Mapping for the future

By Paul Turner, Head of Geography

Wednesday 15 November was World GIS Day, GIS is an acronym for Geographical Information Systems and along with Digital Mapping is increasingly seen as an integral skill for students in the modern world.

You might be amazed to know that 98% of the Ordnance Survey’s business is now digital mapping products rather than the traditional paper maps. The biggest player in this field is ESRI, a mapping company worth in excess of $1 billion. ESRI describes GIS as the ‘Science of Where’ and emphasises its importance in unlocking the potential of big data. As a school, teaching spatial thinking empowers students with the skills to understand and act upon the big issues facing planet Earth.

Steve Richardson ‘GIS Expert’ visited for a day last week to help run special workshops for geography students. This included activities mapping where the clothes on their back came from so that they could better understand globalisation and the global division of labour, and other students explored real time data of earthquakes and volcanoes. Some of the day was spent pouring over the department’s schemes of work to establish how we might best integrate these important digital skills into our everyday practice. Steve also worked one-to-one with 6.2 students assisting them to develop the mapping and data visualisation in their Independent Investigations worth 20% of their A Level. The Geography department has a strong commitment to building students’ digital and ICT skills.

What is Good?

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By Clare Jarmy Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics

On Wednesday, Bedales was very lucky to welcome Professor Simon Blackburn to speak on the subject ‘What is Good?’ in the newly renovated Lupton Hall. Mainly aimed at the Sixth Form, Bedales PRE A Level students were joined by around 70 students from Churcher’s College, Alton College and Queen Mary’s College.

Professor Blackburn, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, started with a very contemporary dilemma. On the one hand, it is hard to say that ‘good’ or ‘evil’ are part of the world in the same way that dogs, chairs and pizzas are part of the world (as GE Moore would say, this is to make something non-natural into something natural –a naturalistic fallacy), yet, don’t we also want to say that there are things that are good, and things that are evil?

Many students are faced with the dilemma that perhaps in ethics, it is all just subjective: just a matter of taste. On the other hand, we also feel passionately about ethical issues. Students want to convince others about the morality of veganism, or the immorality of factory conditions in less developed economies. No problem, Blackburn says. We can meaningfully talk ethically, even if we are dubious about ethical ‘facts’. Look to the practice, he says: what would someone with practical wisdom, someone who is good at ‘acting well’, do?

After a great talk, there were some excellent questions, and some meaningful discussion. Professor Blackburn was extremely generous with his time, staying into the evening with a smaller meeting of the Philosophy Society. In this talk, he was trying to convince us to become ‘infidels’ – something beyond atheist – we should not care about the question of God’s existence. To read more about his views on religion, see here (site-wide access at Bedales; subscription required elsewhere).

Prose, poetry and coursework in the English department

By David Anson, Head of English

It is a busy season for the English Department; 6.2s have been beavering away at a very important piece of coursework and the Block 5s are working towards the final hand-in of their coursework folder. Nevertheless, we have found the time for some superb enrichment. On Tuesday 15 November we had the pleasure of welcoming two visiting writers. Our first was acclaimed children’s author Jon Robinson who joined us to be our annual writer in residence. Jon’s Nowhere trilogy is highly acclaimed and has been awarded a number of notable prizes as well as receiving a nomination for the Carnegie Medal in 2014. Jon spent the morning with our colleagues at Dunhurst helping young writers in Block 2 and then in the afternoon Jon worked with 6.1 students who are taking the creative enrichment course – this year run by Jen Moore. Jon’s one-to-ones were extremely valuable and year on year we find this attention generates the most astonishing creative writing – look out for the 2017 ‘Poet’s Stone’ and our creative writing celebration in the Spring term.

In the evening we had the treat of poet, playwright, novelist and critic Glyn Maxwell reading in the Olivier Theatre as part of the Bedales Poetry Series. Glyn has won some significant awards for his work over the years and has extensively edited the work of Derek Walcott who is a particular favorite of mine. It was really quite special to hear both his poetry and prose being read in the theatre. Glyn had supper with some of our Sixth Form English Literature students at 50 Church Road beforehand; something we try to arrange every year. Our students had a rare opportunity to ask some very candid and insightful questions of a writer at the peak of his career.

Thoughts from an outgoing 6.2

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Over the past few weeks, 6.2 flat has grown increasingly quiet as more of us depart having finished the last of our exams. It has not been unusual to see those leaving become emotional when it hits them: when their bags are packed and they leave their friends still swamped in folders and practice papers. Having finished the last of my exams on Tuesday, l don’t believe it has quite hit me yet.

