HEAVENS above! Where once a youngster could expect to learn little more than the three Rs at school, with maybe a bit of French of Latin thrown in, students in Essex are looking beyond the stratosphere when it comes to their GCSE studies.

Teenagers from the Colchester Royal Grammar School and the Billericay School are getting the chance to follow in the footsteps of the likes of science godfathers Galileo and Copernicus by signing up for GCSE Astronomy.

And thanks to a surge in TV programmes like Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe and the long-running success of the Sky At Night, there’s more interest than ever in the subject.

In Colchester, the course is taught to Year 10 boys as an extra curricular subject and is also open to girls from nearby St Helena Secondary School.

Where as an average GCSE takes two years to achieve, the course is shortened into one year with only one lesson held a week.

The onus is on the student to show enthusiasm and do much of the work by themselves at home. But enthusiasm is certainly not lacking at the school for those who enrol of such a unique course.

Physics teacher Kevin Harvey, who teaches GCSE astronomy and also has a degree in the subject, said: “We have about 15 students in the course at any one time. “They have to have a genuine interest in astronomy as it’s an extra curricular subject.

“It’s a great course but very rare.

“The students are very keen. A lot of the students have their own telescopes, not that it’s a neccessity for the course and they will often stay up all night looking at the sky and drawing charts. “It’s great to see their enthusiasm when they come into class thrilled to bits because they have spotted something interesting.”

The GCSE syllabus teaches the basics of the planets and their moons, planetary science and the galaxies as well as delving into the fascinating history of the science’s founding fathers such as 16th century astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei and Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, the first person to prove that the earth revolves around the sun.

With the astronomy world left rocked by the death of eccentric Sky at Night astronomer Sir Patick Moore, who died aged 89 last week, Mr Harvey added: “Patrick Moore definitely inspired me and a lot of others. People like him and Brian Cox are doing a lot for science and astronomy to bring it into the mainstream.”

Amateur astronomers have contributed to many important celestial discoveries, so what wonders does the night sky have in store for Colchester Royal Grammar School’s budding cosomologists?

Mr Harvey added: “You can see Venus at the moment. Next year there are supposed to be a few interesting comets on the way so I’m sure our class will have out telescopes ready and waiting.”