St Andrews twinkle for S3s

19th November 2004 at 00:00
A secondary school in Fife is breaking new ground by arranging for its most able S3 pupils to work with student mentors from St Andrews University on research projects as varied as nuclear physics and classical Rome.

The scheme, the brainchild of Bob Fraser, head of Kirkcaldy High, is being lauded for its "double whammy" effect. It gives pupils, some of them from difficult backgrounds, a glimpse of the "ivory towers" of one of the country's top universities and it raises their personal aspirations.

It also gives the university - often criticised for appearing to be elitist and failing to enrol sufficient numbers of Scottish state school pupils - another weapon in its widening access armoury.

The project, entitled "Working Together to Improve", involves inviting the 25 brightest S3 pupils to undertake a piece of university-style research.

They are mentored jointly by school subject teachers and St Andrews graduates who are specialising in the pupil's chosen area of research.

By Easter, the pupils must complete a 3,000-word project, created electronically, and do a PowerPoint presentation to a panel. Student mentors assist in the presentation as well as giving direction over five to six months in research skills.

Research subjects vary widely, Mr Fraser said, from one pupil's choice of the assassination of President John F Kennedy (his student mentor is American), to classical studies (that pupil's student mentor awed the group by giving an oral presentation on ancient Rome in Latin).

Mr Fraser said: "One of my staff said that, if it had been left to staff to decide on the pupils' research projects, they would have been a lot less ambitious. Some of the topics are unbelievable."

The project is itself part of a wider programme of associate studentships which offers participants a guarantee of direct entry to St Andrews, provided they meet the university's exam requirements.

Mr Fraser said that, in general, the school community's ambitions extended no farther than Fife College, with Glenrothes College or Lauder College in Dunfermline almost "beyond the pale".

"This project is about the raising attainment agenda, raising expectations and changing the ethos of the school by promoting a culture of success," he said. While it is early days to judge the project's outcome, Mr Fraser is struck by the pupils' enthusiasm. "You have just got to look in their eye and you will see a twinkle," he said.

The response from St Andrews has been equally enthusiastic. "I asked one of the university students what she felt about it, and she said: 'This is what we should have been doing when we were at school - something for the good pupils'."

Mr Fraser said that the school had given a lot of attention to pupils who required learning support. This was a way of supporting another group of pupils. "We are trying to ensure that we meet all their needs," he said.

A spokeswoman for St Andrews University said: "The students are keen to participate in this project - some of them are thinking of becoming teachers when they graduate, and this is valuable experience for them.

"Others are simply interested in working with young people and in helping others towards gaining the same experiences as they have enjoyed themselves."

The spokeswoman added: "We are very pleased to be working with Kirkcaldy High School on this innovative project. Too often the brightest pupils in secondary schools are not adequately stretched by the curriculum in S3."

"Most state sector schools have a number of bright pupils who generally might not aspire to be the best in Scotland. We aim to change this attitude if possible and to challenge the pupils to think imaginatively and differently about school work."

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