The science of stretching

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Bright sixth-formers are being challenged with experiments far more demanding than A-level. Jon Slater reports

Finding a cure for ageing, providing cheap asthma drugs for the third world and research into the role of nitric oxide in causing cancer would be beyond the average sixth-form science student.

But a group of sixth-formers attending special sessions at Warwick school, one of Britain's oldest private schools, is hoping to achieve all three.

They are taking part in 21st Century Science, a project which brings together gifted and talented pupils from the state and independent sectors.

The project is the idea of Mo Afzal, head of science at Warwick, who believes science A-levels no longer stretch brightest students.

"A-levels are not challenging the best students and they do not go on to do science at university," he said. "Young people do not want to spend four years studying a subject that bored them."

Pupils from two private and two state schools, Myton school, Warwick's less well-heeled neighbour and King Edward VI, Stratford, are involved in the project which began in September 2004 So far, only pupils from Warwick and King's high, another private school in the town, are taking part in the high-level research. But Year 12 pupils from the state schools are training alongside them so they can begin their own research this September.

Arka Das, 17, from Myton, wants to study medicine at university and has enjoyed working with the private-school pupils - they were "more down to earth than I expected", he said.

Dr Afzal, a Warwick university research fellow, hopes to extend the project next year and has been talking to 12 schools. "Within the next 12 to 18 months we want clusters like this dotted round the country," he said.

The project is funded by sponsorship from industry and science bodies such as the Royal Society. It focuses on biological chemistry and Dr Afzal hopes to extend it into physics.

He is also helping pupils set up their own journal which aims to keep undergraduate and secondary students up to date with the latest scientific news. The journal will be written and edited by pupils, with articles invited from schools throughout the country.

On Thursday, up to 1,000 sixth-formers from schools across the country will be at Warwick school for a one-day conference where pound;1,500 in prizes will be given to students who present experimental research and deliver short lectures on contemporary science.

The conference is timed to co-incide with National Science week, which runs from today until March 20. Secondary pupils will get a chance to make their own cosmetics at the London College of Fashion and there will be ethical debates about the potential of new technology to tackle genetic disease at Plymouth university.

Event details are available at

Susan Greenfield, Platform 21


* Give students a sense of discovery - ask them to carry out experiments where they do not know the expected result.

* Less emphasis on teaching to tests - go beyond the syllabus.

* Encourage students to write about links between their work and cutting-edge research.

* Teachers must be specialists in the science they teach.

* Forge links between schools and universities.

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