Children’s University: Learning Beyond the Classroom by Mary Brittain

How do children learn? How are they motivated and inspired? How can we stimulate their curiosity, fire their imaginations, develop a desire to expand their knowledge and understanding of their environment?

Children’s University is a very simple concept: to recognise and celebrate learning that happens beyond the formal school curriculum. It is based on a number of fundamental principles: that the learning should be voluntary (self-initiated), owned by the child (self-directed), fun and interactive (self-sustained).


Children’s University recognises that learning can take place at any time, in a wide range of environments, from a museum to an airport, from sports clubs to country parks. The emphasis is on learning rather than ‘being taught’, and the experience need not be purely academic; it is often about developing practical skills and building confidence. Children engage in thinking, questioning, problem-solving and collaborative learning; they can access different styles of learning and take on different roles and responsibilities.
Children’s University is totally inclusive, yet recognises that many children do not have the cultural capital or stimulus from the home environment to encourage that love of learning. Children’s University aims to promote social mobility by supporting high-quality, exciting and innovative learning activities and experiences to children aged 7 to 14 (and 5 and 6 year olds with their families) and engaging the wider communities as learning partners in this process.
The original concept of Children’s University (CU) was created by Tim Brighouse (Chief Education Officer in Birmingham at the time) and Sir David Winkley, a leading primary headteacher. In April 2007 the Children’s University was established by the CU Trust with financial support from the Sutton Trust and the Department for Education in England. The national office is based in Manchester; there are currently 115 local CU centres in the UK, accounting for 3,500 schools and academies and over 135,000 children, accredited with a total of just over 2.5 million hours of learning.  There is a growing international presence, with CUs in the Netherlands, Australia, Portugal, Malaysia and Singapore.
So, how does Children’s University work? Local partners determine the structure and organisation of Children’s University within their area; the preferred model is for a local university to take the lead, working in partnership with the local authorities, schools and other organisations.

passport to learning

Each child has a Passport to Learning where s/he collects the credits for learning for which they achieve certification at a range of levels. To achieve bronze level each child needs to do 30 hours of learning. Silver level is 65 hours in at least two different areas of learning. Gold level is 100 hours in at least two different areas of learning with the demonstration of leadership skills. There are higher levels than these too. Achievement is recognised and celebrated at graduation ceremonies, normally hosted at the sponsoring university in what are often awe-inspiring surroundings for both the children and their families:

“I felt proud to be there. I enjoyed the speakers. I enjoyed being a graduate and going up and taking my certificate. It was a great ceremony. I had a great time.”

“I feel proud in my gown & hat. Don’t need anything else. Great.”

“Tonight was very inspirational and tells me not to give up on my dreams”

Learning destinations are places and organisations to which children can ‘travel’ with their Passport to Learning. They provide high quality learning activities and experiences with a ‘wow’ factor, validated through the Children’s University’s own quality assurance process (Planning for Learning).  Learning destinations display the CU’s Learning Destination logo, clearly visible to children who may want to use their Passport to Learning there. Learning destinations ‘stamp’ the child’s Passport to Learning to reflect the time a child has been engaged in the validated learning activities within the learning destination, contributing to the child’s record of achievements and CU certification.
The E-Passport is an exciting new development that complements, but does not replace, the hard copy Passport to Learning.  It allows children to update their passport on-line, see how close they are to their next award and enables them to add text and photos to reflect their experiences, as well as search for other activities both in their locality and further afield.
External evaluation of the Children’s University consistently reflects positive impact on participants’ attendance, attainment, achievement and attitudes; see:
Evaluating provision, progress and quality of learning in the Children’s University 2012, Professor John MacBeath, University of Cambridge (ISBN: 978-0-9561319-8-0), available on the CU website:

But perhaps the most powerful testimony is provided by the participants themselves:

“My favourite learning destinations are the museum and the library because I love the books and the Summer Reading Challenge and the different activities in the ’make and do’ part, especially the egg search. The best CU lecture was Pyromania because I enjoyed it when he set fire to the biscuit and murdered the jelly baby! I have a bronze certificate and a silver one too. I will get my gold certificate at the next graduation ceremony. I feel great about that.”   (Alva, age 8)

For more information visit the CU website:


Or contact:


Mary Brittain

Chief Executive

Children’s University Scotland

Email: [email protected]

Tel: 07801 577880


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