Keith Budge, headmaster of independent school Bedales, is inspired by his trip to King Edward VI, a comprehensive school
In the library at King Edward VI School, the representatives of five political parties were facing demanding and considered questions from an audience of students and staff. Would the very good question about the minimum wage spook the Green Party candidate? No chance: the sixth-former answered it with aplomb.
Over the course of the school's election debate, I had learned to expect nothing less. All the participants demonstrated the skills that have made King Edward VI famous for debating.
People might think that scenes of such measured debate, political engagement and high-quality thinking are more common in independent schools than in the state sector. Not so. I hope I didn't make that kind of lazy assumption before I spent the day at King Edward VI, but I certainly wouldn't now.
The election debate was one of many highlights of my day shadowing Geoff Barton, headteacher of Bury St Edmunds' oldest school (it can trace its roots to the 10th century). "Job swap" may be over-egging it, but for me it was a cracking opportunity to step inside a fellow headteacher's professional life, if only for a day. Here's why.
I am a product and consumer of independent schooling to my bootstraps - I was even born in one. I went to an old-fashioned boys' boarding school. I have taught in four independent boarding schools in the UK and one in California. My only experience in the maintained sector was during my teaching practice back in the late 1970s. My PGCE year - which was more political indoctrination than pedagogical insight - nearly put me off teaching for life.
Here I am now, in the final quarter of my career, and my direct knowledge of the great majority of schools in the UK is woeful. My contact as a parent of three children is no better: they had only a handful of years of state primary schooling.
I am headteacher of Bedales Schools - pre-prep, prep and senior - in one of the loveliest parts of Hampshire. We have 740 pupils and two-thirds of our seniors board. And, yes, we are fee-paying.
Compared with King Edward VI, we are a mere stripling. We were founded in 1893 by a Victorian visionary, John Badley, as an alternative to the run-of-the-mill public schools of the day, which he regarded as being obsessed with Latin, Greek, games and regimes that were inhumanely inflexible.
What I most admire about King Edward VI is its determination to pursue breadth. It does this in two ways: by embracing drama, art, music, school magazines and what I call the life of ideas; and through a distinctive programme that cultivates leadership qualities in its young people. In this respect, Geoff's own passion for debating has played a major role. King Edward VI has an enviable national reputation in this area and the confidence that comes from disciplined pursuit of this crucial skill permeates the entire school.
I saw this in the self-confident and articulate students who dealt fluently with complex ideas in the lunchtime mock election, but I could also see it in the upper-sixth-formers I spoke to for 20 minutes on my own: Tony, Molly, Adam and Grace. It was not just their demeanour and quiet assurance that so impressed me. It was also what I learned about the school's clear, graduated programme of leadership, which enables pupils to become leaders as they reach the sixth form.
Perhaps most impressive - and illuminating - was the part played by the exchange scheme with a school in Shanghai. I was especially intrigued by this because Bedales has had a comparable relationship with a school in Shanghai for a similar length of time. The King Edward VI relationship is not only in better fettle than ours but it is also integral to the leadership programme. It acts as a beacon and an incentive for younger students to work towards what is seen as a leadership opportunity rather than a holiday: students have to take responsibility on the ground in China - for example, navigating the group around Shanghai.
I was all ears when this was described to me. It's a really enlightened and effective system, and much more educational and organised than our relatively haphazard approach. Note to self, firmly made.
What else is transferable to my setting? Data tracking and intervention occupy a lot of space in Geoff's mind and play a major part in the school's institutional heft. Bedales also does a good deal of targeted intervention, but the science and scale of it at King Edward VI is of a different order. Geoff showed me the staffroom where the profiles of all 370 Year 9 pupils are pinned to the wall. The Achievement for All programme helps the school to focus on students who should be capable of at least a C in English and maths, but who are in danger of dropping to a D or below.
Engaging families is critical, as is a willingness from parents and children to attend an after-school study club. Sarah Whyand, Geoff's assistant headteacher who has responsibility for data and monitoring, is eagle-eyed and determined to spot underachievement early. A head of achievement is due to be appointed shortly.
Both Geoff and Sarah are adamant that the need to drive up GCSE results in maths and English must not compromise the school's breadth of education.
And there's the rub. This is what strikes me as the biggest difference between maintained and fee-paying schools: in my sector, although one eye is always kept on inspection requirements, we are judged against our school's stated aims above all else.
We benefit from a system of peer inspection, whereby inspectors are receptive to a school's particular atmosphere and ethos, which in Bedales' case is one of informality (first-name terms, no uniform) and a strong emphasis on inquisitive thinking and independent learning.
Based on what I saw at both King Edward VI and Hardwick Middle School (where Geoff is executive headteacher), data determines the Ofsted judgement. However enlightened the school leadership, the spectre of Ofsted stalks the corridors, whether you like it or not.
I suspect that, as a headteacher, it may be easier to pursue your vision when you have a high degree of independence; this is where the fee-paying sector has an advantage.
The humanity and breadth of Geoff's vision for his school shines through, all the same. Good headteachers infuse their schools with a love of learning and a sense that the young lives in their care have boundless potential. I felt this acutely as I went around Geoff's school.
The fellowship and delight that I have gained from getting to know such a capable colleague is perhaps the most enduring thing I will take away from this illuminating experience.
However, this is tempered by a sinking feeling. At its root is the fear that to run a school with the breadth and humanity of King Edward VI, you need to fight against a mechanistic and, it appears, hostile inspection regime.
Geoff is holding out, but will his successor have the same courage and self-belief?
Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI, is reinvigorated by his visit to Bedales
There is an unexpected ritual at the end of every Bedales assembly. The staff line up at the front of the hall and the students step forward, one by one, to shake their teachers' hands and say goodnight.
There were fewer students on the evening I attended, because of sixth-form study leave, but it still took more than 12 minutes for everyone to leave the hall. By the end, every student had exchanged a word with every teacher and every teacher had shaken more than five hundred hands. This ritual epitomises a school that dares to be defiantly distinctive.
And it highlights something that I sensed much earlier as I drove into the school grounds (mildly flustered after being stuck behind a tractor for miles of beautiful but infuriating Hampshire countryside): education here feels different.
When it was suggested that I spend a day at Bedales, TES editor Ann Mroz said she hoped it would give me an insight into an independent school that defied the stereotypes. An English teacher by background, I immediately spotted the subtext. She meant defy my stereotypes. She was suggesting that it was time to dislodge the chip from my shoulder.
Just as headmaster Keith Budge is a product of boarding schools - a world I know only from reading grim novels - I'm a comprehensive school devotee. Obsessively and boringly so, I fear. That's in spite of my mother, who quietly resented the fact that I attended Walton Comprehensive on two counts. First, it was a comprehensive, whereas my brother and sister had attended the local boys' and girls' grammar schools. Then there were the initials: WC. That cemented her view that the school was - sorry - bog-standard.
Now I had been transported into the bucolic epicentre of one of the world's most famous boarding schools. It wasn't what I expected.
Walking from the car park to the school reception, I passed a pen of lambs that children tend to at various points during the day. To the left I noticed a barn, students' allotments, a caravan they had built, a pond they had dredged. Keith's office looks out on a listed building containing a library of breathtaking beauty. You walk to it via a meadow.
On the day I visited Bedales, pupils sat on the grass revising, talking and laughing. One child played on a metal sculpture of a horse set among some apple trees. There's no uniform, no bell, no Sir or Miss, just a different sense of what being at school means.
Time itself feels different - by which I emphatically don't mean that the school is sluggish or sleepy.
Sitting that afternoon on the sunlit terrace with Keith and his "tutor group" (the head boy and girl, plus deputies), our conversation - and my appetite for the scotch pancakes the head boy kept serving up - almost made us late for assembly. This, it was clear, would be unthinkable.
Thus, two men in our fifties, neither of us as used to sprinting as we once had been, hurtled towards the assembly hall before deploying that characteristic trick of all headteachers: feigning nonchalant calmness to conceal a galloping heart.
So although there is a different pace at Bedales, it's not one of stultifying complacency. Things start and end on time. My schedule of meetings with students, teachers, housemasters and mistresses was meticulous and ran like clockwork. This is no smug, indulgent backwater.
John Badley founded Bedales with money made in the coalmining boom of the 19th century. So brutally authoritarian was his own experience at Rugby School that he was determined to create a place that combined "head, hand and heart". That remains the Bedales motto and its rationale.
Badley's name cropped up repeatedly. The students who gave me my morning tour - Sam and Lily - mentioned his spirit of feisty individualism. He was invoked by housemasters and mistresses in an evening discussion of student leadership. And he also came up in the afternoon meeting of the curriculum policy group - a team of middle leaders tasked with making strategic decisions about new courses. A programme on global awareness was to be introduced, but the ensuing qualification was scrutinised and quickly dismissed as too mechanistic, too dumbed-down.
