Students who take on in-school research


Caroline Fisher reports on the measures some schools are taking to transform the role that students play in informing improvements.

Most schools are now well-established with their student voice policies, as seeking young people’s views on decision-making, service design or evaluation becomes part of the norm. So perhaps now is a good time to start building on this momentum by involving young people as researchers, rather than simply research participants?

NFER has been working with schools on their journey towards the NFER Research Mark, one of the criteria for which asks about how the school promotes and supports pupils’ research engagement. 

The reason for this, says Professor Graham Handscomb, who helped develop the programme, is because “young people are the core of the school’s purpose and identity”. He continues: “Therefore they should be actively involved with and contributing to the range of research activity. This includes not only enquiry and research featuring prominently in the curriculum and how young people learn, but also includes young people contributing to the school’s improvement and self-evaluation research activity.”

So, what are the benefits from developing young researchers?

For young researchers

  • It builds confidence.

  • It provides an opportunity to learn skills such as team-working, creativity, communication and research skills.

  • It creates a feeling of empowerment, helps children and young people to find their “voice” in the community, and can change things for the better.

  • It boosts CV and job or university applications.

  • It is interesting and fun.

For the professionals who support them

  • It enables you to investigate young people’s views and get authentic feedback.

  • It builds partnerships with young people, through working with them in a different way.

  • It gives an opportunity to learn or enhance project-management, facilitation and research skills.

  • It contributes to CPD.

  • It provides insights to improve your own practice.

And for the schools

  • It builds relationships with the pupils and improves communication.

  • It identifies what your pupils really think and what is important to them, helping your school or organisation to improve.

  • It creates a culture of empowerment, enquiry and improvement.

  • It can help to engage gifted and talented and/or disengaged young people.

Putting it into practice

Little Heath School in Reading has been running its STARS programme (Students as Researchers) for several years now and sees it as an integral part of the school’s improvement plans. 

Jon Linz, student voice co-ordinator at Little Heath, has been responsible for this school-wide initiative for the past four years. He explained: “It is really important to get staff and senior management on board with this and we have over 15 staff actively involved in running the STARS programme this year.

“Our programme has definitely evolved gradually – we found it better to start small and evolve over time.” 

Little Heath has 35 pupils involved in STARS from years 7, 8 and 9 in the current academic year. Staff try to ensure there is a good mix of academic abilities, bringing together pupils with different strengths and different viewpoints, however Mr Linz recognises that as the programme is voluntary, there is an element of “recruitment” needed at the beginning of the year. 

The volunteers start out with a training day run by research-engaged staff, which covers what research is, the different methods of research, and how best to use them. This is followed with a skills audit done by and with the students. 

The next step involves staff developing a menu of questions based on themes emerging from their Innovation Group (staff use an action research approach to investigate specific teaching and learning strategies), the School Council and the schools’ overall objectives. Examples of questions include: 

  • Are we getting better at writing?

  • What type of learning is effective for the vast majority of students?

  • How can we make revision more effective?

  • Are we expected to be independent learners?

Groups comprising four to five volunteer researchers then choose which question they want to investigate, and each group is assigned a staff mentor to help them through the process over the year – from writing the action plan to analysing the results and presenting their findings. The programme culminates with presentations to the headteacher and governors, senior management and pupils (during assemblies), as well as through newsletters to pupils and parents.

Mr Linz added: “As a school-wide initiative it is seen as a really positive process: you see the students grow in confidence and they engage in their learning from a different angle.”

Two areas where this research has shown positive effects at Little Heath have been the more pupil-friendly curriculum levels now used for modern foreign languages and a new assessment approach in RE at the end of key stage 3 based on students’ views.

One student commented: “It’s been good to work with people from different year groups and we feel like we’ve achieved something and made a difference.” Another said: “This has been a real partnership – the teachers really want to listen to us and they care about what we think.”

Meanwhile, Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham is also in the process of applying for the Research Mark. The school recognises that students need to undertake their own research to develop their “voice”, and has a Student Research Group of 15 pupils (and growing) to do just that.

Ed Armstrong, chair of the group, and his team of student researchers, are commissioned by staff and other student groups to carry out research among fellow pupils.

Questions the group have investigated include completing a review of the effectiveness of the new student voice system as well as researching the effectiveness and pupil perceptions of the rewards and sanctions system. Research-engagement also extends beyond the school gates in the shape of a Parent Research Group – 20 self-selecting parents who co-ordinate research among other parents to give suggestions on improvements. 

Stephanie Rodgers, assistant headteacher, oversees all of these activities: “Everybody is encouraged to be involved in research, and as a Teaching School it is part of our responsibility too,” she said. 

“We are thrilled to be applying for the NFER Research Mark to gain some recognition for the work we are doing”.

  • Caroline Fisher is product manager at NFER.

Further information
The NFER Research Mark recognises the achievements of schools in doing their own research. Schools provide evidence of research engagement across 10 criteria. An NFER Research Associate then visits the school, giving feedback and a report with recommendations on further developments. For more information on the NFER Research Mark visit

Top tips for success

Here are some tips for successfully working with young people on a research project:

  • Let the young researchers take the lead – facilitate the group rather than directing it.

  • Be realistic about what you and the group can achieve with the time and resources available – don’t be overambitious.

  • Help the young researchers to choose a research question that is interesting, useful, answerable and not too broad.

  • Support the young researchers to learn new skills throughout the project. You can increase your own research skills by reading NFER’s guidance (see link below).

  • Make the project fun and empowering for the young researchers to keep them engaged.

  • Be ethical – make sure that your research does no harm and be honest with people who take part in your research.

  • Support the young researchers to disseminate the research widely and have an impact.

NFER’s online guidance for people who are interested in working with young researchers is available from 

Planning the journey

NFER has a recommended process for developing young researchers. This covers the following:

  • The planning stage involves getting buy-in from senior managers, planning to facilitate the project and ensuring that the project is conducted ethically.

  • Recruiting young researchers involves deciding who to recruit, who should recruit them, and how to brief them about what is involved.

  • Designing the research includes how to choose the research topic, deciding on the research question and the key terms, and choosing which method to use.

  • Managing the project includes allocating roles and responsibilities, monitoring progress and communication and information-sharing.

  • Doing the project covers the basics of actually carrying out the project, including selecting the sample, developing the research instruments, collecting the data and doing a literature review.

  • Getting the results includes collecting and analysing the data and presenting the results.

  • And finally, sharing the results includes ideas for research outputs and how to maximise the impact of the research.

Young researchers can find help and advice on the dedicated mini-site


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