We are all beginning to move out into the world again. About ten days ago, I set off to Shirecliffe in north-east Sheffield for what was probably my first visit on behalf of the university for fourteen months. In Shirecliffe, the University has partnered with Save the Children, Sheffield City Council and Watercliffe Meadows School to do something genuinely innovative: the UK’s first university-led Early Years Community Research Centre. It opened just a few weeks ago, and so my visit was an early one. There was the unmistakable, and always quite wonderful scent of new furniture in a building which has been revamped and re-equipped.

What has been achieved is impressive, and there is so much about it to like. The Meadows nursery is in an area of significant economic and social challenge, and from the start the nursery has been planned in collaboration with the local community. That means that partnership is deeply embedded in its design and ethos, enabling a genuine multi-agency approach built not just around co-location of services but a shared vision for what the nursery is intended to achieve. The educational thinking which underpins the nursery has been led by Sally Pearse, an outstanding early years educator from Sheffield Institute of Education who is one of the university’s National Teaching Fellows, and who has a deep commitment to collaboration in the interests of children. It also means that there has been active engagement across wider communities: partnerships have been built through the Business in the Community network which has brought pro bono support for equipment and – probably just as important – volunteering time to shape the hard landscaping.

It has also been an exemplary model of cross university collaboration. The Meadows Early Years Community Research Centre is managed as an off-shoot of the University’s own nursery at Collegiate, and staff from Collegiate are now based at Shirecliffe. Relationships with key partners were handled through Greg Burke and his team in South Yorkshire Futures, Hallam’s own long-term investment in education improvement across the city region. South Yorkshire Futures is now the country’s largest university-led whole system improvement programme in education, and it makes possible a range of collaborative possibilities which would not otherwise have been possible.

And perhaps most impressive of all for me as the university’s leader were the accounts of just how effectively the whole university has worked together on the project: support from project teams in Student and Academic Services, engagement of architecture and built environment students in landscape design. It is an outstanding example of how imaginative teamwork across the university can produce exceptional outcomes, and, for me, a really strong example of the applied university in practice. Take together the work of our own Physiotherapy Clinic in Health, Well-Being and Life Sciences, the Advanced Well-Being Research Centre programme with Yorkshire Cancer Care, the SHULaw law practice and Refugee Clinic and we are seeing just how powerful the university can be in linking teaching, research, practice and innovation to shape futures. There are other examples too – and just as impactful.

It’s early days for the Meadows, but it will provide opportunities for research and placements, for community development and relationship building. I spent an hour or so there with Sally Pearse, Greg Burke, and also, with Becky Tomlinson from Student and Academic Services, with David Owen head of our department of teacher education and Mark Boylan who leads research on large scale professional development in Sheffield Institute of Education. Debbie Squire project managed the entire, complex piece of work. I was delighted to be able to share their enthusiasm – and all the better to be able to do it in admittedly socially distanced but real encounters.

The challenges I presented back to the team were about – of course – ‘what next’. The nursery is a fantastic demonstrator site, and it’s always exciting to shape something from scratch. But the core principles – of community engagement, successful cross-institutional teamwork, open-minded innovation, the underlying applied relationship between research and practice – are and should be not just scalable but transferable across the university. We’re moving into a post-pandemic world with a government now focused on the geographical inequalities which generate the compelling, if vague ‘levelling up’ agenda. For any politician looking for a way to define a soundbite, the university-led Early Years Community Research Centre in Shirecliffe is levelling-up in action.

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