GCSEs: ‘limit pupils to no more than five subjects’ says Bedales Headmaster Keith Budge

The Telegraph, 21/08/14, Keith Budge, headmaster of Bedales School, Hampshire, calls for curbs to be placed on GCSE entries to enable teenagers to spend more time studying subjects such as the arts

Pupils should sit no more than five GCSEs because exams taken at 16 are damaging children’s education, according to a leading headmaster.

The current system in which pupils are encouraged to accumulate more than a dozen passes in a wide range of subjects has “impeded students’ natural creativity”, said Keith Budge, head of Bedales School in Hampshire.

He said that too much teaching was “driven by assessment” during secondary education, with the passing of exams taking precedent over a broader education.

Bedales has already taken the unusual step of developing its own qualifications – Bedales Assessed Courses – as an alternative to GCSEs.

It is claimed that the qualifications give pupils more control over the content of syllabuses, place a greater focus on coursework and allow students to be marked through oral assessment in addition to exams. Pupils are also encouraged to spend time on outdoor work and subjects such as the arts.

New research carried out by the school alongside researchers from Harvard University in the United States confirmed that pupils were more likely to report enjoying their subject and “actively engaging” in the classroom.

Sevenoaks, the independent school in Kent, is believed to be the only other institution to write and develop its own qualifications.

The disclosure is made as almost 700,000 schoolchildren across England, Wales and Northern Ireland prepare to receive their GCSE results.

Exam boards have already told schools that GCSE results may be "volatile" this summer following an unprecedented overhaul of the exams system, including a crackdown on resits, curbs on early entries for tests and a toughening up of English and geography.

It has already led to rising numbers of schools abandoning GCSEs – particularly in English – in favour of the alternative International GCSE.

Bedales, which lists the singer Lily Allen and TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp among its former pupils, requires teenagers to sit IGCSEs in the core subjects of English, maths, science and modern foreign languages. Pupils take two or three sciences. The move is designed to meet university entry requirements.

But the BAC is available in 11 other subjects including art, classical music, dance, design, English literature, geography and history.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Mr Budge said more schools should follow suit by limiting exposure to GCSEs and placing a bigger emphasis on alternative qualifications.

“It seems to me that the norm should be for students to only take GCSEs in a small number of core subjects: maths, English, the sciences and foreign languages,” he said. “You certainly would not need it to be any bigger.”

Mr Budge said some schools had contacted Bedales recently with a view to potentially developing their own qualifications, although Sevenoaks is the only one to make the leap so far.

He added: “I don’t see why the great majority of schools are not doing variants on something we are doing because you don’t need all those GCSEs.

“What you do need is students who learn to think for themselves, study independently and enjoy school in these years. You cannot have a uniform assessment like GCSE without it affecting your teaching.

“An awful lot of teaching is driven by assessment and the more that can be kept to a minimum the better in my view because it impedes students’ natural inquisitiveness, curiosity and creativity.

“If you go back to primary school, there is a fantastic attempt to stimulate young children’s curiosity. But there seems to be an acceptance that the walls of the prison close in when you reach 14 and you are expected to grind through this unappetising qualification. It needn’t be the case. It is unnecessary.”

By Graeme Paton, Telegraph. Read the full article - © The Telegraph (subscription may be required)