Steve McCormack on the winning formula at a Hertfordshire school There is a strange smell around the science laboratories at Hitchin Boys'
School, and it is not that pupils' favourite stink-bomb odour of hydrogen sulphide. This is something much rarer in the corridors of English comprehensives... the whiff of passionate enthusiasm for studying those "difficult" subjects of physics and chemistry at A-level.
The statistics are jaw-droppingly impressive. In the current Year 12, there are 41 boys taking physics, which is up from 28 last year and 13 the year before that. The numbers doing chemistry, a highly respectable 23, is up from nine two years ago.
Against a national backdrop over the past decade of steeply declining interest in these subjects, this is more than just bucking the trend.
For a comprehensive - albeit one with an above-average ability intake - to persuade more than one in four of its 150 Year 11 students to take physics into the sixth form is remarkable.
Something special is emanating from the 1970s science block, tacked on to the side of this former grammar school in Hertfordshire. And, at the start of the National Science and Engineering Week, which aims to make the subject more widely interesting, many schools will be looking at Hitchin's experiment with interest.
But its formula for success here is not down to one eureka moment. The air of confidence among teachers and pupils is the product of a collection of factors which began to coalesce about five years ago. Back then, according to Keith Wadsworth, the headmaster, science teaching at the school was in crisis. At one point, the department was, in effect, being run by a supply teacher, in an environment that had changed little for 30 years.
"We then made an executive decision that science had to be a priority,"
says Keith. The school diverted more than pound;100,000 earmarked for repairs, maintenance and capital projects to a refurbishment of the laboratories.
At about the same time, it appointed a new head of science - Alec Porter, a physicist with 20 years' experience, who was running science at another comprehensive. "When I came here I found grim, dark, tatty rooms, with broken taps and graffiti," he recalls, sitting now in a bright, well-lit refurbished room, with uncluttered desk space in the centre.
A trolley full of batteries, bulbs and other electrical paraphernalia ready for experiments waits alongside a bank of wireless-networked laptops, bought to coincide with the refurbishment.
The school now has almost one laptop for every two boys. This transformed environment has helped the school recruit and retain a new core of science teachers, two with that rare commodity: a physics degree.
Out of nine teachers in the department, seven have been in place for four years or more. Pupils are taught by specialists - an impossible dream in many schools -who are encouraged by Alec to display conspicuous enthusiasm for their subjects.
And there's also a departmental policy to have hands-on practicals as often as possible: usually in five out of six lessons. "We frequently use the toys that we have accumulated," says Alec, a reference not only to conventional equipment, but to the roller skates, toy cars, and pneumatic rocket launchers that are deployed at every opportunity.
"I'm happy to have a bit of chaos in the classroom, and to see what comes out of it," says Colin Bashford, a physicist who runs one of the popular year-group science and astronomy clubs.
Current projects in the Year 8 club include building a robot, investigating the optimal angles and surfaces for skateboarding, and measuring the luminosity of stars. This richness of all-round scientific experience has clearly contributed to the popularity of science in the sixth form.
In a room plastered with eye-catching posters underlining the "wow" factor of advanced physics and chemistry, a group of sixth formers explain why they chose to take those two subjects.
"The teachers teach you by showing you something and letting you find out for yourself rather than by sitting you down with a textbook," says Tom Lawman, 17. "You had a good relationship with the teachers in Years 10 and 11," adds Krishna Barrett, 18, "and you knew they would be the ones teaching you in the sixth form."
This reflects the virtuous circle now established in this department, where chemistry is shaping up to claim next year's headline-grabbing figure. More than 50 Year 11s have said they want to do the subject in the sixth form For more details on National Science and Engineering Week, which starts today, visit www.the-ba.netthebaEventsNSEWindex.html
THE SECRETS OF HITCHIN'S SCIENCE SUCCESS?
Refurbished laboratories, better suited to modern teaching
Abundant laptops linked to a wireless network
Staff stability: low turnover of teachers for the past three years
Teachers encouraged to enthuse about their specialist subject
Pupils encouraged to develop powers of scientific inquiry
As many practical lessons as possible
Thriving science and astronomy clubs for younger boys.