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

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

Children, competition, and the classroom: why we must smash the ‘small pond’ ceiling

Dunhurst School

In early June, headmaster of Windlesham House School, Richard Foster, told the Daily Telegraph that ‘hot housing’ damages children’s health and robs them of their childhood – just one recent example of a growing chorus of concern from educationalists over assessment regimes and their effects.

I am part of that chorus. In April, in an article for the Daily Telegraph, I argued that an obsession with assessment and exam scores, accompanied by relentless competition, is helping to create an unhealthy educational culture for young people – including the under-10s.

I cited as an example the current UK fascination for the methods of Shanghai maths teachers, despite evidence of unwelcome effects on young people, and a broad consensus amongst UK teachers participating in a sizeable recent study (Character Education in Schools, University of Birmingham) that the British assessment system hinders the development of the ‘whole child’. Children need ‘free space’, it was argued, where students can ‘be themselves’ without having to think about exam scores.

Predictably or not, the article prompted a considerable amount of comment and discussion between readers. Some seemed broadly supportive of my position, and others less so. Whilst responses to my piece may have been diverse, what is beyond dispute is that the subject of children’s experience of pressure and stress as a consequence of competition hit a collective nerve. Thus encouraged, I decided that I needed to give the subject further thought.

One commentator on my article asked why children should not compete, be ambitious, and set store by good test results – unless, of course, I was advocating that our schools turn out cabbages. What interested me about this question was the assumption that ambition and competition are somehow synonymous.

It is my view that the development of ambition in young people is central to good education. However, I also believe that we are missing a trick by encouraging our charges to compete with each other. Even if we were to accept the point made by one commentator that the purpose of school is to prepare young people for a ‘totally unforgiving and relentless’ working life, I don’t see how this end can be served in the ‘small pond’ that is the classroom. We must aim higher, and look to the wider world for the stimulation of competition or, more importantly, to provide a bigger view of the level of achievement that is possible within a world arena.

All too often, in competition-driven schools, children can be ‘the best’ and sit back to bask in their little pond victory, enforced further by peer and adult praise and approval. By taking away the small competitive environment and focusing on personal target setting, resilience, challenge, initiative, collaborative learning and training, pupils achieve so much more and support each other in the process. Schools should be communities of stimulating and challenging learning with no parochial ceilings to hold pupils back.

We should not be reliant on purely extrinsic motivations, however. Much of what we do at Bedales Prep School is concerned with helping young people to find their passions, and to challenge them to learn.

I remember one of my own primary teachers helping me do just that, and through my love of drama, art and music showing me that there was more of what I valued to be found in other subjects too. This is not to say he was a soft touch: he was critical, obsessive and demanding – but in a good way. As teachers, we spend a lot of time developing such relationships, and I am firmly of the view that any fresh resource made available for schools to reduce class sizes would help to give our best teachers the time to do precisely this.

One rather brutal assessment of my proposal that we need an alternative to relentless peer competition was the suggestion that I should send my kids ‘out to pick flowers’, and that they would be cleaning Chinese houses before the decade is out. For the record, we do encourage our children to learn outside when appropriate, and it may even be the case that our subsequent discussions around any flowers they pick have a part to play in the excellent test scores our students receive for science, and then subsequently at GCSE and A level.

The point here, of course, is that education can take many forms, and it should not be assumed that methods that deviate from the traditional are some kind of abdication. Whilst variety, fun and encouragement from all quarters are important, the school has a culture of challenge, and a key part of our work lies in helping our children not to be flattened by setbacks.

Carol Dweck’s well-known work on ‘growth mindset’ raises many questions around the importance for performance, respectively, of attitude, genetic inheritance and social/environmental factors. This is not the place to go into this debate, save to say that Dweck’s work supports broadly the idea that those young people who believe that intelligence is not fixed but can be grown are better able to cope with pressure.

This is important, given the inevitable increase in failed attempts that comes with the territory of taking risks and tackling ever more demanding challenges. We work hard on developing such attitudes within a culture of high expectations, to the extent that we as teachers occasionally find ourselves apologising to pupils for work that is not providing enough challenge, and promptly replacing it with a sufficiently demanding alternative. Our children come to understand that work will be demanding, but that this doesn’t mean impossible, and that we don’t spread praise around like confetti. Nor do we hand out cups and prizes – we don’t need to.

As much as this seems to upset some people, I will continue to work passionately to provide an educational environment that is fun, as well as being demanding, stimulating and rewarding. It is nice to think our young people might later have a reasonable expectation of the same in their working lives. Work need not, and must not, be the brutal experience that some commentators on my piece believe it to be; a ‘they had better get used to it’ attitude must not shape how we educate our young people.

By Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

‘Hothousing and over testing violate children’s rights’

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Published in The Telegraph, 14 April 2015

With the publication of party political election manifestos now under way, I find myself hoping that policymakers find the courage to move away from the current direction of educational travel – one that I believe does children no favours, and that does not even succeed on its own terms.

Recent UK educational reforms have seen a narrowing of the national curriculum, a renewed focus on end-of-course examination at the expense of ongoing, in-course assessment, and an obsession with those subjects deemed important for accessing elite higher education institutions and supporting the UK’s economic competitiveness.

As part of this process, late 2014 saw maths teachers from Shanghai embedded in UK primary schools to share the methods that have seen that city dominate the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables – the legacy of Michael Gove’s determination that UK children emulate their Chinese peers in order that they might effectively compete with them on the global economic stage.

Thus, Chinese teaching methods have now started to permeate the UK’s educational DNA – but does this work for children themselves, or those whose job it is to provide that education for them?

A report published recently by the University of Birmingham raises concerns as to the quality of education experienced by young people in the UKA massive 80 per cent of teachers surveyed for Character Education in UK Schools, drawn from primary as well as secondary schools, were concerned that the British assessment system ‘hinders the development of the whole child’.

When asked to suggest a single change, many recommended the provision of ‘free space’ where students can be themselves and do things they really like without having to think about exam scores.

This brings to mind Sir Ken Robinson’s memorable observation that nobody can make anybody else learn anything, any more than a gardener can make flowers grow. Rather, the flower grows itself, and the skilled gardener provides the optimum conditions that will allow the plant to do precisely that.

Read full article in The Telegraph

By Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, 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.

Dunhurst Dancers perform Alice in Wonderland

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I have just been to see the Dunhurst Dancers perform at the annual Bedales Dance platform. They were some of the youngest performers there but they did Dunhurst proud and yet again this year showed the full range of dance styles through an incredible narrative that was captivating. Rosie Nash has been working hard with the group and it was wonderful to see the end result. For those of you who were unable to be there, here is my best attempt to describe what I saw….

BEDALES_DANCEPLATFORM MAR 1ST_LOW RES-136 The Olivier Theatre stage is dark and a small and diminutive figure lies on the stage in the darkness – intriguing. The lights come up and Alice (Boo P) awakes to be greeted by two wonderfully synchronized white rabbits (Emelia B-W and Millie B). The wonderful trio choreograph beautifully the rabbits and Alice’s decent as they tumble down the rabbit hole aided by two very smiley cats (Hannah M and Thomasina R); both girls have the cat moves off to a tee and show incredible agility and gymnastic strength in their choreography. The story continues as the piece moves on to ballet with Anais (clutching a cuddly pig) as the Duchess and Phoebe P as Cook. Again, crisply in time and technically excellent. Next is hip-hop and street style dance with Henry K-P and Evie as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, fast, fresh and innovatively portraying this arguing stroppy and difficult duo. The costumes now step up a gear as the Mad Hatter (Livvy E) and the Queen of Hearts (Mila N) enter the scene. Both dancers carry the balance of terrifying and comical to great effect – big moves and filling the stage with their presence. In contrast, the terrified Dormouse (Ernie A-T) fidgets and quivers with anxiousness as the fantasy unfolds. Strangely automated and menacingly mechanical, the playing cards (Monty DLG, Jamie B, Georgina V and Tiana B) shunt their way across the stage, accompanied by their Queen. Boo as the ever bewildered Alice portrays her fight for sanity and survival as the characters of wonderland close in on her and hold her within their encircling huddle. Finally, Alice triumphs as the characters fall like dominoes before her – black out –  Wow !

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Monty DLG B1R – 2, 5 and 7

Ernie AT B1S- Dormouse

Tiana B B1S-2,5 and 7

Anais A B2U- The Duchess

Henry KP B1R-Tweedle Dee

Hannah M B2U- Cheshire cat

Emelia BW B1S-White Rabbit

Phoebe P B2S-Cook

Livvy E B1U-Mad Hatter

Mila N B2S-Queen of Hearts

Millie B B1R-White Rabbit

Boo P B1R-Alice

Evie A B1R-Tweedle Dum

Jamie B B2R-2, 5 and 7

Georgina V B1U-2, 5 and 7

Thomasina R B2R-Cheshire cat

View photos of the event here.

By Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, 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.