As an initial reflection on the past year and my time here as a whole, I can’t imagine another place I would have rather conducted and concluded my school education. It strikes me as a rarity to find a place that can offer the freedom this school does. The freedom and space to think, to exercise and to spend time with the people you have grown to love and care for- especially during the exam season – is often taken for granted.

I believe it is this freedom which truly motivates and sustains us. At this time, conversation does tend to turn to the future and the dreaded question: “and what will you be doing next year?”, but there is also a fond reflection on the past and “what more would you have done?” Discussing the latter with fellow 6.2s, we settled on one main thing we would have done if we relived our Bedales education. We decided we would have written a diary starting at Block 3, if not sooner, not just for comic-value but as a reminder and record of all our experiences. I think of this, what it would look like and how full it would be; I think Bedales encourages people to leave with a weighty volume, a full and well-used diary.

While the many empty pages ahead will always be daunting, I am immensely grateful for the freedom I have had so far to fill the pages with numerous and various experiences and to have shared them with such a supportive and special bunch of people.

Beyond Bedales – help to make the right choice

A recent survey of A level students conducted by Which? found that around three in ten wish they had chosen different A level subjects. Only half felt sufficiently informed about how their A levels might affect their choice of university or choice of course, and three in ten said that advice they were given when choosing their A levels failed to take into account how their subject options might affect their degree and university choices.

Careers advice in schools has long been criticised as patchy – not least by Ofsted, who in 2013 reported that only one in five schools were effective in ensuring that all students were receiving the level of information they needed. On the surface of it, then, it sounds like this may be a fairly straightforward failing on the part of school careers guidance practitioners. However, it would be wise for us to pause before pulling the trigger.

I am fortunate to be part of the Bedales Professional Guidance Department which provides a well-resourced, highly-structured and regularly reviewed HE pathway for students. However, making good choices also requires an investment on the part of the student. To this end, we encourage them to make use of Unifrog – a wonderful resource that, amongst other things, is a comparison platform for university courses. It collates available data – subject requirements, typical grade offers, league table and student satisfaction scores, tuition and teaching provision, and much more. No less usefully, it allows students to calibrate their progress against what is available to them, and so make realistic choices.

Overall, the resources we are able to bring to bear on behalf of our students bear no relation to those I encountered as a sixth former. Does this guarantee that our students make decisions that are right for them? Well, for those who are clear about their direction and highly motivated it is a great help, but for others the picture can be less straightforward.

In my experience, around half of any 6.1 year group will know broadly what they want to do, with about 10%-20% of the cohort very clear about subjects and institutions, and how they plan to realise their goals. The remaining half will tend to be pretty vague in comparison – their direction might extend towards doing one of the humanities, but with little preference as to where. Around 10% of the cohort will have no clear idea.

It is tempting to assume that students will make best use of what we make available to them. However, whilst at key points some want a great deal of my time, others need lots of encouragement to come and see me and give resources a wide berth. Unifrog would seem obviously useful when deciding upon A level and other choices, but a recent audit suggested that only one third of Bedales Block 5 students had visited the site.

We must be wary, then, in assuming that students’ A level and university choices reflect the quality of careers and HE guidance available to them. And even when this is the case, things don’t always go to plan. For example, it is difficult to foresee that continuing a subject in which they had done well at GCSE may prove to be too much of a stretch for some, or that non-educational factors may change the picture for them. Working with such uncertainties is one of ways in which we careers guidance specialists must earn our corn.

There are various approaches we can take to helping the undecided to ensure that they make sound choices at A level and university destinations. For example, we might steer them towards facilitating subjects –  those that Russell Group universities have identified as having admissions currency across a range of courses. More specifically, for those who are less than firm in their preferences for university, we may encourage them to consider applying after they have received their A level results. This removes at least some of the uncertainty from the process for them, and we do it more and more.

For those who are struggling to identify a specialism, we might make a point of highlighting the availability of liberal arts degrees which, initially at least, see students pursue a wider range of subject options thus allowing extra time to settle on their passion. Such programmes are well-established in the US, Canada and Europe, and an interesting new development has been the rising enthusiasm in UK universities for this approach.

Sound advice from school careers staff is very important, of course, but I sometimes wonder whether we might be better advised to structure HE in a way that doesn’t require all young people to settle on specialism quite so early. Until such time, I would urge critics to pause before pointing the finger at schools – we careers and HE specialists do our best, but there are some things we simply can’t control.

