Alternative curriculum, creativity and innovation

Posted on 11th October 2016

Bedales is one of a number of independent schools to move away from the national curriculum, and to either sign up to alternatives or develop their own. A decade ago Bedales stopped offering non-core GCSEs and replaced them with Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) – written and assessed by teachers, with external moderation. Students 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’.

In a recent article for the Boarding Schools’ Association’s Guide to UK Boarding Schools (page 88), Keith Budge wonders why government doesn’t celebrate and build upon such successes, given the apparent appetite for creativity and innovation in its support for academies and free schools. Instead Bedales finds its non-national curriculum qualification results omitted from league tables, despite support from universities and UCAS.

One possible reason for this is that the idea of an alternative curriculum is commonly conflated with education for young people who have rejected conventional schooling. Alternative programmes can successfully re-engage disaffected young people, with the creation of a supportive school context and encouragement and acknowledgement of student achievement key. Typically, young people will be given choice and responsibility, and their learning individualised.

The approach seems to work, and Keith doesn’t understand why policy makers turn to it only as a last resort. He says: “Most innovators in the independent sector will tell you that this is in line with their aspirations for all their students.”

A possible explanation is the time factor. Keith explains: “Whereas the grant-maintained school day is usually 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. It is this additional time that allows us to take our foot off the formal academic gas – 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.

Keith Budge blogs regularly during term time. To read his latest blog, click here. The Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) is the United Kingdom association serving and representing member boarding schools, training staff and promoting boarding education in both independent and state boarding schools.