The Real Honour

As a newly announced recipient of an OBE for ‘Services to Higher Education’ I am experiencing a strange mix of emotions and questions. The biggest emotion other than embarrassment is sadness that my mum died last year and won’t get to be there when I pick it up. The biggest question is to wonder why I have received it as a nominee doesn’t get to see their own nomination.

With this in mind, I’m able to do that thing we so often talk about in higher education but more often than not simply don’t have the time to do – reflect. In reflecting on what I, and my talented colleagues, have done well and where we have seen genuine impact, I have focused on two milestones.. The first is the time I spent advising the DfE Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training back in 2014-15 and the role I played in helping the review to recognise the importance of school/HE partnerships in preparing the next generation of teachers. This was a significant time both for my bit of the HE sector and also for my own personal development and evolving understanding of the actual and potential role of HE in the school system. This brings me to the second milestone: South Yorkshire Futures. This is the work Sheffield Hallam University is leading in improving social mobility in South Yorkshire through improving educational attainment and raising aspiration. This partly arose from thinking that started with my time on the Carter Review.

The process of the review prompted some challenging questions around the best way for universities to bring something to the school system that either doesn’t exist already or that can be done better only with HE expertise in the mix. Some of the arguments that were made about expert practitioners based in HEIs who brought their practice based expertise to ITE and other forms of teacher development simply did not stand up in the face of the outstanding, cutting edge practitioner expertise we saw in school-led provision. Much more compelling were those providers who were able to demonstrate that they were using the best of expert, school-based practitioner expertise alongside HE expertise in evidence, research and bigger picture problematizing. The most impressive partnerships did this in a way that powerfully interweaved a carefully crafted range of expertise and experiences.

Knowing what you are best placed to do in improving the school system and knowing what is best left to expertise that other players will always hold more strongly than you as a university is a big question we have continued to grapple with well beyond the finish of the Carter Review. At the same time as we were thinking about our role in the teacher training part of the system, DfE was thinking about the broader role that HEIs should be playing in school improvement and in its Green Paper went so far as to suggest all those charging increased tuition fees should either sponsor failing schools or open a new one. During this period I was involved in many discussions with other universities who had done both of these things. It was clear that the evidence was not compelling that an improvement in the regional school system had automatically followed. Indeed in some cases it had undoubtedly got worse.

However it is not unreasonable to expect civic universities who have always maintained a strong, ongoing commitment to education in their region to put their money where their mouths are and step up to help address the improvements that are clearly needed in some way. Certainly at Sheffield Hallam University, under the relatively new leadership of newly honoured Professor Sir Chris Husbands (an expert in school systems globally) and Richard Calvert (Chief Operating Officer newly arrived from his previous post as Director General at DfE), there was an appetite – perhaps even a responsibility – to seize this agenda but to do so in a way that was substantively different (and better) than the proposals in the Green Paper – the result of which is South Yorkshire Futures.

As an anchor institution in South Yorkshire, and with immediate access to an expert research resource, we could provide a sound evidence base and resulting theory of change that placed educational improvement as part of a bigger picture understanding of how to improve social mobility. Combined with our ability to convene and facilitate partnership working across education providers, local authorities, DfE, schools, colleges and employers, the potential was compelling to say the least.

What resulted was a social mobility partnership which targets young people from disadvantaged areas of South Yorkshire through three specific interventions: early years, primary/secondary, and further education/higher education/employment. Less than one year since it launched, we are already seeing stakeholders across South Yorkshire working together to improve CPD for the EY workforce

So, in the final moments of my self indulgent reflective mode I feel more positive than I have for sometime that universities can and should have a distinctive role in school improvement and increasing social mobility and that this is beginning to be recognised by policy makers. I am also proud that the more nuanced, complex, sophisticated approach we are taking is clearly supported as I believe it has the potential to reach more children and – most importantly – impact positively on those who need it the most.

Professor Sam Twiselton OBE is the Director of Sheffield Institute of Education