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Enhancing design learning through partnerships: the case of Joinedupdesign for Academies

photo: supplied by the Sorrell Foundation

Authors: John Butcher and Friedemann Schaber
Institution: University of Northampton

Keywords: employability skills, off-campus learning, design pedagogy, community partners

This case study describes a partnership between the University of Northampton and the Sorrell Foundation’s Joinedupdesign for Academies programme, a pilot scheme aimed at informing the transition of struggling secondary (11-18) schools into re-designed and re-built academies. 12 second year undergraduate Design students participated, working closely with pupils at two secondary schools in Bedfordshire. We explored impact on student learning for employability and undergraduate learning with pupils as clients, as well as the challenge of working with multiple partners including schools. We report Joinedupdesign for Academies as a new model of off-campus learning.

Context and rationale
The University of Northampton’s partnership with the Sorrell Foundation’s Joinedupdesign for Academies programme arose from the impetus provided by a number of funded initiatives including Creative Partnerships and Building Schools for the Future. One of the authors had worked previously with the Sorrell Foundation Young Design Programme (YDP), (The Sorrell Foundation, 2005), which aims to enhance the scope of design education at secondary school and university. The Sorrell Foundation model facilitates university design departments to work in multiple partnerships to inform the rebuild or renewal of secondary schools in England. Undergraduate Design students on the YDP benefitted significantly from enhanced employability skills (Butcher, 2009), and in return made an impact on the community (Rudd et al, 2008).

Growing out of the original YDP, the Joinedupdesign for Academies version was initiated in 2009 with four Higher Education Institutions and five future Academies taking part in the pilot.

Northampton’s Division of Design has well-established links with local schools and programmes of community engagement. By embedding the pedagogy of live projects, Design lecturers have seen a significant impact on local regeneration. Live client engagement has enhanced the applicability of the Design curriculum, and has challenged students with outside constraints and deliverables, furthering their knowledge. These collaborations run as problem-based equivalents to traditional theoretical studio-based design assignments. They deviate from more common models of work placements, in which the learning is supposed to be integrated into the experience.

This partnership was informed by two contrasting policy contexts. First, the push for HE collaboration for employability and the drive for employer involvement in work-based HE (Leitch, 2006), aligns with Cox’s (2005) reconceptualisation of links between HE design and industry. The focus on Work-based learning (Higher Education Academy, 2006) can be related to the importance of entrepreneurship in the creative industries (ADM-HEA & NESTA, 2007).

Second, collaboration for Widening Participation (HEFCE, 2001) is driven by a mission to remove barriers to HE and enhance the national skills base, with a range of policies and funding streams designed to: target groups disengaged from HE; remove barriers to HE; and increase the proportion of citizens with university level qualifications. As a new form of community outreach work, Joinedupdesign for Academies offered a collaborative partnership with schools, in which pupils were clients for the Design students, and industry mentors advised in the context of authentic live briefs. The Sorrell Foundation’s original impetus to empower the pupil voice in the design of schools was retained, with Undergraduates as learning mentors.

Description of initiative
The original YDP was externally coordinated as part of a national initiative (in 2009 with ten universities and thirty-five schools). Managed systematically as part of the curriculum at participating universities, YDP promoted collaboration by asking pupils: “what they want to improve in their schools?” (The Sorrell Foundation, 2008). Crucially, supported by Heads and staff, pupils take ownership of their brief and present it to as many audiences as possible.
This approach was further refined in Joinedupdesign for Academies. Northampton’s design students worked with school pupils whilst being supported by the Joinedupdesign for Academies team and industry-based mentors. The latter, a practising designer and a chartered architect, had a significant effect on the students’ work, particularly in visualisation and building technicalities.

The pupil client team from two 11-18 secondaries and three of their 'feeder' 7-11 middle schools represented the views of the existing and future school community. They formulated a pupil brief informing the master plan for their new academy, to engage architects, sponsors and local authorities in what pupils want their academies to be like. Pupils attended a number of sessions facilitated by undergraduate designers (The Sorrell Foundation, 2009).
University Design staff attended a launch event and then developed a student assignment, mapped onto the curriculum. Four male and eight female students worked with the two Academies in three teams of four grouped to share cross-disciplinary skill sets (Product and Interior Design). At a ‘Challenge Day’, pupil clients met the student design teams and were tasked to work out what design problem they wanted solved - these included school communal and reception areas, outdoor spaces, toilets and specialist classrooms. For many pupils, this was the first time they had ever entered a higher education environment (Smith, 2008).

The student designers attended meetings at the schools to gather background information, develop ideas, show progress and get feedback from their clients. Visits to creative destinations helped pupils reflect on their school environment in comparison to contemporary “designed” spaces. Sponsors explained to the students why the Academy’s specialisms had been chosen, and analysed its proposed relationship with the local community, before addressing issues of design and sustainability. The pupil clients presented the collected information on brief boards to their local authority representatives, project managers, sponsors, teachers and Design students. The eventual brief for the student designers was to prepare concepts for a dinner hall and social space. In three subsequent meetings at the schools, students presented design ideas through sketchbooks, colour drawings, material samples and 3D models, and the pupils offered feedback and further suggestions.

