Bedales Innovation Conference: in defence of joyous engagement

Posted on 15th October 2014

“I think we’re going to see more homegrown courses, more partnerships between schools both domestically and internationally and greater curriculum enrichment at Sixth Form level”, Portsmouth Grammar School Head James Priory told the Conference on Innovative Education held at Bedales School on Thursday 9 October.

Attended by teachers and students from a range of schools, as well as educationalists, the conference explored alternatives to what is seen in some quarters as a limited and over-prescriptive approach to formal education from policy makers. At Key Stage 5, reforms will see the abandonment of the modular AS/A2 system; renewed focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects; and a return to a linear assessment process, through examinations sat at the end of courses.

Delivering the keynote address, Richard Gerver, challenged a government education policy that he said was over-reliant on decontextualised ‘lessons’ from abroad of dubious value and, instead, made a plea for a greater focus on challenges considered by OECD as essential to workplace skills development – interpersonal as well as routine cognitive skills; the ability to learn, adapt and change; closer links between the worlds of work and education; and the avoidance of an over-reliance on formal qualifications at the expense of actual skills. 

Introducing the concept of ‘Slow Education’ Mike Grenier stressed the benefits of intensity and depth of learning, thinking and relationships over the quick wins of fast, over-assessed and often superficial learning – what he described as, a focus on "joyous engagement" rather than learning with the principal objective of passing exams. Additional workshops involved sessions on global education, technology for innovative learning, post-16 educational reforms and entrepreneurship.

The conference was inspired by, and featured the experiences of Bedales School in introducing its own Key Stage 4 middle years’ curriculum – the Bedales Assessed Courses. Headmaster Keith Budge explained: “In developing our own qualifications, we were worried by the evident mismatch between our desire to create inquisitive thinkers and what we saw as a prescriptive and uninspiring GCSE curriculum – a trend that, sadly, appears to be gathering strength.  Bedales Assessed Courses accompany IGCSEs in core subjects, and both encourage and reward imaginative, independent and committed enquiry: since we introduced them in 2006, we have found that they have been welcomed by universities and UCAS, that our A level results have improved, and that the proportions of our students admitted to the most demanding universities such as Oxford and Cambridge have risen. The challenge now lies in ensuring that out students benefit from wider developmental opportunities that I fear the core Sixth Form A Level curriculum will simply not provide.”