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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.
Boarding at an independant school
School Address Phone Type PR Weblink
Dean Close SchoolShelburne Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. GL51 6HE01242 258044Bo(7-18), D, M, 13-18 
Wycliffe CollegeStonehouse, Gloucestershire. GL10 2JQ01453 822432Bo, D, M, 2-18 
Rookwood SchoolWeyhill Road, Andover, Hampshire. SP10 3AL01264 325900Bo(8-16), D, M, 3-16 
St Lawrence CollegeCollege Road, Ramsgate, Kent. CT11 7AE01843 572931Bo(3-18), D(3-18), M(3-18), 3-18 
Kingham Hill SchoolKingham, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. OX7 6TH01608 658999Bo, D, M, 11-18 
Erskine Stewart\'s Melville SchoolsQueensferry Road, Edinburgh, Scotland. EH4 3EZ0131 311 1000Bo(10-18), D(3-18), B(3-18), G(3-18), M(3-12), 3-18 
Wellington SchoolWellington, Somerset. TA21 8NT01823 668803Bo, D, M, 11-18 
Holbrook, Ipswich, Suffolk. IP9 2RX01473 326136 Bo, D, M, 11-18
St Davids CollegeLlandudno, Conwy. LL30 1RD01492 875974Bo, D, M, 9-19 
Windermere SchoolWindermere, Cumbria. LA23 1NW01539 446164Bo, D, M, 3-18 
King's College TauntonSouth Road, Taunton, Somerset. TA1 3LA01823 328204Bo, D, M, 13-18 
Queen\'s CollegeTrull Road, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4QS01823 340830Bo(7-18), D, M, 0-18 
Denstone, Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. ST14 5HN01889 590484Bo, D, M, 11-18
Stonar SchoolCottles Park, Atworth, Wiltshire. SN12 8NT01225 701741Bo(9-18), D(2-18), M(2-18), 2-18 
Iwerne Minster, Blandford Forum, Dorset. DT11 8LL01747 812122Bo, D, M, 2½-18
Bucknell, Shropshire SY7 0BG01547 530303Bo(9-18), D(4-18), M(4-18), 4-18
Warminster SchoolChurch Street, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 8PG01985 210100Bo, D, M, 3-18 
Moyles Court SchoolMoyles Court, Ringwood, Hampshire. BH24 3NF01425 472856Bo, D, M, 2-16 
Pangbourne Reading RG8 8LA+44 (0)118 9767 416Bo, D, M, 11-18
Hailey Lane, Hertford, Hertfordshire. SG13 7NU+44 (0) 1992 706353Bo, D, M, 11-18
Green Lane, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG2 9JP +44(0)1423 566358Bo(8-18), D, M, 3-18
Rossall SchoolBroadway, Fleetwood. FY7 8JW01253 774201Bo(7-18), D, M, 2-18 
Penn Road, Wolverhampton. WV3 0EG01902 341230Bo(11-18), D(4-18), M(4-18), 4-18
Blundell's SchoolBlundell's Road, Tiverton EX16 4DN01884 252543Bo(11-18), D(2-18), M(2-18), 2-18 
Shiplake CollegeHenley-on-Thames, RG9 4BW0118 940 2455Bo(11-18), D, B(11-18), G(16-18), 11-18 
Taunton SchoolStaplegrove Road, Taunton, Somerset TA2 6AD01823 703703Bo(7-18), D(0-18), M(0-18), 0-18 
Cheltenham Road, Burford, Oxfordshire OX18 4PL 01993 823303Bo, D, M, 11-18
High Street, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire WS15 3BW01283 840232Bo 8-18, D, B, 3-18
The Settlement, Ockbrook, Derby, DE72 3RJ01332 673532Bo(11-18), D(2-18), M(2-18), 2-18
The Old Palace, Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire. CB7 4EW01353 660707Bo(8-18), 1-18
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