Standing with youth

Posted on 02nd January 2020

As Bedales reopens its doors for the Spring term we have a re-formed government, and the UK’s departure from the EU is likely to be imminent. The situation puts me in mind of my own time at school, and Mrs Thatcher’s 1983 post-Falklands General Election win which exercised the student body against a background of the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protests and the Thatcher/Reagan special relationship. I wasn’t old enough to vote then, but in the recent election 28 Bedales students were eligible to take part.

When John Badley founded Bedales Lord Rosebery was Prime Minister, but he gave way after a little over a year in post to Lord Salisbury. Balfour then climbed to the top of the greasy pole, followed by Campbell-Bannerman three years later. Another three years on Asquith took the country to war with Germany.

After surviving The Great War, Siegfried Sassoon continued to publish poems that had a bleak tenor. One that appeared in a series called The Heart’s Journey includes the lines:

Cold was the music of the birds: and cold
The sunlight, shadowless with misty gold:
It seemed I stood with Youth on the calm verge
Of some annunciation that should bring
With flocks of silver angels, ultimate Spring
Whence all that life had longed for might emerge.

These lines seem portentous as I stand ‘with Youth’ and on the verge of a political change that will shape their worlds and define the prospects for their adult lives. It is not a sentiment unique to me, of course – all educationalists will recognise it and, like me, spend time wondering how we might best serve our young people in these times.

At Bedales, it is an ongoing project pursued on many fronts. For example, we have recognised that we must be more outward facing as a school if we are to offset any prospect of post-Brexit national introspection, and this has driven lots of plans for school trips overseas and volunteering opportunities closer to home. The benefits of doing something for others for no immediate gain for ourselves are well documented. It can increase self-confidence and give us a sense of purpose, and it can counteract feelings of stress, anger and anxiety as we do something for its own sake, rather than because it is a task we need to execute as part of a longer plan.

Also, our Sustainability Group of teaching staff, support staff and students has been working at delivering real change to our procurement and consumption. One initiative is to put in ground source heat pumps, and we will soon be installing an electric car charging station by the main car park; we hope, the first of many. Packed lunches have come under scrutiny because of the food waste when they are not eaten and also because of the plastic in which they are wrapped. Our Catering Manager has sourced some biodegradable sleeves which can be used instead of plastic, and we will also change the ordering method for packed lunches so that alternatives to sandwiches become available.

In part, we are pursuing these changes because Bedales ‘youth’ has told us that these things matter to them, and they tell us because ours is a culture that encourages pupils – from the very youngest to the 18 year old school leaver – to have a voice and become involved in decision making. The reason our Catering Manager became aware of concerns over sandwich wrappings is because he and his staff hold regular forums in which students can offer their views on the service, and make suggestions. Also, he is a regular in classrooms adding to the teaching of the formal curriculum as it applies to food, and its sourcing, cultivation and consumption. Topics such as sustainability cease to be abstract when applied to questions of what, and how, pupils eat at school.

If we are doing our jobs properly, ours must be a culture in which pupils expect and understand their political agency, and have high expectations of those who make decisions on their behalf. It matters at school, and it matters when governments are seeking a mandate for controversial positions in politically uncertain times. This, it strikes me, is one of the most important ways in which schools and educationalists might stand with youth.

The above is an abridged version of Head of Bedales Magnus Bashaarat’s end of Autumn term letter to parents.