Collaborative approach to school-university partnerships

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Alison Wilkinson, Head of Queen Elizabeth School (Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria) and Research & Development Lead for the teaching school (South Lakes Teaching School Alliance), shares her experience of engaging in the world of university research, and pursuing a genuinely collaborative approach to developing school-university partnerships.

Alison WilkinsonI’ll share something of a confession with you: when I embarked on a project to use early career researchers from Lancaster University to inspire pupils in my school, I knew very little about the world of university research. Despite my own postgraduate and professional educational journey I was unaware of the university research world. A useful unforeseen consequence of the School-University Partnerships Initiative (SUPI) project is the opportunity to explore and share the mysterious research world with school.

From the outset we agreed that the project needed to be a genuinely two-way construction and development process that avoided the university 'doing for' or 'doing to' our school and involved the university 'doing with' our school alliance. There is commitment from senior researchers at Lancaster University and our Alliance to tackling some of the barriers to genuine collaboration between the sectors.

Our Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) intervention is typical. The aim is to involve early career researchers as mentors for our EPQ students. Not only did meetings end with practical action points (music to a school leader’s ears) but involved mutual learning about the complexities, constraints and priorities faced by researchers in universities and teachers in schools.

As key influencers, teachers' awareness of research was raised during an INSET day during which three Lancaster University researchers explained a little of their respective fields, answered fundamental questions like: 'What IS research?', 'What IS evidence?', 'What does it take to be a researcher?' and explained the publication process. Many of us understood for the first time the importance of peer reviewing and integrity for journals. We also learned about the personal qualities needed for research and were able to make the links between this ideal and what we were committed to doing for our pupils.

Through the SUPI project we have developed teachers’ research awareness and confidence to engage with researchers. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Rather than simply agree to a proposal from Psychology department asking us to host a researcher and engage in a project about reading development we felt confident enough to negotiate support and research advice about our own literacy work.
  • Thanks to the SUPI project, four of us from the teaching school alliance have felt inspired to embark on doctorate programmes in educational research. We believe we are breaking new ground with this ‘bespoke’ doctorate which is supporting collaborative research relating to aspects of school development.
  • This process has extended into a Knowledge Exchange project with the university’s Educational Research department which aims to create communication links and access to research to enable teachers and researchers to collaborate meaningfully in the future.

Two years into the project my colleagues and I are more aware of this new landscape, more excited to get involved in research and work in partnership with university professionals. The project is looking for sustainability. I am convinced that the development of capacity in teachers and school leaders is crucial to sustainability and achieving our goal to inspire the next generation.

You can find out more about the RCUK funded School-University Partnerships Initiative (SUPI) project here. Share your thoughts on what makes a genuinely collaborative approach by leaving a comment below.

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