Future-Proofing First Years

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In the modern world of economic uncertainty, ever-changing technology and non-stop media bombardment, it can sometimes be hard for schools to prepare younger pupils for the trials and tribulations of adult life.

This challenge is made all the more acute in a jobs market which is increasingly globalised and where the skills necessary to thrive in the workforce are forever changing.

Preparing the young for the future is something Bede's prides itself on however. It is difficult to even imagine what the needs of the global economy will be in the future, but there is no doubt that certain principles will decide who succeeds and who fails within it.

It is these principles that define and underpin the First Year curriculum at Bede's.

"We focus on delivering a broad and balanced set of courses, and we do so in a rigorous way," says Mr Liam Backler, Head of First Year. "We take this approach because we want the pupil's to be able to make informed choices in their lives."

The challenge faced by any family with young teenagers is to try and balance the need to specialise early and focus on a path to a profession or university course with the desire to provide children with a chance to experience as wide-ranging a selection of subjects, crafts and disciplines as possible.

At Bede's, the First Year curriculum is unique in this regard, unlike any other found in the country. It has been built from the ground up, by Bede's teachers, with the express intention of providing pupils with as broad an experience as possible, delivered in as sophisticated, challenging way as possible, while also offering younger students the chance to concentrate on areas of personal passion or aptitude.

"The curriculum is designed around developing skills. All pupils need understanding in all core areas; English, Maths and Science or the obvious, but we also want them to embrace the wider Humanities and Arts. And we don't do early exam entries. Bede's pupils are more than capable, but we believe in keeping their options open, allowing them to truly discover their interests and aptitudes rather than rushing them into decisions they might later regret."

"With this in mind, we ensure that there is plenty of choice within the programme, allowing pupils to experiment and try things. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they thrive. Whatever the case, we push them and challenge them to move outside of their comfort zone."

While many schools stress early exam entry as a strength, the evidence actually suggests the contrary. A study by the Department of Education earlier this year found that pupils who are entered early for GCSE's in fact perform worse overall than those who do not, even after re-sits are taken into account.

For this reason, the school inspectorate Ofsted has warned all schools that 'Entering pupils early for GCSE's is damaging to children.'

"Across our First Year," continues Mr Backler, "pupils do begin to specialise. To take an example, we run two First Year Music courses. One is introductory, the other more advanced. Both will help students interested in potentially taking Music GCSE in the Lower Fifth, but the goal from our end is helping students who want to try Music to give it a go, while also ensuring that those students who know they want to take Music have the opportunities they need to truly stretch themselves and progress."

"We offer equivalents for many core subjects, including Maths and English, but our belief is that there are many more important skills which should be of a much greater high priority than those skills or pieces of information necessary to simply pass exams."

One part of the Bede's approach is the First Year Projects Programme, which was launched and developed throughout 2011.

"The issue of Prep and Homework is something which has plagued educators for generations," says John Tuson, Bede's Academic Deputy Head. "We want pupils to work independently, of course, but work for work's sake is next to useless. The Project Programme was designed as an incredibly effective and very valuable solution to the problem."

"The idea is to make all tasks meaningful and to bring in balance," says Mr Backler, reinforcing Mr Tuson's sentiments.

"For Prep," he continues, "First Year pupils do have exercises and grammar work for subjects like English, Maths and Modern Foreign Languages as, at a certain level, some kinds of learning are best undertaken as an individual, working by yourself."

"Alongside those tasks, which are a small part of the independent learning programme we have created for First Years, the Projects programme has been launched to develop the pupils more meticulously, and in a holistic, innovative way."

"The defining goal of the Project Programme is to develop pupils' independent research and independent thinking skills," says Mr Tuson.

"Many young people, when they join us, don't really know how to learn. The Project Programme is therefore scaffolded to teach them how to learn, and then help them to specialise and explore, with the luxury that they can make, and learn the most from, their mistakes."

The Project Programme at Bede's is focussed on helping pupils to acquire a broad experience of investigation. They gather data, lay that data out imaginatively and artfully, and then present their findings orally, through presentations with accompanying materials, or through essays and mixed media, including film.

"Universities are complaining very publicly that modern students lack two things: core literacies and the ability to function autonomously," Mr Backler continues.

"The Projects Programme is an antidote to this problem. Plus, although the projects themselves are subject specific, we are increasingly building cross-curricular links between subjects."

Mr Tuson concurs, enthusing, "The idea is that pupils study topics in core areas, such as Charles Dickens in English. The Dickens project, which ran last year, then had cross-curricular elements in History and Biology, where in History the pupils studied the Victorian Era and the Industrial Revolution, while in Biology students learned about malnutrition, hygiene, and the diseases which develop as a result of these problems."

"The idea is that First Year's step outside of the curriculum and head to places and fields of knowledge that their teachers haven't already covered with them."

One major side-benefit of this approach is, according to Mr Backler, that as pupils engage in this research they often stumble into new ideas and subject areas about which they become enormously passionate.

"This helps them to start thinking about potential careers," he says.

"It might seem early, but GCSE choices need to be made during the First Year, and those GCSE choices can have knock-on effects for the rest of their lives. We therefore ensure that every pupil receives very personal care from their tutors."

"The projects, once completed, earn the pupils awards, and they are graded for effort and achievement. But that is only the beginning, really."

"The key to the process, from our end as teachers, is to ensure that we are providing every pupil with the information, targets and support they need to improve."

Mr Tuson nods, adding, "Pupils are given feedback in tutorials, and these sessions function somewhat like seminars. They see each other's work, develop ideas and set personal targets for the future."

"Advice from their peers gives them added perspective and helps them place their own achievements in context."

"We may only be in our second year of running the scheme, but this is the future. And this is what pupils will need for the future."

"It is a very forward-thinking approach to learning."