The Astronomy Department may be unique in the UK in having specialist astronomy teachers (with astronomy and cosmology degrees) and in having more than one staff member. We are amazingly situated in the Kennet valley in perhaps one of the most ancient sites for Astronomy in Europe. The Department has three times won the Good Schools’ Guide award for best GCSE results for both girls and boys and has been twice cited when the College was in line for Best School award. Some 275 pupils have taken the exam since 1997 and the A*/A rate is 94% with 100% passing. Six pupils have received Presidential certificates for the Royal Astronomical Society for coming in the top 12 nationally in the GCSE. The Department’s theoretical teaching is supported by the largest telescope in full time school use in UK, the Barclay equatorial, which is a 10” Cooke refractor from 1860, restored between 1997 to 2003 and now the oldest telescope in the world to be computer controlled. The observatory provides an inspiring environment through which to engage pupils and support a very observationally based course. We are fortunate to have considerable timetabled slots to complete the two-year course. Numbers of pupils have fluctuated from four to 35 in a year with multiple sets being sometimes needed. The subject is enthralling and not for those who shy away from deep questions or large numbers.
The course starts in the Remove, though all Shell pupils have one evening sets aside in House groups for an observatory visit, where the basics of observing are covered and, if weather allows, there is a chance to observe. From the Remove, the course is taken in five lessons a fortnight and the subject is in the main option block. Broadly speaking the course divides into pre- and post-telescopic astronomy. In fact, the two papers sat in the summer of the Hundred year consist of naked-eye astronomy (eight topics) and telescopic astronomy (eight topics) with topics ranging from Earth, Sun and Moon cycles and the Solar System to archaeoastronomy, Time, navigation, Stellar lifecycles, exoplanets, galaxies and Cosmology. Each of the 16 topics is tested as they end and pupil progress tracked. Two observational pieces of work are completed over the two years, one aided and one naked-eye. Observations and drawing are encouraged throughout the course and can be during holidays. The course is supported by a dedicated textbook and all resources for revision and self-testing and research are on the Departmental Firefly page. The observatory also has its own website, updated weekly and used to summon pupils on observing nights. In addition to the main telescope, there are numerous pairs of binoculars on tripods, an 8” reflector and two 10.5cm reflectors for pupils to use. Observing nights are scheduled for every Tuesday and Thursday when weather and availability allow.
Several lectures with outside speakers are held each year covering aspects of Astronomy and there is an annual lecture by a prominent astronomer (Blackett Science lecture) in November. Pupils have in the past been able to travel to seminars and lectures at Oxford University and a number have conducted work experience there in the summer before entering the Upper School. Trips have in the past been arranged to the European Northern Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands. The pupils receive discounted rates for a subscription to Astronomy Now magazine. The Observatory is also a centre of outreach, with a regular local group Friends of the Marlborough telescope profiting from a diary of regular events. Local schools, both primary, prep and secondary, including local academies, visit along with scouts, cubs, WI, U3A and language exchanges from the College and Marlborough Malaysia. The head of department is well placed to give university advice and helps pupils prepare for the Astronomy equivalent of the Physic Olympiad (British Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad), which can be sat in either Lower or Upper Sixth. Both the main College Memorial Library and the Physics library contain many books covering the whole remit of the GCSE course.
C E Barclay BSc (Hons), FRAS, FRSA, ACIEA (Head of Department)
Dr David Roberts MSc, PhD