By Dr Kerry Leslie, Head of RCUK Public Engagement with Research.
The very best way of inspiring young people to follow a career in research is by hearing about exciting cutting edge research in school. This is why we are delighted to announce the successful universities and schools in our School-University Partnerships Initiative. By encouraging researchers to interact with schools and young people to enrich their learning experiences, the partnerships that this initiative is helping to forge contribute to an improved supply of skilled people to the research base and the UK economy. For those that don’t pursue a research career we hope it will encourage more people to act as informed citizens and take a broad understanding of research into their wider lives.
There is no shortage of high quality outreach work going on in universities, however, currently, some of this activity is through ad-hoc interactions. In some universities there is patch engagement with only a few departments participating and relationships breaking down when people leave. RCUK wanted to create a new initiative which would allow universities to work more strategically and on a longer-term basis with schools in their region. They will develop or build on good practice, and increase the breadth, quality and sustainability of HEI/schools interactions. We were not looking to replicate any of the excellent existing national (or regional) schemes such as STEM ambassadors, Nuffield Science Bursaries or CREST awards but to build on and utilise these opportunities to flexibly allow schools and universities to optimise their local context and varying set-ups.
The initiative has been shaped by a steering group, chaired by Professor Sir John Holman, with representation from the National College for School Leadership as well as universities and schools. We are investing £1.7 million over three years which will be matched by funding from universities, schools and businesses themselves. The total package exceeds £3.5 million, and you can read about the specific aims of the initiative here.
The initiative was open UK-wide, so had to be sensitive to the different national contexts. In England, the universities will be working through the network of Teaching School alliances. Teaching schools give outstanding schools a leading role in the training and professional development of teachers, support staff and head teachers, as well as contributing to the raising of standards through school-to-school support.
In Scotland, applicants were encouraged to work with education authorities to identify schools to collaborate with. In Northern Ireland, higher education institutions were encouraged to recruit participating schools from across the region and to include a representative balance of controlled and maintained schools and secondary grammar and non-grammar schools. In Wales, applicants were advised to work with the Reaching Wider Partnerships, which already have established links with secondary schools.
The quality of the proposals was impressively high and we have funded the twelve best. We are especially delighted that we have projects in England, Scotland, Northern Island and Wales. This will mean that we are able to test whether this new model achieves its aims despite the differing education landscapes. The successful projects will be working with the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) to share learning and best practise across the university sector. We hope the scheme will have impact wider than just the funded universities and schools.
The successful universities and schools are excited about getting started. Both schools and universities see the mutual benefit which this initiative brings to both researchers and teachers/pupils. Schools involved in the project have told us that this initiative will foster the kind of ambition and aspiration-raising that could be transformative for the children involved, particularly those living in deprived neighbourhoods.
Building on the success of the Beacons for Public Engagement, the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research and Public Engagement with Research Catalysts, I believe this initiative will create a culture change in the way that universities engage with schools, creating holistic partnerships that will enable school pupils to reach their full potential, and provide our researchers with valuable experiences that will help put their work in context.