The Astronomy Department is unusual in the UK in having a team of specialist, degree-qualified Astronomy teachers. We are aware of the privilege and prestige of our location in the Kennet valley, one of the most ancient sites for Astronomy in Europe. The internationally renowned Blackett Observatory provides an inspiring environment through which to engage pupils and support a very observational-heavy course. The Department’s theoretical teaching is augmented by the largest telescope in full-time school use in the UK, the Barclay Equatorial, which is a 10-inch Cooke refractor from 1860, restored between 1997 and 2003, and now the oldest telescope in the world to be computer controlled.
The Department promotes a cross-cultural and cross-faith understanding of the world as a physical entity which we all share under one common sky. Different interpretations of the sky are considered along with the evolution and importance of ‘origin’ narratives. Cultural stories and interpretations are considered with an awareness of the negative impact of modern short-term views and our materialistic society. Perhaps peculiarly, rather than endorsing the idea of ‘insignificance’, the subject raises important questions about self-identity, global responsibility, the effects of humanity in space and controlling our impact on the atmosphere.
We are strict to ensure that partisan views are not expressed in the delivery of content and offer a balanced presentation of opposing views. There are many areas where the concept of ‘current’ models are discussed, such as the heliocentric solar system, the Big Bang, Dark Energy, Dark Matter, life elsewhere and the fate of the universe, the Sun and the Milky Way. These are always presented with a caveat that other possibilities may exist. The subject is certainly not for those who shy away from deep questions or large numbers.
The Department has won the Good Schools’ Guide award for best GCSE results for both girls and boys three times. Over 300 pupils have completed the GCSE course. Since 1997 the Department has had a 100% pass rate with 93% achieving A*/A. Six pupils have received Presidential certificates from the Royal Astronomical Society for placing in the top 12 nationally at GCSE and three have won first prize in the annual Winton Capital Royal Astronomical Society poster competition.
The two-year GCSE course starts in the Remove, though all Shell pupils have one evening set aside in House groups for an introductory visit to the Observatory. The course is taken in five lessons a fortnight. Broadly speaking, the course divides into pre- and post-telescopic Astronomy. The two papers taken in the summer of the Hundred consist of naked-eye Astronomy and telescopic Astronomy with eight topics in each ranging from Earth, Sun and Moon cycles and the solar system to archaeoastronomy, time, navigation, stellar lifecycles, exoplanets, galaxies and cosmology.
Two observational pieces of work are completed over the two years, one aided and one naked-eye. Observations and drawings are encouraged throughout the course and can take place during holidays. The course is supported by a dedicated textbook and all resources for revision, self-testing and research are on the Departmental Firefly page. The Observatory has its own website which is updated weekly and enjoys over 1,000 visits a day from all around the world. In addition to the main telescope, there are numerous pairs of binoculars on tripods, an 8-inch reflector and two 10.5cm reflectors for pupils to use.
Several lectures with outside speakers are held throughout the year in addition to the annual Blackett Science Lecture delivered in November by a prominent astronomer. Pupils travel to seminars and lectures at Oxford University and several conduct work experience there in the summer before entering the Upper School. Trips have also been arranged to the European Northern Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands.
The Observatory is a centre of outreach with a full diary of community commitments. Local schools and academies visit us along with Scouts, Cubs, the Women’s Institute, U3A and language exchanges from the school and Marlborough College Malaysia. The Head of Department is well placed to offer university advice and helps pupils prepare for the British Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad, which can be sat in either the Lower or Upper Sixth. Both the main College Memorial Library and the Physics library contain many books covering the remit of the GCSE course and pupils are entitled to discounted rates for a subscription to Astronomy Now magazine.