Old Bedalian 2000

Bedales, when he first saw the school, represented something almost akin to paradise for the impressionable young Christopher Pietroni. “As far as education was concerned, I’d spent my time before Dunhurst at a series of ordinary prep schools in west London,” he says. “My parents were divorced, though, and home life was feeling a bit rocky when, as a nine year-old, I went on an adventure holiday to Cumbria and immediately announced that I wanted to become a boarder. I’m not sure that anyone thought that I would be able to pass the Common Entrance exam for St.Paul’s at the time but my step-mother had been schooled at Portsmouth High, knew the area and thought that Bedales might interest me.”

Bedales, when he first saw the school, represented something almost akin to paradise for the impressionable young Christopher Pietroni

 

Strictly speaking, it was the wrong time of year to be applying for a boarding place at Dunhurst, but undaunted, Christopher’s family approached the school and in short order, he was being put through his paces by Alastair Langlands. “I must have done some sort of test, I think, which I don’t remember much about, but I vividly recall Alastair, his plus-fours, his monocle and the amazement I felt when he asked me about the poetry that I had read and enjoyed. My school in Ealing was still using the strap for various misdemeanours, after all, and here was this apparently heavenly place which might become my school. It was an extraordinary experience, all the more so when we emerged from Alastair’s study and I saw chocolate cake and milk being doled out to the students. What was this place?!”

Just as Christopher had guessed it might, Dunhurst, when he arrived in earnest in the autumn of 1981, suited him immediately. “I was so glad to be there,” he enthuses. “To me, my parental figures seemed a little unreliable and it was as though I had arrived in the heart of an unconventional, slightly ramshackle, immensely loving family. I walked with a limp, the result of my left leg being paralysed by polio from the age of three months, but it didn’t matter. I was totally impractical as well – my art, design, pottery and woodwork were awful, I couldn’t thread a needle and I appeared to be bereft of any artistic talent at all but that didn’t matter either. I still loved it all, was encouraged to try everything and I so remember the glorious smell of sawdust and oil in Michael Lucas’s woodwork shop, for instance. I wasn’t a troubled child, exactly, but I did have issues to work through and the firm, but loving supervision of people like the Perkinses, my house tutors, and Chris Daley, our Matron, was exactly what I needed.”

If his first year in the Bedales embrace was something of a long exhalation of relief, Christopher’s second saw him prepared to be a more challenging student. “And Bedales was well able to cope with that as well,” he reflects. “My transition into Bedales itself was probably made a bit easier by the fact that I did a year in the old Middle School, which gave me a foot in both camps and allowed me a sense of gradual change.”

Music had become an important part of Christopher’s daily round. “The trumpet was something that I had recently taken up and trying to get it right used to frustrate me so much that I was all for giving it up,” he says. “Kate Dunne, my first form teacher, saved me by telling me that one day I would play the trumpet at her wedding and remarkably enough, almost a decade later and long after she had left the school, she wrote to me with the thoughtfulness that is so typical of Bedales to ask if I would fulfil that prediction. By an amazing coincidence my brother was getting married on the same day in the same city and I did indeed play the trumpet at Kate’s wedding!”

In addition to playing the trumpet in the school orchestra, Christopher took up the double bass, sang in the choir and today remembers the encouragement he received from Jonathan Willcocks: “For a performance of Holst’s Planets, I was lead trumpet and I remember how special I felt when Jonathan made a point of finding me after afterwards to say well done.” His involvement in the arts at Bedales would not end there. “John Batstone was another important person for me at school,” Christopher continues. “He taught me English, of course, but he also cast me in a tiny part in the school play when I was in Block 4 and subsequently in every play until I left. Remember that I had a physical disability and then imagine how wonderful it was for me to have a way of adding physical performance to the mix of things that I was doing. Dunhurst had instilled a more general confidence in me in the first place, I had finally started to do OK academically from about the age of fourteen or so but it was acting that gave me physical confidence. In 6.1, I directed the junior play with my great mate Laura Greene (OB) and that was again something that John decided and that gave me another boost. It was a huge part of my development.”

It was English and history that really lit me up and I still count myself as fantastically lucky to have been taught by people such as John Batstone and Ruth Whiting

 

Revelling in the freedom that he had been given to grow into his abilities, Christopher became closely involved with Amnesty International and various fund-raising charity initiatives at Bedales. Meanwhile he was also spreading his academic wings. “In my opinion, I was never better than academically mediocre until about Block 4, although I was never made to feel that way at the time,” he suggests. “It was English and history that really lit me up and I still count myself as fantastically lucky to have been taught by people such as John Batstone and Ruth Whiting. I should say that Graham Banks was another marvellous English teacher and Philip Parsons was a superb foil for Ruth, the details man to her brand of intellectual fireworks, but John and Ruth were such big personalities that they could sometimes overshadow their superb departments. John was an extremely tough task-master – I well remember getting essays back from him with comments on them to the effect that he expected better from me. Ruth’s style was more donnish; she was an interlocutor, rather than a teacher, one who forced you towards a more nuanced, sophisticated intellectual approach.”

His final year at Bedales saw Christopher graduate to the heights of Head Boy. “It was a role that was whatever you made of it,” he says. “The duties were pretty minimal but you could shape and influence matters to a certain degree, there was a bit of kudos involved and it gave me an early taste of what responsibility actually entailed. These days, my professional life is frequently about helping people to understand what leadership means in a non-hierarchical sense, which is often about the difference between authority and leadership. That can be harder to understand when you’re wearing a badge and have greater expectations to live up to, which brings me to the paradox about Bedales that sometimes occurs to me: this is a school which is in some ways almost self-consciously anti-authoritarian, one where you’re encouraged to push against authority. However, if that encouragement is instilled by the authorities themselves, how radical can it be?! Staff/pupil relationships at Bedales are informal and healthy to a remarkable degree but as in every school, there are still some hoops of authority that have to be jumped through.”

