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01 April 2019
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Bedales - creative, liberal, refreshingly different

Hello from Oxfordshire!
Before the Easter holidays we embarked on one final school visit last week. This time to Bedales.
Bedales is truly unique among the English boarding schools. In many respects it is the antithesis to the classic, traditional boarding school: it truly nurtures individuality where other schools demand conformity; it is innovative where others can sometimes seem a little staid; it is informal and approachable, where others come across as overly formal and aloof.
Is Bedales for everyone? Almost certainly not. But we at von Bülow Education love it. We enjoyed the genuine excitement of the pupils for what Bedales has to offer and the palpable atmosphere of creativity.
The Setting
Bedales School is nestled into 120 acres of pristine Hampshire countryside. The estate includes playing fields, orchards, woodland and a nature reserve. We saw sheep, cows and alpacas grazing on the school's own grassland. Pupils were busy building a new pig sty, an addition to the already impressive outdoors farm area.
Truly a protected part of the world, Bedales seems almost impossibly idyllic!
Idyllic Bedales - the school's own sheep grazing in an orchard (a picture from last summer's visit)
Unlike some other top boarding schools, Bedales does not have one architecturally consistent campus. Instead, the school consists of an eclectic mix of older, 19th-century buildings and state-of-the art modern ones - most notably the amazing Art and Design Building.
Bedales's main school building
The stunning, award-winning Art and Design building
Architecturally, the beating heart of the school is surely the stunning Memorial Library.
Bedales stunning library (picture courtesy of Bedales School)
The Outhouse - housing beehives, chicken coops, sties for pigs and alpacas, as well pizza and bread ovens - was built entirely by pupils past and present!
The Outhouse
The eclectic architecture, organic layout and environmentally sustainable nature of the school buildings is very much in line with Bedales' enlightened academic ethos.
The ethos & atmosphere
Yes, Bedales is different to other schools. The school has a distinctly non-conformist vibe. This is in no insignificant part due to Bedales' founder John Haden Bradley. Bradley believed that for pupils to thrive in life they should use their 'head, hand and heart'.
This educational ideal lives on to this day at Bedales. Pupils are expected work hard academically, and to become inquisitive thinkers with a love of learning who cherish independent thought.
Outside of the classroom, pupils are expected to, quite literally, get their hands dirty. They plant trees, build timber-clad sheds, make chutney and pizza and care for the school's farm animals. The chutney and pizza is sold in the school's own shop.
The Olivier Theatre - regular band nights and theatre plays are staged here.
If not busy outdoors, pupils get creative elsewhere: art, design, music and drama are all huge at Bedales. We toured the simply stunning Art & Design Building, the Olivier Theatre and the school's music recording studios - everywhere we saw and heard astonishingly good things.
Bedales' music recording studio.
Inevitably, this focus on individualism and creativity breeds a particular non-conformist school culture and some rather unconventional norms. For example, pupils not only wear no school uniform, some even dye their hair. We saw boys with earrings and long hair, and youngsters with rather exotic, self-styled outfits. All these things are no-nos at most other British boarding schools.
Another noteworthy aspect is pupils addressing teachers by their first names. No 'sir' or 'Mr Roberts', rather Andy and Marion.
Bedales' art department. (picture courtesy of Bedales School)
Naysayers might assume that this laissez-faire attitude to appearances is a slippery slope to misbehavior. Apparently this isn't the case: both teachers and pupils told us that misdemeanors are rare and interactions between teachers and pupils respectful and kind.
The academics
Bedales consistently gets good results in A-levels (42% A/As in 2018) and GCSEs (62% A/As). Both are considerable given the school is non-selective.
Bedales aren't fans of the GCSE curriculum. The school feels it is too restrictive and siloed. True to its ethos the school has come up with its own curriculum - the Bedales Assessed Courses (BAC) - to complement the GCSEs. Next to five core GCSE subjects, pupils can chose courses in, for example, classical music, digital game design, product design or sports science.
We love this approach. Pupils get the best of both worlds - core subjects like maths, sciences and languages, and more practical, job-oriented subjects to deepen their interests.
Extracurricular pursuits
Bedales is all about creativity. Whether it is building a new shed for the school's pigs, designing a new chair or a dress, coding a computer game, composing music or writing a book, pupils are encouraged to create.
Bedales' amazing design & technology department.
Unsurprisingly, Bedales is big on fashion - here's some sewing machines to prove it ;-).
Sports does play an important role at Bedales. Basketball, cricket, football, gymnastics, dance, swimming hockey and tennis are on offer.
Bedales' much used - and a little 'loved-looking' dance studio.
But let's be clear: sports will always play second fiddle to the creative pursuits here. So if sports is THE thing, other boarding schools will have more to offer.
About 70% of pupils board full time. No flexi boarding here. 8% of boarders are from overseas.
Impressions from one of the girls boarding houses - the reception.
We found the single-sex, mixed-age boarding houses comfortable, well-kept and cozy. The older pupils are expected to take responsibility for the younger ones and will shoulder the role of dorm mentor once a year.
Impressions from one of the girls boarding houses - the signing-out book.
The rooms vary between two and six beds. The school is acutely aware of overuse of technology and gadgets and has a strict 10.30pm wifi curfew. Younger pupils hand in their mobile phones at night. If this isn't enough evidence of structure and discipline...;-)
On week-ends the school organises non-compulsory activities. Anything from pizza bake-offs in the school's own pizza oven to cinema and bowling outings is on the cards.
Some Bedales facts:
  • 70% full boarders, of which 8% are from overseas
  • In 2018 42% A/As at A-Level, 62% A/As at GCSEs
  • 50 miles / 1 hour from London Heathrow
  • strengths: music, design, art, fashion, other creative activities
  • weaknesses: sports not overly strong
  • For 2018/19: £12.095/term
  • No short stays possible; 1 year + expected

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