On 18 June, Old Bedalians who are now studying at university will join the school’s Professional Guidance staff and a careers expert to talk to 6.1 students about their options. A broad range of courses and institutions will be represented, and it should prove to be a highly informative event.

By Vikki Alderson-Smart, Head of Professional Guidance

Why exam boards must keep theatre live

Try to imagine a performance of Hamlet in which the play within a play – staged by the Prince to establish Claudius’ culpability for the death of the King was delivered not live, but through a TV set hooked up to a DVD player. Would Claudius betray himself in the same way, and would it matter so much?

I ask because recently it was announced that the drama GCSE syllabus is to change so that teachers can show pupils recordings of theatre performances rather than taking them to see live shows. This is to ensure that all students get to experience live theatre, with Karen Latto of awarding body OCR telling the TES that geography and financial constraints need no longer be prohibitive as a consequence. I don’t think anybody would argue with the intention here – like Karen, I want to see every young person able to experience theatre. However, like many others, I am concerned that the legitimisation of the DVD option will mean that some drama departments – already too often at the back the queue when it comes to school resources – will find money for theatre trips even harder to come by.

Recordings used in the way proposed may well increase students’ exposure to theatre – but is it an acceptable substitute? If, like me and many other practitioners, you believe that the experience of theatre is more than the ostensible content, then the answer has to be no. Performances are heavily dependent on the audience – not a generic audience, but the audience in the theatre for each particular show. When Bedales students write about theatre they have attended, they are critiquing something of which they were an active part – a factor we encourage them to consider.

We must also be aware that through the use of recordings we risk heaping a whole different set of interpretations upon students. Here, they must take into account not only the direction of the play, but also that of the recording. It would be worryingly uncritical of us to assume recordings of live theatre to be benign representations – some streamings of performances from the National Theatre, the Barbican and other venues have been complex multi-camera presentations that, for all of their merits, must be considered different experiences. Each audience member at the live event has his or her unique perspective – they all occupy a different space, and are free to give their attention to whatever they please. For those watching the associated recording, much of this work is done for them. It is performance and it can be brilliant – but it is of a different order.

The direction of travel in terms of what constitutes meaningful exposure to theatre must be considered with care. If it is considered acceptable for students to make critical judgements on the basis of exposure only to facsimiles, then might we expect the same to become true for examiners? As things stand, examiners are partly reliant on DVDs or a weblink as the basis for their appraisals, and we might consider whether we would be comfortable with this becoming their exclusive basis of assessment. If the answer is no, then we must reflect carefully on the implications for doing the same with students.

Let’s do what it takes to get students into theatres rather than risk confining more and more of them to the classroom. Let’s fund national and regional centres to offer discounted access for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go. I know from my own experience that theatres are more than happy to open their doors to this end. Awarding bodies would be excellent administrators of such programmes, and I believe it would be good for them – and for their relationships with both theatres and schools – to be advocates for live theatre in this way.

By way of an afterthought, it occurs to me that Claudius might prefer the DVD option, but then of course he has a vested interest.

By Phil Tattersall-King, Head of Drama

Professional guidance

As the academic year reaches its climax with the beginning of the examination period, the Professional Guidance department is looking ahead to the next cycle of Higher Education and Careers advice.

The 6.2 students who have applied to university this year are making their final choices from the offers received whilst concentrating on A2 exams.  On Friday the 6.1s had a lecture from the Admissions Officer from the University of Southampton about how to make an attractive and individual application via UCAS. This was followed by sessions with Vikki Alderson-Smart, Sarah Oakley and myself about setting up UCAS or Common Application accounts (for USA), and understanding the portfolio process surrounding Art College applications.  This Sunday evening (8 May), the information will be shared with 6.1 parents in the SLT at 7.30pm.

On 18 June, 6.1 and 6.2 students will be invited to the OB Fair – a hugely popular event – where OBs currently at university return to Bedales in order to share their experiences with the sixth form.  This interaction has proved very valuable to our students as it gives them an insight into undergraduate life.  Block 5 students are by no means forgotten at this time of year, and will have their own Careers Fair on 24 June where numerous professionals from a huge variety of specialisms come to discuss their own career paths and offer tips on how to get to where you want to be.

It is a very exciting time of year for us in the PG department and we hope the students enjoy the events as much as we do.

By Alison Mason, Careers and North American university liaison