The last time I blogged I was about to embark on a three week placement at Bedales, an independent boarding school just outside Petersfield. I promised that I would update you about my experience, so here goes….
Bedales is no ordinary school: students don’t wear uniform, they call teachers by their first names and there are no bells or clocks. As one of the most expensive schools in the country, its alumni include Daniel Day-Lewis, Lily Allen and Cara Delevingne. As I said, it’s no ordinary school, which is precisely the reason why I wanted to experience it. What could I learn from this progressive institution that I could take back to Charter Academy?
One of the boarding houses
One of the main differences between the two schools is the atmosphere. Charter is run with almost military precision: teachers line the corridors ensuring students move to their next lesson in an orderly manner, they are then greeted by their teacher at the door and enter a classroom which has their books laid out in their places and a task on the board to get on with immediately. At Bedales, however, students are trusted to move between lessons sensibly, the teacher doesn’t have to be there before the students and pupils sit where they like and carry their own books.
All these differences make for two very different, yet effective in their own way, atmospheres. Inevitably, the latter produces a more laid back and tranquil culture, whereas the former makes for a more regimented approach. I think they both have their benefits and disadvantages. Our students need routines and structure whereas parents send their children to Bedales because of its unique style which gives the students more freedom and potentially more opportunities to express themselves and their creativity. However, I think the danger of having such an atmosphere is that it can make the students too laid back, to the extent where they’re not self-motivated enough to complete and stay on top of all their work.
A Bedales Alpaca
The time of year I was there was not ideal as it was in the run-up to exam season so several classes went on study leave shortly after I arrived and the lessons I did observe were mainly revision lessons. However, I think the main difference seemed to be the less structured nature of the lessons. Whilst the structure of Charter’s lessons aren’t as prescriptive as some ARK schools, the lesson plan proforma expects you to detail your ‘Starter’ activity, the initial teacher input, how students will develop new learning and how that new learning will be assessed. Lessons are expected to be ‘double-planned’ e.g. you should plan not just what the students are doing, but what, you, the teacher is doing to promote learning. On the Bedales lesson plan proforma there’s a space for explaining the context of the lesson and differentiation but apart from that, it’s pretty much a blank page.
I think the lesson style at Bedales does lend itself to slightly more teacher talk and questioning and the opportunity to go off at a tangent. Some teachers don’t use interactive whiteboards at all, which feels very alien to me. However, I do think that relying on the interactive whiteboard can make a lesson less engaging; you can end up reading off the whiteboard if you’re not careful. Nevertheless, used effectively, I think the interactive whiteboard can be a great resource which adds visual reinforcement and a multi-media element to your lesson. Overall, due to the more tightly structured lessons at Charter and the more punctual start, I think we’re able to be slightly more productive as every minute is accounted for.
One of the highlights of my placement was teaching my first ever A level lesson. Having observed the Head of Department’s lesson with the class, I could see just how crucial questioning was going to be to the success of the lesson. The class had been studying the poetry of Sylvia Plath for their AS level exam, which, if you’ve ever encountered it, is not the easiest! I made sure I’d studied the two poems I’d selected with a fine tooth comb and then planned questions around my analysis. I also borrowed an idea from a wonderful A level English lesson I observed at Burlington Danes Academywhich gets students to break the poem down into a MOPLIST (Meaning of Poem, Language, Imagery, Structure and Tone). I absolutely loved the lesson because I felt the learning took place through in depth discussion, led by me mostly, but also by the students. Rather than me imparting knowledge on students, it felt much more like the students and I discovered the meaning of the poem together through our discussions. The success of the lesson made me even more excited for Charter’s sixth form which opens in September.
The behaviour of the students was exemplary; pupils were attentive and focussed. However what was most impressive was not their compliance but their maturity. A lot of the students would thank you at the end of the lesson; they really seemed to appreciate the effort you had gone to in order to deliver the lesson.
The beautiful library
Whilst I was on placement there were a variety of people who came to talk at the school. A renowned Classics academic delivered a lecture, a professional poet came to lead workshops and Stephen Fry came to talk about the ‘The Key to Life’. On top of that, there are a multitude of clubs and societies for the students to take part in. Lit Soc takes place once a month, in the Head of English’s front room, with a roaring fire. They discuss a book they’ve all read purely for pleasure, what joy!
This links to exactly what I found most impressive about Bedales: their commitment to learning in a wider sense. Outside of the classroom students are able to develop a passion for their subjects through the clubs and societies so that when they are applying to higher education courses, they are able to express a love for their subject, not just a proficiency. By listening to prominent speakers, they are exposed to high order concepts that they will have to grapple with at university. For example, the visiting poet delivered a literature on the philosophy of poetry; year 10 students were considering ideas I was considering in my third year of university! What is more, Bedales refuses to be limited by exam board specifications; they teach far more content than the syllabus requires, in order to give their students a more rounded education – they’ve even designed their own additional qualification to supplement the IGCSE, in order to stretch and challenge their students in ways, they believe, the IGCSE cannot.
An exam factory Bedales definitely isn’t, which is the accusation thrown at the majority of state schools today. However, it did come as a surprise to me when I learnt that about a fifth of students got a C for their English IGCSE last year. Considering we get the majority of our pupils C grades for their IGCSE, students who come from the other end of the economic scale and haven’t had the privilege of having books at home, trips abroad or consistently good teaching throughout their life, it surprises me that more pupils at Bedales don’t hit the higher grades. It also brought it home to me just how much we push our children and how much we get out of them, in terms of grades, which will hopefully lead them to brighter futures.
At the end of the placement I was ready and excited to go back to Charter. Stepping outside of the ARK bubble had made me appreciate even more just how high the standard of teaching is at my school and how well I’ve been trained. Having had the space to develop some fresh, new perspectives and ideas, I was looking forward to putting them into practice.
Apart from a disastrous observation, my first week back at Charter was fine. The children were happy to see me and I already feel that my lessons are more engaging and creative. Apart from a mini-break in Scotland, the rest of half term was dedicated to assignment writing, scheme of work designing and portfolio assembling….only four weeks left until my final assessment!