Questioning GCSE

By Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales

In a recent article by Haroon Siddique in The Guardian, Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner expressed concern that Tory education reforms are putting state school pupils at a disadvantage compared to those educated in independent schools. More specifically, the Labour party is demanding an inquiry on the basis that state school pupils are obliged to sit GCSEs whilst many independent schools favour IGCSEs. The former are harder, claims Labour, with MP Lucy Powell arguing that independent schools are gaming the system by offering their students easy options, and insulating them against the effects of reforms whilst they are bedding in.

Labour is quite right to want an inquiry, but not on this premise which is shaky to say the least and misses the mark by some distance. One key question concerns the relevance of GCSE level qualifications in an age when education to age 18 is compulsory. Another is about assessment orthodoxies and, in turn, the relationship between these and issues of wellbeing amongst young people that have caused such concern in recent times.

In 2016 former Education Secretary, Lord Baker decried the squeezing out of creative and technical subjects in our schools. I share Lord Baker’s views on the inadequacy of the GCSE curriculum in preparing young people for the 21st century labour market, and indeed would not be unhappy to see them go. If we must have them, however, an inquiry should then ask what the curriculum and assessment should look like. I would argue, and many in education and industry would agree, that GCSEs are narrow and dull, and do little to prepare students for what awaits them at A level, higher education and in the workplace.

When Education Secretary, Michael Gove introduced the ‘new’ GCSEs, he lit the fuse, then withdrew a safe distance, and ultimately reappeared at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. His ‘new’ GCSEs were all about ‘rigour’, which essentially meant doing away with coursework, and placing all the assessment in a terminal exam at the end of Year 11, with little or no scope for ‘re-takes’. But the acquisition of knowledge replaced the learning and application of skills, and inconsistent, unaccountable and sloppy marking remained the norm.

This is why so many schools, including Bedales, favour IGCSE as the richer option, whilst at Bedales we went one step further in also creating Bedales Assessed Courses (BAC) for 13 non-core subjects including Classical Music, Design, History, Philosophy, Religion & Ethics and Outdoor Work. In the summer of 2018 our first cohort completed the new BAC in Global Awareness, which requires students to conduct their own research on a global issue – eg. food poverty, housing, public health – and, through collaboration, to apply what they have learned to the problem in a local context, and then present it. We are immensely proud of what we consider to be a pioneering, demanding and highly relevant educational programme. Our reward for this? For BACs to be ignored in education league tables, a fate shared increasingly with the unduly maligned IGCSEs.

There is a long tradition of radical liberal thought informing the design and content of mainstream education in this country; rather than looking to score easy political points by bashing independent schools. Labour would do young people and schools alike a much greater service by working with us in finding alternatives to a curriculum and assessment regime that is dull, out of touch and frankly oppressive. With former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell warning that an addiction to exams for young people ramps up the risk of a mental health epidemic, the reformed GCSE system – built around a conviction that only end of course exams can truly assess learning – seems a dangerous horse to back.

Advertisements

A school with a mission

By Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales

Magnus-23

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

The opening line to LP Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go Between, is often used to explain change; behaviour, mores, fashion will all change over time, and perhaps the link between present and past will not be obvious or clear.  My colleague, Clare Jarmy, shared with me a copy of a 1962 guide to public schools that included a long, detailed and erudite summary of Bedales. The decade of dramatic social change was about to happen, but England in 1962 was still a rather austere, monochrome and insecure place. But what is evident from the review written by H.B Jacks (the initials, rather than first name, bear out the austerity stiffness of post-war England), is that the essential differences of Bedales, the founding principles John Badley handed on to successive generations of Bedalians and successive Heads, were there in 1962, and still as present today. The title of Henry Newbolt’s famous poem, Vitae Lampada, rather than the poem itself (easy to learn, hard to forget) springs to mind. Taken itself from Lucretius, I feel strongly that ‘the torch of life’ has been passed by Keith to me, and I now have to do the running.

In his review Jacks wrote of “the importance that Badley attached to the individual child. In his view there was a place in the school, as in life, for all kinds, and it was the school’s job to provide for all kinds, and let them grow and find themselves.” This is palpably the case still, with Bedales, Dunhurst and Dunannie all putting the individual before the institution, still providing a supportive and stimulating context in which students can grow and find themselves. I’ve lived and worked in schools where the converse is the norm; conformity, hierarchy and what I call the machinery of punishment abound, and if you don’t fit, then you can push off, because someone else will. Bedales is refreshingly still different, and still counter-cultural in the public school world, because of its ethos.

Jacks also wrote admiringly that “the school itself, looked at as an entity, exhibits all the signs of being a living thing, with a vitality all its own, unfettered by doctrinaire educational theory and unhampered by anyone’s preconceived notions of what a school ought to be and ought to do.” All schools are living now in the aftermath of Mr Gove’s doctrinaire theory and preconceived notions of education. Bedales’ own BACs, our home grown alternative to GCSE, go from strength to strength in terms of their popularity, and the academic breadth they offer that GCSEs don’t. Bedales begins this new academic year still ‘with a vitality all its own’, and still successfully challenging educational theory. It is though a school at ease with itself, and with a clear sense of its own educational mission.