Leadership - When exams fail the test, go it alone

21st February 2014 at 00:00
If you don't feel what's on offer is serving your students well, come up with something else

School leaders and exam boards tend to have a rather tempestuous relationship. Indeed, leaders can often be heard muttering that they could do a better job themselves. So why don't they? Setting up your own examination system and curriculum - one with weight that universities and employers will value - is not easy. But neither is it impossible. At my school, we have put our own system in place, and other schools - provided they have the freedom to do so - can follow our lead. Here's how.

Identify the problems

Be clear about what you think is wrong with current systems, and set out what you want to achieve with your alternative. Everything should flow from a mission statement. Curriculum and assessment design ought to reflect the educational philosophy of an institution. We wanted to introduce a curriculum that mirrored our holistic ethos and suited the development of independently minded students. Be distinctive and follow your convictions, otherwise there will be little point in undertaking such a change.

Consult internally and externally

Broad consultation is necessary to ensure support from all interested parties. Parents and school governors need to be persuaded that a home-grown curriculum and qualifications system will better serve the needs of students, and you have to be sure that the outside world will not discriminate against your students for pursuing something bespoke. Getting the support of university admissions departments and sixth-form colleges is a significant project. We pushed our independence as far as we felt we could, retaining a core of five GCSEs to ensure that our students fulfilled standard minimum requirements, but writing everything else ourselves.


Select a person, or small group, to decide where there should be a common approach across subject areas and where each subject should be free to plough its own furrow. In effect, we established our own exam board, appointing a head of Bedales Assessed Courses, who designs policies and systems and serves as the arbiter of any disagreements. This person should also be the filter for any proposed changes to courses over time and an overseer of moderation. Using Joint Council for Qualifications criteria for assessment policies will stop you from reinventing the wheel (jcq.org.uk).

Develop and deliver

Once certain parameters have been agreed (for example, "all courses should include an element of portfolio assessment"), heads of department should write a draft outline of their course for further discussion. The head of courses ought to be able to spot any duplication or glaring omissions across subjects.

Plan assessments

Assess in a way that best suits the needs of your subject areas. Do not impose blanket rules that inhibit the proper development of key skills. Most courses will benefit from an element of exam assessment, but it should not be a hard and fast rule. Our course in outdoor work, for example, has no exam.

Quality assurance

Any new system of this kind has to show the outside world that it is credible, and must have adequate checks and balances for the currency of its grades to be meaningful. We appointed external moderators to ensure that our grading was in line with GCSE grading as far as possible. Such people can also act as helpful advisers on how to develop courses further.


Consult with university admissions bodies, such as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the UK. They may agree to include new courses on their menu of qualification options without prejudice or implying endorsement. Be prepared to include in admissions paperwork a clear explanation of what your students have done.

Evaluate and improve

It is important to evaluate the impact of any changes and be flexible about introducing incremental improvements. Consider commissioning a consultancy team of school inspectors to provide external, objective scrutiny.

Alistair McConville is director of teaching and learning at Bedales School in Hampshire, England.

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