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Why strong academic achievement need not depend on testing

PUBLISHED: 12:25 30 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:25 30 May 2017

2016 JP Bland

The understanding of academic success needn’t be about testing. A creative curriculum, a focus on the joy of learning, and close teacher-pupil relationships can see far greater rewards, says Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst.

Why does Bedales Prep avoid a test and exam-focused approach to learning?

Learning should be one of life’s greatest pleasures. However, with an exam and tests-focused education, the joy of learning tends to be replaced with practicing exam methods in lessons, revision for homework, and tests and exams themselves. Of course, this can take up precious lesson and learning time. At Bedales Prep we believe that learning should be deep and broad, meaning that lessons focus on acquiring the skills of learning – analysis, development of ideas, responding to stimuli, collaboration, evaluation and social skills. This, in turn, builds pupils’ confidence, inquisitiveness and independence – all great preparation for study at GCSE and A level and beyond. I like to think that we are the home of the polymath, and this is where our many extra-curricular opportunities work in tandem with the academic programme. 


What types of extra-curricular learning does Bedales Prep offer pupils?

We offer the usual extra-curricular activities you would expect – sailing; horse riding; fencing; gymnastics a huge range of sports, drama, art and design; and a whole lot more besides. Outdoor Work is a central part of school life, and all pupils are expected to get outdoors and help to look after their school and learn outdoor skills such as animal husbandry, country crafts and horticulture. The school’s Arts & Crafts heritage means that doing and making with your hands is part of school life. Design, textiles, art and ceramics are taught as individual subjects, and pupils leave us able to make clothes, use a wide range of hand tools, make pottery items, draw, and so explore their worlds creatively. We also run a gifted, able and talented programme to provide stimulating sessions for our most able to develop thinking skills, undertake maths and logic challenges, and debate current issues. Pupils are encouraged to request activities they would like, and some are run by the pupils themselves. 


Without exams, what makes children work hard and achieve their best?

Our teachers are passionate about their subjects and inspire their pupils and know their pupils well. Bedales Prep teachers ensure they set challenging work for all, whatever their ability. We are a ‘growth mindset’ school, and we praise effort and encourage pupils to challenge themselves, seeing a mistake or even failure as an opportunity to learn, evaluate and grow. In this environment, pupils know they will be praised for having a go and trying things that may seem beyond them. Without exams and a highly competitive environment, pupils are far more supportive of each other and this creates a very warm and encouraging learning environment where all pupils can feel good about themselves and what they personally achieve and the progress they make. 


How do you assess pupil progress?

Assessment at Bedales Prep is very rigorous. Teachers know their pupils well, and can assess them in practical tasks and work produced in lessons, and also in the work pupils produce independently. This provides a huge bank of evidence for the teacher to make assessments of pupil attainment, progress made and also to set individual learning targets. Tests take up valuable lesson time, and we don’t need them. Once they progress to senior school, it is no coincidence that Bedales Prep pupils consistently out-perform students joining Bedales Senior from other schools in their A Level courses and in accessing the most demanding university and art college courses. 


How does getting outdoors enhance a pupil’s learning?

We need to prepare out children for an ever changing world, and going outdoors takes our pupils into a constant flow of new and changing environments and challenges. In science, our pupils like to touch, feel and test things that are there in the world around them rather than rely on text books; this makes learning hands-on and real, and therefore far more memorable. For example, in outdoor maths, pupils can measure and calculate from the world around them, and in history, get a sense of life in WW1 trenches from our school ditches and fields. Learning outdoors is tangible and direct, and that is not to mention the obvious health benefits.


What kind of results have you seen from this type of teaching?

This approach to teaching requires a partnership between teacher and pupil – learning is not ‘done’ to our pupils, they are an active part in the process. This encourages pupils to be fully engaged, keen to take on challenges and most of all, to have a ‘never give up’ attitude – a great foundation for the rest of their lives. Most of all, it is key to our school aim to produce ‘inquisitive thinkers, with a love of learning who cherish independent thought’. 


What is it about Bedales Schools that make this type of learning so beneficial?

School is a huge part of childhood and it should be highly enjoyable, engaging, challenging, and even magical. We want to see pupils engaged in their learning, excited by school and looking forward to the academic lessons as much as the creative subjects and play time. Our approach to education means that our pupils want to learn more, are self-motivated, and with unusually high levels of independence as learners for their age. 


What would you say to other schools who are set on the traditional test-focused teaching?

For many pupils, school is where teachers steer them down a very narrow path of teach, revise and test – particularly in Years 6, 7 and 8, the final years of childhood and the most vital time for instilling a love of learning in our children. As schools, we need to look closely at all we do, and constantly evaluate the impact on our pupils in ways that go beyond marks and grades. Over the last two decades, there has been a massive increase in testing and pressure points along the educational journey, even for our younger pupils. This is having a very detrimental impact on the education of our children, and it is a school’s responsibility to question whether the test and exam approach is best for our pupils. I say it is not.


Bedales Prep, Dunhurst is part of Bedales Schools, co-educational Day and Boarding Schools for 3 – 18 years situated on the edge of the South Downs National Park in Steep near Petersfield, Hampshire. The school holds regular open mornings and taster days, and offers scholarships and bursaries from year 7. For more information, contact Janie Jarman, Registrar, tel; 01730 711733; email: admissions@bedales.org.uk; www.bedales.org.uk/prep

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