There's more to learning than exams

Posted on: 21 Apr 2015

Al McConville, Deputy Head Academic, argues that to really expand their minds, children should be encouraged to learn, literally outside, the confines of a narrowly-defined curriculum…

There is something dispiriting about the emphasis of the impending raft of curricular and examination reforms.

We are on the cusp of regressing into a ‘reformed’ system in which the skills of fact-retention, speed-writing, and the fitting of artificially compartmentalised subjects into prescribed frameworks under time pressure are the ones that are really given most currency.

All this at a time when employers, the CBI, the OECD and most recently the Warwick Commission are demanding greater opportunities for our young people to develop their creative, collaborative and interpersonal skills.

In an interconnected world where the ability to collaborate is so clearly paramount, we continue to participate in a highly individualistic environment. Students are to a large extent encouraged to plough their own furrow, endlessly encouraged to be independent. The grades pupils leaves school with are regarded as definitive of a person’s achievement and future potential.

Of course, independence is a highly desirable thing, as is individual achievement, but it is only one side of the coin.

Of at least equal importance is one’s ability to participate in the collective achievement of team goals, or to make a contribution to the shared aims of the community. Any attempts that we make to value these are largely drowned out by the centrality of examined achievement of a narrower kind.

Part of the issue is the reluctance of exam boards and the government to trust teachers. Teacher assessed judgments about the skills and dispositions of their students are increasingly subordinated to the rankings that can be made by standardised testing of individuals in a closely monitored, silent room.

Hence the disappearance of grading for assessed practicals in science, and the drive to minimise coursework wherever possible, even though the development of an in-depth piece of work over a period of time so clearly requires a desirable skill-set.

That’s why at Bedales we have, for eight years, been successfully relying on parents, future employers and universities to trust our judgement about the performances of our students. Frankly, we have no reason to mislead them. Our range of Bedales Assessed Courses, which we run in lieu of many GCSEs, are assessed internally, and moderated externally by people whose judgment we trust.

They assess not just exam performance, but also presentation and performance skills, in Drama and Dance, development of portfolios in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and Art amongst others, pieces of extended coursework in History, and yes, even those nebulous, but crucial skills, participation and collaboration.

In Outdoor Work, small groups work together on projects from gate-making to wedding cart restoration. One pair has rebuilt a large hen house for the school chickens. They will be assessed on their individual contribution and teamwork, as well as their joint output.

What emerges is something close to the concept of a ‘balanced scorecard’. Not only does this enable a far richer experience for our young people, it also has the happy consequence of developing a much wider range of relevant skills for life. And guess what? People have trusted us.

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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.