Research at the chalk face: connecting academia and schools
Researchers in Cambridge’s Faculty of Education are working with teachers to improve the experience of learning in the East of England – and boost pupils’ life chances.
Twenty years ago, two head teachers walked into the University’s Department of Education with a proposal. We want to work with you, they told academics, but don’t just come and “do research on us”. We want to work in partnership.
The approach might have met short shrift in more traditional institutions, but the outward-looking Education Department, now the Faculty of Education, was different. Already working closely with over 30 schools on a school-based teacher education programme, and welcoming many teachers onto its Masterʼs and PhD programmes, it saw the chance to forge new bonds.
Two decades on, School–University Partnership for Educational Research (SUPER) continues to flourish, bringing together academics and teachers from 12 schools around the eastern region. The partners devise and run collective research projects – on topics from pupil engagement to teacher learning – and share findings within and beyond the group.
The latest project has focused on the increasingly critical area of pupil resilience, as Dr Ros McLellan, coordinator of the SUPER network, explains: “Across the UK, mental health issues in children are increasing while wellbeing is deteriorating. Evidence shows that wellbeing programmes in schools can lead to significant improvements in children’s mental health, and social and emotional skills. But we know that funding constraints and lack of prominence given to wellbeing in the inspection framework create real challenges for schools. Our research is asking how resilience and wellbeing can be promoted in a results-driven educational climate.”
The group devised a wellbeing survey that was conducted across the partner schools, backed up by detailed pupil interviews. The findings showed that girls and Year 10 students are more vulnerable at secondary school – and that students from low-income backgrounds are vulnerable at all ages.
“The individual schools are now introducing their own wellbeing interventions tailored to the needs revealed by the study, and we’ll be working with them as they assess and share the impact of the interventions,” says McLellan.
A ‘toolkit’ to help schools
SUPER is one of a range of projects forging direct connections between the Faculty – part of a world-leading university that is often viewed primarily in an international context – and the living, breathing community of pupils, parents and teachers on its doorstep.
Dr Riikka Hofmann, for instance, has been working with local schools on understanding how best to improve students’ learning – finding that approaches that draw on interaction and students’ ideas can achieve better outcomes. But she has also found that it’s not always easy for schools – especially those in deprived areas that are tackling a wide range of pupil needs – to translate research findings into teaching practice.
“We know that teachers find it difficult to take up new forms of learning, no matter how effective research shows them to be,” she explains. “Schools may be concerned about the short-term risks for performance outcomes and inspections involved in trialling new practices. Also, teachers in schools serving disadvantaged populations can hold limiting views of their students’ capabilities and be less likely to introduce change.”
Hofmann’s latest project, backed by an Economic and Social Research Council-funded Impact Acceleration grant, is creating a ‘toolkit’ to help schools introduce and evaluate effective educational techniques to boost teaching and learning. Her team is working with four eastern region partnership schools in which a high proportion of students face multiple disadvantages, such as financial or language difficulties.
She aims to make the toolkit available to all schools, nationally and ultimately globally. Tried and tested Faculty research, she argues, should benefit all schools, not only those with fewer challenges to divert them, and ensuring this happens is as much part of Cambridge University’s widening participation agenda as diversifying admissions. “It is well known that some of the core barriers to raising aspirations among disadvantaged children happen not only at widening participation in terms of university admissions, but also much earlier, in learning opportunities that disadvantaged children have in school.
“We are a university with a global mission and that includes focusing on disadvantaged communities everywhere, including those near us. The East of England has some of the most deprived areas in the whole country. Our work aims to have a positive impact on the people in those communities, and also helps us to understand the ways change can happen in disadvantaged settings.”
The busy two-way pipeline linking the Faculty of Education and schools in the region also lies at the heart of a partnership that focuses on exploring the influence of multilingual identity on foreign language learning among teenagers and its relationship with attainment. The education strand of the project, led by Dr Linda Fisher, is part of a large-scale and far-reaching language sciences research programme, Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Working with six secondary schools in the eastern region and another in London, Fisher’s team is tracking the academic performance of 2,000 pupils over two years, including monolingual learners studying a second language and multilingual learners adding a further language in the classroom.
Together with teachers, Fisher and colleagues have devised and trialled a package of teaching materials, which begin by encouraging students to recognise that their understanding of dialects, slang, emojis and even the most basic foreign language ability all represent a form of multilingualism.
“The main idea is to see whether we can we offer young people the agency to develop a multilingual identity if they so wish and to see what the impacts of that are,” Fisher says. The results have been positive. “Reflecting on language learning was not only enjoyable for students but also made them more open minded, more aware of the place of language in the world and more inclined to be engaged with language learning in the classroom.”
Many students involved in the project reported a change in attitude, seeing languages more as a vital life skill than just another subject to struggle with at school. “I used to think languages only help on holiday,” said one. “Now I think languages adapt your brain and help you understand different cultures.”
“Practical, and real, and of use to schools”
For the academics, meanwhile, all of these projects are creating a model for boosting the chances of research findings making the journey from concept to coalface and having a real impact on school practice.
This level of collaboration between academics and schools is fundamental to the success of the projects, and yet is surprisingly unusual and should not be taken for granted says McLellan: “Whenever I talk about SUPER in other contexts, people are always interested in how we manage to do it because schools and universities often have different agendas, timescales and ideas over what constitutes research.
“The projects work because schools in our region, which is very diverse, want to work with us. This is not just pie in the sky, ivory tower stuff: it is practical, and real, and of use to schools. We’ve broken down the artificial walls: we’re out there.”
Read more about our research linked with the East of England in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.