Student researcher groups are small groups of secondary school and A-level college students, aged 13 to 18, who evaluate outreach activities – such as motivational speakers, study skills workshops and careers fairs – that are delivered by universities or local learning partnerships in schools and colleges across England. The students do this by gathering feedback on these activities from their peers and presenting their findings to those responsible for delivery and who are therefore in a position to make changes. The groups offer schools and colleges the opportunity to assess the impact and effectiveness of outreach delivery in a sustainable and low-cost way, at a time when education budgets are continually being reduced.
Last academic year (2021–2022) the LiNCHigher Uni Connect evaluation team, based at the University of Lincoln, piloted the setting up and running of student researcher groups in four secondary schools and one college. LiNCHigher is the collective name for the partnership of local education providers in Lincolnshire responsible for the delivery of Uni Connect outreach activities in school and colleges. Uni Connect is a national initiative that has been running since 2017 and is funded by the Office for Students (OfS), the government regulator of the higher education system in England. The aim of the pilot was to encourage student voice, enhance student engagement, and improve the quality and impact of outreach delivery through peer feedback.
The evaluation team were keen to look for new ways to evaluate the impact of local Uni Connect delivery and student voice. Using peer evaluation seemed like an interesting opportunity for school and college students. The importance of student voice has grown considerably in recent years since the legally binding Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) came into effect in 1989, which stated that the views of the child should be assured and given due consideration in all settings, including education (UNICEF, 1990). Lundy (2007) proposed a four-pronged model of child participation – comprising space, voice, audience and influence – to ensure that the student voice is both heard and duly considered. These interlinking prongs aim to not only capture the student’s voice but also enable their views to be expressed, listened to and acted upon as appropriate. This model formed the main driver for the student researcher pilot.
The pilot allowed students to comment and feedback on outreach activities they and their fellow students had participated in during the year. The student researchers were first trained in evaluation methods. Then they were tasked with collecting peer feedback on two or three specific outreach activities due to be delivered at their school or college. The student researchers asked their peers several questions, including what they did and did not enjoy about the outreach activity, what they had learnt and how they felt it would help them plan their future. At the end of the academic year, the student researchers presented their findings directly to LiNCHigher at a student researcher conference, which was held at one of the local universities. This also provided an opportunity for them to share their views, experiences, hopes and ambitions. The conference provided LiNCHigher with valuable insights from the students’ perspective which have enabled them to adjust their future outreach delivery. The student researchers enjoyed taking part in the pilot with one commenting, ‘It has been a pleasure working with you and I would do it again any day. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do this.’ The students particularly appreciated and valued the opportunity the conference gave them to give their feedback directly to LiNCHigher as the organisation in a position to act on their recommendations; they said they felt listened to. Taking part in the pilot raised student aspirations to know more about higher education, broadened their horizons and made them feel valued.
‘The conference provided LiNCHigher with valuable insights from the students’ perspective which have enabled them to adjust their future outreach delivery.’
The pilot, led by the LiNCHigher evaluation team, formed part of a collaborative venture with three other Uni Connect partnerships: Humberside Outreach Programme (HOP), Inspiring Choices and Sussex Learning Network. The collaboration resulted in the production of two guidance documents, one for schools and one for colleges, that detail how to establish and run student researcher groups for those who wish to set up their own student researcher groups. Both are freely available on the LiNCHigher website and those of participating partnerships.
In a climate where government funding for such activities is being reduced year on year, student researcher groups offer a sustainable way for schools and colleges to assess the impact and effectiveness of future delivery. The principles of student researchers are not limited to the Uni Connect programme; they can be applied to other school and college interventions, such as healthy eating, encouraging physical activity and improving mental health initiatives.
Lundy, L. (2007). Voice is not enough: Conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. British Educational Research Journal, 33(6), 927–942. https://pure.qub.ac.uk/en/publications/voice-is-not-enough-conceptualising-article-12-of-the-united-nati
UNICEF. (1990). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). https://downloads.unicef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/UNCRC_united_nations_convention_on_the_rights_of_the_child.pdf