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The untapped potential of university–school partnerships

Sue Cronin

This article is part of the BERA Blog special issue ‘Researching the Curriculum in schools and colleges: Practice, Professionalism and Innovation’ (read more).



‘As a result of this partnership, our school is now part of a hub of lead science schools based at Liverpool Hope University, who meet regularly to plan and share learning opportunities in order to continually reflect and raise standards. Being part of this hub has provided me with access to CPD opportunities to support staff throughout the school, in the teaching of science.’

Primary science co-ordinator, 2017


At the recent BERA BCF event in Birmingham I made an appeal to schools to reimagine the possibilities of partnership work with universities, and to consider the importance of their partnership involvement with university teacher educators. Teacher educators are uniquely placed to harness the power of these partnerships, as they are the link between the two worlds of university and school – very crudely, the academic and professional worlds of education respectively. Schools are missing a trick if they do not develop their relationships with universities by working closely with their local university teacher educators.

Using the analogy of a bridge for partnership work, teacher educators are making that crossing daily, connecting the world and transferring the work of schools with that of the university. In many cases, the bridge is well-established and well-trodden – often in both directions, with school-based tutors and mentors supporting partnership work in the university alongside university tutors working out in schools. However, the bridge may now be somewhat dated and limited in utility. A fresh look needs to be taken at our partnership work to ensure that we maximise links between research and practice in a way that leads to further improvements in the education system.

At Liverpool Hope we have been reimaging the bridge design, aiming to use new partnerships to create ambitious teachers (Kazemi et al, 2009) and maximise their impact. In particular, we want to support beginning teachers who have a sense of social justice and ambition in terms of teaching and learning for children in schools that face the greatest challenges. To achieve this, we are working with schools to promote understanding of the fact that it is possible to offer more expansive learning experiences for beginning teachers, additional to their standard assessed placements, by providing opportunities to support curriculum innovations. Beginning teachers can be involved in small-scale enquiries and interventions that contribute to the development of the schools’ evidence-base, and support improved outcomes for targeted pupils. Smart schools realise they can capitalise and build on their energy and emerging expertise, to the benefit of their pupils and their own research agendas.

An aspect of our development of partnership work is known as the ‘Hope Challenge’. This is a series of research projects developed in collaboration with local authorities, HMIs (Her Majesty’s Inspectors) and headteachers. Working together, partners identify schools in challenging circumstances and, through discussion with the relevant headteacher, local authority and HMI, a focus for a curriculum intervention is agreed, co-designed, implemented and evaluated.

To illustrate the power of this partnership work, I shared, on the day of the BCF event, a primary science Hope Challenge project arising from a school audit conducted to assess the quality of science across the school. The resulting school development plan had the clear target of raising standards by improving pupils’ ability to work scientifically. A six-week enquiry project was developed by the university science tutor and the school’s science co-ordinator. The school brought its expertise and knowledge of context, and the tutor contributed knowledge and current understanding of primary science education. The project drew on a group of beginning teachers as a valuable resource, working with the tutor and science teachers to develop a series of workshops around the theme of ‘light’. The team worked in a mutually respectful, dialogic and democratic space (Zeichner et al, 2015), sharing areas of expertise and reflections on their actions. A valuable space was created for the beginning teachers to anticipate and critique pedagogy and practice. The project was evaluated for impact, and the outcomes shared in a variety of forums. One important outcome was a change in curriculum design for science across the whole school. As the science co-ordinator noted:



‘The project, although initially for a six week block, was so successful in changing children attitudes, skills and as a model of professional development for staff, that it was extended throughout the whole school. The project showed increased confidence in the teaching of science for teachers and a significant increase in pupil enjoyment of science.’

Primary Science Coordinator 2017


A powerful outcome from a successful partnership between university teacher education and schools. Just think of the possibilities for your partnership work.


Kazemi E, Lampert M and Franke M (2009) ‘Developing pedagogies in teacher education to support novice teachers’ ability to enact ambitious instruction’, in Hunter R, Bicknell B and Burgess T (eds) Crossing divides: Proceedings of the 32nd annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia 1: 12–30

Zeichner K, Payne K and Brayko K (2015) ‘Democratizing Teacher Education’, Journal of Teacher Education 66(2): 122–135

This blog is the second article in a ‘special issue’ of the BERA Blog – a series of nine pieces arising from the British Curriculum Forum event for teachers, academics, policymakers and leaders in education entitled ‘Researching the Curriculum in schools and colleges: Practice, Professionalism and Innovation’, held at the University of Birmingham School on 24 February 2018. This collection of blogs will explore, from a diverse set of perspectives, what precisely we mean by ‘curriculum research’, and what practical, ethical and theoretical issues need to be considered when carrying out innovative research.

 Other blogs in this series: