An interview with Jo Webbern, Head of Bedales Pre-prep School, Dunannie, 2010-18

When we meet, Jo Webbern is adorned with a pair of Pudsey Bear ears. So are her staff and, of course, the children of Dunannie, over whom she keeps a good-natured watch throughout our conversation. It’s Children in Need Day, the atmosphere is excited, boisterous but suffused with warmth and encouragement. Jo is overseeing life at a school whose educational beliefs tally exactly with her own and always have done, ever since she was first inspired by the Brown Owl of her Brownie group as a young girl.

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“I wasn’t only a Brownie, you know,” she says. “I also became a Guide later and then a Queen’s Guide but I always particularly adored Brown Owl, who was warm, friendly, kind and funny. She had been trained at the Froebel Institute, the same place that produced the first Head of Dunhurst, as it happens, and from my early days, I remember thinking that I wanted to be exactly like her.”

Teaching wasn’t the only possibility on the young Jo’s horizon when it came to considering a career, however. “There were boundaries in my childhood, naturally, but I was always given the greatest possible support by my parents to go ahead and explore life,” Jo remembers. “I was a bit of a tomboy, really, adored cars and if I wasn’t going to become an actress, which was a huge ambition of mine at one point, then being a rally driver would have been a fabulous alternative. Teaching happened in the end, mainly because I thought that it would be a more secure thing to do!”

Just as she had always planned, Jo emulated her former mentor by gaining her Froebel Certificate of Education (in 2017 students were credited with a degree). “What I loved about the Froebel approach was that children were listened to, individuality was encouraged and each child’s personal characteristics were enhanced and developed,” Jo reflects. “When I went to Froebel, the Plowden Report into primary education in Britain had just come out and while there were plenty of ideas out there, how to put them into the educational structure seemed to be a bit less certain. Practical considerations were sometimes lacking in those days but people were on the right track. It was properly recognised that a child’s early years are the most crucial of all – the building blocks, the monkey bars, the sand-pit and all the rest of it.”

A native Welsh girl, Jo headed homewards in order to gain her first practical teaching experience: “Yes, back to the Gower, where I managed to gain a really sound overview of teaching at a number of different schools. I taught inner city children and those from the farming communities and it was a great way to learn my craft.”

Eventually, the time was ripe for what had long seemed inevitable – Jo’s return to London to teach at the Froebel Demonstration School, Ibstock Place, the jewel in the crown of the Froebel Institute and a place where Jo would spend 26 contented years. “It was a wonderful school, a hands-on and spontaneous place at which to teach and to learn,” she enthuses. “Children were climbing trees the whole time, bashing around and being allowed to make their own mistakes, learn from them and ultimately apply those lessons as they moved through life. You might suddenly decide that your class would put their coats on and head off to the park in those days without any thought about permission slips or health and safety assessments. Perhaps you would all jump on a train and go and see an exhibition about the Romans – those were magical years for teachers, a time when you weren’t as restricted as you might be in the modern world. I do feel today that there is too much attention paid to control of the curriculum, that it is too carefully crafted. There has to be room for innovation and spontaneity.”

“The early years are a time when children are like a sponge; the idea for teachers must be to instil a love of learning and independent thinking in them, alongside the sound base of core standards,” Jo continues. “When I look at Year 3 in Dunannie, for example, rehearsing for their Christmas play and so taking time away from their English or maths lessons, I think how worthwhile it is. The children are learning how to work together and support each other, at the same time as they are developing their own confidence and creativity.”

Jo happened to leave Ibstock Place on the same day that Terry Wogan abdicated from his eternal reign over the airwaves of Radio 2. “It was strangely coincidental to me that we should be simultaneously leaving jobs that we loved after the same length of service,” Jo observes. “It was the right thing for me at the time, though, there were a few family matters that needed to be sorted out as well and so off I went, not without a tear in my eye.”

She would not be lost to teaching for long. A vacancy for the role of Head arose at Dunannie and Jo’s name was put forward for the post by her own former head. “I knew a fair bit about Bedales for one reason or another,” Jo explains. “I’d come here as a visitor and been so impressed; the ethos at Ibstock Place and Bedales had always been closely aligned and a number of pupils had moved on from one to the other. Sarah Webster, my formidable predecessor but one at Dunannie, was also someone whom I knew well and liked a lot. It was as though the stars aligned for me – I was free to move and now here was this wonderful opportunity to come to a place that I admired so much and now wanted me to lead the school. I felt so honoured.”

Starting as Head at the beginning of a summer term was unusual but, as Jo readily confirms, allowed her vital time to see what her priorities at Dunannie should be: “I had a clean sheet and the chance to familiarise myself with the school, to stand back, observe and reflect – and later, to implement. The only thing that took a bit of getting used to was the first-name terms but I soon saw what an enabling tool it was for the children in a conversation. One little boy seemed to think that my first name was Jwebbern, rather than Jo, so that’s what I became!”

Jo’s major preoccupation was that spontaneity should regain its place at the heart of the school – what she terms the ‘Dunannie factor’. “It seemed to me that some of the teachers had perhaps felt themselves to be under a control that was too tight,” she says. “I felt that it was necessary to restore their voice to them and allow them to express themselves through their teaching – reinstitute the ‘we can’ mentality. This is such a precious time in a child’s life and there is a danger in assessing them at every step of the way at such a young age. Of course, we measure the progress of the children but at this age more than most, children achieve different things at different times. You can achieve a Level 3 in writing if it’s especially beautifully done, but no grade can reflect the amount of effort that has gone into producing it.”

Encouragement and applause, then, would become Jo’s watchwords for Dunannie under her stewardship. “To see children skipping in to school, eager to learn, is such a wonderful thing. What we’re all trying to do here is to impart transferable skills that will prepare children for life at Dunhurst, Bedales or somewhere completely different,” she says. “Parents have a crucial role to play in that too, of course, and it’s vital for us to establish a healthy relationship with them. They need to trust us but it’s also important that they understand that we know what we’re doing. We will always listen to their views and concerns but equally, parents must be able to listen to us. Friedrich Froebel once said that a mother is a child’s first teacher and that’s true but it’s the school that has to be trusted to make those lessons work.”

It seems strange, contemplating so much exuberance and evident delight at the Dunannie of today, that Jo Webbern will no longer be a part of it after this term (Summer 2018). “I kept my retirement under my hat for a while but I’m a firm believer in leaving the party while I’m still enjoying it,” she says. “Once again, it’s absolutely the right decision for me. I have so loved the privilege of being Head here and I want to hang on to the very best of memories, the most satisfying that I’ve ever had.”

So what comes next? “I will find plenty of things to do,” Jo laughs. “I have a husband to keep an eye on and a golf handicap to bring down and I’m looking forward to doing a bit of voluntary work and a lot of travelling. Forty years of high-priced holidays will be a thing of the past for me and I intend to make the most of it. Of course I shall be sad to leave but I’ll circle back here from time to time once it’s appropriate to do so and my successor Victoria has had a chance to breathe and put her own mark on things. You can be sure of one thing: I shall never abandon the connection that I have with this place. I value it far too much.”

Jo Webbern was originally interviewed by James Fairweather in November 2017, and minor additions were added in June 2018 prior to publishing.

Can a school change and still be the same school?

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By Clare Jarmy, Head of PRE and Head of Academic Enrichment and Oxbridge

125 logo trans - Copy (Small)Giving school assemblies is always such a joy, especially tackling topics that really matter to us as a community. On our minds this year, in the context of the 125th anniversary of the school, and with Magnus taking the reins in September, is institutional identity. Is Bedales the same school it was 125 years ago? With so much change over the years, how can Bedales still be the same?

In Philosophy, we ask this question of ourselves – we are changing too, with cells regenerating all the time, so am I the same person? Perhaps memories are what keep us the same person?

I applied this to the case of Bedales, and demonstrated that there is a long institutional memory at the school. I asked students to stand up if they had been at Bedales for more than 5 years, then to stand up if they had a parent at the school, or grandparent, or sibling. By then, almost everyone was standing up, and we could see how much collective memory we have of the school.

Similarly, we still have overlapping memories leading back to Mr Badley himself. Keith, other staff and OBs, knew Tim Slack. Tim Slack knew Mr Badley. We then, by knowing those around us today, become part of that chain of memory that leads back to the foundation of the school.

