Tags: Curriculum Manager | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Young people spend only 15% of their time in school. The University of the First Age (UFA) fills the rest of the waking day with learning opportunities and makes teachers and learners of us all. UFA’s Felicity Martin discusses how UFA has raised confidence, achievement and potential.

In 1996, the University of the First Age (UFA) was founded as part of Professor Tim Brighouse’s vision to transform educational opportunity and achievement for young people in Birmingham by doing ‘something radically different’. The model was based on the premise that young people spend only 15% of their waking time in school and a huge reservoir of potential lies untapped. Giving students more time to do more of the same in the same way will not raise standards of achievement dramatically upward.  

The UFA is now a national educational charity that works in partnership to develop the confidence, achievement and potential of young people through extended learning opportunities in school and in the wider community. Fellow-led learning teams run UFA summer schools, out-of-hours clubs and super-learning days. They support and help young people in the learning process and develop young people’s leadership qualities. The UFA fellowship programme provides tools for learning that are not curriculum-specific. The UFA model engages the learner through an individual response to personalised learning. The impact on the curriculum is indirect – the UFA model is a model for learning and not a model for the curriculum.

Once fellows have established the tools and techniques to develop learning, usually in an out-of-hours context, they begin to apply them to subject areas across the curriculum. For example, a UFA brain friendly spelling pack has been developed to support language provision and teaching in the curriculum. A UFA partner school in north-east England produced a German curriculum using UFA techniques they had been training in and developing. Fellows are also encouraged to take part in programmes of action research within their school or organisation, exploring what they have learned in the fellowship within the context of the curriculum. UFA core principles underpin all our activity, which is linked to both government policy and of 21st century learning theories. The diagram below shows these links.

Why a university?

We use the word university as an aspirational term, to encourage young people to feel that lifelong learning is a choice they can make and succeed with. With the UFA, young people feel that they belong to their own school and are also committed to learning outside it. As with the Open University, the UFA can exist virtually in schools, communities and homes, linking learners wherever they are. Like a university, it provides a ‘thinking space’ for partners and fellows, enabling them to research and reflect on their activity.

Who do we work with?

We work with young people aged between 5–25 and with adults who support and promote their achievements. We develop challenging models of learning with schools, teachers, parents, community tutors, learning mentors, artists and professionals from all walks of life.

Learning values

UFA learning values are core values that shape and inform all we do to encourage deep learning. They create a context in which we develop all our processes – from learning teams to the national network – acting as a filter for all we deliver. Learning values also help us to create a framework of learning dispositions to:

  • raise young people’s aspirations and achievements
  • improve confidence and self-belief
  • develop an intrinsic understanding of the deep learning process.

What is deep learning?

Deep learning is about making many personal and unique connections, retaining, recreating, and using knowledge on many levels. Learning is a complex weave of biological inheritance and cultural mediation. Learning should foster hope, belief, and wonderment and encourage the learner to take control of their life patterns. If learning is built on relationships and affects the way we interact with others, the UFA argues that encouraging deep learning is an ethical process and not merely a technical practice. The UFA designs challenges to encourage the understanding of learning principles and skills so they may be unpicked, analysed, internalised and used as:

  • processes that create conditions for deep learning of knowledge
  • qualities that we would evaluate as the outcomes of learning processes
  • aspirations for developing the principles and skills that should underpin the design of learning environments.

Educational theory

The UFA aims to create deep learning with training and activities supported and grounded by our research and analysis of learning in practice, ensuring that current educational theory informs our programmes, resources and processes. We draw our theory and practice from:

  • cognitive and emotional psychology
  • neurosciences
  • social sciences
  • philosophy
  • evolutionary and biological sciences
  • the ideas of pioneers from previous generations such as John Dewey, Vygotsky, and latterly Jerome Bruner.

The UFA will only work with ideas consistent with our values, and that we can transform into teaching and learning practices that are practical and accessible for adults and young people.

Study support

 The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has been championing ‘study support’ for many years and recognises its important role in raising achievement. The UFA has worked closely with DfES and other national organisations to help develop thinking about study support and how the creation of a coherent home, school and community curriculum outside normal lessons might begin to transform the learning opportunities available for young people in the UK.

