22 May 2015

Why IB?

Sophie Duncker
This week we welcome Bryanston's Head of IB, Sophie Duncker, who explains why she thinks pupils benefit from studying the IB Diploma.

Why would a pupil choose the IB at sixth form? There are many who believe that IB pupils are constantly studying with no time for anything else and that A levels are the easier, safer route.

I don’t agree! Yes, it can seem challenging at first glance, but the benefits that pupils gain through studying the IB Diploma are considerable. And as to constantly studying? IB pupils at Bryanston are fully involved in school life: last year’s cohort included the Heads of School, three prefects, the captain of the rowing team, several lead actors in school theatre productions, and a soloist in the Dance Band. Indeed, the IB actively encourages pupils to get involved in a range of activities alongside their studies through CAS (Creativity, Action, Service), a part of the ‘core’ of the IB Diploma programme.

The breadth of the IB, in both the subjects studied and combination of assessment methods, enables pupils to develop a much wider view of both their studies and their personal approach to learning. With six subjects, plus the ‘core’ of Theory of Knowledge, Extended Essay and CAS, pupils not only quickly develop strong organisational skills, they also learn how to be flexible and thrive outside their comfort zone. All key skills for their later lives.

While the range of subjects studied in the IB Diploma programme is an obvious benefit and the holistic approach to these subjects highlights how they are linked to each other in the real world, pupils also have the opportunity to delve into one area in depth as part of their Extended Essay (EE). The EE is an independent research project which allows pupils to investigate a topic related to one of their six chosen subjects and which is of special interest to them. Not only do pupils develop a deep understanding of their chosen topic, they also gain practical experience that will prepare them for undergraduate research.

The IB really can be the choice for every pupil – a scientist too will need to ‘think out of the box’, to consider ethical questions and be able to express themselves both in his or her own language, as well as in others. Some see a very clear route through school and a choice of one and only one university before them; then A levels may be a credible alternative to the IB. The choice however isn’t necessarily between A Levels and IB, but between specialising and widening horizons.

15 May 2015

A level reform: Evolution not revolution

Ian McClary
This week we welcome Ian McClary, Head of Sixth Form, who looks at the changes to A levels that will begin to take effect from September and the opportunities these changes bring.

Next year the reforms to A levels, introduced by Michael Gove as Education Secretary, will begin to take effect. Instead of completing half the A level course in A3 and the other half in A2 (a change introduced by the previous Labour government in 2000), the reformed A levels will, over two years, return to something similar to what we experienced in ‘the olden days’, when we were examined at the end of two years.

In an attempt to halt grade inflation, make A levels more rigorous and ambitious and better prepare young people for the demands of employment and further study, an extensive consultation process, which drew on advice from universities and subject associations, has taken another long, hard look at our educational ‘gold standard’.

Even though it can seem like just another raft of unnecessary and confusing changes, it is important to remember that we have again been presented with a valuable opportunity to reflect on how best to serve our pupils in the sixth form as they prepare for higher education and beyond. Everyone knows that you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it but exams in their right place are an important tool and an important rite of passage.

For pupils currently in B, things won’t look any different. They have chosen their subjects as usual and will sit a mixture of reformed and legacy AS units at the end of A3. Depending on the subjects they have chosen, some of these AS units will count towards their A level grade together with their A2 units; in other subjects they will not and the pupils will be required to be examined on that material again at the end of A2. This will not be much different to what happens already, with some pupils choosing to resit AS exams in the summer of A2.

What we will also be thinking carefully about next year is how we move forward into 2016 when all the subjects we offer will be reformed. There will be advantages and drawbacks to these changes, just as there were to the changes back in 2000. What is important, though, is how we teach children to learn and provide them with a rich experience in the sixth form.

Was it wise, for example, back in 2000, to spend a term of teaching at the end of A3 focusing on preparation for AS exams (knowing full well that trying to get pupils started immediately afterwards on the A2 courses would be a non-starter)? After 15 years of that, why would we continue to offer the new AS qualification when, as a standalone qualification, it is worth less than before (only 40% of an A level) and does not contribute towards the A level grade? And, if the reformed A levels are going to be more rigorous, why would we not jump at the chance to have more time to teach them?

This is something we currently enjoy with the IB Diploma programme, enabling more interesting and diverse assessment methods along the way, as well as terminal exams at the end of a two-year linear course. Given that the IB Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge qualifications (the core of the IB Diploma) are worth together more than an AS qualification in a fourth subject, which may well not be relevant to what a pupil wants to study at university, how can we instead make those elements of the IB available to a wider range of sixth form pupils studying A levels, together with other supplementary qualifications like the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) or the Gold Crest Award?

