Working with schools

The day was designed to provide an overview of HEFCE’s work in the area so far and a forum for colleagues to share their experiences.

Chris Millward (Director, Policy) kicked off the day with an overview of our work. We know that around 60 HEIs are involved in sponsorship relationships with around 150 schools in total, with more due to open. This is about half of the HEFCE-funded higher education (HE) sector but only a small proportion of non-state maintained schools.

Chris explained that many HEIs were initially encouraged to sponsor schools that were under-performing, meaning that many academies have had challenges with attainment to deal with.


An analysis of GCSE and equivalent attainment data showed that schools that have become sponsored by an HEI, like other sponsor-led academies, have improved over time to meet the sector average.

However, GCSE attainment has remained static, suggesting that the changes were due improved attainment in other level 2 qualifications.


What does a successful relationship look like?

This question was pondered at various points during the day and is a tricky one to answer given the often divergent motivations for sponsoring different schools.

Some useful inputs were identified including: alignment with university priorities and buy-in from the ‘the top’, reciprocal partnerships and sharing common values.

But given the relatively recent development of these partnerships, how can we measure success? It was agreed that to do this, we need to understand the motives behind them.

Why are universities doing this?

A general consensus seemed to be that the partnerships fulfilled a community mission for universities – this comes in various forms from offering opportunities for local students to supporting local growth.

Eamon Martin (Director, Educational Relationships, City University London) told us about the huge improvement in attainment at the City of London Academy Islington, formerly Islington Green School (which he noted is where Tony Blair had famously refused to send his children).

However, perhaps surprisingly given its proximity, he does not see the school as a feeder to the university.

Dr Richard Hutchins (CEO WMG Academy Trust, Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick) explained that GCSE attainment was not a terribly useful measure of success for UTCs, where employability and supplying a future workforce are central to their mission.

His key message was that institutions must know exactly why they are embarking on these relationships and that effective partnerships are imperative in sustaining them. He stressed the importance of early collaboration with employers, the Department for Education and Ofsted.

After lunch Professor Geoff Layer (Vice-Chancellor, University of Wolverhampton) described the University of Wolverhampton’s’ strategy for school partnerships.

This echoed what we had learned from others about the opportunities for multi-academy trusts in raising attainment across a whole network of schools, encouraging progression to HE generally but also specifically to the university.

He also touched on some of the various links between the university and the schools, through Schools Direct, continued professional development and sharing services.

Finally, we heard from Professor Andrew Brewerton (Principal and Chief Executive, Plymouth College of Art) who described his vision to provide a continuum of learning from age four to masters level and into creative employment.

The Plymouth School of Creative Arts is an all-through free school, which also aims to address deprivation in Plymouth and trial new creative pedagogical methods.

The risks and challenges

The event was referred to as a ‘therapy session’ on a number of occasions – speakers and delegates emphasised the sheer hard work and effort involved in making these relationships work and managing the reputational risks.

For some, a lack of experience of working with the school sector makes this territory especially difficult to navigate. UTCs and free schools tend to be more stuck into developing innovative pedagogy – however it was noted these schools are bound by the same requirements as others and there are some anxieties around how these models will be judged by Ofsted.

Conclusions from the day

During the last session delegates took part in roundtable discussions, fleshing out some of the opportunities and challenges and providing us with some food for thought around how HEFCE could offer support.

We then had some really useful contributions from a range of universities during the Q&A session who reflected on the difficulties for HEIs in operating across two very different systems and policy approaches. Delegates felt that a forum for sharing best practice, joining up knowledge and sharing innovations would be welcomed and it was striking how many universities have been operating in this area without support.

The day closed on a highly positive note, stressing the huge benefits of the work that are not always fully articulated and identifying a potential role for HEFCE in fulfilling this.