Leaving Bedales was “the very definition of bitter-sweet”

 

Leaving Bedales was “the very definition of bitter-sweet”, as Christopher admits. “I had wanted to do a PPE at Oxford but Ruth Whiting talked me out of it and I ended up applying to do History instead. An economics teacher had left while I was in 6.1 and hadn’t been satisfactorily replaced and I let Ruth convince me that I would be more likely to get a place at Oxford if I concentrated on History. I’m not a believer in having regrets and University College was in no way disappointing to me. There were a lot of OB friends up at Oxford at other colleges and the new friends that I made all seemed to be good, well-rounded characters.”

Initially, it seemed that Christopher might be set fair for a career in academia. He did his Master’s at Warwick University and returned to Oxford to begin a DPhil but at the age of 24, his heart was no longer it. “Somehow I knew that I was on the wrong track,” he says. “I felt an urgent need to be more politically and socially engaged than I was and however disastrous it might be for me to renounce my fully-funded academic life, it was a chance that I had to take. I left Oxford and applied for every job that I could think of.”

In the mid-1990s, therefore, Christopher began professional life with a lobbying firm and was soon moving on to become Parliamentary officer for the charity Church Action on Poverty and Clerk to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, where he started to focus on how Government preference or exclusion comes about and how it affects the individuals and institutions concerned. “After that, I went off to Charter 88, perhaps the leading British pressure group of the time; this was the early Blair years, I was in and out of Parliament continually, we were on and off the news just as frequently and eventually, I felt that I needed to stop commenting, be less of a talking head and start making things happen in my own right. Benedict, our first child, was about to be born and the time seemed right for a change.”

For the next few years, Christopher applied himself to learning the nuts and bolts of local government, first as advisor to the Chief Executive of the South East Counties: “Essentially, that was a semi-formal grouping of the counties that ring London and my role was to lobby central Government, facilitate public service collaboration and help to develop a regional plan for local government where the major consideration was what the area as a whole needed most. It was highly political, with lots of trading off between housing, schools, roads and other infrastructure, but learning how to make a place work was a fabulous learning ground for me in public service leadership.”

Christopher subsequently became the Assistant Chief Executive of Hampshire County Council before being enticed back to London as Director of Public Affairs for the Local Government Association. Meanwhile, however, his mind was turning to an academic opportunity that he had first glimpsed years previously. “The Kennedy School at Harvard University runs a one-year course which leads to a Master’s in Public Administration,” Christopher explains. “I’d discovered this a long time ago and it had seemed like something of a dream but now I wanted to learn more. The time had come for me to make a decision. I had three choices, or so it seemed – I could run a charity, run a council or become an MP, in relation to which I had joined the list of approved Labour Party candidates in 2001.”

It was his year at Harvard that taught Christopher the truth about what his future should be. “Social change, I had discovered, was largely either never big enough or never sustained for quite long enough,” he notes. “I needed to work out how to alter that and where exactly I could best make my contribution. Harvard gave me the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world who had achieved extraordinary things and of those, Marshall Ganz was the greatest influence on me. He was the man who basically devised the successful grassroots organising model and training for Barack Obama’s winning 2008 presidential campaign and now he showed me the power of story-telling in building social movements to effect lasting change. It was utterly intoxicating; what was so intriguing was the idea of public service as a social movement and the Kennedy School is particularly good at making you feel that you can change the world.”

A lot of our teachers would helpfully remind us of how lucky and privileged we were and it never occurred to me not to put that good fortune to some more communal use

 

Suitably inspired, Christopher returned to the UK and was soon contacted by Marshall Ganz with an idea that would lead Christopher to becoming an agent of social change in the NHS. The vehicle through which this was to be accomplished was Leading Communities, an organisation that Christopher founded with his friend Mari Davis. The goal was to work with teams of public leaders to achieve sustainable systemic change among service professionals, managers, politicians, front-line staff, citizens and communities, placing particular emphasis on the value and importance of narrative, the intentional use of stories, at the heart of its efforts.

“What I do flows from our work with every section of society, from your local neighbour or teacher to the heads of public sector organisations,” says Christopher. “We bring people together in a way that is neither grand nor glamorous but which focuses on co-operation. It’s a grass roots movement with every part of the system on board as well. Academic rigour is also still important to me, which is why I teach Leadership in Public Services on the MSc in Public Management at the University of Birmingham and co-deliver the National Graduate Development Programme for Local Government for the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University. I also contribute to a range of post-graduate and Exec Ed programmes, but I couldn’t do that without my work with Leading Communities, which keeps me connected to what’s happening on the ground.”

The Bedales motto of ‘Work of each for weal of all’ is one that Christopher has imbibed as thoroughly as any of his contemporaries. “That’s in my bones and the notion of what Bedales is all about is one that matters to me greatly,” he says. “A lot of our teachers would helpfully remind us of how lucky and privileged we were and it never occurred to me not to put that good fortune to some more communal use. I’m blessed to be able to contribute in areas that matter to me and that allow me to be creative. Being able to range across subjects without being intellectually pigeon-holed is a great pleasure and that is a freedom that I was always aware of and encouraged to develop from my earliest years at Bedales and something that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.”