Extended learning

The UFA began the learning journey in the study support arena and fully supports the drive for greater choice, quality, and innovation in study support activities. We also use the term ‘extended learning opportunities’ to build links between learning in the home, in school time, out of school hours and in the community. For the UFA, extended learning is also about creating spaces and places for adults to experiment with the way they facilitate learning. Using this opportunity as a research space has led teachers, youth workers, parents and peers to try out new things, take risks and push the boundaries of learning. Using the ‘out-of-hours’ arena, we have learned a little more about learning, for example, that a challenge framework approach can be successful:

  • young people respond well to and succeed with challenge
  • self-belief in young people shows them how they can be smart in different ways
  • the power and influence of the peer group is key to the learning process.

These discoveries have moved our practice forward, individually and collectively. The UFA believes that even greater transformational effects will be seen when whole communities are engaged in extending learning opportunities for the young people in their care and when young people themselves drive the UFA forward.

UFA learning teams

Developing trained learning teams is a key element of the UFA model. Focusing on transferring teaching and learning in out-of-hours activities can provide the test-bed for developing new learning relationships.


Learning teams can include:

  • UFA fellows
  • young people
  • parents
  • youth workers
  • faith workers
  • community groups and organisations
  • educational professionals.


UFA learning teams:

  • involve parents in the education of their children
  • involve the community in the education of young people
  • develop the concept of lifelong learning
  • develop young people’s leadership
  • approach the remodelling of the workforce
  • develop extended schools
  • develop a high quality provision of out-of-hours learning
  • develop social capital.

Learning teams are at the heart of UFA activity. Learning teams give life to the term ‘distributed intelligence’ as they bring together a variety of experiences, talents, interests, cultures and artefacts to enrich, extend and enable learning. Everyone in a UFA learning team recognises their responsibility to help others to learn while understanding their own needs as a learner. In this process, learning teams develop trust, mutual respect and understanding, so creating networks through which knowledge and information can flow easily. A typical UFA learning team is a dynamic interdependent group that seeks to represent the wider local community. It will bring together a range of people with different skills, abilities, and expertise with the development of young people’s learning as their central aim.

UFA fellowship

The UFA develops in partner areas by recruiting fellows who drive and shape the development of the local UFA learning team. Typically, fellows are teachers, youth workers, learning support assistants, librarians, faith leaders, museum workers and other professionals involved in the education of young people. The UFA supports fellows with introductory workshops to help them to develop UFA learning programmes, which include super-learning days, summer schools and peer tutor training. Fellows then develop, run and evaluate UFA activities in their school, college, library or organisation, using learning teams to develop models of learning and leadership. Fellows in the same area work together, to ensure best practice, to develop learning teams and to exchange ideas and resources. They are supported in their work by their partnership manager and the UFA National Team.


The UFA learning team encourages young people and their ‘educators’ to embrace a broader and more flexible concept of ‘teacher’ or ‘tutor’ and helps them to realise that they may be able to learn from a wide range of people and teach others.


Schools can, by adopting a learning team approach, move towards personalising learning through drawing on a range of resources and expertise that lie within the community. Schools can also help learners to design their own learning programmes by developing creative apprenticeships with community experts.

Parents and the community

Parents’ involvement in learning teams helps them to provide learning support for other young people as well as their own children. The training parents receive gives them a model of learning that they can take home. The UFA has written a brochure specifically for parents to help them to support their child in the learning process. We have case studies of parents running learning teams who, inspired and empowered by their experiences, go on to become learning support assistants, youth workers, mentors and teachers. This impact can also be seen in the traditional educational community as roles are both extended and expanded.

For example, an education welfare officer and UFA fellow in Gloucestershire has been running a gardening summer school with local primary schools in the Gloucestershire area, supported by the LEA, heads, teachers, local gardening centres, parents and local celebrities. This extended learning team creates a pleasant learning environment for staff and pupils, and inspires people in the wider learning community who have become more involved in the day-to-day running of the local schools and developing out-of-hours learning activities.

