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School of hard knock-backs: how to engage schools and colleges

Susie Whigham from the Brilliant Club examines effective partnerships with schools.
This article is more than 5 years old

Susie Whigham is the National Programme Director of the Scholars Programme at The Brilliant Club.

Schools and colleges are busy places, doing an intense and complex job, and this can make them difficult for stakeholders for outside organisations to engage with.

Through our role at The Brilliant Club – a national university access charity that connects 700 schools with 40 university partners – and through a lot of trial and error, we have identified a number of principles that we believe underpin effective school partnerships.

The first evaluation report on the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) initiative highlights just how challenging school outreach can be. The report, published by CFE Research and presented as part of The Brilliant Club’s research seminar series, evaluates effective approaches to collaborative outreach and the impact of activities for 13-18-year-olds delivered by 29 NCOP consortia across England.

Although the authors found it was too early to draw any conclusions about the overall impact of NCOP, it is clear that effectively engaging schools and further education (FE) colleges – particularly those that have not previously engaged in outreach – has been one of the most significant challenges in the first year of the programme. Consortia are adopting strategies to tackle this, including engaging schools in the planning process and employing outreach coordinators with teaching backgrounds to work with local clusters of schools.

Senior leader buy-in

Gaining buy-in at senior leadership level is critical. The decrease in the role of local authorities in school provision has resulted in them being flooded with requests from organisations keen to work with them. Administrators and secretaries are now gatekeepers, screening out enquiries before they even reach the head teacher or other leaders.

Local knowledge is essential. Identify the influential leaders who would be good to have on board from the outset? Despite the fragmentation of schools at local authority level, some areas still have thriving head teacher networks. If the school is part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), maybe engage withe the chief executive? Providing a one-off training session for MATs can be a good way to disseminate information about a new initiative while also providing a tangible benefit to the schools.

Pupil and parent engagement

Once a school is on board, it is important not to underestimate the amount of input needed to make sure that target pupils are engaged and stay committed. Often this requires a person in the school who has a trusted relationship with a student to encourage them to stay involved. Many schools will also have a member of staff responsible for home-school liaison who can be an invaluable link for championing the project to parents.

The right support must be continued throughout the programme to ensure target pupils stay committed. At one of our partner secondary schools in Dorset, the head teacher knew the names of every pupil on our scholars programme. He cared, which helped them to care too.


In my former role as an English teacher, I really valued getting involved in external initiatives. It gave me the opportunity to work with students in a different context and it was invaluable professional development. However, teaching is an all-consuming job and additional project work was usually undertaken in the evening when I’d finished lesson planning and marking.

External partners must take as much of the logistical pressure off school staff as possible. Maybe provide an information pack for the lead teacher to walk them through the programme step by step. Is the data collection streamlined and efficient? Even just drafting introductory emails and letters for the lead teacher to send to colleagues and parents can make a huge difference.

Here today, gone tomorrow?

Government funding for school-based initiatives rarely last forever and for many schools this can compound a sense of “initiativitis” – a weariness to get involved with new initiatives that could add to teacher workload and then disappear a couple of years later. Although schools welcome the opportunities created by programmes, there can often be frustration that a change in minister can quickly put new initiatives at risk. To gain and maintain school buy-in, school leaders need to be able to prove the link to pupil’s attainment in school and, where possible, the impact on the whole school. Personalised school impact reports that show the direct impact on pupils, particularly those eligible for pupil premium funding, are critical.

For many schools, the leap from receiving 100% funding to no funding is simply too great. Having a financial stake in a project, perhaps on a tapered funding model, will mean a greater level of scrutiny and support from senior leaders and governors – essential ingredients to maximise the impact of the programme. Above all, it will make it much more likely that the initiative is around in ten years’ time.

Schools can be hard to understand from the outside. But external people coming into schools can be equally hard to understand from the inside. Being intentional on every aspect of designing school-based interventions and getting the practical stuff right is essential for successful school-university collaborations.

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