Like an AS qualification these supplementary qualifications will not, in most cases, form part of a university offer (which will continue for the majority of our pupils to be based on three A level predicted grades) but their value as an academically enriching experience goes without saying. I hear time and again from admissions tutors that if a candidate wants to make their application more competitive, apart from demonstrating a genuine interest in their chosen field, the two most important things they need to show are evidence of independent research skills and a commitment to their community through volunteering.

Apart from the shape and pace of the academic year in A3 and A2, I don’t think that much is going to change. Pupils will continue to rise to the challenges placed before them and we will continue to explore ways of providing more opportunities for them to enrich their time in the sixth form so that they are more than just the grades they get. That will be achieved in many different ways, depending on each pupil, so we certainly won’t be seeking to offer a one-size-fits-all programme.

1 May 2015

The lighting of fires

A million years ago when I was learning to teach we were set a question: why do we learn what we learn? It is a question that has haunted the teaching profession for as long as it has existed. Socrates, a teacher of aristocratic young men, thought education was all about asking the right questions so that one could live a good life. That didn’t go entirely well for him as the teacher; he ended up put to death. We didn’t push ourselves that hard at King’s College London in 1986.

Nowadays, what the government thinks we ought to teach in our classrooms (which might, I suppose, be the same as what they think pupils ought to learn) is called the national curriculum. Maths, Science and English are the core subjects. Modern Foreign Languages were taken out of that core some years ago and the numbers of pupils studying them nationally are now in something of a free fall (particularly in French and German). Teachers of Art, Music and Drama worry like mad, particularly in the state sector, because they aren’t compulsory and so may not attract the numbers of pupils required to sustain the subject. There’s every danger, in my view, of too few pupils doing anything more than the bare minimum if the curriculum is treated in this way. It is reductionist thinking and it is damaging.

Such reductionism does a disservice to all subjects. My first Head of Department, when I was a junior chalkie at Sevenoaks School in 1987, used to describe Maths at GCSE as a ‘licence to bore’, because pupils were compelled to study it and the teacher could assume there would always be an audience. Maths is so much more than that, of which I am now getting glimpses, thanks to assemblies from our Head of Maths, Alex Hartley, upon subjects as diverse as Alan Turing and Euler. How dreadful to reduce Maths to ‘you need to do this’ or ‘because I say so’. Stephen Winkley, ex Head Master at Uppingham School, used to like winding up those who taught compulsory subjects by suggesting that most 15-year-old pupils would far prefer doing Drama GCSE than being compelled to do, let’s say, Physics. In my view, the best response to this mischief is in explaining the joy of Physics, rather than resorting to the argument of ‘you have to do it’ or, even worse, the clearly meretricious argument that Physics is the more ‘useful’ subject.

At school we expect to learn those things we need to know to keep us healthy and safe; to enable us to do the things which matter to us; and, I would hope, to expand our minds. Some children find their minds expanded most in the undertaking of practical tasks; a design project, for example. (I can still in my mind’s eye see a current B pupil proudly wheeling his GCSE design coursework, a rather large drinks cabinet, into his hsm’s study at the end of last term!) Some find their world most enriched by the study of an ancient or modern language. Others will always prefer their intelligence to be fed by Art, or Music, or Drama; still others will find their talent best expressed on the cricket or rugby pitch, whilst very blessed souls will discover they can do, and enjoy, all of these things. The key to all learning however, is that most wonderful of human organs: the imagination.

We are more than mere drones who have to learn Maths so we can add up, or French so we can buy a baguette. Learning is about feeding our souls, our emotions and our imaginations. Maths is about big ideas, answering big questions, and seeing our world aright; French is about accessing a rich culture and literature as well as being part of a wider world than the Anglophone. And of course my own subject, Classics, is about it all. What is it to be a human being? How do you live a good life? And, to my mind, the best literature and philosophy in the world. All of these subjects, in their different ways, feed the mind, the spirit, the imagination. They allow us to glimpse the marvellous.

‘Nothing could be known about the world unless it was first pre-formed and transformed by the synthetic power of imagination.’ 
Kearney, Wake of Imagination

In the voyage of discovery that is teaching and learning, let us not forget the importance of the abstract; the importance of concept. To paraphrase W. B. Yeats, let’s not fill empty pails but light a whole range of different fires. Then our children might develop into the positive, creative, problem-solving adults the world needs them to be. And be happy, fulfilled souls too.

To find out more about the ongoing debate on creativity in schools, listen to the fascinating TED talk from 2006 by Sir Ken Robinson here.