PUPiL Blog: Mobilising PhD Researchers in prisons with the Brilliant Club

The Brilliant Club is an award-winning and independently-evaluated social mobility charity that exists to widen access to highly-selective universities for pupils from under-represented groups in the UK.

Founded in 2012 by two classroom teachers, the charity’s innovative model mobilises the PhD community to share its academic expertise with non-selective state schools, working either as part-time tutors or full-time teachers.

By creating an opportunity to engage with world-class research topics through small-group learning directed by a PhD supervisor, we believe the Brilliant Club model has the potential to support the change processes and outcomes identified by the Prisoner Learning Alliance’s Theory of Change for prison education.

Having launched in one school in London, the charity now delivers its programmes in over 450 schools in England, Scotland and Wales. The charity works in schools from Penzance to Glasgow in communities as diverse as inner-city Manchester and rural Norfolk. This year, over 10,000 pupils will take part in The Brilliant Club, studying courses on cutting-edge PhD research topics such as ‘Gorillas and Guerillas: War in Conservation Areas’ and ‘Curing Heart Attacks with Bubbles’.

As well as operating at a national scale, The Brilliant Club also has credible evidence of impact. The average for low-income school leavers progressing to a highly-selective university is 11%. An independent evaluation by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) found that the average for The Brilliant Club is 58%. Further, the evaluation found that The Brilliant Club has a statistically significant impact on the likelihood a pupil will progress to a highly-selective university, compared to a control group.

Following significant interest in the possibility of replicating the impact of Brilliant Club programmes in a different context, the co-founders of the charity established AccessEd in 2016. AccessEd exists as a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting the innovation and growth of Brilliant Club-style programmes in new settings. AccessEd is currently supporting education leaders, PhD researchers and school teachers in Washington DC, Boston, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Hong Kong to design and deliver new Brilliant Club-style programmes.

AccessEd is now developing a new pilot project to explore how a Brilliant Club-style programme might support the learning of young people and adults in prison. The AccessEd Prisoner Education Project (PEP) is designed to support prisoners to experience the transformative power of university-style learning. By creating an opportunity to engage with world-class research topics through small-group learning directed by a PhD supervisor, we believe the Brilliant Club model has the potential to support the change processes and outcomes identified by the Prisoner Learning Alliance’s Theory of Change for prison education.

  • Working with PhD supervisors on unique research-based courses supports exposure to new ideas and role models, while making education stimulating and motivating
  • Studying university-style courses in different subjects offers a range of learning opportunities
  • Seven hours of small-group seminars means more time spent out of cell and in engaged activities, practising behaviours such as group work and collaboration.
  • The academic seminars and homeworks provide experience of concentration, patience, self-discipline, and focus.
  • The final assignment is an opportunity for expression and creativity in a positive way
  • Learners gain experience of meeting challenges, making progress and achievement.

 AccessEd is now looking for expertise and potential partners and collaborators in the sector to advise on the design and delivery of the PEP pilot in 2018. If you are a Prison Governor or PhD researcher, or otherwise work in the university or justice sector and are interested in the Brilliant Club model, please do reach out to us.

For more information about AccessEd and the PEP pilot, please contact Programme Director, Dr Rajbir Hazelwood (rajbir@access-ed.ngo).