Widening Participation – Building Partnerships

The @DHC_Aspirations twitter feed is full of incredible and exciting opportunities that our pupils are taking part in every day. There are photographs that show our exploits across the UK; from Edinburgh to Southampton, via London and Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, all capturing moments of opportunity and adventure for our pupils. Those pictures are in no way false, but what the world of social media so often misses is the fact that every tweet belies a myriad of partnerships, logistics and less glamourous paper pushing in order to make it happen. And yet, it is these relationships which make the Aspirations Programme happen; without our partnerships there would be no universities to visit, no student ambassadors to greet us and no sessions to fascinate our pupils with new information about a topic hitherto unknown.

External partners enable us to deliver on a much greater scale, often with multiple groups of pupils involved in differing programmes simultaneously. Many support us to organise logistics, design visits, programmes and sessions tailored to our needs and even provide transport on occasions. Simply, they make the impossible, possible.

In addition, external partnerships bring a level of knowledge and expertise which is invaluable, especially during the early stages of creating a school level programme. Whilst you may only be organising one visit or event of this kind, they have probably had much greater experience and can be on hand to advise and suggest wherever needed. Our external partners have enriched the Aspirations Programme far beyond anything I could have imagined when we first started out and the continue to bring fresh ideas, resource and support to what we do.

Managing such relationships is not always easy and below are some of my suggestions for managing your widening participation programme partners and maximising the opporutnities for pupils. Some are transferable to all stakeholder relationships in any sector, some are learned through bitter experience and all are advice we try to live by in order to ensure that the Aspirations Programme continues to consolidate and expand…

  1. Speak to Everyone – When I first began on this journey I had no idea of what different organisations could offer us. Some of our best partnerships have come from the least likely conversations. The Durham 4Schools Team do some of the most valuable work with our pupils, yet I only knew they existed through a chance encounter at a conference.
  2. Just Ask! – If you need something… ask for it! Many WP Teams are hugely flexible and committed to meeting the needs of schools if you speak to them. I wanted data in order to identify our WP pupils appropriately but I didn’t know how to access it. Newcastle’s WP team processed this for me. Not only did they do so, but they offered me a wealth of further data that I didn’t know existed… it revolutionised my approach.
  3. Use Social Media – Many WP Teams fly under the radar at their respective institutions, many are under funded or struggle to evidence the impact of their work. Using social media to upload photos, using the right Twitter handles and creating consistent hash tags enables external partners to evidence what they are doing both internally and externally. In addition, once you follow WP Teams you can hear what they have planned and how you can get involved!
  4. Give Real Feedback – One university we worked had great intentions but the programme they ran wasn’t working for our pupils. They asked for feedback and we gave it… they are now one of our closest partners and their programme’s have gone from strength to strength. Universities are not always the expert in dealing with younger pupils (after all, their target demographic is usually Post 18!) but all the teams we have worked with have been responsive to feedback. That way funding can opportunity can be maximised to address pupil needs.
  5. Create True Partnerships – It can feel as though schools are the poor relation in any WP partnership but this does not have to be so; schools have much to offer as well. We have worked with university partners to deliver training on dealing with younger pupils, spoken at outreach conferences, discussed exam reform and provided a school perspective on many aspects of their work. Make partnerships which both sides value and the overall result is far stronger.
  6. Communicate! – Schools have weird and wonderful ways of functioning and are unique workplaces. External partners may phone in the middle of the school day; they do not have children in lessons or lunch duties to contend with! Understand the differing requirements in communication, don’t assume other organisations will be aware of school holidays and use an out of office if you’re busy for the day! Clear and consistent communication underpins all successful relationships.
  7. Show Appreciation – the Aspirations Team know the value of our external partners and the efforts they go to. Sometimes pupils can forget this in the heat of the moment and it is important to remind them. We nominate pupils to thank our hosts and supporters at the end of each visit, send hand written thank you cards once we arrive home and complete feedback forms when asked. I know few other schools do this because one university calls us the ‘thank you card school.’ Tell people you appreciate their efforts – everyone is human and responds well to thanks. You get invited back.
  8. Engage Your Staff – I love the Aspirations Programme and I love working with all our partners but no relationship should be dependent on one individual. Involve other members of staff, have a steering group and keep track of contact details on a central database. Your successor should be able to seamlessly step into your shoes.
  9. Create Coherence – You may need multiple partners to create coherence to your programme. Individual university visits are not necessarily powerful tools for widening participation unless they are embedded within a wider programme. We create university packs for our pupils, situate university visits in the context of wider learning and demonstrate contrasts between subjects and types of institution. You are the lynchpin for your external partnerships – it’s up to you to create a coherent, longitudinal and holistic’ programme from a plethora of different offerings.
  10. Be Honest – There were days when everything came together and 320 pupils went to three different locations, took part in three different programmes and everything ran as clockwork. There were days when I seemingly couldn’t coordinate 12 pupils to arrive in the same classroom on time. Be honest with your partners when things don’t go as intended. We’re all human and they appreciate the honesty (and the occasionally variable nature of school life!).

The Aspirations Programme is only as good as our partnerships and we owe a huge vote of thanks to those people across the country who work with us to make it happen. Some of these ideas seem basic… and yet their day to day execution can be difficult. It’s work in progress and it always will be – new partnerships are always exciting and existing ones need consolidating and building. What is consistent is the vision we have for the pupils we work with.

Check out my Top Tips for Widening Participation in Schools.

Next blog will be our research led approach to widening participation.

Want to see what we do day to day? Follow the programme on @DHC_Aspirations and Sally on @SallyAnnHolt . Tweet us questions or things you want to hear more about!

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