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The Kerslake Collection | Opportunity, access and skills

University-schools collaboration 


After two decades of radical and far-reaching change, the school system no longer looks the way it did previously. While academisation has allowed innovation to flourish, there is no standard way that groups of schools collaborate. There is great divergence in academy-trust structures and centralised functions. A fragmented school system poses particular challenges for universities seeking to work alongside the school system. However, significant opportunities exist for universities to work with multi-academy trusts and groups of schools in pursuit of mutual self-interest and better outcomes for communities. We believe that, in their role as civic institutions, multi-academy trusts should invest in a central core function that actively seeks out, co-designs and embeds partnerships with other civic institutions. Indeed, as this essay will explore, in some places this is already happening. 

More than half of schools – including 80 per cent of secondaries – are now academies, with the vast majority part of a trust. These trusts come in all shapes and sizes: there are 600 with fewer than six schools, generally focused in their local areas, and another 600 larger, more geographically dispersed trusts, with up to 80 schools each. These multi-academy trusts provide a new and potentially significant opportunity for universities to work strategically with groups of schools. 

An opportune moment

The school system is struggling. The impact of Covid is still felt, school attendance is at a historic low and outcomes for disadvantaged pupils are now back to where they were 15 years ago. Furthermore, recruitment and retention of teaching staff are huge challenges for schools, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subjects. Meeting the mental-health and special educational needs of young people is a particular challenge. The school system is tired and lacks confidence and fresh ideas. 

In this context, there is an opportunity for universities to introduce energy, ideas and partnership. There is a growing realisation that multi-academy trusts (MATs) should take on anchor roles in their communities, and they are increasingly taking this role seriously. Trusts are increasingly focused on establishing this anchor role, stepping into gaps created by austerity and the reduction in services across the public sector. Schools and trusts have broadened their role, running food banks and debt-advice services, employing social workers and commissioning their own mental-health services. This expansion of the role of school trusts provides a significant opportunity for universities to foster broader and deeper partnerships with an institution that did not exist 20 years ago. 

Partnership case study: Reach in Feltham 

In order to illustrate the opportunity and the enabling conditions for deepening this relationship, I intend to share case studies of two relationships between universities and my organisation, Reach in Feltham, in West London. We began as a free school in 2012, catering for children from two to 18. The school has been very successful over the last 12 years, establishing an excellent reputation, as well as achieving an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grade and strong outcomes for students. 

In 2018, we sought to further our impact in Feltham by broadening and deepening our work. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, we set out to develop a cradle-to-career model. This includes perinatal support, a workforce development strand (of which more later), and a focus on supporting young people to and through their after-school destinations. We were inspired by the way Harlem Children’s Zone had created a set of institutions and interventions that fostered strong relationships in the community and sought to address a broad range of outcomes for young people, driven by a willingness to go wherever the need arose. 

Inspired by an organisation called Strive, we also established the Feltham Convening Partnership, aimed at finding solutions to some of the most complex problems affecting young people in our community. Strive Partnerships have scaled across the United States and are focused on bringing together all the institutions and individuals in a community focused on young people, to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing young people in a particular place. This approach to collective impact gave us a model to follow in Feltham, and we were delighted that two universities, Royal Holloway, University of London and Kingston University, accepted our invitations to have senior leaders join the steering group. 

A focus on strengthening the public-sector workforce

Our experience of working with Kingston University suggests that universities working in partnership with schools can play a critical role in strengthening the school’s workforce. 

We were seeking to develop stronger, accessible pathways into the teaching profession for local residents and looking for sustainable ways to improve outcomes for our youngest children. In becoming a delivery partner and offering the university’s foundation degrees in early years and special educational needs and disabilities, Reach in Feltham has identified a different cohort of students to introduce to higher education. We are thrilled that this year, three of our first cohort are undertaking teacher training, bringing new teachers into the profession. 

An organic partnership, focused on complex problems

Over the last five years, we have established a second partnership with Royal Holloway. Prior to establishing the Feltham Convening Partnership, we had had a fairly transactional relationship with the university: we attended outreach events and sent a number of our pupils on to the university. This relationship deepened when the vice-principal, James Knowles, agreed to join the partnership steering group. 

An important enabler of the types of relationship that we propose is the involvement of executive leaders in both organisations. We found working with James transformational: he identified opportunities and brought significant insight from his sector that supported our thinking. And he appreciated the opportunity to understand the realities of the school sector in an underresourced community close to his institution. 

