Thanks to the groundbreaking Higher Education Field Academy, thousands of secondary school students have been inspired to aim higher by Cambridge archaeologists.

The opportunity for our young people to work with Cambridge University and Dr Lewis’ team is one that has inspired many to do well in their GCSEs as well as pursue an otherwise unlikely path on to higher education

Richard Kerridge, Mildenhall College Academy

Dr Carenza Lewis of the Department of Archaeology studies the development of currently occupied rural settlements. Compared with their deserted counterparts, far less is known about such settlements because despite being more common, they are more challenging to excavate because they are overlain by today’s houses, shops and garages. But small open spaces do survive in even the most densely built‐up village, and for almost a decade, Lewis has used this research challenge – to dig hundreds of small ‘test pits’ in English villagers' gardens – as a unique opportunity for engagement. “Because I wanted to work in occupied settlements, we had to involve members of the public as landowners. But I also knew it was a way of using archaeology to do more than that, by creating a learning opportunity for
school pupils,” she explains.

To unite research and engagement, in 2005 Lewis set up the Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA). Designed to raise educational aspiration and develop skills among secondary school students in the state‐maintained sector, by 2013 almost 3,500 pupils from more than 200 schools had excavated 1,400 test pits in 40 parishes across 10 English counties – the largest project of its kind in the UK. Over the course of three days, students work in small groups with professional supervision to excavate a 1m2 test pit – from marking out to making good – spending the final day at the University of Cambridge experiencing a slice of academic life. “The end of the first day of a HEFA is fantastic,” says Lewis. “In the morning they are a bit quiet, uncertain about what's in store and slightly horrified to find they will be working in mixed school groups. But in the afternoon there's a huge buzz; they're meeting up with friends who they've not seen all day and comparing finds. Hearing them talk effortlessly in technical terms about what they've been doing is wonderful.”

Rigorously monitored, HEFA's impact is impressive. Some 80% of pupils report raised performance in transferrable skills – from data collection and creative thinking to report writing and citizenship – and 80% report raised academic aspirations. And after participating in a HEFA, almost 90% plan to attend university – an increase of up to 60%. According to Richard Kerridge, a teacher at Mildenhall College Academy, which has been involved with HEFA for seven years:

“Our students find the study of history difficult because of their lower than average levels of literacy and their lack of enjoyment upon entry to the academy. This is compounded by a general lack of aspiration among most parents for their child’s academic future … The opportunity for our young people to work with Cambridge University and Dr Lewis’ team is one that has inspired many to do well in their GCSEs as well as pursue an otherwise unlikely path on to higher education.”

For Lewis, making pupils' participation central to her archaeology has vastly extended the scale of her research, which over the past decade has unearthed tens of thousands of pot sherds and generated new insights into the origins and development of English settlements. Using data from pupils' excavations, she has been able to reconstruct dozens of settlement histories showing meaningful patterns of growth and contraction alongside regional variation. Now, her results are even sufficient to reconstruct the effects of major European‐wide events such as the Black Death.

One of the first presenters of Channel 4's groundbreaking archaeology series Time Team, Lewis has learned even more through HEFA about archaeology's ability to engage and inspire at the same time as creating new knowledge. At once familiar (as a result of TV, film and computer games) and unfamiliar (it is rarely studied at school), archaeology retains an air of mystery and excitement. And because the subject is highly interdisciplinary, it can engage and inspire pupils studying both science and humanities. “What makes the HEFA work so well is that archaeology is one of the few disciplines where you can give novice members of the public – young or old – the opportunity to make discoveries which are genuinely and palpably new,” she explains. “That's why it works so well in raising academic aspiration, because it helps pupils understand how new knowledge is created from the research process.” HEFA is, Lewis believes, a virtuous circle, and a model of learning through engaged research where pupils, property owners, communities and archaeologists contribute and benefit in equal measure. “It's is a great way of reinforcing people's sense of connectedness and pride in being able to contribute,” she says. “HEFA is good for communities, good for people and very good for the University and the reputation of research generally because it takes place within living villages and involves local residents: people can see the research is relevant to them, their environment and their everyday lives. It connects those who take part to people in the past, with each other in the present and helps them think about how things should be preserved and how villages should develop in the future.”