For CSI, read Classroom Scene Investigation

Richard Garner has a lesson in forensic science at a school that has chosen to embrace vocational learning
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The Independent Online

A dead body lies on the floor of the school’s science laboratory. It belongs to a former drug dealer who has been hit over the head with a hammer.

It is not a gruesome confirmation of David Cameron’s “broken society”, nor is it a graphic example of how violence is spreading into the nation’s classrooms.

Instead, it is part of the “hands on” approach to learning being adopted at one of the Government’s newest academies. It has become one of the first in the country to dedicate itself to boosting vocational learning, which for decades has been withering in the shadow of a focus on academic education.

The Government’s new diplomas, designed to put vocational and academic education on an equal footing, have so far failed to flourish, so now individual schools are being encouraged to focus on vocational learning. Milton Keynes Academy is one, and a second similar academy has opened in Nottingham, both concentrating on practical education.

This is where the body in the science lab comes in. It is part of a staged crime scene for pupils studying forensic science as part of an applied science course for 14-to-16-year-olds. All of the children at the academy, which has 1,168 pupils, have to study at least one vocational qualification. One of the most popular is BTec’s applied science course, with its compulsory forensic science unit.

“They see it on TV with programmes like CSI and want to know ‘Is it really like that?’,” said teacher Kelly Stone. “The answer is it is not as glamourous as it is on TV, but it can be just as interesting.”

As part of the crime scene recreation, the pupils analyse the pattern of blood splatters on the body and try to deduce what the murder weapon must have been. They can spend between four and six hours in the laboratory conducting their analysis, matching the pace of a real-life crime investigation.

At the end of the course, many of the students – who teachers believe may not have been interested in science without the touch of realism introduced by the crime scene – choose to study the subject through to A-level or its equivalent.

“I really like science,” said 15-year-old Abeer Raza. “We were given four suspects and we were trying to figure out who had done it. I enjoyed it.” She solved the crime, too.

But the academy, which is sponsored by the charity Edge, has a tough job on its hands. It has taken over from a struggling secondary school, Sir Frank Markham, where only 17 per cent of pupils obtained five A* to C grade passes at GCSE, including maths and English. As a result, it was placed on the Government’s list of schools which had to reach 30 per cent by next year or face closure. This is Milton Keynes Academy’s first target.

The school serves four of the five most deprived council estates in Milton Keynes, and there is a history of unemployment among many of the pupils’ parents. The way to break this cycle of decline, it argues, is to adopt a more practical approach to learning and equip the students with the skills they need to gain employment.

Business and enterprise is its specialist area, and as an example of its left-field thinking, it has employed a former banker and chief executive of the local Chamber of Commerce, Sean Hickey, to develop the curriculum. “He speaks the language of business,” said the academy’s principal, Lorna Caldicott.

More than 100 companies have visited the academy since it opened, 20 of which are now actively involved with the pupils. Mr Hickey is organising internships with local firms during the summer holidays which last up to six weeks, giving students an enhanced version of work experience.

One firm, marketing company Beanwave, has actually set up an office in the school, allowing pupils to experience real-life business dilemmas first hand. Celia Bristow, who runs the company with her brother, said: “They can see the kind of questions that arise – and it helps us to keep in touch with what young people are thinking.”

Milton Keynes Academy is one of two specialising in vocational education sponsored by Edge. The second, Bulwell in Nottingham, opened last September.

Former Education Secretary Lord Kenneth Baker is also pioneering a project to open up a network of university technical colleges for 14 to 19-year-olds in inner city areas. The Conservatives have already said they will support the establishment of 12 in major conurbations.

Pupils at Milton Keynes appear to prefer the concentration on a more practical style of learning – so much so that they appear almost not to have noticed that they spend an extra hour a day at the Academy compared to their previous schools. Lessons start at 8.30am and finish at 3.30pm – giving them the equivalent of an extra day’s schooling every week.

“This is a much better school,” said Abeer. “I’ve achieved more. There’s much more to do.” Amy Roberts, 16, added: “There are strict rules. They weren’t that strict at the old school – with uniforms and things like that.”

A reputation like this gets around a community very quickly. Sir Frank Markham school found it difficult to fill all its places because of its reputation – but Mrs Caldicott is now having to hold appeal hearings for pupils who have had to be turned away.

Education in England: The breakdown

* Total number of state secondary schools in England: 3,361

* Comprehensive: 2,648. The vast majority specialise in one area of the curriculum.

* Grammar: 164. They select pupils through the 11-plus exam.

* Modern: 169. Take pupils rejected by the grammar school system and those who have not sat the 11-plus.

* City Technology Colleges: Three. Fore-runners of academies, run by private sponsors.

* Academies: 133. Privately-sponsored, state-financed schools run independently. Mainly sited in inner cities where they have replaced failing schools.

* Faith: Just under 1,000. Include comprehensives, grammar schools and around 40 academies.