A science teacher once told me that the problem with science teachers is that they think of themselves first and foremost as scientists who teach as a bit of a sideline. My own schooling bore this theory out. I always had science teachers who couldn't communicate their way out of a petri dish. They mumbled, they fiddled with test-tubes and bunsen burners, they occasionally threatened. They were in a world of their own that they didn't seem to want to share with us.
So it was with some trepidation that I met Julie Fleetwood of Ralph Allen School in Bath, joint winner of the secondary science teacher award. Would I drift off into one of my 45-minute comas the minute she opened her mouth as I had done throughout my school years? I not only stayed awake but was stimulated and captivated by her energy and, incredibly, her communication skills. As her head of department, Jane Kerr, puts it: "Julie is a natural teacher who happens to be a scientist. She has a unique combination of scientific mind and tremendous creativity."
Libby Steel of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and one of the judges for the award, agrees. "In the lesson I observed, she not only gave her pupils fun and exciting things to do that were relevant to everyday life, but was incredibly rigorous in terms of content."
Making things relevant to her students, who range from low ability and special needs children to A-level, seems to be a driving force. "It's so important to pitch it right in the first year of secondary school," she says. "They need to see that science is applicable to so many things in their lives. I say to them at all levels: 'go home and tell the folks at home what you've learned today.' And then I'll get parents coming in at parents' evening telling me that the kids come home and say 'Mum, do you know what you have in your stomach?'" This is 28-year-old Julie's third year of teaching at Ralph Allen, the only non-denominational, co-educational state comprehensive in Bath. An Oxford chemistry graduate, she did her PGCE at York before going to India to teach chemistry at a private school for missionaries' children. Her inspiration for teaching came from an English science teacher at this school - she returned there last summer to recharge her batteries.
She seems to be an inspiration to her own students, too. Of the eight A-level students she taught last year, five got As and two went to university to read chemistry. This year, of the four applying for chemistry, three hope to go to Oxford. While motivating high-achieving students may be one of the perks of the job, Julie is clear about the need to have high expectations of all the children she teaches. "I adopt the same attitude for all ages and abilities, " she insists. She works closely with the special needs co-ordinator and has developed worksheets which make it easier for pupils to record and recall experiments. Libby Steel, who observed her in a special needs class, says: "I admired how she ensured that special needs pupils could still achieve. She knows that their low achievement is not necessarily about science - it could be their reading and writing."
The pace of her lessons is best described as whirlwind. But it works. Acknowledging children's short attention spans, she has them moving briskly from one related activity to another. In her lesson on the digestive system, the Year 8 mixed-ability class of 24 worked through half a dozen activities all designed to stimulate and to help retain the information through graphics and role play - if that's what you call getting up in front of the class in groups and putting your hand on the next person's shoulder to illustrate how enzymes break down foods. "Fats, come to the front of the class," she calls out to the next group of food chemicals, who were asked to break down into fatty acids. Then they were told to draw the process before going through a verbal review, backed up by a model of a boy who gets stripped down to his innards.
A measure of the pupils' stimulation came in between tasks, when they were positively bursting with questions. "Miss," asks one boy, "what happens when you're sick?" "Miss," asks a girl, who had obviously been kept awake with this one, "why do boys have Adam's apples?" "Miss," asks another boy from across the room, in all seriousness, struggling to fill in his worksheet, "what does your anus do?" She answers each in turn calmly, thoroughly, as she sees to collecting up all the anatomical flash cards and making sure that a glue pot reaches its destination. Julie Fleetwood is in her element.