This could get quite backward-looking and nostalgic. After all, as John Henry Newman said, ‘to live is to change’, and Bedales is always seeking to renew itself (Mr Badley wanted the school to rebuild itself every seven years). We must, then, remain Janus-faced, looking back to and understanding our past, yet ever looking forwards to how we shape the school in the future.

Steephurst Air Raid Shelter

By Jane Kirby, Bedales Librarian and Archivist

In going through some of the Headmaster’s correspondence from the WW2 era, I came across a tantalising reference to the architect employed to advise the school on the provision of Air Raid Shelters.

I haven’t yet traced all the papers that may be in the school archives, only letters from Headmaster Freddie Meier to Dr Carr, Chair of the Governors, but these were sufficient to send me on a quest to the RIBA study rooms at the V&A.

It transpires, that among the archives of Ernö Goldfinger held at the V&A, there is indeed a file relating to the design and building of the Steephurst Air Raid Shelter.  Mary Crowley, an Old Bedalian who had become an architect, worked with Goldfinger for a period and both their names appear on the front of the Specification of Works for the shelter.

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The Steephurst bike sheds – as they are now.

Before the war, Mary had worked with Alister MacDonald and Vyv Trubshawe (both OBs) on plans for alterations to Steephurst, Steepcot and the Main Building, and designs for the girls’ changing rooms.  She later married David Medd and after the war they became well-known for their work in designing schools.

The Steephurst Air Raid shelter made use of the fact that the land falls between the main Steephurst lawn and the lower part of the garden.  There was already a retaining wall at this point, with central steps.  The steps were removed, and the retaining wall used as the rear wall of the shelter.  Drawn up in an optimistic spirit, the original plans include a drawing for ‘Elevation : Post War’ in which the roof is held up by pillars, but the front wall has been removed, to give a cloister at the edge of the garden.  This, of course, is what was done and the air raid shelter became the girls’ bike shed; perhaps a rather less glamorous use than the quiet shelter for relaxation they might have imagined.

Progress was rapid, considering the restrictions in place at the time, and after the plans were accepted in August 1940 the contractors were on site in early September.  There were difficulties obtaining some materials – the steel reinforcing rods, and bricks – and more expensive items had to be substituted.  There was some discussion as to the need for Elsans, which were eventually included.  A temporary covered passageway was also built from the shelter to Steephurst, but something clearly went amiss in communicating this, so it did not follow the original intended route straight into the sewing room, but went instead at an angle.  Some savings were made by making the bunks 2’ rather than 2’3” wide.

When the building was finished, some disquiet was expressed at how rough the floor was, but there was no money to put down a screed (despite the generosity of parents in donating to the building costs).  One unforeseen problem was that the lights shone through the roof vents “and turned it into a grand express train”, but these were soon blacked out.  By the end of January 1941 Freddie Meier was writing to inform Goldfinger that some of the bricks were crumbling, so despite being a more expensive type of brick than the original ones specified, they do not seem to have been very good quality.  The original builders, strangely, came all the way from Ringmer, near Lewes, but a local firm was appointed to replace the defective bricks.

Many of Goldfinger’s buildings, such as the Balfron and Trellick Towers and his house at 2 Willow Road, Hampstead (National Trust), are listed, so I wonder if we should campaign for the same recognition of the bike sheds, and add another listed building to our portfolio?

2016: My year to remember (or maybe forget)

By Dr Christopher Grocock, Head of Classics

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On Monday 5 February, I had the opportunity to talk in the Bedales assembly about some serious events which I had to come to terms with and cope with during 2016. These are personal to me, and as a rule, not things aired in public, but I felt it appropriate to talk about them for three reasons. First, a remark from Senior Deputy, Louise Wilson, that we often talk about Mental Health issues these days but do not often hear success stories – and I am one, I am pleased to say. Second, I was absent for a lot of 2016, and again while it is the norm to protect an individual’s privacy, I felt it ok to waive that right and to explain why 1I had needed help from other teachers to cover my lessons while I was away. Lastly, because it is a cathartic thing for me to do at this point – a year ago would have been far too close, while if I wait too long, the challenge of what happened may become diluted. I was told by a physician in St Thomas’ hospital that ‘it was impossible to exaggerate the scale of what I had gone through and survived.’ Hence the image of Fortuna Redux which we have copied from a classical sculpture and turned into a mosaic for our garden. It might be translated loosely as ‘lucky to be back.’

3As a reminder, my name is Christopher Grocock, I am 60 years old, I have been happily married to Sally since 1996, I am Head of Classics at Bedales School (an honourable position in an august and respected institution), where I have taught since 2001, I have a crazy collie dog called Zeus, and over the course of my life I haven’t done badly at all: at University I gained a double first and a Ph.D, I went on to be a successful worker for a Christian charity, then as a marketing executive and product development manager in the printing industry; by 35, I was Project Director of the Bede’s World Museum in Jarrow. I ‘chanced upon’ teaching when aged about 40, and have stayed in the profession ever since then. Alongside this I have pursued a career as an ‘independent scholar’ and I have written six academic books and more articles than seem possible, starting back in 1988 and seeing something appear under my name every year since 2004.  I also like to do practical projects, not least of these being major landscaping of our garden in Grayshott, where one of my most notable achievements is our ‘sitooterie’, where we can ‘sit oot’ in a summer evening, or sit inside the attached ‘sitinnerie’ if it rains. This might all seem, dare I say it, idyllic; but for all my life, going back to about the age of six, it has been marred by a complete absence of feelings to go with the achievements.

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There was always a ‘Black Dog’ to spoil things. Feelings of despair or pointlessness might come at any time – but more often when I was tired or had just completed a lot of hectic work (I rarely felt this when I was doing something, which is a reason why I kept pushing myself to do things to a level which was decidedly unhealthy.) Being a Christian compounded the situation: Christians aren’t supposed to feel like this are they? Well they can and do.

5All this took a lot of energy, but sadly much of the determination and drive came from a really bad source – depression and a very low level of self-esteem. No matter how hard I worked at anything, or how much success I seemed to attain, something was always there to spoil it. The diagram on the right (from the Oxford Guide to Behavioural Experiments in Cognitive Therapy) illustrates the futility of the cycle: the repeated attempts to prove my worth to myself and counter perceived low self-esteem left me exhausted; the inability to ‘feel’ success reinforced the lack of any sense of entitlement I had, so I tried harder only to become more disappointed, and my efforts led either to anxiety (or the right of the diagram) or to depression (on the left), or to both.

In April 2016, I came to terms with the fact that what I was suffering from was a mental illness. No two are the same, but I was not alone by any means, and everywhere I looked I began to see that others – often people in the limelight, like Fearne Cotton and Ruby Wax – had had similar experiences to mine. But the one which resonated most closely with me was ex-England cricketer and coach Graeme ‘Foxy’ Fowler, interviewed in connection with the publication of his own account of what he had been through. In this, he recounted part of a conversation he had had with his GP. ‘Have you ever self-harmed or actually tried to take our own life.’ ‘No. But a lot of the time I just wish I did not exist any more.’ I had had the same conversation almost word-for-word with my own GP not a month earlier. Lesson one, and the most important lesson I learned and wanted to pass on is: don’t bottle things up. Feelings like this are not ‘normal’ but they are ‘common’ and more people have them than we may dare to think.

I received super support and sympathy – from home, family, friends, and work; I was given time and space to recover. But me being me, I did most of the work myself, and made use of facilities online from the NHS and a CBT course. I have gone from being an unbeliever to a convert. The ancient Greeks write the saying ‘gnothi seauton’ or ‘know yourself’ over the doorway to the oracle at Delphi. Working through CBT exercises helped me – without too much pain – to recognize myself and distinguish the me that really exists from the phoney poor self-image I often created.

Lesson two was to ‘recognise the lies we tell ourselves’ – often by listening to others. In the past I had achieved a lot, and recognised nothing. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate my own abilities and achievements but they were, and are not, ‘nothing’. Over the summer of 2016 I got my head sorted out, and spent an enjoyable summer doing more work in the garden and writing – and walking with Sally and Zeus.

