I live but a stone’s throw from Bedales, a school whose local reputation in my circles, is limited to the number of celebrities’ children it educates.  So it was a pleasure to attend a conference last week to find out what is at the heart of this iconic establishment.

As we assembled in the theatre, thunder heralded the arrival of our keynote speaker, Richard Gerver @richardgerver, author of Creating Tomorrow’s Schools Today (Bloomsbury).

I took away three themes:

1. Networks: Richard told an anecdote about his daughter who researches her history essays by allowing her global network to populate a title with content.  She then edits, shapes and submits it.  Compellingly, this allows her to reflect on a Russian student’s interpretation of the second world war as well as her own. Richard argued this is not plagiarism, this is how we work and educators need to think differently as a result. I don’t think this is as radical as it seems on the surface, we have always used a range of sources to inform our arguments, it’s just that now, our access to sources comprises social networks as well as libraries. Teachers are unfamiliar with this, and it is a challenge to create ‘classrooms without walls’ @rlj1981 to allow students the freedom to use their networks in academic work.

Richard went on to encourage us to network with other sectors in our quest for developing an innovative ethos.  He cited thrilling meetings with Eric Schmidt of Google (learning is about human interaction) Steve Jobs (invent stuff – employ people who don’t need managing) and Steve Vosnier of Microsoft (it’s not what we teach it’s how well they learn).  Here is the skills vs knowledge debate in a further guise – teaching learning to learn, self-regulation and entrepreneurship is essential for success in these organisations which move at break-neck speed.  We know that business prioritise skills in order to adapt to the world of work:

Most important factors in recruiting school and college leavers – CBI survey, 2014

And we return to a sticky debate that for me, reached its conclusion at Tom Sherrington’s talk at Pedagoo London.  In the ‘Progressive / Traditionalist Pedagogy Tree,’ the roots are our knowledge, reading and context which are inextricably linked to our skills of expression, research, vision, imagination, resilience and so on.

Tom Sherrington’s Progressive – Traditional Pedagogy Tree

Or to put it another way:

 If you say the primary objective of a lesson is to develop resilience and team working skills… I will be dubious.  If, however, you say that through a set of activities based on developing deep level knowledge and understanding in a concrete learning discipline, students will have opportunities to demonstrate resilience and to work in teams… I will think differently about it.                                     (Tom Sherrington)

Skills don’t exist without knowledge and vice-versa: they are interdependent. There is a balance here: students acquire knowledge either through their own research or directly from their teacher, then use it to resolve problems where they apply and develop sophisticated skills (which are modelled).

And according to Tom, we all need to read this book in order to get the progressive – traditionalist debate out of our systems so that we can just get on with it!

‘Trivium’ by Martin Robinson

However, I do agree whole-heartedly with Richard that we need to build networks with the business world.  Because:

  • Students need to know the dizzying range of careers available to them.
  • They need role models in the business world to raise their aspirations.
  • Students should be building their networks now in order to have doors to knock on in the future.
  • Networking is a skill which is going to be essential for our students – and those who have the confidence to do this with adults will succeed, I believe.
  • Students will be able to contextualise the skills they are learning in school.
  • External speakers and mentors will raise everyone’s game.  They just do.

2. Vision

Richard talked about vision as having three strands if it is to influence: clarity, coherence, leadership.  He reminded us of various Secretaries of State skipping off to Finland, Shanghai, Singapore, Sweden – returning, cheeks flushed with elation having discovered the latest silver bullet. Here’s the latest from Tristram Hunt:


It won’t work because context is everything.  You can’t borrow a vision; it won’t fit.  Makes sense.

3. Entrepreneurship

I like metaphors because they communicate powerfully.  It comes from the Greek, metaphora, to transfer or carry.  In using a metaphor, we carry meaning from a familiar idea to a more complex one in order to clarify it. So Richard used this metaphor to define entrepreneurship:

Parkour comes from the French, par course, course or route.  Entrepreneurship is the ability, illustrated by these boys in the ruins of Gaza, to see the spaces between obstacles and negotiate a route never travelled.

I agreed with many of the ideas in Richard’s keynote, specifically the importance of networking with other sectors.  However, what was lacking were examples of where this vision for education has been put into practice.  How do we teach the ideals of entrepreneurship?  How do schools create sustainable links with the business sector? If a clear vision about how students learn and what they learn is essential, is it meaningful unless we transform models of assessment and inspection.

Curriculum Innovation

In this talk by Keith Budge (Headteacher of Bedales) and Alistair McConville (Director of Learning at Bedales) my question about linking vision to assessment was addressed.  Bedales has linked its vision, to nurture inquisitive thinkers and independent learners, to an innovative curriculum model where BACs (Bedales Assessed Qualifications) sit alongside GCSEs and A Levels.

Through consultation with 64 university departments, Keith and his team devised new qualifications with this vision at their core.  For example, in the PRE (Philosophy, Religion and Ethics) BAC  students have a learning journal where they record their independent thinking and research.

In the BAC, students have to keep a learning journal, which forms part of their assessment.

They also have a project to create a utopia based on the ideas of five philosophers.  They can present their ideas however they like: as an essay, creative writing, poetry, a presentation and so on.  The coursework, which forms the majority of assessment, is then moderated by experiences moderators, ‘who know the kind of standard of work which should be produced by a 16 year old.’ (Al McConville).

Crucially, the BAC has been accepted by UCAS and is used in their points system.  When asked about the impact of BAC, Al McConville pointed us to a Harvard research project which posed the question: “To what extent are Bedales students motivated, independent thinkers with a love of learning? What are the factors that influence these dispositions?”

The findings from the research can be found here and are resoundingly positive including:

‘Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs) are a significant factor in enhancing motivation, independence and inquisitiveness. The variety of paths a student can take through a single course, and the broad range of assessment methods contribute to a strong sense of ownership.’

In addition, Al McConville gave us his own observations about ‘the fruit’ of the BAC:

The impact of the BAC – Al McConville

I am convinced by the impact such courses must have on morale, students and teachers can explore, innovate, follow up their interests and guess what?  It is assessed and rewarded.  In the state sector, we are free to do all these things, but it is not rewarded in the same way so arguably these activities have a more fragile place in our pedagogy, especially as we regress to 100% terminal assessment in 2015 GCSE courses.

Some more questions:

  • Can state schools create their own qualifications in line with their own vision and context?
  • Could a regional family of schools do the same thing in collaboration with universities?
  • Would UCAS accept a new qualification from a family of state schools?
  • Will Bedales share the work they have done with state schools? (Keith Budge said ‘Yes!)
  • Can we really be innovative without a fundamental shift in assessment?

I feel that conferences like these would benefit from time dedicated to discussion which will lead to action. We have ideas but need support networks, confidence and ongoing conversations to develop them. Please let me know if you would like to help me organise a conference where we invite different sectors to work together to make ideas a reality. A staffroom without walls. ConnectED Conference 2015? Anyone?