The young human brain is a limber and wonderful thing, adept at flipping from one task to another: thank goodness this is the case, I ponder, as our GCSE students enter exam download time with the proper onset of GCSEs. Although in our case, in common with many HMC schools, these are IGCSEs, they test very different skills to those of our own, home-grown Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs), which run alongside the core of Maths, English, Science and a modern language, which are tested through GCSE. The biggest difference is that the BACs are designed unashamedly to encourage our students to be inquisitive thinkers and independent learners; so creativity and a deeper kind of learning are at their core; they are heavy on careful research, long essays and involved project work. These qualities are perhaps best illustrated by our Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (PRE) course, which some 40 of our Block 5s (Year 11s) completed at the end of last term. In the parlour game of enviable Bedales academic courses that our parents would like to have studied, PRE, would come top or close to it for many. The run up to that conclusion may show what I mean. The finale of the PRE course is the completion of the Thinking Journal and the Utopia Project, which have to be handed in at the end of the term in March. These two tasks represent for me the apogee of the unabashed immersion in thinking hard and determinedly about things that lies at the heart of PRE and, perhaps, as the heart of a school like Bedales’ tradition of intellectual enquiry. The Thinking Journal has the ambitious aim of being a kind of mental sketch book that captures the meanderings and sparks of the student’s thinking over the five terms of the PRE course. The Utopia Project is a wonderful opportunity to combine idealistic thinking with the application of the systems of thoughts and belief that have been studied – an exercise, I’d say, in the best kind of creative thinking. This year the final stage of the PRE thinking cycle had the additional fillip of a philosopher in residence, Keith Ward, the former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, who joined our philosophers for all sorts of discussions and talks – one to ones, classes, informal groups and a lecture. This term began with a contemplative in residence – Luke Jolly from Worth Abbey who likewise engaged students across the board in a kind of thinking as distant from the quick downloads required by GCSE. Thinking back to the contrast between the demeanour of those Block 5 PRE students in the final stages of their PRE work and how they are with the necessarily pragmatic business of GCSEs, it’s a replacement of the furrowed, quizzical brow with a job-to-be-done practicality. What I think I know in my gut is that, thanks above all to that license to roam in the BAC meadows and off the asphalt paths of GCSE, the spirit of enquiry lurks still strongly, even in the greyest exam hall.
By Keith Budge, Headmaster of Bedales School.