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Your uni needs you

Features | Published in TES Newspaper on 24 October, 2008 | By: Biddy Passmore

University lecturers and students are quitting the campus and heading out to schools to enthuse future recruits with a love of maths, modern languages and Latin, says Biddy Passmore

If you want to hook teenage boys into learning a foreign language, it’s easy. Invite them to an action-packed day based on the film The Italian Job at a nearby university. With sessions on everything from brigands to murder mystery, they can explore Italian culture and learn some language, too. A dizzying treasure hunt round Turin and Venice makes the idea of learning Italian seem both cool and exciting - and spins language into their teenage heads, too.

Hull University put on such a day and more than 50 boys enrolled. This is one of many ploys the university’s modern languages department has used to captivate local pupils, most of whom speak only English and have little expectation of going on to higher education.

The university is not aiming only at secondary pupils, nor just the gifted and talented. Its lecturers and students can also be seen in primary schools, supporting teachers in a cross-curricular approach and helping schools with language days and after-school clubs.

Hull’s efforts are part of a drive by universities to attract more students into less popular subjects, variously described as “hard”, “linear” and “in decline”.

Lecturers and students, even full-blown professors, can be found in growing numbers initiating children as young as five into the delights of maths, science and modern languages. These university ambassadors are not usually going into schools to teach, but to show pupils that so-called “hard” subjects can be sources of fun and fulfilment.

That is certainly the message from Marina Mozzon McPherson of Hull University’s modern languages department. She runs the government-funded Routes into Languages programme, leading a consortium also involving Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan, Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam.

Marina goes into secondary schools and talks to pupils about the value of languages in the global economy. She also organises events for schools at the university: from listening to an EU interpreter describing their work, to a language workshop taken by undergraduates who will help with speaking skills.

“The universities’ involvement is vital to firing up pupils,” says Claudia Lorenz, a languages teacher at Kelvin Hall School in Hull. “They see clearly where their studies could take them and what exciting work and educational opportunities exist out there. It also has the effect of making university seem less intimidating and more of a logical progression.”

Selling the virtues of learning a living language on monoglot Humberside is one thing; promoting “dead” languages in inner London might seem more of a challenge.

But to the dauntless Lorna Robinson, armed with an Oxford classics degree, a doctorate from University College London and a mission to make classics available to all, it was just waiting to be picked up. She is founder of the Iris Project, a charity that promotes access to classical subjects in state schools. It won university backing for a project to teach Latin to pupils in 20 primaries in Hackney, Kilburn and Southwark in London.

She piloted it in Benthal Primary School in Stoke Newington, teaching a mixture of Latin, culture and history through games and activities to pupils in Years 5 and 6 (for Lorna’s lesson plans, visit the Iris Project’s website, at the end of the article). Now 15 “student tutors” from UCL and King’s College, London, have joined the team and are teaching pupils on the same scheme for an hour a week.

“A lot of the pupils had never even heard of Latin, but they enjoy it,” says Sarah Thompson, Benthal’s deputy head. “They’re now able to recite quite a bit and answer in Latin. Learning Latin has had an effect on how they put sentences together and on their understanding of words in English. It has given them a flair for languages.”

Over this year, Benthal pupils have gained even more classical enrichment through the Hackney Schools Drama Project, devised by Lorna with Graham Kirkby, UCL alumnus and Iris member. This series of fortnightly workshops turned, post-Sats, into intensive rehearsals of two Greek comedies by Aristophanes (Frogs and Peace) in new, idiomatic translations by Graham.

The pupils, costumed and rehearsed by UCL students, performed the plays in the college’s Bloomsbury Theatre. And the audience of pupils from other schools loved it, even if they didn’t always respond as expected. (The question put to the audience: “Do you want more peace?” produced quite a lot of “Noes”).

The production was hailed as a great success by Professor Chris Carey, head of Greek and Latin at UCL. The university has mainly made links with secondary schools until now - he gives frequent talks at state schools, with the topics in hottest demand being Homer and tragedy - but he’s fully behind putting moral support and manpower into primary schools.

“The earlier you catch them the better,” he says. “And it’s great for our students to go out to teach in schools - and for the pupils to see real students. If you want to interest pupils in a subject, one student is worth 10 lecturers.”

Also fighting hard and successfully for their subject are the mathematicians of the University of East Anglia (UEA).

“We want to show pupils what a healthy department of good mathematicians they have in their own university, but also to show them we’re part of the mathematical community of the nation,” says Paul Hammerton, the department’s admissions tutor who runs school links.

That may sound a touch high-minded for the average secondary pupil, but the lecturers and students who act as roving ambassadors show the fun side of maths.

“At one level maths can be very dull,” Paul says. “It’s a bit like learning a foreign language - you have to put in the groundwork and then comes the fulfilment. In maths, it’s the applications.”

The “applications” are far from dull. One talk for secondary pupils involves dropping pebbles down wells and drawing up a graph of distance against time. It then segues seamlessly to the survival chances of cats falling from skyscrapers.

University lecturers and students also give an annual summer school on campus, known as the Launch Pad, for Norfolk pupils moving from GCSE to AS-level.

These free, non-residential courses, the brainchild of Brenda Emmott, Norfolk LEA’s mathematics adviser, are a mixture of taught sessions, tutorials, lectures and challenges. They help students to polish up rusty skills and deepen their understanding of familiar topics.

“Learning to juggle was fun and not what I had expected,” said one satisfied customer after attending the Launch Pad. Another commented: “I now know that I want to study maths rather than feeling I had to study it.”

For younger pupils, there are Christmas lectures at the university - two action-packed talks on maths and/or science on a Saturday morning just before Christmas, suitable for 11 to 14-year-olds. Recent subjects have included the mathematics of sport (cue throwing of tennis balls), how dolphins communicate, and how volcanoes work (cue eruptions). They need a big lecture theatre: more than 500 children and parents usually attend.

Also aimed at Year 6 pupils is a post-Sat maths quiz, a two-day event at the university in late June when teams of four from about 20 primary schools compete to answer questions set by lecturers and retired teachers.

“It’s good, old-fashioned pencil and paper - no electronic media involved,” says Dr Mark Cooker, who organises it “And the questions are read out, so listening and understanding is part of the exercise.” Sudoku is used to distinguish between the best teams.

Other activities in primary schools tend to depend on individual connections, such as maths lecturer David Steven’s memorable presentation on ocean modelling in the South Atlantic - given separately to five and eight-year-olds at Eaton primary, his son’s school.

Well, it’s not so much about ocean modelling - Dr Steven’s research interest - more an opportunity for him to unpack his bright orange survival kit, let the children try some of it on, and tell them about the weather near the South Pole.

The children may or not remember that he tells them it’s important to study maths. But they might well make the association between maths and fun. And they will certainly remember that it’s so cold in the South Atlantic that your eyebrows freeze.

For more information visit Routes Into Languages: www.routesintolanguages.ac.uk/yorkshire; Languages at Hull: www.hull.ac.uk/languages; Iris project, Hackney Latin: www.irismagazine.org; Maths at UEA: p.hammerton@uea.ac.uk.


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