A fresh take on freshers

17th February 2012 at 00:00
One university is giving sixth-formers a unique and valuable insight into their future academic career

Eight sixth-year pupils have been taking part in a unique project at the University of Aberdeen, studying a course in the foundations of private law alongside first-year students.

It has been an exciting year for these teenagers - attending lectures and tutorials at the historic Old Aberdeen campus, then rushing back to school for their next class.

Their student card lets them use the university library, students' union, sports facilities, and pastoral care and guidance like any other student. And 15 transferable credits from this course contribute to any degree they choose to pursue - not just law and not just in Aberdeen.

The eight pupils are from Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen Grammar and St Machar Academy - all schools within a mile and a half of the university campus.

For the university, it's a chance to give them a taste of a subject they can't study at school and to ease what can sometimes be a traumatic transition. It also lets teenagers experience the real thing before they sign on the dotted line.

For most of this group, the experience has confirmed their desire to pursue legal careers. One or two have been struggling with the final decision about what to study and several aren't sure where they'll study. But even those who have decided "thanks, but no thanks" have relished this sneak preview of student life.

"It's a really brilliant way of knowing what to expect next year and making sure it's definitely going to be right for me for the next four or five years of my life," says 17-year-old Megan Lukins, from the sixth year at Robert Gordon's College.

"It's made me feel a lot better about applying to law and reassured me it's definitely a subject I would enjoy."

Even at 17, Megan has the quick ability to sum up facts you'd look for in a lawyer and has an unconditional offer of a place to study law at Aberdeen. Classmate Becca Houston, 17, is a "people person", planning a future in human resource management.

"It's been brilliant - I have really enjoyed it. Meeting new people and the lecturers, who are keen to help you," says Becca, who also has an unconditional offer for law at Aberdeen.

Fitting lectures and fortnightly tutorials in with their classwork has been a challenge. The programme is designed for sixth-years with an interest in law who have achieved university entrance requirements in fifth year.

"They negotiate their timetable at the beginning," says Mike Elder, depute head S6 at Robert Gordon's College. "There are three lectures a week and they have to attend a minimum of two lectures, so sometimes that involves negotiation with class teachers for missing some or all of a lesson.

"But it's up to the pupils to make their own way to university, come back, sign in and see teachers if they need to catch up. That responsibility is on them."

This is the second year of the Law School's pilot programme - two pupils who took part last year from Robert Gordon's are now law students in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The scheme is run by Dr Adelyn Wilson, a popular young law lecturer who supports and teaches the teenagers.

"I think it's gone really well. The schools have been enthusiastic, the pupils have come in and seem to have enjoyed the course. We've got really good feedback from them. They're all . well, I don't know if they're looking forward to the exam," she laughs, "but they're feeling relatively confident about the exam."

Another "pupil student", Rebecca Lindsay, 17, from St Machar Academy, walks the half mile from school to lectures at the Old Aberdeen campus. "This was a great opportunity and I was interested in doing law," she says.

"During the course I did some soul-searching and, after realising what life would be like as a lawyer, I decided not to do the law course next year.

"I do enjoy it, but it's not what I'm passionate about. I'm doing English now - I've wanted to be an author since I was six years old," says Rebecca, who will use her credits towards an English degree.

"I know what the lectures are like, I know what the lecturers are like. I know how easy it's going to be to talk to people now and also how to manage the level of work and taking notes and everything. So it's really given me an insight into how I will be able to cope with university."

Depute head at St Machar Academy Janice Duncan has seen how Rebecca has benefited. "A lot of our youngsters are first generation at university and to be able to access the university while still at school, and perhaps have some of their fears dispelled, is a tremendous opportunity for them," she says.

Down the road at Aberdeen Grammar, Amy Harrison, 17, is reviewing notes for her law exam. She has an unconditional offer for law at Aberdeen and is already well organised in her approach to study. "You have to keep on top of things - it's best if you go home and learn the stuff. I think you'd get behind if you didn't do that," she says wisely.

