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.

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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


Ivon Hitchens

Hats off to Edmund de Waal, author and ceramicist, and the Crafts Council. On Monday De Waal launched the Crafts Council manifesto – Our Future Is In the Making: An Education Manifesto for Craft and Making. Craft-related courses are under the cosh in schools and Art Colleges. De Waal points both to the £3.4 billion that craft skills generate for the UK economy and to the link between making and entrepreneurship, citing Josiah Wedgwood whose childhood experience as a potter was instrumental to his becoming one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the eighteenth century. The manifesto places the A of Art amongst the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), pointing to its importance in careers such as Architecture – hence the re-fashioned acronym, STEAM.

This links in my mind with what I heard in the presentation given by the Bedales Schools’ Art departments to our governors on Friday. Bedales Head of Art, Simon Sharp talked about how the place was “a school of seeing where it was cool to be creative” and where, because of the strong emphasis on Art and Design in our prep school, Dunhurst, students coming through to the senior school established this culture whereby “there was no cynicism about the value of Art” and where students quickly accepted that “worry and struggle are part of it – if it’s easy it’s not Art”.

There are two current and vibrant examples of this: the Art auction, launched with a display last week of some of the most prominent work, including an Ivon Hitchens (pictured above), kindly donated to help raise money for our new Art & Design building and now online at Paddle8; and the Barnsley Workshop exhibition in the Gallery, which will be viewed amongst others by many of those attending the Edward Thomas event on Sunday, when we will celebrate his brief life of an associated kind of craft –  that of poetry.

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.