I returned to work in autumn 2016 refreshed and with a sensible approach to getting work done at Bedales. The first half of the term went very well, but on top of work I was still writing and had two deadlines to meet, and some more projects inside the house to sort out before winter came; I had resorted to old work-patterns (though I was feeling very good about them). But towards the end of that half-term by beloved mother-in-law, Beadle, passed away aged 91. I said I would take her funeral, and delivered two eulogies on the same day (the first day of the half-term holiday); and then we found that my dear friend Dave had died, and he had asked in his will if I would do his funeral too, and it was then that we found out the hard way that I had an undiagnosed blood disorder. This time it was not my mind but my body which reacted madly to the stress I had put it under. Click here for a fine illustration of the kind of reaction I had at the end of October 2016. It satisfies an interest I have in steam trains and it is worth watching to 1:37 (ironically the slope you see from Exeter Central to Exeter St David’s is 1 in 37).

In summary, my liver released more sugar to give me energy and went into overdrive; my pancreas couldn’t cope; my blood thickened till I had a ‘massive embolism’ about the size of a small lemon which squashed my pulmonary artery and stopped my heart. Fortunately, I had already made it as far as the ICU at Guildford’s Royal Surrey County Hospital when my heart stopped – four times in all, the longest for 15 minutes.

7Lesson three, is knowing that when people say ‘stress is a killer’ they are not lying. The ICU was an ideal place to have it as it turned out, because their CPR kept the oxygen supply going to my brain until the embolism could be dealt with. Later when I was back in Guildford, I decided that the record label was the ideal thing to put on to T-shirts and a sweatshirt (the irony of the show’s title ‘One Dam Thing After Another’ made me laugh too. In hospital, I learned that one of the best strategies to face down a really serious situation – and I faced several over the weeks to come – was to laugh at it or spit in its eye). Lesson four: CPR really works when it is done properly!

9I was not out of danger. My heart had-re-started but my lungs were full of the bits of clotted blood and my liver and kidneys were not happy, shall we say (everything shut down at one point or another). This link illustrates what happened pretty well. At any event, I needed a treatment called ECMO provided by a remarkable team of medical  personnel at St Thomas’ Hospital led by Dr Duncan Wyncoll (right). In short I had eight days in an induced coma and then a slow and very steady recovery with numerous hurdles to get over before I was transferred back to Guildford on 20 November and then came home on 8 December. My condition is stable if I do as I am told (which I do) and take all my meds (which I do) and avoid stress (which I do). This is another lesson: a patient should be patient. Oh, and ‘medicine is not an exact science.’

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I fought hard to get back to work during the term after Christmas and I am more pleased to be back at Bedales than I can say. Even when tired I have lost the feelings of wanting to be ‘nowhere’. I most definitely want to be ‘somewhere’ – at home, at school, or watching the glories of sunsets on Hankley Common just north-east of Grayshott. What else have I learned? Well, sometimes it is ok to say ‘no. ‘Being’ not ‘doing’ is the key to enjoying what we do. And sometimes it is better to take longer and pull half the train up the hill at a time! (You may need to look at the first hyperlink to understand!).

An update from the Professional Guidance department

By Vikki Alderson-Smart, HE Advisor

A team of interviewers arrived at school this week to take part in one-to-one talks with 6.1 students about their plans for after Bedales. The interviewing team sent a message afterwards to say: “We were totally bowled over by your students over the past couple of days. They were not only punctual and polite, but also most communicative, conveying a wide spectrum of ideas and delightful to engage.”

All of the 6.1’s will have a follow-up interview with me to discuss in more depth their research into their post-Bedales plans. I will be encouraging them to go and visit universities on open days, and all these dates can be found on the UCAS website. Taster days are another good way of trying out various courses; registration for the University of London taster programme is now open.

Students can also try MOOCS as a way of dipping their toes into subjects they may not have tried before; Futurelearn is a particularly good website for finding courses.

Students should also take advantage of the Old Bedalian careers list. I will encourage your sons and daughters to speak with Leana Seriau, Alumni Liaison Manager, to use this facility. She is able to put students in contact with Old Bedalians from many career areas so that they can gain a better insight into areas of work they may be considering. Please encourage them to see Leana or contact her by email: lseriau@bedales.org.uk

Duke of Edinburgh’s Award update

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By Paul Turner, Head of Geography and DoFE Centre Coordinator

Last year, students grasped the opportunities available through DofE with both hands and the number of participants increased fivefold with half the school involved. Students camped and walked in Dartmoor as well as Dorset and the South Downs. The DofE Award continues to be highly valued by employers and universities alike and is a useful badge – recognising much of what the students already do as part of everyday life at Bedales.

