By Alistair McConville, Director of Learning and Innovation
Another way is possible. At Bedales we have long eschewed a narrow focus on preparing students for terminal exams. A nourishing educational experience must do much more than fill heads with knowledge for the sake of supervised regurgitation. We live out our Ruskin-inspired motto: “Head, Hand and Heart”. Every day at school should strike a balance between intellectual stimulation, creative work, and service to the community. We have recently re-structured our school day around this principle. There is choice about when to get up, since we know that autonomy is motivating, and that not all adolescents are designed for early mornings. Lots of students will opt to start the day with a co-curricular activity: meditation, feeding sheep, baking bread, a country walk; they might get into the kitchens to help serve and clear breakfast; others will choose a little more slumber before academic lessons and plan their activities for later. We know that an under-slept student is an inefficient one. Lessons start at 9.45. A full hour later than they used to be. We know that it’s refreshing for students to take breaks and to switch activity, so we have built a further blast of non-academic activity into the middle of the day. Music ensembles, drama rehearsals, service activities with local community partners, tending the vegetable garden, or a tennis lesson, for example. More lessons in the afternoon, followed by a final raft of optional activities in the evening. But, crucially, lots of choice about when to be active and when to rest. So, everyone chooses co-curricular activities, but by no means in every slot. It’s really important for young people to be able to opt for unstructured leisure, too, and they can choose when to get their homework done as long as they hit the deadline. No compulsory ‘prep’ times here.
We have baked our “Head, Hand, Heart” principles into curriculum and assessment. For a dozen years Bedales has been issuing the now famous ‘Centre Assessed Grades’ for its own GCSE-equivalent courses, the Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs). We have trusted teachers to report reliably and constructively on the broad range of work that students do, and so have universities. And we have been able to assess in a much broader way than GCSEs permit. As part of our Outdoor Work BAC, for example, a student’s ability to work in a team whilst renovating a tractor is as much a part of their assessment as writing about the process. Their ability to explain and defend their project to an audience counts towards their grade. This is ‘work that matters’ to paraphrase Ron Berger. We’re rolling out a Level 3 equivalent course in Living With the Land this September to teach students how to live in a radically sustainable way. Watch out for a proliferation of cob houses and hemp-clad foragers in the Hampshire hills!
We’re adopting a rigorous project-based learning approach in year 9, inspired by the Expeditionary Learning Movement and our friends at the XP School in Doncaster. Students will work on real-life enquiry questions and study across disciplines in order to respond practically to real-world issues. For example, we will look at the contemporary refugee crisis through the lenses of history, geography, religious studies and literature at the same time as planning practical responses to support our partners at the Rural Refugee Network.
It’s an enviable experience for our students and they know it, but we don’t want to keep it all to ourselves. We are eager to share this kind of rounded, enriching approach to education with others, knowing that far too many languish in an unfulfilling exam-obsessed rut. We’re working with a small number of independent schools to build a partnership with our innovative colleagues and friends in the maintained sector at Bohunt School, Gosport’s Key Education Centre, School 21 and the XP School to make the case for significant national assessment reform. Watch this space, but the time has never felt more ripe for a thorough re-thinking of the drudgerous, purgatorial treadmill of an education system obsessed with terminal exam results…