In the corner of a sports pitch at an Oxfordshire secondary school stands a small white-domed building for watching the skies. It’s not every school that has an observatory – even a small one.
But not every school takes space exploration quite as seriously as the Space Studio school in Banbury, which boasts a 12-inch LX200 telescope – an essential part of kit.
“Space is inspiring because it fulfils a human need to explore and challenge. Space is the greatest scientific laboratory and as much as we build remote probes, we still want to go there,“ says principal Mike Grocott. “It is also beautiful.”
The school was set up 16 months ago, as part of the Aspirations Academies Trust, to provide a specialist science and maths education for 14- to 18-year-olds, with a workplaceorientated curriculum designed to match the local technological economy.
Now with astronaut Major Tim Peake’s spell on the International Space Station well underway, the school is gearing up for the TES Cosmic Classroom event on Tuesday (see box, right).
Mr Grocott says that the pupils and staff have already been following Major Peake’s mission closely and plan to gather together to participate next week. “We screened the mission launch and watched it as a school,” the principal says. “We watched the live feed of the space walk from Nasa. Luckily, the main part of the walk was at lunch time.
“For the Cosmic Classroom, we’ll get a whole year group together, either Year 10 or Year 11, to watch it and be part of it.”
He said that a “stunning” number of educational projects had been included in the mission. “Tim Peake’s mission has been a national moment because here is someone who is British who is pushing the boundaries for us, who makes others look up and think, ‘I could do that. I could be part of that,’” says Mr Grocott, who is an ambassador for the European Space Education Resource Office, delivering training for teachers in other schools.
But Space Studio is not just a normal school with an observatory bolted on. The differences between it and a conventional secondary go much deeper than that.
Project-based learning means that GCSE students are taught in classes of 50 made up of their entire year group. The students sit in groups of three or four and listen to the task set by the teacher (another teacher is on hand to team-teach). The students then work as a group to answer all the questions that they have been set. But they don’t need to stay in the hall to do this – they can move to the canteen if they want before returning to share their findings.
Hayley Smith, assistant headteacher and a physics and astronomy teacher, says that letting students explore subjects on their own took a bit of getting used to. “The idea of project-based learning is to equip students with the knowledge that employers say they want; soft skills such as working in teams. We really try to promote that.
“When I first started teaching this way, it felt quite alien. The hardest thing was relinquishing control a bit because it’s about the students learning independently. You don’t lead them through in the same way. But it works.”
The core project – with a title such as “Is it viable to colonise Mars?” – will cover a number of curriculum areas in four two-hour blocks per week. But there are also lessons apart from science, to ensure that the entire curriculum is covered.
Referring to the enthusiasm for science which runs through his establishment, Mr Grocott jokes: “I have got a school for geeks. I’m happy with that.”
But while the corridors are lined with pictures of the planets, and GCSE science is taught through space-themed projects, Mr Grocott and his staff are keen to stress that the last thing that they want to do is to narrow their students’ horizons.
Pupils can achieve an English Baccalaureate with English, maths, sciences, geography and German on offer at GCSE, alongside other subjects such as computing, design and technology, media studies and, of course, astronomy. At A-level, there are six options: maths, further maths, computer science, physics, biology and chemistry.
When Sabil Raza, 16, arrived at Space Studio from the neighbouring Banbury Academy 16 months ago, he thought he might become an engineer. Now he has applied to return to the Academy to take A-levels in English, drama and philosophy and ethics, with the aim of being an actor or drama teacher.
But far from regretting his swerve, he thinks that he has benefitted from his studies. “This school has helped me majorly,” says Sabil. “It’s helped me improve my grades and given me the opportunity to start a business.”
The business project is not an extra-curricular activity but an essential part of the school’s day-to-day work. Jane Ablett, the school’s business manager, works with 25 local firms to provide a series of six-week projects, in which teams of students are commissioned to solve problems.
One project involved coming up with new, teen-friendly coffee flavours for Douwe Egberts. In Year 11 and beyond, the students work in teams to set up and run their own businesses. A commitment to work-related learning is a feature of all 39 studio schools in England. They are set up to feel like a workplace, with a day that runs from 8.30am or 9am to 5pm.
Oxfordshire plays host to many businesses that are involved in the UK space industry, which is currently worth £11.3 billion and is expected to continue to grow to create an extra 66,000 jobs by 2030.
For Charlie Macke, 17, the idea of working in the industry is what prompted her to apply to the Space Studio school. “I saw an advert for this school on the back of a bus going through my village,” she says. “So I came to the open evening and when I heard it was about space, I was definitely going to apply.”
Last term, she went on a trip to Nasa’s space centre in Houston. “I met lots of interesting people who work over there. I’d quite like to work with telescopes, but the data from deep space is what interests me most,” she says.
It is certainly an interest that could take her a long, long way.
Live link-up with astronaut
The TES Cosmic Classroom is a live event that will put schools around the country in touch with astronaut Tim Peake as he orbits earth.
Major Peake will speak to schools around the country through the TES website. And it won’t just be about listening to him. The 20-minute talk will involve Major Peake leading activities that your class can join in with.
The event is due to happen on Tuesday but, due to the nature of life on the International Space Station, this date is subject to change at very short notice. As much notice will be given as possible if the event is delayed or cancelled.
Visit: tes.com/cosmicclassroom for more information and to register your class for the Cosmic Classroom.