The 'hotbeds of research' that will teach children

Proposals for two university-run 'lab schools' are announced

Kerra Maddern

Cutting edge researchers will be united with teachers to set up "prestigious" university-run schools, in an initiative that will mean pupils are educated while also being subject to academic enquiry.

Like teaching hospitals, "lab schools" will be places where some of the most innovative educational ideas are trialled.

It has emerged this week that the University of London's Institute of Education (IOE) and the University of Birmingham have signed up to be the first institutions to set up university training schools. Department for Education officials have invited other universities to run their own primaries and secondaries.

The schools will be modelled on similar university-run schools in Finland and the US. Ministers first announced that they wanted to adopt the idea in England in the 2010 Schools White Paper, and said at the time that universities were already interested in becoming involved.

Despite this, the final details of the policy have yet to be agreed, and the University of Birmingham and the IOE have had to apply to run a "free school" rather than a new kind of institution.

At the proposed University of Birmingham Training School - a secondary with a sixth form - academics will, among other things, trial research on school improvement. The school will be located near to the university campus and pupils may be admitted on a "nodal" basis, drawn from various areas of the city.

The IOE's application has been made in partnership with a group of parents who have been campaigning for a new secondary school to be established in south Camden, North London, to meet local demand for places and to provide a hub for the community.

"We want the universities to start to open university training schools along the lines of the Finnish model," schools minister Nick Gibb told members of the Education Select Committee earlier this month. "So they will run their own school, which will be used then to enable not only trainees to have first-class training in connection with that university but also the other way round.

"The university will then be able to use the school as a way to monitor the effectiveness of the approach it is taking to pedagogy and so on, and how teachers teach."

One aim of the University of Birmingham Training School is to widen participation in higher education, and the emphasis will be on preparing pupils for entrance to selective universities. Up to 150 children will be admitted each year, and 400 teenagers will eventually be admitted to the sixth form.

If DfE officials give the school their backing later this year, it will open in September 2014, timed to coincide with an expected rise in demand for secondary places in the city.

So far, "hundreds" of parents have expressed interest in their child getting a place, according to Edward Peck, pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

Academics from various university departments will work in the school, as will trainee teachers and student volunteers.

"We want to make a contribution to civil development in the region - we'll be using innovative methods to teach teachers how to teach as well as providing a high-quality education," said Professor Peck. "This isn't really a free school, it's a much bigger project because we want to develop teachers, but we have made the application under that framework. We hope to develop more details of what a university training school will be as part of our dialogue with the DfE."

Staff from the IOE have been working with campaigning parents in Camden on an informal basis for some time.

"The local parents and the institute were agreed that the university training school policy offered an exciting opportunity to establish a trailblazer school, within the local authority's school framework," an IOE spokeswoman said. "We are working with the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the DfE on a feasibility study for such a school, as well as with Camden local authority on the local issues, and our proposed model is currently under consideration.

"Our thinking in relation to south Camden is part of our wider thinking about relationships with schools in teacher education and development."

James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, said: "The message I'm getting from government is that there could be seven or eight university training schools.

"This is a good thing for universities to do. The schools can be hotbeds of research as well as having a primary focus on teaching children."


The University of Chicago's Laboratory Schools were opened a century ago, beginning with a "handful" of primary pupils. Now 1,770 children attend and the schools have an international reputation for excellence.

They are split into four divisions: nursery, lower, middle and high. Pupils take courses at the university and teachers collaborate with academics on research.

On occasion, pupils are even asked to help with university research - at the moment, two students are observing their pet rats for any signs of empathy.

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Kerra Maddern

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