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Academic skills – ie writing about what they have done – does form part of the exercise, but he tends not to place much weight on that because written English can be measured in other subjects."This is all about making things," he says. Some of the activities are quite entrepreneurial."For instance, one involved the pupils developing their own ice cream which they then sold around the estate [in the village of Steep near Petersfield where the school is located] and in the theatre [where the school puts on its drama productions]."According to Keith Budge, Bedales' headmaster, the idea for the school's own assessment course stemmed from a desire "to recapture the historic role of the school".It was founded in 1893 by J H Badley, who believed in the importance of involving "head, hand and heart" in education and encourage pupils to have an enquiring mind.

"We set about looking at what we could do – and the proviso was that it shouldn't be anything that would damage students' access to top universities."He began with the viewpoint that GCSEs were often "uninspiring" and prone to suffering too much political interference.

At present, GCSEs are undergoing radical changes as Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, seeks to make the examinations more rigorous by scrapping most course work and instead assessing performance in an end-of-course "sudden death" examination."We researched what universities really needed to see from our candidates and it came down to this: some AS-level results from the first year of the sixth-form and whatever exams they'd done at 16-plus," says Mr Budge.

"They wanted GCSEs in the core subjects of maths, English, science and modern languages but on top of that it doesn't really make any difference to them."The school opted for the IGCSE – the international version of the exam modelled along traditional O-level lines with an accent on end-of-course testing but, according to leaders of independent schools, more chance to develop independent thinking – in the core subjects and supplement it by Bedales' own assessment course.

The mix has been finely tuned from the beginning of this academic year with the result that – for most students at the school – Bedales is now a GCSE-free zone.

Naveed Khalessi is helping his fellow pupils reach for the stars.

The 15-year-old and five classmates are building an observatory at Bedales School from which they will be able to view celestial bodies millions of light years away.

They have micro-managed the project from the start, drawing up a business plan that they then used to persuade the parents' association to give them £10,000 to cover the building work and the cost of a powerful telescope."If you have a shoddy telescope, you're not going to see much with it," explained Naveed quite reasonably.The building of the observatory is just one of many enterprises being undertaken by pupils at the £24,000-a-year independent school in Petersfield, Hampshire, as part of the Bedales Assessed Courses that have been devised as an alternative to GCSEs.The pupils are marked for their work on their venture, given a grade from A* to E just as if it were a GCSE, and the work is moderated by external examiners.Outdoor Work is just one of 10 Bedales Assessed Courses and appears to inspire a great deal of enthusiasm from the pupils.Other projects under way include the restoration of a traditional Romany caravan, the erection of a meditation hut, and the renovation of a dilapidated Land Rover.As Peter Coates, the teacher in charge of Outdoor Work, observes: "It's remarkable how enthusiastic they are and how much initiative they show – also how well they get on with other pupils."Mr Coates marks his pupils on a number of criteria, including their ability to get on with each other and creative thinking.

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