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. 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. "It is not an academic exercise. 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. "Yet we had a very, very bog-standard curriculum – to use a phrase that has often been used about education," Mr Budge says. "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. "There was less chance of the IGCSE suffering political interference," says Mr Budge, citing another reason why the school had opted to make all its pupils shift to it from GCSEs for the first time from September.
"We now have 10 different courses in the Bedales Assessed Courses," he says. "We only do GCSEs in a handful of subjects taken by a minority of pupils." These include Latin, Greek and music.
The 10 home-grown topics also include art, geography and history, plus some subjects for which there is no GCSE equivalent, such as philosophy, religion and ethics. There is also an innovative alternative English literature course that – instead of sticking to just a couple of set texts and focusing on sections of plays – has students studying two drama texts, two novels and two poets and two texts chosen by the students from the three art forms.
They have to write eight essays, from which four can be selected to go into a folder for assessment, with one example from each genre as well as something from both pre- and post-1900. Among the texts studied have been Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, and post 19th century poets include Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney.
Bella Anderson, 15, used to go to what she calls a "normal" school. "Very traditional and very academic," she elaborates. "In my old school, there was a lot of accent on league tables and getting as high as possible in them.
"I think here there is a lot more opportunity. You do get guidance but you're given opportunities to explore things for yourself. There is much more learning in a wider sense. I'm now surrounded by people where there is so much debate."
According to David Anson, the head of English who taught GCSEs in a variety of schools for 10 years before coming to Bedales, it is much better preparation for the kind of essay writing that the students will face as they move on to A-levels at the school.
"It is much more enjoyable to teach," Mr Anson adds, "covering a variety of texts. You don't focus on sections of texts, you study the full text. I don't feel I need to do the same texts year on year."
Bedales' assessment system mirrors the kind of approach that the Confederation of British Industry says its employers want from potential candidates for jobs. John Cridland, the CBI director-general, has been quite forthright in expressing the view that employers want to see evidence of communications skills and creative thinking, not just paper qualifications which say candidates have overcome the latest hurdle.
As to whether the approach has been successful, on one measure it most certainly is. In the past three years, 10 per cent of Bedales' pupils have been offered places at Oxford or Cambridge. "Set that against any previous three years since 10 years before I joined and you can't find that sort of consistent success with Oxbridge," says Mr Budge. "Certainly access to our most demanding universities hasn't slackened off."
Other independent schools are considering following the Bedales example, but Mr Budge confesses that he has heard many fellow heads mutter that: "Of course, I'd like to do it, but it's the governing body and the parents – they won't wear it."
"Sometimes," he says, "I think it may be the heads that are being too conservative."