Aberdeen Grammar headteacher Graham Legge is a keen supporter of programmes such as this, which broaden the choice of subjects and opportunities for pupils.

"It works well for able youngsters who have secure university entrance out of fifth year - it's what we insist," says Mr Legge, who also has eight pupils taking part in the Open University Young Applicants in Schools Scheme (YASS) that offers subjects pupils can't study at school.

Two of his other sixth-year pupils have just sat exams in chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, as part of its Flexible Science Programme.

It is offered to schools as S6@Uni, with the option of lectures and tutorials for undergraduate science courses online, along with an intensive weekend of experiments in science labs on campus. Twelve-week courses can complement Advanced Highers or offer an alternative if Advanced Highers are unavailable. The programme is open to anyone and is popular with offshore workers, who can attend lectures or study online.

Pupils gain credits towards degree courses at any university and, if they have Advanced Highers too, can gain entrance to second year at the University of Aberdeen.

"If they have two Advanced Highers in the correct subjects plus two university courses, they can come directly into year two," says Sally Middleton, coordinator of the Flexible Science Programme.

Pupils particularly enjoyed the practical side of the course.

"It's a bit different from what we get here, because there they give you the freedom of doing it yourself rather than holding your hand," says Elias Mangoro, 17, from S6 at Aberdeen Grammar.

He has just sat the exam for the Essentials of Chemistry and is about to start on a geology course. "If I were to take chemistry at university, I could start in second year," says Elias, whose credits will contribute to the degree course he plans in mechanical and electrical engineering.

He and Alex Duncan, 18, are studying Advanced Higher chemistry at school and using the university course to supplement their learning.

"It's not essential for either of our university applications; we are just doing it because we are interested. So if we fail, it doesn't matter too much," says Alex, who is now starting a second chemistry course online before studying maths and physics at university.

At Ellon Academy, seven pupils sat their chemistry exams after taking the online course. Their Aberdeenshire school is 20 miles from the campus, so online learning is a practical option with a weekend of practical work in the university lab.

Seventeen-year-old Robbie Gauld (S6) wants to study medicine and is doing the online chemistry course along with Higher chemistry. "It's really different from how you're taught in school, so it's quite difficult to adapt constantly between the two," he says.

Blair Fraser, 17, is applying to do chemical engineering and is also doing his Higher chemistry this year: "We're all doing our Advanced Highers this year in physics and maths, so on top of having exams in school for that, it was pretty hard."

Ellon Academy's acting headteacher, Glynis McClymont, says: "They have a much better handle on what's involved when they go to university and how different it is from school. I'm sure they've met a lot of challenges along the way, but knowing these challenges and overcoming them puts them a step ahead of other youngsters who haven't done this."

Early indications from the chemistry exam suggest pupils' hard work paid off, with the vast majority achieving first-class results.

"These are exceptional marks, much higher than I expected," says Dr Middleton.


The Flexible Science Programme at the University of Aberdeen will be available to schools throughout Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire next year.

"We will be offering a cohesive package of chemistry, physics, computing science and geosciences," says programme coordinator Sally Middleton.

Peter McGeorge, vice-principal for learning and teaching, says: "This is an ideal opportunity for students to dip their toe into higher education from a relatively safe vantage point. So you can sit in S6 and dip your toe into university, and if the water's too hot you can withdraw it."

Professor McGeorge is part of a group looking into the senior phase of secondary education, particularly S6. Members include the university, further education colleges and local authorities in consultation with headteachers.

"Part of that is looking at how, by collaborating together as a group, we can provide as broad a range of opportunities for students in S6 as possible."

This includes opportunities - such as the Flexible Science Programme - to study university courses at the same level as Advanced Higher for pupils who in some cases can't access them at school.

While courses such as these allow direct entry into second year for the most able students, Professor McGeorge believes it's important young people are free to choose from a range of routes into higher education.

"I think it's captured in the interpretation of The Learner Journey paper from the Scottish government, which is to look at what suits an individual student best, rather than the one size fits all approach."


Photo credit: Simon Price


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