Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Schools get together for chemistry learning

Published By: The Independent - 03 Sep 2009

Spot the difference between the state school pupils and their independent school counterparts who are all busy creating oil of wintergreen in an independent school chemistry lab in Cambridgeshire. Answer: it isn’t easy.

Keen young scientists are keen young scientists no matter what their background, and for this mixed-up group of Years 9 and 10s it simply makes sense to share facilities across the school divide.

“We don’t always have all the equipment at our school so it helps to do it here,” says Martin Lindsay, 15, who is visiting from a local maintained school. “And we get to do loads of different things, it’s definitely more interesting,” says Rhiannon Cope, 15, who is from the same school. “It’s good,’ agrees Latoya Butcher, 15, from another local state school, who plans to be a forensic scientist. While Harlan Kohll, 15, a student on his own independent school’s turf, agrees that it’s good to share. “Yeah. I think it’s OK. Yeah, definitely.”

The Chemistry Network is run and hosted by The King’s School, Ely, and designed to bring together gifted and talented students from their own school and three local maintained schools to study challenging chemistry modules and to encourage them to take chemistry at GCSE, A level and university. It also exists to share information and link teachers for training and development.

This is a pilot project, to be rolled out on a national basis later, and at the end of its first year all the signs are that it has hit the ground running. From a crime scene investigation day, to Saturday masterclasses (“Tetrachloromethane proved to be a real challenge, but some groups cracked it!”, reports the project’s magazine”), through visits, lectures, and the publication of a termly magazine, it is proving to be a robust collaboration between schools that are all very different, but all committed to boosting their pupils’ interest in chemistry.

In the partnership alongside The King’s School, are Witchford Village College, a school specialising in sports, Abbey College, which specialises in technology, and the City of Ely Community College, which specialises in business.

Susan Freestone, head of The King’s School, says the project is” a community-wide flagship partnership that does what it says on the tin. It gives young people the kind of opportunities to do things that they would not do in the normal run of events.”

She believes passionately that private schools should build links with maintained schools and help raise aspirations, but also knows from her years on the national advisory group on independent-state school partnerships that there is nothing new about such links and that thousands have been quietly going on for a long time. “This is something that New Labour opened up and talked about more publicly, but it has always been part of the thinking of independent schools.”

The Chemistry Network has been a great success, she says. “Our main challenge has been to accommodate the numbers who want to come.” As for her students’ exposure to local pupils – “I think they’d probably say that they’ve found out that, in their fears and aspirations, they are just ‘like us’.”

The Network has been given £190,000 of government funds for three years, and is backed by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Science Learning Centre, East of England. Chemistry teacher Andrew Thompson, of The King’s School, has been taken off teaching duties to become its full-time director -- something he says is vital, given the enormous amount of liaison and planning that the Network involves. Many local bodies, from the University of East Anglia through to large pharmaceutical companies in Cambridge, are involved, and the organisation of programmes between different schools is time-consuming and complex.

“We use the labs on Saturdays, when they are more easily available, and we do full days in different schools. I tend to go wherever, and act as a library for resources.”

With his background in both maintained and private schools, and his experience of training non-specialist teachers in teaching chemistry, he is a confident leader with a clear understanding of all the benefits

“We try and mix the students up when they’re doing activities so they can learn from each other, and they always have time for orange juice and biscuits when they come here. For our pupils it’s a question of seeing that there’s a different society out there beyond the school walls.”

For Stephen Wright, of the City of Ely Community College, and an Advanced Skills Teacher, the Network not only promotes chemistry among his students, but allows those taking part “to become more confident, and have a bit of an edge. We took them to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, and to see City of Ely students in that world-famous laboratory was really something! It’s important to me to sell the project to them when I’m in school, but once they are over here they are fine. I had nine students here last Saturday and there are eight here this afternoon.” And, like Andrew Thompson, he sees gains on both sides. “It works the other way just as much as it works for us.”

This becomes very clear watching the attentive help being offered in the well-equipped lab. With so many science teachers and classroom assistants to hand all these gifted and talented pupils benefit from the new materials and support.

As well as developing new modules and developing good teaching practice, the Network aims to help identify students who are gifted in chemistry and to ensure that disadvantaged students have full access to the programme, while mentors and taster days are also used encourage students to continue with chemistry at A level and university.

However these are early days, and it is too soon to say whether more pupils will ultimately take up chemistry at university. But encouraging anecdotal evidence is already coming in. “It seems to be having an impact,” says Andrew Thompson. “There’s more interest in doing chemistry at A level, and we know that pupils are talking to their friends about doing chemistry and coming to these events.” There are also indications that some younger pupils are becoming more interested in doing three separate sciences at GCSE instead of the easier double award.

Yet to keep such a partnership running needs inexhaustible supplies of flexibility and mutual understanding. Today, in the laboratory, students from the King’s School are thin on the ground because of a school-wide end-of-term activity, while the City of Ely Community College students have to hurry to finish their experiments because a taxi is waiting to take them back to their own school.

“You need the commitment on all sides,” agrees Andrew Thompson. “You need someone who’s enthusiastic in every school, because that’s what you have to have to make things happen.”