In addition, there has been a commitment to co-production of any and all activities that we have undertaken together. As stated, the relationship between universities and schools can feel transactional at times: we’d be sent a list of dates when pupils could visit to access whatever experiences it was convenient for the university to offer. By contrast, co-production requires – from the start – that organisations come together on an equal basis, with equivalent seniority in the room from each organisation, to make decisions and create services that work for them all. Often, this might explicitly require organisations to set aside a prior agenda, actively listen to the needs and capacities of the other and commit to a way of working based on trust and compromise. So, where a project may not be initially successful, or might require radical change early on in its development, the value of co-production is that all organisations involved feel equally responsible for its success. 

Reach and Royal Holloway brought a wider group of universities, including colleagues from Kings College London and Southampton University, schools and young people, together to explore the transition from school to university. All recognised that they discussed this topic regularly – but not with each other. Over a series of workshops, we crafted Joining the Dots, an initiative helping students from non-traditional backgrounds to make a smooth transition into university – now administered by the Brilliant Club. Co-production and collaboration led to a better solution than any one organisation could have managed alone. 

Addressing our own interrelated challenges

In 2023, we identified an acute, shared challenge: Modern Foreign Languages. Modern languages are in crisis nationally: the number choosing to study languages, particularly at A level, has fallen consistently over the last few decades, from a high point in the 1990s. It’s a complex challenge born of many factors: teacher shortage; focus on STEM outreach; the difficulty of the subject; the global dominance of English; a relatively dull curriculum; and a lack of available subject-specific information, advice and guidance. Prestigious universities are shutting their departments, as the A-level pipeline dries up. This creates an imbalance of access, determined by postcode. Historically underrepresented students are typically commuting students who live in the parental home to save money and stay close to community. If their local university no longer provides a language course, the inequality of access to the subject in that particular area persists. 

The success of outreach strategies means that Royal Holloway’s undergraduates are more diverse than ever, but the university was increasingly aware that in certain subjects, including modern languages, there was a lack of diversity and low numbers of applicants. 

Similarly, local schools were struggling to make languages work. We found a common issue: the low numbers progressing from GCSE to A level. Many sixth forms in the borough cannot afford to run an A-level course for fewer than six students – and out of 3,000 children sitting GCSEs across all 18 state schools in Hounslow each year, of whom approximately 1,700 sit a language GCSE, only about 30-40 students opt to study an A level in a modern language.

We agreed to work together to construct a solution. We wanted children studying in state schools to have the same opportunity to study modern languages as their privately educated peers in the borough. The Royal Holloway head of Humanities met heads of Modern Foreign Languages from local schools, in a workshop we facilitated to discuss the barriers to choosing an A level. We decided to pilot Languages For All to address the two main barriers: the negative attitude towards languages, and the prohibitive cost of running the A level for small groups. Our initial pilot has been met with enthusiasm and engagement from schools, parents and children: testament to the involvement of the university and to a partnership model based on co-creation. 

Through our partnership, we were able to bring Hounslow’s GCSE linguists to Royal Holloway for a day exploring ab initio courses and careers into languages. Later in the school year, we have been bringing Royal Holloway undergraduate linguist student ambassadors into our partner-school classrooms to help our pupils practise for their GCSE speaking exams. The university has done this before, but we now want to embed this practice over the long term. We are monitoring pupil engagement and will measure the impact of our efforts on A-level numbers. We have designed a way of delivering A levels in French, German and Spanish centrally in the borough, which we will offer to Hounslow students whose schools cannot afford to run the class. All students in the borough taking a language A level will participate in our Global Languages Ambassador Award in Years 12 and 13 – attending language-focused culture and career trips to UK government departments, cinemas, media organisations and big businesses – and we are applying for a Turing Scheme grant to fund a residential trip abroad. Our hope is that the university will consider students who complete our award for a contextual offer for a languages degree.

Features of successful partnerships

The partnerships with Kingston and Royal Holloway are focused on very different issues, but share certain features that support the idea that multi-academy trusts and universities can work together as civic institutions, dedicated to improving the quality of life in a local area. The successful partnerships all share the following five features:

First, governance of initiatives is shared, and is focused on core long-term strategic goals for both organisations. These goals do not have to be the same for the school and the university. In opposition to the altruistic ideal of a civic university, the partnership works best if the goals are more mutually beneficial and linked to the core educational purpose of our respective organisations. For example, Kingston and Royal Holloway see our collaboration as a path to recruiting diverse local students. Reach sees the foundation degrees as a useful workforce-planning strategy and values Languages For All because it helps with local schools’ post-16 curriculum offer. There is nothing shameful about building an alliance around these ‘selfish’ goals. Rather, it is this self-interest that guarantees both organisations are committed to the partnership in the long term, thereby ensuring that the altruistic ideals can be achieved.

