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

Alternatives to GCSEs

Pleasing to see that Sevenoaks are following our lead in seeking alternatives to GCSEs. Interesting also that it is the paucity of choice and lack of ambition in the GCSE English Literature that their head, Katy Ricks, focuses on in the article in the Telegraph. Talking with English Department colleagues here yesterday, am reminded how hugely advantaged any sixth form student is who starts on their AS English course having studied 10 significant literary works – and written proper essays on them – rather than having merely encountered the dreary texts that make up the prescribed literary sphere of reference of the nation’s young –  the unambitious round of Journey’s End, Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. Especially at a time when there is much discussion about how GCSEs might be reformed, it feels very good to have taken these moves some time ago (2006) and now to be largely in the IGCSE and BAC camp, ploughing our own (demanding, but interesting and productive) furrow.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales School

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Gove is on the march again

Gove is on the march again, sorting out GCSEs – modular ones and “soft” ones (if they count for five A – C purposes) have had his attention, now it’s exams which allow students to succeed when they don’t cover the full syllabus (History, Geography, Maths and English Literature). Central to his concerns, it seems, is English Literature, with the dreadful circularity of a very high proportion of young people studying only a selection of To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Lord of the Flies. The independent sector has long been sceptical of the rigour of homegrown GCSEs, turning, as we have, increasingly to the tougher IGCSEs. With us, it was clear back in 2004 that the government was turning away from seeing GCSEs as a significant test – so the time was ripe for the creation of our own BAC courses, which aimed from the start to have the depth and stretch that GCSEs lack. Gove is doing the right thing, but there is a lot of ground to make up.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools 

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music school. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.


Teaching craft and mystery at Bedales

Observing fellow teachers at work is one of the plum bits of this job – and the last 10 days have been full of it, as I have seen all our new teachers in action. Two venerable words always spring to mind when I see someone teach: craft and mystery. As a compulsive etymology geek I can’t resist a scamper through the heritage of these words: so craft, with its main meaning here as “the skills in carrying out one’s work” carries plenty of the “activity involving skill in making things by hand” and even a little nuance of “guile”. Mystery was the word used to describe a handicraft or trade, but then the modern use, as in mysterious, came to the fore, because the practices of these skills or trades were hidden from others. (Sorry about that, but couldn’t resist it..)  Back to the teacher’s craft or mystery and what I have seen in the classes I have observed: an exploration of the links between the religions of the Iroquois, Hindu and Genesis (Block 3 RS); inflation’s causes and its definition (6.1 Economics); different kinds of film and how to say whether you love or loathe them (Block 3 French); good and bad cholesterol and heart disease (6.1 Biology); and how to defeat your opponent in a one-to-one situation on the hockey field (Block 4 Sport). Watching good teaching and seeing and hearing students learn is always a tonic. However experienced you are as a teacher you always learn both from seeing others teach and from having someone feed back on your teaching. But however much you can analyse and itemize the techniques used – the pedagogies, if you want a fancy word – there is at the heart of all successful teaching an emotional transaction, the mystery (there we go) and even the cunning that lie at the heat of the teacher’s craft.  That’s often quite a primitive, visceral thing: so, do I, young human X, really feel that I want to listen and learn from you, older human Y. Well, now you mention it, yes…

Thoughts, working across disciplines, learning from failure

The 6th form dinner – thought-provoking on at least three counts. Always interesting to catch some of the thoughts a) of students starting out on these crucially demanding final two years of their school career – and b) of those surveying the prospect of their final year at school, predicted A Level grades and higher education choices, with some trepidation and hints of wistfulness. Second, intriguing to see the number of demanding cross discipline choices the 6.1s have made: Maths, Physics, English, French, say. Take-up in Maths and Science is strongly up, with the increased confidence born of taking the more demanding IGCSEs a major factor. Both good trends. Finally, the after-dinner speech of head of Maths and i/c Oxbridge, Michael Truss – a humorously self-denigrating talk that provoked thought on what you learn from failure, the power of thinking you can – and resilience.