Bedales: Rethinking Assessment - a case study

GCSEs are uninspiring, formulaic and one-dimensional - we can do better

Alistair McConville Director of Learning and Innovation, Bedales

Bedales School, a co-educational boarding school in Hampshire, recognised the need to ‘rethink assessment’ 15 years ago. We were painfully aware of the shortcomings of the experience of taking 9/10 GCSEs in particular and decided to do something about it. 

GCSEs were uninspiring, formulaic and assessed in a one-dimensional manner that primarily rewarded rote-learning and relentless exam practice. The overall experience of our students as they endured the assessment treadmill was simply not good enough for a school that espouses the centrality of developing a ‘love of learning’, so we decided to write our own richer, more expansive courses for years 10 & 11. They encourage creativity, autonomy, and enjoyment of learning for its own sake, as well as emphasising a wider range of skills and dispositions. Since 2006 students have taken 4 or 5 ‘Bedales Assessed Courses’ (BACs) from 12 options in the arts and humanities alongside, grudgingly, a core of GCSEs in English, Maths, Sciences and Languages.

The creation of Bedales Assessed Courses

What’s different about BACs? Firstly, they aim to give students significant choice as they navigate each subject area. In one unit of the Philosophy, Religion and Ethics BAC, for example, students initially learn about the same central thinkers and key philosophical concepts, but then research further and develop their own creative response to the idea they have found most stimulating. They present their understanding and their creative response (which might be anything from a poem about solipsism, to a film about Plato, or a model representing Cartesian Dualism) to an audience that includes peers, teachers, and parents, who question them closely. They are assessed not only on their written work, but also on their presentation skills, depth of understanding and class participation. There is an exam, too, but it’s just one part of the overall assessment picture.

In the Global Awareness BAC students work in teams to develop solutions to real world problems and are rewarded for their collaborative skills as well as the practical outcome. One group studied the relationship between loneliness in the elderly and mental and physical health; they subsequently designed and launched a ‘buddy’ support programme at a local nursing home.  Again, presentation and defence of their projects is part and parcel of the process.

In Outdoor Work BAC, the quality of team work on practical projects is assessed alongside the project log-book and the functionality of the tractor they have renovated, for example. Entrepreneurial projects such as the Bedales Farm Shop help develop relevant practical skills alongside specific technical and academic learning about the processes of food production.

The positive impact of more expansive learning

The 2006 gamble has more than paid off. Students report being far more engaged by their learning and academic results in related A Level subjects went up. Universities have readily accepted our ‘Centre Assessed Grades’ in modern parlance as equivalent to GCSE, and we use external moderators to help us ensure year on year comparability.

Teachers love delivering BACs, too. They can shape their courses according to their own expertise and be responsive to student interests and contemporary events. Their professional judgement is taken seriously, and they design the assessment criteria. BACs are a significant factor in recruitment and retention.

We’re not standing still. We continue to develop new BAC courses. Computer Game Design is the latest member of the stable. And we’re extending the principle of institution-led assessment into the Sixth Form. This September we launch our Level 3 equivalent course in “Living With the Land”, a practical and theoretical course built around sustainability issues.

A broader approach to assessment is possible, and desirable. We’re admittedly well resourced, and that’s a factor in some of our courses, but it costs no more to run a Philosophy, Religion and Ethics BAC than it does a Religious Studies GCSE. It’s just that the former is much more interesting, develops a wider range of skills than the latter, and is more likely to lead to a life-long engagement with its associated questions.

For now, we reluctantly continue with a few GCSEs, but we would much rather not, and are hoping to escape their shackles altogether before long, and to help others to do so too. ‘Reformed’ GCSEs are even more over-stuffed with content (1,000+ pages of textbook content to memorise for triple science GCSE…) so that the student experience is a rushed, unnecessarily stressful race against time just to cover everything before the drilling begins. As the legendary Howard Gardner writes: “The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage”.

Recent events have shown definitively that our current exam-obsessed approach is broken. At Bedales we hope that we can accelerate the national conversation about a broader, more humane and holistic approach to assessment in England. We’re excited to be part of this broad coalition of friends and partners who are united by their desire to “rethink assessment”.

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