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Delivering Effective School Partnerships: 3 Key Things to Know

Dr Chris Wilson, CEO of The Brilliant Club, shares some insight into the barriers around developing successful partnerships with schools, and what partners can do to overcome these. 

Last year The Office for Students (OFS) released new guidance on the preparation of Access and Participation Plans (APPs). Universities are expected to use these plans to show how they will support underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education – an important goal for successive governments. A central requirement for these plans is that universities demonstrate how they will work effectively with schools.

On reading this guidance, my thoughts turned immediately to trousers:

In the final year of my PhD I wore a pair of brown cords, of various hues, to the manuscript room at the British Library nearly every day of my study. This cringeworthy affectation was largely inspired by senior (male) academics at my department who I admired but seemed to wear these cords as part of an unwritten dress code.

In contrast, if you fast forward a couple of years, to when I had left university and started work at The Brilliant Club (the education charity which I now lead), I found myself on the phone to a second-year PhD student telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they were not allowed to wear a similar pair of cords to a tutorial that they were leading.

This hypocrisy has more to do with establishing and maintaining school partnerships than might, at first, seem apparent.

Let me start by setting the scene...

The event in question was not at a university, but at a secondary school in south London. It was part of a structured series of tutorials, designed and delivered by our cord-wearing PhD student, and run by The Brilliant Club through The Scholars Programme. This year alone, we will run similar programmes for over 13,000 pupils in over 800 schools.

At the school in question, the headteacher had introduced a strict uniform policy which – initially at least – she was keen to apply to both pupils and staff. As a result, a teacher got in touch to relay politely how much the pupils were getting out of their tutorials (on religious identity in Norman Sicily, as I recall), but to ask that the PhD student wore a suit to conform to the school’s new policy. It was my responsibility to ring up our researcher to pass on this tricky request. The tutor happily agreed, and the tutorials went on to be a great success.

So, what exactly does this peculiar anecdote reveal about successful school partnerships?

  • First, I think that one of the reasons the PhD student happily acquiesced to the request was that they were paid. This allowed the school and the charity to demand certain standards and lessened the impression that we were somehow coming in to ‘save’ the school. Schools shouldn’t feel like an intervention has been ‘done to them’. They need to lead it as well. Money and ownership are not dirty words – a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities really helps partnerships to flourish.

  • Second, it shows how necessary it is to be responsive to issues that are important to certain schools. Some of these issues might seem small to organisations in different sectors or contexts, but they can matter hugely. Showing alignment to the needs of a school – whether those needs are obscure or strategic – is central to establishing and maintaining a good partnership.

  • Third, it was the charity’s responsibility to speak to the PhD student, not the school’s. Teachers are often over-worked. Partners should avoid adding to this burden wherever possible. Taking on the often unglamorous work of logistics is essential for this.

This third point, in particular, is flagged by teachers as being a major barrier to successful school-university partnerships. This was revealed in a report written by my colleagues Richard Eyre and Paul Ruenz, in which they analysed data from over 3000 teachers collected by TeacherTapp: Barriers to Access: Five lessons for creating effective school-university partnerships.

Secondary school teachers were more likely to cite staff time and logistics as barriers to working with universities than any other issues, including awareness and cost. They said that their school lacked staff time (36%) or that opportunities were logistically difficult to engage with (35%). This is of fundamental importance. No matter how well-designed, impactful or well-resourced an intervention is, schools will not engage unless due consideration is given to how it will actually work on the ground.

Richard and Paul’s conclusion on this subject is clear.

The most resilient partnerships work hard to minimise logistical burdens and align priorities across sectors to create a sense of urgency. While interpersonal relationships will always be important in partnership working when they are the sole basis of a partnership, it is likely to be fragile and difficult to scale.

This is only one of a number of lessons outlined in Richard and Paul’s report, which merits a thorough read. Doing so will help practitioners better understand what concerns teachers have, and how they articulate the needs of schools when it comes to partnerships. Responding to those needs isn’t always easy; one minute you have to think about how your intervention fits in with the latest Ofsted guidance, the next about appropriate trousers. But, I would argue that level of engagement is a pre-condition for an effective partnership between a school and a university.

And, for the record, although we don’t have a dress code at The Brilliant Club, I have put my own brown cord wearing days behind me.

Dr Chris Wilson is CEO at The Brilliant Club, an education charity that seeks to increase the number of underrepresented pupils progressing to highly-selective universities.