Thoughts About Masterclasses Eleven Years On…

As our 12th masterclass programme is about to start, it’s time for reflection.

Providing a programme of masterclasses is where the York ISSP began. It is in essence what we were set up to provide; extended academically and socially challenging masterclasses for able young people from across the City. Who could have predicted that 11 years on we would have developed in the way we have, always with academic challenge at the heart of everything we do.

The masterclasses have developed in their format from year to year but some things haven’t changed. They remain an opportunity for extended learning yet are not taster sessions. Students who come with enthusiasm to masterclasses in year 7 are still there in Y11, enjoying and benefiting from the experience. We remain indebted to the commitment and expertise of the staff from the partnership schools who, in their free time, lead masterclasses in subjects about which they are passionate and who provide such wonderful and often life-changing opportunities for our young people.

One thing which has changed and improved is the venue(s) for the masterclasses. In our fist masterclasses young people were scattered around the city in different schools and other venues across York, for example the University of York or Art Gallery. This was very difficult to manage and students and parents had no real idea of the size and scope of what they were involved in. Since 2015 we have used just 2, geographically close, schools – one for each age group. They are both boarding schools, which are fully functioning on Saturdays, and are in central York making things simple and straight forward for all involved.

This is the fourth year too that we have linked all masterclasses together with a question as a theme. We began with ‘What is a Human?’ followed by ‘What is the Future?’ (a challenge for the History teachers, but, as usual, they rose to it with aplomb),’ What is Beauty?’ and this year ‘What is Truth?’ We are offering masterclasses with titles as diverse as ‘What makes Maths true’, ‘The Quest for True Sound’, ‘The Truth in What We See’ and ‘What is Truth in the Post-truth Era of Politics’.

This year we have almost 400 young people in years 7-11 from across 12 schools due to attend. These figures are similar for each of the previous 11 programmes. Over the next three Saturdays, students will experience 9 hours of academically challenging sessions led by teachers from across the Partnership schools. We have 30 teachers involved this year. For Y9-11 nine different masterclasses are on offer, and students will spend their time on one subject, or an aspect of a subject, not normally taught to this age group. Students in Y7&8 have chosen one from a choice of 3 groups and will experience a variety of subjects over the 3 weeks. There are 12 classes this year for this age group. They all grapple with the question: What is Truth?

It’s socially challenging for many of the students as we expect and encourage them to talk to each other, to exchange ideas and thoughts, all this in a school most of them don’t know, in a class with students they don’t know and taught by a teacher most don’t know. All hugely challenging to some but they seem to love it… 60% of those in Y9-11 involved this year have been involved in ISSP events before.

Student (and parent) feedback, both formal and informal, is something we take very seriously and use it to help shape what we provide. Of course it makes everyone involved feel good when we read: “It couldn’t possibly be improved, it’s perfect just the way it is” and “Just make it go on for longer”. It is, though, a positive thing to also get constructive suggestions, especially from the students. For example in 2017 students said: “It would be good to have a session where we could discuss with people in different classes what we’ve all done and learned”. This year we are providing exactly that for Y9-11 at the end of week 3 along with a social event – a meal together.

Each year we wonder whether we should have the masterclass programme again; the number of students signed up for this year gives us a message, loud and clear. Yes, we should. There is a huge thirst for learning in York, for academic challenge, for bringing young people together regardless of where they go to school. Young people benefit and that is the most important reason to do what do.

Annette G Aylett
York ISSP Coordinator