Managing and leading in-school research

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Co-ordinating research engagement on behalf of your school is a sizable responsibility – motivating staff, co-ordinating efforts, finding resources and proving impact. We speak to Sue Hunt about her school’s approach.

Wilmington Grammar School for Girls undertook a year-long Enquiring Schools programme with Futurelab at NFER. Teachers learned how to engage with research, identify new teaching practices based on students’ needs and research evidence, and then undertook their own disciplined enquiries. The process was supported throughout by a dedicated facilitator and culminated in the award of the NFER Research Mark.

Why has your school focused on research engagement?

“We are a four-form entry girls’ grammar school on the Kent/London border. Achievement at key stage 4 and 5 is always high but we were convinced that we could improve our results further by revising our teaching and learning strategies. The school characteristics have altered over the past three years, which we were able to use as the catalyst for change. The percentage of pupils from minority ethnic groups has increased, placing the school higher than the national average, and by joining our 6th form with the local boys’ grammar we have changed the gender mix in the classroom.

“We decided to engage all teaching staff in a school-wide programme of practitioner-led enquiry, encouraging staff to make changes in delivery of lessons in a “scientific” way, analysing the results and using critical self-reflection at each stage. We considered running a pilot involving a few volunteer staff but, by involving all staff, we were able to work as a team to support each other in our initial year.

“Initially, a number of broad areas of research were suggested to staff. They selected the group that most interested them and then split into ‘triads’ to start their research. By the second year this approach was reversed, as we realised that teachers needed to have decided on their individual research area and later form triads to provide a support mechanism.”

What are your duties as research co-ordinator?

“My role is to enable and encourage. Teaching staff are very busy throughout the year, pulled in all directions by the demands on their time. To ask staff to add a research project to the list of demands can seem quite daunting. If, however, the research is not seen as an addition but as a means of improving their teaching and their students’ learning (i.e. a natural progression in their own learning), teachers become enthused by the process.”

What are your biggest achievements so far?

“At the end of the first year as an Enquiring School, we held a special event to share the learning and celebrate the achievements of all the staff – not least of which was becoming the first school in the UK to be awarded the NFER Research Mark. The Research Mark recognises a school’s use of research to improve teaching and learning, the quality of the projects undertaken, and how deeply a school is engaged in research.

“The first year was, of course, the most difficult, requiring a very steep learning curve on the part of everyone, with a number of false starts and dead-ends, before finally making progress. We were, therefore, very proud to be presented with the award by Futurelab at NFER’s head of learning and development, Gareth Mills, who praised the commitment of the staff and leadership team in embedding research development as a key part of our approach to on-going teacher development.”

What have you found most difficult?

“Time, as usual, is a crucial factor to the success of any project. Initially, many staff selected research projects that were of interest but not of personal gain in terms of the effect on their own classes. With limited time available, these projects made little progress. In this second year, all staff have been encouraged to undertake research directly linked to their own classes, selecting the project immediately after undertaking the summer exam analysis and finalising their performance review, thus ensuring the research is seen as an integral part of their work and of direct benefit to their students.”

Have you any examples of research projects that have been really beneficial?

“We used the Enquiring Schools programme as a basis for research. The help given by Futurelab at NFER in the initial stages was essential when deciding on the first projects, and the Enquiring Schools’ seven-step guide kept us focused at regular stages. Research projects have investigated:

  • Students’ ability to judge their own performance in practical subjects.

  • Improving girls’ confidence when performing.

  • Whether personal learning checklists actually improve individual results

  • Flipped classroom: is it more than spoon-feeding by iPad?”

How would you like to take things forward?

“I believe our teachers have already become more adept at selecting areas of research that will improve their own teaching, and working in triads to support each other. The latest end-of-year presentation was, again, a real celebration of what we have learned over the past year.

“Some of the smaller research presentations that appeared to be very subject-specific were enjoyed by all staff, with other members commenting that they would now like to extend the project within their own subject areas. The process has been completely accepted. 

“However, some staff still find producing the final written document difficult. Last year we simply shared our presentations. This year we will publish our research material in-house, and hopefully next year this will grow into a more formal magazine.”

What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead?

“With so many major changes taking place in terms of key stage 3, 4 and 5 examinations and assessment, extra work will need to take second place. However, I believe that action research will remain an important part of our teaching and learning process and not be seen as one of the areas that can be removed, enabling us to trial ideas and critically analyse the results.”

How have your school and pupils benefited?

“Initially our teachers, although willing to undertake the process, saw little personal benefit. It wasn’t until the first celebration day that the bigger picture became clear to everyone. 

“Most of the first research projects were relatively small and limited in scope. But together we had made a giant step forward, and by the second year teachers were able to see that the role of researcher places them in a powerful position.

“Working in a small group gives greater capacity to each project – more importantly, perhaps, it gives staff permission to trial ideas which may not have a positive outcome, but from which they may gain a greater understanding of the student learning process. 

“Students have been involved personally in a number of research projects, where Student Voice has been seen to be vital – although, since all of our projects are intended to improve teaching and learning, students will be benefiting from every research project in some small way.”

Have you any advice for others?

“Be brave! Our initial decision to involve all staff from the very beginning was right for us. We’ve all been involved in the learning process, the difficult periods and the celebrations. The team effort to improve teaching and learning across the school is owned by everyone.”

  • Sue Hunt is deputy headteacher and research co-ordinator at Wilmington Grammar School for Girls in Kent.

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