The Pursuit of Happiness

Posted on: 14 Oct 2014

Those who believe that achievement in examinations is the measure of all things educational can be surprised to find that at Bedales Prep, the overriding priority is to have a happy school explains, Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst.

A worrying picture of the well-being of our young people has emerged from The Good Childhood Report 2014, recently published by The Children’s Society.

For children’s well-being, England has been ranked at a worrying thirtieth place in a table of thirty nine countries in Europe and North America. If this were a football league, England would be flirting with relegation.

Such findings must demand the attention of educationalists, and particularly so for us at Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst given the focus in this report on children within our own age range.

The report attributes well-being (and its absence) to a range of factors, including degrees of autonomy, levels of physical activity, and the inclination of young people to seek help if they have a problem. The report suggests that girls experience a lower sense of well-being than boys, often with issues around appearance.

Importantly, the well-being of parents is identified as a key factor in the well-being of children, and rightly so in my view. Increasingly, we adults live in a performance-managed world, and I am sure that we can endure only so much scrutiny before it starts to have a negative impact on our well-being. Much the same too often applies to pre- and early-teen children who, at a time when their bodies are changing and they have to get to grips with understanding the world in new ways, can be besieged with measurement in one form or another.

Those who believe that achievement in examinations is the measure of all things educational can be surprised to find that at Bedales Prep, our overriding priority is to have a happy school. For example, we only employ teachers we can see will have a strong rapport with pupils – who listen to them, and don’t preach. We foster, and expect, mutual respect – adult to child, and vice versa. Our pupils are on first name terms with our teachers, and we encourage that sense of belonging in a community. We want our pupils to feel valued: we give our pupils choice and encourage them to have opinions - they have a considerable voice in shaping their school and we encourage them to think more broadly about the world around them. There is a great emphasis on pastoral care, both peer to peer and from teachers.

Physical activity is a very important part of school life, but not because of concerns around health and body image: rather, we want out our young people to be outside and active - on the sports field or working on the estate - because they enjoy it. We encourage our pupils to express their individuality through their dress, to be excited by the possibilities, and to learn to be comfortable with the differences such an approach inevitably reveals.

But is there a price to pay for this emphasis on informality, individuality and choice?

It can be interesting when parents turn to us for their children’s education when what might be considered a ‘tougher’ educational regime elsewhere hasn’t worked out for them. Our broader way of doing things – which favours assessment in the classroom over examinations, and is light on ‘cups and prizes’ – can prompt concern about how parents will judge their children’s progress.

Well, the short answer is that they do very well.

The vast majority of Bedales Prep pupils move up to Bedales (the Senior School), which pursues the same educational ethos, engaging students actively in their learning and giving them an unusual amount of choice. Bedales students achieve very highly in public examinations and accessing the most demanding universities (and Bedales Prep students especially so) despite a broad ability range, which tells us that we are successful in squaring the happiness/achievement circle.

Although our methods may seem unconventional when viewed through certain narrow lenses, the evidence suggests that our approach really does work.

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