Case study: The impact of research in schools

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Photo: iStock

We hear from two schools about how research engagement is driving teachers’ professional development and raising standards. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Pupils who are part of a selective in-take might be expected, on the face of it, to have fewer learning needs than most. But this is not necessarily the case. In one grammar school teachers have been carrying out research and their own enquiries to find out how they can address more thoroughly and expertly the learning needs of their students.

Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Buckinghamshire has recently been awarded the Research Mark by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) for its work into collaborative research and inquiry by staff. One example involved staff researching studies into how to support students through times when they “hit a wall” with their learning.

James Simpson, assistant headteacher, who is responsible for promoting, organising and supporting research engagement among staff, said the perception of grammar schools tended to be that their pupils had fewer learning challenges or problems.

However, there comes a point in every child’s education when they do not understand a concept or find it difficult. At that point, the manner in which they deal with this challenge could determine whether they ultimately succeed or underachieve.

“Every learner, even the academically very able, can sometimes underperform or not reach their potential because they find something difficult to understand,” he said. “This can lead to some of them not persisting or persevering. So we have to try to find ways of engaging with them and helping them to find strategies to cope – to find what to do when you don’t know what to do.

“To do this we needed to find out more about how the learning process works and how we can apply these strategies to our own context here in school. It is rare for students not to be pushed out of their learning comfort zone at some point. We may be a grammar school but we’d be doing our students a great disservice if we were to turn them into nothing more than sophisticated, regurgitating machines in an examination hot-house environment.”

For the past few years, the school has created a professional learning community, encouraging staff to engage with research and then to find ways of applying it. Sir William Borlase’s has two cross-department teams – the Quality of Learning and Quality of Student Support – whose work is research-led and informs the school’s pedagogical and pastoral development.

The teams looked at ways of stretching pupils and helping them to become independent learners – an approach that is now embedded in the student support team. The school has a commitment to disseminating and sharing outcomes of action research though INSET days, its virtual learning environment, in written reports and dialogue between colleagues.

One of the actions was to develop a system where year 12s mentored year 8 pupils. Aside from the obvious benefits to the younger students it was found there were metacognitive benefits to the older students whose understanding of concepts and ideas became consolidated by having to explain them to younger students.

The criteria for the Research Mark are based on eight key elements of a research-engaged school. Schools can use NFER’s free Self-Review Tool to review how they engage with these eight elements before applying for the Research Mark. The elements are: leadership and vision; learning and participation; managing resources; setting priorities; using a rigorous methodology for enquiry; evaluating the impact ; embedding and sustaining; and working collaboratively.

The process includes a visit to the school by an NFER research associate, followed by a report which highlights and recommends areas for development.

The NFER report into Sir William Borlase’s enquiry work stated it had an “impressive commitment to putting research at the heart of school improvement and teacher development”.

At Wexham School in Berkshire, meanwhile, a big cultural shift has taken place where research and enquiry have become a widespread activity among staff. The school offers a range of research projects which have promoted a genuine sense of enthusiasm and passion for enquiry.

Wexham was awarded the Research Mark earlier this year for its clear vision for research and the manner in which research informs learning and teaching, professional development and school improvement.
Lawrence Smith, the newly appointed headteacher, said the engagement with research among his staff had “contributed to the school’s recent improved examinations results”.

This commitment runs so deep that the school has appointed a research leader to coordinate research work. Liz Harris, a doctoral student at Brunel University, works at Wexham one day a week providing support, rigour and challenge to the research activity taking place. She plans to set up a network of research leaders across the school to help embed enquiry among staff.

Ms Harris said: “I am looking at the strategies implemented for Pupil Premium children and what the staff and student perceptions of these strategies are. It is a small-scale, interpretive study. I work a lot with staff in writing their research questions as this is imperative to shape and provide a clear framework for their research.

“I support teachers throughout the whole process, such as with writing questionnaires and with organising focus groups and any other way I can. I also help them to find academic journals within their field and I produce a termly newsletter, which offers advice and guidance to staff undertaking research projects.”

The school links research activity with the school development plan and so provides a framework and context within which each piece of research is identified. In the future, Wexham plans to use research evidence and teacher enquiry to feed into the school improvement planning process.

The school has a timetabled period every week dedicated to research for each member of staff, and reflection on research has become part of the performance management review process. Wexham has also set up a CPD and research library to support teachers.

Ms Harris added: “Action research has improved classroom practice which has led to better teaching and learning and subsequently improved progress and exam results.

“What I am most happy about is getting staff to see they are having an impact and that what they are doing in the classroom, based on their research outcomes, is going to improve their practice and the learning of our pupils”. One of the teachers in the school, who admitted to being sceptical about action research, has since been won over when it transpired his work on assessment had led to “dramatic improvement” in pupil progress.

Other enquiries have included the perceptions and effectiveness of homework, attitudes to learning at key stage 3, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning. Action research has also been done into assessment in the humanities to improve students’ outcomes. Ms Harris said another teacher had “recognised the importance of engagement with theory and the body of research literature”.

She added: “We hope more staff do this in the future.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

Further information

Schools can apply for the NFER Research Mark to gain recognition for the work they have done on research engagement. Supported by SecEd and its sister publications Headteacher Update and EYE, the NFER Research Mark asks a school to provide evidence in response to eight questions. An NFER research associate then visits the school to share expertise and insight, giving feedback and a report with recommendations for further engagement. For more information, visit and to use the free Self-Review Tool see


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