It can never be too early to ask students to start taking intellectual risks

Anthony Seldon and David James want universities to support a radical shift that puts learning at the heart of the curriculum

April 23, 2009

Our educational system at heart does not trust teachers to teach or learners to learn. It is a system designed by ministers who believe that the only reliable measure of educational success is one that can be reduced to A*, A, B and C. It is little wonder that when students who have endured SATs, GCSEs, AS and A2 modules go on to higher education, many of them are incapable of using their own initiative and imagination; they seem to suffer from an educational form of Stockholm Syndrome in which they love and trust only a system that checks on them every step of the way, and which sees the role of the educator as one who provides certainties rather than one who asks questions.

The status quo also has teachers by the neck: it dictates what they are to teach and what exactly is to be examined and valued. How would the morale of our underpaid and undervalued university teachers be affected if they were told what to teach, and if their whole existence were to prepare students for a numbingly formulaic prescribed exam?

Some schools, mostly in the independent sector, have begun to reject A levels (in favour of the International Baccalaureate) and GCSEs (in favour of the International GCSE). This latter choice is becoming increasingly popular, but in itself is no long-term solution: it is a mere stopgap, swapping one qualification for another that, in its DNA, is almost identical.

What British schooling needs is something genuinely radical that places learning rather than assessment at the heart of the curriculum, trusts teachers to construct academically imaginative curriculums and, crucially, begins to ask pupils to take risks, to make connections between subjects and to trust themselves rather than wait for a teacher to "validate" their work once he or she has first checked the board's assessment criteria. And so from September, all of Wellington College's Year 9 pupils will begin to study the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO)'s Middle Years Programme (MYP).

Some have already welcomed our decision. Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Cambridge, commented that "for many pupils, the current standard educational provision in years 9 to 11 is decidedly uninteresting, uninspiring and unchallenging, and (Wellington's) proposal should provide a much more engaging, stimulating, stretching and generally satisfactory experience". And Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Oxford, told us that "candidates who wish to be stretched should, in my view, take the MYP. The rigour and work ethic it encourages will assist them strongly if they wish to progress to a degree that will require them to really engage with their subject discipline." Others have echoed these views.

In the MYP, teachers are entrusted to develop and deliver the curriculum in their own disciplines, but they must plan each course with an awareness of links with other subjects. In other words, there must be a concurrency of learning so that subjects are not studied in isolation; instead, meaningful connections - established through the MYP's "areas of interaction" - should be established to reinforce lessons learnt in other subjects and at different stages.

All our pupils will be taught a coherent and interdisciplinary curriculum that, because it has been planned "locally", serves our needs and ambitions. It will recognise that the borders between disciplines are porous. And because there are no external exams at the end of the course - instead, work is moderated by the IBO in Cardiff - our pedagogical approach will be very different as well: the aims and objectives of each course will be complementary, and assessment will be continuous rather than something done after learning has finished (and been forgotten). This is radical stuff, a real alternative that will meet the needs of our pupils, parents and teachers.

What role should universities play in this continuing re-evaluation of educational provision? They should be looking at education not just in the sixth form but also in the lower years. It was surprising that some universities have told us that they did not care what students did before the sixth form. GCSEs, IGCSEs, MYP: these were useful for screening, they said, but the content didn't really concern them. Is such an attitude responsible? The ill-prepared students who take up so much of their time are as much products of our primary and middle-school curriculums as they are of the sixth form. And universities have to join with schools to say what sort of system they feel best equips students for the world they will go on to shape in the future.

All the constituencies involved in education need urgently to build a real continuum of education that entrusts teachers again and restores a sense of enjoyment, as well as independence, in our students.

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