Notes on teaching the Brilliant

By Ruth Ponsford

Ruth is a Research Fellow at the School for Public Health Research @ LSHTM and is a guest lecturer on the MACYS course. She completed her PhD at the Open University under the supervision of Rachel Thomson and Mary Jane Kehily

Having fairly recently completed my PhD and looking for opportunities to develop my teaching expertise alongside a research role I had not long taken up, last summer I began doing some work with the Brilliant Club. The Brilliant Club is a non for profit organisation that aims to widen access to top universities for pupils from non-selective state schools serving low participation communities. They do this by placing postgraduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) in schools to deliver programmes of university-style teaching to small groups of children aged 10-18.

I had come across the Brilliant Club’s ad while scouring academic job websites for research posts and given my interest in educational inequality and the promise of enrolment onto the Brilliant Club’s Researcher Development Programme (RDP), I hastily applied. Following a testing, but very warm and friendly, assessment day I promptly found myself developing my own five week course based on an aspect of my PhD research for delivery to four small groups of year nine and year eleven secondary school students at two schools in south east London.

Developing the course was genuinely hard work. PhD tutors are expected to design a challenging, coherent and engaging five tutorial course pitched at the appropriate level for their students that includes a variety of classroom and homework activities, a final assessment question and a tailored assessment criteria. A detailed course handbook to support students’ learning is also to be prepared by the tutor. Training in teaching skills and course design is provided by the very supportive Brilliant Club staff, many of who have been ‘outstanding’ school teachers themselves.

My PhD research focussed on the consumer practices of young first time mothers in the city of Bristol and explored the ways in which a group of mothers aged 13-20 negotiated expansive maternity and baby markets while managing on limited incomes, and the meaning and emotion they attached to ‘baby stuff’. My Brilliant Club course took up some of the themes my thesis touched upon, focusing specifically on the role of consumer and media culture in the lives of modern children, young people and their families. The course took as its starting point recent widespread public and political concern about the ‘commercialisation of childhood’ where the advancement of the commercial world into the lives of children is variously condemned as being necessarily harmful, contributing to a range of social and public health problems, including increased materialism among children, obesity, poor mental health, premature sexualisation (of girls), family conflict and increasingly unhappy childhoods – arguments which tend to presume children and young people to be passive consumers of marketing messages. Drawing on David Buckingham’s (2011) comprehensive critical review of these claims, students were asked to consider the evidence used to support and frame this debate and to reflect some of the possible benefits of the advancement of the commercial world.

branded baby

In later tutorials students were encouraged to explore some of the research on children and young people’s consumption and consider the complex and ambivalent place of material goods in family life and the cultures of childhood and youth. This literature demonstrates how children can be creative and active consumers who question, modify and re-inscribe media messages and highlights the ways in which the consumer world can be an intimate site of meaning making for parents, children and young people, enabling social connection and belonging. At the same time it draws attention to the ways in which some may be excluded from full consumer participation, thus reflecting and underscoring existing inequality. By the end of the course and in their essays students were expected to be able critically appraise the arguments presented in the initial tutorial and arise at a more balanced account of the role and place of the commercial world in the lives of modern children, young people and their families.

Students were asked to tackle some complex literature from academic books and journals and some found the material tough, but all were engaged, worked hard and produced fantastic essays that were graded in university style. It was truly impressive to see what they could pull off after just five tutorials, some students having never written an essay before!

Although overall participation in HE has increased substantially in the last two decades, including for those from disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the gap in participation between disadvantaged students and their more affluent counterparts persists. Recent studies suggest that while 96% of privately educated children and 36% of state school children go on to study at university, only 16% of children eligible for free school meals do so. The gap in participation is starker when looking at highly selective universities. Based on 2005-2008 data, in 2010 the Sutton Trust reported that only 2 per cent of the UK undergraduate student intake at the 25 most academically selective universities was made up of FSM pupils. Research conducted by the University of Durham has also found UCAS applicants from lower class backgrounds and from state schools continue to be much less likely to apply to Russell Group universities than their comparably qualified counterparts from higher class backgrounds and private schools (Boliver 2013), these choices inevitably linked to notions of cultural and social as well as economic capital (See Reay and colleagues)

The Brilliant Club is a targeted programme aimed at high achieving, disadvantaged students (at least 30% must be FSM pupils) that provides a fantastic opportunity for students to benefit from the immersive experience of university life, encouraging them to see university (and often a highly selective university) as a place ‘for them’. All students attend a ‘launch event’ at the start of their Brilliant Club experience and a graduation event that parents are invited to attend, both held on a university campus – (the launch events I have attended have been at Sussex University’s Falmer campus). Students have the opportunity to ask their academic tutor questions about university life, learning, finance and subject choice throughout the course and to start developing skills for university that they can describe in their UCAS applications. The Brilliant Club also enables thinking about university to start early, with tutorials beginning from year five. The programme thereby incorporates many of the identified successful aspects of other widening participation interventions (see DfE 2014).

Brilliant Club Students a launch event

Brilliant Club Students a launch event

For PhD students and ECRs, like me, the Brilliant Club enables participation in a really worthwhile programme, the opportunity to develop your course design, teaching and assessment skills and to participate in public engagement activities and disseminate your research in a creative way.   The Brilliant Club takes the opportunity to draw on the pool of talent and subject expertise that exists in the doctoral and postdoctoral research community and plugs a gap where there is a lack of professional development opportunities for researchers at this level.

For me, my research having been with young people, testing some of the ideas in the literature with these groups of students was fascinating and also enabled me to reflect and think about my own work in different ways. My students were the modern children and young people that were a feature of the course and they brought their own knowledge and experience to the table. They had strong views about the impact the commercial world was having on their own and their families’ lives. Although not really surprising given the dominance of the ‘commercialization of childhood’ thesis, I was taken aback by how most of my students were quick to regurgitate dominant narratives about the harmful effects of commercialisation and the vacuous nature of material culture. As we got further into the course students were better able and/or more comfortable to articulate their attachments to material culture and speak about the exclusions inherent to consumer capitalism. My classes perhaps provided some space to talk about students’ intimate relationships with consumer culture, which are often made absent and unspeakable in the school setting (See also Wilson 2014).

Since the summer I have continued to teach with the Brilliant Club and this term I will be embarking on my third term teaching at a different key stage. For the next five weeks I’ll be teaching a course pre-prepared by Brilliant Club staff to year seven and eight students and I can’t wait to get started again!

To find out more about the Brilliant Club visit:


Boliver, V. (2013). How fair is access to more prestigious UK Universities? British Journal of Sociology 64(2): 344-364

Buckingham, D. (2011) Material Child Cambridge Polity Press

DfE (2014) School and College-level Strategies to Raise Aspirations of High-achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to Pursue Higher Education Investigation, London: DfE

Reay, D., M. E. David, et al. (2005). Degrees of Choice: social class, race and gender in higher education. Trentham Books

The Sutton Trust (2010) Responding to the new landscape for university access. Available at:

Wilson S (2014) ‘Sad to say but my whole life is on that computer’: reflecting on emotions, intimacies and consumption in difficult circumstances and how to make sure these issues are reflected in policy discourse, Families, Relationships and Societies, 3 (1), pp. 149-152.


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