STEPHEN LEWIS checks out the stunning new sixth-form centre at Archbishop Holgate’s School in York and talks to teachers and pupils about their smart new home.

IN A gleaming laboratory at York’s newest sixth form, Leah West, 16, is peering intently at a clear liquid trickling through a tall glass burette into a conical container below.

Another drop splashes down and suddenly the dark red liquid in the lower container turns clear.

“Oops! It’s going!” Leah calls out. She peers closely at the level of the liquid still in the burette. “It’s 17,” she says. “Actually, no, it’s 17.3.”

Leah and her classmates, Bonnie Tang and Heather Walker, are among a group practising their titration techniques for Applied Science.

The liquid in the burette is acid, Leah explains; the liquid in the container below is alkaline. The two neutralise each other – and when enough acid has been added to neutralise the alkaline, the colour changes.

By measuring how many millilitres of acid it takes for that to happen, you can tell how strong the acid is. Simple. But actually, the class is as much about learning the laboratory skills of titration and accurate measurement as it is about the theory, says teacher Alexis Green-Harding.

When he did his science A-levels, there was little emphasis on practical lab skills. “So by the time we went to university and went into the laboratory, we were like headless chickens,” he says. “As undergraduates, we didn’t have the basic skills we needed to do the practical things we needed.”

That should not be a problem for students such as Leah and Heather studying Applied Science in the new sixth form at Archbishop Holgate’s School.

The new £4.3 million building – to be known as the LearningCentre@AHS – is stuffed full of the latest equipment and technology. And the emphasis at the new centre will be very much on hands-on, vocational learning, as much as purely academic study.

Students each study a main or core course worth two A-levels, plus one or two further A-levels and an ‘enrichment’ course such as philosophy or citizenship, worth half an A-level.

The core courses are largely applied and vocational in emphasis, targeted directly, it seems, at providing students with the knowledge and skills they will need to go on to further education or work in York.

Science, finance and IT/creative are among the big employers in the city, so it is no surprise to find core courses offered in applied science, business, administration and finance, creative and media, and manufacturing and product design.

A very important part of the York jobs sector is Science City and business, says Archbishops deputy head John Stone. “So we need to prepare pupils for that.”

Importantly, the centre has forged close partnerships with a host of local businesses and organisations, such as Portakabin, Nestlé, CPP and Smith & Nephew. They will help mentor students, and provide work placements and opportunities to go into industry says head teacher John Harris.

With their help, and with the state-of-the-art facilities the centre can offer, the aim is to offer teenagers doing their post-16 education a combination of academic learning and skills-based learning that will be relevant to work and further study.

“We believe that learning comes to life when students can see how it is relevant to the real world,” Mr Harris says.

The new centre is certainly well equipped for such a role. The building is a stunning and modern two-storey block with a glass front wall, curved roof, and large windows facing the school’s playing fields.

Go through the front doors and you enter a wide, sweeping atrium overlooked by a balcony on the first floor.

The building is light, spacious and airy and it has facilities schools could only have dreamed of ten years ago.

There are well-equipped science laboratories; top-of-the-range keyboard systems linked to powerful computers for writing and playing music; milling machines that can create 3-D models from designs created on computer for students studying manufacturing and design; and creative and media suites stuffed with industry-standard audio and video recording facilities.

“This is an Apple Mac-based system that everybody from Steven Spielberg down uses,” says Alistair Young, of Edinburgh firm Blacklight, which is installing much of the recording equipment.

For a teacher such as Alexis Green-Harding, the facilities are a dream. “As a teacher, you couldn’t ask for more,” he says.

The students are also clearly impressed. Leah West has come here from Easingwold School to do her post-16 study. Archbishops is everything she had hoped for. “It is very up-to-date,” she says. “It’s a very modern, very nice building.”

She particularly liked the range and mix of courses on offer. Her applied science course will be worth two A-levels. She is also studying two other courses to A-level, and a third enrichment course equivalent to a half A-level.

So she leaves in a couple of years with four and a half A-levels, a good position to be in whether she’s going to university or straight into work. Plus it is a great environment in which to study. “I definitely made the right choice,” she says.

classmate Heather Walker, also 16, agrees. She came here from All Saints School. “I just fancied a change of scenery. And it’s really good.”

The new centre appears to be stunningly good and the pupils who study here are lucky indeed. But still the question must be asked: did York really need another sixth-form centre? It is only a couple of years since York College opened – a £60 million centre that was hailed as among the best of its kind in the country.

Certainly, when a sixth form for Archbishop Holgate’s was first mooted, some felt York simply didn’t need it.

Canon Lee School was opposed, as was York College itself.

“The college has just made a £60 million capital investment, much of which is to serve the needs of 16-19 year-olds,” the college said in a statement in 2007. “If, as seems likely, the success of Archbishop Holgate’s proposal triggers a spate of similar requests from other 11 to 16 schools… we are in danger of creating a series of ‘white elephants’, not least when set against a backdrop of demographic decline.”

The Learning and Skills Council clearly had no such doubts, however, providing a £4 million grant to pay for the bulk of the new building. Head teacher Mr Harris has no doubts either.

His school had just been rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, he points out. Throughout most of its 463-year history, until it ceased to be a grammar school relatively recently, the school had offered 11-18 education. “And there were more and more pupils saying they would like to stay on to continue their education here. They liked the ethos, they liked the quality of education, they liked the values of the school,” he says.

The new learning centre offers something different to York College, he says. “Some students seek the very large scale of York College and the significant degree of freedom it offers. But other students are looking for a smaller scale, a smaller institution.”

Ben Alexander, 16, from Osbaldwick, studied for his GCSEs at Archbishop Holgate’s and he is thrilled to be able to continue his education there.

“It’s brilliant,” he says. Ben, who is studying manufacturing and product design, as well as A-levels in maths and sports science, came here because he wanted to be “a person, not as a number”.

“I know the teachers, and they know me, and I know they will give me a good lesson,” he says. Because this is a much smaller institution, he believes he will get more personal teacher time than at somewhere such as York College. “I’ll get time to talk to the teachers,” he says.

Ben loves the new building and appreciates the fact that while it is part of the main school, it is also set off to one side.

Apart from wanting to study design at university, Ben has not yet decided what he wants to do with his life.

“It is all still a bit open,” he says cheerfully. “That’s what sixth form is about. Discovering what you want to do.”

This is certainly a great place for teenagers to do that.