This article sets out some of the findings from research carried out to explore patterns of research engagement in schools at varying points along a path towards fully embedding those practices.
The ultimate aim for research-engaged schools is to become learning organisations, in which the language and activity of research can be converted into knowledge that is used for the better of the school and also the wider education system.
In 2011/12, I surveyed and interviewed staff from eight secondary schools in England. Five of them were national Teaching Schools and two of them were schools that had a high profile for being research-engaged. The research categories were developed from various sources, including the National Foundation for Educational Research’s Research-Engaged School Award, which has now evolved into the NFER Research Mark.
The overall results suggested schools fell into one of four distinct developmental stages:
1. Emerging research culture
In one school, having been subject to a “requires improvement” grade by Ofsted, the new headteacher set up six research bursaries, to last for one year initially.
Interviews were conducted to appoint research leaders to these projects and these positions awarded to mostly middle leaders, who became change agents in the school. Research activity was low among existing staff and there was no clear structure to support research engagement.
The headteacher’s use of research activity was partly “tactical” (Wilkins, 2011), aimed at improving collaboration and challenge among teachers. The school has since been re-inspected (in September 2013) and moved up to a grade 2 (good) overall.
2. Establishing research culture
For three of the schools, while research activity was growing and had been in existence for some time, other elements of a strongly research-engaged school were still not in place, such as access to research expertise or training.
At one school, the headteacher freely admitted that the school had no particular structures in place to promote research, however, there were strong elements of professional collaboration and outward-looking elements among many of the staff. Since 2013, the school has designated research co-ordinators who are helping to promote research activity more effectively within and beyond the school.
3. Established research culture
Two schools fit into this category. One had a long history of sponsoring teacher research. Teachers were given significant time remission and cover to do action research projects and a large proportion of staff had now been supported to do this.
However, external funding that previously supported teacher research had now disappeared, and this threatened the long-term stability of their strategy.
At the other school, one member of the senior management, who has since left, was disproportionately responsible for championing the school’s research activity. The extent to which these schools based decisions on research was also lower than might be expected, suggesting more work was needed to share the outcomes of research.
4. Embedded research culture
At one particular school, even traditional barriers to research activity seemed to be less apparent. The vast majority of respondents agreed that they had access to resources, expertise, support and time to engage in and with research. At all levels in the organisation, staff members were aware of the school’s commitment to research. The very low teacher turnover at the school was attributed by the headteacher, in no small part, to this culture of collaborative professional learning and research engagement.
My research explored five areas:
Values, leadership and culture.
Support systems for engaging in and with research.
1. Values, leadership and culture
In the most research-engaged schools, senior leaders encouraged “enquiry” as a dominant mode of professional learning. At other schools, research did not occupy a position of importance above any number of other strategies for school improvement.
Research flourishes in an environment where practices are openly challenged and where teachers work together collaboratively. For the school with a healthy professional culture, it provided fertile ground for research activity to quickly grow. When a new headteacher introduced research bursaries, in addition to school development purposes, it had a secondary but important aim to improve the learning culture among staff.
2. Support systems for engaging in/with research
“Lack of time” is the most regularly cited barrier to teacher engagement in research. Since teachers in England spend more time in the classroom than many of their counterparts in other developed countries this is an issue that may need addressing more widely.
See figure 1 (below): one school has weekly twilight research and development groups to provide time and space for staff at all levels to work on school development issues. At another school, whole-day INSETs were broken up to allow four Action Learning Sets to meet throughout the year.
CAPTION: Figure 1: Responses to the statement: ‘Time is made available to engage in research’
In addition, more advanced researching schools gave teachers access to an extensive staff library, external educational consultants to advise on research design and an enthusiastic research co-ordinator who would regularly disseminate user-friendly research resources. Teachers often lack confidence in conducting research, so this helps to overcome another significant hindrance to research activity (see figure 2, below).
CAPTION: Figure 2: Responses to the statement: ‘We have access to sources of research expertise to advise the planning, conduct, analysis and interpretation of research’
3. Research activity
Approximately half of the respondents reported having carried out school-based research/enquiry while working at their schools. In most cases this research was carried out independently of any external accreditation.
This accords with the National Teacher Research Panel (NTRP) in 2011 which concluded that teachers seldom engaged in research in order to gain a qualification. Rather “professional development and ideas for using in the classroom were the two most commonly mentioned reasons for engaging with research” (NTRP, 2011).
However, the extent to which teachers reported high levels of research activity at their school, did not closely correspond to the extent to which teachers at these same schools felt that decisions were carried out on the basis of research.
For instance, at one school, where 64 per cent of respondents had carried out their own research at the school, and 73 per cent had been involved in research in some way, only 60 per cent reported that the school based some of its decisions on research evidence.
Given that we might expect all schools to base at least some of their decisions on research evidence, this research finding points to a disappointing level of research-informed practice, to say the least.
Impact looked at the extent to which the school was committed to sharing the results of its research both within and beyond the organisation.
In three of the schools, research results were shared widely and frequently within the school at whole-staff or departmental meetings, via the website, and at specific research-sharing meetings. By contrast, another school’s teachers were largely unaware of the research being undertaken by colleagues.
Although at one school formal written reports of annual action research projects were published as part of a series of “Learning Lessons” articles on the school website, these were the exception to how research findings were transmitted.
Research was often socially distributed, context-specific and embedded within networks and people rather than in traditional outlets, such as written academic reports. The mechanisms for sharing research findings in these schools were more concerned with maximising impact on practice or raising awareness than ensuring academic rigour.
Five of the schools had a recognised and well-known member or members of staff whose role included the promotion and co-ordination of research activity. However, it was only at two of these schools that several members of the senior leadership team had research-engagement roles. This is seen as key to the sustainability of a school’s researching culture and its survival beyond the departure of a significant individual.
To conclude, school research engagement is best seen as a conscious leadership strategy aimed at developing a school over a period of many years. The pinnacle is to reach a culture in which research engagement is “embedded”, ie “a vision, a set of procedures which become integral to the structure and culture of the organisation. Over time, sooner or perhaps later, new ways of seeing and acting become habitual, reflexive and ingrained in practice” (Swaffield and MacBeath, 2006). Although building up a consensus about practice may require several years, research engagement can have an impact in the early stages too.
What is a research-engaged school?
Promote practitioner research among their staff.
Encourage staff to use existing published research to inform decisions.
Welcome being the subject of research by external bodies (as a learning opportunity as well as a responsibility to the wider educational community).
Use research to inform decision-making at every level of the organisation.
Have “an outward-looking orientation” (Wilkins, 2011) including research-based links with other schools and universities.
The NFER Research Mark recognises the different stages of research engagement for schools: emerging, established and extended. It is a mark of quality research in a school, no matter if the school has just begun some interesting practice or is well established with developed leading expertise. For more information, visit www.nfer.ac.uk/ms4
Further reading and references
David Godfrey is an educational consultant, researcher and advocate for research informed practice.
- Wilkins, R. (2011) Research Engagement for School Development, London: IOE Press.
- Swaffield, S. and MacBeath, J. (2006) Embedding Learning How to Learn in School Policy: The challenge for leadership. Research Papers in Education 21 (2) 201-215.
- Godfrey, D (2014) Leadership of Schools as Research-led Organisations in the English Educational Environment: Cultivating a research engaged school culture. Educational Management Administration and Leadership (Issue to be allocated).