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Sevenoaks School

Who needs GCSEs? Students study alternative curriculum at Sevenoaks School

25 August 2016 13:30


On GCSE results day, the never-ending debate rages on. Are these exams necessary or meaningful now that the school leaving age has been raised? Are they too easy? Do they examine the right things ? Do they set students up well enough for post 16 study?

A few independent schools have bypassed the national government qualification, and developed their own more challenging, more relevant and more interesting option for Year 11 students. At Sevenoaks School in Kent, we have had our own alternative exams, Sevenoaks School Certificates (SSC's) for 6 years and students can opt to take these exams in up to 6 different subjects, including English Literature, Art, Drama , Music and innovative pioneering courses in Technology and Robotics.

The courses were internally devised, however externally moderated, and Tim Jones, Deputy Head (Academic) of Sevenoaks says it was a sense of frustration with traditional syllabuses that led to their creation six years ago. "As one of the first schools to adopt the IB, embrace internationalism and teach in a globally aware way, Sevenoaks has never shied away from curriculum innovation, and the increasing dissatisfaction with GCSEs has led to a lot of innovation in the curriculum."

The curriculum is very important for Years Nine to 11. Exams, however, are not! At Sevenoaks, we have approached the discussion of how best to approach these vital years through our long and exhilarating experience of the IB Diploma Programme. As a result, we have created our own middle school curriculum through which students work towards our own UCAS-recognised examinations: Sevenoaks school certificates. These act as the foundation for the IB Diploma curriculum, and in today’s educational landscape, where most students remain at school until the age of 18, we find the process of, and the need to take exams in Year 11, less relevant
and largely unnecessary.

“It’s a chance for students and staff to unleash their creativity,” Jones says. “If you’re concentrating on an external assessment, the temptation is to spend too long preparing for the exam and not enough on the actual course."

In the spirit of preparing students for continued study and self-assessment, we believe there are two main positives to taking exams in Year 11: good exam results can be a boost to the beginning of Year 12 and the experience of doing the exams in Year 11 can be good practice for final exam taking in Year 13 and within higher education.

However, set these against the negatives – we believe the national curriculum of GCSEs to be limiting, meaningless and, in some cases, poorly assessed. They are artificial, cause stress and preparation for them takes up curricular time. Increasingly, the modes of assessment are antiquated and, within the context of an IB Diploma School, GCSEs and IGCSEs – originally intended as school leaving exams in an age when young people could leave school at 16 – they serve no university matriculation purpose whatsoever.

At Sevenoaks, we trialled an alternative curriculum initially with English literature. Our teachers wanted to be able to choose from a broad range of international texts, with the aim of preparing students for the depth and breadth of the English higher level and standard level courses they will study for the IB.

Next followed Drama, Music, Art and History of Music, all aimed at inciting pupils’ enthusiasm and appreciation of the subjects, but more focussed on appreciation and not performance. In parallel, the design department introduced two new pioneering courses – Robotics and Visual Communications.

Tim Jones continues "All of these courses are now externally moderated by senior teachers at other schools, and they all appear in the drop-down box on the UCAS form when our students apply to university. As a result, they pose no risk to university applications and, if anything, we have found they make a great talking point at university interviews!"

The initiation of these courses has been aided by the fact that all of our middle-school courses are based around a common ethic, shared by all of the teachers at the school, and informed to a large extent by our experience with the IB – far more important for us than data tracking, league tables and percentage A* – C is the promotion of values to do with good learning, a global understanding and the development of core skills for life, not just the next stage of education.

Tim Jones says staff have also been “revitalised” by the freedom of the courses, which allow them to choose texts and topics that suit their students’ needs and interests. "Freedom to construct these courses ourselves has meant that we can introduce exciting and distinctive elements designed to elicit strong levels of personal engagement from students. Music students compile a dossier of public performances, as well as personal compositions; drama students work towards devised group productions in addition to an individual research project, and our history of art course invites students to undertake an in-depth personal exploration of 50 works of art that have had an impact on the way we see the world. "

We are proud of our ambitious and challenging curriculum at Sevenoaks. We have built a balanced, broad education, with depth and an element of choice. We favour enrichment over acceleration. We don’t encourage either taking exams early or taking exams during spare time; subjects are not to be rushed through or ticked off, but explored and reflected upon. We believe our academic character to be unique. The education we provide teaches students to learn, to think, to debate and develop principles: inner qualities and resources they will take with them to university and into the wider world. We want to kindle learning that will outlive their exam results.

Read more about our unique curriculum here -

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About Sevenoaks School

A leading independent school in Sevenoaks, Kent. Set in a 100 acre campus, Sevenoaks is an innovative, globally minded school, offering the International Baccalaureate (IB). The school is one of the world's leading IB schools, and also one of the UK's top performing schools at GSCE level.

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