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Researcher resources

Understanding School contexts


Whilst there are a lot of different activities that you can run in schools, it is important to have a good sense of how schools work, and the context that you will be working in.

This guide provides an overview of some of the basic ways in which schools operate, including the curriculum, timetabling and accountability. It is intended to help you with thinking about ways in which your activity can enhance what is already taking place in the schools, and to help you ‘sell’ your project to schools.

Key questions you should consider before approaching a school include:

  • What are the learning outcomes of the project? (see our ‘planning an engaging lesson’ guide for more details on developing learning outcomes).
  • How does your project enhance or extend the curriculum?
  • Are there links between your research and national/school curriculum?
  • What age group is it targeted at?
  • Is it a one-off or sustained engagement?
  • When will the activity take place?

Use our Calendar tool to identify the best times to plan activity for both Schools and University students.

If you don’t already have a key contact or link within the school, it can help to ask people within your department that might already work with schools, or you might approach the Student Recruitment Team, Graduate School of Education or Students Guild. You can also try searching the School’s website.

The Department for Education's register of educational establishments in England and Wales is a useful way to find schools in your area. 

School teachers tend to be more responsive to a personal contact from someone they have worked with before, either via email, face to face or through the telephone. If you are writing to a school contact be sure to include only the relevant information that they need to make a decision about how to respond to your proposal.

Each project will have its own needs and its own ways of working, however to support the joint focused planning of school-university partnership activities we have developed the following resource which can be used in an initial planning meeting with a school and university representative. It will help you capture all the important information such as what the purpose of the activity is, key contacts involved, how will it be publicised and what will the costs be to both University and School.

You may also like to agree a memorandum of understanding which articulates clearly the responsibilities of both partners. See our example one here.

The National Curriculum is compulsory in 35% of state secondary schools and although optional in Academies, Free Schools, Studio Schools and Technical Colleges, many still teach aspects of it.

Schools are divided into two main groups:

  • Primary Schools: Typically for 4-11 year olds, may also have a nursery attached for younger children.
  • Secondary Schools: Typically for 11-16 year olds. Three types of secondary school exist: i) Comprehensives which admit pupils without reference to attainment/aptitude; ii) Academies publicly funded independent schools; and iii) Grammar schools which are selective.

A key stage is the stage within the state education system, used to align with age groups and curriculum:

  • Key stage 1: Ages 5-7
  • Key stage 2: Ages 7-11
  • Key stage 3: Ages 11-14
  • Key stage 4: Ages 14 – 16
  • Key stage 5: Ages 16-19

Assessment points exist at the end of each key stage.

Further information

See here for more info on National Curriculum.
See here for mandated subject content of each GCSE subject.
See here for mandated subject content of each AS & A level subject

Schools are measured on the following in Department for Education performance data:

  • % of pupils obtaining 5 or more GCSE grade C or above including English Language & Maths
  • % of pupils obtaining GCSE grade C or above in ‘Ebacc’ subjects (i.e. english, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language).
  • Average achievement in 8 qualifications at end of KS4
  • Pupils’ progress from 11-16, using assessment score from end of Primary School and achievement in 8 qualifications at end of KS4
  • Compare the performance (e.g. GCSE grades) of ‘disadvantaged’ pupils as compared to ‘other pupils’
  • Not in Education Employment or Training data

There are no imposed targets for progression to HE.

Performance against these measurements are made available in a comparison website, which is available here:

Schools are structured as follows:

  • School governors
  • Head teacher
  • Senior leadership team
  • Year heads/subject heads
  • Teachers
  • Administrators