Peer tutors

Peer tutors are a key element of the UFA learning team. The role encourages young people to develop, deliver and evaluate activity as well as taking part in it. The UFA has developed and accredited a training programme for peer tutors in primary and secondary schools. We want young people to:

  • develop themselves as leaders of their own learning
  • use their leadership skills to help others to learn
  • become part of the social capacity of their communities
  • use their skills to enhance and actively participate in building community cohesion.

We work towards giving young people a voice and influence in every aspect of the organisation. We do not expect that all young people will want this at all levels, but we do want to demonstrate the possibilities. The UFA has a history of engaging young people in learning through summer schools or study support clubs. Many obtain accreditation and then go on to become peer tutors and community tutors. Many go on to careers in public service such as teaching.

The peer tutoring course can be accredited and provide another pathway for progression. There is also a huge potential for enrichment activities that develop problem-solving skills and engage young people who are currently in the further education sector.

Many UFA summer schools link with further and higher education institutions both as venues and as sources of mentors and volunteers. In some authorities the UFA has worked with Connexions, looked-after children services and youth offending teams to provide additional support and opportunities for young people. UFA training:

  • explores the role of the peer tutor
  • focuses on tutoring skills
  • gives peer tutors a grounding in different approaches to teaching
    and learning.

Extending leadership

The UFA also believes in encouraging young people’s leadership in the learning team. Leadership in this context is used in a wider sense as:

  • exploring the ability to lead as a learner
  • developing others through being a leader of learning
  • leading activity for the benefit of the organisation and or community.

We provide opportunities for young people to develop their leadership qualities across three foundational areas, ‘me’, ‘me and others’ and ‘me and my community’ as shown in the box above.

It’s my UFA

The UFA has developed a programme that focuses on the development of young people’s leadership and the voice of the learner. ‘It’s my UFA’:

  • explores different ways of involving young people and increasing their participation in the development of learning, in mainstream and out-of-hours learning contexts
  • ensures that young people’s views are heard by educational professionals
  • ensures that young people are involved in the strategic decisions that affect their school or college, possibly
    through the development of a UFA school council
  • develops young people’s leadership skills, qualities and experiences

The UFA offers young people the opportunity to gain accreditation for their learning and leadership through the ‘UFA Learning Passport Accreditation System’, through the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) key skills programme. The box left shows some successes.

Felicity Martin, Marketing and PR Manager, University of the First Age, Birmingham.

For further information on the UFA, tel: 0121 202 2345, or visit www.ufa.org.uk.

Facts about UFA

Working as a national network of 43 partners, more than 1,200 fellows and more than 80,000 young people, UFA develops and delivers training packages across the UK and supports partners as they build the UFA in their area.

Other organisations

National Youth Agency

The National Youth Agency supports those involved in young people’s personal and social development and works to enable all young people to fulfil their potential as individuals and citizens within a socially just society.

Quality in Study Support (QiSS)

QiSS is part of the Centre for Education, Leadership and School Improvement at Canterbury Christ Church University College. QiSS assists local education authorities, schools and other partners in implementing quality assurance processes across schools, Playing for Success centres, summer universities, libraries and community groups.


ContinYou was formed in November 2003 when two well-established charities, Education Extra and the (Community Education Development Centre) CEDC, joined to form a new organisation. ContinYou works with a range of professional people, organisations and agencies to offer opportunities to people who have gained the least from formal education and training.

Examples of peer tutoring support

Supporting young people in the development of their basic skills

  • Going into lessons to help those with reading problems
  • Listening to pupils reading aloud

Helping in out-of-hours learning

  • Planning, developing, running and managing the sessions
  • Supporting adult running the activity
  • Supporting learning of those attending

Supporting the transition from primary to secondary school

  • Planning and running orientation days for transition students in the summer holidays
  • Supporting teaching staff with this process

Helping at UFA summer schools and super-learning days

  • Supporting the initial orientation process
  • Supervising, supporting and monitoring activities
  • Coaching and supporting young people with allocated tasks
  • Ensuring the safety of young learners in their care

This article first appeared in Curriculum Management Update – Oct 2005

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