The Literacy Exchange and Achievement Project

Alison McKenzie, Strategic Educational Partnerships Co-ordinator at the University of Sheffield, explains how the Engaged Curriculum initiative is supporting the Literacy Exchange and Achievement Project (LEAP) in Sheffield.

We know that Sheffield schools’ results at Key Stage 2 and 4 (end of Primary and GCSE) have been improving gradually over the last few years but outcomes still lag behind other areas of the country. We asked ourselves, if education is important in its own right but also as a driver of prosperity and social and economic regeneration, how can the University help to accelerate improvements in this field?

The University has, for some time, had a close relationship with the local education sector through outreach activities, student volunteering and teacher training links. From talking to teachers and Local Authority officers we were aware that there was great potential to utilise our students’ skills to support the sector in addressing this issue. As well as the possibility of practical support via extra people in classrooms, we understood that the University has a vast body of academic expertise on Literacy within Faculties. We simply needed a project to bring all of this together – LEAP!

In the planning stage, representatives from the University of Sheffield, led by Professor Brendan Stone, met with Heads, Local Authority Directors and Literacy advisers to assess the best way forward. We developed a plan for the project which would involve undergraduate students receiving basic training in literacy methods, behaviour management and school culture and expectations. The literacy model we used was Reciprocal Reading. Developed in the mid-1980s by reading researchers Ann Brown and Ann-Marie Palincsar, it is a set of four strategies taught to struggling readers, primarily to develop their comprehension monitoring abilities. In pairs or small groups, participants share a common text and take turns assuming the roles of teacher/leader. Essentially, the Reading Recovery method is all about getting young people to understand the rules and processes underneath the task of reading and empowering them to improve themselves and fellow students.

In general, teachers were very positive about the project and eight schools volunteered to be part of the project during 2013/14. We targeted our approach specifically to schools who were facing the biggest challenges in terms of disadvantage and pupil attainment. Obviously they also had to be willing to support students and manage the project effectively and to ensure this we asked them to commit to a service level agreement. One of the strengths of the project is its multi-partner, collaborative ethos. In addition to the schools providing pupils and placements, the University has contributed undergraduate and staff skills and time whilst the Local Authority ESCAL team have donated their city-wide expertise and have also organised all the safeguarding checks for prospective mentors.

In the pilot year (2013/14) 17 undergraduates from the Schools of English and Education worked on the project in 7 Secondary schools in Sheffield. Dr Rachael Levy from the School of Education undertook some research on the project with participating schools during this time and her findings pointed to an overall increase in pupils’ confidence and engagement. For the undergraduates, many have commented on the fact that this initiative has built confidence in their ability to apply their academic skills in the real world plus helped them understand and directly experience partnership working. A number have applied for teacher training as a result. From the perspective of schools and the local authority, the scheme has also been a success and there has been a request to extend it into Primary which we are considering.

Within the University, a key development this year (14/15) has been that the number of Faculties involved has increased to three (including Medicine, Dentistry and Health via Human Communication Sciences) and the project team have generated the first Engaged Curriculum module which will be delivered this Autumn. This will enable participating undergraduates to get practical experience through the project but also gain academic credit for their work. Give the current interest within the University in curriculum change through Achieve More and also in the broader application of academic skills, this feels like a very timely project,

This project is supported by the Engaged Curriculum Fund and is led by Professor Brendan Stone and Matt Colbeck from the School of English and Alison Mckenzie from Student Services.

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