The Brilliant Club is an award-winning charity which seeks to increase the number of pupils from underrepresented backgrounds to progress to highly selective universities. It does this by placing PhD students in state schools to teach a subject which is not traditionally on their school syllabus. PhD students are also paid for the placements they undertake. The Brilliant Club offer two types of programmes: Researchers in Schools and then placements in schools via their Scholars Programme. This blog post will address my experience of the Scholars Programme, from the application process through to my first placement.

The Application Process

I first heard about the Brilliant Club after searching through the Doctoral School website here at the University of Lincoln. I applied and was invited to attend an assessment centre. The assessment was a one-to-one interview, followed by delivering a mini tutorial. I was given six minutes to present an aspect of my PhD research to Brilliant Club employees acting as children, who would present difficult behaviour such as not listening, talking and not wanting to answer questions. The way I worked around this was to play a game and to encourage the students to participate.  The game we played consisted of identifying war crimes from news headlines, the students were taught briefly what constituted a war crime and were given a list of examples. I then had a mix of obvious war crimes, less obvious war crimes and actions which fell just short of constituting a war crime. The mini tutorial is only six minutes long and there is a lot to cover and manage, but my advice to anyone thinking about undertaking an assessment is to make it fun and engaging. Following the mini tutorial, I was given a feedback form to reflect on how I thought the tutorial went and I could improve in the future.

A few weeks after the assessment centre I was offered a placement teaching a pre-designed course titled “what are rights?” to KS2 students at a primary school in Nottingham. Prior to delivering this course I was to attend a training weekend in London.

The Training Weekend

The training weekend was interesting, and it consisted of two days full of workshops and lectures. There are some compulsory sessions which all PhD tutors are required to attend, such as information about safeguarding children throughout the placement. There are also a series of optional workshops tailored to meet each PhD tutors needs, for example I attended a workshop on pedagogy with KS2 which focused on various teaching methods to engage younger students. I also attended a session in which I was paired with a PhD student from the LSE also delivering the “what are rights?” course. This was useful as it enabled us both to work on materials we would deliver and to share ideas on how to best approach some of the more difficult topics. I attended a workshop on how to mark assignments and provide useful and constructive feedback, which definitely proved useful later on in my placement.

There was also a social at the training weekend at a pub not too far from the training venue. This was a great opportunity to meet people from different universities doing a wide range of PhD topics. The social enabled me to network and to make some new friends at different universities, many of whom I have kept in contact with.

After the training weekend, I looked through the course I was going to deliver to KS2 and began making lesson plans with the training tips and styles we had covered over the weekend. The course “what are rights?” focuses on three areas of law: human rights, contractual rights and rights protected by criminal law. The course also covers theory, including natural law, legal positivism and the debate between retributive vs restorative justice. The course content is pitched one key stage above where the students are currently at.

The Launch Trip

The launch trip is undertaken at a highly selective university, so that students can experience a day at the university, complete some workshops, meet their tutor and have their first tutorial. St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge was the destination for my launch trip.

The day was well planned, my students got to partake in lots of workshops and have a tour of Cambridge University. I delivered my first tutorials to the students at the launch trip, introducing them to the content of the course, explaining the structure and assignments and giving a brief overview of what rights are. We focused on the difference between an obligation and an entitlement and looked at human rights law. As the launch trip day is really busy, the tutorial was less than the usual hour and I had a window of approximately 45 minutes with each group, so if anyone is thinking of applying I would recommend preparing in advance but making sure you focus on covering the essentials and can adapt to timings on the day.

It was great to have the chance to meet the students prior to starting the placement at the school. I was also given the opportunity to meet with the lead teachers at the school to run over logistics and to get to know each other, this was worthwhile as effective communication with the lead teachers really assisted with my placement. I was lucky as the lead teachers I was paired with were both really involved with the placement and ensured that I had the resources I needed to run tutorials and feedback sessions.

The Placement

As stated, my placement was at a primary school in Nottingham. I delivered the rest of the tutorials on human rights, contractual rights and rights protected by the criminal law, as well as the one-to-one feedback sessions.

Generally, the tutorials ran smoothly. I found using a variety of different teaching methods was the best way to engage KS2 students. For example, creating worksheets to use in tutorials, creating matching exercises and using value continuums or opinion lines. Post-it notes were also a life saver on this placement and I found using them a really valuable method for checking understanding in students. They also enjoyed quizzes (and were very competitive!) which was another effective method for checking understanding, particularly recap quizzes.

The students are required to submit a 1000-word university style essay for their final assignment, which is a big piece of work for KS2. Understandably, there were anxieties from students about the essay, so I found one way of managing this effectively was to create an essay plan as a class. The students could also contact me via the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) (which is a safeguarded means of communication between tutor and students) about any issues they were having or any questions they had, so that they have that extra layer of support when I am not in the school.

Once the students had all submitted their final assignments and they have been marked and passed the moderation process, I was to attend a one-to-one feedback session with each pupil to tell them their grades and provide feedback. I was really pleased that all my students passed the final assignment and eight out of twelve received first class grades. They all worked exceptionally hard during the tutorials and so I was very happy that they all passed.

The Graduation Trip

A few weeks after the final feedback session, the students and their parents / guardians, the lead teachers and the PhD tutor (me) were all invited to attend a graduation ceremony. In my case the graduation ceremony was held at the University of Nottingham, and there are quite a few schools from across various placements in attendance.

The graduation trip provides lots of information to both students and parents, they can ask questions and are given guided tours of the campus with a student representative. I was really pleased to be invited to shake my students’ hands as they walked across stage to collect their certificates. I was also exceptionally impressed with two of my students who had been invited to give key notes as spokes scholars to the rest of the ceremony. Both students read out extracts from their final assignment, one focusing on natural law vs legal positivism in the context of human rights and why they had a preference for legal positivism and the other student focusing on rights protected under criminal law and explaining the difference between restorative justice and retributive justice and why they had a preference for restorative justice based on fairness. Both students did exceptionally well, and I was really proud of them.

Reflection

I really enjoyed the placement and I believe the Brilliant Club makes a huge impact on students. The work they do is great, and it breaks down barriers to higher education, which I view as a form of social justice. It also taught me that difficult concepts in law do not necessarily need to be explained in an overly academic way and that children can understand them, which is a way of making a traditionally difficult subject accessible. Breaking down topics (particularly human rights and theories such as natural law) in a really basic way has also enhanced my own understanding of these topics. I really enjoyed learning the ways in which students would relate to the material and feel like I have learned a lot from them.

I have recently designed my own course for the Brilliant Club based on my PhD research. The course I have designed is titled “How should we respond to mass atrocity?” and I will be teaching this to KS5 students shortly. Designing the course has been an interesting experience and has allowed me to break down every element of my PhD research, which I would argue has enhanced my understanding of it as a whole. If anyone is thinking of applying to the Brilliant Club, I would say it is definitely worthwhile!

Post by Amber Smith