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Time to sharpen critical thinking

A Hampshire college has launched an AS-level to heighten analytical skills. Andrew Mourant reports.

THE illustration shows there has been a tragedy in the bathroom. Horace Verbermockle, who may or may not have slipped on a cake of soap, lies dead on the floor. The circumstances are suspicious and beg numerous questions.

At Alton College, Hampshire, a group of 15 to 16-year-olds begin to mull over the implications. This is critical thinking in action - even if some of the theories on offer are bizarre or a touch exotic.

At the end of the academic year, the students will face a stern test of their ability to reason as they take their AS-level in the subject. It will be an onerous time because they are also sitting a crop of GCSEs.

This is new territory for the college and the students, selected from two comprehensives: Amery Hill and Mill Chase. The purpose is twofold - to sharpen the critical faculties of bright teenagers and to offer a taste of college life.

In particular, Alton wants to strengthen links with Mill Chase school in Bordon, a garrison town with a shrinking army presence. Bordon is one of the poorest parts of Hampshire and, as deputy head, Steve Gillespie admits, some students have an insular mentality.

"It is challenging," he says, choosing his words carefully. "We have a percentage of capable kids who are not always fulfilling themselves - it is about breaking a cycle of low achievement."

The Mill Chase critical thinking contingent comprises 10 pupils from Year 11 who have been picked from the top English set. None knew quite what to expect - and certainly not that they would be required to hold their own in a session of Socratic dialogue. But the sense of having been singled out and a desire to hold their own against their peers from Amery Hill hones a sense of ambition.

"Being asked to do an AS-level is not something you say no to," says pupil Michael Armitage. "I have found it tough, yet interesting." And that is more or less the view of his fellow students, such as Drew Heatley, head boy at Mill Chase, who already intends to come to Alton after his GCSEs. He found the course slow going at first but is, he says, "getting into it".

Gemma Harvey is one of several in the class who would like to become a lawyer and recognises the knock-on benefits of critical thinking for other subjects. "In the long run it will be better for us. I thought it would be a really mature thing to do," she says.

The idea of teaching it to pre-GCSE students came from assistant principal Jonathan Prest, though the subject was introduced to Alton's curriculum by student services manager Glenda Gardiner, whose background is in geography.

"They are very engaged - you can throw anything at them," she says. That their subject is based on logical thought rather than cramming - "more talking than writing," says Drew Heatley - is undoubtedly part of the attraction.

This singular academic link with Mill Chase has been nurtured through tutor group visits by the college. Jonathan Prest is conscious of how much easier it has been for Alton to attract students from much further afield, simply because a learning culture and willingness to travel in other parts of Hampshire are more firmly established.

But Steve Gillespie believes he can see a growing interest within his school. "I think there is a pay-off here - students are responding to a different view of what learning might be about," he says.

Academic expectations are more entrenched at Amery Hill, where Maryan Darwich, who hopes to read law at Cambridge, has already been in touch to find out which A-level combination might be favoured. She says critical thinking is right up her street. "At school they do not encourage you to use as much thinking," she says. "With other subjects you have to learn far more."

Rebecca Penfold, another who aspires to a career in law, also sees the value of a critical thinking AS-level on her university application form. She finds it "in some ways like maths"; but in other ways not so; and says the course so far has "turned out better than expected".

Glenda Gardiner admits that Mill Chase pupils are more reticent in class than those of Amery Hill. "But they are starting to come out of their shell and in written work perform as well," she says. "As a group, they are all well up to the standard of our post-16s."

As for the hapless Horace Verbermockle, dead on the bathroom floor, few conclusions were drawn, except that the shower had been used and that someone wearing pointed shoes had walked across the wet floor. What precisely this amounted to, like much of critical thought, remained an intriguing question hanging in the air.

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