Winning an A-level science prize has boosted physics in a Yorkshire school. Victoria Neumark reports
"It was a fantastic feeling, to hear we had won. I cried. They were looking at each other: is it us? Then Alistair grabbed the mike as they came off the stage and thanked the teachers at school. That was me. I was gone." Liz Ascroft, head of science at South Craven School for the past two years, exults in her A-level physics students winning the Showcase Science Conference 2005 award, part of a collaboration between independent and state schools.
Their sparkling, humorous presentation on stellar classification left students and staff watching the webcast back in Yorkshire thrilled and impressed, and easily outshone the competition from independent schools in the south of England. "You could just see the audience change before your eyes," says headteacher Andrew Cummings.
So how do students from a northern comprehensive get to the point where they say, surveying a marquee with chandeliers, flowers and linen tablecloths, in borrowed suits and ties: "Eton had to pull out because they knew we were coming? It's a nice community," says Andrew. "Our work is about raising aspiration." South Craven is a specialist engineering and technology college sponsored by the Ogden Trust with more than 1,700 pupils aged 11-19. "It's been a real catalyst for the school," he says, describing the rural area dotted with old industrial villages as one of high employment but low wages, with 7 per cent of the population from ethnic minorities.
Nearby lies the town of Skipton, whose grammar schools cream off able students. Last December, Ofsted described South Craven as "improving". Its indicators are good, with more than 51 per cent 5 A*-C and a sixth-form with more than 300 students. The school runs Artsmark, Sportsmark, Young Engineers, Young Enterprise, and the Duke of Edinburgh Award schemes. But one of the most remarkable indicators is the number doing A-level physics, which has risen from two to 17 in three years.
Liz Ascroft is understandably proud: "I was appointed to raise the profile and attainment of science and I think the results - including eight As and two Bs - justify this." The school has introduced gifted and talented reasoning groups, gender-split teaching, booster classes, a science club and discussion forums to improve results. A new science block has just opened. But the basis of it all is teaching which the competition has helped focus.
For the past year, South Craven sixth-formers have been doing astronomy with Tamara Sherat, a PhD student from Leeds University. They have a Tasco Star Guide 4 telescope that students can borrow for two weeks at a time, which is, says Liz, "absolutely superb". It takes a few cloudy nights to get used to the instrument but the excitement of looking at the stars is matched by the learning development of reporting back to the class. The telescope is also an inducement for wavering Year 11 students attracted to physics.
Preparation for the Showcase Science event took several weeks of extra-curricular time, researching the history of the classification of stars and astronomers, finding images on the internet, then producing a PowerPoint presentation. "It was every dinnertime," says Jonathan, "on the internet," adds Tom, "and on the interactive whiteboard," chimes in Matthew. Now the whole class are star-crazy.
Liz Ascroft says: "The team spirit in the class has changed. They were a good group before, but now they believe that they can go out in the world and aspire to good degrees." Alistair, for example, had wanted to be a chef, but is now staying on to help teach science and PE while he applies to university.
The students won pound;20 each and a medal for the school. Above all, they got praise from science academics who "genuinely thought it was interesting," and a feeling, says Joanna - the only girl in the team - "that our presentation perked up the day". It was "fantastic," she adds.
Joe agrees: "I felt we were the underdog and the odd ones out but then the audience were laughing and cheering." It's not the fame that has gone to their heads, though. It's the lure of science. As Josh says: "A lot of it is relevant."