Both sides benefit as fee-paying schools open the doors of their science classes to state pupils

Can you spot the difference between the state school pupils and their fee-paying counterparts who are all busy creating oil of wintergreen in an independent school chemistry lab in Cambridgeshire? Answer: it isn't easy.

Keen young scientists are keen young scientists no matter what their background, and for this mixed-up group of Year 9s and 10s it makes sense to share facilities across the school divide.

"We don't always have all the equipment at our school, so it helps to do it here," says Martin Lindsay, 15. "And we get to do loads of different things," says Rhiannon Cope, 15. "It's definitely more interesting."

"It's good," says Latoya Butcher, 15, who plans to be a forensic scientist. And Harlan Kohll, also 15, a student at the home school, agrees it's good to share. "Yeah. I think it's OK. Yeah, definitely."

The Chemistry Network is run and hosted by The King's School, Ely, and is designed to bring together gifted and talented students from within the school and three local maintained schools to study challenging chemistry modules and encourage them to take chemistry at GCSE, A-level and university. It also exists to share information and link teachers for training and development.

This is a pilot project, to be rolled out on a national basis later, and at the end of its first year all the signs are that it has hit the ground running. From a crime scene investigation day to Saturday master-classes ("Tetrachloromethane proved to be a real challenge, but some groups cracked it"), through visits, lectures, and the publication of a termly magazine, it is proving to be a robust collaboration between schools that are very different, but committed to boosting their pupils' interest in chemistry.

In the partnership alongside The King's School are Witchford Village College, a school specialising in sports, Abbey College, which specialises in technology, and the City of Ely Community College, specialising in business.

Susan Freestone, head of The King's School, says the project is "a community-wide flagship partnership that does what it says on the tin. It gives young people the kind of opportunities to do things that they would not do in the normal run of events". She believes passionately that private schools should build links with maintained schools and help to raise aspirations, but she also knows from her years on the national advisory group on independent-state school partnerships there is nothing new about such links and that thousands have been going on quietly for a long time.

"This is something that New Labour opened up and talked about more publicly, but it has always been part of the thinking of independent schools," says Freestone.

The Chemistry Network has been a great success, she says: "Our main challenge has been to accommodate the numbers who want to come." As for her students' exposure to local pupils: "I think they'd probably say that they've found out that, in their fears and aspirations, they are just 'like us'," she says.

The network has been given £190,000 of government funds for three years, and is backed by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Science Learning Centre East of England. Chemistry teacher Andrew Thompson, of The King's School, has been taken off teaching duties to become its full-time director – something he says is vital, given the enormous amount of liaison and planning that the network involves. Many local bodies, from the University of East Anglia through to large pharmaceutical companies in Cambridge, are involved, and the organisation of programmes between different schools is time-consuming and complex.

"We use the labs on Saturdays, when they are more easily available, and we do full days in different schools," says Thompson. "I tend to go wherever, and act as a library for resources."

With his background in both maintained and private schools, and his experience of training non-specialist teachers of chemistry, he is a confident leader with a clear understanding of all the benefits

"We try and mix the students up when they're doing activities so they can learn from each other, and they always have time for orange juice and biscuits when they come here. For our pupils, it's a question of seeing that there's a different society out there beyond the school walls," says Thompson.

For Stephen Wright, an advanced skills teacher from the City of Ely Community College, the network not only promotes chemistry among his students but allows those taking part to become more confident, and have a bit of an edge. "We took them to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, and to see City of Ely students in that world-famous laboratory was really something," he says.

"It's important to me to sell the project to them when I'm in school, but once they are over here they are fine. I had nine students here last Saturday and there are eight here this afternoon," says Wright. Like Thompson, he sees gains on both sides. "It works the other way just as much as it works for us."

This becomes clear watching the attentive help being offered in the well-equipped lab. With so many science teachers and classroom assistants to hand, all these gifted and talented pupils benefit from the new materials and support.

As well as developing new modules and good teaching practice, the network aims to help identify students who are gifted in chemistry and to ensure that disadvantaged students have full access to the programme, while mentors and taster days are also used to encourage students to continue with chemistry at A-level and university. These are early days, however, and it is too soon to say whether more pupils will ultimately take up chemistry at university. But encouraging anecdotal evidence is already coming in.

"It seems to be having an impact," says Thompson. "There's more interest in taking chemistry at A-level, and we know that pupils are talking to their friends about doing chemistry and coming to these events." There are also indications that some younger pupils are becoming more interested in taking three separate sciences at GCSE instead of the easier double award.

Yet to keep such a partnership running needs inexhaustible supplies of flexibility and mutual understanding. Today, in the laboratory, students from the King's School are thin on the ground because of a school-wide end-of-term activity, while the City of Ely Community College students have to hurry to finish their experiments because a taxi is waiting to take them back to their own school.

"You need the commitment on all sides," agrees Thompson. "You need someone who's enthusiastic in every school, because that's what makes things happen."