"What would Badley do?" someone asked. And, using the founding principles of the founding principal, the team decided that the subject should instead be part of Bedales Assessed Courses, a qualification system that partly replaces GCSEs at the school (see panel, page 30). These courses are typical of Bedales: it is an independent school asserting its independence.
During my visit, I saw much that was liberating. For example, students of all ages are expected to participate in outdoor tasks every day, working with animals or plants, making or growing things.
As Keith put it: "So often, any emotional problems a student has can be informally worked through while working alongside staff at the allotment or renovating a building."
Keith sees his job as one with just two priorities: the school's performance and its distinctiveness. Although he has to maintain the high profile of Bedales, he seems untrammelled by the mechanistic accountability regime that prevails across the state sector. Ofsted and performance tables figured nowhere in my discussions with him.
Tellingly, I encountered staff who said they felt lucky to teach at Bedales, several having fled the state sector because of its joyless obsession with targets and testing.
Did I come away thinking that Bedales was a better school than my own? In truth, no. In fact, I drove home feeling prouder than ever of what we are able to achieve with fewer resources, on a larger scale and with young people from a wider range of backgrounds. But I also realised that I've been quick to judge all private schools, using the kind of easy generalisations that I hate seeing applied to all state schools. Context is everything.
I was pleased to witness a bracing spirit of independence - a school true to its principles, offering something distinctive for its young people, resolutely not bowing to external pressure to conform. As a result, it exemplifies scholarship, nurtures creativity and celebrates practical learning.
It is doing, in other words, precisely what comprehensive schools were designed to do, and precisely what - as a result of my day with Keith - I'm determined to do more of.
The students at Bedales were sufficiently like my own to make me feel that my school can afford to be more defiantly distinctive, more defiantly independent, and that I should feel more defiantly proud of the comprehensive school that I am privileged to lead.
Head to head: meet the school leaders
Keith Budge was educated at Rossall School in Lancashire before attending University College, Oxford, where he read English and earned his PGCE. He taught English at Eastbourne College in East Sussex, later moving to Marlborough College in Wiltshire where he became a housemaster after a year's teaching exchange in California.
He became headmaster of Loretto School in East Lothian in 1995, overseeing the introduction of co-education. He took the helm at Bedales in Hampshire in 2001.
Geoff Barton attended Walton Comprehensive School in Stafford and studied English and linguistics at Lancaster University. He trained to teach at the University of Leicester, beginning his career as an English teacher at Garforth Comprehensive School, Leeds, in 1985.
He was appointed head of English at Huntington School, York, in 1990, and became deputy head of Thurston Upper School in Suffolk in 1997. He has been headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, since 2002.
Debating and leadership at King Edward VI School
Debating is at the heart of King Edward VI School. Every Friday, at the end of the day, about 50 students stay behind for tea, cake and a massive argument.
Headteacher Geoff Barton takes students to more than 20 competitions each year, and pupils discuss unseen topics in assemblies each term. The debates are posted online (bit.lyKingEdwardDebating).
Each year, King Edward VI reaches the finals of many competitions that are traditionally dominated by independent schools.
Debating is part of an advanced leadership programme that expects students to mentor younger pupils. Links with Shanghai, Iraq, Denmark, France and Spain provide an international dimension, with visits designed to boost young people's personal skills and cultural understanding.
The Shanghai exchange is now in its eighth year, and King Edward VI has been selected by the British Council as the first school in the UK to take students to Kurdistan.
The Bedales curriculum
Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) were launched in 2006. In addition to IGCSE and GCSE subjects, students can choose up to five of the 11 BAC courses available.
BACs are designed to offer increased depth, more stimulating material, more active learning, less prescriptive syllabuses and a wider range of assessment methods than GCSEs.
Courses are internally assessed but externally moderated by subject experts who have examining experience. Bedales is the first school to be recognised by Ucas as offering its own GCSE-replacement qualification. The Bedales curriculum is as follows:
Core IGCSEs in English, maths, science and a modern foreign language.
BACs: a choice of ancient civilisations, art, classical music, dance, design, English literature, geography, history, outdoor work, philosophy, religion and ethics, and theatre arts.
A second IGCSE in a modern foreign language, or a GCSE in Latin, ancient Greek, music or computing.
Core non-examined courses in sport and "block time" (incorporating personal development, current affairs and global awareness).