Some inspiration for Gove
By Keith Budge, Headmaster of Bedales Schools.
As pupils build an ice cream seller’s bike, an Observatory and restore a Gypsy caravan Keith Budge explains why he has introduced an alternative curriculum to GCSEs…
In the Barnyard, the epicentre of Outdoor Work (more later), I find small groups of students engaged with a range of projects: reconstructing an ancient Land Rover; creating an ice-cream seller's bike, mobile fridge and delicious ice-cream; adapting what was a fairly ramshackle shed into an insulated and well-appointed meditation octagon; building an observatory, having learnt proper bricklaying skills; a fledgling beeswax candle business; restoring a gypsy caravan; and finally, I climb a ladder to admire how a group are cutting the slates that will top the clocktower that will overlook the Barnyard.
These are students engaging with the final stages of their Bedales Assesses Courses (BACs). These courses, running for five terms and having a significant coursework element, finish at the end of the Spring term and are designed to test very different skills to those tested by the core of compulsory IGCSEs sat by all students in Maths, English, Science and a Modern Language.
The biggest difference is that the BACs are designed unabashedly to inspire our students to be inquisitive thinkers and independent learners; so creativity and a deeper kind of thinking are at their core; they are heavy on careful research, long essays and involved project work. Most of our students will study either four or five BACs and take their pick from: Ancient Civilisations; Art, Classical Music; Dance; Design; English Literature; Geography; History; Outdoor Work; Philosophy, Religion & Ethics; and Theatre.
Over the past few weekends we have had "all in" weekends for Block 5 BAC students in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (PRE), Outdoor Work (ODW), Design and Art, so I have had the chance to take a much more leisurely look as they enjoy the opportunity to have good, unbroken spells of two or three hours' work at a stretch.
Eavesdropping on our Head of Art, giving his Block 5 class stirring words about the need for hard work on their BAC Art pieces over the forthcoming all-in weekend, I am glad to hear his pep talk, along these lines: "It won't feel like work; you really get into this and give it your all and it won't seem like work.."
And so it seems, not really like work, when I pad round on Sunday afternoon and see these students in action. There is a Burmese-inspired clay head, which looks across the room at an elegantly-podgy cherub; next door another student is working on the grisly image of the cult leader Jones, whilst her colleagues' lustrous panorama and enticing lagoon are requiring the deftest of brushstrokes. Not work, really, just people wrapped up in stuff - flow, the educational wonks sometimes call it. Anyway, like lots of good things that don't really have a fitting name, you know it when you see it or feel it.
Over in the PRE department, students are wrestling with the culminating task of the BAC course, the Utopia Project. This 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 would say, in the best kind of creative thinking. A Block 5 boy is reading the real thing, More's Utopia, whilst a girl has impressive looking sheets on the floor and is mapping out a society which she describes as being the best of Bedales meeting the best of Scandinavia - that is Scandi-blanc not Scandi-noir, as we have come to know and love via our Scandidramas.
The Utopia Project builds on the Thinking Journal, which has the ambitious aim of being a kind of mental sketch book that captures the meanderings and sparks of each student's thinking over the 5 terms of their PRE course. In so many ways these two tasks represent for me the apogee of the unabashed immersion in thinking hard and determinedly about things that lie at the heart of PRE and, perhaps, at the heart of a school like Bedales' tradition of intellectual enquiry.
If Michael Gove is looking for inspiration, it would be this: encourage schools to exercise some freedom over the curriculum so that they can develop a stimulating and motivating programme that is tailored to the best interests of their students. At Bedales the middle years BAC qualification has been central to our desire to create independent thinkers with a real appetite for learning, and which has led to improved Oxbridge, Russell Group and Art College success.