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News > From the Chalkface > From the Chalkface: Phil Deakin

From the Chalkface: Phil Deakin

Head of Physics, Phil Deakin, on academic enrichment at Tonbridge School

Being asked to write From The Chalk Face is a sufficiently daunting task that one naturally looks at past editions to contemplate what to write for this year’s article. Julian Dobson’s 2018 article ended with the word ‘enrich' and it seems only appropriate to pick up the baton where he left off.

The phrase ‘Academic Enrichment’ has recently become rather fashionable in educational circles. It has sadly been hijacked by many schools who claim that a smattering of poorly attended lectures, in some way enhance the quality of their students’ education. Such false attributions are disappointing as they belittle a concept that can really transform a child’s educational experience.

So what is good academic enrichment? The Oxford English Dictionary provides a useful definition for the word enrichment; “…the action of improving or enhancing the quality or value of something…” Good academic enrichment must therefore be a set of opportunities which enhance the quality of a student’s academic experience. The more valuable the enrichment, the more students it will impact, and to a greater extent. This is the philosophy behind an enrichment programme that we have developed in the Physics department over the last few years. Beyond delivering interesting, well-structured lessons, what sets us apart from other schools and makes the experience worth the considerable school fees?

When casting minds back to our own schooldays, how many of us can say we were allowed to design and build an intricate ‘safe’ to be tested by the best 17-year-old minds across the country? Ten Tonbridgians did just that last year, subsequently travelling to Israel to represent the UK in an international safe-cracking competition. Similarly, few of us were allowed to fire rockets thousands of feet into the air at several hundred miles per hour, again winning a national competition to represent the UK at the Farnborough Airshow. And I was certainly never given the opportunity to present strategic advice to the Head of the RAF, again as part of a UK-wide competition comprising a week’s all-expenses-paid course at Cranfield University.

But it is not all about competition. If you walk through the Physics corridors in the graveyard slot that is ‘after games’, you are less likely to see a detention than an optional class covering special relativity or gas-turbine engine design. Neither are needed for any public examination, but students want to learn more to feed their academic curiosity. Do not be surprised if there is not a member of staff present as these are, increasingly, run and delivered by students.


"...few of us were allowed to fire rockets thousands of feet into their air at several hundred miles per hour."

Students also often escape from the Tonbridge bubble, taking part in trips to the likes of the Diamond Light-Source, Rolls-Royce Defence Aerospace, a nuclear power-station, and indoor sky-diving, to name a few. And how can we tell that our enrichment programme is not just for the motivated few? Every L6th Physicist conducts his own six-week independent investigation, solely for his own academic interest; they have covered every topic from the spin of basketballs to the flow of water from empty wine bottles (selflessly provided by the staff!).

The experience of today’s students therefore goes far beyond the ‘chalk and talk’ lectures that many of us experienced as the basis of our academic education. Whilst two blackboards have been included in the design of Barton Science Centre’s Physics department (as a nod to our past), the inclusion of a dedicated project lab and ‘always-open’ flexible classrooms, are features more focused on the new style of education current Tonbridgians receive.

So why should we embrace such an extensive Academic Enrichment programme? The cynics might say it is for university applications. Top universities stopped caring about whether an applicant could throw a rugby ball or take a wicket some time ago. It is also now true that they have moved beyond just looking at exam results, expecting top grades as the norm. Universities are therefore increasingly looking for something extra, and good academic enrichment certainly offers that differentiation. 

A larger motivation, however, is that it helps students to prepare for later life and helps them get a flavour of what they might explore in the future. An ex-student I taught five years ago recently got in touch to say that his decision to join a design consultancy post-graduation, stemmed directly from some of the opportunities he was offered when in the Sixth Form. Designing and building a Heath Robinson machine from scratch will certainly teach students far more about the importance of ‘modular handover’ in automated systems, than any exam-focused lecture I could give on Kepler’s three laws.

But a fundamental reason for running such an enrichment programme is far less obvious on paper, but self-evident when witnessed first-hand. It’s fun. Very fun. And intellectually challenging. Did you think I was referring to the students? Sorry, I meant for the staff… We also get to explore our subject beyond exam specifications, we get to tour amazing facilities, compete alongside our students in online competitions, conduct experiments that we cannot justify in a class-setting, and work in student-staff teams to try to break world-records on the school playing fields. It is a unique role and a reason why we are very privileged; we must surely have one of the best jobs available in today’s job market. Whenever I am entering another set of results into a spreadsheet or marking a Novi’s slightly rushed prep, I know it will not be long before I can set off a liquid nitrogen explosion as a demonstration of pressure variation with temperature. Who would not want that as their day job?

I will leave you with a simple quote that is displayed in the new Physics Department, and which I repeat to my Sixth Form students each year as a reminder of the importance of academic enrichment in today’s Physics education.  “Only attending the lessons is like opening a beer and just looking at it. Sure, you’ve made a start, but you’re missing the point…”


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