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.

How we learn and what makes us tick

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By Josh Mazas, 6.2

I wanted to share some thoughts on what I have personally found make people act the way they do, with a touch on how great a Bedalian education is.

When I say “what makes us tick” I mean the most basic subconscious motivators. Not for example, money, power, or because mum tells you to. These are important, but they apply individually, and I would be more interested in the factors beneath those – in those that apply universally.

Also, I’m only at the very initial thoughts on what I think is education and behavioural studies. In fact, most people would usually stand up and tell the audience why they’re qualified to talk on education and behavioural studies… I’m not qualified to do anything much. I have however, been at this school for a decade now, well over half of the 14-odd years I’ve spent in education. And what I wanted to do was just share a personal fascination that I think was born of going to a school that aims to be slightly different – questioning the status quo.

A few years ago, after some deep soul-searching, I diagnosed myself as a compulsive people-watcher. I find watching the infinitely varied way in which people behave and trying to understand why, fascinating. So to start with, I will spend a bit of time talking about a four-year-old friend of mine, Badger.

Badger: 1. Valorisation

The great thing about kids is that they are psychologically untouched. They don’t have any of the complexities or self-awareness of an adult that comes from scepticism and experiences and growing up, and so when I’m people-watching, it’s like their actions are a clear window into their mind-set.

Well, a couple of weekends ago I spent some time watching Badger interacting with his natural habitat at Common People music festival with his parents and all the other people we were working with. The first evening he stood on the circle of logs around the campfire and jumped from one to the other, and when he did a particularly big jump, we cheered him, which I can tell you made him very happy. The next evening he went back to the logs and did some jumping, but this time he looked at us expectantly, clearly waiting for the applause that his daring feats of acrobatics deserved. Which of course, with his chubby cheeks and bright blue eyes, he got.

As I was watching, I was struck by how much of the time, we do things because people tell us they have value, when in the larger scheme of things, they are about as significant as Badger’s hops. It was clear to me that the really basic reason that Badger was doing his hopping (which can be transferred to many other things we do) is for one of three basic reasons, the first of which I would call ‘valorisation’.

The concept is very simple. Throughout our childhoods, if we have good parents and peers who support us emotionally, then we are applauded for certain things: academic, creative and sporting feats, altruistic behaviour and generally what we think of as those acts that have ‘value’.

It’s funny, because this idea of value is completely arbitrary: we think of an action as having value if it’s worth doing. And we do stuff because we feel it has value. This tautology means that, to an extent, goodness is trained into us: we say that we inherited the creative/sporty/maths genes from our parents, but I think it’s more like our parents applaud traits they find in themselves, and thus you are subconsciously trained to be like them, with no genetic predisposition.

Anyway, when I consider the basic reasons that make us do things: work hard; be friendly; eat your greens; I think it stems at its most basic level from this idea of valorisation. Which means that although we don’t think of ourselves usually in this way, we are each individually programmed by our parents’ conscious and subconscious valorisation, as well as the valorisation we receive from our surroundings. But of course, that’s not where all our ‘ticking’ comes from.

Badger: 2. Copying and integrating

Back to Badger. The day after his log-jumping Olympic gold, Badger was following his mum Kate around, and she was walking round the campsite just dancing to the reggae-dub that was playing on the mainstage, so he started bopping with her. It was interesting because he initially watched her carefully, trying to replicate her exact movements, until the moment of realisation that her incomprehensible spasms were actually linked to the beat that was incessantly playing. You could see the comprehension as we went from dancing completely out of tune, to focussing inwards and rocking to the music with much happiness, jamming along with glee and pride, bigger and bigger moves… until he whacked his head on one of the poles.

Poor Badger.

The next basic motivator then, I thought, was clear throughout much of the animal kingdom; especially monkeys, and it was simply: copying. As an evolutionary mechanism, it makes a lot of sense, you copy your peers or people you aspire to be in order to learn from them, and improve yourself.

This is actually a vital part of initial learning, until we learn to think for ourselves, which is why you have to be super careful about what you do or say around kids. They are incredible at picking up on what you do and copying you. Without their talent in this field we wouldn’t be able to learn to speak, or eat, or any very basic communication skills.

You can also see it subconsciously in large groups of people, shoals of fish, and young Tory voters. “My parents are Tory, I’ll vote Conservative”. It’s amazing how much more likely you are to dance if other people are dancing, this feeling of copying people so as not to be different, to blend in, be part of the crowd is something we all experience, and isn’t always positive.

Anyway, so I think you’ve probably grasped quite easily the first two obvious factors of motivation: valorisation and the innate urge to copy. The third one is my favourite, and I think that between these three you can argue that they cover all the things we do in our lives, in general.

Badger: 3. Wonder

This is the last time I will mention Badger: when I woke up on the last day of the festival, I found him sitting on a stool, pouring water very gently over this little spider web and seeing how it made little droplets that sparkled in the about 11:30 sunshine. He was completely enthralled, and 100% focussed, as he was when dancing or log-hopping. It was wonderful to see.

I took the liberty of joining him in his experiments, and for some brief moments felt the same wonder at seeing the water trickle over such a delicate structure without breaking it.

Although I’m pretty certain Badger wasn’t engrossed specifically by the tensile strength of natural fibres; I thought it was clear we both felt an urge to experiment; to explore our own capabilities; to find out about the world and how it worked. I would argue that it’s the same instinct that makes people want to study at higher education, or take a course in some long-lost art, or climb K2 (the most dangerous mountain in the world to date I believe).

On reflection, I wondered again about the evolutionary perspective on this final factor, and I thought that it was deep down probably linked to fear. Fear is arguably our most innate sensation, all animals have it and it helps us to survive. When discovering something or doing something new, whether physical or mental, you gain knowledge or strength or a skill. This we can essentially call a ‘strength’. Every time you gain a strength, you feel better prepared to survive in a world that is quintessentially frightening. You feel, every time you embark on a discovery, a sense of self-betterment, which is why we have this built into us.

This is my favourite factor, as I said, because it serves us better than the two other factors. If someone tells us to do something, or just simply does something, we are initially at an advantage if we do that thing; but in a more developed world it is absolutely vital to curate and encourage the third factor, which I would like to call innate curiosity.

Bedales

Finally, a couple of quick words about Bedales. Although you may not agree, I think the wonderful thing about this school is embodied in how it approaches the three factors I have just discussed.

Firstly, the incredible amount of valorisation by the teachers is perfect for creating a self-confidence in the student body, a pride in one’s own abilities and also a willingness to do what is good, since we valorise things such as hard work, appreciation of self and others; respect; work of each for weal of all etc. I have a friend who was badly bullied before he joined, and remember vividly how he cried on his first day – such was his lack of confidence. However, through constant support and valorisation, he is now not only proud of his achievements, himself and his beautiful girlfriend, but also feels prepared emotionally for whatever is coming in the next few years.

However, in terms of the second motivator (copying), we find Bedales’ ethos rebels slightly. Bedales is a great advocate of individuality. Which precisely rejects that innate urge to do like everyone else and copy blindly until you understand why. The problem with the second motivator in our contemporary society is that much of what people do is pointless; due to the speed at which attitudes and cultures and even simply geographical positioning changes. In my opinion this is an excellent way to create ‘intelligent thinkers’; people who surpass their basic internal forces to rationally consider their options before doing them. Again, I would say Bedales has struck gold.

Finally, and I’m sure you know what I’m going to say, Bedales – as it says on the website – encourages ‘inquisitive thinkers’. I think we can all agree that this inquisitive, curious, appetite for something different is incredibly valued and valuable at Bedales; it could be considered a trait comparable to or intrinsically linked with (depending on how you see it) creativity. Sir Ken Robinson said it, and I agree, we must cultivate creativity in our schools with the same importance as mathematics or English.

You need creativity to approach the uncertain future we have ahead of us with success. And actually, I would say that Bedales, to a certain extent, is also pretty accomplished in this area too.

Before I finish, I would like to go back to the beginning point about ‘people-watching’. It is fascinating and although you may think what you like about my observations, they come from a completely free and personally tailored form of learning. The integral aim of people-watching is to not only learn about other people, but to stretch your own perspective and learn about yourself. I would highly recommend it.