Campus close-up: UCL Institute of Education

A research network that links schools with higher education institutions is demonstrating the positive impact the sector can have on teaching

May 21, 2015

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Equal footing: the R&D Network aims to achieve a balance in partnerships

In a classroom deep in the bowels of the UCL Institute of Education, teachers are taking part in a workshop about how their schools are using research to improve practice.

It is one of several events run by the UCL IoE’s London Centre for Leadership in Learning team as part of the institute’s new Research and Development Network, established at the start of the academic year.

“We want to find mutually beneficial ways of working with schools in a changing educational landscape,” said Karen Spence-Thomas, co-lead of the R&D Network and deputy director of the school partnerships team.

This changing landscape, which, among other things, has seen a swift move towards a school-led system of teacher training, was a significant part of the UCL IoE’s rethinking of its school-university partnerships.

“With the coalition government, the emphasis shifted to schools taking responsibility for much more themselves,” she told Times Higher Education. “We’re trying to support schools to engage in and with research; we want a much flatter relationship and don’t want [higher education institutions] to be determining the focus of that research. We are trying to develop evidence-rich and informed practice in schools and support them to make strategic decisions about teaching and learning based on evidence.”

Toby Greany, professor of leadership and innovation at the LCLL and head of department, echoed this view, saying that achieving an equal balance in partnerships was one of the main aims when prototyping the R&D Network model.

He said creating a relationship “which is not about either institution dominating, trying to create a way of collaborating which brings out the best of both” was what the network was trying to achieve.

Professor Greany, whose research report Partnerships Between Teaching Schools and Universities was published earlier this year, said that “school-university partnerships have struggled to achieve their potential over the years” but there was “broad recognition” that schools and education are not as evidence-informed as they think.

“There’s a groundswell of genuine commitment in many, if not all, schools to try and develop much more evidence-informed ways of working, and we’re running a number of research projects looking at how that works,” he said.

Professor Greany voiced his concern that, in a school-led system, schools might not see universities as their natural partners. “This is about demonstrating this can work as a model and universities have a huge amount [to offer]. And, it contributes hugely to the impact and public engagement agenda of universities as well as making a positive impact in schools,” he said.

Ms Spence-Thomas said that if a school is a R&D partner, “they have to commit to working with us over a three-year period, and we work together to develop collaborative programmes which support the school to engage in R&D”.

“It’s helping the institute to be really apprised of schools’ latest needs and requirements. Schools…feel it’s lifting their profile in terms of their relationship with [higher education] but also providing opportunities for their staff to engage in a deeper way with the institute,” she added.

In the two terms it has been running, the network has grown to include more than 60 schools, but Professor Greany notes that there are other good R&D partnership models out there. “I don’t want to make out that we’re better than anyone else,” he said. “[But] we created ours at a point in time when schools are working much more in multi-academy trusts, teaching school alliances or other cluster-type arrangements, where the membership [sometimes involves] institutions joining as a group of schools.

“There’s the new challenge for school leaders of how to mobilise evidence and knowledge and use research more effectively across a group of schools. That [showcases] the particularly innovative aspect of what we’ve designed.”

In terms of the network’s scale, “the sky’s the limit”, said Ms Spence-Thomas. “Our medium-term aim is to grow it to such an extent that we get a better understanding of how to build deeper, effective partnerships between [higher education institutions] and schools,” she said. “We’ve had really good feedback on events. Schools look for time to engage with us but also with each other.”

This last point was something “that has somewhat lessened” with the demise of local authorities’ role in schools, she said. “Networking between schools is patchy. Providing a forum for schools to interact with and learn from each other is also what they value.”

In numbers

60 – the number of schools in the UCL Institute of Education’s Research and Development Network

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