Curriculum – the last 25 years

In his last term after 17 years as Headmaster of Bedales, Keith Budge is writing a series of six reflections on the school. The theme of this fifth blog is ‘Curriculum – the last 25 years’.

Being an early riser, I choose what to do first thing. This morning I chose to walk for 20 minutes around the Bedales estate, noting a shriek of magpies mobbing a cat and querying an overgrown hedge – nothing as evocative as my occasional dawn walks in winter when the owls are competing for air space or in May when I hear the plaintive greetings of orphan lambs or even the snufflings of bleary-eyed piglets.

Choice enlivens us.  The curriculum is what schools choose to study – it is our daily bread.  As outlined in my previous piece, Bedales under Badley chose to study a different curriculum to the established Victorian public schools and chose to study it differently.

Arriving here in 2001, I found that the name carrier, the Senior School, Bedales, was teaching much the same curriculum as other schools, albeit often in an unusually vital and engaging way.  The school remained shackled to the dying animal that was the national curriculum, with its dreary GCSEs. At that point, even the Labour government was dissing GCSES. I started having thought-provoking conversations with long term supporters of the school: “why does this extraordinary school not exercise greater choice over what it teaches? Why are you not using your freedom?”

It was my good fortune to inherit some visionary colleagues who had done important work in this area with Southampton University’s Department of Education. Two were especially significant – Graham Banks (Head of English) and Philip Young (Director of Studies). With Southampton, they exploring the potential for the school to diverge from the GCSE curriculum in the 1990s, but the then Head, Alison Willcocks had decided not to press ahead.

I chose differently. Constructing a new curriculum has much in common with creating a new building: identify the need; write the brief; seek planning permission; gather your project team; assess the risks; and then build.

PRE dialogue

It was quickly evident that the territory where the greatest need coincided with the best potential to innovate was the so-called Middle Years curriculum – the GCSE years 10 and 11, Blocks 4 and 5. Governors were on side quickly. Universities were surveyed and came back positively twice, both in response to the embryonic idea and then when the concept had been fleshed out. The message was very clear: give us five or six GCSEs in the core subjects (English, Maths, two or three Sciences and a modern foreign language) and then use your freedom with the remaining four or five subject slots.

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I knew that our parents would warm to it when, as part of the consultation, Philip Young and I called a meeting of Block 1 (Year 7) parents from Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst.  These after all were the parents of the children who would most likely be affected, being the first year who would take the BACs. I displayed on the screen the wording of our (then recently minted) primary academic aim: to develop inquisitive thinkers with a love of learning who cherish independent thought. I interposed a big question mark and then on the other side of the screen wrote “ GCSEs”. The  room filled with laughter – the two things had nothing in common. We had to change the curriculum – and so we did, starting the courses in 2006. You can read more about its latest incarnation here.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Inspiring futures

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

I’m talking at the Inspiring Futures conference tomorrow and am mulling over what I might say.  I need to provide the schools’ perspective on how we should be preparing our students for the future – in particular 4IR – or the Fourth Industrial Revolution – aka the Digital Revolution.   I have 20 minutes and, at my request, it is the final slot.  So, I plan five slides.  Here’s a shrinklet version, slide by slide.

A cheesy crystal ball: we humans love predicting the future and we will so often be wrong.  The hapless verb “to future-proof” is a notable example of this.  Yet, human beings are remarkably adaptive and, in spite of our poor planning for the future, are often fleet-footed in response.   Preparing for 4IR may be too late – but how can we best prepare for whatever 5IR and 6IR are going to look like?

A frontispiece of Silas Marner, showing how the sad, miserly spinner has become part of his loom: work has made him into a machine; tempting to think this is all about preparing our young people for work, but it is also about preparing them to live enriched, fulfilled lives.  In this respect, we need our students to have an understanding of the ancient verities of philosophy and literature and to appreciate the Arts, as well as having a strong science and maths base.

The rear view mirror of a car: our educational systems prepare us for the world that has just passed.  My schooling prepared me well to serve the needs of the British Empire, just as it had gone.  Education ministers tend to hanker after the past – the fixations of Michael Gove and poor primary school children’s subsequent current fixation with adverbial clauses, for example.

A set of ball bearings beautifully balanced:  how to achieve this balance?  The state needs to limit what it requires of school children, especially in those formative GCSE years, and provide much greater freedom within the curriculum; so cut the requirement for so many GCSEs – Maths, English and Science are the only ones that the government needs to assess.  If you allow head teachers in schools to exercise their independence, you create space and therefore flexibility in the curriculum.  Such an approach challenges the current sclerotic, silo mentality of the curriculum.  How can you expect students to develop the necessary flexibility of mind and creative thinking if the curricula they encounter are often so dull and formulaic?

A blossoming chestnut tree:  how to give our youngsters the best chance of living the most fulfilled lives?  See W B Yeats’ image of the chestnut tree (“great rooted blossomer” from Among School Children). Here is a list of some of the qualities we need to help bring out in our students:

  • Capacity for independent thinking and problem solving
  • Appetite for lifelong learning: establish a love of learning early and it stays
  • Enjoyment of teamwork and collaboration
  • Understanding of other cultures – enjoyment of international links
  • Sense of wonder: to inspire and be inspired

Mating tunes

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

The last week has been a combination of much getting to know new students, quite a bit of talking, signpost work outside the Orchard Building and listening to some stimulating talks – most of which have been in school.

Last Saturday’s Philosophy Of…  conference is led by students (6.1s when they started planning it a year ago, 6.2s now) and is designed to get us to think – a handy prompt for sixth formers especially at the start of an academic year.

Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Imperial College, London, showed how areas traditionally dominated by humanities graduates are now being taken over by scientists and how scientific methods of data analysis are being used to identify musical and literary trends and the ingredients that make a hit song or a best seller.

Tunes can mate, he posits:  the Darwinian process of natural selection, speeded up by computers and aided by human beings eliminating the hopeless tunes and allowing the better ones through, causes random sounds to be created initially and then, through this process of continuous adaptation gives us some passable tunes at the end of the process.   OK, it is like a melodic ringtone but a computer has done it.   Watch out for Google’s Deep Minds project which has enabled a robot generated piano sonata.  Artificial intelligence can make a similar formula for a best seller.  The process that precedes it is the distant reading (meaning a computer doing the reading) of the five thousand best selling works of fiction of recent years  in order to identify particular types of plot and recurring ideas  (by spotting key words).  The model thriller/science fiction/Greek billionaire seduction (by rather than of) novel can then be constructed.  Yes, the latter is a popular genre.

Out with the English graduate, in with the data scientist, he says.  This writer, an English graduate, then goes over to the theatre to hear James Harding, History graduate, Head of BBC News and former editor of The Times: like Leroi he is another speaker with a gift for making us think.  Asked the question, “what will the world will look like in 2026?” he answers “I don’t know.”   Sensible, he argues, because the world is particularly unpredictable at the moment.  Four reasons why:

  • Inequality and interest rates: massive shift in wealth inequality as the rich can borrow what they want; asset prices rise, the poor get relatively poorer: the politics of anger prevail.
  • Islamic extremism competing with secularism.
  • The pace of technological change and the impact of everything from driverless cars and dating apps on human wellbeing and behaviour.
  • Identity politics: individuals are more likely to be influenced by what seems true to them and what they feel than by tribal loyalties to, say, political parties, which only 30% of us support.

But, he is upbeat when asked questions by students about whether they should be fearful of the future; and he is the first person for a while I have heard saying it’s a great time to start out as a journalist.

Lots to take on board and it’s only Saturday lunchtime.  Monday brings a conference run by the House of Commons Education Committee on The Purpose and quality of education in England, a consultation to which Bedales has made a submission.

Again, much food for thought, but it is Mary Beard, whose promotion of Classics and interesting thinking makes me a big fan, who has the last word.  Don’t think passionate disagreement about what people should learn is anything new: Socrates met his death through choosing the wrong curriculum – “corrupting the youth”.  Read Aristophanes The Clouds for a satire on a new curriculum and just remember if the twin drivers of education are ever increasing measurement (via exams) and regulation (because no one can be trusted) then it will all eventually collapse.  Abandon a good number of GCSEs as a starter, she suggests.  Well, yes, Mary…

 

Dangerous foreign amblings

Poetry, literature and the dangers of monolingualism are all front page news – thanks to a timely debate sparked by Jeremy Paxman’s comments after judging the Forward Prize, Michael Gove’s impact on the national provenance of GCSE texts and the welcome alert to the shortage of strong British modern language students given by the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, Professor Borysiewicz.

I feel unusually smugly Govian as I teach my Block 1 lesson on Tuesday: they start by reminding me of the splendid Shakespearean insults that they have learnt and, yet more importantly, the appetite that their (proper, full time) English teacher, Melissa Canter has given them for the sheer flex, sinew and oomph of Shakespearean language; then I gather their thoughts on what they think makes for poetry before drawing on a few adages on the topic  – from Hardy and Larkin (Govian murmurs of approval, please) – segueing into the stunning and unusually  (for someone better known for being urban-dreary) lyrical Larkin poem Cut Grass. So, a lesson that begins with Shakespeare, dallies with Hardy and then concludes in the sweet spot of the English pastoral-lyrical tradition – 10/10 for me on the Govian British Isles scale. And I suspect I am doing quite well too by Wordsworth and Paxman benchmarks on accessible poetry – stuff ordinary folk can appreciate.

Sadly – and here is the confession – I have erred over the course of half term. Foolishly, I allowed myself to be bundled onto a train by my well organised wife (Dutch extraction, a few generations back, I fear); I then found myself in a very comfortable armchair travelling at high speed towards Paris (where awkwardly that almost British Isles author Joyce wrote a bit) and then on to Strasbourg, still sitting comfortably. Even more dangerously, I found myself confronted with a range of books, some of dubious origin: Burial Rites, an enthralling and thought-provoking first novel by Hannah Kent, an Australian, about a young Icelandic woman condemned to death for murdering her lover;  Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s eagle-eyed commentary on cultural cross-currents between the UK, USA and Nigeria; The Mighty Heart,  Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson – about, well, what it says, but one of those mind-whirring books which sets you both thinking and wanting to visit all sorts of places across North Africa, the Mediterranean and the near East; and The Undertaking by an Irish author, Audrey Magee, about Stalingrad and domestic life in Berlin.  (Didn’t like that one but loved the other three, by the way, and didn’t read them all on the train, of course.)

So how did I do on the Gove scale? Well, The Mighty Heart is fine because Adam Nicholson is British, although being mainly a Scot, he could easily soon fall foul to a re-defintion of the British Isles; sadly, though, the book is about Greeks and others from outwith these isles, although Homer’s yarns have been quite influential on much of British Isles literature, even Joyce’s Ulysses (if permitted).

Aside of feeling relieved that our own, homegrown Bedales Assessed Course in English Literature will allow us the scope to choose the texts, from Britain or elsewhere,  that we feel are right for our students, I feel embarrassed that, maybe unwittingly, Michael Gove has allowed himself to appear Farage-like in his literary parochialism. Enough from me – here is Michael Rosen’s much more balanced and fully referenced Letter from a curious parentDear Mr Gove…