This year I trialled a new initiative at my school called Brighton Sparks. Aimed at our most able and gifted pupils in years 8-10 and offered as part of our existing programme of co-curricular activities, it ran successfully (albeit largely via Google Meet) in spite of extended periods of site closure due to COVID-19.
The aim of Brighton Sparks is to help pupils develop academic writing and supra-curricular study skills such as independent learning, secondary research, time management and referencing. These qualities are sadly overlooked by many schools and yet are essential attributes, not only for study at IGCSE and A Level but also beyond. For instance, in a recent survey of university admissions officers, almost half of respondents felt that UK students were not prepared for the step-up to higher education, citing, in particular, a lack of good written English and an inability to think and learn independently:
‘…all respondents unanimously agreed that students must ensure they are “ready to think and learn independently” when asked how students could be better prepared to thrive while successfully completing their degree.’
‘…52 per cent felt they were “unable to carry out extended writing”, and the same number “unable to remember facts, possessing a ‘Google-it’ mentality”
At my school, these skills are already embedded throughout the curriculum but for those pupils who are consistently high achievers or demonstrate a propensity for a particular subject, Brighton Sparks offers them an exciting opportunity to be stretched and challenged even further in areas of their own interest and expertise.
Along with weekly university-style tutorials on topics including Harvard referencing, academic writing, university vs school, and the differences between searching and researching a topic, the pupils were assigned a supervisor (a specialist teacher) with whom they worked one-to-one, and were tasked with writing a 2000 word essay that was marked in accordance with the British Undergraduate Degree Classification System.
The pupils also received presentation skills training and were required to present their research findings to, and field questions from, their teachers and peers (much like a PhD viva voce). At the end of the school year, the pupils received a certificate in assembly and their essays were published in our very own College journal, ‘The Spark.’
This is how it worked…
In the autumn term, pupils in years 8-10 who had been identified as being able and/or gifted (using their stanine baseline, calculated using the GL battery of assessments and teacher referrals) were invited to participate in Brighton Sparks via an in-school introductory presentation and a letter home to parents. At the same time, teachers volunteered to become supervisors and prepared a small number of essay questions on topics in which they had a particular interest and expertise.
I produced a guide which I shared with pupils detailing the Brighton Sparks process but also providing support on how to plan and write an academic essay, referencing and presentation skills. Additional resources were shared with pupils via a Brighton Sparks Google Classroom.
Brighton Sparks got underway in the summer term. Unfortunately, the school site was closed due to COVID-19 so it was largely delivered online via Google Meet. Each week, the pupils attended university-style tutorials. These were led by specialists within the school and covered a wide range of topics including:
- Secondary research
- Planning your essay
- Academic writing
- Harvard referencing
- Boolean operators
- School vs university
- Presentation skills
The pupils received support and guidance from their supervisors via email correspondence throughout the research and writing process but they were also encouraged to meet one-to-one with them at least twice during the term and this was the responsibility of the pupils to arrange. Pupils for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL) also received support from our EAL Department.
Supervisors marked the essay first using a simple marking rubric comprising five criteria:
- Focus and method
- Knowledge and understanding
- Critical thinking
A small working party then met to moderate the marking and assign final grades in accordance with the British Undergraduate Degree Classification System (e.g. First Class, Upper Second Class, etc.). In addition, the pupils received diagnostic and constructive feedback; they knew exactly what they had done well and what they could do in order to improve their work.
Finally, the pupils were tasked with delivering a short (<5 minutes) presentation on their research and a reflection of the process as a whole to their peers and teachers, from whom they also successfully fielded questions.
Feedback from participating pupils and staff has been hugely positive (see below) and the model is simple enough to be replicated and / or adapted elsewhere with ease.
‘Brighton Sparks has been such a great experience for me. I have learned so much that I know will help me with the rest of my school career and professional career’ – Year 9 pupil
‘It’s been a pleasure to have this opportunity’ – Year 9 pupil
‘Marvellous experience – I really enjoyed the conversations we have had and the hard work and interest [the pupil] took in this subject’ – Supervisor
‘I loved having the opportunity to study something that I am so interested in and to discuss it with my supervisor’ – Year 8 pupil
‘I have already used what I learned in Brighton Sparks in my Science lessons’ – Year 10 pupil
Looking ahead, I would like to build on what has already been established this year by:
- extending Brighton Sparks to include more year groups;
- incorporating more research-based projects (e.g. in Science, Psychology, Sport Science, etc);
- arranging tutorials with external speakers including industry leaders and academics;
- offering trips and visits; and
- disseminating supra-curricular skills by asking Brighton Sparks pupils to lead assemblies and workshops for others.
If you have any questions about Brighton Sparks or would like to share how your school provides for AG&T pupils I would be very interested to hear from you.