What’s the Private Sector ever done for us?

IMG_2709I’m all for breaking down the barriers between private and state education.IMG_2709

But I can’t help feeling we in the state sector may have more to teach exclusive fee-paying schools than they have to teach us.

An example? Well, put your science hats on for a moment – as we were asked to do last night, in a hall packed with excited kids and proud parents celebrating science and technology at Gillespie Primary School.

The north London school (full disclosure, I’m vice-chair of governors) is the first in the capital to set up a fully equipped science and “making stuff” space under an innovative programme called Lab_13.

Class teachers use the purpose-built lab for routine science lessons. There’s a kitchen in the corner for cookery club and a space for creating art works on the other side.

But more importantly, there’s a “Scientist in Residence,” employed two-and-a-half days a week to help children explore scientific questions.

Anything goes.Slug

The questions are posted on the lab’s notice board, or a child might come up with something interesting on the fly. Like, how long would it take for a snail to travel a mile?

“How are shadows made?” one group of children wanted to know. “Why is the sky blue?” asked others. Year 3 was interested in making crystals. So Year 4 showed them how, while some children in Year 6  have been looking at how virus’s replicate in the human body.

Which questions are answered is determined in part by the lab’s Management Committee, made up of children elected each year from throughout the school. The children wrote the job ad for the Scientist in Residence and took part in the interviews. The entire project is theirs.

Those shadows for example. The kids didn’t just want a scientific explanation. They wanted to create something artistic at the same time. So they did, projecting light through shapes to create beautiful shadow-pictures on stretched canvasses.

IMG_2706That was just one of the projects shown to the crowd of more than 100 last night. Another linked an interest in astronomy with a love of music. Press a star in a galaxy painted on a cardboard night sky and an electronic piano plays a note. Press two or three, you get a chord.

Then there was the question about the impact a meteor strike would have on the surface of the earth. It’s amazing what you can demonstrate with a home-made catapult, a box of Maltesers and a pile of sand. Or it would be if the catapult hadn’t failed. No matter, as our Scientist in Residence calmly explained, sometimes experiments don’t work. That’s how scientists learn.

All the demonstrations were introduced and explained by the children who, keen to show us that science is also fun, filled the gaps in-between with science jokes. (Question, what’s an astronaut’s favourite key on the computer keyboard? Answer, the space bar!)

The entire evening was entertaining, informative and above all inspiring – for children and adults alike.

So why doesn’t every primary school have a Lab_13?

Well, because it costs quite a bit of to set one up and there’s no money in tight school budgets for even a part time Scientist in Residence. The whole project requires a big fund-raising effort, from kitting out the space to buying in an experts’ time.

Which is where, you might imagine, the private sector comes in.

For some years now, businesses have been bemoaning the state of education. They’ve called for schools to turn out more inquiring minds. Britain’s economy will only thrive if high-tech manufacturing takes off, they say, so where are the children who’ll make that work?

Yet shown those very children and a project aimed at addressing some of the problems they’ve identified, businesses are largely nowhere to be seen.

The CBI was invited to get involved in the early stages. They came to the school, told us we were fantastic and made a film used at the launch of their big flashy report on the future of education.

We never heard from them again. A simple request to connect us with one single company that might want to contribute to the lab went nowhere.

We tried a couple of the giants of the corporate world but got a standard response: we don’t work with individual schools. Even though that school is doing something pioneering and is set to become a hub for science teaching borough-wide.

In the end (with the notable exception of Dixon Glass) the money came in bits and pieces mostly from private foundations and grant making bodies. The Royal Society did their bit, the British Pharmacological Society chipped in.

But the biggest support by far came from the local council. Without their financial contribution, Lab_13 would not have got off the ground.

Now we need funds to keep it going. We’re lucky in having a handful of dedicated parents prepared to fill in forms, send begging letters and bash the phones. We’re hugely grateful to the philanthropic foundations and societies that respond. (An organisation representing local businesses was invited to last night’s event, they didn’t even reply).

Having Lab_13 means children of varied abilities and backgrounds are collaborating brilliantly on science projects. Those from disadvantaged families have access to areas of learning they wouldn’t experience otherwise.

Next up, they’ll be working on a three month investigation into the health benefits of Manuka Honey. Their research will even be peer reviewed.

In the meantime, if you want to know how long it takes a snail to travel a mile, ask a Gillespie child. They’ve already published those results.