Secondly, the partnerships are structured for each partner to focus on what it does best. So, with the early-years foundation degree, Reach led on the training and arranged the work placements with its network of early-years providers. Kingston led on assessment and research. The library facilities are at the university; the one-to-one tuition and support happens at Reach. Similarly, in the Languages For All partnership, the university provides a venue for trips and language tutors for ab initio experiences. The schools select the students and host student ambassadors for curriculum-focused workshops, thereby using university resources to raise attainment.

Thirdly, we use existing infrastructure as much as possible. In a school, that means teachers who can best identify students needed for an intervention, halls for community events, or the parent-teacher association to involve the community more broadly. In a university, that means facilities for visits and study, admissions teams to design university-access routes for different cohorts, and academics to teach according to their research specialisms. This commitment ensures a lean business model and makes fundraising more attractive when it is required. 

Fourthly, we are explicit about accountability and impact measurement. Working in partnership stops any one organisation from marking its own homework. Kingston is quality assuring the learning delivered by Reach instructors. Languages For All is working towards access and participation plan targets that the university has committed to. 

Finally, the partnership between universities and schools is simultaneously exciting and accessible. The involvement of a university adds gravitas and social currency to an initiative for historically underrepresented groups. Meanwhile, the school is trusted by families, and its presence is reassuring for those who need the familiarity of their child’s teacher to explain the benefits of trying something new, whether that is a modern language or a higher-education qualification.

Over the years, schools and universities have struggled to ensure that their partnerships and collaborations endure. This might be a result of regulation changes, staff turnover at respective institutions or the fact that universities felt uncomfortable taking on an apparent role in school improvement. These five principles are crucial to giving the best ideas a chance at long-term success.

A policy landscape to encourage collaboration

If we, as a schools sector, accept the premise that we are civic institutions, privileged with the responsibility of acting for the public good beyond our immediate remit in the classroom, we need to think of the incentives that could be established for more MATs to follow suit. We can imagine a policy landscape that encourages this approach with varying degrees of stringency and extrinsic motivation. In increasing order:

Sharing what works: Using the ‘what works’ infrastructure of organisations like the Education Endowment Foundation to share best practice, we can disseminate knowledge to the sector. This approach assumes an intrinsic motivation from all MAT leaders to establish meaningful partnerships. The flaw here would be that you’d only reach the willing, who might not be the most in need.

Training MAT leadership in partnership strategy: We can embed training in the features of successful partnership work, as outlined above, in the NPQ qualifications and professional-development courses increasingly proliferating in the sector. One advantage is this will reach more MAT leaders, beyond those engaged in the issues already. An additional strength of this approach is the peer-led learning, as MATs with established civic partnerships will inevitably be involved in designing this training.

Locally convened interventions: Using existing funding and initiatives, we could encourage universities and MATs to collaborate in other forums. Rather than thinking of university-MAT collaboration as a bilateral relationship that has to churn out new programmes, we should conceive of both institutions as civic players who need to be invited to the table in other spaces. Local-authority-funded initiatives, Opportunity Areas and regional and municipal mayors’ offices should all involve MAT and university leaders in the conversation as a matter of course. This partnership is not an initiative, but a way of working. 

Passing legislation to require inspectors to report on MAT partnerships: We should use the Ofsted handbook and the inspection framework to analyse the impact of partnerships on student outcomes – specifically on quality of education and student destinations. One advantage of this would be the resultant focus from the whole sector on how schools work as civic institutions. The Academy Trust Handbook could stipulate that trustees and board members should include senior leaders from local universities or major local employers who focus on engagement. Currently, the handbook describes engagement as ‘strategic oversight of relationships with stakeholders…[which]…involves parents, schools and communities’. In this proposal, we could add ‘partnership’ to the list of types of engagement, forcing trusts to explore which partnerships would be most impactful for their students, and how they could be embedded in the way the trust is run. The risk, self-evidently, is a proliferation of ineffective initiatives in an effort to respond to an external regulator. To guard against this, the sector would need more examples of what works and a strong steer on co-production and collaboration as the methodology behind every partnership. This would, of course, create an extrinsic pressure on schools to do more with less. Nevertheless, we should look to learn from how the Office for Students has set expectations that universities and colleges should partner with schools and other local organisations to raise the attainment of young people through their access and participation work. 

Whatever the partnership involved, and however it is inspired or enforced, the most important learning from our experience is the need for any and all partnership work of this nature to be founded on co-production. Co-production leads to civic institutions owning the change they want to see. We want to inspire more school networks to believe they can engage in system change through local action, identifying the community leaders at other civic institutions who are resolved to make a difference, and fostering those relationships based on trust and equality of responsibility for the work undertaken.

Ed Vainker OBE and Michael Slavinsky

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