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University challenge

Last week ministers talked of pupils taking degree courses. Martin Whittaker finds a school where they are doing just that

Name: Rednock school School type: 11-18 comprehensive Proportion of students claiming free school meals: 5.3 per cent Results: Above national average. In 2004, 62 per cent of pupils gained a grade C or above at GCSE

Sixth-former Francesca Mills found her interest in marine biology a real asset at university interviews - especially as she has already taken an Open University course in the subject.

She goes scuba diving as a hobby, so she opted to take a short course called "Life in the oceans: Exploring our blue planet", alongside her AS and A-levels.

"It was picked up at my interview at Bath university," she says. "When you have had a chance to chat and they have looked at your personal statements, they are very interested in it. It stands out as something very different from what other people have done. It works to your advantage."

Rednock school in Gloucestershire is among a growing number of secondaries to offer sixth-form students the chance to take OU short courses.

These self-study courses were designed to ease traditional OU students who had not studied for a while into degree-level work. But with more competition for places at top universities and schools seeking new ways to challenge students, the courses are popular with sixth forms.

Head David Alexander says the courses give his school kudos and could be a vital weapon in its bid to become a leading edge school as well as helping students into higher education. "It is another string to their bow, and it does broaden their horizons," he said. "There aren't a significant number of schools offering this in the South-west."

Rednock is an 11-18 comprehensive in Dursley with 1,357 children on roll.

It became a specialist science college in 2003.

The school serves the market town of Dursley and neighbouring Cam, in an area of general affluence but with pockets of deprivation. The proportion of pupils claiming free school meals is just 5.3 per cent, way below the 16 per cent national average.

A recent inspection highlighted very good teaching. And students perform better than the national average at GCSE. Last summer 62 per cent of pupils gained a C or above.

The school's science director, Tim Harrison, came up with the idea of offering his Year 12 students Open University science short courses three years ago, after an OU masters degree.

The university's Young Applicants in Schools scheme offers up to 500 able pupils in more than 60 schools the chance to take short courses in a range of subjects. These courses cost pound;99 per student, paid for by the school or parents.

The scheme was pioneered nine years ago, when pupils at Monkseaton community high school in Tyne and Wear took an OU maths course.

Short courses in science cover a range of subjects, often topical, with titles including "Food and health: a chemical story", "Introducing astronomy", "An introduction to the human genome", and the splendidly-named "Fats of Life: studying foods and diet." They are also available in the arts, including writing fiction, plays and poetry, an introduction to Shakespeare and perspectives on Leonardo da Vinci.

The courses are level 1 undergraduate courses, worth 10 points of a 300-point OU degree course. Although the points do not count towards a conventional degree, they do prepare young people for degree-level study.

Last year, 16 Rednock students opted for the courses. They start work after their AS levels in June and work in private study time and the summer holidays, with OU textbooks, pamphlets, videos, CD-Roms and assessment tasks.

The university provides its usual student support, with phone access to a tutor and computer conferencing. By the end of October, they submit an end-of-course assessment.

"It gives the students a chance to specialise and broaden," says Mr Harrison. "They meet some of these areas within their subject matter, but it also allows them to do something in a completely different branch of science.

"The study skills you need to do an Open University course are desirable for any university course: independence of learning, the ability to communicate, and you have to be able to use online information as well as that from old-fashioned textbooks.

"It also looks good on their Ucas forms and gives them something to talk about at university interview."

Susannah Dickinson is in Year 13 and aims to study environmental science at university. She took the OU course in marine biology last year to further her interest in fish ecology. "It's a nice opportunity," she says. "When I go to university, it's something I feel better for doing, and you know more about the subject you have chosen."

Isn't there a danger students could overload themselves in the run-up to A-levels? Mr Harrison says most cope well - only one has so far failed their course.

He says it is not hard for schools to manage. A teacher needs to oversee each student and ensure that all OU work is completed correctly by the deadline. Overseeing courses can also add to a teacher's own professional development record.

Mr Harrison has seen benefits in the classroom. "Last year we did work on genetics about protein and enzyme structure. The kids said, `We've done this'. I said, `Right, I'll sit down and you get on with it'. And they actually taught the rest of the class without notes, straight out of their heads.

"That's exactly what you want - you give the kids the tools to study and let them study."

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