Unlikely bedfellows and the alternative curriculum
– Keith Budge, Headmaster of Bedales Schools and Chair-Elect of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC)
For various reasons, many independent schools have made the decision to move away from the national curriculum to some extent, and to sign up to alternatives or develop their own. Around a decade ago Bedales took the decision to stop offering non-core GCSEs and to develop our own qualification programmes, Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs), which are written and assessed by our teachers with external moderation. Pupils can choose from a wide range of courses including history, geography, drama, art, design, classical music, ancient civilisations, philosophy, religion and ethics and the more practical ‘outdoor work’ (think renovating an old Land Rover or designing/building a pizza oven). Our reasons were simple – we found the GCSE programme to be dull and uninspiring, and incompatible with our educational aims. BACs better fit our wish to really know our pupils, and to give them the chance to put their own stamp on their studies.
Creativity and innovation
Given the Government’s apparent appetite for creativity and innovation in its support for academies and free schools, one could be forgiven for thinking that such initiatives would be celebrated and their successes built upon. In fact, Bedales is not alone in finding its non-national curriculum qualification results omitted from the relevant league tables, despite support from universities and UCAS. Why such distaste? Well, it is possibly instructive that if you Google ‘alternative curriculum’ your eye is likely to be caught by discussions of educational provision as an alternative for young people who have rejected conventional schooling in one way or another. A 2005 report from the National Teacher Research Panel found that alternative programmes can re-engage disaffected young people and move them into post-16 activity, with the creation of a supportive school context, and encouragement and acknowledgement of student achievement key. Educational programmes would typically see young people given choice and responsibility and might be individualised. Teaching and learning would take place both at school and off-site at further education, work and community locations.
Importantly, the researchers reported that the better programme designers got to know the students and listened to them, the easier it was to design a programme that would work for them. Young people and their parents appreciated the approach, and the flexibility to try things and change if they didn’t work out. I can see why it would show results. What I don’t understand is why it is pursued as a last resort – my guess is that most innovators in the independent sector will tell you that this is in line with their aspirations for all their students.
It is a fact that disproportionate numbers of top jobs in all walks of life are occupied by those who have been independently educated. A recent report by the Sutton Trust suggests that one of the reasons for this may be the attraction to recruiters of ‘soft’ attributes such as teamwork, interpersonal and communication skills. For all of this, such skills are currently out of favour with policy makers. They may need to rethink this, and what might be required for such a breadth of education to be available to all. I believe that the key factor in all of this is time. Whereas the typical grant-maintained school day is seven hours long and mainly limited to the academic curriculum, the independent sector day is typically around two hours longer, also with Saturday morning school and sports matches on Saturday afternoons – overall, around an additional 40%. If you compare boarding schools with these two categories, the difference is even more stark: days at boarding schools will be typically at least 13 hours of lessons, pastoral guidance and extra-curricular activities, with many pupils also involved in weekend activities.
It is this additional time that allows us to take our foot off the formal academic gas – to talk, reflect, get outside and smell the flowers. Slowing things down a little is an educational essential, and this understanding perhaps makes unlikely bedfellows of the more innovative independent schools and those teaching ‘remedial’ version alternative curriculums in the state sector. Nonetheless teachers and policy makers seeking fresh impetus for education provision might do a lot worse than looking to both examples for inspiration.
Keith was educated at Rossall School before attending University College, Oxford where he read English, followed by a PGCE. At Oxford he gained three Blues at rugby. He began his career teaching English at Eastbourne College, moving on to Marlborough where, after a year’s teaching exchange in California, he became a Housemaster. He became Headmaster of Loretto School in 1995, overseeing the introduction of co-education, and Bedales in 2001. Keith is Chair-Elect of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and takes over as Chair in 2017–18. He is married with three adult children.