How to take partnerships higher

26th June 2015 at 01:00
De Montfort University's vice-chancellor shares the secret of working well across sectors

De Montfort University (DMU) is blessed with a campus close to Leicester's vibrant centre and the urban communities that are emblematic of our city's celebrated diversity. It touches the lives of people in these communities every day.

We built our Square Mile initiative on this connection and one of its chief achievements has been to create an extremely productive two-way relationship between a local primary school and the university.

Square Mile launched in 2011 as a way of drawing on the talents of our staff and students, channelling them to create positive change for the residents, businesses, schools and other groups on our doorstep. The university has a proud tradition of reaching out, but our neighbours are rightly proud too, so Square Mile had to be a two-way street.

Today, the initiative acts as an umbrella for 40 engagement projects, delivered by DMU student and staff volunteers working directly with local partners. These include ICT training for residents, a partnership with Diabetes UK to promote diagnosis and treatment in black and minority ethnic communities, and a record-breaking recruitment drive for the Anthony Nolan stem cell register, which proved key to Square Mile winning the 2014 Guardian University Award for community contribution.

One particularly satisfying success, however, is the project with Slater Primary, a school put in special measures in 2010.

Slater, a small school of 161 pupils, was facing significant challenges. It had governance issues, many new pupils were moving on again before establishing themselves and academic potential was often affected by factors outside the classroom. There were also communication barriers, with 63 different languages spoken. In addition, a lack of ICT infrastructure was causing considerable problems.

Teaming up with Slater's excellent new headteacher, Cheryl Henderson, Square Mile began work on these areas in 2012. A dozen new computers were initially donated to the school, DMU staff joined the board of governors to help address Ofsted's leadership concerns, and plans were put in place for after-school activities, such as the tae kwan do club delivered twice a week by De Montfort Students' Union volunteers.

Talking the same language

A key breakthrough came with the introduction of a translation support service.

DMU's diverse student population speaks more than 100 languages and Square Mile was able to identify a cohort of volunteers to work with individual Slater pupils whose families had migrated to Leicester from around the world. This transformed communication between staff and students.

Language support has now evolved into broader academic mentoring, with DMU undergraduates providing face-to-face reading, writing and maths support. This is incorporated into second-year academic modules at the university, which gives the students academic credit and ensures a sustainable service for the school.

Slater is now rated good by Ofsted and has received the highest Sats scores in the Leicestershire area for two years running, with 100 per cent of Year 6 pupils achieving their targets.

Henderson says: "Slater's partnership with DMU has had a powerful impact on the school. These opportunities have enhanced the achievement of the pupils involved, raised aspiration and self-esteem, and also raised the morale of staff."

DMU was pivotal in this turnaround, but the project has only succeeded because of the commitment and engagement of the school's staff, governors and pupils.

I believe this is the right way for a university to work beyond its campus boundaries.

It is DMU's mission to promote engagement like this, for the public good. As a university with a global outlook, our idea of "neighbours" extends far beyond Leicester, and Square Mile is now extending to work with schools in India.

We are also in dialogue with the city's mayor about engaging with every school in Leicester. But our mission remains the same: making the talent, skills and drive we embody within our scholarly community accessible to all who live and work within our broad sphere of influence.

So how can you facilitate this type of partnership with your local university? Here are five tips for schools:

l Ensure you isolate the key areas where help is needed, rather than have the university impose its own suggestions.

l Identify the strengths of your local university and align these to the areas you seek to improve.

l In discussing partnerships, go straight to the top: ask to meet the vice-chancellor.

l Remember that universities are keen to enhance the employability of their students, so identify projects that could help with this.

l The best partnerships will involve mutual respect. Run a mile from pomposity and arrogance.

Dominic Shellard is vice-chancellor of De Montfort University

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