Over the last 10 years, Sevenoaks School has hosted a Science Week; one of the biggest annual educational events held in a school. We welcome up to 15,000 children aged three to 18 during the five-day event. Hosting a live video link with the International Space Station, an aerobatic display with Yak 50s, the Bloodhound supersonic car and many other attractions over the years has been the highlight of my teaching career. I was, however, constantly aware that although every event is free, there were many schools that could not attend.
In 2015 we offered 14,000 free places, launching the booking website at 9am. By 9:10am every place was booked, with 163 teachers waiting online up to an hour before the system opened. We found ourselves in a position where we had approximately 4,000 children on our waiting lists and although we managed to put on a few more events, we still had to turn away several thousand enthusiastic students.
After the event, we began visiting these waiting list schools to take robotics classes, programming and virtual reality sessions. We introduced Nao the robot to thousands of children, and hosted parents’ evenings on internet security and online etiquette.
We conducted a study of all the resources we offered to local schools, as well as an audit of our teaching spaces, to see how often they were available, and then began to offer them to 29 schools in a local partnership. We facilitated over 350 events in one year, including meetings for headteachers, middle leaders, NQT, NQT+1, challenge groups, educational research and other bespoke meetings.
Last year the BBC offered the BBC micro:bit, free to every Year 7 student in the country. This small hi-tech device gave children the chance to explore hardware and software, learn to programme and fulfilled many areas in the national curriculum. We were incredibly fortunate to have access to many free boxes of micro:bits, which we supplied to all our partnership schools, also offering staff training in their use.
The extra time spent before and after meetings and over lunch gave a real insight into issues that primary schools were facing. We soon found that schools were asking if they could borrow our microscopes, laser thermometers, animal bones, data loggers and other resources. We happily obliged – packaging them up and visiting with the resources and loaning them for a week or two.
This led to the outreach boxes, a new initiative for which we bought educational resources to be used for a few weeks by one school, satisfying curriculum needs, and then be passed to the next school.
An extremely generous sponsor gave funding for the initiative and we started with a few small trial boxes with Arduinos, micro:bits and Digital USB Microscopes. The first boxes went out and were passed from school to school, only returning for replenishment or repair, but the proof of concept was there, with each pack seeing several hundred children a week. The micro:bit box even visited China during a holiday session!
We then started asking schools what they would like to see in the packs. We researched and tested waterproof and impact resistant cases and bought the equipment, cutting the packaging foam on our school laser cutter and making up our first 30 outreach boxes.
The advantage of this system is that we buy one set of equipment, rather than each school purchasing their own, using them for a short period and then storing them for the rest of the year, waiting for the next cohort and potentially becoming obsolete in storage. Sevenoaks School lends them out at no charge, delivering them personally. They are also used by our students who teach primary school students as part of their community service.
We hope to build upon this library of resources over the next few years, honing the offering to ensure we continually provide resources which meet educational needs. By continuing to listen to staff at our local schools we hope to ensure we continue to offer the best possible collaborative support we can.
To see our list of outreach boxes, visit the booking site at outreachboxes.com. At present we are only able to offer them to primary schools local to Sevenoaks. We are, however, keen to hear from other schools or sponsors who may wish to offer the same programme, expanding provision across the UK. Eventually we hope to make the scheme available to any school that would like to borrow a pack, sharing the more distinctive and advanced resources between schools in a similar way to a public library.