Three case studies of research-engaged schools


Research is now seen as a vital part of CPD and school improvement. Caroline Fisher talks to three schools to see how they have been involved in research and what it has meant for them.

Research engagement, evidence-informed education, practitioner-led enquiry, evidence-led profession, teacher-researcher collaboration – these are all popular buzz-words at the moment, but how can schools take the theory and put it into practice?

Addressing complex needs

Barbara Priestman Academy is a designated provision for students aged between 11 and 19 with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) or complex learning difficulties. The academy, based in Sunderland, offers the standard curriculum pathways as well as vocational courses and accredited qualifications to develop personal interests, independence, work-based skills and citizenship.

Carolyn Barker is the headteacher and when she took up her role she involved the whole school in an enquiry process looking at what it means to leave school “happy”. 

Children come to the school with very complex needs and teachers are committed to researching a wide range of solutions to bring about learning improvement. Research is woven into the whole ethos of the school, involving everyone, from the headteacher to staff and pupils. People are inspired to engage in new ideas, study existing research and experiment with different approaches.

Head of English and creativity Judith Stephenson also acts as the school’s research co-ordinator. She said: “Research and enquiry are an excellent way of identifying what works for the students that you have at any given time. 

“One outcome of our work has been to adopt an open-door policy, so teachers can get ideas from what colleagues are doing in their lessons. Pupils directly benefit from their own participation in enquiry too.” In one project, they explored how the school’s physical environment could best meet the needs of individual preferences. Although funding for the bigger plan was withdrawn, the school still built a soft play area as a direct result of the project.

Ms Stephenson applied for the NFER Research Mark on behalf of the school because she was keen that their professional learning, being founded on research and enquiry, was recognised. 

She continued: “The Research Mark process was a chance to consolidate all the work we had done and gain expert insights from the research associate. The recommendations will feed into our improvement plan for this year. For example, we plan to involve governors more in research and conduct combined teacher-student enquiry.”

Firm foundations for change

Little Heath School in Reading, Berkshire, is a voluntary-aided co-educational comprehensive secondary school. Built on traditional values, there is a strong commitment to ensuring students leave the school as well-rounded individuals, able to succeed in whichever path they choose. Staff have used their Great Teaching and Learning Strategy to inspire a learning culture, informed by research and enquiry. Headteacher David Ramsden explained: “Our 2012 Ofsted inspection report said we needed to improve teaching and learning. Rather than a quick-fix approach, we decided to use research evidence to see what works. This approach gave us firm foundations.”

The school set up an innovations group to examine key challenges. The research-based approach encouraged staff to develop better strategies to tackle a wide range of educational issues, such as how to deal with bullying effectively.

Little Heath also has its own student research group, called STARs (Students as Researchers): “To actually have an input, and see the stuff that we do be put into place, and to know that we did that, is a great feeling,” said one member of the STARs group. “We know we can research things ourselves which will actually make a difference in the school.”

One group of students conducted a rigorous investigation of “great writing”. Key findings were circulated via staff meetings and included in the school’s in-house publication, SHOUT.

Through their research engagement, the pupils gained the skills required to articulate the impact of their enquiries on specific aspects of teaching and learning, for example the process that teachers use to gain feedback from students in class.

Mr Ramsden said: “I have been amazed at how much students and staff have enjoyed working together. Students now feel at the heart of school improvement.”

Ofsted recognised the work the school has done in their July 2014 report, which states: “Since the last inspection the school has researched and implemented a range of teaching methods to raise levels of student achievement. The school’s ‘Great Teaching and Learning Strategy’ involves both staff and students. Student researchers (STARs) have enjoyed and valued the opportunity to improve how they are taught. The positive outcomes have resulted in the award of the NFER Research Mark.”

Strategic thinking

Founded in 1624, Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, has built a reputation as one of the leading boys’ grammar schools in the country. It is the lead school in the Astra Learning Alliance, a Teaching School consortium of eight local primary and secondary schools.

Research and development is one of the key areas that assistant headteacher Stephanie Rodgers, the Alliance’s director, is driving forward. “Engaging in research is an integral part of good CPD,” she explained. “Being awarded the Research Mark gives us more credibility and enhances the profile of the enquiry that is happening in our school. It enabled us to evaluate what we were already doing, and to consider additional avenues that could benefit from research. It has also helped us to think more strategically about how to link together the various strands of research across the school.”

Dr Challoner’s also has a student research group, led by year 13 student Ed Armstrong, who added: “I think the students of Dr Challoner’s have benefited immensely from the student research group, perhaps most significantly because it allows us to have a direct role in decision-making.

“It taught me how to conduct a research project and the pitfalls to look out for. I learnt how to write a survey and how to carry out interviews. Because I was in charge of the pupil research, I also learnt key leadership skills such as time-management.” 

And taking their cue from these students are the parents who now make up the schools’ parent research group. This group take it upon themselves to investigate issues among other parents, such as their opinions on school policies or activities (the new school website, for example).


So what do these three, very different schools all have in common? They all have support from leadership in their initiatives, they all have individuals responsible for co-ordinating their activities, they all link the specific needs of their learners with the enquiries they are carrying out, and they try to be as thorough as possible in their enquiry process. 

Each school recognises the distinction between engaging with the research evidence base to give guidance on approaches and then using their own evaluation programmes to measure the effectiveness of those interventions. 

It would probably be fair to say that each school recognises areas for development, whether that is working more collaboratively with others, ensuring rigour in their processes, or measuring the impact – none of which are easy to measure but recognising these development areas is a powerful tool in itself.

Whether they would describe themselves as a “research-engaged school” or an “evidence-led profession” almost becomes irrelevant when you see what they have achieved for their pupils and what their pupils have achieved for themselves.

  • Caroline Fisher is product manager with NFER.
Further reading
For more information about the NFER Research Mark, visit



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