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

Dystopia revisited

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

A while back and in another school, I taught a sixth form General Studies course that was based on the idea of nightmare worlds; central to it were dystopian novels.  Unusually for such a course, the students seemed to have read most of the books on offer and when the course stopped after its one term’s duration, they seemed keen for more.  1984 (1948) and Brave New World (1932) were there of course, but it was Zamyatin’s We (1924), which arguably laid the imaginative foundation for 1984, that seemed to attract a good deal of the discussion.  Shortly after its publication, I taught Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which gripped its teenage readers with its nightmarish world and was an intriguing text to be talking with teenagers about in the ’80s.  Over the holidays I returned to Attwood with her very readable The Heart Goes Last, as well as finding Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror as my annual box set.

More’s Utopia (1516), the book that coined the adjectives, is now 500 years old; each Spring, our Block 5s who are taking the much admired Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (PRE) Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) become caught up in creating their ideal worlds; so the idea of Utopia is very much a feature of our shared cultural life.  So, it is salutary – scary actually – to stop and think about how many dystopian echoes there are in the way that the world seems right now. Early Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits (2011) especially, where the game show and unintended consequences of an increasingly digitally based world combine to create a garish living nightmare, now seems spookily prescient.

Specific to the USA, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) is thought-provoking.  I’m told we should be reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

But it is the masterly portrayal of totalitarian thought control in Orwell’s 1984 that seems to be capturing people’s interest.  I suspect that there will also be many more teachers who are encouraging their students to carry their reading of Orwell on into the essays, in particular Politics and the English Language with its memorable concluding thought:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

‘Seeing afresh’

It’s a crisp April early morning – sun shining and another pair of Jacob lambs born – just three ewes yet to lamb as singular black dog and I enjoy an amble around our beautiful estate. Woodpeckers are hammering away and a small skein of yelping Canada geese swoop in to the lake as we set off.

My usual sense of vicarious trepidation at the prospect of lots of students taking public exams is tempered by the memory of last night’s assembly from Head of Academic Enrichment, Clare Jarmy.  Her other role as Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics gives her a clear advantage in developing a compelling reason why all our students have good reason to look forward to exams and to see them as underpinning a very important stage in their learning.  Going over her reasoning on my morning stroll, it makes yet more sense as I rehearse the argument in my mind.  So here goes.

In order for us all to move our learning forward we need help making the jumps from what we can currently do to the next stage: seen pictorially this is about us jumping up a further stage – or, using the educational terminology, the zone of proximal development.  Teachers are the most usual way that we are helped to make that shift –

Clare’s point is that revision for exams – best described not using its literal meaning of “seeing again” but considered as “seeing afresh” – is the point when we as learners have to consolidate the learning that we have previously been assisted with.  Put differently, we re-make the learning and make it our own.

Finally, she identified another critical distinction that should help our students understand the potential benefits of this process more fully.  This has to do with the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – the difference between doing something because it gets you something else you want, and doing something for its own sake.  Clare left the students with the possibility that one thing that many of them might be discovering was that the process of revision helped them understand that they had a strong intrinsic motivation to learn.  It was at this point I learned my new word for the day – “enculturement”, which Clare used to describe the educational process central to humanity which enables people to gain an understanding of the world and what is intrinsically worthwhile.  This view, central to the writing of philosopher John McDowell, is that it is through culture that we acquire a “second nature” above and beyond our animal needs.  Education, and in particular independent learning, makes us who we are.

Intriguing stuff: Clare’s article, published here, will further enlighten.

Sixth Form advice: “Do what you are good at and enjoy”

Interesting to see the IB vs A Level debate taking a new turn with King’s Wimbledon deciding to re-introduce A Levels after 10 years of only offering IB.  This is an interesting reversal of the trend over the past few years whereby a  number of large boarding schools have sought to introduce IB to run alongside A Level. You need to have a very large sixth form to make this affordable and even so, the immediate contrast with A Level and the fact that the extra-curricular activities of a boarding school already ensure that most students will be fulfilling that side of the IB requirement mean that the IB take up has sometimes been disappointing. In short, the IB’s high standing amongst educationalists (Anthony Seldon in The Times on Saturday) isn’t always shared by the students who see A Levels as a perfectly good way to get to the university of their choice. In many cases, certainly here, students want to take programmes which plays unashamedly to their strengths, whether that is Maths, Physics, Chemistry and French; or Art, Politics, English and Spanish. My short advice is do what you are good at and what you like – and then just do a check to ensure it isn’t cutting you out from potential career choices (medical or engineering, usually) and that the chosen subjects offer enough weight to enable you to show your academic mettle to the most demanding universities if that is your likely route.

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.

Bedales Philosophy Society whets the appetite

Dead dogma, happy pigs vs depressed Socrates, cynics sniffing each other privately and publicly, freedom for the pike is death for the minnows, the tyranny of the majority, higher and lower pleasures, not to mention the fecundity of pleasure: no danger of philosophy being dull, especially when you have a thinker and communicator of Nigel Warburton’s ilk leading the talk and subsequent discussion in 2012’s first Philosophy Society meeting, attended last night by 70 plus students. Nigel’s talk was on J.S. Mill who himself was subject to a pretty intriguing education, but whose On Liberty has many seeing him as the father of liberalism and even (and this is an even bigger responsiblity for some) the father of the 60s. As the big questions unroll, the students’ questions keep coming – and we are carving our way through the leylandi of current ethical dilemmas – Nick Griffin and the limits of freedom of speech, the harm principle, suffering animals (good game casserole at supper before, by the way), the use of utilitarianism in calculating the cost/benefit of an operation on the NHS – it’s urgent stuff, bowled to Nigel and expertly he is giving all the fielders energetic work with his returns. It’s only the boarders’ curfew at 9 that signals the end of what has been an intriguing session; a reminder too for me of how spectacular the rise of philosophy has been here. With its curricular presence now strong through PRE (Philosophy, Religion and Ethics) –  both as a Block 3 course and as a BAC –  and through RS at A Level, a high proportion of our students tussle with these big questions, learn something of the history of thought  – and often absolutely love it. In the 2010 UCAS cycle 10% of the year group applied either for courses in Philosophy or Theology. Last year, as with this year, these subjects, along with Maths and English are major contributors to our Oxbridge success (10 offers overall this year, 9 last). More broadly, whether you pursue the subject in the classroom or not, Philosophy seems to whet the appetite for inquisitiveness and independent thought superbly, providing as it does both a framework and, most importantly, the ability to argue in a cogent, disciplined way.

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…

The Thrill of Learning and Achievement

Plenty of reminders this week of the thrill that learning often brings: week starts with congratulation to two colleagues who have achieved Distinctions – one in an MBA in Educational Leadership, another with an MA in Art History. So important that the adults are enjoying their learning too, whether that is through courses like these, through subject-specific training or through the stimulation we have constantly from visitors – brilliant visiting speakers in particular. Most of my mornings start with brief meetings congratulating students on their academic progress; sometimes, when time doesn’t allow, this is done by postcard or a “bumping into”. Best, of course, face to face – especially as so often the student’s enjoyment of learning is so palpable – that Physics concept grasped, that mind-stretching, fervent discussion in PRE. This is such a tonic and a fitting riposte to the utilitarian and process-driven side of education, the spirit of Mr Gradgrind, which will always be lurking.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools