Reviewing and developing in-school research projects

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Research-based practice is a growing phenomenon in schools. Dorothy Lepkowska asks three schools how they are using a new free tool to review and develop their in-school research programmes

What better way can there be for teachers to gather their own evidence-base – not just to inform their own classroom methods, but as a buffer for political interference in the classroom?

But how do you know the research is effective and useful, or even whether it will contribute to a school’s overall improvement plan?

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has developed a free Self-Review Tool to help schools understand what is involved when engaging in research.

The tool, which is available free online, allows teachers to review their school’s engagement against eight key statements, enabling them to audit where they are as a research school. 

Caroline Fisher, product manager at the NFER, said the tool offered school leaders and research leads a “simple way to review their school’s research engagement”. 

“This is a good place to start to identify areas to work on and resources to help with this,” she said. “If leaders can get all staff to participate, then they will get an accurate school-wide picture.”

The outcomes, which are presented in an infographic, can also help schools to review existing practice and identify areas of development. Furthermore, the tool provides links to other resources and research that might be useful.

The eight statements have been developed by NFER researchers and other education professionals to show what an organisation which is engaged in research looks like. They come under the following headings:

  • Leadership and vision.

  • Learning and participation.

  • Managing resources.

  • Setting priorities.

  • Rigorous methodology.

  • Impact.

  • Embedding and sustaining.

  • Working collaboratively.

“It is great to see,” said Ms Fisher, “schools engaging in research by looking at the existing evidence-base and using that to help frame their research questions.”

At Wexham School in Berkshire, staff have access to a CPD system offering three pathways, one of which is to do an action research project, which is then linked to the school’s performance management targets. Staff put forward their research proposals and study groups are set up for those who are researching similar topics.

Liz Harris, the school’s director of research, said her school was on a “journey to become more research-engaged” and has applied for NFER’s Research Mark. About 50 teachers at the school are engaged in some sort of action research projects and eight are doing Master’s through Brunel University.

She said of the Self-Review Tool: “Our results show that our weakest areas were ‘working collaboratively’ and ‘impact’. I was not surprised about this because it was the first year we have trialled this system and I would have expected there to be some shortcomings. From September I would expect the impact to be improved.”

Ms Harris said she found the free tool “particularly useful in pin-pointing our weak spots and then from our results, telling us what the next steps are and what we should do next”.

“This will be useful as we look to next year,” she added. “The infographic shows where the school’s strengths are and for us these were in ‘learning and participation’ and in ‘setting priorities’ so this was good to know. It also pinpoints resources that you might find useful. I have not used the tool before but will definitely do so again.”

The school is now planning a conference in July where members of staff will be sharing their action research with colleagues. 

“With so many staff doing action research projects we have to decide how we use the results to have an impact on what goes on in the classroom and to embed that research in our school improvement plan. The Self-Review Tool will help us to do that,” she said.

Meanwhile, at Millais School in Horsham, West Sussex, some members of staff are engaged in Master’s degrees and are participating in research projects in conjunction with the University of Sussex. 

One project is examining the teaching of literacy, and another, being carried out with the National College for Teaching and Leadership, is looking at increased capacity for evidence-based teaching for the Teaching School Alliance.

Jennie Doyle, an assistant head and one of the school’s two research leads, said: “We are in the very early stages of doing action research and helped to pilot the Self-Review Tool.

“We found it really useful particularly because of the visual diagram, which helps to show very clearly where we are as a school with our research programmes. We have a new headteacher coming in September and feel confident that we can go to them and demonstrate the value of what we are doing and how we should proceed.

“There is not much out there to help schools in the way this tool does. We want to make it simple and to be able to say ‘this is where we are and this is where we’re going’. The tool helps us to do that. The eight statements offer a great way of focusing on the importance of research and help us to see the bigger picture.

“The links to other research on the NFER website are also useful. As teachers it is easy to get bogged down in day-to-day teaching, but we also need to reflect on our practice.”

Staff at Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire, meanwhile, have a long history of working with the University of Cambridge under the School-University Partnership for Educational Research (SUPER).

Suzanne Culshaw, a member of the college’s Research Group, said: “We have been working on different projects. For example, teachers are working on a research project about mindsets – a particular focus is looking at our Pupil Premium students and how we can encourage them, and all students, to develop a growth mindset – while one of our art teachers is researching creativity and flow in arts teaching. I am looking at the impact of lesson observation feedback on a teacher’s sense of self-efficacy, essentially looking into how feedback is received.”

The school has piloted the Self-Review Tool, which has revealed what steps the school needs to take next. 

“We expect it to inform our priorities in the coming years in terms of pedagogy and research approaches, and how well we are doing overall with our research,” Ms Culshaw said. 

“It will also help us to map different perspectives across the college, from the college’s executive team to the classroom teacher.

“It is a really practical resource and includes ideas about where to look further for information. One of the really good things about it is that the outcomes it gives are impartial and offer an independent, objective analysis of what we have done. 

“It means that the research programme at the college is not influenced by an individual who might have a particular area of interest or bias. So it is something we can make good use of.

“We will use it again during the summer term to self-evaluate and then use that to inform the improvement plan for research from 2015 onwards. It will definitely help us to set priorities for the future.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

The Self-Review Tool
The free NFER Self-Review Tool is available from www.nfer.ac.uk/selfreviewtool. Other resources to help with research engagement are available from www.nfer.ac.uk/ris.
 
The NFER Research Mark
Schools could consider applying for the NFER Research Mark to gain recognition for the work they have done on research. Supported by SecEd and its sister publications Headteacher Update and EYE, as well as the ATL, the NUT and others, the NFER Research Mark asks a school to provide evidence in response to 10 questions. An NFER research associate then visits the school to share expertise and insight, giving feedback and a report with recommendations for further engagement. Visit www.nfer.ac.uk/resmark

Photo: iStock


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