The student designers developed and refined their ideas with the support of peers and tutors. The finished design concept was presented to the client team for feedback and was separately assessed by course tutors at the university. Their work was exhibited in the Sorrell Foundation’s exhibition What’s Next for Schools? and the event culminated in the presentation of the finished Pupils’ Brief for each Academy.

We collected evaluative data in a series of exploratory stages, monitoring each interaction between undergraduate designers and school pupils through field notes. Multiple evaluations were conducted via a range of structured questionnaires (12/12 returns) and a reflective student group report. Triangulation came from industry mentors, school pupil and teacher feedback. Two focus groups (8 students and 4 students) were conducted with the undergraduates to elicit their perceived learning. Findings were compared with a national evaluation (Rudd et al, 2008) and with previous ‘live client’ engagements conducted within the university sector (Viljoen and Hoskyns, 2007).
Analysis drew on an inductive framework informed by educational case study research (Bassey, 1995), in which meaning was elicited by coding and categorising from statements shared by participants through grounded theory approaches, allowing themes to emerge. This was iteratively informed by the authors' ongoing review of the programme structure in terms of pedagogical principles. Student oral and written feedback, client engagement and oral feedback, summative student assessment through presentations, and multi-angled feedback by staff and peers for inclusion in the students’ Personal Development Portfolio was utilised.

Undergraduate learning from Joinedupdesign for Academies was both wide and deep, although less about developing specific Design skills (as perceived by the students) than broader interpersonal skills (which of course are integral to Design planning). Some self-reported evidence did include the acquisition of design skills in:

"using a laser cutter… in model-making… in photographing work for presentations, improving my computer skills in Photoshop … designing for different types of clients and thinking about the needs of disabled pupils… … learning how Product Designers draw products… sketching in CAD."

However, this acquisition of new design skills was viewed as a by-product of involvement in the programme, rather than a core learning experience. The greatest evidence of perceived impact on learning came in the ‘softer’, interdisciplinary skills related to employability. In this, the impact was around: learning in teams; problem-solving and time management; working with pupil clients, and in relation to future employment.

Learning in teams
A number of students commented on the impact of sharing strengths across different design disciplines and collaborating on a shared problem:

"You’ve got to be able to see the difference between our skills and their skills… we had a product designer in our team, she was more knowledgeable in material areas whereas I’m not, but there were also some areas where I could help her…Working in a team makes you understand more about your strengths and weaknesses as a designer…"

Students recognised this innovative learning experience had forced them to reflect on their own skills, to learn how to compromise and negotiate, and to gain insights into the different design skills of others in a project team. This high level of reflection resulted from being put in a situation in which peer communication (especially between students who had not previously worked together) became a vital component of success:

"Communication with different disciplines in our team… is what I’ve learned… being able to explain what you’re doing, being able to listen to what they’re doing too, and collaborating with each other…"

While this was not an easy experience for most students (as evidenced by the body language during the focus groups), the authentic live brief, though complex in its demands, pushed students to see themselves as operating in a more professional environment when they had to deal with real clients.
Learning through problem-solving and time management
Solving problems together was also an important dimension to learning in a team. One problem in particular was accommodating different design ideas from the team members (and the clients) into a final pitch:

"It made me realise how important it is to learn how to take the views of others into consideration and be able to put them together to find a solution rather than just taking one person’s… it’s quite a learning curve to know how to put them all together… "

Individual students developed strategies to address that problem, which they represented as taking a professional approach to others’ ideas – something they had not had to do on their degree course previously.

The opportunity to learn time management skills was linked to the challenge of operating as an effective team in a way which could enhance problem-solving:

"We had to ensure we kept the lines of communication open… if you were with a difficult group it made it harder, some members were willing to come in earlier… communication had to be strong between members of the group to ensure we got that extra time."

This semi-autonomous operation became a particular feature of the way this project was structured.
Learning from pupil clients
The most strikingly innovative aspect of the joinedupesign for Academies programme was the crucial involvement of pupils (aged between 10 and 14) as clients, in the context of planning the rebuild of their own schools. Pupils brought a lot of passion to discussions of what they wanted their new school to look like (this was not an abstract exercise for them), and our students learned a great deal, much of it unanticipated, from working with pupil clients:

"You need to think what you are going to say a bit more… we were describing a particular part of our model, we had to explain that you can physically build glass walls… they thought it was easily smashed, they thought vandalism would be a problem and it would break… technically we understood that, but we had to find a different way to explain it."

Such language clashes were evidence of communicative dissonance which prompted our design students to find creative solutions to overcome their initial reliance on taken-for-granted technical language. Similarly, recognition of client needs, and the importance of ‘showing’ was an outcome:

"We had a double skin on ours (a roof, then another roof). Trying to explain that without a model was quite difficult – until we managed to sort out a computer-generated image… it was the visual aid that helped rather than relying on explaining it through words."

An important insight into the needs of different partners was also achieved:

"I really enjoyed working with children… I was excited working with them rather than school governors, who were only interested in money, not in our designs."

