The Guardian, 18.08.15, from students designing utopias to creating Spanish films – there’s no end to teaching and learning when you shake off the shackles of the syllabus. HMC members Bedales School and Brighton College feature.
Bedales School in Hampshire is an independent school that truly lives up to the title. Like other private institutions it isn’t bound to follow the national curriculum but, unlike others, it has used this as an opportunity to create its own qualifications. Students leave year 11 with five IGCSES and up to five BACs – Bedales Assessed Courses. These have been created by the school in a variety of subjects, including ancient civilisations, classical music and outdoor work. The programmes are externally moderated, built around coursework and designed to develop independent learning skills. Students are awarded an A* to G grade just like GCSEs.
Clare Jarmy, the school’s head of religious studies and philosophy, says the BACs were borne out of frustration with traditional forms of assessment. “They were a response, 10 or 11 years ago, to the fact that GCSEs were getting less and less inspiring,” she says. “In this way we feel very independent – we’re not just a fee-paying school doing what all the other schools do, we are actually ploughing our own furrow.”
The final assessment in the philosophy, religion and ethics BAC, for example, takes the form of a utopia project, in which each student designs their own version of a perfect society. “That’s everything from core fundamental principles to the layout of the place,” Jarmy explains. “They’re basically given a blank sheet of paper. We require them to look at some set texts, but as much time as possible is spent in the school library, which is beautiful.”
Over five weeks students’ ideas are interrogated and challenged in “Oxford-style” tutorials, where they refine their proposals. The point, says Jarmy, is to nurture thought rather than teach to a test. And it’s an approach that reaps rewards – moderators have praised some students’ work as better than that of first-year undergraduates.
A fellow Bedales colleague, maths teacher Martin Jones, has also found ways to encourage independence in his IGCSE class. “We were working on Pascal’s triangle,” he explains. “A student came back the next lesson and said he had found some additional patterns and asked if he could show them to me. Instead I asked him to show the whole class – they were all asking questions about it and we had a great conversation.”
And so began a new routine – now, for one lesson a week, a student takes over an entire lesson and gives a presentation on any maths-related topic they find interesting. So far these have included an exploration of Plato’s view of mathematics, a probability exercise based on lambs born to the school’s flock of sheep, and a reworking of Cheryl’s birthday problem, which perplexed mathematicians across the world.
Even though the topics are not part of the exam syllabus, Jones says the approach brings benefits beyond measurement. “I feel I can take that risk,” he says. “If an Ofsted inspector sat in there I’d be up for a disciplinary because it doesn’t fit the syllabus. But the students research, put themselves on the line and have to really understand the solution. It’s empowering and they remember that lesson.
“There are lots of good maths teachers in the state sector and the independent sector. But the kind of pressure on teachers is different and that’s what makes me teach differently to the way I would in a state school. Bedales allows me to take risks in the classroom without feeling that there’s somebody looking over my shoulder.”
Richard Alvers, a language teacher at Brighton College, sparked similar enthusiasm in his AS-level class by asking them to create a film in Spanish. After watching Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and reading La casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, the class had two weeks to write, rehearse and film their original piece.
“The film and play were not part of the AS scheme of work,” he says. “But it was about engaging and immersing students in language and culture and encouraging independent investigation, as the two texts cover so many different themes – politics, film, literature, drama.
“They got so into it that they were desperate to come in at break, lunch and after school to do more writing, filming and rehearsing.”
He was delighted to discover that students were watching Spanish films in their spare time as part of their preparation, and the language skills of the entire group improved. “There was something for everybody, and everybody had a role to play,” he says. “Even though it wasn’t directly related to what is required for the exam, doing activities like this develops their interest and improves results.”
Alvers has not worked in British state schools, but suspects he would find it challenging. “I think I’d feel quite restricted,” he says. “Constantly focusing on whether a piece of work has achieved a certain level and every pupil in the group has made progress in a 15-minute slot can be quite superficial. The best language lessons are the ones where you can be creative and put it to use in a natural way. It’s best to do something a bit different that might take longer for people to progress, but the progress will be greater. ”