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Big Interview: headteacher of The Dharma Primary School Mark Lambert
The Dharma Primary School in Ladies’ Mile Road, Brighton, is the only primary school in the UK to offer an education based on Buddhist values.
Gareth Davies sat down with new headteacher Mark Lambert to get an idea of what happens behind closed doors at the school and to find out more about the new man at the helm.
GD: How do you find yourself in this position now as head of the school?
ML: I’ve come from a headship in Norfolk and before that I’d worked in schools, family centres, children and contact centres – with education. When I saw this post, what appealed to me was the Buddhist ethos which is at the heart of the school.
GD: How do you compare this school to the other schools and establishments you’ve worked at in the past?
ML: I like to practise mindfulness and meditation and in previous schools and organisations, I would do that before leaving home. Now I do it when I come to work. There are colleagues and staff who join me in the morning.
GD: There’s a bit of an unknown quantity about the school from an outsider’s point of view, so give us an idea of a normal day at the Dharma Primary School.
ML: We’re a normal primary school in that we’re informed by the national curriculum – we do maths, English and cross-curricular teaching, but we also have the flexibility to nurture children’s individual talents, needs and interests. There’s always sport and the children love to run around outside where we’ve just had some improvements done in the playground. Mindfulness is also practised by the children.
GD: What specifically do you take from the Buddhist ethos and how do you separate that from religion with so many different cultures at the school?
ML: For many of us who are familiar with Buddhism, we don’t see it as a religion or a faith, but as a way of life. What we’re trying to do is bring people more into the present – to be mindful about what they do. In doing that, we’ve learnt that people become more effective teachers and learners. You’re more aware of where you’re at, what you’re doing and what you’re going to do next – you’re making conscious decisions about your actions rather than just ‘reacting’.
GD: Students at this age are like sponges, but how aware are they of the Buddhism element or is that just the way that they see school life?
ML: I don’t think they’re any more or less aware of other cultures, faiths or religions. I think they participate openly because they see it as a practice; it just becomes part of what they do and who they are, and not attached to Buddhism per se.
GD: Typically, when they leave here what types of schools are they heading off into?
ML: The majority go on to mainstream state secondary schools and we have also had children gain scholarships to Brighton College and Brighton and Hove High.
GD: Talk me through the meditation and mindfulness.
ML: For us, mindfulness and meditation are two different things. So, a mindfulness exercise for example, would be to get yourself comfortable and stay focused on your breathing. When you find your mind wandering or thoughts coming into your head, you observe and acknowledge them, then let them go. There’s no battle, your will is not involved, you’re present in what’s happening and then if you get distracted you return to your breathing again. There are different techniques. Not everybody meditates, but mindfulness everybody can do.
GD: Take me back to when you were a student – give me a recollection of your school days.
ML: I certainly didn’t practise mindfulness. My school life was very ordinary, built around the traditional – you do your lessons, do your music, do your sport, play with your friends, do your homework, go to sleep and then start the cycle all over again. I went to school on Saturdays as well, so my school week didn’t finish until Saturday evening.
GD: And what were you like as a student? ML: I participated in most activities and liked to keep busy. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learnt how to stop my mind from distracting. I’ve learnt that you’re always thinking about the next thing and when you think you’ve got that under control, you’ve moved on to another thing, so you’re never present. Mindfulness has balanced that and made me a calmer person.
GD: When did you first open your eyes to the world of meditation, and the Buddhist way?
ML: It was 24 years ago, that’s when my journey started. You build on your first experiences and meet other people who are more experienced.
GD: Was it an epiphany moment or was it something that came to you gradually?
ML: That period was quite a turning point for me, it was unexpected. I used to go to a book shop every Sunday, have breakfast and read a book. One week I was drawn to a completely different section and it opened up from there. It was a surprise to me.
GD: How did you see your outlook and way of life change in the years leading up to and years following that incident?
ML: I think my outlook before was insular and has subsequently become more expansive – I can see the bigger picture at different levels.
GD: Bringing it back to school, you model yourself on people you admire and grow up with, was there a particular teacher you’ve modelled your style on? ML: I’d like to say yes, but there isn’t. I’ve met people on the way who are personal to me that I’ve seen qualities in and thought, ‘if I can develop something along those lines in education or even family life, then I use that as a reference point’.
GD: It takes a certain type of person to lead anything, be it a sports team, a business or a school. So how would you describe your leadership style?
ML: I like to share the responsibility. If we focus on the fact that the school is a community, then it’s important everybody fulfils their role because then collectively we’re stronger and I think we’ll perform better as a school. So, I’m definitely about sharing and delegating responsibility.
GD: What sort of ethos and values are you specifically looking to bring into the school?
ML: I see it as trying to enhance what’s already in place, which are the relationships, education and community. The families, students, the board and all the people who come in and do things for the school are part of that as well. We’ve had local businesses come in over the summer to do painting and renovation works, and we’ve set up a new recycling system with a local company. We’re looking to link further so we have a thread that goes into the community through lots of different doors.
GD: Outside of the school what do you enjoy doing, what are your hobbies and interests?
ML: I like reading autobiographies, I love being by the ocean, nature, peace, being able to turn off and I like listening to music on my iPod because of the quality. You can source on the internet different versions of songs that you just can’t get if you buy the CD. You get to re-live those moments again.
GD: If we were to press shuffle on your iPod, what sort of stuff would we be likely to hear?
ML: You’d find something of everything on there, the songs that are most meaningful to me. Sometimes I’ve got the same song on there three times, as different versions. There’s some Stones and Led Zeppelin, Ben Folds Five. There’s definitely some soul and, I have to admit this, but there’s some disco as well. When I’m going on long journeys I like listening to the classical music – English composers.
GD: Given that school spaces are so hard to come by in Brighton and Hove, why should we be bottle-necking children towards specialist schools?
ML: We are an independent school with a particular ethos. Mindfulness, rooted in Buddhist philosophy, is a way of trying to stay balanced so we can fulfil our learning potential and we can mentor and be role models to the children to the best of our ability. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do and we do that in as close a relationship with the parents as we can.
GD: Is there a similar school nearby or would you welcome another school with your ethos?
ML: I think all of us would welcome it. I don’t know of any other ones locally. There are schools that practice mindfulness, in that they do mindfulness modules or have people from outside come in but not directly integrated in the school. The heartbeat of what we do is built around that ethos and mindset, and with secular and non-secular families – that’s what makes it inclusive.
GD: What can the Dharma Primary School offer a student that other primary schools in the area can’t? ML: A caring, receptive and nurturing environment for all students and their families, underpinned by Buddhist philosophy. It’s a close community with families involved, overseen by an effective board who are integrated and part of what we do here.
GD: How will you measure whether your reign here is a success come the end of the year or the end of your tenure?
ML: I was asked that question a long time ago when someone asked me to write about it in an annual report and I don’t know how to define success. I think we can set ourselves targets as education providers and we’re working towards meeting those. But one person sees something as a success where another person may not.
GD: And what are your targets?
ML: One target is to continue to do what we’re doing in a way that generates more interest from other partners in the area, and we do that by offering our school space for other people wishing to use it. So, last night we had a yoga group in, we have dance groups, drama groups. It’s not just a school – the building is used by the community who don’t necessarily have children here or any other connection. We’re continuing to establish ourselves as part of the community.
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