A tale of two schools

No two private schools are exactly the same, but some are more different than others, as Tim Walker discovers when he visits Bedales and Wellington College

Custom dictates that boarding-school boys go by their surnames: Molesworth, Potter, Windsor... So Tom, Dick and Harry can go for weeks without hearing their given names. There is at least one private school, however, where this is not the case. At Bedales, in Hampshire, even the headmaster, Keith Budge, goes by his first name. Bedales isn't the only private school to make a rule of such informality, but it was probably the first. John Badley, who founded Bedales in 1893, was, says Budge, "a visionary".

Custom dictates that boarding-school boys go by their surnames: Molesworth, Potter, Windsor... So Tom, Dick and Harry can go for weeks without hearing their given names. There is at least one private school, however, where this is not the case. At Bedales, in Hampshire, even the headmaster, Keith Budge, goes by his first name. Bedales isn't the only private school to make a rule of such informality, but it was probably the first. John Badley, who founded Bedales in 1893, was, says Budge, "a visionary".

The school was fully co-educational before 1900, uniforms were never worn, and while Harrys Potter and Windsor may have followed other paths, the Petersfield school has happily educated royalty - Princess Margaret sent her children there.

Budge, who spent time teaching in California before joining Bedales, says: "We try to avoid rigid hierarchies or simple obedience to orders. Instead, we try to cultivate independence of mind, debate, discussion, and the consideration of exactly what good behaviour is. The informality is very natural. If you think about the typical public-school education, you can see that, often, those hierarchies are not how real communities operate."

One way in which Bedales fosters community spirit is through "Whole School Projects". In February 2004, pupils completed work on a new barn for the school. The project was led by two Old Bedalians who had learnt their love of building at the school and now run their own building business. In fact, the pupils have been involved in the construction of more than one of the campus buildings, including the stunning Olivier theatre, which won a Riba award in 1999.

This shared involvement generates a pride in the environment among pupils, and a sense that Bedales belongs to them as much as to their teachers. When he founded the school, Badley distilled its ethos thus: "Three Hs: Head, Hand and Heart", and to this day, handicrafts are as central to the curriculum as the academic and social aspects - the "head" and the "heart". The school's art and design departments are renowned, and there is also a bakery and a farm, used and run by students. Bedales drama productions are, by all accounts, as impressive as the theatre itself.

Badley later modified his axiom to: "Three Is: Intelligence, Initiative and Individuality", qualities that any parent would hope to find instilled in their child by a school. "Rather than education being imposed on pupils from above, we want them to have a say in how their school experience is shaped," says Budge. "We have our strange traditions, but we try to avoid those things that get in the way of enjoyment of the school experience."

Strange traditions are not the preserve of Bedales. Wellington College, in Berkshire, is, by comparison, a more conventional public school, but it has its fair share of unconventional activities. Every summer, on speech day, 18 strapping boys dismantle a half-ton cannon, heave the components over a 5ft wall and 28ft chasm, and through a 2ft-wide hole, before reassembling it and firing three rounds at an imagined enemy.

Finally, they lug it back over the course, all (hopefully) in less than four minutes. Since the Royal Navy discontinued its own version in 1999, Wellington is the only institution to regularly perform the Field Gun Run in its original form. The exercise is archaic, faintly ridiculous and obsolete - all adjectives often levelled at traditional boarding schools of Wellington's ilk.

But the run also epitomises many of the values that continue to attract parents to independent schools. It takes physical endurance, certainly, but also teaches the merits of teamwork, discipline, competition and, it must be said, a certain fearlessness. It is also just one example of the unique opportunities that characterise many private schools, and at Wellington, if the military isn't your bag, there are plenty of alternatives. The college was originally established in 1853 as a school for the sons of soldiers killed in the Iron Duke's campaigns, but today plays down its military connections as just one aspect of an all-round educational experience.

Of course, good teaching is at the core, but, says the head Hugh Monro, "one of my worries about the changes taking place in education is that areas such as sports and arts are declining. A good school should introduce people to lots of different activities".

Wellington has an impressive new art school, regularly sends its orchestra on international tours, and has a theatre company that takes a student production to the Edinburgh Festival every year. Members of the school's Rugby First XV are consistently capped by England international youth teams, and, in 2001, a nine-hole golf course was opened on the college's 500-acre estate.

"Everybody needs one area of success in adolescence," says Monro, and there is a breadth of opportunity at Wellington that means every pupil can excel, in or out of the classroom. The school has a traditional house system, with 14 boys' houses and one house for the 50 or so sixth-form girls. An extensive development project means that, by 2006, two of the boys' houses will be amalgamated in a new building, and a further house built to accommodate another 50 girls. "The house system is a strength, as long as inter-house competition doesn't become obsessive," says Monro. "That sense of a group of people of different ages working together is very important."

Wellington College and Bedales both charge annual fees for boarders of more than £20,000. The schools certainly differ in their extra-curricular approaches, but neither neglects the academic side, and their results are strong and near identical. "We are concerned that our pupils do well academically," says Budge, "but we're not preoccupied with league-table positions. That runs counter to our commitment to encourage the talents of all of our pupils."

In a world where the job for life is a thing of the past, there is, says Hugh Monro, "a move towards skills". As a result, the superior extra-curricular facilities of independent schools are more attractive than ever, providing a rounded education and an adaptable (thus employable) school-leaver.

While there are differences between Wellington and Bedales, at the core of each school's philosophy is a word much employed in the current education debate: choice. Wellingtonians and Bedalians are given many opportunities, and the freedom to choose which they pursue.

PROGRESSIVE VS TRADITIONAL: BEDALES AND WELLINGTON

BEDALES

Address: Petersfield, Hampshire

Founded: 1893

Ambience: Co-educational and informal, staff are known by their first names, uniform has never been worn

Annual fees: boarders: £22,362 ; day pupils: £17,094

Pupils: 415 (203 boys; 212 girls)

Staff: 52 full-time; 17 part-time

Results: GCSEs: 428 out of 3,579; A-levels: 376 out of 2,740

Glittering alumni: the actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Minnie Driver; furniture designer David Linley; 'Location, Location, Location' presenter Kirstie Allsop

WELLINGTON COLLEGE

Address: Crowthorne, Berkshire

Founded: 1859

Ambience: A conventional public school with military traditions including the annual Field Gun Run, when a half ton cannon is fired

Annual fees: boarders £21,900; day pupils: £17,520

Pupils: 767 (715 boys; 52 sixth-form girls - a new girls' house is being built which will increase the number of girls places to about 100)

Staff: 92 full-time; two part-time

Results: GCSEs: 381 out of 3,579 ; A-levels: 377 out of 2,740

Glittering alumni: the actor Christopher Lee; author Sebastian Faulks; satirist Rory Bremner; singer Will Young.

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