst most pupils. I thoroughly enjoy being allowed to teach with a creative approach, where pupils are not sitting at desks all day, documenting their learning and completing endless assessed work and tests. Pupils can express their feelings through the work they produce and even given freedom in the way they answer a task. I strongly feel that pupils do learn so much more within a creative approach. They will remember being out and about around the classroom or even the school grounds during their lessons, rather than being sat at a desk for up to an hour at a time. There is of course a time and a place for focussing on written work, though the constant need to produce work that is then subject to a thorough assessment and grading I feel is not always necessary. Pupils are very quick to compare their ability with others, which can cause further anxieties and self esteem issues. In my last school, pupils in my Maths class had to sit an end of year exam. The questions they answered best were in fact the topics that were studied with a more creative approach, for example: naming straight line graphs, using a giant graph on the playground and pupils using themselves to plot points. The children loved this lesson and it clearly stuck with them, as did the lesson on area and perimeter in which we measured the hockey goals and sand pit on the playing fields. Although just one example, I do believe that an enjoyable school life, with a creative approach to teaching and learning can coexist with a rigorous academic programme.

Will Bray

Group 2 Class Teacher & Head of Boys’ Games, 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.

Reflections of a new teacher at Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

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When I read an article in the Independent just before I started at Dunhurst – I was struck by how lucky I felt to have escaped a system of education that operated in this way. But ultimately it made me feel sad for the fantastic colleagues I was leaving in that environment, and the wonderful children I taught trapped in this game of numbers. It elevated the high hopes I already had for working here and put into words the feelings that had prompted the move I made.

My Dunhurst experience thus far has been everything I had hoped it would be and more. I came with the expectation that the hard work we dedicate to our profession would be invested much more wisely into benefitting the children in our charge. I have never minded working hard to do the job I love well, but I began to resent the wasted time spent testing, analysing, re testing, discussing, changing numbers to tick boxes, jumping through hoops, and endless bureaucracy that became inherent with teaching. Did it even mean anything if you were producing numbers to keep a faceless inspector happy that progress was being made? I still consider my previous school to be wonderful, and my head teacher was excellent, supported by a brilliant team. However they had to ‘play the game’ in order to keep the wolf from the door.

What has struck me most about this school is how much time is spent actually talking about and working for the children. I have never seen so much directed time set aside for discussing and communicating about the children in the school. It’s amazing and refreshing to be in a place where that is again the priority. Staff meetings feel purposeful as much of the time is spent reviewing children and the day book on a weekly basis. As a result I feel I know the children incredibly well and I know how to help them achieve. The culture of testing I have come from only ever gives you half a picture, and at Dunhurst we have a complete picture. Lessons are interesting here, so children are invested and care about what they learn. It is far healthier to approach learning in a real context then to embrace learning through the parameters of a test based knowledge. And it is apparent when you talk to the children, or see them stand up to do a last minute re-enactment of an opera in assembly with no warning, that they are the better for it.

Vive La Revolution!

Andy Wiggins

Head of Groups English, 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.