This year, we’ve expanded the team with Ana Simmons taking responsibility for the Silver Award (available to all Block 4’s) and myself leading the Gold Award (available to all 6.1’s) with the award running across the two sixth form years. Following a trial of the Bronze Award with Block 3, we have instead decided to focus the school’s resources on the Silver and Gold levels. There is no prerequisite for each level and it is common for schools to offer only specific levels.

A new addition this year is the introduction of DofE comments to the review cycle for specific year groups, and we hope this will improve the regular nature of communication and allow parents to better understand the progress their child is making. It is important to reiterate the independent nature of the award: students are required to evidence and organise much of what they do themselves within the framework provided and upload the appropriate material to the edofe website. Another important point to emphasise is the composite nature of the award with the expedition being one of four components including the physical, skills and volunteering. As was the case last year, students will not be permitted to participate in the expedition unless they have submitted evidence for at least two of the other award sections.

Looking forward, we have Silver expeditions in the New Forest and South Downs planned as well as Gold expeditions: one walking in the Brecon Beacons, another canoeing on the River Wye. Gold students continue weekly training as part of their expedition preparation and Silver students in Block 4 continue their Friday afternoon activity having now been allocated their expedition groups and leader.

Block 5 China experience

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By Oscar Clark and Isabella Barty-King, Block 5

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We left for Beijing, via Frankfurt, early on the Thursday before half term and landed in Beijing at a similar time on Friday, marking the first day of our battle against tiredness. We went straight from the airport to see the Temple of Heaven which gave us our first taste of the amazing historical sights Beijing has to offer.

At the end of the day we went to see an acrobatics show, at the end of the show there was a steel globe with 7 motorbikes riding fast around the inside.  It certainly helped to keep us excited and awake! Our stay in Beijing was packed to the brim with incredible sightseeing including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Summer Palace. The highlight of our time in Beijing was the five hour round trip to Emily Seeber’s favourite spot on the Great Wall, which did not disappoint. After roughly an hour of walking steeply uphill we were gazing along the monumental structure as it stretched into the distance, zigzagging along the mountain range and eventually dipping over the IMG_4236horizon.

After an amazing few days in Beijing we pulled our luggage onto the overnight train to Xi’an and settled down for a night on the tracks. This was the most fun, with four packed into each cabin and barely enough room to move.  You’d think it would have been a disaster but it still remains my favourite part.  We were woken by weary guards warning us of our impending arrival at Xi’an. Our time in the city was short and entertaining and jam-packed.  It was actually my favourite city out of all three. A highlight was our visit to the terracotta warriors, where we spent hours looking at the different soldiers.  We also made our own terracotta warriors, learnt about the ancient history and took a beautiful bike ride along the city wall.

IMG_4193All too soon we were flying out of Xi’an, south east towards our final destination – Shanghai. We landed, ate and slept, preparing to meet our Chinese counterparts at the school the next day. We met our buddies from the high school, mine being Jason and Thomas, a scientist and a mathematician. We then spent the rest of the day exploring a water village just outside Shanghai which was almost Venetian in style. We spent the day with two of the maths teachers from the school and you may remember them as having visited Bedales last year. The penultimate day of activities was spent at the school, sitting in on English and art lessons, playing a seven-a-side game of football against them and, to round off our time at the school, we watched short presentations from the students on the music, fashion and culture of China. We then left the school in pairs to have dinner with our buddies and their families, all round Shanghai.

IMG_3970We spent our last day in central Shanghai, walking around the French concession where we visited a museum on the history of propaganda. In the evening we spent a very interesting hour in a karaoke bar which was rounded off with a short award ceremony and a big thank you to our national tour guide, Joyce.

It was a truly amazing trip giving a remarkable insight into the history and culture of the fastest growing economy in the world and a wondrous opportunity to see new things first hand. On behalf of all of the students, we would like to say a huge thank you to all the staff who made this fantastic experience possible.

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