Setting sail for a whole new world of learning

6th August 2010 at 01:00
This coming term, the UK's first Marine Academy opens in Plymouth using the ocean as a teaching aid. Kerra Maddern drops anchor at a project that could prompt a sea change in education, as long as BSF issues don't knock it off course

Their classrooms have priceless views, overlooking an iconic stretch of water, but the environment that inspired Sir Francis Drake and the Mayflower pilgrims has not always succeeded in motivating children.

Teachers in the St Budeaux area of Plymouth, Devon - a part of the city blighted by deprivation and crime - are embarking on a radical experiment that they hope will change that. They plan to use the natural resources on their doorstep to create the country's first Marine Academy.

The school, which will open in September, will benefit from its own adopted beach, and use an aquarium, the ocean and university laboratories as its classrooms.

But its plans to inspire children with a new approach to their education have been hit by the Government's plans to scrap Building Schools for the Future (BSF). Officially, plans for a new building for the Academy is "under discussion".

It is one of many schools that are coming to terms with the end of the ambitious BSF programme to rebuild or refurbish all secondaries in England. The Marine Academy was not simply hoping to fix a leaking roof - the design of this new school is integral to its grand plans.

"We need light, space and flexibility; we need technology, and it would be devastating to have to devote our much-needed funding to a building which has well passed its sell-by date," said Helen Mathieson, the academy principal.

"A new building would show children we want to invest in their future, it will make them feel valued and it will allow teachers to be innovative. Wouldn't it be marvellous to show everyone they matter?

"We need better external spaces, we need views to give children the sense of discovery central to the Marine Academy. They need to see the (River) Tamar, Plymouth and Cornwall."

Regardless of what happens with the building, those involved with the Marine Academy are determined the BSF issue will not scupper their plans.

The academy is replacing Tamarside Community College, which was in the National Challenge programme for schools with low exam results. Just 15 per cent of pupils went on to university, with the majority of those staying on after age 16 not doing the kinds of high-level courses they need to take a degree.

Many of the pupils come from homes affected by unemployment. Pupils do not go to Plymouth Hoe, where Drake was famously said to have played bowls while waiting to set sail to fight the Spanish Armada. They do not use the community facilities provided by Plymouth University and are unconnected with the beautiful stretch of water surrounding the seaside city.

"Pupils should be travelling back and forth towards these features, and submerged in the academic and creative atmosphere," said Mrs Mathieson. "They must understand it's for them, too, and that's not happening at the moment.

"Our responsibility is to show them what's out there; at the moment they don't think that it is a necessity or understand that it is available to them."

Teachers will focus on teaching pupils skills at a time when the Government is backing a return to a more traditional curriculum.

Plymouth is home to the Royal Navy, and at the centre of exciting developments in engineering, science and the environment, but too few pupils end up becoming part of skilled local industries.

Mrs Mathieson and her staff believe that putting marine studies at the heart of the curriculum will improve children's literacy and numeracy skills. This will be combined with personalised timetables, an extended school day and one-to-one tuition.

Local businesses will be heavily involved in the new school, which is sponsored by Plymouth University, Cornwall College and Plymouth City Council, offering work experience and visiting the school to inspire children. Teachers want to show pupils the range of jobs available on their doorstep by bringing in a steady stream of visiting artists, sailors, chefs, linguists and scientists.

"The days of the old education, where children went from school to university to a job, have gone," Mrs Mathieson said. "Now they will experience learning in all its forms. There's no point in preparing children for jobs which don't exist."

Paul Cox, education director at Plymouth's National Marine Aquarium, says the nautical specialism will be more than "just visiting rock pools". He is supporting teachers developing the new curriculum.

"Using the sea is a fantastic way of getting children to see they are global citizens. It is also a fantastic resource to use creatively, for example, making videos," he said.

"Sometimes teachers can shy away from it because they feel more comfortable using land-based environments. But we find children are really inspired by the marine world and its inhabitants. There are world authorities on the subject here in Plymouth and it's fantastic children will have access to them."

A new timetable means longer lessons, and more opportunity to take classes out and about. The Marine Academy aims to give its pupils confidence, so there will be regular celebration ceremonies and children will start studying for accredited courses as soon as possible.

Pupils will "graduate" and wear a smart new blazer - given to them free last term to get them to look, and feel, ready for work.

Every year, on average, almost one in 10 Tamarside pupils left school and became a Neet (not in education, employment or training) statistic. Most were teenage mothers. Last summer 23 per cent got five good GCSE grades, including English and maths.

The curriculum will include the new environmental Diploma, modules in marine studies at both Plymouth University and Cornwall College, and work-based learning at local small- and medium-sized companies.

Parents will be able to study at the school too, and tutors will encourage them to aim to go on to degree courses.

"Children should be part of Plymouth's success and growth," said assistant principal Di Henderson. "We want them to see the links with Europe, to give them the ability to work in industry and to make school relevant for them."

It is not only children and their families who will learn at the new school. Teachers will receive constant professional development and will work closely with academics from Plymouth University's faculty of education. They are already being trained to mentor pupils, and to spot those who are coasting and need extra help.

"The personalised timetable gives us the flexibility to step in, for example, if a child is ill or having to cope with upheaval at home," said vice-principal Nick Ward.

"We want to be able to respond to changes children are experiencing, which open up enormous opportunities for teachers, who have been trained in how to deliver the 100-minute lessons.

"We think these will deepen the learning experience and improve children's stamina. They will give them transferable skills which will help them for the rest of their lives. It allows them to access this changing world."

Tamarside did not have the easiest birth. It opened 21 years ago during a recession as an attempt at rebranding another school. Money was tight, and this shows in the poor quality of the building - although pupils can see Navy warships sailing past while in class, their view is partially blocked by corrugated metal outside the window.

The Marine Academy also has not had the easiest of starts. Former Tamarside head Keith Ballance, who had helped plan the Marine Academy project, quit his job earlier this year when he was not chosen to become its new principal.

A petition was launched by pupils at Tamarside in a bid to keep him as head, with 600 people signing up to a "Save Mr Ballance" Facebook page.

Mrs Mathieson was chosen for her track record in sorting out the problem of children not going on to education, training or employment.

She was previously head of Treviglas Community College in Newquay, Cornwall, which has the UK's first Surf Academy, where pupils study A-level equivalent qualifications related to surfing (see box). The programme has slashed the number of pupils leaving the school and becoming Neets.

Using the region's best assets has transformed the lives of other children - and the teachers at the Marine Academy hope it will do the same for those in Plymouth.

Hidden depths

For Helen Mathieson, principal of the Marine Academy (above left), this is not the first time she has used the ocean to engage pupils in their education.

As head of Treviglas Business and Enterprise College in Newquay, Cornwall, Mrs Mathieson oversaw the setting-up of the country's first "surf academy". This is a two-year course for post-16 pupils who are interested in a career in the surfing industry. Students achieve three A-level equivalents in addition to studying university modules that guarantee a place on the surf science degree course at Plymouth University.

Mrs Mathieson started the academy, which accepts 15 students a year, after realising the surf culture was distracting pupils from their school work.

The school also has a technicians' academy, a business academy and an ICT academy offering different courses.

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