How PhD-Educated Teachers Help State School Pupils Get Into Highly Selective Universities

Dr Alice Len has an impressive academic record. She completed her PhD at the University of Sydney and went on to do further post-doctoral research at University College London, focusing on HIV. But now she’s a physics teacher at Cleeve Park, a non-selective state school in Sidcup, Kent. She’s one of the highly qualified researchers training to be a teacher on the Researchers in Schools (RIS) programme, using her skills to inspire pupils from under-represented backgrounds to progress to highly selective universities.

“I wanted to join RIS as I grew up in underprivileged circumstances, and the people who strongly influenced me were the enthusiastic and passionate teachers that made science come to life for me,” she says. “This experience is allowing me to help pupils realise their full potential, and I can bring cutting-edge research and opportunities into the classroom.”

RIS is a route into teaching for PhD graduates run by The Brilliant Club, a charity founded in 2011 by teachers Jonathan Sobczyk and Simon Coyle. Through their work in London schools, they recognised how hard it is for pupils from under-represented backgrounds to access the most selective universities. Nearly two thirds of privately educated pupils go on to attend a highly selective university, compared to just one in ten pupils eligible for free school meals.

Starting with 19 pupils in one school, Sobczyk and Coyle built an education charity – The Brilliant Club – that now works with more than 12,000 pupils each year across nearly 700 schools in every region of England, and in Wales and Scotland. The Brilliant Club has set itself a goal of supporting 6,500 young people from under-represented backgrounds to go to a highly selective university. In 2014, after several years of placing PhD students in schools to deliver programmes of academic enrichment to small groups of pupils, the charity decided to go further and create a route for post-doctoral researchers who wanted to work in schools full-time and become qualified teachers. Researchers in Schools was born.

The three-year programme is no ordinary teacher training course, and this is reflected in its applicants – 80% of whom make no other teacher-training applications when they apply to RIS. Participants achieve Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) in their first year and complete their Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) year in year two. In their third year, they have the opportunity to complete the Research Leader in Education Award, aimed at developing education-focused research skills.

All the training takes place in specially selected partner schools that want to improve university access for pupils. RIS participants are expected to deliver a suite of university-access activities, called Uni Pathways, based on their PhD expertise and delivered in university-style tutorials to pupils from under-represented backgrounds. Len’s subject is “Disease Detective: Putting the pieces together to solve the mystery of what drives disease”.

Of course, participants are supported through this massive change in their working lives by a structured training and mentoring programme. They’re expected to show commitment and stay in their school for three years, taking part in specific RIS activities as well as teaching their subject. One day a week will be spent championing university access and evidence-based practice, sharing expertise and promoting research – all activities designed to achieve the programme’s aim.

Choosing a specialised route such as RIS is of real benefit to participants, says RIS recruitment director Nicholas Cater, as the programme is very much tailored to the unique challenges of switching from lecture hall to classroom. “We work with thousands of PhDs and we understand the nature of making a career change at this point,” he explains. “We know the challenges and we are able to drill down into people’s unique circumstances, and help and support them through becoming a teacher. It’s a big change, particularly from academia. For example you are part of a system where priorities and activities can change every hour, which can be a step change from the longer-term, more independent nature of a PhD!”

Cater says the programme needs PhD graduates who are motivated by the chance to really make a difference, and are in it for the long haul. “We want people who realise that a person’s background affects how far they go and where they go in life. It’s not fair, and it’s biased against people from certain backgrounds. We want those who think: that doesn’t feel right. I want to do something about it, and I want to use my PhD every day to make that difference.”

Rachel Dixon, director of learning and professional mentor at Cleeve Park, believes this approach is yielding tangible, real-world outcomes for staff and students alike. “Having RIS work and train within our school has brought with it such a wide range of opportunities for our students and an exciting new dimension to our schools,” she says. “They have come to us with a clear moral purpose, and a real commitment to our students and helping them fulfil their potential. The unique research projects they are running with our young people have opened up a whole new world of ideas and opportunities for our students.”

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