So the learning was coming from a sense of empathy and insight with the fact that all clients will be different, and the pupils merely offered one step on the client continuum.

Learning for employability
The partnership led to a number of important personal insights into individuals’ intended career paths. For some, the innovative link with pupils and schools was timely:

"It made me think more about teaching design… I really wanted to work with children – their imaginations are incredible and limitless … I thought it was cool working with the kids because you might not work with them otherwise as a designer… you wouldn’t normally go back to work in a school… and they were so enthusiastic."

For others, it confirmed different paths:

"Working with a school was useful, I wanted to work in a commercial environment rather than domestic…and it was great to have more scope for a wider range of design ideas."

Challenges in implementation
Compared to commercial live client projects, the complexity of the Joinedupdesign for Academies partnership appeared to make it less efficient. Collaboration between individuals (pupils, teachers, students), organisations (schools, governors, sponsors, education authorities) and environment (‘failing schools’ and a government school rebuilding programme) meant facilitation from university staff was highly demanding (a point acknowledged in national feedback sessions). As a new model of off-campus learning, significant challenges emerged for tutors running the project, who required additional time and resources.

Students highlighted the repetitive nature of some elements of the project - some felt ill-prepared to present at board level, and struggled to identify stakeholder intentions and underlying agendas:

"It was interesting that so many different groups wanted to get so many different things out of the project…there were competing agendas between the children as clients, the Sorrell Programme idea of what should happen, and what we wanted. …we had to go at the project from all perspectives"

“The client-centred model encouraging ‘real life’ experience of the cycle of a design project, has been extremely effective in bringing institutions and individuals together”. (Rudd et al, 2008)

Despite the challenges, this innovative community partnership has provided an opportunity for powerful situated learning in Design, with the authentic brief offering students opportunities to: enhance their skills (through creative problem solving); develop their attributes (through preferences for learning through doing); and improve behaviours (by putting things together creatively). This learning was achieved in the context of an embedded collaboration with schools, in a model of creative/social entrepreneurship. The partnership facilitated a wide range of employability skills more effectively than previous work-based learning. Therefore, key outcomes for the Design students included in this project were positive. This has been a valuable two-way learning process, involving the merger of expertise in communities with expertise in universities.


Dr John Butcher is Senior Academic Development Advisor at the University of Northampton. He is experienced in leading funded projects in HE, including awards from the Teacher Training Agency, Teacher Development Agency, National Arts Learning Network, Art, Design, Media Subject Centre, Higher Education Academy and the Sorrell Foundation. He has published on teacher development across HE and schools, and is the author of Developing Effective 16-19 Teaching Skills (Routledge). He has extensive experience of research supervision and edits the online journal Enhancing the Learner Experience in Higher Education. He is currently investigating undergraduate researchers and university/school responses to Widening Participation.

Friedemann Schaber has been working with Design students at the University of Northampton since 1997 and was awarded a University Teaching Fellowship in 2008 for championing the live client project approach, challenging undergraduate students with ‘outside’ constraints and deliverables. He is supporting the university’s knowledge transfer and industry through Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) schemes and community outreach, utilising co-learning engagement. Collaborating with the Sorrell Foundation, he has been programme coordinator for two funded joinedupdesign for Academies pilot projects.

Bassey, M. (1995) Creating Education through Research, Edinburgh, BERA.
Butcher, J. (2009) ‘Off-campus Learning and Employability in Undergraduate Design: the Sorrell Young Design Project as an Innovative Partnership’. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, 7, (3), pp.171-184.
Cox, G. (2005) Cox Review of Creativity in Business: Building on the UK’s Strengths, London, HMT.
HEFCE (2001) Strategies for widening participation in higher education: a guide to good practice, 01/36, Bristol, HEFCE.
Leitch, S. (2006) Prosperity for all in the global economy – world class skills, The Leitch Review, London, HMT.
Rudd, P., Marshall H. and Marson-Smith, H. (2008) Pilot Evaluation of the Young Design Programme 2005-2008, Slough, National Foundation for Educational Research Publications.
Smith, C. (2008) The Sorrell Foundation, Young Design Programme: cross-disciplinary collaboration, creative challenge and unconventional haircuts. Unpublished Report, University of the Arts London.

The Sorrell Foundation. (2005) joinedupdesignforschools, London, Merrell.

The Sorrell Foundation. (2008) The Pupils’ Brief, London, The Sorrell Foundation.
The Sorrell Foundation (2009) The Pupils' Brief: Bedford Academy, London, The Sorrell Foundation.

Viljoen, A. and Hoskyns T. (2007) For Real: A Review of the Extent of 'Live Practice' within 3D Design Education in the UK and its Potential Contribution to Curriculum Development within the ADM Subject Area, Brighton, University of Brighton.


The discussion in this case study is based on a more detailed paper:
Butcher, J & Schaber, F (2010) ‘Joinedupdesign for Academies: Enhancing Design learning through complexity’, Design Research Society conference, Montreal, Canada, July 2010.


Listing and main photograph credited to The Sorrell Foundation