School and university in partnership: a shared enquiry into teachers’ collaborative practices


Source: Professional Development in Education, 48:1, 105-119

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper will focus on partnership as a collaborative arrangement between the school and the university, which goes beyond the notion of partnership as a mechanism for supporting student teacher education in the practical, pre-service setting.
Firstly, it will explore definitions of partnership in literature specifically related to the relationship between school and university.
It will then examine international and national perspectives on partnerships.
Subsequently, using data from a small-scale school collaborative project between a school and a university which was a response, in part, to mesolevel policy imperatives, it will give voice to teachers’ lived experiences of partnership, and draw some implications which the authors hope will highlight some of the tensions and difficulties of partnership in practice, and make a contribution to the ongoing debate on the nature of partnership between schools and universities.

The research context and project
The research under discussion took place in Eden High School; a mid-sized comprehensive secondary school of around 1000 students, in Scotland.
After initial meetings between author one and the head teacher (HT), a sequence of professional learning sessions for school-based partners was agreed.
The entire school teaching staff was informed of the proposal and invited to attend on a voluntary basis, and the time for these meetings was allocated within the 35 h allocated to their professional development time.
An online collaborative community was established by the HT and all participants were added.
This space proved useful for sharing information and as a repository for reading materials and other relevant documents.
However, active participation within it on the part of the school staff was very limited.
Staff would typically download documents and respond to contributions or requests from the researchers, but rarely, if ever, initiate discussion themselves.
As participation in the project was voluntary, numbers varied slightly in initial stages;
this initial meeting attracted 32 staff and seven apologies;
after the first two meetings, a core group of around 25 was established.
During discussions in workshops two and three, the school-based group decided upon the theme of feedback as the focus of their observations.

Methodology and analysis
The authors’ interests and aims in this project were twofold: to facilitate and model a collaborative learning process for school-based partners that might allow them to use it for further sharing and development of their own improvement agenda and to examine and give voice to teachers’ lived experience of the partnership.
Data have been drawn from field notes, meetings, their own observations and semi-structured interviews.
An invitation to volunteer for interview was extended to the group involved and 13 participants came forward.
The data were transcribed and analysed using Nvivo software.
A simple abductive analysis (Fletcher 2017) of the data examining participants’ reported experiences of the partnership was carried out.
Analysis started out by highlighting some broad patterns in the data relating to participant experiences of the partnership.
Some common themes were identified which were abductively redescribed in the light of aspects of theory which had been identified in the relevant literature.

Findings and discussion
In summary, a consistent response from all participants suggested a positive experience of the partnership.
Whilst some valued the way in which it opened up alternative perspectives, others highlighted the sense of structure facilitated by the university-based partners.
The university-based partners’ positioning as expert bringers of knowledge were identified as a strength of the partnership by most of the school-based partners; none of the school-based partners saw this as problematic, reflecting Wang and Wong’s asymmetrical relationship and their transmission model of partnership.
This presents in itself an opportunity for further analysis of agency in partnership, which could be considered in a further discussion, but space constraints do not allow here.

Partnership as an opening up of perspectives
The way in which the school–university partnership can provide access to a range of perspectives was discussed by a number of the participants.
Most of these were concerned with how the university-based partners could provide access to alternative, perhaps more research-focused ways of thinking within professional learning.

The support/structure of partnership working
School-based partners from both teaching and leadership teams noted that the structuring of the Learning Rounds (LRs) by the university-based partners had been supportive to the partnership and the professional learning arising from this.

University partnership as validation
School-based partners made frequent references to the school–university partnership as a kind of validation or raising of the profile of professional learning (in this case, engaging in learning rounds) within the school.
One noted how the partnership with university gave this aspect of professional learning importance in the school.

University staff as expert bringers of knowledge
Within the interviews, almost all participants identified the expertise/experience of the university based partners as a strength of the partnership.
One commented on how the partnership had given the staff team the confidence to know that they were approaching learning rounds in a way that would support staff development and subsequent improvement in teaching and learning.
From others, phrases such as, ‘I feel as though you’re the expert in your field’ and, ‘because of your expertise with it, it certainly would be very difficult not to have had you here’ suggested that they valued the university-based partners’ knowledge and experience.

The authors’ intention in this paper was to foreground school-based partners’ voices in an empirical (I’Anson and Eady 2017) illustration of the school and university partnership experience.
They acknowledge that their data are limited; that they are drawn from a small number of participants in a single school and cannot be interpreted as generalisable to the wider field.
They hope that their analysis does, however, make a contribution to the development of the debate on how school and university partnerships can be understood and may be extended to allow for deeper and more sustained reciprocal learning in their enactment.

Fletcher, A.J., 2017. Applying critical realism in qualitative research: methodology meets method. International journal of social research methodology, 20, 181–194.
I’Anson, J. and Eady, S., 2017. Partnership as educational policy imperative: an unquestioned good? Professions and professionalism, 7 (3)
Wang, X.&. and Wong, J.L.N., 2017. How do primary school teachers develop knowledge by crossing boundaries in the school–university partnership? A case study in China. Asia-Pacific journal of teacher education, 45 (5), 487–504. 

Updated: May. 09, 2022